A Taste of Desire

Chapter 1

London, 1856

As Thomas, Viscount Armstrong, digested Harold Bertram’s words, he came up straight in his seat, his hands finding the curved arms of the chair. Although the marquess delivered the request with all the gravity of a clergyman officiating a funeral, Thomas prayed he hadn’t heard him correctly.

“You would like me to do what?” Thomas issued the question in a soft voice and an even calmer tone, but the sound cracked the air like the report of a rifle.

The marquess gave a mirthless laugh and shot a quick glance at the study doors before shifting his regard back to him. “I am asking you to-to take my daughter under your care during my stay in America.”

Thomas suffered through the second such insupportable request in as many days—this one even more painful than the last.

Only the prior day, a peer in the House of Lords had presented him with the kind of offer that sent honest men hurtling full-tilt down the unsavory road to perdition. He hadn’t thought it could possibly get more unseemly than that.

He was wrong.

What Harry spoke of was not about politics and one-thousand-pound bribes; this was one hundred times worse.

“It would be—er—up until the new year unless I could conclude the negotiations in less time.”

Harold Bertram, the Marquess of Bradford, or Harry as he preferred close acquaintances to call him, was not a lack wit—though many might doubt that assertion at the present time. He possessed the sharpest mind in matters of finance and business, and could articulate—when not suffering a brain lapse—with the eloquence of an orator the likes of which Caesar and Henley never saw. However, his nineteen-year-old daughter could fray the nerves of even the most battle-seasoned soldier. Thomas himself could attest to that.

Fixing the marquess—who had fallen conspicuously mute—with an unblinking stare, Thomas cocked his brow. Harry must have indeed taken leave of his senses. The chit had finally driven him to that.

“If this is a joke, I assure you, I do not find it the least bit amusing,” Thomas replied, when he finally recovered enough to speak. “I mean, we are speaking about Lady Amelia, are we not? Unless, pray tell, you have yet another daughter hidden away who is not a disrespectful termagant?”

A round of uncomfortable clearing of the throat ensued, followed by a weary-to-the-bones exhalation. “Heavens, then tell me what I’m to do with her? If I take her with me, I would have neither the time nor energy to keep her out of her usual mischief, especially in a country where I lack familiarity. At present, you are the only person I trust enough to come to regarding this matter. Perhaps if the trip weren’t of such importance, and I could rearrange my schedule….” Harry sent him a silent look of appeal.

At his words, Thomas’s conscience received a faint prick, but thankfully, the feeling lasted no more than a few seconds. In his estimation, voyaging to America in the interest of a business endeavor could not compare to subjecting himself to playing taskmaster to Harry’s recalcitrant daughter.

Leaning forward, Thomas’s fingers curled into the napped fabric of the armrest. “If you requested I take your place at the guillotine or the hangman’s noose I would consider that less of an imposition.”

Harry’s eyebrows met above a straight patrician nose as his mustachioed mouth gave a faint twitch. “I am going to be frank with you. That gir—daughter of mine seems most determined to deliver me to an early grave. She’s managed to embroil herself with yet another ne’er-do-well. This time, if my manservant hadn’t been so careful, I would be forced to call that worthless Clayborough my son-in-law.” He spat the man’s name as if a more foul sound could not pass his lips.

“Harry,” Thomas said on a long, drawn-out sigh, subsiding back into the chair. “Perhaps it would be best if you permitted her to marry whomever she pleases. Wouldn’t it be easier than chasing her across the wilds of every county in England? She has reached the age to wed.” Let some poor unfortunate bastard take her on. Thomas was certain the man would be crying foul within months of the marriage once he realized the bargain he’d struck.

A dull thud echoed throughout the study as Harry’s fisted hand collided vigorously with the glossy veneered finish of his mahogany desk. “No! The last thing I want is that wastrel for a son-in-law. Heavens above, I am well aware my daughter is a considerable handful, but I have a duty