Chapter 1

 

Thorncliff Manor, 1820

A gentle breeze stirred the air, carrying with it the smooth murmur of violins as Richard gazed out over the terrace of Thorncliff Manor. The grand estate and guesthouse where his parents and siblings had chosen to spend the summer while their own home was being renovated, sat solidly at his back—a welcome retreat for those who were wealthy enough to afford it. Standing to one side, Richard watched the guests, their gemstones scattering the torchlight while feathers bowed and swayed.

Although they wore masks, he was able to recognize a few of those present. Certainly, he had seen many of them from his bedroom window since arriving at Thorncliff a few weeks earlier. But there were those whose acquaintance he’d never had the pleasure of, like the young ladies who’d made their debuts since 1815—a year he would not soon forget. In any event, it was a long time since he’d spoken to any of these people. Some, he reflected, had been friends once . . . His heart beat slowly, dulled by the lead that now flowed through his veins.

It was briefly forgotten when a gentle voice spoke at his shoulder. “Your company is much appreciated this evening, Mr. Heartly.”

Turning his head, Richard glanced down at his hostess, the incomparable Lady Duncaster. “After all . . .” His words faltered—no doubt from lack of usage. Inhaling deeply, he took a moment to compose himself before trying again, more slowly this time. “After all the effort you have gone to on my behalf, it would have been rude of me to stay away.” Rigidly, he glanced in her direction, his nails digging against the palms of his hands as he clenched his fists. There was more to be said. “I . . .”

“Yes?” she queried.

“Please don’t use my real name, Countess. Tonight I am Signor Antonio.”

“Of course.” Her eyes gleamed with the mystery of a shared secret. “As to all the effort you mentioned, your presence here after so many years of absence has made it all worthwhile.” A wry smile appeared beneath the edge of her over-embellished mask. “Besides, I have always wondered what it might be like to restore the masquerade ball to its former glory.”

Dipping his head, Richard acknowledged her comment, the gesture encouraging her to continue.

“In my youth, my husband and I experienced a traditional one in Venice—before the Venetian Republic fell. . . . Masquerades have since become popular in other parts of Europe, though they generally lack the flamboyance that I initially fell in love with.” She shook her head somewhat wistfully, then straightened herself and earnestly asked, “What do you think, Signor? Is it grand enough?”

In Richard’s opinion the extravagance was overwhelming, but since he knew this was probably the effect Lady Duncaster was aiming for, he said, “I think you have outdone all other masquerades, my lady. I am certainly impressed.”

Chuckling, Lady Duncaster slapped his arm playfully with her fan. “You are quite the charmer. Do you know that?”

“It is accidental, I can assure you,” he told her dryly, belatedly realizing that he probably should have thanked her for the compliment.

She tsked in response. “I sincerely doubt that.” Taking him by the arm, she guided him slowly along the periphery of the terrace while the orchestra on the opposite side struck up a new tune. In no time at all, the center of the terrace had been occupied by guests who wished to participate in a country dance, their theatrical garments a testament to originality rather than taste. “I know your parents, Signor, and I very much doubt that your mother would have raised a son capable of being anything but a perfect gentleman.”

Richard grunted disagreement. “I have lived a solitary life these past five years,” he said slowly. “My brother and secretary have been my only contacts to the outside world since my return.”

“Which is why I am so honored to have the pleasure of your company. Truly, it is greatly appreciated.”

“Even if I am not as polished as I once was?”

Her mouth tilted a little. “You are just a little rusty.” She patted his arm with her gloved hand. “It will come back to you soon enough.”

He wasn’t so certain. “I feel as though I no longer belong.”

“Nonsense. But if we can find your brother then perhaps you will feel more yourself. Hmm?” She looked around.

“I must confess that he is unaware of my attendance this evening.” When she turned to him, eyes wide in question, he said, “I should like to keep it that way.”

“May I ask why?”

Breaths came and went in slow succession before he settled on the right words. “The last thing I want is for him to get the wrong idea—to presume that I have come for the purpose of socializing or, God forbid, dancing.”

Her eyebrows rose in two sharp points. “Dancing is not so bad and neither is socializing.”

“I am only here because of your insistence. As Grandmamma’s dearest friend, it would be difficult for me to deny you. Which is not to say that I am unhappy that I came.”

“She would be proud of you, if she were still alive.”

“I hope so,” he muttered. “You have offered me a refreshing change, but I am afraid that dancing and socializing would serve no purpose.”

“I suppose that explains why you have not asked me to dance,” Lady Duncaster said as they moved toward a shadowy corner where a stone bench stood vacant.

