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The Earl of Masters was alive.
Iphiginia Bright nearly fainted for the first time in her life when the earl entered the glittering ballroom. Her surroundings went into a slow spin as she struggled with the staggering shock.
The last thing she had expected to discover that night or any other night was that Masters was not dead after all.
He was alive.
The shock receded as a dizzying sense of joy soared through her. Although she had never met him, she had spent a feverish fortnight learning everything she possibly could about the earl before she had gone into Society to masquerade as his mistress.
The most shattering thing that she had discovered during the course of her study was that he was the man of her dreams; a man she could have loved as she had never loved anyone else; the right man for her.
She had fully expected him to remain a figure of her most intimate fantasies forever. But here he was, a living, breathing reality.
And when he learned who she was and what she had done, he would surely despise her."
Good God, I don't believe it," Lord Ellis muttered. "Masters is here."
Iphiginia gazed, speechless, at the tall, powerfully built man who was descending the blue-carpeted staircase with such casual arrogance. A part of her was stunned to realize that he as just as she had imagined him to be: dark-haired, coldly proud, a man who lived by his own rules. She could not believe her eyes.
Neither could anyone else, apparently.
The scene in the ballroom froze into absolute stillness for a single heartbeat. A stunned hush fell upon the crowd.
It seemed to Iphiginia as though the brilliantly gowned ladies and elegantly dressed men were all caught in a drop of liquid amber that hardened instantly, imprisoning them. Even the flames of the massed candles in the huge crystal chandeliers appeared to still for an instant.
In the next heartbeat the amber turned to liquid once more and released its captives.
Freed from their frozen state, the sparkling creatures began to flutter like so many brilliant insects. Shimmers of excitement ruffled their gaudy wings. Greedy anticipation lit their hard, faceted eyes.
Iphiginia knew what prompted the anticipation in those around her. A scene was expected--a scene that would generate gossip for days.
She also knew that the astonishment of the crowd stemmed from the fact that Masters had not been expected to put in an appearance tonight. He was presumed to be out of Town on a lengthy visit to one of his estates. Certainly no one had thought that he would show up here to confront his former mistress.
Only Iphiginia and those closest to her had believed him dead. They had been told as much in the blackmailer's horrid note. That missive had made it clear that Iphiginia's Aunt Zoe, Lady Guthrie, would be next to die if she did not meet the villain's demands.
But here was Masters in the flesh and there was no denying that he was not only alive, he appeared quite fit. He radiated the dangerous vitality of a large beast of prey.
Obviously the blackmailer had lied. He had cleverly taken advantage of Masters's disappearance from London in order to terrify Zoe.
Torn between euphoria and despair, Iphiginia watched Master's approach and realized that all her carefully laid plans had suddenly been plunged into utter chaos.
An entirely new sort of disaster threatened, one that would affect her and those near and dear to her. Masters would not be pleased to learn that he had a mistress whom he had never even met. A mistress, moreover, who had allowed the ton to believe that she was shopping for a replacement for him.
He would surely make quick work of the trappings of her masquerade, she thought. He would shred them to ribbons, leaving her exposed to Society as the fraud she was.
Iphiginia's heart raced as she listened to the low-voiced conversation that broke out among the group of gentlemen standing nearby.
"Masters always did have incredible nerve." Lord Lartmore, specter-faced and cadaverously thin, jerked his champagne glass toward his mouth and emptied it in a single swallow. "Never thought he'd show up in any ballroom where Lady Starlight was holding court, though. Too bloody humiliating."
"By Jove, this should prove interesting." Darrow, a middle-aged man whose paunch was not well concealed by the poor cut of his coat, cast a speculative eye at Iphiginia.
Herbert Hoyt leaned closer to Iphiginia in a touchingly protective manner. His normally cheerful blue eyes were troubled. "I say, this could prove a trifle awkward. The generals did not invent the extremely useful tactic known as strategic retreat without good reason, m'dear. Would you care to employ it? I stand ready to assist you, as always."
Iphiginia fought to compose herself. It was difficult to draw a complete breath. This could not be happening. There must be some mistake.
Her fingers, which were lightly resting on Herbert's sleeve, trembled. "Don't be ridiculous, Mr. Hoyt. Masters is not about to create a scene for the entertainment of the ton."
"Wouldn't count on it." Herbert studied the rippling wake in the crowd that marked Masters's progress across the room. "One never knows what he'll do. Man's an enigma."
Iphiginia flushed. In spite of her own desperate situation, she felt the urge to defend the earl. "He's not an enigma. He happens to prefer to maintain his privacy, that's all. Perfectly reasonable."
"Well, you've gone and made a spectacle of him and robbed him of his precious privacy, haven't you, m'dear? He won't appreciate it, that's for certain."
Herbert, unfortunately, was right, as usual.
Iphiginia slanted her new friend an uncertain glance. Herbert was far more familiar with the treacherous ways of London Society than she. He had been swimming in these unpredictable waters for the past two years.
