Hyde Park, London, 1833
“How are matters progressing, my dear Beatrice?” The Duchess of Hadleigh leaned over the side of the open carriage, the plume of her bonnet bobbing over her honey-gold curls. “Has Croydon spoken of his intentions?”
Perched on a bay mare next to the carriage, seventeen-year-old Lady Beatrice Wodehouse saw the excitement that lit her mama’s violet eyes. Considered an Incomparable in her youth, Mama remained a stunning beauty, and Bea thought of herself as a pale imitation: her own locks were a lighter shade of gold and her eyes clear lavender. Papa liked to say that Mama and Bea looked like sisters, which always made the former blush and the latter hide a grin.
It was common knowledge that the Duke of Hadleigh doted upon his beautiful wife. Although Bea’s younger brother Benedict was wont to roll his eyes whenever Their Graces expressed affection, Bea was inspired by her parents’ happiness. It fueled her dreams of finding everlasting love…dreams that might be coming true this very day.
Bea peeked over at Peter Mansfield, the Duke of Croydon. He sat astride a white stallion a few yards away. The Season’s premier catch, he had been detained by admirers the moment they arrived at Rotten Row. Her pulse quickened when he turned his dark head in her direction, his mouth curving in a heart-stopping smile.
Warmth rushed into Bea’s cheeks…and other unmentionable parts of her person. Last week, Croydon had stolen a kiss in the garden, awakening a strange need inside her. She couldn’t stop thinking about the warm brush of his lips against her own. At night, she tossed restlessly in bed, dreaming of the mysteries of the marital bower…
“Well, Beatrice? Has His Grace confessed the reason for today’s ride?”
“Confess, Mama?” Pushing aside her wanton curiosity, Bea managed a teasing tone. “You make him sound like a criminal.”
“Your future is no joking matter,” Mama chided. “Do remember to curb that wit of yours: no man wants a bold, overly clever wife. And fix your skirts, dear. You must display your assets to their fullest advantage.”
Used to her mama’s lectures, Bea bit her tongue. She knew better than to argue. She smoothed her plum velvet riding habit and adjusted the small hat perched atop her pale ringlets.
“All the marriageable misses have set their caps for Croydon, and who can blame them?” her mama went on. “A handsome duke worth twenty thousand a year is rarer than a unicorn, I daresay, and he’s singled you out for his attentions.”
A fact that never ceased to amaze Bea. Although she was a duke’s daughter, she’d grown up in the country. Mama was not fond of Town life, and Papa had taken trips to London alone. For Bea’s debut, however, the duke had brought the entire family to the nation’s capital, leasing a grand townhouse for the Season. Bea had to admit that she still felt like a fish out of water in the sophisticated, glittering world of the ton.
“When His Grace asked permission to ride with you today, he mentioned he had a specific matter he wished to discuss.” Mama looked at her expectantly. “Are you prepared to give him a reply?”
Would ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ qualify?
She opted for a demure response. “Yes, Mama. With your and Papa’s permission, of course.”
“You have it. Oh, how happy you’ll be! As a duchess, the world will be your oyster, and I know Croydon will cherish you as you deserve.” Mama’s face was wreathed in smiles. “Now when His Grace returns, be sure to suggest a ride away from this brouhaha. The section by the Serpentine will be perfect for a tête-à-tête. I’ll follow at a discreet distance to give the two of you privacy…”
A tinkling, bell-like voice cut Mama off. “Lady Beatrice, fancy meeting you here!”
Bea glimpsed Miss Arabella Millbank weaving through the crowded path, shaded by a lacy parasol. The pretty, raven-haired heiress had debuted with Bea, and the two had become fast friends. Since Arabella had grown up in London, she was well versed in the ways of Town. She’d saved Bea a seat at every function, advised her on the latest fashions, and shared the juiciest tidbits of gossip. Bea was grateful for the other’s kindness.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace.” The flounces on Arabella’s skirts fluttered as she curtsied.
Mama arched her brows. “Have you lost your chaperone, Miss Millbank?”
Bea cringed at the frosty tone of the question. Mama did not conceal her dislike of Bea’s friend. Arabella had addressed the topic in her matter-of-fact way: It’s to be expected, dear Bea. Her Grace doesn’t favor me because my family’s fortune comes from import-export.
