backwards-straight into Lucas. 'Oh! What on earth do you think you are doing?'

'Ow!' The cry of anguish was wrung out of him. She might be slender, but the top of her head banging back into his nose packed a powerful force. Lucas was fond of his nose. In his opinion it was one of his more distinguished features, and having it broken by an irritable dresser would be distressing.

'Don't blame me,' she continued, with no sympathy for his pain. She turned round and glared at him. 'It is entirely your fault, creeping up on me.' Her eyes were an intriguing hazel colour, her brows arched, her nose small and straight. Right now she was glowering down it. He lowered his hand, reassured that his own nose was still intact. As she saw his face properly her expression became even more severe. 'It is you again! I should have known. You libertine.'

Libertine? 'Are you a dresser?' But of course she was. He remembered her now-the striking girl with the scowl, surrounded by shabby bags. He had winked at her. Obviously a mistake.

'Of course I am!'

'Well, you do not sound like it,' he retorted frankly, dumping the breeches on another table and reaching for a brush. Her accent was crisp, assured and educated, even if her language when he had entered had been decidedly unladylike.

'I was raised in a gentleman's house,' she informed him, picking up the garment she had been dealing with

and giving it a vigorous shake. 'And educated with the young ladies. Not that it is any business of yours. A dresser is expected to be genteel.'

'You aren't genteel.' Lucas scrubbed at one muddy knee. 'You sound like a dowager duchess at Almack's.'

'It was a very superior household.' She pushed back the damp hair from her forehead and held a hem up to the lamp. The garment appeared to be a drab pelisse of unfashionable cut. 'I do not believe this is mud at all. I think it must be glue.'

'Let me see.' Lucas reached for the pelisse. He had no clue how to remove stubborn stains from ladies' garments-instinctively he was attacking Will's breeches with the same method he'd have used on a muddy horse- but he wanted to keep her there talking. 'Try this fine one, with the thin stiff bristles.'

'Thank you.' She accepted it warily and retreated behind her table, apparently the better to keep an eye on him. 'Why were you creeping up on me?'

'I wasn't,' he denied, attempting to look innocent. He did not have the face for it, he knew. The dresser simply slanted him a look that spoke volumes for her opinion of men, and of him in particular, and bent over the hem again.

'Whose dresser are you?'

'Miss Penelope Maylin's.'

Lucas dropped the brush and dived under the table to retrieve it and get his face under control. The gods were on his side, obviously-not only had he found his quarry without any effort whatsoever, but she was going to be a delight to extract information from.

Not, of course, that this could go any further than a little light flirtation-if that was what it took to win her confidence. In Lucas's code of honour servants were as out of bounds as virgin gentlewomen. On the other hand, she could have been a sour-faced abigail or an old dragon.

'What is your name?' He straightened up and bent over his work again.

'Lawrence. Daisy Lawrence.'

Daisy. It did not suit her. This girl was no open-faced meadow flower. She was something altogether more subtle and cultivated. A honey-coloured rose, perhaps: scented, velvety, but with sharp thorns.

'I am-'

'I know who you are. You are Lord Danescroft's valet.' His surprise must have been evident, for she added, 'You need not be flattered. Miss Maylin remarked upon the time his lordship arrived. But you may tell me your name.'

'Lucas.' She had spirit this one. Will outranked every other guest and his host. That made Lucas the top dog amongst the servants, yet she did not appear to be awed by that fact. 'You may call me Mr Lucas,' he added, more to see her reaction than anything.

'Yes, Mr Lucas,' she replied meekly, confounding him by finally recognising her place. 'And thank you for showing me this brush; it has done the job perfectly.' She folded the garment over her arm and moved towards him and the door beyond. Lucas shifted round his work table as though to find a better angle and blocked her path.

'A demanding young lady, is she? Your Miss Maylin?'

'Not at all. She's as meek as meek-quite a milksop. Not like some I could mention.' There was suppressed amusement lurking in those hazel eyes, which was odd. He wondered what-or who-she was thinking of. 'Of course,' Daisy added thoughtfully, 'there is her stepmother to contend with.'

'Indeed?' Lucas lifted one leg of the breeches and frowned at the knee laces, hoping he looked as though he knew what he was doing. 'Could I trouble you to pass that small brush at the end, Miss Daisy?' Partly it was a tactic to keep her there talking, and partly because he enjoyed the sight of her moving about with a grace that must have been instilled along with her lessons with the young ladies. A family by-blow, perhaps? he speculated. 'Is her stepmother difficult?'

'Terrible. Ghastly, vulgar creature,' Daisy confided with some relish. 'Unfortunately Miss Maylin is devoted to her. It is the greatest good fortune, in my opinion, that she did not accompany us here-although poor Miss Maylin is almost prostrated with nerves without her support. She is hopeless in Society. I said to her, Your husband is not going to like it if you insist on your stepmama living with you when you are wed. That upset her, believe me.'

'Husband? She is betrothed, then?'

'Oh, no. But it won't be long if Lady M has anything to do with it. Of course she's hoping for a rich man- they need it, that's for certain.'

'Really?' Lucas kept his eyes on his task, feigning only casual interest.

'Well, yes, what with the family tendency to-' She broke off. 'Listen to me gossiping! That will never do. What must you think of me, Mr Lucas?'

Schooling his features to hide his impatience with her sudden attack of discretion, Lucas put the brush down and turned with deliberation to face Daisy. She was looking somewhat chastened, an expression that did not seem to fit her confident heart-shaped face.

'Think of you? Why, that you are as charming as you look, Miss Daisy.' He leant forward. Her eyes widened but she stood her ground. 'And that you have the most kissable mouth I have yet seen in this house.'

'Oh!' She planted one hand firmly in the middle of his chest and pushed. 'Out of my way, Mr Lucas-you are an arrant flirt and I am well served for lingering to gossip.'

Amused, and too skilled to try and detain her and risk frightening her away from future conversation, Lucas stepped back. 'Miss Daisy. I look forward to seeing you this evening in the Steward's Room.'

'The-? Of course-dinner.' She swept past him, delightful nose in the air. 'But at opposite ends of the table, Mr Lucas, I am glad to say.'

Rowan shut the door behind her and leant against it for a moment to catch her breath. For a moment she had thought he was about to steal a kiss. What her father would say if he knew his only child was not only masquerading as an upper servant but was being amorously pursued by a valet, she shuddered to think. In fact she was shuddering now-or rather shivering. And it was chastening to realise that it was from excitement, not revulsion or maidenly horror.

Getting a grip on herself, she set off for the stairs and found them after only three false turns. At least running up their twisting steepness was an excuse for pink cheeks. One heard about reckless young women who threw their virtue away on handsome footmen. They always appeared to end up pregnant and in disgrace, but perhaps those were only the ones she had heard about, and the stately homes of England were rife with liaisons between upstairs and downstairs.

Well, she was not going to throw her hat over the windmill for anyone less than the man she was going to marry, so tall, dark, blue-eyed rakish valets were not going to tempt her in the slightest. Then what, pray, her inconvenient inner voice enquired tartly, are you doing, getting all of a do-dad over one wink and an almost-kiss?

Вы читаете A Mistletoe Masquerade
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