Authors: Jayne Fresina
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
Copyright © 2013 by Jayne Fresina
Cover and internal design © 2013 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Alan Ayers
Cover image © Aleksandra Smirnova/Fotolia
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Brighton, June 1822
He didn’t see her at first. Staggering through an arch in the tall privet hedge, confident he’d finally located an exit, James Hartley found himself trapped instead at the very center of a moonlit maze—a vexatious piece of trickery through which he’d stumbled haplessly for the past half hour. At this rate he’d never find his way out. Cursing loudly, he reclaimed his hat from the prickly hedge, struggled to reorganize his brandy-soaked brain, and focused his fuzzy gaze.
Thus, the ice queen appeared.
On a stone bench, flanked by neatly trimmed topiaries, sat a woman clad from head to toe in white and silver. She was so ghostlike and luminous under the bright summer moon that he toppled sideways in surprise, once again ensnared on the hedge by buttonholes, cuffs, and any other part of him with a convenient notch.
While he fought the grasping tendrils of the privet for a second time, the woman turned her head to calmly observe all the fuss, and he saw she wore a black eye mask. Her smile was begrudging, her head bent in slight acknowledgment of his presence. Anyone would think she was the real Marie Antoinette, not just a woman costumed as the ill-fated French queen.
James had left the masquerade ball for fresh air and escape—particularly from women—but he couldn’t very well turn away without a polite word. Not now she’d seen him. Besides, there was something about the way she sat, very calm and still, that suggested she wouldn’t trap him in conversation. In fact, she’d turned her back again now, dismissing James as someone of no interest.
Well, good. Most people expected him to be full of charm twenty-four hours a day, and it was a terrible burden. As Grieves, his valet, had dryly observed, this was the dark side to being an Infamous Rake—the valet’s description, not his. But James was not in the mood tonight to chat and flirt with her. Whoever she was.
He straightened up, brushed himself down with his hat, and looked at her again.
She still paid him no attention.
Was there something wrong with her? Perhaps she was ill. Women, generally, did not ignore James Hartley.
With one hand to his mouth, he cleared his throat loudly. Still nothing.
Perfect, because the last thing he wanted was to entertain a strange woman and cheer her out of a bad mood or tears or a headache. He’d tolerated enough sobbing females exclaiming over the great love they had for some other man, while smearing their tears, their confessions, and their runny noses all over his shoulder. Lately, for some reason, James had gone from being the problem itself to being the one with whom they shared their problems. Then, once they’d had reassurance from him, they ran off with another fellow. When James recently complained to Grieves about becoming a combination confessional and advising father to these young women, the valet had remarked, “This is what happens, sir, to aging rakes. Women begin to view them as harmless and one of their own.”
It was a thought so distressing he didn’t leave his house for two days.
The woman on the bench kept her rigid pose, back turned to him. If she was ill, she may need his assistance.
On the other hand, perhaps she’d left the overcrowded ball for reasons similar to his, in which case she was probably annoyed to have uninvited company. Yet whatever she felt about his clumsy arrival, she stayed. No doubt she was hoping
leave. Ignore him, and he’d go away. Was that her plan?
Hmm. Rather discourteous of her.
Had she been expecting another man to appear under that arch? Glancing back at the darkness through which he’d stumbled, James thought he saw a shape withdraw, slowly absorbed by the denser shadow. A subtle movement rustled the leaves of the privet, no more than a passing rabbit might. Someone up to no good. So the ice queen had a secret assignation planned. Ha! She’d simply have to forget about it, because he was not going back through that maze to be lost again, solely for her convenience. He had as much right to be there as she did, and James needed that bench. He’d drunk a great deal of brandy, and fresh air multiplied the less pleasant effects. All he wanted was to sit, before his legs crumpled.
He approached to introduce himself and abruptly reconsidered. Dressed as a highwayman from the previous century and wearing a leather eye mask, he could be anyone. As could she. There was much to be said for anonymity.
He swayed forward in a teetering bow. “May I join you, madam?”
Her lips parted, exhaling a small, weary sigh. “I don’t own the maze. Or the bench.”
The voice sounded faintly familiar, as did the tone of delivery, but he could not ponder it for long. If he didn’t sit down immediately, he’d fall down.