“You see! My manners have completely deserted me.” He waited for Lady Duncaster to sit before lowering himself onto the empty spot beside her. “Perhaps a minuet would not be too appalling, if I can still recall the steps, mind you.”

“Forgive me, but was that an invitation?” In spite of her advanced years, it was impossible to deny that she had spirit.

Richard grimaced. “Lady Duncaster, would you please do me the honor of dancing the minuet with me?” As much as he dreaded it, he owed her the courtesy of asking.

“I would be delighted to,” she said, looking pleased. “See, that was not so difficult, was it? But if you step on my toes I shall slap you.”

Although Richard feared that she might have to follow through on that threat, her words eased his tension. “In public? Surely not!”

“I find that the older I get, the less I care about protocol, or the opinion of others, for that matter.”

“Then we are of like minds, my lady.”

Lady Duncaster snorted. “My dear boy, you are entirely mistaken! If you were really as indifferent as I, then you would not feel inclined to hide away as you do. That said, however, I must compliment you on your choice of costume. The complete concealment of your face beneath your Bauta mask and tricorn does add a distinct air of mystery to you.”

“I am not the only one here who has chosen to dress in traditional style,” he said as he watched a couple strolling in their direction. Both wore full masks with silver lips and eye-slits outlined in blue. Just like Richard, their hair and necks had been covered by tightly fitted silk hoods, revealing not an inch of skin and making it impossible to discern their identities.

“True,” Lady Duncaster agreed, “but unlike everyone else here this evening, there is a certain darkness about you that I am sure the ladies will find compelling.”

“I have no interest in attracting any woman’s attention.” The evening black had been a given. He could not imagine himself in anything else. And the mask . . . well, he had his reasons for that as well. “I am not a coward,” he told her gruffly. “I am just not ready for all the attention my return to Society will likely incur.” She nodded in understanding, but said nothing further. He was grateful for that.

And as silence settled between them, he allowed his gaze to sweep across the terrace in silent observation until it finally found one singular lady who stood like a beacon in the night due to her lack of embellishments. “Who is that?” Richard murmured close to Lady Duncaster’s ear.

“Who is who?” she asked, searching the crowd.

“The lady standing next to the potted rose tree.” She was turned sideways, offering Richard a view of only her profile as she spoke to an older woman.

“Considering the number of potted rose tress on this terrace, you will have to be more specific.”

“Of course,” Richard said, surprised that he hadn’t noticed. “I am referring to the lady in the . . .”—he struggled for an apt description—“whitish gown with gold along the bottom.” It was a very plain gown, he noted, not as puffy as the rest. It had no frills or lace, but was cut in a simple style that hugged the torso before flaring out below the hips. It reminded Richard of something that might have been worn by a medieval queen. Rebelliously, the lady had even chosen to wear her hair down, resulting in a tumbling mass of dark brown curls that almost reached her waist.

“I see what you mean,” Lady Duncaster said. “There is an elegance about her that surely would be lost if her gown had been outfitted with beads, feathers, and lace.”

“She would have looked just like the rest,” Richard said as the lady who’d captured his interest turned to look in his direction. The upper half of her face, including the bridge of her nose, were completely concealed by a Colombina mask that matched her gown. Even so, Richard found himself helplessly drawn to the sharp look in her eyes. And her lips . . . they were the sort of lips that a man like him—a man who’d spent five years without female companionship—would be sorely tempted to kiss. Clenching his jaw, he expelled a slow and tortured breath.

“Perhaps you should ask her to dance,” Lady Duncaster suggested.

Without thinking, Richard stood, then sat back down again when he recalled that a gentleman did not stand while a lady remained seated. “Perhaps not,” he said, chancing another glance in the lady’s direction. To dance with her would do nothing but torment him. She would never be his. It was best if he remembered that.

Lady Duncaster shrugged. “I think you may be sorry if you do not,” she said. “Take it from a woman who never held back, but who always lived her life to the fullest—there is nothing worse than growing old with regret.”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Richard tried not to think of all the things that could never be changed. “Unfortunately, it does not seem as though I will have much choice in that regard.” It was impossible to keep the bitterness he felt from seeping into the words.

“If you say so.” She was silent for a moment before saying, “You are not the only one faced with obstacles, you know. In my experience, when it comes to romance, there are plenty of things that can get in the way of that happily-ever-after, which is why it is only the most determined who ever secure a love-match. That said, I do believe it is time for that minuet you promised me. Shall we proceed?”

Reluctantly, Richard nodded. “By all means.”

