Disgraced lady Daisy Warren serves ale in a tumbledown inn, sings crude songs for the smugglers, and writes romantic novels in her spare time. Shunned by her own class, she’s resigned to her lowly life—until someone tries to kill her.
Gentleman spy Sir Julian Kerr noses out seditionists and traitors. When he visits the inn to investigate two suspicious Frenchmen, he meets the lovely but hostile Daisy. He doesn’t intend to get involved with her—but then he learns that someone is threatening her life.
He wants to find out more—it’s part of his investigation.
He wants to protect her—he’s a chivalrous man.
He just wants her.
But will Daisy’s bitter past allow her to risk love again?
Julian intended to find out whether the Frenchmen were spies. In the meantime, he played darts middling well and got mildly soused on ale.
“Daisy! Daisy!” One of the locals pounded the table with his empty tankard.
Another joined in. “Aye, play for us, Daisy!”
Julian raised his brows at Mr. Bennett, who returned the slightest shrug.
Daisy opened the kitchen door and scowled at them, arms akimbo. “I’m busy, you louts. Do you or don’t you want bread to eat?”
“Aw, leave the baking to Sally,” said the one who’d called her first. “Play for us, love.”
Daisy rolled her eyes. “I’m writing a recipe. I can’t play just now.” She rejected their pleas with a swing of the hips that would have done justice to any tavern slut.
Julian wondered if perhaps he’d drunk too much ale.
“Daisy! Daisy!” Soon they were all banging the tables with tankards and fists.
Appalled, Julian felt himself darkening with rage. He caught the amused gaze of Mr. Bennett, who shook his head. “Leave them be.”
Devil take him, he was as bad as the rest. Julian half stood, fists clenched. He would knock a few heads together, throw a few punches . . .
A pair of firm hands pushed him into his chair again. Behind him, his fingers gripping Julian’s shoulders, Mr. Bennett called out, “Come, Miss Daisy, kindly grace us with your presence.”
“Go,” Sally said from behind the kitchen door. “I’ll take care of the bloody bread.”
Daisy muttered something unintelligible.
“I’ll take it out when it’s done. I’ll write down how long it took.”
“But—” Daisy began.
“Coward,” Sally said in a stage whisper.
Julian shoved Mr. Bennett off and leapt to his feet.
“You’ll regret this, Sally.” Daisy stormed into the room.
Daisy glowered at the drunken revelers. One would think she’d be accustomed by now, but no. She was used to playing for the smugglers. She even enjoyed it. Liked acting coy and mock-threatening Sally for teasing her. But to play and sing bawdy songs while Sir Julian Kerr watched . . . oh, the mortification was enough to make her ill.
Which was absurd, as she didn’t give a hedgehog’s arse what the man thought of her. She’d been nowhere near as mortified in front of that Frenchman, Bonaventure, who often came to stay for a few days. Perhaps this was because Sir Julian knew she was a lady, whilst the Frenchman didn’t. Damn Mr. Bennett for introducing her properly.
Sir Julian rose to his feet upon her entrance, a fearsome scowl on his handsome face.
Oh, God, he probably thought she’d been insulted. Well, to hell with him. She didn’t need defending. She would show him just how low she had become.
She sashayed over to the frightful old pianoforte. She had become quite accomplished at swaying her hips like a lightskirt. With a murmured apology for displacing it, she pushed the kitchen cat gently off the bench and sat down.
Whoops and cheers greeted her. She ran her fingers up and down the keys and played the opening bars of “Watkin’s Ale,” which was the least bawdy song they might enjoy. It even had a moral, one that didn’t quite apply to her, as she luckily hadn’t become pregnant when she’d given in to her lust for a smuggler.
She led them through all eight verses, glancing after three or four at Sir Julian. He was slouched in his chair, eyeing her with . . . what? Disbelief? Disgust?
She’d give him something to truly disgust him. She didn’t always take requests, but tonight, why not? Most of the men were smugglers, many of them sailors, so their taste in songs was horrid.
With a flourish, she played the final chords of “Watkin’s Ale.” “What next, boys? Tonight it’s your turn to choose.”
They roared with approval and shouted their requests.
Julian stared, both aroused and appalled. She was behaving like a common whore.
No, perhaps not a common one. Most whores couldn’t play the pianoforte so very well. She had a pleasant singing voice, too, although after leading them through “Watkin’s Ale,” she merely played the accompaniment.
Rightly so. Any decent woman, and many an indecent one, would balk at some of those lyrics. More than bawdy, they were downright vile, which was hardly surprising considering how many of the men were sailors. Good God, someone had even put a lewd poem by the Earl of Rochester to music.
He watched Daisy’s face for some sign of mortification. None. She was extremely competent on the keyboard, hardly glancing at it as she moved from one key to another, one song to the next. The instrument was out of tune, but that didn’t seem to matter. She smirked and winked at the men, jested at their requests, glowered at Mr. Bennett, and avoided Julian’s eyes entirely.
Did that mean she was embarrassed by his presence? Perhaps. Or perhaps because he was so strongly attracted to her, he was seeking redeeming qualities where there were none.
In any event, it was his mission to fit in, so he clapped and cheered with the rest, even joining in when he knew the lyrics.
At last, when they were all uproariously drunk on songs and ale, she played “Hush-a-Bye Baby.” They all laughed. Evidently a lullaby meant she was done. She ignored the few desultory pleas for more, curtsied lavishly, and was gone.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Winner of the Holt Medallion, Maggie, Daphne du Maurier, Reviewer’s Choice and Epic awards, Barbara Monajem wrote her first story at eight years old about apple tree gnomes. She published a middle-grade fantasy when her children were young, then moved on to paranormal mysteries and Regency romances with intrepid heroines and long-suffering heroes (or vice versa).
Barbara loves to cook, especially soups. There are only two items on her bucket list: to make asparagus pudding (because it’s too weird to resist) and succeed at knitting socks. She may manage the first but doubts she’ll ever accomplish the second. This is not a bid for immortality but merely the dismal truth. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia with an ever-shifting population of relatives, friends, and feline strays.