Bea didn’t like to think that her own mother would hold such pretensions. Gathering up her courage, she’d asked Mama about it point-blank.
Any prejudice I have against Miss Millbank is due to her character, Mama had retorted. Your trusting nature will be your downfall, Beatrice…but I suppose I am to blame. I kept you sheltered too long in the country. Heed my words: things are different in London.
Bea saw no reason to distrust Arabella, who had been nothing but kind.
“My chaperone is back there somewhere,” Arabella now said brightly. “When I saw Lady Beatrice standing here, I simply had to rush over to say hello.”
“What perfect timing you have,” Mama replied.
As Bea was puzzling over her mother’s dry tone, the Duke of Croydon rejoined them.
“Good afternoon, Your Grace.” Arabella’s green eyes sparkled as she twirled her parasol. “What a magnificent mount you have.”
“Thank you, Miss Millbank.” Croydon patted the Arabian’s neck before turning to Bea. “I apologize for the delay, my lady. I had not seen the Yardleys for some time, and there was much to catch up on.”
“I hope you had a nice visit,” Bea said sincerely.
“Quite. Although I missed the present charming company,” Croydon murmured. “Are you ready to continue our ride?”
“Indeed we are,” Mama cut in. “Why don’t you escort my daughter along the quieter path by the Serpentine, Your Grace? I’ll follow behind after I return Miss Millbank to her chaperone.”
Bea rode to the leafy, shadowed path with Croydon. Here, the walk was sparsely populated, the chatter of crowds replaced by birdsong and buzzing insects. As promised, Mama was following discreetly behind—so discreetly, in fact, that Bea did not even see her.
Bea slid a sidelong glance at her companion, wondering if he would take the opportunity to steal another kiss. Not that he’d have to steal what I would willingly give. The brazen thought warmed her cheeks even more than the sunshine.
The duke’s stallion, Attila, seemed to take a liking to Bea’s mare, Midnight Star. When Attila came too close, Star lurched away with a nervous whinny, jostling Bea in the sidesaddle.
“She’s a bit skittish,” Bea apologized, tightening her grip on the reins.
“I don’t blame her for being shy. Attila, stop being a brute,” Croydon ordered.
Seeing the stallion’s chastised expression, Bea couldn’t help but giggle.
“May I compliment you on your laugh, Lady Beatrice? It is so unaffected and carefree. Qualities that, I daresay, are as rare and admirable as your beauty.”
Bea’s heart raced at the duke’s intent expression, the vivid blue of his eyes.
“Thank you, Your Grace,” she said breathlessly.
“As it is just the two of us, could I tempt you to call me by my given name?”
“That…that would be forward, wouldn’t it?”
“Such informality would be improper,” he said gravely. “Unless we had a more intimate connection, that is. I have a question to ask you, my dear. I will, of course, speak to your father, but I wanted to know where your wishes lay first.”
She felt faint with expectation. “Yes, Your Grace?”
“Lady Beatrice…would you like to be my wife?”
“Yes,” she breathed. “I would like that very much—”
“That’ll teach you to steal from your betters, you filthy guttersnipe!”
The shouting shattered the magical moment. Startled, Bea swung her gaze in the direction of the voices. Two figures were just up ahead on the path. A man on horseback was dragging a boy up by the scruff, lifting the child’s kicking feet clear off the ground. As Bea watched in horror, he raised his other hand, which held a gleaming black horsewhip.
“What the devil?” Croydon muttered.
Instinct propelled Bea into action.
She galloped forward. “Desist, sir! You’re hurting the boy!”
As she pulled to a stop, the man’s gaze roved with slow insolence over her. He had thick jowls and square, pugnacious features. His clothing was costly and ostentatious, gold buttons and fobs scattered over his expansive torso.
“Who are you to interfere in my business?” he demanded.
“I am Lady Beatrice Wodehouse, daughter of the Duke of Hadleigh.” Bea saw with anxiety that the child still suspended from the man’s beefy fist had a swollen eye and bleeding lip. “Let the boy go, sir. Can’t you see that you’re hurting him?”
“Bloody pickpocket deserves a thrashing.” Scowling, the man shook the boy again, the force sending the child’s tattered cap to the ground. “He filched my coin purse and thought he could get away with it!”