Lady Duncaster’s insightful words had thrown him slightly off balance. His expectations of ever sharing a future with a wife and children had been dashed long ago. He’d come to terms with that, even if he wasn’t happy about it. In fact, he was still bloody furious and very much aware that there was little chance of altering his fate, though he still sought retribution. Indeed, he doubted that there was anything on earth that could make him stop his vendetta. It had become an obsession over the years—a living creature whose hunger he hoped to one day satisfy. He could not afford any distraction, least of all when it would serve no purpose.

And yet, in the space of only a moment, an eccentric old lady with a towering wig perched precariously on top of her head and dressed in a gown that looked more like a bouquet of flowers than something one might actually wear, had forced a tiny piece of hope upon his mind. It made him wish that he had the courage to do as Lady Duncaster suggested and seek out the mystery lady, perhaps ask her to dance. But it was a fanciful thought—a dream that he deliberately allowed to fade.

“I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed your company, Signor,” Lady Duncaster said as Richard led her away from the dance floor a short while later. “And you danced superbly, by the way.”

“You are too kind.” Nothing could be truer. He’d counted five missteps in total, though not on her ladyship’s toes, for which he was grateful.

“Not at all. In fact, I am quite sure that you have drawn attention to yourself.”

Following Lady Duncaster’s line of vision, Richard spotted a group of young ladies who appeared to be whispering behind their fans while looking his way. As soon as they noted his quiet perusal, they burst into unified giggles and batted their eyes flirtatiously.

“A lesser man might take advantage,” he told Lady Duncaster disapprovingly.

“Which is why I have every intention of finding their parents and having a word with them before their daughters get themselves ruined.” Leaning closer to Richard, she whispered, “I may not be as strict or judgmental as most, but I will not stand for naiveté either. Will you excuse me?”

“Of course,” he said, bowing low before her. He did not grant the giggling young ladies a second glance as he walked away, his eyes searching for the only lady who’d captured his interest. Perhaps she’d gone back inside? Pausing, he looked toward the French doors and the blazing light that filled the great hall beyond. It didn’t tempt him in the least, and he decided therefore that he would seek refuge amidst the shadows of the garden instead.

Crossing to the stairs, he snatched a glass of champagne from a nearby footman. Tossing back the drink, he discarded the glass and descended to the graveled path below, his long cape swirling out behind him as he went. There were plenty of revelers here as well, some strolling amidst the flickering lights of torches while others were seated on blankets spread out on the lawn. Some were even enjoying boat rides on the lake while violinists along the lakeside filled the air with music matching the tune being played on the terrace.

Stepping down from the bottom step, Richard breathed in the rich scent of jasmine permeating the air. He was just about to start forward when a lady wearing a purple gown stepped in front of him, blocking his path. Dipping into a slight curtsey, she offered him a broad smile. “My lord,” she said, by way of greeting.

He didn’t bother to correct her error. “Please excuse me,” he said instead, hoping she’d move aside and allow him to pass. Although she was older than when he’d last seen her, he’d immediately recognized her as his younger sister, Fiona. Not even her domino mask made him doubt her identity as she stood before him now, reminding him of the sprite who’d tugged at his coat tails when she was little, her hands often sticky from jam as she’d done so. He allowed a sentimental smile—one that he knew she could not see.

“Will you not offer to dance with me?” she asked.

For a second, he considered it. Indeed, his heart ached for her embrace. And yet, he could not allow himself to be tempted. She’d only want more than what he was willing to offer, as would the rest of his sisters, not to mention his mother. In all likelihood, revealing himself to Fiona would only serve to reignite the crying and begging that had taken place beyond his bedroom door when he’d refused to see them after his return from France. Gradually, their voices had faded into silence, though Richard could still hear the awful sound within the confines of his mind. He did not think that he’d be able to bear having to witness their pain again, as would likely be the case if Fiona discovered his attendance this evening.

“Not at present,” he murmured.

For a moment, she looked a little stunned, but then she straightened herself, pressed her lips together and stepped past him. Without another word, she disappeared quietly up the stairs. Turning, Richard watched her until she was out of sight. Again he smiled, pleased by the cut she’d given him in response to his rudeness and comforted by the knowledge that she had grown into the sort of lady who demanded respect.

Taking a moment to assess his surroundings, Richard walked toward the lake where the Endurance—a large frigate that confirmed Lady Duncaster’s fondness for the unusual—provided tables and chairs for the supper that would take place later.

Arriving at the lakeside, he watched as a couple moved hastily toward a copse of trees on the right, disappearing completely between the shadows. He wasn’t surprised. Masquerades were after all designed to cause mischief, which was why so many people disapproved of them even as they couldn’t help but be intrigued.

