Lord Anonymous had seduced more women in Europe than a man of discretion would willingly admit. Although he had forgotten the dates of these affairs, he had fondly recorded his lovers’ names in a red morocco leather notebook that he kept under lock and key. He had done his best to leave each of his ladies with a happy ending.
But sometimes a man had to let go and conquer other challenges.
He had stolen the virtue of a French comtesse on her wedding day and helped her escape her cruel bridegroom an hour before she was to take her vows. He had made love to a German princess in the Black Forest and guarded her in a hut until the traitors who wanted her lovely head could be caught. There were trolls involved, as he recalled. He had killed every last one.
Still, depending on his mood, he might be considered not only an epic hero but a classic villain. Among his less gallant acts, he had once abducted an innocent lady and imprisoned her in his castle for seven months. He had set out to despoil her, and he had.
It was further recorded, in his own hand, that the lady had refused to be rescued when her brothers stormed the bailey.
She had been ruined for life, she proclaimed from the tower where this depravity had taken place. So enslaved was she by her unprincipled abductor that she ordered him to murder her siblings if they dared intervene again. She had no desire to be redeemed, and she would stab even her own brothers in the heart before she would give up the dark nobleman who had disgraced her.
Lord Anonymous could turn from valiant deed to bloodthirsty revenge in a heartbeat.
It was no wonder he had been accused of corrupting the populace.
Lord Philbert’s Literary Masquerade Ball
It was common knowledge in the beautiful world that Samuel Aubrey St. Aldwyn of Dartmoor, the fourth Duke of Gravenhurst, and ninth Baronet, was a radical young rake and champion of unpopular causes. Samuel realized that society considered him to be one of its most charismatic and controversial figures. He did his best to oblige. He was one of the first guests invited to an event. He was also usually the first asked to leave by nature of his declaring himself bored to death.
His appearance tonight at Lord Philbert’s masquerade party guaranteed that the other guests would go home well amused.
On this point both his friends and rivals agreed—the duke was a most entertaining man.
One could even say that he lived to entertain.
He spoke infrequently, and then only to a select few, but he always spoke his mind and cared little whether he shocked anyone.
Because he was young, dangerously beautiful, and as elusive as a dark angel, the duke got away with offenses that would have cast out another man. Still, society knew only the half of who Samuel was when he wasn’t in London. He hoped to keep it that way. He valued his private life, spending most of the year on his secluded Dartmoor estate, with people he completely trusted.
His impertinence infuriated certain members of the aristocracy and invigorated others who welcomed a breath of fresh air. But tonight, at least, he was among his own, other patrons of the arts and the artists grateful for their generosity.
The thought crossed his mind that he might find an intelligent mistress at an affair like this. He and his last lover had parted several months ago. The closest she had come to showing any interest in literature was to hurl a volume of Milton at the door when he announced he was leaving her.
It was exhausting trying to live up to his reputation. Excess drained the energy he could put to better use.
Dressed as his favorite literary character, Don Quixote, Samuel shrugged off the stares of recognition that followed his entrance. He paused only once in the hall, dented helmet, shield, and lance in hand, to bow before acknowledging any single person with his attention. Let the world think he was aloof. His breastplate was killing him. Cutting into his ribs like a butcher’s knife.
“Decent work this morning, Your Grace,” someone said, reminding him of the mock duel he had fought at dawn.
“Good show, Gravenhurst.”
Show. He smiled to himself. It was all show. To further his secret career. And to keep a promise to his host and partner in literary crimes, the London publisher Lord Aramis Philbert.
“You deserved to win,” a gentleman at the end of the line declared above the others. “How dare anyone challenge your decadence so early in the morning?”
“I’ll challenge it later tonight if His Grace is inclined,” a sultry voice said from the crowd.
His gaze cut through the glittering maze of guests to a lady languidly waving a fan hand-painted with a variety of improbable sexual poses.
“Madam,” he said, “I am an aristocrat, not an acrobat.”
At her startled laugh, he presented his usual devil-may-care grin to the crowd, retreating to the antechamber that Lord Philbert reserved for Samuel’s private use. In the past he might have engaged the lady in a tryst. But she didn’t seem worth the trouble of taking off his armor. He would never get it back on again for the rest of the party. Why did the literati perpetuate the myth that lust made fools of only the lower classes?
“Honest to God,” he muttered to the towering valet who handed him a bracing glass of burgundy the moment Samuel dropped into a chair. “One would think I had cured the world of cholera instead of challenging a friend to a drunken duel. It’s embarrassing, Wadsworth. Are you not embarrassed on my account? Loosen this body armor. I’m turning into a damned tortoise.”