Croydon drew up beside Bea. “I am the Duke of Croydon, the lady’s escort. And you are?”
“T. Edgar Grigg, industrialist.” The man smirked. “You may have heard of me.”
Bea did indeed recognize the name. Grigg was a coal merchant whose showy advertisements were seen everywhere in Town. The papers credited him with advancements in the delivery of the resource to London, which had an insatiable need for coal-driven power. His warehouses lined the banks of Regent’s Canal, and some mockingly referred to the miasma of smoke that hung over the city as “Grigg’s Gold.”
“’Elp me, milady!” The boy’s pleading gaze latched onto Bea. He couldn’t be more than eight years old, with a mop of brown hair and missing front teeth. “I ain’t done nufing, I swear!”
“You must put the boy down, Mr. Grigg,” Bea said as calmly as she could over her thundering heart. “I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding.”
“There’s no misunderstanding,” Grigg snarled. “This thief picked the wrong pigeon to pluck.”
“I swear on me ma’s grave that I didn’t steal nufing. Me pockets are empty, see?” The boy turned out the pockets of his threadbare trousers and jacket. “A wrong against me you’ll regret, but a favor to me I’ll ne’er forget. ’Elp me milady, please. Don’t let the cove ’urt me!”
The poor child…he’s babbling in pain. I have to do something!
“The child doesn’t have your purse,” Bea said. “I must insist that you let him go.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” Grigg raised his whip in a menacing manner.
Star let out a whinny, backing away. Bea steadied her mount.
“Kindly refrain from speaking to a lady in that tone,” Croydon said sharply.
“Gladly, Your Grace,” Grigg said with a sneer. “If her ladyship will refrain from intruding in my business.”
After an exchange of stares with Grigg, Croydon turned to her.
“Let us continue on,” he said in a low tone. “It is not our affair, after all.”
Bea stared at him in shock. “We cannot abandon this child.”
“While your kindness is admirable, the boy is a street urchin,” Croydon said curtly. “You haven’t been in Town long enough to know what that sort is capable of—”
“Bloody hell!” Grigg roared in pain. “The filthy cur bit my hand!”
Bea’s breath held as the boy, freed from the industrialist’s grip, made a run for it. He darted away, quick as a minnow. Grigg recovered with equal speed.
Shaking his whip, he shouted, “You’re going to pay for this, you li’l bugger!”
He urged his mount forward; on instinct, Bea did the same. She was faster, cutting him off as he neared his prey with his whip raised. Barricading his path, she met Grigg’s gaze: whatever she meant to say evaporated at the rage blazing in his eyes. He paused with his whip held mid-air…then brought his arm down viciously, his lash slicing through the air.
With a terrified neigh, Star reared.
The mare’s sudden bucking jerked Bea’s grip from the reins. She flew from the sidesaddle, arcing backward, landing with a bone-jolting thud. Stars streaked across her vision, shouts exploding in her ears. She blinked up through a haze of pain, saw a shadow hovering over her face—a hoof, its edge glinting like a scythe.
A scream burst in her throat as it descended.
Staffordshire, Seven Years Later
Wickham Murray entered the ballroom of the country house wearing a domino over his evening clothes and a black demi-mask. Similarly disguised guests were twirling around the dance floor. The females—a mix of sophisticates and ladies of the night—were garbed in a variety of costumes, their jewels ranging from priceless diamonds to artfully cut pieces of glass.
Wick had selected the masquerade for his night’s diversion because of the anonymity it offered. He was, at the moment, travelling incognito. As the public face of one of the country’s most successful railway companies, Great London Northern Railway (also known as GLNR), he did not wish to be recognized on this trip to Staffordshire.
He was on a discreet and vital mission to obtain a tract of land that was the difference between success and failure for his company. Through great expense, GLNR had obtained the necessary Act of Parliament to run a route from London to Manchester. The ambitious venture had gained instant popularity with the investing public, who couldn’t get enough of the company’s shares, driving up the value.
The project had been poised to become GLNR’s greatest triumph…until the mistake had been uncovered.
