“I find that a Ming bowl is like a woman’s breast,” Sir Lyndon Mather said to Ian Mackenzie, who held the bowl in question between his fingertips. “The swelling curve, the creamy pallor. Don’t you agree?”
Ian couldn’t think of a woman who would be flattered to have her breast compared to a bowl, so he didn’t bother to nod.
The delicate vessel was from the early Ming period, the porcelain barely flushed with green, the sides so thin Ian could see light through them. Three gray-green dragons chased one another across the outside, and four chrysanthemums seemed to float across the bottom.
The little vessel might just cup a small rounded breast, but that was as far as Ian was willing to go.
“One thousand guineas,” he said.
Mather’s smile turned sickly. “Now, my lord, I thought we were friends.”
Ian wondered where Mather had got that idea. “The bowl is worth one thousand guineas.” He fingered the slightly chipped rim, the base worn from centuries of handling.
Mather looked taken aback, blue eyes glittering in his overly handsome face.
“I paid fifteen hundred for it. Explain yourself.”
There was nothing to explain. Ian’s rapidly calculating mind had taken in every asset and flaw in ten seconds flat. If Mather couldn’t tell the value of his pieces, he had no business collecting porcelain. There were at least five fakes in the glass case on the other side of Mather’s collection room, and Ian wagered Mather had no idea.
Ian put his nose to the glaze, liking the clean scent that had survived the heavy cigar smoke of Mather’s house. The bowl was genuine, it was beautiful, and he wanted it.
“At least give me what I paid for it,” Mather said in a panicked voice. “The man told me I had it at a bargain.”
“One thousand guineas,” Ian repeated.
“Damn it, man, I’m getting married.”
Ian recalled the announcement in the Times——verbatim, because he recalled everything verbatim: Sir Lyndon Mather of St. Aubrey’s, Suffolk, announces his betrothal to Mrs. Thomas Ackerley, a widow. The wedding to be held on the twenty-seventh of June of this year in St. Aubrey’s at ten o’clock in the morning.
“My felicitations,” Ian said.
“I wish to buy my beloved a gift with what I get for the bowl.”
Ian kept his gaze on the vessel. “Why not give her the bowl itself?”
Mather’s hearty laugh filled the room. “My dear fellow, women don’t know the first thing about porcelain. She’ll want a carriage and a matched team and a string of servants to carry all the fripperies she buys. I’ll give her that. She’s a fine-looking woman, daughter of some froggie aristo, for all she’s long in the tooth and a widow.”
Ian didn’t answer. He touched the tip of his tongue to the bowl, reflecting that it was far better than ten carriages with matched teams. Any woman who didn’t see the poetry in it was a fool.
Mather wrinkled his nose as Ian tasted the bowl, but Ian had learned to test the genuineness of the glaze that way. Mather wouldn’t be able to tell a genuine glaze if someone painted him with it.
“She’s got a bloody fortune of her own,” Mather went on, “inherited from that Barrington woman, a rich old lady who didn’t keep her opinions to herself. Mrs. Ackerley, her quiet companion, copped the lot.”
Then why is she marrying you? Ian turned the bowl over in his hands as he speculated, but if Mrs. Ackerley wanted to make her bed with Lyndon Mather, she could lie in it. Of course, she might find the bed a little crowded. Mather kept a secret house for his mistress and several other women to cater to his needs, which he loved to boast about to Ian’s brothers. I’m as decadent as you lot, he was trying to say. But in Ian’s opinion, Mather understood pleasures of the flesh about as well as he understood Ming porcelain.
“Bet you’re surprised a dedicated bachelor like myself is for the chop, eh?” Mather went on. “If you’re wondering whether I’m giving up my bit of the other, the answer is no. You are welcome to come ’round and join in anytime, you know. I’ve extended the invitation to you, and your brothers as well.”
Ian had met Mather’s ladies, vacant-eyed women willing to put up with Mather’s proclivities for the money he gave them.