The valet ventured a smile. “Sit forward, Your Grace, while I bend the wrench under your breastplate again. The only thing you have in common with a tortoise is your fondness for lettuce. There we go. Don Quixote can tilt again. The world does love a hero.”
Samuel snorted. “Even when that hero isn’t real? How many of the dearly deluded are here tonight?”
“Bickerstaff guessed at over three hundred, Your Grace.” Bickerstaff was Samuel’s butler. “Tickets were still being auctioned off at clubs around the city this afternoon.”
“I assume we bought a good share.”
“One hundred twenty at last count.”
Grinning, Samuel rubbed his cheekbone. “As long as it goes to a good cause. What is our current cause?”
“Legal counsel against the war loan hucksters, Your Grace. Would you like to read what the papers are saying about you now?”
“Why bother? I probably wrote it.”
The duke downed his wine, put his glass on the table, and stood. He took the battered shield that Wadsworth whisked from the corner and scowled at the reflection in the dented metal. “Whose idea was it for me to dress as Don Quixote for this affair?”
The valet polished the right corner of the shield with his coat sleeve. “I believe it was Marie-Elaine who suggested it, knowing how you enjoy playing the knight-errant.”
“Remind me in future that I am not to take a housemaid’s advice. And . . .” Samuel looked under his chair. “I don’t suppose you know where I left my lance?”
“Perhaps the majordomo took it into safekeeping. Ah, no, my mistake. You put it in the potted fern on your way in.”
Samuel tucked the useless weapon under his left arm. “If Don Quixote looked mad, I’m sure I won’t make a different impression. Please instruct Emmett to have the coach ready in an hour. I doubt I can keep myself under control any longer than that.”
It was a night designed for making dreams come true.
By its end, Miss Lily Boscastle of Tissington, Derbyshire, would be able to share the secret she had been keeping as tightly laced as her great-aunt’s corset since the beginning of the year. Her days of pretending to husband-hunt and playing wallflower at country assemblies would be forgotten. At the breakfast that followed the all-night literary party, Lily and her dear friend Captain Jonathan Grace would quietly announce their intention to wed and allow their families to collapse in relief before setting the wedding date in stone. After all, an engagement, even one as sensible as Jonathan and Lily’s, could not be taken for granted.
Not even Nostradamus, however, would have predicted a dire outcome for the appealing young couple. Lily had been born a cheerful flirt who had accepted all the blessings that effortlessly came her way. Captain Grace had come through the wars much as he’d gone in: easily influenced, but as gentle-natured and as dedicated to Lily as from the first day she had knocked him down in the nursery and bitten his ear. He still defended Lily whenever a family member brought up the story at the Tissington assembly.
“She’s a solid girl, my Lily,” he would say, “even if she’s a little exuberant at times. I knew that when she bit me she meant it as a token of affection. Thankfully she has learned other means of showing her esteem over the years.”
Another gentleman would have been embarrassed to recount the story of her toddler savagery to friends and family. Jonathan made it sound like one of his fondest memories. She wondered if they had become too comfortable with each other after all these years. In fact, Lily wondered at times whether her affection for him would deepen into anything that resembled romantic passion.
Dear friends. Wasn’t that enough? She trusted Jonathan.
Besides, he’d never given her reason to suspect he had passionate feelings for anyone else. And neither did she. Unless one counted the fictional characters in the books she devoured, which every dedicated female reader understood did not count at all. Fantasies spawned from romantic works became private intellectual property.
The literary masquerade party tonight was already a dream come true. Lily had attended a play, the museum, and Astley’s Royal Amphitheatre in the last month. She had enjoyed these diversions well enough, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime affair. The night had not opened with a traditional ball, with debutantes and bachelors preparing for mortal battle.
Instead, the guests were invited to attend one of three violin concertos given throughout the evening, nibble on imported delicacies in open supper rooms, or linger in one of the first-floor salons, where conversation emulated the intellectual Parisian soirées that had enlivened the previous century.
Lily was utterly in her element, rubbing gloved elbows with guests masquerading as characters from literary works, and with a few of the writers who had created them. Not that she would recognize any of her favorite authors behind their intriguing disguises. Society had sent Lord Byron into exile. Percy Shelley was in Italy, too. It was a heady experience for a young lady from the country whose obsession with reading worried her family out of their wits.
Her parents insisted that nothing good came from a girl who read. It wasn’t natural. Staying up half the night to finish a romantic story would unbalance her mind. How could she ever hope to advance socially when she immersed herself in the ideas of utter strangers?
She could never make them understand that she had few social aspirations. Or that sometimes she didn’t want to be advanced as much as entertained, swept into a different world.