Since making his acquaintance a fortnight ago, she had learned to value his judgments. Herbert seemed to know everyone who was anyone. He comprehended all the nuances of behavior in this elite world, from the simple snub to the cut direct.
In terms of social rank, Herbert was a small fish in the London pond. But he was one of a number of charming, gallant males of indeterminate age who made themselves indispensable to hostesses and anxious mamas alike.
Men such as Herbert were willing to dance with wallflowers or sip tea with elderly matrons. They fetched champagne for wives whose husbands were occupied in the card rooms. They chatted easily with nervous young ladies who were being launched into Society. In short, they were eminently useful and therefore they always managed to obtain invitations to the best balls and soirees in town.
Herbert was in his middle thirties. He was a pleasant-faced, slightly plump man with ruddy cheeks, pale blue eyes, and a good-natured, inoffensive manner. His thinning, light brown hair was cut and curled in the latest style. His yellow waistcoat, which fitted a trifle too snugly at the waist, as well as his elaborately tied cravat were in the very forefront of fashion.
Iphiginia liked Herbert. He was one of the few men who seemed to have no interest in trying to take what everyone imagined to be Masters's place in her life. She could be at ease in his presence. He enjoyed discussing matters of art and architectural fashion. And she respected his advice in social matters.
But even Herbert, rarely at a loss for the proper response to any given social situation, appeared to be floundering tonight. Obviously he did not know how to handle the impending catastrophe.
Iphiginia unfurled her white lace fan as she collected her wildly scattered thoughts. The only thing that would see her through this disaster was her own intelligence. She reminded herself that she had her fair share of that commodity.
"Masters is, above all, a gentleman. There is no reason for him to embarrass either me or himself."
"Whatever you say, my dear." Herbert arched one bushy brow in a knowing fashion. "I assure you, there's no need to go into the details of your connection to Masters with me. Everyone in Town is well aware of just what sort of friends you and Masters were."
"Indeed." Iphiginia's tone held the repressive note that she employed whenever someone grew too bold on the subject of the earl. She rarely needed to use that tone with Herbert. He was usually more discreet.
She could hardly complain about the assumptions Herbert and the members of the ton had made concerning the nature of her relationship with Masters. Society had arrived at precisely the conclusions that she had wanted it to reach.
Such assumptions and conclusions were part of the grand plan to gain entree into Masters's exclusive circle of acquaintances. The scheme had worked until tonight.
"Regardless of your past association with Masters," Herbert said, "the question everyone is asking tonight is, what happens next? We have been led to believe that you and he had come to a parting of the ways, m'dear. But his presence here this evening indicates otherwise."
Iphiginia ignored the questioning note in his voice. She could hardly provide him with an answer when she did not have one.
Unable to think of anything else to do in the midst of the crisis, Iphiginia determined to do the only thing possible. She stuck to the story she had concocted when she had embarked on her perilous adventure.
"Masters knows very well that our connection is finished unless he chooses to apologize for the quarrel he caused," she said smoothly.
"One never uses the word impossible when one is discussing Masters," Herbert said. "But in this instance, I think it is permissible. It's safe to say that no one in this room tonight can conceive of the earl apologizing to a lady who has humiliated him in front of the whole of Society."
Iphiginia was horrified. "But I have done no such thing, Mr. Hoyt."
Iphiginia fanned herself rapidly. She felt much too warm. "I merely indicated that he and I were no longer in charity with each other."
"And that it was all his fault."
"Well, yes." Iphiginia swallowed. "It certainly was all his fault. But I did not seek to humiliate him in front of his friends."
Herbert gave her an odd look. "Come now, my dear. Let us be honest here. You have hinted that you and Masters had a violent quarrel, one that shattered your close friendship. You cannot tell me that you were not looking for a bit of revenge when you descended on Society. Everyone believes you to be searching for a suitable replacement for him."
"That is not true." Iphiginia cleared her throat. "I mean, the earl does owe me an apology, but I never intended to, uh, obtain one from him." One did not get apologies from dead men.
"Whatever your intention, you have made certain that everyone understood that you were the one who severed the connection. They believe that you actually had the temerity to give Masters his conge."
It had all been part of her scheme to transform herself into an instant rage in the eyes of the ton, but Iphiginia could hardly explain that to Herbert. "As to that slight misunderstanding--"
"Misunderstanding?" Herbert gave her a pitying look. "For the past fortnight, Society has not been able to decide if you are the most daring lady in London or simply a candidate for Bedlam."
"I am beginning to wonder myself," Iphiginia muttered under her breath. She must have been mad to get herself into this situation.
"You know that the ton has been waiting on tenterhooks to see how Masters will respond to your notion of vengeance."
"I have told you, Mr. Hoyt, that I have absolutely no interest in vengeance. There was a small tiff between us, that's all. It requires an apology, nothing more."
"So now it's a minor tiff, is it? Heretofore you have termed it a major quarrel."
"These things get enlarged out of all proportion under the influence of gossip, do they not?"