While GLNR had been purchasing the necessary territory for the railway for months, a portion of the planned route through Staffordshire had somehow been overlooked. Obtaining that tract of land was turning out to be a surprisingly Herculean challenge. Since Wick handled GLNR’s negotiations—his partner, Adam Garrity, managed the company’s financial concerns while his other partner, Harry Kent, was the scientist in charge of research and development—it was up to Wick to get this last, but critical piece of the puzzle in place.
Wick prided himself on his ability to negotiate outcomes that satisfied both parties. Yet the owner of the land, a prickly and reclusive spinster named Beatrice Brown, was proving to be the most obstinate adversary he’d ever dealt with. He’d sent her multiple generous offers; she’d turned them all down flat. When he’d invited her to London to discuss the matter in person, she’d refused that too and in a decidedly unfriendly manner.
Wick was not one to give up, however. If the mountain would not come to Muhammed…
“’Ello, luv.” A purring voice distracted him from his thoughts. “Looking for company this eve?”
The woman was dressed as a canary, her voluptuous form barely contained by her skimpy frock dripping with yellow feathers. Her smile was about as genuine as her diamonds and thus left Wick cold. There’d been a time in his past when he hadn’t thought twice about paying for his pleasures. Back then, he’d engaged in other vices too, drinking and gambling, spending money as if it flowed as freely as the Thames. His recklessness had led to his disgrace.
To the failures that, even now, caused his chest to tighten in remembered shame.
It had taken him a decade to redeem his honor. He’d gotten out of debt, stopped his bad habits, and dedicated himself to his work. Now, at three-and-thirty, he’d achieved financial success beyond his dreams. From time to time, however, he wanted a respite from his driving ambition. From a life that was busy and rewarding yet also…solitary.
Thus, when the innkeeper of the establishment where he was staying had mentioned this infamous masquerade, hosted by a local libertine couple, he’d decided to see it for himself. He’d hoped to find some diversion, even if it was just for the evening. Someone who might temporarily fill that restless void inside him.
The trouble was that nothing seemed to assuage that strange emptiness. Maybe there was no cure…or maybe he would only know it when he found it. Whatever the case, the canary didn’t fit the bill.
He made his refusal polite. “Alas, I’ve just arrived and yet to gain my bearings.”
“Suit yourself.” She moved on, shedding feathers along the way.
Wick continued his trek around the ballroom, which replicated the ambiance of a Venetian carnival. Canvas trompe d’oeil murals hung on the walls, creating an illusion of colorful buildings, canals, and bridges. Beneath the crisscrossing strings of lanterns, jugglers, sword-eaters, and fire breathers drew oohs and aahs from the guests. Footmen dressed as gondoliers darted through the crowd bearing trays of refreshment.
Yet beneath the gilded novelty lurked a dreary familiarity. The same cloying mix of perfume, sweat, and spirits. The same hungry lust in the eyes behind the masks. The same glittering, meaningless pursuit of pleasure. Even Wick’s own reaction was predictable: surrounded by a throng of people, he had a heightened awareness of being alone.
A practical man, he’d considered solutions to the plaguing restlessness. Since he was rich and blue-blooded, the younger son of a viscount, he’d been hounded by marriage-minded misses for years. The marital union, he’d observed, could lead to happiness: both his business partners were blissfully leg-shackled and his older brother Richard, now Viscount Carlisle, had also made a love match.
Yet no lady had sustained Wick’s interest long enough for him to consider making a proposal. Perhaps he wasn’t built for marriage…or even a long-term affair. Out of habit, he rubbed his thumb against his signet ring. It was a reminder of the woman he’d failed, of the responsibility that came with even casual liaisons.
Wick shut out the past, reminding himself that he wasn’t looking for a relationship. He just wanted to distract himself for an evening. To discharge some of his tension so that he would have his full powers of concentration on the morrow, when he would deal with the stubborn Miss Brown. He departed the ballroom, passing through the atrium to a series of candlelit public rooms. Here, he began to appreciate how the masquerade had come to earn its notorious reputation.
Dressing screens had been set up to create intimate nooks for rendezvous. If the undulating shadows behind the silk panels were any indication, the guests were taking full advantage of the quasi-privacy. There was the unmistakable rustling of clothes being shed, accompanied by assorted moans and grunts.