Mather reached for a cigar. “I say, we’re at Covent Garden Opera tonight. Come meet my fiancée. I’d like your opinion. Everyone knows you have as exquisite taste in females as you do in porcelain.” He chuckled.
Ian didn’t answer. He had to rescue the bowl from this philistine. “One thousand guineas.”
“You’re a hard man, Mackenzie.”
“One thousand guineas, and I’ll see you at the opera.”
“Oh, very well, though you’re ruining me.”
He’d ruined himself. “Your widow has a fortune. You’ll recover.”
Mather laughed, his handsome face lighting. Ian had seen women of every age blush or flutter fans when Mather smiled. Mather was the master of the double life.
“True, and she’s lovely to boot. I’m a lucky man.”
Mather rang for his butler and Ian’s valet, Curry. Curry produced a wooden box lined with straw, into which Ian carefully placed the dragon bowl.
Ian hated to cover up such beauty. He touched it one last time, his gaze fixed on it until Curry broke his concentration by placing the lid on the box.
He looked up to find that Mather had ordered the butler to pour brandy. Ian accepted a glass and sat down in front of the bankbook Curry had placed on Mather’s desk for him.
Ian set aside the brandy and dipped his pen in the ink. He bent down to write and caught sight of the droplet of black ink hanging on the nib in a perfect, round sphere.
He stared at the droplet, something inside him singing at the perfection of the ball of ink, the glistening viscosity that held it suspended from the nib. The sphere was perfect, shining, a wonder.
He wished he could savor its perfection forever, but he knew that in a second it would fall from the pen and be lost. If his brother Mac could paint something this exquisite, this beautiful, Ian would treasure it.
He had no idea how long he’d sat there studying the droplet of ink until he heard Mather say, “Damnation, he really is mad, isn’t he?”
The droplet fell down, down, down to splash on the page, gone to its death in a splatter of black ink.
“I’ll write it out for you, then, m’lord?”
Ian looked into the homely face of his manservant, a young Cockney who’d spent his boyhood pickpocketing his way across London.
Ian nodded and relinquished the pen. Curry turned the bankbook toward him and wrote the draft in careful capitals. He dipped the pen again and handed it back to Ian, holding the nib down so Ian wouldn’t see the ink.
Ian signed his name painstakingly, feeling the weight of Mather’s stare.
“Does he do that often?” Mather asked as Ian rose, leaving Curry to blot the paper.
Curry’s cheekbones stained red. “No ‘arm done, sir.”
Ian lifted his glass and swiftly drank down the brandy, then took up the box. “I will see you at the opera.”
He didn’t shake hands on his way out. Mather frowned, but gave Ian a nod. Lord Ian Mackenzie, brother to the Duke of Kilmorgan, socially outranked him, and Mather was acutely aware of social rank.
Once in his carriage, Ian set the box beside him. He could feel the bowl inside, round and perfect, filling a niche in himself.
“I know it ain’t me place to say,” Curry said from the opposite seat as the carriage jerked forward into the rainy streets. “But the man’s a right bastard. Not fit for you to wipe your boots on. Why even have truck with him?”
Ian caressed the box. “I wanted this piece.”
“You do have a way of getting what you want, no mistake, m’lord. Are we really meeting him at the opera?”
“I’ll sit in Hart’s box.” Ian flicked his gaze over Curry’s baby-innocent face and focused safely on the carriage’s velvet wall. “Find out everything you can about a Mrs. Ackerley, a widow now betrothed to Sir Lyndon Mather. Tell me about it tonight.”
“Oh, aye? Why are we so interested in the right bastard’s fiancée?”
Ian ran his fingertips lightly over the box again. “I want to know if she’s exquisite porcelain or a fake.”
Curry winked. “Right ye are, guv. I’ll see what I can dig up.”
Lyndon Mather was all that was handsome and charming, and heads turned when Beth Ackerley walked by on his arm at Covent Garden Opera House.
