The Tattooed Duke (The Writing Girls #3)(8) by Maya Rodale

“The native artwork covers His Grace’s broad chest, shoulders and upper arms. With his hair pulled back and the extensive, inky black tattoos, he appears to be a dangerous, heathen warrior.

The women also endure, as witnessed by sketches in His Grace’s collection that depict tattooed hands strategically placed to cover some particularly feminine charms. Other illustrations depict strange flora and fauna that would be of great interest to the gardeners at Kew. More interesting to the bucks of the ton are the duke’s drawings of native women with their tattoos, long jet hair, sultry smiles, and an utter lack of corsets, dresses, stockings, and the other frippery with which young ladies deck themselves. Does His Grace now expect such free behavior from England’s belles?”

“So they’re all naked?” Basil asked breathlessly. Eliza cringed.

“It’s too bloody hot to wear clothing,” Harlan answered.

“What happened to your eye? And your arm?” Basil asked.

“Pirate attack,” he answered gravely. The other day, Eliza overhead him telling Thomas the footman that he’d been wrestling with a shark. And before that, that a sacrifice to the gods had gone awry.

Burke continued to read: “ ‘The duke did not even deny ravishing hundreds of women in one night in a harem. Ladies of London, beware! This duke appears to possess exotic and unquenchable tastes.’ ”

“I’m not particularly bothered by this,” the duke said. “Although, it doesn’t mention my achievements for the crown.”

“Such as spreading citizens all over the world?” Harlan added.

“Like father, like son,” Burke dared to say, to the duke’s glare.

“Promoting England abroad. Facilitating the exchange of cultures,” the duke answered smugly.

One of the gentlemen snorted.

“The ton is in an uproar,” Basil stated. “My missus took callers before noon for the sole purpose of discussing this. One of them even fainted. I heard them screeching for the smelling salts.”

“Really?” Wycliff asked.

“Indeed. It’s the tattoos. And the earring. And the piracy,” Basil added. “And the na**d women. All those marriage-minded mama’s are the ones to watch out for, and right now they’re deciding if the fact that you are a duke is reason enough to overlook everything else about you.”

The duke was silent, and Eliza wondered if he did plan to marry. She felt a fluttering in her belly at the thought, which she dismissed as ridiculous.

“If you are not inclined to marriage, then I have news for you,” Burke said, and the duke gave him his full attention. “The French government has offered ten thousand pounds to whomever reaches Timbuktu first.”

Eliza wanted to laugh at the range of expressions from disgust at the mention of “French” to wide-eyed wonder upon “Timbuktu.”

“And returns, I presume?” Wycliff clarified.

“I’m thinking of preparing an expedition myself,” Burke said calmly, but the duke looked like he was about to spit poison. The men’s gazes locked, tense, vicious.

“What is Timbuktu?” Basil asked, and Eliza was glad of the idiot cousin for asking such questions that she also wished to know.

“It’s a city in Africa, where the streets are paved with gold, where it rains diamonds, and all the women are na**d and free with their affections,” Burke answered.

“Don’t listen to him, Basil,” the duke contradicted. “It’s a legendary city in Africa that is probably nothing more than a pathetic collection of mud huts. But no European has ever been able to get there, and certainly no one has ever returned from the attempt.”

“Until the great Monroe Burke,” said the damned Monroe Burke.

“Or the Duke of Wycliff. You know it’s always been my intention to take up this challenge. To Timbuktu. I believe I informed you of that on the return from Tahiti. At length, and in detail,” Wycliff replied tensely. Eliza watched the flash of annoyance cross Burke’s features before they settled into something like amusement.

“And the great rivalry between us continues,” Burke said grandly, attempting to dismiss the duke’s quiet fury. “From the privies of Eton to the golden mud huts of Timbuktu.”

Eliza cleared the plates, and when she arrived with them in the kitchen, the cook and the maids were all huddled around their own issue of The London Weekly. They were reading “The Tattooed Duke.” She fought hard to keep her smile sly, but a giant grin tugged and broke through. She had, at last, arrived.

