Excerpt: Some Like It Scandalous
In which our hero (Theodore Prescott the Third) and our heroine (Miss Daisy Swan), who are long time enemies, discuss the DISASTROUS debut of their fake engagement. There is some flirting.
The newspapers were not any more kind this morning as they reported on the disastrous debut and comical reception of the couple of the hour: The Millionaire Rogue and the Ugly Duckling. The newspapers and gossip columns were beside themselves sharing every last detail about their chilly behavior toward each other, anonymously quoting outrageous speculation about the reasons for the mismatch, and reporting on all the wagers made on the outcome. Odds were not in favor of I do.
Their parents were furious. Furious.
And embarrassed. Which only made them more furious.
Frankly, they weren’t the only ones. Theo did have his pride, after all. He didn’t know who he was without the good opinion of society.
Something had to be done.
And so, presumably at the behest of her mother, Daisy was seated by his side as Theo expertly navigated his carriage through the busy pathways of Central Park. Around them, people walked, picnicked, frolicked, and generally enjoyed the legendary green space.
Daisy wore one of those atrocious, large-brimmed hats that were the fashion these days. One could hardly see the woman underneath. Just . . . hat, perched upon dress.
Still, he’d wager that the expression on her face was one of: What are we doing here? I no longer recognize my life and how does one make it stop?
These were questions he also wanted answers to.
“It has been reported, in no uncertain terms, that last night was a disaster,” he began.
“Ah, so you have read the papers. Or maybe your father had ‘a word’ with you the way my mother had ‘a word’ with me. In the unlikely event that it wasn’t abundantly clear during each agonizing moment of the ball last night?”
“I told you, I went to Harvard. I am not an ignoramus. I was well aware of the horror that was our debut. The newspapers this morning only confirmed it.”
What she said next surprised him.
“It’s just you’re so pretty, Theo. One cannot expect you to be intelligent and be pretty.”
“I am not pretty,” Theo replied hotly. “Men are not pretty. If anything, I am boyishly handsome.”
“Your father is handsome. In a distinguished, silver fox kind of way. You are pretty. Those blond curls. Those blue eyes. That pout of a mouth. Perhaps in thirty years you’ll age into handsome.”
“Let’s not discuss my father. Especially like that.” Theo was not in the mood to hear of yet another way in which he did not live up to his namesake. “How would you like it if we discussed your mother thusly?”
“My mother was once described as eight of the ten most beautiful women in New York. Everyone discusses her thusly. I am quite used to it.”
Theo did not mention the newspaper just this morning that had described Daisy in starkly opposing terms—“A woman who spent her evenings in the dim corner of ballrooms where the light suited her best.”
“And then there’s me,” Daisy continued candidly. “So unlike her in every imaginable way. No, I wasn’t dropped as an infant or acquired from a foundling hospital in case you were wondering.”
“People don’t actually say that.” Theo glanced at her. She was no Helen of Troy but she wasn’t awful to look at.
“Oh, yes,” she answered. “Many think it and more than a few have ‘joked’ about it. To say nothing of all the Ugly Duck comments.”
Theo felt shame start to rise. He still remembered that day when he had come up with the name. It had felt good to make everyone laugh—but then he hadn’t considered that they were laughing at her. He thought they were laughing at his wit. And he never thought the name would stick. He’d always had a knack for quips and nicknames. The Rogues of Millionaire Row, the Saratoga Scandal. And those were just the recent examples.
She continued, “Hardly funny, if you ask me, but I do see their point. Have you seen my mother and my sisters? Three nearly identical specimens of ideal feminine beauty. Those blond curls. Those blue eyes. That pout of a mouth . People cannot believe a creature so beautiful spawned someone who looks like me.”
She spoke as if it was all very matter-of-fact. And he had to look. To confirm.
He merely saw hat.
A ghastly, wide-brimmed affair all aflutter with feathers and ribbons.
But they had grown up together. They’d spent the entire previous evening together. He knew what she looked like.
Sure, her mother and sisters were the ideals of female beauty and she was . . . not. Her nose was a little too much, her eyes perhaps a little too close together, her jaw more square than heart shaped. She turned her head and he saw her pink lips pressed firmly together.
That gave it away: she did not feel so matter-of-fact about her looks at all.
“You’re very fixated on your appearance,” Theo observed.
“How ironic that you should mention it. Why do you think that is? You were the one who called me Ugly Duck.”