Turning left, he approached the violinist standing furthest away, his music swirling like stardust through the air. It carried Richard forward, all thought of revenge momentarily forgotten as the notes coursed through him, soothing his soul and calming his heart.

It wasn’t until he’d come within ten paces of the musician that Richard realized that he wasn’t alone. Seated on a stone bench that stood slightly concealed by a neatly trimmed hedge, was the lady he’d seen earlier on the terrace. Instinctively, he froze, his progress halted by the vision she presented. Her eyes were closed behind her mask while a smile of pure pleasure graced her lovely lips. By God, she was stunning, and it was all Richard could do not to fall on his knees before her like a subservient knight to her medieval maiden.

Instead, he studied the delicate curve of her neck and the vast expanse of pale skin below. Sucking in a breath, he forced himself not to stare or to wonder what it might be like to hold her against him . . . to lay her bare and to . . . He blinked, aware that his heart was thumping loudly against his chest. It couldn’t be helped. She was perfect in every way—curved in just the right places. Christ! His abstinence was clearly trying to knock the gentleman right out of him in favor of welcoming a scoundrel.

He glanced toward the lake, momentarily wondering if he ought to jump in it. Probably, though the idea of getting wet did not appeal. Of course, he could simply walk away. But he did neither. Instead, he ignored what he should do in favor of what he wanted to do, and took a step forward, the gravel crunching lightly beneath his feet as he did so.

The lady opened her eyes, her lips parting slightly in surprise as she ran her gaze over him. Their eyes met, and as they did so, Richard felt some invisible part of him reach out toward her. “My apologies,” he said, the words tripping over each other so hastily that he had to make a deliberate effort to slow them. “I did not mean to—”

Placing her finger against her lips, she urged him into silence, and for a moment, they just stared at each other while the music swirled around them, rising and falling in easy tones. When she patted the seat beside her and gestured for him to join her, he did not hesitate for a second, but neither did he speak. Instead, he gave himself up to the pleasure of sharing this wondrous moment with a perfect stranger while moonlight spilled across the water and stars winked at them from above. Astonishingly, it did not feel awkward in any way, but rather comfortable and . . . right.

Not until the violinist ceased playing, did Richard turn toward his companion. He had no idea of how much time had passed. “Thank you for letting me join you,” he said, his words sticking together like rubber. Curling his hand around the edge of the bench, he swore a silent oath. Surely he could do better than this!

She turned to look at him, her eyes meeting his once more. They were just as sharp as they’d been earlier, but he noted now that they were also vibrant and kind. “I was not expecting company, but it does please me to know that I am not the only one enjoying the music this evening. It is impossible to listen to it properly on the terrace though. That is why I came down here, so that I could pay proper attention to it.”

Nodding, he tried to think of a good response. “I am sure Vivaldi would be pleased if he were still alive and present.” Dipping her chin, she encouraged him to continue. “As for me, I completely understand your reasoning. Music ought to be savored and listened to rather than heard.” Much better.

“Precisely.” The word was softly spoken and contained a hint of curiosity, or perhaps even suspicion. “Is that why you came down here as well?”

“Not exactly,” he said. “I simply wished to be alone.”

Her eyes widened. “Then you must forgive me. I did not mean to impose.” She started to rise.

“No.” The word punctured the air between them, halting her just as he’d intended. “Stay,” he told her softly and with a nod toward the bench. She lowered herself back down. “If anything, I should be the one to leave. You were here first.”

“I know, but perhaps you are in greater need of this bench than I.”

The way in which she spoke, with a degree of consideration he’d rarely encountered before, set her apart from any other lady he’d ever met. “Who are you?” he asked.

Her lips curved to form a partial smile. “I thought the whole idea behind a masquerade was to remain anonymous.”

“Fair enough.” He considered her a moment. “But I would like to ensure that you are not married, affianced, or otherwise attached. Duels can be most inconvenient, you see, which is why I do my best to avoid them at all cost.”

A soft melodious laugh broke from between her lips. “You need not fear then, for I am not attached to any gentleman in any way, nor am I the sort of lady who inspires gentlemen to resort to such drastic measures.”

Her self-deprecation startled him. “Why would you say that?”

With a shrug, she turned her head away, offering him her profile as she stared out across the lake while wisps of hair toyed against her cheek. “I have always favored my own company, for it allows me the peace and quiet that my soul seems to crave. I am not a social creature, Sir, and as a result, I have never made much effort to be noticed.”

“You are a wallflower then?”

