The Tattooed Duke (The Writing Girls #3)(3) by Maya Rodale

“Tattooing,” Wycliff explained. “It’s a Tahitian custom that involves sharp bone tapping ink under the skin. It takes days. It’s excruciating—” He stopped when Basil’s skin adopted a greenish hue, matching his waistcoat.

The maid was angling for a look at the drawing, too, and he grinned, and allowed her to see. He watched her eyes widen and look up to him, searching for answers.

The look knocked the smile off his face and kicked his breath away. Blue. Her eyes were gray-blue like the ocean, where he longed to be.

“I suppose one would expect such customs from the savages,” said the idiot cousin. Wycliff rolled his eyes.

“They’re not savages, Basil, they are people who happen to live by a different set of cultural practices,” he lectured.

“Of course, given your travels you may have a different perspective, but really, no one on earth surpasses the British,” Basil replied, rifling through more sheets.

Of someone else’s private property. Idiot. Cousin.

The maid bit her lip. She wanted to speak, and Wycliff was very intrigued.

“Well that one is quite a stunner,” Basil said, referring to a watercolor of Orama, a lovely woman with soft lips and a warm embrace, who had allowed him to sketch her nude form as she rose like Aphrodite from the ocean with the turquoise water lapping around her hips. She was breathtaking, and it was some vile mistake that his idiot cousin Basil should be able to look at such raw beauty.

Out of the corner of his eye Wycliff saw the little maid’s cheeks turn pink. He’d forgotten how adorably prudish and modest English women could be.

Wycliff took the sheet away from Basil, and the other sketches, “For all your talk of civilized behavior in England, it seems quite uncivilized to sort through a man’s personal papers.”

“Indeed, indeed. I say, my apologies. One just has such a curiosity for all things exotic. You’ll have to join me at my club, cousin, and tell my friends of your travels,” Basil offered. Wycliff muttered something like agreement, even though he had no desire to sit around a stuffy old club with stuffy old men.

Finally, after much ado, Basil was gone and he was alone with the maid. She curtsied awkwardly before him, murmured “Your Grace” and asked if there was anything she could provide him with. All with that little pink mouth of hers. Wicked thoughts crossed his mind, but he would not give voice to those, even though it would be such a typical Wicked Wycliff thing to do.

“If you can, I’d like that hour of my life back,” he said frankly.

“If I had the ability to turn back time, I’d have no need of your wages,” she replied tartly as she gathered up the tea things. It ought to have been a simple affair, but china cups clattered against sauces and silver spoons clinked across the tray and she spilled the milk. She also swore under her breath, which delighted him. She must have met Harlan already, he thought, or had some unsavory past of her own.

Thus far this little maid with the sea blue eyes and salty language was the only thing of interest in England.

“What is your name?” he asked.

She hesitated before answering. “Eliza.”

With her arms laden with the tea tray, she managed a short, awkward curtsey on her way out, treating him to a splendid view of her backside, again.

Once she was gone, he pulled the key from the leather cord he wore around his neck and used it to unlock and open the door leading from the library to a room otherwise cut off from the rest of the house. It was here that he kept those things he wished no one to see. Not yet.

Chapter 3

In Which the Nudity Is His Grace’s

Later that day, dusk

Eliza stood outside the door to His Grace’s bedchamber, summoning the gumption to walk in unannounced while His Grace was in a bath. Naked. It wasn’t as if she’d never seen a na**d man before. She wasn’t some sheltered missish thing.

The protocol for a situation like this eluded her: a na**d duke, in the bath, without a drying cloth. She probably shouldn’t go in. Or should she? Having never grown up with servants, nor having been one herself, Eliza was learning everything about her new job the hard way.

She had filled that damned bathtub—hauling heavy buckets of boiling water up three floors—with the help of another housemaid, Jenny. The task required moving fast enough to keep the water warm, but not so fast that they’d spill it. It had been excruciating. The duke had better enjoy his damned bath.

