London, June 1816
Her beauty held an uncommon allure, much to his regret.
Swearing an amused oath at himself, Lord Jack Wilde surveyed his quarry from across the dimly-lit garden. Despite his better judgment and his instincts for self-preservation, he’d walked headlong into the matchmaking trap laid by his female relatives. He’d planned to inspect the young lady in question and then leave without a backward glance, but Sophie Fortin had thoroughly captured his interest.
Jack let out a slow breath as he watched the captivating Miss Fortin execute the lively movements of a contra dance. There was considerably more lurking under her surface than mere beauty. She had an enchanting smile, an intensely feminine grace, and a delectable body that set all his primal male urges on full alert.
He wanted her, without question. Even worse, he was seized by a need to know much more about her.
Schooling his lustful thoughts, Jack pondered his options while recalling his cousin Skye’s ardent prediction:
“Miss Fortin is not the grasping husband-hunter you seem to think her, Jack. And she certainly is no spineless ninny either—which you will discover for yourself if you ever deign to meet her. You will like her prodigiously, I swear it.”
He had yet to contrive an introduction to Sophie Fortin tonight, or even approach her. Indeed, because of the long-standing feud between their families, he’d had to employ subterfuge simply to attend the masquerade ball hosted by her great-aunt.
Sneaking behind enemy lines in disguise seemed a craven way of investigating a prospective mate, Jack reflected with dark humor. Yet here he stood, garbed as a swashbuckling pirate, contemplating a path that could seriously endanger his bachelorhood.
Clearly he’d been struck by a brain fever. Or bewitched by a spell.
The current setting argued for bewitchment. The gardens of her aunt’s London residence had been converted to an open-air ballroom, faintly illuminated by colored lanterns. Undeniably, Sophie Fortin stood out among the crowd of costumed dancers like a diamond among lumps of coal.
Jack couldn’t keep his eyes off her, in no small part because she seemed a profusion of contradictions.
For her costume, she wore a glittering tiara and the gossamer, flowing gown of a royal princess, yet her grace and loveliness had little to do with her attire. Her hair was an ordinary shade of dark brown, but the lustrous, curling tendrils piled high on her head had a life all their own. A demi-mask concealed her eyes but not the delicacy of her face or the sensuality of her mouth.
Miss Fortin was just as comely as advertised, but with none of the cold remoteness he’d expected. Instead, she had life, vitality, warmth.
That, and a generous, kind smile.
He hadn’t anticipated the vibrancy, much less the kindness or warmth. From what he knew about her, he’d imagined either a submissive young miss or a calculating social climber. Why else would she allow herself to be sold to a widower more than twice her age for the price of a dukedom?
Observing her, Jack wondered how he had possibly overlooked her among this season’s insipid crop of debutantes. And why the devil did she have such a powerful effect on his senses? He’d known a number of striking beauties in his time, and bedded more than a few of them. It was rare that a woman could attract him so strongly at first glance, certainly not a green girl only a few years out of the schoolroom.
And he most definitely was not in the market for a wife of any age. But he’d agreed under duress to arrange a meeting with Miss Fortin.
For that he could only blame the tenacity of his adopted sister, Katharine, and his youngest cousin, Skye. Kate’s romantic schemes would put Napoleon Bonaparte to shame, Jack suspected. Her campaign to marry him off had begun in earnest last week, the morning after their brother Ashton’s wedding, which she had also plotted.
When Kate was younger, the family had generally indulged her idealistic machinations with raillery and good humor. But her latest flight of fancy was patently absurd. Kate theorized that the five Wilde cousins—Ashton, Quinn, Jack, Skye, and Kate herself—could find true love by emulating legendary lovers throughout history.
Beyond all expectations, Ash had recently succeeded in falling in love with his “Cinderella,” Miss Maura Collyer of Suffolk. Jack’s supposed legend was not a fairy tale but one of the Bard’s most famous tragedies, Romeo and Juliet—with him cast in the leading role of Romeo and Miss Fortin as his Juliet.
“Have your wits gone addled, Kate?” was his first reaction after a bark of laughter. “You can’t honestly expect me to play the pathetic hero who dies.”
He put little credence in his sister’s unshaken belief in romantic destiny. And even though he was usually ripe for a challenge, he had adamantly refused even to meet Miss Fortin.
In response, Kate and Skye had endlessly sung her praises in an effort to rouse his interest.
“Sophie Fortin has beauty in abundance,” Kate professed.
“She is clever and kind,” Skye added.
“It is not her fault that her parents are determined to land a high-ranking title for her,” his sister repeated for the umpteenth time.
Jack’s scoffing amusement remained the same. The Fortin chit had to be a timid dormouse, allowing herself to be married off to an older nobleman who had already buried one wife.
“There is no official betrothal yet,” Skye countered. “You must act now, Jack, and rescue Miss Fortin from a loveless union before it is too late. Once she is affianced to the duke, she cannot honorably fall in love with you.”
“Her honor or lack of it is hardly my concern,” Jack replied, unswayed.
“Just say you will meet her,” Kate begged.
He’d held out until two days ago, when Skye cornered him as he left his house just after dawn. He was late for a curricle race, his head aching from an overindulgence of brandy the previous evening.
Completely ignoring his professed desire to be rid of her, Skye had refused to leave until she’d wrung a promise from him to meet Miss Fortin. “You know I won’t give up, Jack,” she said sweetly, “so you might as well surrender.”
For his own peace and self-preservation, he’d yielded, knowing his female relatives would hound him relentlessly otherwise.
The masquerade had seemed the ideal opportunity to conduct his surveillance, since he could employ anonymity to contrive an encounter with Miss Fortin and judge her for himself. The unmasking was not scheduled until midnight, and by then he would be long gone.
He’d come tonight intending to prove Kate’s ludicrous theory wrong. Regrettably, however, his plan had been hurled off course by the beauty herself, particularly her lovely smile. There was a radiance about her that captivated and drew Jack in wholly against his wishes.
At least he now understood why a wealthy widowed duke could be smitten enough to consider offering matrimony to a much younger commoner with no fortune.
Her skin was flawless ivory, her lips full and ripe, Jack noted. He would relish kissing those luscious lips; indeed, he would relish doing much more than simply kiss Miss Fortin.
For a moment he let his imagination run riot. He could well envision the pleasure of bedding her, feeling her go wild beneath him, matching her in the throes of passion. . . .
But matrimony? Jack curbed the urge to shudder. God forbid.
The notion that Sophie Fortin, or any woman, might be his potential soul mate was laughable. He had no intention of being ensnared in a courtship, let alone marriage. And yet she was definitely too tantalizing to resist pursuing.
The dance ended just then, and Miss Fortin’s partner of the moment bowed and took his leave of her. Alone, she glanced over her shoulder and caught Jack watching her from a corner of the gardens.
Her gaze stayed on him for a long heartbeat. Then, instead of turning away out of shyness or embarrassment, she surprised him by suddenly moving his way.
Upon reaching him, she peered up into his mask, trying to see his eyes. “Do I know you, sir? I penned the invitations for my Aunt Eunice, and I don’t recall anyone of your description on the guest list.”
Although his pirate costume couldn’t disguise his height or athletic build, Jack suspected his identity was safe, since his mask covered the better part of his face and his headscarf mostly concealed his mane of black hair.
“No, we have not met before, Miss Fortin,” he answered, amused by her directness. Baldly confronting a stranger was something only the females in his family would do.
“Then would you care to explain why you have been watching me these past twenty minutes or more?”