The Viscount’s First Kiss

October 2017

Chapter 1

Magdalene sat at her desk in a good deal of shock. Never once in all the time she'd known him had she experienced the slightest flutter of attraction to him. Now, a mass of butterflies swooped in her stomach. This would not do, she told herself. Not at all. They were friends. Friends. Only friends. One did not have such feelings about one’s friends.

“What do you think, Magdalene?” The last time the recently installed Viscount Daunt had called at Plumwood, he’d been Mr. Harry Fordyce, and she had been Mrs. Angus Carter. They had embraced each other as good friends.

He sat on the edge of the desk, one thigh on the desktop, and unfastened a button of his coat. The new Viscount Daunt very much resembled his late father, though many years younger, of course. Medium-brown hair, dark and liquid brown eyes just slightly sleepy at the edges. A sensitive, tender mouth that…

“Yes,” she said without moving. Because she couldn't. She wondered if she were ill. Perhaps she was, for she strongly suspected that if she were to stand, her legs would not hold her.

He plucked the letter from her hands and scanned it. A lock of burnished walnut hair fell across his forehead. Good heavens. He was twenty-eight, tall, and well-formed. A man of great vitality. He was handsome. He always had been. She had always known that about him. There was no excuse for her reacting as if she’d never noticed, when she had.

“I do not care for this,” he said. “Not at all.” He handed back the letter he had originally given to her to read. “I should very much like your opinion.”

Friendships had a definite shape, a rationale, a raison d'être. But without Angus, she no longer knew what defined her relationship with the new Lord Daunt. The problem, she decided, was that when he’d come in this morning, she had been distracted.

She’d looked up to see a stranger instead of her friend, and she’d frozen at the impact of seeing him as if for the first time. Absolutely, he was a man of astounding good looks. This was nothing new. Except, somehow, it was.

The three of them—Fordyce, ah, but he was now Lord Daunt, Angus, and she—had shared a consuming interest in all things bookish. Whenever Daunt had called at Plumwood, they’d talked of and about books for hours, and no one had ever been bored. She was very glad to see him again. Of course she was. Glad to see a friend.

Magdalene focused on the page he’d handed her. Her husband had been the love of her life. Nearly two years after his death, she loved and missed him still.


The contents of the letter continued in stubborn refusal to coalesce into words. She was very much afraid that if she looked at him again, she would have more thoughts that betrayed Angus. She returned her attention to the correspondence Daunt had handed over. At last, her brain cooperated, and the letters formed words with meaning. Italy, odd collection, interested.

Unfortunately, she could not concentrate long enough to derive meaning from the words or sentences. Her mind scurried off to inappropriate thoughts.

He’d taken care of everything after Angus died. He arranged the funeral, managed all the legal matters, looked after payment of the estate and other taxes due, and took care of endless other details and arrangements. Then he went abroad, in the main to distance himself from his father. They did not get on. Almost no one had got on with Daunt’s father. While he was gone, she had tried to learn how to live without Angus.

Daunt had been in America when his father fell ill. The news had taken some time to reach him, and more time had passed before he made his way home to deal with all that one must in such circumstances.

“Well?” he asked again. Quite obviously, he was experiencing no difficulty in treating her as he always had, with respect and fondness.

“Fascinating, my lord.” The honorific required to address him set fire to the bridge between them, and that proved unfortunate. Just when she needed to be moored in the past, she had been marooned in the present where nothing was familiar.

She smoothed her skirt and felt quite drab compared to Daunt’s splendor. It was impossible to be around a man like him and not wish to be more fashionable. Her brown frock was comfortable and presentable enough for her solitary life at Plumwood, but it was not à la mode.

“Mr. Mathias Rivett.” He tapped the top of the letter and sniffed with the sort of disdain that reminded her of his father. “He’s mangled the King’s English as only an Englishman can do.”

“I suspect he may not be Italian,” she said.

He snorted. “I as well.”

At last she managed to make sense of Mr. Rivett’s letter. She reread the undisciplined script. It was unclear if he claimed to be Italian or to have merely been to Italy. The point, however, was in two words: the Dukes.