She scrunched her nose a little in response to that question. “Yes. I suppose I am.” Meeting his gaze again, she added, “I am also quite fond of books. In case you were wondering.”

He hadn’t been, but was glad that she’d chosen to share the information with him nonetheless. Wanting to cheer her, he said, “Then I am the most fortunate of men.”

“How so?” she asked when he hesitated.

“Well . . . not only have I noticed you before anyone else, but I am also certain that you will be able to speak with me on matters of greater consequence than most.” Seeing her eyes brighten, he decided to try a bit of banter. “Unless of course your preferred reading material happens to be romance, in which case I am entirely doomed.”

She laughed, just as he’d hoped. Good lord, it seemed like a lifetime since he’d last heard someone laugh. The sound spilled over him, brightening his spirit as it lifted away the darkness.

“I must confess that I have read all of Jane Austen’s books.”

He couldn’t help but frown. “Then you have probably acquired some high expectations-expectations that no mortal man can ever hope to live up to.”

“I am not so certain of that,” she told him seriously.

Unconvinced, he stared out across the lake, his mood no longer as light as it had been a moment earlier. “Romance novels have nothing to do with reality.”

She was silent a moment before saying, “Perhaps if you read some of these books yourself, you will find that the heroes win the heroines through virtuous acts like honesty, loyalty, common decency, and a healthy dose of insightfulness, none of which are beyond the reach of any man.”

“Point taken.” Shifting, he turned more fully toward her. “But you must not forget that in these novels the heroes always happen to be outrageously wealthy and . . . extremely handsome—a state of being which certainly is beyond the reach of most men.”

“Aha! So you have read Miss Austen’s books! Admit it!” She punctuated her words by jabbing him playfully in the chest with her finger.

A shock of heat darted through him. Unprepared for it, he instinctively stiffened; astounded by the effect that simple touch had had on him. What was it she had said? With difficulty, he put his muddled mind in order and, realizing that she was staring at him expectantly, said, “I suppose I might have stumbled upon a copy or two when I had nothing else with which to occupy myself.”

She smiled wryly. “Then you are probably also aware that much of the romance in these books is derived from the possibility that a woman of few means can—by proving her worth—attract the attentions of a notable gentleman. In turn, he allows his heart to lead him into marriage regardless of what Society might think of the matter. The stories are clearly based on Cendrillon, which of course is the perfect formula for any fairytale.”

He couldn’t help but be intrigued. “How so?”

She expelled a deep breath. “Because it suggests that the impossible can be attained if we are willing to fight for what we want, make the necessary sacrifices and simply believe . . .”

Her optimistic outlook was endearing, though he was not so sure that he agreed with it. “You do not consider it wrong for women—or even men—to suppose that the path to happiness is that simple? That there is a secret formula that, if followed, will result in a happily-ever-after?”

“Based on a few observations I have made, I have concluded that love matches are more possible than we allow ourselves to believe. Especially among the middle and lower classes where financial alliances are not so prevalent.”

“So what you are saying is that the less wealthy someone is, the more likely they are to marry for love?”

“It should not be the case, but I dare say that it is.” She fell silent for a moment as if pondering an idea. “Perhaps the greatest problem among our set is our expectation.”

Determined to keep an open mind, he tried to follow this hypothesis. “You think that marriages are doomed to fail before they even begin because couples enter into them with preconceived ideas?”

“Precisely,” she said, her eyes brimming with the awareness of mutual understanding. “Aristocrats are raised to believe that love is secondary to wealth, status, and a desirable title. They are taught that they will one day marry for the latter and that they will likely live separate, though comfortable, lives as a result.”

Richard considered this. He could clearly see the point she was making and found himself agreeing with her view. “Perhaps if they were not so biased from the start, then they would have a greater chance of finding common interests, resulting in more time spent together, which would inevitably lead to some measure of respect and perhaps even love.”

“At the very least they would probably be more happy than not.”

Impulsively, Richard reached for her gloved hand and enfolded it in his own, amazed by the sizzling energy spreading from that simple point of contact. “You must give me a name—some means by which to address you properly.”

A moment of silence passed between them before she said. “When I ordered my gown for this evening, I was inspired by a painting in my bedchamber. I believe it is meant to represent Eleanor of Aquitaine, so I suppose that you can call me Lady Eleanor, if you wish.”

“Then you may call me Signor Antonio,” he said, supplying her with the same name he’d given Lady Duncaster.

With a secretive smile upon her lips, she said, “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Signor.”

Raising her hand to his masked lips, he murmured, “Indeed, the pleasure is all mine.”

 

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