“I’ll take that as a
then,” he muttered.
She tipped her head back to look up at him, and moonlight gleamed on her tall, white-blonde wig. Tiny jet beads around her mask shimmered like the stars overhead. “I can’t stop you, can I?”
“No.” He tripped forward, knocking his knee on the edge of the stone bench and almost falling into the prim little topiary at one end of it. The sullen creature did not shift over to make room and instead claimed the center of the bench, her ridiculous panniers spread out on either side. To sit, he had to push her frills and the rigid underframe aside with his thigh. Blinking hard, he dizzily examined the side of her semimasked face. “Marie Antoinette,” he growled.
“Indeed.” Her gaze was fixed on a point of some distance. “And you must be Dick Turpin.”
“Honored.” He put out his hand, but she ignored it, and eventually he used it to scratch his chin. Damn. He hadn’t shaved today. Just his luck to meet a pretty woman, alone, under the moon, and look like an unshaven ass. Unfortunately, Grieves had gone off visiting relatives for a few weeks, and James was in Brighton alone for an impromptu visit. Things had a tendency to go awry without his capable valet to keep them in order. He should never have given his man an entire fortnight holiday, but Grieves could be the most enormous sulk if he didn’t get his own way.
“Must you breathe all over me?” the woman exclaimed.
He hiccupped. “You could leave, madam.”
“I was here first.”
True. In his pickled state, he was actually glad of her closeness to keep him upright. If she suddenly left the bench, he suspected he might, in fact, tumble over. He tried folding his arms but abandoned the idea after a few attempts.
She gave another sigh. “Isn’t the sky beautiful tonight?”
Aware that looking upward could send him to the grass, flat on his back, he merely agreed with her, his gaze pinned to her cheek.
“I wonder how many stars there are,” she added.
“Millions. Even more we can’t see with the human eye.” He wondered again why she hadn’t got up and left. Most women would, considering his improper proximity. “Were you waiting for someone, madam?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact.” She finally turned her head and looked at him. “I’d promised myself that the next man who came through that arch would be the man I married. Whoever and whatever he was. I’m being hounded into it, you see, and I’m afraid I’m rather tired of men in general, so I decided to take my chances. Why not? Marriage is all about taking a gamble, isn’t it? I’ve done plenty of that.”
He frowned hard, trying to focus. She didn’t blink. Her eyes, half in shadow, peered at him through the holes in her mask.
Before he could reply, she added, “And then
stumbled into view.” An odd, halting laugh interrupted her last word. She shook her head, the pearls dangling from her ears, spinning and dancing. That laughter sounded familiar too, but he just couldn’t get his thoughts to behave in any sensible pattern. They were all over the place, weaving about like his body on that small bench.
” Did she know him?
If she did, she covered the slip. “A soused highwayman. How terribly appropriate.” Once more she turned her face up to the glistening, star-dimpled sky. “All those little lights up there, and the one that falls to earth for me is you. Oh, the absurdity!”
Bracing his shoulders, he made a concerted effort to sit upright without leaning on her. “I could be quite a catch, madam. I could be a most eligible bachelor.”
“A great many people are mistaken about me.” He watched her lips bend in a little smile. “They make aslumptions.”
Wait a minute. That didn’t sound right, but he had to explain it to her somehow. It was most important that he get his point across and make her look beyond what folk usually saw. Why it was so necessary for a stranger to know the truth, he really couldn’t say. Perhaps it was her smug face and those softly pouting—rather lovely—lips.
“Yes. Yes.” He waved his hand impatiently then grabbed her ruffled lace sleeve for balance. “They get it all wrong.”
“Do they?” She sounded amused as she watched his fingers abuse her dainty lace.
James drew his stomach in, chest pushed out. “One day they’ll eat their words.”
She wasn’t listening. Women did that superior thing with their mouths when they were certain of being right, and nothing could convince them otherwise. “Yes, they damn well will. You’ll see. I’ll find my way, my purpose.”
She shot him a bemused look through the holes in her black silk mask. “Aren’t you a little old to still be seeking a purpose?”