Magdalene’s hand trembled as those two words sank in. My God. My God. She swallowed hard. Daunt would not have shown her this letter if he thought it was complete nonsense. “He says he’s found De Terris Fabulosis. Is it possible?”

Long before she or Daunt had even been born, Angus had been invited to Florence to view one of the four Dukes, specifically De Terris Fabulosis, which loosely translated to Fabled Lands and Treasures. The volume documented the location of such treasures as the Fountain of Youth and a city of gold located somewhere in South America. It had been held in the private library of a noted Italian collector now many years dead.

Angus had been thrilled to see the book at all, but the day following his inspection, he found himself accused of theft. A thorough search of his person and his quarters had found nothing. Though Angus had always proclaimed his innocence, rumors that he possessed De Terris Fabulosis persisted to this day. He had died protesting his innocence.

If it was true that someone had located De Terris Fabulosis, then Angus would be vindicated to each and every bibliophile who’d ever wondered. Most especially, he would be vindicated to those who’d repeated the vile rumors. Her throat grew thick. She hadn’t cried in months, and now she was about to lose her battle against tears.

In a flash, Daunt was on one knee beside her chair. He stroked her shoulder and handed over his handkerchief. “There, there, Magdalene. I am sorry to have reminded you of your loss.”

She took and released several breaths. At least her nonsensical attraction had been washed away. He brushed his fingers across her cheek, and just like that, another herd of butterflies took off in her stomach.

“My poor, dear Magdalene.” His voice had always been lovely, deep yet clear. “I knew you’d want to know.”

“Yes, yes, of course, my lord.” She was breathless from him being so near. What could possibly be the matter with her? He was Daunt, and she was a widow who interested no one. Most people found her peculiar. Only Angus and Daunt had ever understood her obsession with Medieval manuscripts, for they had shared it. “My lord, stand up.”

He sprang to his feet and strode to the other side of the room as if he hadn’t been on one knee to her. Which he had, but not for that reason. Handsome, vital young lords did not go on bended knee to women like her.

He threw himself on a sofa that was not long enough to contain him. She had grown used to there being three of them. Angus, herself, and him. Now, there would always be one of their number missing. He lounged on the sofa, one booted foot braced on the arm, the other on the floor, Rivett’s letter still in his hand. At ease, just like old times, thank goodness. She imagined there was a river between them, impossible to ford.

They had always been familiar and casual here at Plumwood, so his putting his foot on the sofa arm again did not in the least shock her. She did, however, take note of the shape of his thigh. Well-muscled, strong.

My God, how inappropriate.

“I’ve already replied to him that I wish to examine the books at his earliest possible convenience,” Daunt said. “Whether he has all four Dukes as he claims, we cannot know until he arrives. Can you imagine, Magdalene? What a triumph if even one of them is an original! Angus’s name will be cleared, and I shall have the honor of presenting Professor Peebles with Liber Ducis de Scientia.”

He meant, of course, the four volumes of a work that loosely translated to The Duke’s Book of Knowledge. To those passionate about collecting and studying illuminated manuscripts, as the three of them had been, the work was sometimes collectively referred to as the Dukes.

The Dukes were a compendium of knowledge and information, rightly said to contain the wisdom of the ages. Lorenzo de’ Medici himself had commissioned the works. They were completed and delivered to de’ Medici in or around 1481. Each text had been written by scholars preeminent in those subjects, and each had been inked and illuminated by sought-after artists.

De Terris Fabulosis was responsible for the launching of no fewer than five ships in search of the riches described in the pages. De Scientia Naturae Rerum, or Natural Science, had caused a sensation among scholars seeking to understand the world. De Medicine Arcana covered the subject of arcane medicine and healing, while De Motibus Humanis addressed the subject of human sentiment.

In addition to their literary and scientific merit, each volume of the Dukes was nothing short of art, writ large, and, should they be located, must be considered suitable for display in the august halls of the British Museum. No expense had been spared in the making of them. The volume Angus had seen had been bound in red velvet and embroidered with gold thread. The vellum pages were gorgeously inked and illustrated, with silver and gilt applied by a master artist.