Mather had a pure profile, a slim, athletic body, and a head of golden hair that ladies longed to run their fingers through. His manners were impeccable, and he charmed everyone he met. He had a substantial income, a lavish house on Park Lane, and he was received by the highest of the high. An excellent choice for a lady of unexpected fortune looking for a second husband.
Even a lady of unexpected fortune tires of being alone,Beth thought as she entered Mather’s luxurious box behind his elderly aunt and companion. She’d known Mather for several years, his aunt and her employer being fast friends. He wasn’t the most exciting of gentlemen, but Beth didn’t want exciting. No drama, she promised herself. She’d had enough drama to last a lifetime.
Now Beth wanted comfort; she’d learned how to run a houseful of servants, and she’d perhaps have the chance to have the children she’d always longed for. Her first marriage nine years ago had produced none, but then, poor Thomas had died barely a year after they’d taken their vows. He’d been so ill, he hadn’t even been able to say good-bye.
The opera had begun by the time they settled into Sir Lyndon’s box. The young woman onstage had a beautiful soprano voice and an ample body with which to project it. Beth was soon lost in the rapture of the music. Mather left the box ten minutes after they’d entered, as he usually did. He liked to spend his nights at the theatre seeing everyone of importance and being seen with them. Beth didn’t mind. She’d grown used to sitting with elderly matrons and preferred it to exchanging inanities with glittering society ladies. Oh, darling did you hear? Lady Marmaduke had three inches of lace on her dress instead of two. Can you imagine anything more vulgar? And her pleats were limp, my darling, absolutely limp. Such important information.
Beth fanned herself and enjoyed the music while Mather’s aunt and her companion tried to make sense of the plot of La Traviata. Beth reflected that they thought nothing of an outing to the theatre, but to a girl growing up in the East End, it was anything but ordinary. Beth loved music, and imbibed it any way she could, though she thought herself only a mediocre musician. No matter, she could listen to others play and enjoy it just fine. Mather liked to go to the theatre, to the opera, to musicales, so Beth’s new life would have much music in it.
Her enjoyment was interrupted by Mather’s noisy return to the box. “My dear,” he said in a loud voice, “I’ve brought you my very close friend Lord Ian Mackenzie. Give him your hand, darling. His brother is the Duke of Kilmorgan, you know.”
Beth looked past Mather at the tall man who’d entered the box behind him, and her entire world stopped.
Lord Ian was a big man, his body solid muscle, the hand that reached to hers huge in a kid leather glove. His shoulders were wide, his chest broad, and the dim light touched his dark hair with red. His face was as hard as his body, but his eyes set Ian Mackenzie apart from every other person Beth had ever met.
She at first thought his eyes were light brown, but when Mather almost shoved him down into the chair at Beth’s side, she saw that they were golden. Not hazel, but amber like brandy, flecked with gold as though the sun danced on them.
“This is my Mrs. Ackerley,” Mather was saying. “What do you think, eh? I told you she was the best-looking woman in London.”
Lord Ian ran a quick glance over Beth’s face, then fixed his gaze at a point somewhere beyond the box. He still held her hand, his grip firm, the pressure of his fingers just shy of painful.
He didn’t agree or disagree with Mather, a bit rudely, Beth thought. Even if Lord Ian didn’t clutch his breast and declare Beth the most beautiful woman since Elaine of Camelot, he ought to at least give some polite answer.
Instead he sat in stony silence. He still held Beth’s hand, and his thumb traced the pattern of stitching on the back of her glove. Over and over the thumb moved, hot, quick patterns, the pressure pulsing heat through her limbs.
“If he told you I was the most beautiful woman in London, I fear you were much deceived,” Beth said rapidly. “I apologize if he misled you.”
Lord Ian’s gaze flicked over her, a small frown on his face, as though he had no idea what she was talking about.
“Don’t crush the poor woman, Mackenzie,” Mather said jovially. “She’s fragile, like one of your Ming bowls.”
“Oh, do you have an interest in porcelain, my lord?” Beth grasped at something to say. “Sir Lyndon has shown me his collection.”