Theo winced at the memory. They had all been playing in the park on a blue-sky day, not unlike this one. Correction: he and the others had been playing but she refused to join the game. Like she was better than them. Like she had a purpose. Even then, he’d been jealous. His immature efforts to involve her, to bring her down to their level, involved teasing. With lasting consequences. He’d been an ass. There were no excuses to be made for it.
“I apologize,” he said genuinely. “Ghastly behavior on my part. But in my defense, I was only thirteen. Everyone knows that thirteen-year-old boys are not exactly the high point of humanity.”
“Thank you for your apology over a decade after the fact, when irreparable damage has been done,” Daisy said dryly. “Now if only we could get everyone else to stop saying it.”
“No one still calls you that,” Theo scoffed, defensive. “It was years ago.”
“It was in the newspaper this morning. “Ugly Duck Snares Millionaire Rogue”. Your friends quacked at me at the ballroom just last night.”
Theo winced. Again.
“I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry.”
“It is catchy. I would almost say that you have a knack for names and such.”
Her compliment caught him off guard. No quick, sharp reply came to mind other than a simple “Thank you.”
They fell into silence, and not an unpleasant one, either. It was almost a companionable quiet, where one felt at ease to notice their surroundings: the fresh green shoots of grass on the fields, the trees about to flower, the city folk all enjoying the greenery of the park.
For a brief, shining moment, it felt like they weren’t mortal enemies.
That was when Daisy gasped.
“My goodness, we have done it! We have actually done it!”
“It being . . . ?”
“We have engaged in a civil, nearly polite, exchange. We have had a genuine conversation that wasn’t a verbal death match. Pity no one was around to notice it.”
“One hopes enough people have taken note of us together behaving somewhat pleasantly toward each other.”
She sighed. “Otherwise, we shall have to do this again.”
“Horrors,” he deadpanned.
But Theo almost didn’t even mean it. He was glad for the company, even if it was hers. He was at odds as to how to spend his afternoons without going to his club; his pride would not permit him to attend as a friend’s guest. Which was beside the point; he’d learned everyone had gone up to sail at Belmont’s place in Newport. One of those spur-of-the-moment, whirlwind plans hatched over drinks late at night and employed before anyone thought to send word to Theo in exile. He’d called on Miss Pennypacker, but she only wanted to ask questions about him and Daisy that he’d rather not answer.
Plenty others remained in the city. Theo and Daisy both looked around. The park was full of people living their best lives, and that did not include observing a couple passing by in a carriage. Even if that couple was heavily featured in the morning newspaper. It was her hat—her big, atrocious hat—that kept her identity hidden and any interest at bay.
“We probably don’t need to spend that much time together,” she mused. “In fact, there’s really no need to convince anyone that we’re in love or even in like. Which is a good thing. I doubt either of us has the acting skills to convince anyone of that, especially after last night.”
“About that . . .” Theo began. Already, there was no going back to the way things were before. Theo had been cut off from his funds and left behind by his friends. All he had left was his reputation as a charming, sought-after, desirable man about town. He couldn’t lose that, too; at least, not before he figured out something else to do with his life. A purpose.
“There’s just the matter of my reputation to consider,” he said.
“Do go on,” she drawled, and he knew better than to think she actually cared but he continued anyway.
“It’s bad enough that people think I have been rejected from the club, cut off from my funds, and forced into an engagement. But I can’t have people thinking that I lack the good looks and charm to seduce you.”
“Because I am not pretty or popular I should be grateful for your attentions, is that it?”
“That sounds worse than it did in my head.”
“And what if you lack the charm to seduce me? What if I don’t care about your good looks?”
She spoke in such a way to make it clear that he did indeed lack the charm, and his good looks did nothing for her. A pretty—or handsome—face was not enough. Neither were his fine suits or the way he filled them out with lean muscles honed from tennis. That was all he had to offer and she didn’t want it. And there it was again: that burning drive to have something else, all his own, that no one could take away. But first . . .
“For the sake of my reputation, I think you should act like you’re in love with me. A little bit. For appearances. It will help things when we eventually end our engagement, I think.”
“Oh, shall I?” And her voice dripped with sarcasm. It oozed so much sarcasm, one could practically drown in it. It smothered a man to the point of suffocation.
Theo discovered that she was only just getting started.