Daunt stood and began to pace. “The club believes it can locate all four of the Dukes.” He referred to the London-based Bibliomania Club, of which he was a member. That shivery feeling in her stomach had gone away. Good. “Had you heard Peebles is retiring?”

“I had not heard.”

“What? No one wrote you?”

She shook her head. She was isolated here, though while Angus had been alive, she’d never once felt lonely or wanted any company but his. In Badding, however, she’d heard they were calling her the Recluse. No wonder. She’d been to Badding but once since Angus had died.

Peebles, much beloved by the members of the Bibliomania Club, had also been a dear friend of her husband’s. Like Daunt, the renowned professor had been a pallbearer at Angus’s funeral. She would do anything for either man.

She folded Daunt’s letter and placed it to one side. Mentally, she divided the room into the half containing Daunt and the half that did not, with no encroachment by her, literally or figuratively.

“His retirement ceremony is fast approaching. We, the members of the club, are determined to present him with all four Dukes. As we speak, the others are searching for the volumes.”

“I wish you speedy success.”

“Thank you.”

Had his voice always sounded like that? Smooth and warm. Enticing. “Happy as I would be if Professor Peebles were to be presented with such a gift, I can think only of what it would mean to Angus if De Terris Fabulosis were found.”

“Precisely.” Daunt stopped smiling. “That is why you must come to Vaincourt.” Vaincourt, the seat of the Viscounts Daunt, shared a border with Plumwood. “I shan’t accept any response from you but acceptance.”

This conversation was more like old times, thank God. Some of her butterflies flew away to bother a younger lady with more reason for the reaction. She clasped her hands on the desktop. He was young, and handsome, and vital, and she was none of those things. For heaven’s sake, she was four years older than Daunt.

“Now,” Daunt said with a devastating smile, “before I release you to your preparations for your visit, tell me, how is Ned?”

“Ned is visiting my father.” She picked up Mr. Rivett’s letter and fiddled with the corners.

“Is he?”

“I was as surprised as you are when His Grace took an interest.” She was the natural daughter of the Duke of Woaden, acknowledged by him and raised as a lady. The duke had seen to her upbringing, her education, and her financial security. He had even attended her wedding. “His Grace insists that Ned looks like him. I think he looks like Angus, but if he sees himself in my son, who am I to disagree?”

“How old is Ned now?” He glanced at her and winked, and her heart sped up. It meant nothing. Nothing. She willed it to mean nothing. “Thirty?”

She laughed. His sense of humor remained as impish as ever. “Six, Mr. Fordyce. My lord. Forgive me. You are so familiar a sight here that I cannot for the life of me think of you as anything but Mr. Fordyce. My lord.”

He waved a hand. “Call me Daunt. Please. How did Woaden convince you to let Ned away from you?”

“Quite easily.” Daunt knew all her peculiarities, and to his credit, he had never disapproved of her. “He promised to take Ned fishing, and after that Ned could not possibly have been dissuaded from accompanying his grandfather to the very ends of the earth.” With the tip of her ungloved finger, she drew a small circle on the desktop. “I miss him terribly. The house is too quiet, and though I am occupied from morning to night, I have nothing useful to do here.”

“It can be no bad thing for His Grace to take an interest in your son. The connection will serve him well.”

She nodded and smiled against a wave of loneliness and a mother's worry. “Yes. I know it shall. But it doesn't stop me missing him. Both of them. Ned and Angus.”

“Understandably.” His eyes were soulful, such a beautiful brown. When he looked at her, she felt like the only woman in the entire world. He returned to the desk and took her hand between his. “Your husband was a great and formidable man, and I do not doubt you shall miss him the rest of your life. As will I.”

She sniffled. No tears. None. She would not cry. “How kind of you to say so.”

“I wish I had been a better correspondent these recent months.”

“You had cares and concerns of your own.” He continued to hold her hand, but she withdrew it. She sat back and steeled herself against rubbing away the tingle of their contact.

“Are you in need of assistance?”