Chapter 9

In Which the Duke’s Reputation Precedes Him

Later that evening

The name had not left him all day, tripping off the tongue in three melodic steps. Tim . . . buk . . . tu. Like a poem, or a song, or a prayer.

Wycliff had always wanted to go, ever since hearing stories as a lad and aching to escape the confines of Wycliff House or school. He thought about it in Tahiti and talked about it on the way back to England. In fact, he retuned only to plan for this expedition. And now the French dangled an incentive other than glory. Ten thousand pounds! Pity he couldn’t get that up front.

Pity Burke was after it as well. Some friend. But then again, theirs was a friendship based on rivalry—forever attempting to outdrink, outsmoke, outfight, and outwench the other. The whole world was a stage upon which they enacted a constant battle for superiority. Burke had abandoned him in Tahiti for a year. Wycliff once stranded Burke in a leper colony for a week.

Now both had set their sights on Timbuktu.

Even after ten years abroad, the wanderlust had possessed Wycliff the minute he stepped off Burke’s ship onto the London docks. There was something so stifling about England, and the rain and the history and the shadow of his father and all the other Dukes of Wycliff who had drunk, debauched, and died before him.

He did not want to live like that. Nor do it with his hands tied and manacled by debt.

Timbuktu was his chosen destination.

And this—this ballroom, this society affair, this orgy of wealth and decadence and gossip—this was some circle of hell he had to pass through on his journey.

“I hope to God they still serve brandy at these routs,” he said. It’d been an age since he attended a society function.

Burke grinned. “No one would come if they didn’t.” They pushed through the crowd, accepting nods of greeting (Burke) and stares (Wycliff). No one greeted him or remarked on how long it had been or inquired about his travels. Apparently he was too bizarre to even converse with. A frown tugged at his mouth.

Wycliff hadn’t thought how strange he must appear with his long hair and the earring. It occurred to him now, as he sauntered through the ballroom, that they must be imagining his tattoos and thus picturing him in some state of undress.

No wonder all the maidens and matrons seemed flush and flustered as he passed. He couldn’t help it; he grinned.

While sipping his brandy, he savored the memory of explaining a London ball to the women in Tahiti. Then he taught them to waltz on the white sand beaches, right into the surf.

But now, in the ballroom of Lord and Lady Something-or-Other, he likened it to shark-infested waters.

They circled slowly, in tightly controlled circles. They eyed him through narrowed eyes, with their long pointed noses sniffing for weakness. Occasionally one would bump up against him in warning.

One particular shark already had a taste for him, and Wycliff saw her glide through the swarms in his direction. The other guests stepped aside to allow this man-eating lady clear access to her prey.

Her hair gleamed, golden, in the candlelight. Gold, like Timbuktu. He’d do well to remember that.

That crimson pout, scowling at him now—he it knew it intimately. Once upon a time that mouth had alternated between begging for his touch and insulting him with name-calling. She was a fiery one. She was all the churning, roiling energy of an ocean storm fiercely contained in a corset and silk.

“Lady Althea Shackley,” he drawled when she paused before him. Her green eyes were bright and her cheeks flushed pink. “It’s been an age.”

She smiled, and stripped off her gloves. With her bare hand she slapped him soundly on the cheek.

The ballroom immediately fell silent.

She turned on her heel and stalked away with a swish of silk skirts and her head held high.

The crowd, en masse, fixed their attention upon him. With a mocking smile, the Tattooed Duke of Wycliff raised his glass in toast.

“To England!” he called out. Many were forced to raise their glasses with him in toast to their country—even though he was the most foreign-looking and -acting one among them, title notwithstanding. He was a duke, so anyone who gave a whit about titles and rank could not refuse.

In that moment, Wycliff understood: he wasn’t just unfashionable, he bordered on treasonous. For a man of his stature to adopt the customs of another culture suggested that England wasn’t supremely superior after all. He had betrayed his country and it could not be tolerated.

“To the King,” he stated, raising his glass again. The ballroom guests followed in kind. A smug smile tugged at his lips—how it must pain them all to show solidarity with the treasonous duke who kept his hair long, wore an earring, bore tattoos across his sun-browned chest, and drove scorned women to public acts of violence in his presence. He was that kind of man.

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