“Does Lord Dare normally generate the smell of sulfur?” Miss Emilia Malcolm McDowell inquired anxiously, holding a handkerchief to her nose as she traversed the back hall of that gentleman’s London home.
She’d occasionally heard family members refer to the viscount as Devil Dare, but she’d rather thought it referred to his bold and reckless approach to life, not the actual stench of Hell. Still, if he was as ill as her mother had said, one could make exceptions for odd odors. She, of all people, knew better than to be superstitious about peculiarities.
Lady Dare, the viscount’s widowed mother, bobbed her cap-covered graying curls. “He produces the most vile odors one can imagine. Perhaps I should not have insisted that he leave the window open even in winter,” she said worriedly. “London air can carry terrible diseases. Perhaps his illness is all my fault.”
“Then we would all be ill,” Emilia said, trying to reassure the lady while mentally re-evaluating her mission here. The viscount regularly generated the stench of sulfur and other vile odors? What kind of illness was that?
Before she could lose courage and flee, however, the lady shoved open a door without knocking. “Dare, you have a visitor.”
“Not now,” a deep male voice called impatiently from the interior. “And where is Jackson if you’re performing his duties?”
“I did not think it appropriate for a lady to visit without my presence,” the viscountess responded tartly, expressing the same impatience as her son. “Miss McDowell, I apologize for my son’s rudeness. He does know the niceties when he chooses to acknowledge them.”
“I’ve told you I don’t need any more ladies bringing me soup and patting me on the head,” he roared.
And then the room exploded. Glass shattered.
Emilia stepped in front of the much shorter, stouter Lady Dare, blocking her from the black, malodorous cloud billowing through the open door. She held her breath and ducked her head so that her wide-brimmed hat blocked the smoke from her face.
Voluble cursing from inside the chamber, combined with a hacking cough, led her to conclude the devil had only blown up the room, not himself. “My lord, are you injured?” she called, unwilling to enter hell unless he could not escape on his own.
A large, blackened gentleman emerged from the baleful haze, brushing ash from his unbuttoned waistcoat and shirtsleeves.
She had been led to expect an invalid. She swallowed hard and again re-thought her purpose here. Lord Dare was so far from being an invalid as to resemble a veritable dragon—taller than she and twice as broad, larger than she remembered from her one brief introduction. Instead of dragon scales, however, he sported loose linen plastered with sweat and soot. Undisguised by gentlemanly attire, his powerful shoulders and solid chest created an illusion of virile health.
Only his hacking cough revealed the deteriorating state of his lungs—a dragon whose fire had died.
She recalled his hair as golden-brown, but she could not tell through the smoke. The apparition removed his spectacles to rub his eyes, leaving a ring of white around his singed dark lashes. Perhaps he did appear a trifle pale beneath the filth, she told herself. She was that desperate. And the sweat no doubt indicated fever since no actual fire emanated from his cave.
“Irritated, not injured,” he said, rudely looking her up and down. “No soup? No posies?”
“Dare, I swear. . .” The lady bit off her irritation. “Miss McDowell has a business proposition for you.” Her eagerness was obvious.
A few minutes ago, Emilia had been eager and anxious too. She’d waited years to tackle this task, studying the problem from every angle. She thought she’d finally found a perfect solution—
Faced with the devil, she was now back to wary and anxious. The frail invalid of her imagination was not quite the same as the querulous reality. Remembering all the sick people who counted on her, the future of pharmaceuticals, and the health of a kingdom—she drew a deep breath and met his cynical gaze without flinching. She had no other choices left.
“Lord Dare, perhaps this is a discussion we should have in private,” she suggested with as much hauteur as breathlessness could achieve. She wasn’t good at small talk, but she knew how to be direct.
“Do I know you?” Now that he’d stopped coughing, he cleaned his spectacles on the shirt tail he pulled from his trouser band.
Sympathizing with his mother’s irritation, Emilia refrained from rolling her eyes at this familiar refrain. It wasn’t as if her height rendered her invisible, but for whatever reason, men didn’t notice her, no matter how outrageously she dressed. “We met last year in Iveston, my lord, when you came to discuss glass for microscopes with Lord Theo.”
He frowned, dropped his spectacles in his waistcoat pocket, and without permission, grabbed her lovely wide-brimmed hat adorned with lavender roses and removed it. She glared and snatched it back, just barely avoiding swatting him with it.
“The woman with the violet eyes,” he exclaimed in pleasure, as if he actually remembered her. “Why the devil do you hide beneath that appalling flower garden? Come in, if you can bear the stench. I need to clean up before the soot settles. Mother, have Jackson bring the lady some tea.” He held the door open wide to reveal the blackened ruins of a. . . study?
“Don’t be improper, Dare,” his mother scolded. “You must at least come into the sitting room where you can be chaperoned.”
Wiping his face with his shirt tail, Lord Dare gazed upon his mother with a droll expression. “I think a dying man can be trusted to behave with all due respect for fear of what waits on the other side, don’t you agree, Miss McDowell?”
She did not, but she’d been the one to suggest a private discussion. Lady Dare had some notion of her mission since she and Emilia’s mother had discussed the problem of their recalcitrant offspring in advance. But Emilia preferred the terms of her proposal to be private.
“I think I can trust you to be a gentleman in your own home, under the same roof as your mother and sisters,” she replied primly, avoiding the subject of what awaited on the other side of death. “Although I’m not at all certain that I can trust the room won’t explode again.”
“I’ve turned off the burners. You’ll be safe.” Lord Dare caught her elbow—he caught her elbow!—and dragged her inside the dimly lit chamber, closing the door on his mother.
He was fortunate she did not expire on the spot. The discomfort of his disease shot straight up her arm in pinpricks of warning.