“Perhaps, pretty boy, I’ll start by resting my hand on your arm affectionately. I’ll lean in close. I’ll let my breasts accidentally on purpose brush against your arm. Maybe I’ll murmur something wicked to you. Maybe I’ll whisper something infuriating that will make you flush with rage, but everyone will think I said something wicked to cause you, a seasoned, scandalous rogue, to blush.”
Worse yet, Daisy actually did these things to him. Her hands. Her breasts. Murmuring this wickedness. She was indecently close and he caught a faint but heady scent of something floral.
To his shock and horror, he was affected by these things.
Theo hardly liked her and had never considered her attractive. He hardly considered her at all, in fact.
But lo and behold, all she had to do was be her—a teasing, tormenting, confounding woman—and he was affected. In ways. Ways that were not merely physical.
“Or I could just gaze at you like some adoring sheep.” She batted her lashes at him. It was more comical than alluring.
“If you aren’t going to take it seriously—then never mind.”
“My apologies. No issue deserves more care and consideration than a man’s pride and reputation. I should not have made light of it.”
“What is an adoring sheep anyway?”
“A poor choice of words, but I assume you get my point, Harvard. I could gaze at you like one of those young, innocent society girls or a young, innocent shop girl or actress who firmly believes that fairy tales are real and a handsome prince will sweep them off their feet.”
“I don’t think you could gaze at someone like that even if you tried. Not even me.”
“Is that a dare?”
“Only if people are watching. I should hate for such a performance to be wasted.”
“You don’t want a private performance, Theo?”
The words private performance made him think of . . . things. That one usually did not think of in the middle of the park, in the middle of the day, with a high-society woman like Daisy beside him.
But she had to tease him in a husky bedroom voice. It was anger that flared; or was that rush of heat and feeling indicative of something else? He didn’t know; he didn’t want to know. He wanted to continue his placid existence, unruffled by strange feelings for a woman he didn’t even like.
“This really isn’t necessary, Daisy.”
“But I can’t stop myself. You’re just so pretty.”
Lord save him.
She was smiling at him now. Batting her eyelashes. Dear God.
“Is anyone watching?” she asked, not taking her eyes off his face. “Is it working? Because I just can’t take my eyes off you.”
“Stop. This is ridiculous. You are ridiculous.”
“I’m just teasing you, Theo. When we are in public, I shall consider trying to pretend to be enamored of you for the sake of your precious reputation. Never let it be said that there was a living, breathing woman in Manhattan who didn’t want you.”
“Thank you.” It was a hollow victory. He felt like an ass. She might flirt with him for appearances and it would mean nothing. Nothing, because she was a nobody and it meant nothing. What was wrong with him that he had even asked? Why did he care so much what other people thought?
“Besides, it will suit my purposes to have you acting somewhat enamored of me, as well.”
“And what purposes are those?”
“Never you mind. But you definitely must try harder to act like you’re seducing me,” she said. “I’m not feeling the slightest bit breathless or weak in the knees or whatever it is girls feel when they’re being swept off their feet.”
“My apologies,” he murmured. Then he dropped the reins and turned to her, intent on giving her a taste of her own medicine. “Let’s fix that immediately.”
“You don’t have to do it right now—”
He gave her his wolfish smile. Then he leaned in close to whisper in her ear, but words failed him for a second. She smelled good. It was that heady fragrance. And her skin was smooth and dewy and just lovely. Hers was a complexion that begged to be caressed. That was just the skin politely exposed; he idly wondered about the rest of her . . .
Finally, he remembered what he meant to say. Something romantic and seductive. Two could play at this game of irritating each other profoundly. “What do you say we return to that gazebo and see if it’s empty so we can be alone?”
“To do what, exactly?”
The lady was unmoved.
“Get to know each other better. Intimately.”
Had they been alone he might have kissed her earlobe. Desire flared when the thought occurred to him.
Thank God they were not alone.
She turned away, nearly smacking him the face with her hat and feathers.
“Those are some very seductive moves you have there, Theo. Very practiced. I don’t think we need to act like we’re in love—no one will believe that. We just need to strive for distantly polite or not outwardly hostile.”
“Be still my beating heart.”
“We needn’t spend every waking moment together. Or any time at all, really.”
“It’s fine, I have the time,” he said. One could only spend so many hours at the tailor. Especially when one’s father was no longer paying the bills. He didn’t know what else to do with himself, with his friends out of town.
“The thing is, I don’t.”
“What are you so busy with?” Theo asked hotly.
She smiled like the Sphinx and said, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”