As Wick passed an opening between screens, his gaze met with that of a lady reposing upon an oversized chaise longue. She was striking, her powdered wig and crimson gown capturing the sumptuousness of a bygone era. The tiered diamond necklace dripping over her bosom could have paid for a small London townhouse.
“Well, hello there.” Her husky voice matched her looks, her painted mouth curving with genuine lust beneath her black demi-mask. “Looking for someone?”
Not any longer, he could have said with an easy smile. Or he might have simply sauntered over and run a finger along her bare shoulder in answer. After all, the lady was attractive and available…exactly what he should be looking for. Yet confronted by what he’d thought he wanted, he felt the void deepen inside him.
“I’m previously engaged, I’m afraid,” he heard himself say.
What the bloody hell is the matter with me?
“The more the merrier, darling.” She toyed with her necklace, the glittering web trailing over the generous mounds of her breasts. “Bring your friend. There’s plenty of room here for three…or more.”
He ought to have been tempted. For some reason, he wasn’t.
What he was…was bored.
“As much as I appreciate the offer, my engagement is private,” he said courteously.
If the woman took insult, she did not show it. “If you change your mind, you are welcome to return. Variety is the spice of life, after all.”
“Quite,” he murmured.
With a bow, he continued on. The level of debauchery increased with each passing chamber. In the billiards room, the privacy screens had been pushed aside, the masked guests forming a train of writhing bodies so depraved that even Wick’s brows went up.
That was the only part of his anatomy to do so, however. As provocative as the scene was, he felt no desire to join in. If naught enticed him in that array of licentiousness, he acknowledged ruefully, it was time to call it a night. He went back to the corridor, intending to head out…when raised voices grabbed his attention. They came from an open door at the end of the hallway.
“That is enough, sir!” a woman’s voice commanded.
“You’ve been a dreadful tease, pet,” a male voice said. “Time to pay the piper.”
“Let go of me!”
Wick sprinted to the room, pushed open the door. The study was small, dominated by a desk and book-lined walls, with a small sofa by the fire. A man dressed like a pirate had a woman pressed up against one of the bookshelves, his arms caging her as she struggled.
The despicable bastard. With smoldering fury, Wick stalked over.
“Pick on someone your own size,” he growled.
As he grabbed the cad by the scruff, the man let out a startled shout, stumbling backward into Wick. With an oath, Wick caught his balance…and found himself staring at the barrel of a pistol.
His gaze travelled beyond the weapon to the lady holding it. A white satin mask covered her face, leaving only her eyes and mouth revealed. Brassy red curls cascaded over her shoulders and back. Her tall, willowy figure was clad in a gown of unrelieved black, her arms encased in matching black satin gloves.
The gloved hands holding the small, pearl-handled pistol were notably steady. As was the gaze the lady aimed at the bastard who’d been accosting her.
“Get out,” she said in cultured tones.
The man, whose face was pale beneath his piratical eye patch, needed no further encouragement, running off like a cur with its tail between its legs. Wick resisted the impulse to go after the bounder and pummel an apology out of him.
Instead, he turned to the woman. “Are you all right, miss?”
Her gaze shifted to him. Her eyes took on the color of the candlelight, mysterious and flickering. A strange awareness stirred his nape.
“I had the situation well in hand.” Her voice was calm, with a pleasing musical lilt.
“That I do not doubt.” Wick offered her a wry smile. “Would you mind lowering the pistol? I give you my word I mean no harm.”
She blinked, as if she’d forgotten she still held the gun. After a moment’s hesitation, she slipped it into the folds of her skirts. The way another lady might tuck away a handkerchief.
“My thanks, sir.” She moved to stand behind the desk, putting it between them. “For intervening in that unpleasant situation.”
As she spoke, his gaze was drawn to her mouth. Framed by the edge of her mask, her lips were rosy and plump. He suspected the rest of her face would be equally enticing. The satin mask molded to her delicate bone structure, and if her neck and shoulders were any indication, her skin was as smooth and flawless as porcelain. It was too dim for him to see the color of her eyes—some shade of blue, he reckoned—but they were large and almond-shaped, fringed by the longest lashes he’d ever seen.
