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Page 49

Daniel pressed his hands to his chest. “Consider me surprised.”

And a bit annoyed. Daniel loved his family, but the collective lot of them could never mind their own bloody business. Obviously Daniel’s stepmother Ainsley had dragged out of Ian where Daniel had gone and decided to rush off to France to find out what he was up to.

A tap at the door was followed by Ainsley Mackenzie herself. She was dressed for evening in a gray silk trimmed with maroon lace, her shoulders bare over small puffed sleeves. Tiny diamonds sparkled in her hair and at her throat—Richard’s courtesans in contrast had coated themselves with the things.

Ainsley had fair hair, which she’d dressed in the latest fashion, but somehow Ainsley never looked overdone or artificial. The spirit of her shone through, and Daniel regarded her fondly. She was the woman who’d rescued his father.

“Hello, Danny. I saw you come in.” Ainsley enclosed him in a lemon-scented hug. “Gavina wanted to wait in here for you. I forbade her, but I see she managed to get here anyway.”

“Without a key,” Daniel said. “What have you been teaching her, Stepmama?” In addition to her womanly charms, Ainsley was also an excellent picklock.

“The maid let me in,” Gavina said. “I said I was your sister and gave her a coin.”

She was learning young. Daniel leaned down and lifted Gavina into his arms. She was growing tall and strong.

“You haven’t answered the question, either of you,” Daniel growled. “Why are you here, Stepmama, and not in London helping Aunt Isabella run the Season? Or preparing to go to Berkshire for the training?” Ainsley and Daniel’s father moved to Berkshire every year so Cameron could prepare his horses for the racing season. The entire Mackenzie family would descend upon them there later in the spring, as per tradition.

Ainsley gave Daniel a little frown. “I was worried about you, Danny. I heard you were done over by louts and left in the gutter. But you never said a word.” Ainsley touched Daniel’s cheek where the bruises were still fading, covered by new ones from the rough balloon landing. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing interesting. Uncle Ian peached on me, did he?”

“Ian?” Ainsley’s eyes widened. “You don’t believe I could pry anything from Ian Mackenzie he didn’t want me to know, do you? No, I pried it out of Beth. She’s worried about you as well.”

“And she told you I’d gone to Marseille,” Daniel said guardedly, while Gavina watched from the safety of Daniel’s arms. It was midnight, and the girl didn’t look tired at all.

“Beth didn’t know why,” Ainsley said. “Are you in another scrape?”

Daniel couldn’t help his laugh. “I haven’t been in a scrape since university. I gave them up. My friend Richard Mason is here, and I’ve been spending some hours with him.” Not a lie.

“Ah yes, the young man you’re worried is wasting away in debauchery. I have no doubt you’ll set him straight. You’re good at that sort of thing. I did hear you went off ballooning and wrecked the thing. Don’t look so surprised. Word travels, especially among the English abroad.” Ainsley gave him a knowing smile. “And I heard a young lady was with you when you crashed. I see she is not with you now. She must have decided being in your company was too fraught with danger.”

“Something like that.”

“Probably for the best.” Ainsley reached for Gavina, and her daughter readily wrapped arms around her. “If a lady cannot keep up with a gentleman she chooses to pursue, she has no business pursuing him. I ought to know. That’s how I ended up with your father.”

Ainsley had proved she definitely could keep up with Cameron, much to Cameron’s surprise. The man who’d shut love out of his life had not been able to shut out Ainsley.

“It’s lucky you’re here,” Ainsley went on. “My friend Leonie is having a grand ball at her house tomorrow evening. We’re attending, and she would love to see you there.”

Daniel stifled a groan. Leonie was the Comtesse de Chenault, who’d become Ainsley’s friend when Ainsley worked for Queen Victoria. She was wealthy, influential, and had a large house outside of Marseille to which the fashionable flocked. “I can guess what for. It’s bad enough Aunt Eleanor and Aunt Isabella are thrusting debutantes at me right and left, but I thought you had more heart. Don’t tell me you’re joining their schemes to get me shackled.”

Ainsley blinked in innocence. “I said nothing about debutantes. Did you hear the word debutante come out of my mouth?”

“But that is who attends grand balls given by comtesses, isn’t it? Debutantes, pushed forward by their mamas with an enthusiasm that’s chilling to see. Why this rush to marry me off? Eleanor’s two boys and Dad stand between me and the ducal throne, and they’re all healthy, thank God.”

“We aren’t thinking about heirs,” Ainsley said, looking indignant. “We want you to be happy, Danny. To be settled.”

“To me, happy and settled are not the same thing. Give me a bit more life first, and tell Isabella and Eleanor to stop throwing insipid eighteen-year-olds at me.”

“Eighteen?” Gavina broke in. “That’s old. You should get married, Danny, and have babies so I can play with them.”

Ainsley gave her daughter an admonishing look and went on, “You know I am the last woman in the world to tell you not to follow your heart. But how do you know you’ll not find a young lady to steal that heart if you never let yourself go near them? You have to try, you know. Will you at least come with us to the ball?”

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