"They certainly do, m'dear." Herbert patted her hand reassuringly. "But fear not. I shall remain by your side, ready to assist you if Masters turns unpleasant."
"A reassuring thought."
But it was not reassuring at all. Masters had somehow come back from the dead and there would be the devil to pay.
Herbert's reaction to the situation confirmed everything Iphiginia had learned thus far about the notorious earl. Society thought him deliciously dangerous and unpredictable.
There were rumors of a duel years ago in which he had very nearly killed his opponent. Worse yet, it was whispered that he might have actually been responsible for the murder of his former business associate, Lynton Spalding. It was certainly a fact that after Spalding's death Masters had assumed control of the profitable investment pool his associate had once managed.
Many claimed that the lucrative pool was not the only thing Masters had seized following Spalding's demise. It was said that he had indulged in a long-standing affair with Spalding's widow, Hannah, and that the affair continued to this day even though she had remarried and was now Lady Sands.
No one would ever know the truth about those incidents or any others because Masters never spoke of them. Indeed, he had a rule against discussing his past and another against explaining his actions. He was an intensely private man.
Masters was definitely not the sort who would tolerate humiliation of any kind.
Iphiginia reminded herself that she had been in other precarious situations. Her recent year abroad during which she and her cousin Amelia had toured the ruins of Italy had not been without incident. There had been that rather nasty confrontation with a street thief in Rome and another equally dangerous encounter with a bandit on the journey to Pompeii.
Still, Iphiginia was only too well aware that she had never dealt with a man whose reputation was of the legendary proportions that characterized the earl's.
The trick was to stay calm and in control, Iphiginia thought. She was dealing with a potentially dangerous adversary, but she knew from her research that Masters was a highly intelligent man. With any luck, he would choose to approach the coming confrontation in a rational, coolheaded manner.
From what she had learned about him, she was almost certain he would not allow his emotions to govern his actions during the next few minutes.
Iphiginia saw Herbert's brow furrow with uneasiness as he watched the crowd. She heard a sharp, distinct crack. She glanced down and saw that she had accidentally snapped the delicate spokes of her fan.
At that moment the knot of people directly in front of her unraveled. A woman's nervous laugh rang out and then was cut off abruptly. Men edged out of the way. Even Herbert stepped back a pace or two.
Iphiginia suddenly found herself standing quite alone in the middle of the crowded ballroom.
Marcus, Earl of Masters, came to a halt directly in front of Iphiginia. Because she had been looking down at her broken fan, the first thing she noticed about him was his hands.
He was the only man in the room not wearing gloves.
In a world where soft, elegant, graceful hands were much admired in a man, Marcus had the hands of a seasoned warrior. Large and powerful, they were the hands of a man who had made his own way in the world.
Iphiginia suddenly recalled that he had come into his title a mere five years earlier. It had been a bankrupt inheritance. He had not been born into wealth and power. He had created those attributes for himself.
Iphiginia tore her gaze away from the riveting sight of his muscular hands and looked up quickly. Marcus possessed a face that could have been etched on an ancient gold coin. Strong, relentless and bold to the point of being harsh, it was the face of an ancient conqueror.
He watched her with amber eyes that glittered with a fierce intelligence. His hair was very dark, almost black. There was a flash of silver in the curving swath that was brushed back from his high forehead.
Iphiginia met his brilliant eyes. A shock of deep awareness and recognition flashed through her. Something that had been smoldering deep inside her for weeks suddenly leaped into full flame.
This was the man she had fallen in love with, never dreaming that she might one day meet him. He was exactly as she had imagined.
Iphiginia knew that the crowd was waiting breathlessly for her reaction.
"My lord," Iphiginia whispered so softly that only he could hear. "I am so very glad to see that you are alive."
With a heartfelt prayer that she was correct in her assumption that the earl's curiosity would govern his reaction, she closed her eyes and sank gracefully into a mock swoon.
Marcus caught her before she reached the floor. "Very clever, Mrs. Bright," he muttered for her ears alone. "I wondered how you would extricate yourself from this tangle."
Iphiginia did not dare to open her eyes. She felt herself swept up high against Marcus's chest. His arms were strong and firm. She felt oddly secure and safe in his grasp. The scent of him aroused a curious sensation within her. She was startled by the unexpected, deeply sensual pleasure she felt.
She had never known anything quite like the feelings that were thrumming through her at this moment. She raised her lashes just far enough to see that the frothy skirts of her white silk gown cascaded over the black sleeve of his coat.
Marcus carried her effortlessly across the ballroom floor toward the door.
"Step aside, if you please," he ordered to those in his path. "My very good friend needs fresh air."
The crowd melted away in front of him.
Murmurs of astonishment and speculation followed Iphiginia's grand exit from the crowded ball.
Marcus carried her out of the large mansion. Without pausing, he strode down the wide front steps to where a gleaming black carriage horsed with two black stallions waited.
The door of the carriage was opened by a footman garbed in black livery. Marcus carried Iphiginia into the cab. The door was closed.
The black carriage set off into the midnight streets of London.