And suddenly, tonight, she had been swept away, except that this world was real. She had eavesdropped on so many titillating conversations that she lost track of whether a certain writer was said to be sleeping with his wife’s sister or his own, and whether Lily had exceeded her capacity for champagne for the evening or for the entire year. Even though wickedness went on in Tissington, it went on at a trudging pace. Here Lily found herself consumed with curiosity and overwhelmed, in a pleasant way.
Still, the best was yet to come. At midnight the guests would unmask. Contest winners would be announced. Everyone in costume had been promised a prize for taking part. Lily didn’t give a fig about the contest, or the original play that would be previewed afterward in the ballroom before it opened on Drury Lane. She wanted to cut through all the buildup to the climax—the predawn tour of Lord Philbert’s literary gardens.
Everything that preceded this event served as mere stage-setting in her imagination.
None of the guests had been permitted outside to sneak a look. Still, it wasn’t a secret that an army of master gardeners and engineers had conspired for months to design a paradise of private arbors representing scenes from fictional works. The northwest parterre had been turned into an Italian courtyard to re-create Romeo and Juliet. The wedding scene from The Tempest was depicted inside a gazebo nearby. To the east the guests could enter Dante’s Gates of Hell, wafts of sulfur and an occasional burst of artificial thunder in the background enhancing the production. There was even said to be a glade landscaped from Gulliver’s Travels that featured the giantess Glumdalclitch.
But it was what waited at the garden’s end that Lily would barter her soul to reach. According to her cousin and chaperone, Chloe, Viscountess Stratfield, a fabulous grotto had been built to honor popular fiction’s latest darling, the author known only as Lord Anonymous. He had written several volumes of dark-hearted fairy tales and a half dozen or so novels about strapping warriors set in medieval Scotland.
Lily had devoured every word. She could recite certain pages by heart. But it wasn’t until he published the first book in the series entitled The Wickbury Tales that he was denounced as immoral and became an immediate bestseller.
His stories seethed with swashbuckling adventures that drew the breathless reader to the last page—once in a runaway carriage, another time to a cliff edge on a galloping steed. The series always followed the same basic plot—the hero, a Cavalier earl in exile, battled an evil wizard, who also happened to be the hero’s half brother. They fought not only for opposing politics, but for the same lady’s heart.
What intrigued Lily the most, though, was that after six books, the lady still couldn’t make up her mind whether to choose the noble Lord Wickbury or the thoroughly wicked Sir Renwick Hexworthy. Heated arguments broke out in circulating libraries to debate the issue upon publication of each new edition.
Gentlemen tended to favor the exiled earl because he fought fairly and represented the right order of things. Sir Renwick was a villain through and through, an unpredictable malefactor, in their view, who would stop at nothing to win his beloved lady. In Lily’s opinion, she was an unworthy, lukewarm wench who did not deserve either man.
Unfortunately, Lily wasn’t the only lady at the party enamored of Lord Anonymous. Footmen stood guard at the French doors to the garden to keep the curious from spoiling Lord Philbert’s surprise. Lily contemplated resorting to shameless flirtation to be one of the first to view the gardens. If there was any chance at all to meet the author . . . Oh, she was a goose.
She wasn’t even sure she wanted to know what he looked like. Or discover whether the author was a male at all. She would probably be disappointed if she met him. She’d be crushed to find he was a conceited popinjay.
Nothing could ruin tonight for her.
A respectable captain intended to marry her. She had never made an enemy or taken a misstep in her whole life. True, she was spoiled rotten, and sometimes she took advantage of her position. Not to do anything unlawful or spiteful. She simply liked to have her way. But what of it? It wasn’t her fault she had been born to privilege. Or that the worst decision she had ever made was to disguise herself as the Brothers Grimm’s Goose-Girl. It had seemed like a tantalizing idea three weeks ago when Chloe had thought of it.
Tonight Lily regretted the choice. How was anyone to know that she was wearing a shimmering gold silk gown underneath her unattractive plumage? She felt nothing like a fairy-tale character at all. In fact, it would take a genius to realize that she was meant to be a princess before she shed her disguise.
And that genius, unfortunately, was not her soon-to-be betrothed, Captain Jonathan Grace, polite escort that he had always been. He did not seem to appreciate her costume. She caught sight of him shouldering a path to reach the line into which she had drifted. She guessed that it led into one of the supper rooms. At the front of the queue she spotted her cousin Chloe, who motioned distractedly at her to come forward while she carried on an animated conversation with her friends.
Jonathan, tall and shaggy haired, battled for a place beside her. “Why are you standing here by yourself?”