She’d opted for a costume not in the current style. The classical column suited her figure which, while slender, was also rounded in his favorite places. Her gown’s scooped neckline revealed the lovely rounded tops of her breasts, medium sized and with a firm jiggle that made his palms itch to test their heft. Her straight skirts flowed over her lush hips, the kind that would cradle a man as he plowed her…
Wick frowned. What was the matter with him? He had no business lusting over the lady, even if she was the first to arouse his senses in longer than he cared to admit. Having just escaped a mauling, the last thing she needed was more male attention.
He cleared his throat. “My intervention, as it were, was quite superfluous. Shall I return you to your friends?”
“I came alone as that would better serve my purpose.”
“Ah.” It was all he could think to say to her frank reply.
There was only one reason a female like her would come alone to a place like this. She was here to partake in wild, anonymous, no-strings-attached tupping.
The lust he’d suppressed licked hot and low in his belly. Yet his honor refused to let him yield to temptation. She was clearly a lady and vulnerable…she could be in some sort of shock.
“Then allow me to escort you to your carriage,” he said. “Or to summon one for you.”
Her gaze fixed on her skirts, the way she smoothed them out a veritable art form.
“I’m not ready to leave,” she said crisply.
“It’s too dangerous for you to be here alone—”
“I am not alone, am I?” She raised her compelling eyes to his again. “I came for a specific reason tonight, and I gather you did as well.”
Her directness affected him like a blow to the chest. His breath shortened, his blood pounding in his veins. What was it about this female that he found so intriguing? Was it her mysterious beauty? The contrast between her physical delicacy and uncommon backbone?
Maybe it’s just her maddeningly delectable tits.
“I would not take advantage,” he said candidly.
“No, I believe you would not.”
She was studying him, one arm beneath her peerless bosom, the other hand propping up her chin. With her head tilted and lips pursed, she looked like an innocent bluestocking…perish the thought. For despite Wick’s worldly attitude about sexual matters, his honor would never permit him to seduce a virgin.
Luckily, neither he nor his honor had grounds for concern this eve. Encountering a maiden at this masquerade was as likely as finding one in a Covent Garden nunnery. This lady, who he guessed to be in her mid-twenties, was probably a widow or married lady out for some fun.
He found he didn’t like the idea of her being married. Not that it was any of his business.
“May I ask you a question, sir?”
“I am at your disposal.” More than I ought to be.
“What do you think I’m dressed as?”
He cocked his head. “Don’t you know your own costume?”
“I do,” she said seriously. “Tonight I am looking for a man who can guess the nature of my disguise. I do not intend to leave until I find him.”
The idea of her rifling through the males in attendance caused an odd tightening in his gut. Jealousy? Surely not. He hadn’t felt possessive over any woman before.
Bemused by his reaction, he lifted his brows. “What do you intend to do when you find this paragon of discernment?”
She looked him in the eye. “I intend to have relations with him, of course.”
I did it. I just propositioned a man.
Heart pounding, Bea was grateful for her mask. Not only did it hide her defect, it concealed her furious blush. As she waited with affected insouciance for the stranger’s reaction to her scandalous offer, she took the opportunity to study him further.
Tall and broad-shouldered, he had the lean build of an athlete. His cloak framed his trim torso, narrow hips, and long, muscular legs. His black half-mask underscored his high cheekbones, straight nose, and strong jaw, all of which could have graced a sculpture. Above his noble forehead, his golden-brown hair had a thick, enticing wave. Her hands curled with the instinctive desire to feel that glinting richness between her fingers.
In her entire life, she’d never done anything this forward. This brazen. Clearly, she was no longer the innocent and naïve debutante she’d once been.
Seven years had changed her. Changed everything.
You want this, a voice inside her said. A taste of passion. Not to go to your grave a virgin.
The memory of her only kiss stirred up dregs of longing and pain. She pushed aside the feelings; it was easy to do, for she’d had years of practice. Time enough to rage, mourn, and come to peace with the vagaries of fate.
While I cannot change the past, the present is mine to decide. Resolve swelled inside her. And I’ve made up my mind to experience, just once, a lover’s touch.
Tomorrow, she’d return to her normal life of safety and seclusion. To the life she’d carved out for herself—one that had purpose and meaning, yes, but which always left her alone when darkness fell. For this one night, days shy of her twenty-fifth birthday, she wanted…more.
Taking a lover would be her birthday present to herself.
