A past kiss with adorably bookish Miss Olivia Norley should be barely a memory for Marlowe Drake, the Duke of Thornstock. After all, there are countless debutantes for a handsome rakehell to charm beyond a young lady whose singular passion is chemistry—of the laboratory type. But Thorn has not forgotten—or forgiven—the shocking blackmail scheme sparked by that single kiss, or the damage caused to both their names. Now Thorn’s half-brother, Grey, has hired the brilliant Miss Norley for her scientific expertise in solving a troubling family mystery. And the once-burned Thorn, suspicious of her true motives, vows to follow her every move . . .
For Olivia, determining whether arsenic poisoning killed Grey’s father is the pioneering experiment that could make her career—and Thorn’s constant presence is merely a distraction. But someone has explosive plans to derail her search. Soon the most unexpected discovery is the caring nature of the reputed scoundrel beside her—and the electricity it ignites between them . . .
The Duke of Thornstock sipped some of the mysterious liquor in his glass and grimaced.
“How can you stand to drink that, Thorn?” the Duke of Greycourt and his half-brother asked.
“I keep trying to figure out what it is. It tastes like port, but it’s too thin for that and far sweeter. Nor would I expect port to be served at a ball for ladies making their debuts.”
“And yet it is. What you’re drinking is negus, a punch the English have concocted out of watered-down port and whatever spices are lying about. Or so I’ve surmised through years of trying to drink it without making a face.”
“It’s vile.” Thorn looked around for one of those footmen who took the glasses away. Instead, he spotted the Devonshires heading in their direction. “And I believe it’s time to make myself scarce. Our hosts are approaching.”
Grey nodded. “I see them. I know Devonshire himself well enough to speak to, but I’ve never met the duchess or her daughter. The duchess is rumored to be a fascinating woman. Are you sure you don’t wish to stay around?”
“Another time, perhaps,” Thorn muttered.
At twenty-one, he was hardly ready for marriage. Right now he could barely make his way through the myriad rules in London society and manage the properties of his dukedom, much less drag a woman along with him. Nor was he yet comfortable enough with the brother he hadn’t seen in years to admit that.
The Devonshires now paused to speak to another acquaintance, so he circled the pillar in search of a balcony where he could hide out. Then he collided with another guest and spilled negus on the front of his waistcoat.
He stared down at the prominent red spots. “Damn! Why don’t you watch where you’re going?”
“Why don’t you? I was just standing here minding my own business.”
His head snapped up to find a fetching female with fire in her eyes staring him down. Like many of the young ladies, she wore white silk, but the curious embroidery of gold thread along her bodice drew his gaze to her full breasts. And he did like a buxom woman.
Instantly he changed his manner. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to offend. I simply wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.”
“Clearly, Your Grace. You were too busy trying to escape poor Lady Georgiana, who is the nicest person one could ever meet.”
He grimaced. “I take it you overheard my conversation with my brother.” That explained why his effusive apology hadn’t softened her. And he refused to apologize for not wishing to meet Lady Georgiana. Why should he? This chit shouldn’t have been eavesdropping on a private conversation.
Drawing out his handkerchief, he began to dab at the spots on his waistcoat.
She shook her head, sending the fringe of blond curls around her face bouncing. “You’ll make it worse trying to get it out like that. If you come with me, I can clean it.”
“Really? How in God’s name do you mean to do that?”
“With champagne and bicarbonate of soda,” she said, as if that made all the sense in the world.
It piqued his curiosity. “What is bicarbonate of soda, and where the devil do you intend to get some?”
“I carry it in my reticule, of course.”
Of course? “Because that’s what all young ladies carry in their reticules, I suppose.”
“Do they? I thought I was the only one.” Before he could even respond, she added, “But if we don’t act quickly, those spots will stain your waistcoat for good.”
He could afford to replace his waistcoat ten times over, but he hadn’t even had a chance to dance, so her offer to wipe away the spots had merit. Besides, he wanted to see what magic she meant to conjure up with her odd ingredients—and if she really did have bicarbonate of soda in her reticule. “Then by all means, lead the way.”
With a nod, she took his glass of negus and replaced it with a glass of champagne sitting abandoned on a nearby tray. Then she guided him out onto a balcony. “The hall to the Devonshire library isn’t too far. We can do it there.”
Do what there? Thorn nearly asked. Did the pretty wench really intend to whisk away his spots? Or did she have some other, more lascivious purpose in mind?
Now that would be a result he’d embrace. The woman’s bodice was intriguingly low cut. He’d assumed from her gown’s color that she was a debutante, but he might have been lucky enough to have stumbled over some fast-living married woman.
One would think that if the young lady was that, she’d be curtsying and flirting like all the other females he’d encountered in society. Then again, London society was wilder than Berlin’s. He was still trying to figure out the rules.
As the stepson of the British ambassador to Prussia, Thorn had been expected to behave appropriately, which had generally meant not having any fun. But in the six months since he’d left home for England, he’d begun to loosen his strictures, encouraged by other young bucks he’d met. Still, this was the first time a young lady had tempted him to misbehave.
They’re the hunters, who want to hang your ducal coronet on their trophy wall. So keep an eye out.
He would. But he’d enjoy this intriguing encounter, too. There had been few enough of them since his return.
They traversed the balcony, then passed through a pair of French doors into a hallway not frequented by the rest of the guests. That roused his curiosity even further.
“Since you mean to save my hapless waistcoat, perhaps we should introduce ourselves,” he said. “I am—”
“I know who you are, sir,” she said curtly. “Everyone does. My good friend Lady Georgiana pointed you out to me from the moment we entered the ballroom.”