“How thoughtful of you to inquire, but no. Between His Grace and Angus, Ned and I have no worries for the future.” What a lie. She was lonely and bereft, and her son was old enough to visit his grandfather without her. “For now, at least.”

“You’ll tell me if there is anything I can do.” He was twenty-eight years old. A man. A quite compelling man who looked every inch the nobleman he was.

“How kind you are, Daunt,” she said with the sunny smile she had learned kept others at bay in the days and weeks following Angus's death. “Are there really two hundred people at Vaincourt for Accession Day?”

“Two hundred? No.” The Viscounts Daunt celebrated the anniversary of the day the first viscount had taken possession of Vaincourt. The event had quickly expanded to include celebrations of the solstice, to the point that the festivities spanned three or four days, with dancing and feasts nearly every night. Local gentry from all the neighboring parishes came to celebrate as well. “It’s a madhouse there just now, I’ll grant you that.”

“What of the wagons we saw making their way to Vaincourt?” She relaxed. She had herself in hand. She wasn’t going anyplace there were crowds of people. Vaincourt was out of the question. “You don’t really travel with an entourage like that, do you? Now that you’re a lord.”

He flashed a smile that took her breath, a reaction as unsettling as her earlier butterflies. “The very reason my feet brought me here, Magdalene. Those wagons contained books.” He spread his arms wide. “Dukes, books, and that letter are why you must come to Vaincourt. I won't have you alone in this house without sufficient protection. You know as well as I that if word has got out about the Dukes, some fool is bound to come looking.”

Mentally, she calculated how many volumes would have been on the wagons. Several hundred, she thought. Upwards of a thousand. “How many books?”

“I purchased the contents of three private libraries.” He smiled with all the delight of a true bibliophile on the trail of a rare volume. He planted his hands on the desk and leaned over. “Magdalene.”

Her mind went blank. Golden brown flecked his eyes. Golden. Brown. And those impossibly perfect cheekbones.

“I have reason to believe that the late Earl of Verney may well have been in Florence at or around the time Angus was there.”

“Oh my,” she said on a gasp. The Earl of Verney had been an unpleasant man who had boasted more than once that he had no scruples about the acquisition of antiquities, art, or rare manuscripts.

“You must come to Vaincourt,” he said. “I need you.”

The very idea of being around so many people filled her with anxiety and made her pulse race. She never said the right thing, and she was simply unable to make polite conversation. She never fit in.

“I’ve put you in the very end of the south wing, as far from the Accession Day guests as you could possibly be. You needn’t see anyone at all if you don’t care to.” He grinned. “Except for me. You must see me if we are to find the Dukes.”

“Surely I can assist from here.”

“No. You cannot.” His smile broadened, and he winked again. “I have located and purchased Verney’s entire library, and I can assure you that skullduggery is now afoot.” His serious expression returned. “Where the Dukes are concerned, one must presume that unsavory persons shall go to great lengths to have them. I was obliged to hire guards to transport them safely to Vaincourt.” He pushed off the desk. “Even were it not for the urgent matter of Peebles, it would be imperative to find the Dukes as quickly as possible.” He motioned to the door. “We must leave at once.”

She owed him a great deal. So much, she could never repay him. But the thought of Vaincourt during Accession Day made her sick to her stomach. All the noise. The need to say good morning or good afternoon or whatever was appropriate to the time of day. It was all quite beyond her.

“Have your maid bring your things later.”

“Do you mean leave right now?”

“We’ll search until evening. I am obliged to make an appearance for dinner, raise a toast to everyone’s health. Then back to work.” He clapped his hands once. “Time is of the essence.”

She lapsed into silence. “Do you really believe one of the Dukes may be at Vaincourt?”

“Yes.” His gaze fixed on her, and she was a bit lightheaded as a result. “Someone has already attempted to interfere in my search of those books.”


“I’ll tell you all when we are there. Magdalene, I need your help. You are the only one I trust in this matter, and the only person able to tell immediately if we find a genuine Duke.”

Her stomach hurt, but she had no choice. Daunt needed her help. “Very well.”


Return to How to Find a Duke in Ten Days

[ back to top ]