Excitement shivered through her as she met the gaze of her potential bedpartner on the other side of the desk. She had only three requirements for her lover, the first one concerning physical attraction. Obviously, she wanted to find him desirable…but she hadn’t expected a man to have the effect this fellow had on her. Her heart raced, and her insides felt as quivery as an aspic. She felt like the heroine of a sensation novel rather than the sensible spinster she knew herself to be.
When it came to appearance, the man was faultless, and she was quite certain he met her second requirement as well. She wanted a lover who knew how to please a woman, and this stranger, with his easy charm and gentlemanly comportment, was clearly comfortable with the opposite sex. He exuded a natural, virile confidence that she hoped extended to the bedchamber.
Bea had one final requirement, one that was rather self-indulgent. Yet even disfigured old maids had standards, and she wanted her first, and perhaps only, time to be with someone with a modicum of intelligence: a man with the ability to see beneath the surface. Not of her mask, of course—which she would never remove for she knew that would only open the door to pain and rejection—but to the heart of her.
The living, breathing woman who lived behind the beastly scar.
To that end, she’d devised a simple test.
She didn’t think the challenge was difficult, yet not a single man thus far had succeeded in guessing what she was dressed as. The bastard she’d dispatched with the pistol, for instance, had thought that she was a black cat. Had his eye patch prevented him from noticing her lack of a tail, pointy ears, and whiskers? Sadly, his deduction was better than the other guesses she’d received, which had included a raven (one that was wingless and featherless?), a black sheep (without wool?), and a leopard (don’t even get her started).
In a fit of desperation, she’d ignored her instincts, coming with the piratical cad to the study. When he’d started pawing at her, telling her that he couldn’t wait to drop his “anchor” in her “wet harbor,” she’d known she couldn’t go through with her plan. Not with him.
She was desperate not deranged.
He hadn’t liked being told no. Luckily, she’d come equipped with another deterrent. Not one for self-delusion, she was fully aware that her behavior tonight was risky: she would not add lack of preparation to her sins.
The Adonis before her let out a slow breath…an exhalation that suggested that he’d come to an internal decision. Was it her fanciful imagination, or was that interest flickering in his heavy-lidded eyes? The wobbly feeling spread from her center to her limbs.
“Pardon me if I seem slow-witted,” he said. “Are you implying that if I correctly guess your costume, you wish to…go to bed with me?”
“I’m not implying it, sir.” She frowned, some of her giddiness fading. Had she overestimated his intelligence? “I am stating it quite clearly.”
“But I do not even know your name.”
“Anonymity is no barrier to bed sport. Indeed, it enhances discretion.”
“Indeed.” His brows inched upward. “Done this before, have you?”
She hadn’t, not even close. Yet to achieve her goal for the eve, she had to play the part of a woman of experience. One who knew what she was about and what she wanted from a lover, which Bea did…in theory, at least.
Intellectually, she understood the difference between love and sexual pleasure. The scar had done her a favor by tearing away the curtain of modesty that shielded maidens and, frankly, set them up for disappointment. She saw the truth of things: love was an ephemeral emotion, one that could not be trusted. To yield one’s heart and happiness to another was an act of ultimate folly. The pain of losing Croydon had taught her that lesson, as had watching her parents’ blissful union crumble before her eyes.
Sexual pleasure, on the other hand, was more akin to an appetite. Like hunger or thirst. If Bea was honest—and she made it a habit not to lie to herself—she’d had cravings of a carnal nature for years, since her first kiss. While her dreams of love had turned to ashes, her needs still remained.
Tonight would allow her to finally satisfy her curiosity. As long as she was clear in her mind that this rendezvous was a physical thing only, with no expectation of anything more, no harm would come of it. All she needed to do was stay in control of the situation and her emotions, two things she’d learned to do very well.
She ran her finger along the edge of the desk, making the movement casual. “I prefer to be direct in all matters, sir. I am not looking for entanglements, merely an evening of pleasure. If that offends you—”
“Only a madman would be offended to be approached by a beautiful lady. Last time I checked, I’m not a candidate for Bedlam.” His smile managed to be both boyish and sensual. “Although, come to think of it, that is probably what a Bedlamite would say.”
“You seem in full possession of your faculties.”