In Eliza’s haste and inexperience, she had forgotten to leave a drying cloth. She did not yet know if he was the type to roar and holler in anger, and she did not care to find out, because he was an imposing, intimidating hulk of a man and because she was the type to roar and holler back. That spelled trouble. That spelled fired, and she could not lose this position or her story for The London Weekly.

Get the story. Get the story.

Thus, she debated. Leave him without a drying cloth? Or interrupt?

He hadn’t arrived with a valet, or hired one yet, which meant there was no one else to attend to him . . .

Such was the life of a writer, undercover and in disguise. The things she did for Mr. Knightly, and for The Weekly! If she had to go to such lengths to get a story published—employed as a housemaid in the most scandalous household in town—then by damn, she would. She would not lose her position. Not over this.

She ought to go in, she reasoned. She would not pay attention to him, and he would do the same because she was a servant and thus utterly beneath his notice. That much she knew about master and servant relations. Yet she had a feeling it would not be so simple.

Eliza recalled the way His Grace had looked at her in the study this afternoon, and how his gaze felt like an intimate caress. The man left her breathless.

“Bother it all,” she muttered, and entered his chambers. Then she stopped short.

She saw the duke in the bath, as expected. But it was no ordinary sight. His hair was wet and slicked back from his face, showing off strong, hard features. His mouth was full and firm and not smiling. Even in this pose of relaxation, he put her in mind of a warrior: always aware, always ready.

The water lapped at his waist, his chest a wide, exposed expanse of taut skin over sculpted muscle. As Eliza stepped toward him and saw more of the man illuminated by the burning embers in the grate and the flickering of candles, she noticed that his chest was covered in inky blue-black lines. Tattoos, like the drawing.

She gasped. His eyes opened.

“Hello, Eliza.” The duke’s voice was low, smoky, and sent tremors down her spine. The window was slightly ajar and the cool breeze made the candle flames dance wildly, casting slate-colored shadows, making the room seem like some strange, magical, otherworld.

“Your Grace,” she murmured, and bobbed into a curtsey.

“Have you come to join me?” he asked in a rough voice, and she could not tell if he was serious or bamming her.

“My wages don’t cover that, either, Your Grace,” she replied, not yet having mastered her subservience, but she was rewarded for her impertinence when his mouth curved into a grin.

Eliza’s gaze inevitably drifted back to his nudity. The tattooing covered the broad expanse of his muscled chest, wrapping up over the shoulders and generously covering his upper arms, even inching onto his forearms. A million questions were poised on the tip of her tongue. Yet her mouth was suddenly too dry to form words.

“Tattoos,” he confirmed, reading her mind. “It’s a Tahitian custom. When in Rome . . .”

“You mentioned that it was painful,” she said, referring to the exchange earlier. “It seems like it must.”

“Like the devil.”

“Why would you do it, then?”

“Because to not do so is considered cowardly,” he explained in a low voice.

“That’s all? Because you do not wish to be seen as weak in front of men on the far side of the world?”

The duke laughed. “You don’t understand men, do you?”

“Apparently not,” she replied dryly.

“The sketches are one thing to see; this is another entirely. Wouldn’t you agree?” Eliza nodded yes. “It’s a record of my travels, and one of many artifacts that I have collected and brought back to England. There’s a whole world out there, beyond London. People should know that.”

“Can I look closer?” she asked in a whisper, because it seemed too illicit to ask a duke for an intimate glimpse of his person. But she had to see the tattoos up close. If she could touch them, she would. This was the sort of thing The Weekly would love. But also, her own curiosity impelled her to seek satisfaction.

Eliza knelt by the tub to see the tattoos, but her attention was also drawn to the scar she noticed on his upper lip, and the stubble upon his jaw. He had a clean, soapy scent that was at odds with the air of danger around him.

His head was close to hers, his mouth only inches away.

She wanted to touch his skin, to know if the tattoos left it rough or smooth. To feel the hard muscles of his arms and his chest underneath her palms. For The Weekly, of course.

As if the duke could read her mind, he took her hand and rested it on his bicep, just above where the tattoo began.

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