“Mackenzie is one of the foremost authorities,” Mather said with a trace of envy.
“Are you?” Beth asked.
Lord Ian flicked another glance over her. “Yes.”
He sat no closer to her than Mather did, but Beth’s awareness of him screamed at her. She could feel his hard knee against her skirts, the firm pressure of his thumb on her hand, the weight of his not-stare.
A woman wouldn’t be comfortable with this man, she thought with a shiver. There would be drama aplenty. She sensed that in the restlessness of his body, the large, warm hand that gripped her own, the eyes that wouldn’t quite meet hers. Should she pity the woman those eyes finally rested on? Or envy her?
Beth’s tongue tripped along. “Sir Lyndon has lovely things. When I touch a piece that an emperor held hundreds of years ago, I feel … I’m not sure. Close to him, I think. Quite privileged.”
Sparks of gold flashed as Ian looked at her a bare instant. “You must come view my collection.” He had a slight Scots accent, his voice low and gravel-rough.
“Love to, old chap,” Mather said. “I’ll see when we are free.”
Mather lifted his opera glasses to study the large-bosomed soprano, and Lord Ian’s gaze moved to him. The disgust and intense dislike in Lord Ian’s unguarded expression startled Beth. Before she could speak, Lord Ian leaned to her. The heat of his body touched her like a sharp wave, bringing with it the scent of shaving soap and male spice. She’d forgotten how heady was the scent of a man. Mather always covered himself with cologne.
“Read it out of his sight.”
Lord Ian’s breath grazed Beth’s ear, warming things inside her that hadn’t been touched in nine long years. His fingers slid beneath the opening of her glove above her elbow, and she felt the folded edge of paper scrape her bare arm. She stared at Lord Ian’s golden eyes so near hers, watching his pupils widen before he flicked his gaze away again.
He sat up, his face smooth and expressionless. Mather turned to Ian with a comment about the singer, noticing nothing.
Lord Ian abruptly rose. The warm pressure left Beth’s hand, and she realized he’d been holding it the entire time.
“Going already, old chap?” Mather asked in surprise.
“My brother is waiting.”
Mather’s eyes gleamed. “The duke?”
“My brother Cameron and his son.”
“Oh.” Mather looked disappointed, but he stood and renewed the promise to bring Beth to see Ian’s collection.
Without saying good night, Ian moved past the empty chairs and out of the box. Beth’s gaze wouldn’t leave Lord Ian’s back until the blank door closed behind him. She was very aware of the folded paper pressing the inside of her arm and the trickle of sweat forming under it.
Mather sat down next to Beth and blew out his breath. “There, my dear, goes an eccentric.”
Beth curled her fingers in her gray taffeta skirt, her hand cold without Lord Ian’s around it. “An eccentric?”
“Mad as a hatter. Poor chap lived in a private asylum most of his life, and he runs free now only because his brother the duke let him out again. But don’t worry.” Mather took Beth’s hand. “You won’t have to see him without me present. The entire family is scandalous. Never speak to any of them without me, my dear, all right?”
Beth murmured something noncommittal. She had at least heard of the Mackenzie family, the hereditary Dukes of Kilmorgan, because old Mrs. Barrington had adored gossip about the aristocracy. The Mackenzies had featured in many of the scandal sheets that Beth read out to Mrs. Barrington on rainy nights.
Lord Ian hadn’t seemed entirely mad to her, although he certainly was like no man she’d ever met. Mather’s hand in hers felt limp and cool, while the hard pressure of Lord Ian’s had heated her in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time. Beth missed the intimacy she’d felt with Thomas, the long, warm nights in bed with him. She knew she’d share a bed with Mather, but the thought had never stirred her blood. She reasoned that what she’d had with Thomas was special and magical, and she couldn’t expect to feel it with any other man. So why had her breath quickened when Lord Ian’s lilting whisper had touched her ear; why had her heart beat faster when he’d moved his thumb over the back of her hand?
No. Lord Ian was drama, Mather, safety. She would choose safety. She had to.