“Because I’m unable to move. I’ve been bumped enough for one night. My feathers are bent and falling off like leaves. And I can’t keep up with Chloe. She disappears every time I turn around.”
“She’s a dreadful chaperone,” Jonathan said, planting his legs apart in such a way as to shield her.
Still, for all his bluff, he was mild by temperament and had never sought a single confrontation since Lily had known him. If anything, he allowed others to order him about. It upset Lily when he hesitated to stand his ground.
“Chloe has been charming to me,” she said.
“Charm runs in your family,” he added with a reluctant smile. “I’d prefer it, though, if you don’t take any lessons from your cousin. I have a hard enough time refusing you as it is.”
“That,” Lily said, “is because you are a gentleman. Even if some of your friends in town are not.”
“They’re not all that bad. Life is different in London.”
“I’ve noticed.” She brushed a crumb from his sleeve, tsking to herself. “What have you been eating?”
“One of the maids slipped me a bun. I’m fair starving. Should I ask her to pinch you a bite?”
“Well, I think you should eat before you get weak.”
“I am not sneaking a bun in line. It would look uncouth.”
“Nothing you do could look uncouth,” he said.
The line into the brightly candlelit buffet crawled a few steps forward. Lily heard the couple behind them mention The Wickbury Tales, and her heart lost a beat. She knew she ought to mind her own business and pretend she wasn’t listening, but when the lady whispered, “And Philbert said Lord Anonymous might make an appearance to acknowledge the tribute to him tonight,” Lily could not restrain her curiosity.
She leaned around Jonathan, ignoring the tug he gave at her sleeve that the line was moving again. “Please excuse me for interrupting, but I can’t resist. Is Lord Anonymous really going to be here?”
The lady sighed. “He might have already come and gone.”
Come and gone? Lily’s heart sank.
Could she have missed him that easily?
Had she brushed against his arm without realizing it?
“Did anyone say what he looked like?”
“Perhaps he’s anonymous for a reason,” Jonathan said loudly, nudging Lily back in place. “Perhaps he’s hiding something.”
“Such as?” she asked.
He frowned. “I don’t know and I don’t care. But I have a confession to make before I go upstairs to play cards.”
“I’d know him if I met him,” she said absently. “Which is unlikely, standing in this awful line.”
“How the devil would you know him if no one else does?” he asked teasingly.
“I could tell by the way he spoke.” She gestured with her hand. “His words. He’d say something and I’d recognize him right away.”
“Silly Lily,” he said, making a face. “I’d be jealous if he were anything but a writer.” He bent his head to hers. “Don’t you want to hear my confession?”
He looked so earnest and endearing with his papier-mâché King Lear crown tucked under his arm that she felt wicked for wanting to laugh. As close as they had become over the years, she doubted whatever he wanted to confess would be as intriguing as meeting a mysterious celebrated author. Besides, she and Jonathan would have the rest of their lives for confessions.
“Come clean,” she whispered. “What have you done? Knocked over a vase?”
He hesitated. “I never finished reading King Lear. In fact, I couldn’t make it through the first act. People keep throwing quotes at me about ungrateful children, and I’ve no clue what they mean. I had to take off my crown so that I wouldn’t be recognized.”
“Oh, Jonathan. What am I to do with you?”
He gave her a helpless grin. “Answer for me the next time anyone asks about the plot. I keep acting as if I can’t hear properly.”
She reminded herself of all his good qualities. He didn’t drink. He thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and at times she believed him. He always behaved like a gentleman in her presence, and, obviously, he needed her.
“You should have told me this before,” she whispered. “It’s too late to worry about it now. And it isn’t as if Shakespeare will appear to ask your opinion.”
He looked completely unconcerned. “I wouldn’t have even come here tonight if I didn’t know how much you loved your books. Have your evening, Lily. But know that I’m counting the hours until we share a bed. Give me a kiss for luck before I go.”
“Where are you going?” she asked in vexation.
“I just told you. Kirkham and I have been invited upstairs for cards.”
She lifted her face covertly, then pulled away, aware of an attractive gentleman lounging against the wall. He was dressed as a knight, and although he was too far away to hear what she and Jonathan were discussing, his insolent stare indicated that he found their encounter amusing.
How long had he been watching them?
A strange prickle of warmth stole down her neck into her white-plumed bodice. She forced her attention back to Jonathan’s reassuring face. “Don’t be late for the unmasking. Put the crown on before you come back.”
He nodded. “Stay where Chloe can keep an eye on you until then. I promise I won’t be long. And, Lily—don’t let any rakes steal you while I’m gone.”