“Is that why you were eavesdropping on my conversation with my brother?”
“Hardly.” She shot him a mutinous glance. “I was there first, you know, trying to hide from my stepmother.”
She blew out a frustrated breath. “She keeps trying to match me up with gentlemen I don’t care for. I do not need or want a husband, but she refuses to believe me.”
He figured he’d better not say what he was thinking: that perhaps her stepmother was right. As sulky as his unnamed companion was, she also seemed an odd blend of innocent and seductive, the sort that could easily get into trouble with a gentleman. He didn’t yet know what to make of her.
“I see,” he said, for lack of anything better to say. “But I still don’t know your name.”
“Oh! Right.” She shot him a faint smile. “I tend to forget such niceties.”
Her smile vanished. “Well, you don’t have to rub it in.”
He burst into laughter. “I swear, you are the most bewildering female I have ever met. Aside from my twin sister, that is.” He bent close to whisper, “I’ll give you her name if that helps you to offer me yours. Hers is Gwyn. And yours is . . .”
“Miss Olivia Norley.”
She said it primly, which he found delightful, though he was a bit disappointed she wasn’t a lustful married woman.
Then she stopped outside an open door. “Anyway, here we are. Shall we go in?”
“If you wish, Miss Norley. This is your endeavor, after all.”
“Right.” She marched inside without a single swish in her step.
He followed, suppressing the urge to laugh at her purposeful manner. At least she had the good sense to situate them at the far end of the room, where they wouldn’t readily be seen by anyone passing by.
She set the glass of champagne on a table that also held a lit candelabra, then opened her reticule and pulled out a small box. It proved to contain quite a few vials.
“Good God, what is all that?” he asked.
“Smelling salts and cosmetics for Mama, since she has no room in her own reticule for them.” She opened a vial and tapped it until a white powder filled her palm. “This is bicarbonate of soda. It’s good for indigestion.”
“And removing wine stains, apparently.”
She smiled up at him, and he caught his breath. Her smile transformed her from a pretty woman to a breathtaking goddess. As she moved the candelabra closer, he could see that her eyes were the warm green of jade. She had a sumptuous mouth, peach-tinged cheeks, and a nose that tipped up ever so slightly. He found all of it charming.
“Forgive me,” she said, seeming oblivious to his staring, “but I must put my hand beneath your waistcoat in order to clean the stain properly.”
“Would you rather I removed my waistcoat entirely?” he asked, knowing that the request was inappropriate and wondering how she would respond.
She brightened. “Oh, yes! That would make it much easier.”
Clearly she wasn’t put off at all by his lack of propriety, which he found amusing. He shucked off his coat, then unbuttoned and removed his waistcoat before handing it to her. After placing her handkerchief beneath the waistcoat, she went right to work on the spots, first dousing them with the champagne and then covering the diluted stains with the white powder she called bicarbonate of soda. The spots foamed up, taking him by surprise.
She held out her hand. “Give me your handkerchief, if you please.” After he did so, she used the clean parts to blot up the foam.
To his amazement, he could hardly see the stain anymore. It looked as if he’d merely spilled some water on his waistcoat. “Where did you learn to do that?” Thorn asked.
She took his waistcoat over to the fireplace and waved it back and forth in the heat from the fire, ensuring that even the water would evaporate. “From my uncle. He’s a chemist.”
What an odd family. No doubt she’d amassed all sorts of cleaning formulas from her relation. According to Gwyn, women were expected to know such domestic things even if they didn’t perform the cleaning tasks themselves.
Miss Norley came toward him with his waistcoat. “There. That should get you through the evening at least. Although you should have your servants give it a proper cleaning as soon as you get home.”
“I will keep that in mind,” he said, attempting to match her serious tone. Taking the waistcoat from her, he put it on. “How can I repay you? Perhaps with some eye of newt and toe of frog to fill out your vials?”
“Why would I want those? They would be of no use to me whatsoever.”
Clearly she’d never read Macbeth. Or if she had, she’d forgotten the toil and trouble scene with the witches.
Chuckling, he buttoned up his waistcoat. “Then perhaps I’ll ask you for a dance.”
A look of sheer horror crossed her face. “Don’t you dare! I’m the worst dancer in Christendom. And since young ladies aren’t allowed to turn gentlemen down—”
“What? I don’t know that rule. Though it does explain why everyone always accepts my invitations to dance.” He winked at her. “And here I thought it was because of my irresistible charm and dashing good looks.”
“Everyone accepts because you’re a duke, sir. So please don’t ask me to dance, or I’ll end up making a fool of us both. You wouldn’t like it, I assure you.”
He shook his head. “You’re an unusual woman, Miss Norley. I’ll give you that.”
When he pulled a bit of his cravat out at the top, she frowned. “Oh, dear. You have spots there, too. I should—”
“No need. If you will just rearrange the folds of the cravat to hide the spots, no one will be the wiser. I’d do it myself, but there’s no mirror in here.”
“Right.” She began to tug here and tuck there, reminding him of his initial suspicion of why she’d brought him in here in the first place.
“You do that very well,” he said. “You must have practiced at it.”
“My uncle has no valet, so I sometimes have to do the honors if he’s expecting a guest.”
“Admit it, Miss Norley. You did not lead me in here solely to clean my waistcoat and reorder the folds of my cravat.”
Her gaze shot to his. “I don’t know what you mean. Why else would I do it?”
Smiling down at her, he cupped her face in his hands. “So we could indulge ourselves. Like this.”
He kissed her gently, and she drew back, her eyes going wide. “Oh, my.”
A chuckle escaped him. “Oh, my, indeed,” he murmured, then kissed her again.