Mather managed to stay still for five minutes, then rose again. “Must pay my respects to Lord and Lady Beresford. You don’t mind, do you, m’dear?”
“Of course not,” Beth said automatically.
“You are a treasure, my darling. I always told dear Mrs. Barrington how sweet and polite you were.” Mather kissed Beth’s hand, then left the box.
The soprano began an aria, the notes filling every space of the opera house. Behind her, Mather’s aunt and her companion put their heads together behind fans, whispering, whispering.
Beth worked her fingers under the edge of her long glove and pulled out the piece of paper. She put her back squarely to the elderly ladies and quietly unfolded the note.
Mrs. Ackerley, it began in a careful, neat hand.
I make bold to warn you of the true character of Sir Lyndon Mather, with whom my brother the Duke of Kilmorgan is well acquainted. I wish to tell you that Mather keeps a house just off the Strand near Temple Bar, where he has women meet him, several at a time. He calls the women his “sweeties” and begs them to use him as their slave. They are not regular courtesans but women who need the money enough to put up with him. I have listed five of the women he regularly meets, should you wish to have them questioned, or I can arrange for you to speak to the duke.
The soprano flung open her arms, building the last note of the aria to a wild crescendo, until it was lost in a burst of applause.
Beth stared at the letter, the noise in the opera house smothering. The words on the page didn’t change, remaining painfully black against stark white.
Her breath poured back into her lungs, sharp and hot. She glanced quickly at Mather’s aunt, but the old lady and her companion were applauding and shouting, “Brava! Brava!”
Beth rose, shoving the paper back into her glove. The small box with its cushioned chairs and tea tables seemed to tilt as she groped her way to the door.
Mather’s aunt glanced at her in surprise. “Are you all right, my dear?”
“I just need some air. It’s close in here.”
Mather’s aunt began to fumble among her things. “Do you need smelling salts? Alice, do help me.”
“No, no.” Beth opened the door and hurried out as Mather’s aunt began to chastise her companion. “I shall be quite all right.”
The gallery outside was deserted, thank heavens. The soprano was a popular one, and most of the attendees were fixed to their chairs, avidly watching her.
Beth hurried along the gallery, hearing the singer start up again. Her vision blurred, and the paper in her glove burned her arm.
What did Lord Ian mean by writing her such a letter? He was an eccentric, Mather had said—was that the explanation? But if the accusations in the letter were the ravings of a madman, why would Lord Ian offer to arrange for Beth to meet with his brother? The Duke of Kilmorgan was one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Britain—he was the Duke of Kilmorgan in the peerage of Scotland, which went back to 1300-something, and his father had been made Duke of Kilmorgan in the peerage of England by Queen Victoria herself.
Why should such a lofty man care about nobodies like Beth Ackerley and Lyndon Mather? Surely both she and Mather were far beneath a duke’s notice.
No, the letter was too bizarre. It had to be a lie, an invention.
And yet … Beth thought of times she’d caught Mather looking at her as though he’d done something clever. Growing up in the East End, having the father she’d had, had given Beth the ability to spot a confidence trickster at ten paces. Had the signs been there with Sir Lyndon Mather, and she’d simply chosen to ignore them?
But, no, it couldn’t be true. She’d come to know Mather well when she’d been companion to elderly Mrs. Barrington. She and Mrs. Barrington had ridden with Mather in his carriage, visited him and his aunt at his Park Lane house, had him escort them to musicales. He’d never behaved toward Beth with anything but politeness due a rich old lady’s companion, and after Mrs. Barrington’s death, he’d proposed to Beth.
After I inherited Mrs. Barrington’s fortune, a cynical voice reminded her.
What did Lord Ian mean by sweeties? He begs them to use him as their slave.
Beth’s whalebone corset was too tight, cutting off the breath she sorely needed. Black spots swam before her eyes, and she put her hand out to steady herself.
A strong grip closed around her elbow. “Careful,” a Scottish voice grated in her ear. “Come with me.”Return to The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie