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LO N D O N
The baron’s mind was not on the masquerade ball. His brooding thoughts overshadowed a face that even in its undefended moments had been described by his admirers and adversaries alike as cruel.
His dance partner complained repeatedly that he was not in step. It was true.
Lord Sebastien Michael Boscastle, 1st Baron Boscastle of Wycliffe, was contemplating how to lure London’s most notorious gentleman to his bed. He hadn’t decided on the exact strategy he would use. But after three months of waiting for an invitation, he had decided that he’d waited long enough.
Indeed, it tested his patience to walk, hop, and turn about until the two of them were re united in the ridiculous figures of the country reel. Only then, as they met, was he completely engaged.
He couldn’t say the same of his partner.
Of course it didn’t help that the gentleman who had captured London’s imagination happened to be his wife. She’d captured him seven years ago and held his heart to this day. Everyone understood that the husband ought to maintain the upper hand in a marriage. Still, his wasn’t the sort of problem he could discuss with the other officers at his club. God forbid anyone else found out.
The fact that his wife had scandalized the Polite World during their six unstable years as a married couple was a consequence he’d been hoping to deal with on the quiet. Whether they had been officially estranged or not, it stung a man’s pride, however, to hear that his wicked beloved had appeared in bedchambers all over town when she had studiously avoided the one bed in which she belonged.
His fingers flirted with the voluptuous curves of her breasts, then slid down her side, to her hip. She broke away. They made a circle. The next thing he knew, he was holding hands with a sweaty young col o nel. He shrugged in apology.
The colonel blushed.
The dance ended.
Sebastien bowed, searching for his wife as he straightened.
She was instantly encircled by chattering guests. He battled his way through the crush to her side. Unruffled, she gave him a smile that indicated she had the situation under control.
He wished he could say the same.
To look upon his comely baroness was to see a tall, curvaceous woman who visited libraries and attended parties, who had written one or two po liti cal pamphlets, and who wore rather outrageous costumes but who did not indulge in low gossip. Perhaps because everyone was gossiping about her. All the talk at the costume ball marking the last fortnight of London’s Little Season was of the scoundrel known as the Mayfair Masquer. His escapades had invigorated a year remarkable only for debts and hailstorms. His elusive celebrity had captured the town’s imagination at a time when Society desperately needed a distraction.
The ladies who braved Lord Trotten’s bal masqué that foggy October night professed alarm that his sightings had become more frequent. Their escorts vowed to protect these cherished gentlewomen in the event that the blackguard appeared in one of their boudoirs.
Which meant naturally that these gallant young defenders of virtue must first be ensconced behind the closed doors of their helpless damsels’ bedchambers in order to catch the fellow in the act.
In the act of what exactly was not understood. The saucy rapscallion had rifled through one or two desks, a writing cabinet, and several chests of drawers. He had taken nothing of value. Yet he offered the invaluable gift of entertainment, a spark of mischief, to create an amorous mood for those so inclined. He symbolized danger, yes, but also desire.
“He stole a kiss from me while I was sleeping,” one widow remarked.
“How would you know, if you were asleep?” asked an obviously envious younger lady. The widow smiled. “My cheek still burns.”
“You are lying,” the young lady said in a seething voice.
“She isn’t,” said the indolent rake who lived off the widow’s largesse. “I have only to lie beside her and I feel myself catch fire.”
None of the Masquer’s alleged victims could describe him in helpful detail to the police. In fact, their reports so wildly contradicted one another that he could have been a dozen different men. To add to his air of mystery, varying accounts indicated that over the course of his exploits he had grown several feet in stature.
His physique had broadened. He had grown a beard. No— his clean- shaven jaw was unmistakable. He had a dimple in his chin.
The first three ladies who claimed to have sighted him exiting their windows said he had left a peacock feather on their pillows. Soon after it became the rage to pin a peacock plume above one’s heart to show support for . . . well, one couldn’t say.
Was it wrong to harbor a secret tendresse for a wicked gentleman who truly had committed no harm? En gland was recovering from a devastating war. She needed romance.
So far every one of the Masquer’s devoted victims had once been acclaimed by Society for either her beauty or sexual appeal. A fading blossom could not help perking up a little when the sun of public notice shone upon her again. To be chosen, after all this time, when one had settled for insignificance was more flattering than a lady could admit.
The single point on which everyone seemed to agree was that this intruder struck in the late eve - ning hours, when shadows drifted across time and dreams could not be discerned from waking truths. In those mists of magical perception he appeared and assumed what ever form a woman might most fear, or wish for. The delicate of heart could only shiver in wonder.
What would he do? What did the unsuspecting want him to do?
He had to be stopped.
“I don’t think he exists at all,” one inebriated young blood had the stupidity to announce across a crowded antechamber where a lively conversation on the topic had broken out. The remark promptly ostracized him. He lacked imagination.
Impostors. Pretenders. Lovers and rivals.
Only two guests at the masquerade appreciated the delicious absurdity of this speculation. One was the husband of the Mayfair Masquer. Aside from this dubious distinction, Sebastien also held the secondary honor of being the only gentleman at the ball masquerading as Lord Whittington. The other guest in the know was his wife and distracted dancing partner, Eleanor. Costumed as Whittington’s beloved cat, in a knee- length black cloak that swirled around tight broadcloth trousers and jack boots, she trod the floor with a gamely dignity that cast all the requisite princesses and pretty shepherdesses in a pale light.
He hadn’t taken his eyes off her all night. And not just because her beauty becharmed him. He’d kept her in view because he didn’t trust her not to get into trouble.
His lovely wife had stirred up a cauldron of the stuff while he was gone. She also happened to be the only woman who had ever stirred him. The light shed from the chandelier above enhanced the milky hue of her complexion. How innocent she looked, how subdued— until one caught the dev ilish twinkle in her eye.
Sebastien appraised her in grudging amusement. Who would have guessed that his wife had sent so many other ladies into a swoon? Not that anyone had to convince him of her appeal. He could barely refrain from finishing the dance and whisking her off to a private spot. He hungered for her in whatever masquerade she chose. Whether she would admit to reciprocating his passion was uncertain at this point.
Until to night, he hadn’t pressed the issue. But he needed her. Hang the masquerade. To hell with her faux mission. He wanted to be her husband again. She didn’t seem to need him, though.
Her amber- brown eyes regarded him with a confidence that heated his blood. He remembered how enamored of him she’d been when they had met in Spain. They had been married a little over six years ago. He’d been away from En gland for three. But in the years since they had shared a bed, he had not touched another woman. Unfortunately in the few months since he’d been home, he hadn’t found the words to explain why he’d abandoned her, either. If her trust in him was gone, he could only blame himself. And vow to do better if she’d give him half a chance.
If she wouldn’t, well, he would have to resort to other means.
After all, it wasn’t a crime to covet one’s own wife. Nor to seduce her. His pulses fired in anticipation. She’d stolen his heart. He had broken hers.
“You need to pay attention.” She looked away.
“It’s almost time.”
“I am paying attention,” he retorted, as if they both didn’t know where his thoughts had wandered.
“Are my whis kers coming off?” she whispered. He tucked a tendril of her hair back under her cap.
“No. But—” He drew a breath, tortured by the yielding softness of her breasts against his arm. What kind of man wanted to make love to a woman with a coal- black nose and broomstick whiskers?
“I don’t know how you bear it,” she said absently.
“It’s driving me quite mad.”
“I know the cure,” he said in a deep, suggestive voice.
“I’d shave twice a day,” she added, wriggling her nose.
“You’d . . . what?”
“The whis kers. I want to scratch at them so badly I could scream.” Her voice was provocative and innocent at the same time. “That is what you were talking about?”
Her eyes glinted through the openings of her black silk mask. “Is it too much to ask that you keep your mind on this assignment?”
“Is it too much to remind you that I’ve been put in charge?” he replied with a fleeting sense of victory.
“I happen to be your superior.”
“No, Sebastien,” she said. “You surrendered that authority years ago.”
“Well, I want it back.”
“I’m not going to discuss this when we have work to do.”
“Are you telling me how to carry out this preposterous mission?” he asked softly.
Her lips curled into an alluring smile. “Are you able to stop staring at my tail long enough to succeed?”
His gaze wandered over her shapely form. “Fine. I was.”
“I knew it,” she whispered.
“And I will again,” he promised her with a grin.
“At least wait until after we’ve gotten the letter.”
“Now that sounded like an invitation.”
The band launched into another set.
She danced around him, agile, evasive. “Behave yourself, baron.”
“It was an invitation.” His blue eyes burned with confidence. “And, by the way, I accept.”
He realized that she doubted him when he swore he’d make up for not being a decent husband. But had she fallen completely out of love with him?