“Now that I’ve lured you into complacency,” he said with a wink, “may I take a closer look at your costume?”
Here’s your chance. Take it.
Screwing her courage to the sticking place, she left the safety of the desk and went to the door, locking it with a decisive click. If this was going where she hoped it would, she wanted no interruptions. She rejoined the stranger, who was now regarding her with a bemused expression. Waving a hand at her gown, she indicated that he should look his fill.
He circled her without haste. His scrutiny was masculine and courteous. His gaze had a startling effect on her: it felt like a physical touch, a caress that caused her blood to rush in her veins, goose pimples prickling her skin.
When he reached the back of her, she twisted her head to see his reaction. The few men who’d bothered to look at the back of her dress hadn’t spent much time doing so, seeing naught of interest in the folds of plain black silk. Would this stranger be different?
She held her breath as he raised a large hand, stretching it toward her right shoulder blade. Anticipation danced along her spine. His fingers paused a hair’s breadth away from her.
“May I?” he asked.
That he’d asked permission caused something warm to tumble inside her.
“Please do,” she said softly.
Even as she strove to sound self-assured, her lungs pulled for air, fighting against the constriction of her stays as his fingertips grazed her bare shoulder. It was the briefest of touches, yet it conveyed many things about the man. The gentleness of his strength. His knowledge of a woman’s pleasure… and his enjoyment of it.
His fingers trailed lower, her pulse beating a rapid cadence as he unerringly sought out the line of camouflaged fasteners. His touch was as expert as her maid Lisette’s, freeing the tiny ebony buttons from their black silk loops.
He pulled out the hidden panel of silk. In the candlelight, the orange and white-spotted pattern had an otherworldly sheen, deepening her sense that something magical was unfolding.
“A butterfly,” he said in husky tones. “Red Admiral, I believe?”
“You know butterflies, sir?” she asked in disbelief.
“I know beauty.” He released the panel on the other side. Finding the silken loops at the tip of each wing, he attached them to the buttons located beneath the pleats at her shoulders. The rasp of his fingertips sent shivers over her as he spread her wings…literally.
“And the metamorphosis is complete,” he murmured.
He sees what no one else does. Her heart bumped against her ribs. He’s the most handsome man you’re likely to meet, and he’ll undoubtedly be a fine lover. Don’t turn lily-livered now.
Spinning to face him, she blurted, “Would you care to have relations with me?”
His smile faded, his gaze turning intent. “You are certain this is what you want?”
“I wouldn’t ask otherwise. If you are not interested, however, then just say so.” Hearing the defensive edge to her reply, she cringed inwardly.
After all these years, the memories of rejection still haunted her. How her so-called friends had turned their backs on her. How the veneer of acceptance had worn off, revealing society’s malicious core. The fake sympathy had been the worst of all.
It’s such a shame that Lady Beatrice has turned into Lady Beastly.
She shut out the mocking voices. Reminded herself that the man she was dealing with hadn’t seen her scar. If he rejected her offer, it wasn’t because he found her revolting.
Besides, he had every right to decide with whom he chose to spend the evening. His behavior had shown him to be a gentleman; perhaps he was only here with her now because he felt honor-bound to stay after she’d nearly been assaulted by the ruffian.
Her insides knotted at the thought. The last seven years had taken much from her, but she still had her pride. Sometimes it felt like the only thing she had left.
She leveled her shoulders. “Sir, you are under no obligation—”
Her next words were lost in the breath that whooshed from her lips. Shocked, she registered that he’d swept her into his arms and was carrying her to the desk. Setting her on the hard surface, he ran his arm over the blotter, sending its contents thumping onto the rug with thrilling imperiousness.
He moved to stand between her legs. Trembling at the feel of his hard thighs edging hers apart, she stared up at him. At his lazy, sensual, devastating smile.
“You could never be an obligation.” His thumb traced her bottom lip, causing the tips of her breasts to tighten beneath her bodice. “You fall under a different category completely.”
“What category is that?” she managed.
“You, angel, are a fantasy.”
He bent his head. At the first touch of his lips, firm and velvety soft, a swoony feeling swept over her. His kiss was like the rest of him: male and masterful, designed to please a woman.
He was better than a fantasy. Better than anything she could have imagined. And he was hers for the night.Return to The Duke Redemption