“Aren’t you a little old to still be looking for a husband?” Not that he knew her age. He was guessing, of course. From her confident attitude, he’d say late twenties at least. Definitely no blushing, giggling debutante. And there was her own confession of being “tired” of men, which suggested she’d been around the social circuit long enough to acquire a weary distaste for it. Much as he had.
Who the devil was she?
Her lips were pursed very tight now, as if she thought he’d insulted her by alluding to her age, but he’d meant only to shoot her own arrow back at her. It was rather unsporting of her to take offense. Like most women, she didn’t play fair.
“I don’t really want a husband,” she said. “If I wanted one, I could have had one by now.”
She had a heart-shaped face with a very determined chin. Her lips reminded him of sweet, fancy little sugar cakes served on fine china and handed around by silent butlers at very exclusive hotel teas. Delicate confections he would get a slap ’round the cheek for swallowing three at a time when his grandmother caught him in the act.
The ice queen’s neck was slender and long, accentuated by that ridiculously tall wig. She most definitely had all her parts in their place, he thought, slowly admiring every inch of her swanlike neck and the jutting swell of bosom below it. Hoisted inward and upward by a tight corset, her shapely flesh was almost bursting out of its lace.
A moment ago he’d been running away from women
conversation. In just a few short minutes he’d changed his mind about both. Could be the drink, he reasoned. Things often seemed most awe inspiring when under the influence of brandy.
So, if she didn’t really want a husband…
“Then what do you want?”
“Isn’t it strange no one has ever asked me that before?” She looked down at her lap. “You’ll laugh.”
“I most certainly will not.” He slammed a hand to his heart, hiccupping again. Inwardly he cursed himself for prompting her to tell. Now he’d hear all about a man who wouldn’t or couldn’t marry her. Or some such nonsense. And he’d listen patiently then reassure her that the fool didn’t know what a mistake he’d made. Finally, after spilling a few tears and borrowing his kerchief, or his sleeve, she’d run off back to the ball.
Why couldn’t he have told her he didn’t care about her problems? No. He had to open his stupid mouth and ask, didn’t he?
Softly she said, “I want a little room filled with books. There should be a fireplace and an old dog sleeping in a basket beside it. A few comfortable chairs with lots of pillows. All of it overlooking a pretty garden. A little place of my own, where no one ever bothers me. That’s all.”
The pearls hanging from her ears were still now, her words forced out as if shy to be heard. Moonlight touched the smooth orbs of her bosom above the bodice of that elaborate ball gown, and James wistfully followed the rapid lift and fall with his woozy gaze.
“Is that too much to ask?” she added.
He hastily quelled another hiccup. “No. Not at all. Not at all.” That was all she wanted? He’d give her a house full of such rooms, he mused. Anything she wanted. “It seems you’d be a vast deal more economical to keep than most women I know.”
“Do you mock me, sir?”
“No!” he replied, wounded.
“Kindly stop staring at my bosom.”
He felt his face heat up. It was unusual for James Hartley to be flustered by a woman, and he didn’t like the sensation. “You chose to wear that style gown, I assumed you wanted them to be looked at.”
Expecting a slapped face, he was surprised when she laughed. It was a delightful, smoky sound, deep and more than a trifle lusty. He didn’t know any women who laughed like that, unguarded and naughty. Or did he? He squinted hard at her lips, trying again to think coherently.
“I suppose you’re right,” she conceded eventually, her eyes two warm beacons of reflected starlight through her mask. “I wouldn’t have dressed this way if I didn’t want to be noticed.” Again he sensed she would never normally admit this. Because they were both hiding behind masks, it was permissible to speak with honesty.
“And you wanted to be admired,” he pressed.
“And…yes”—she inclined her head—“I wanted to be admired.”
Leaning closer, he crushed her silk skirt with his thigh. “What’s your dog’s name?”
“Old fellow. In the basket. By the fire.”
“Oh.” She flushed prettily under the edges of her mask, and he got the sense she was surprised he’d paid attention. It ruffled her proud feathers to be proven wrong about him. “I haven’t got one yet.”
“I haven’t got a home to keep him in.”
He frowned, grasping her lacy sleeve tighter in his fist. “Where do you live then?”