Housemaid Rebecca Bailey would do anything to help her father. Even masquerading as an heiress and crashing a ball held by one of the most influential families in the city. There's just one problem—one of the guests could expose her and ruin everything. The handsome, charismatic Christopher Black is a regular visitor to her employer and Rebecca can't risk him discovering who whose really is. But despite her efforts, their paths keep crossing.
After self-made shipping magnate Christopher first spies Rebecca at a masquerade ball, he's captivated by her refreshing naiveté and sparkling beauty. She's a stark contrast to the hollow behavior of the ton and the guile of his former fiancee. Only the closer he gets to her secrets, the further she pushes him away.
When the investigation into the murder of Christopher's best friend leads him straight to Rebecca, he fears his ingenue may be a femme fatale in disguise. Now he must decide if he can trust the woman who has captured his heart…or if her secrets will be his downfall.
About the Author
A small town girl with a big imagination, Tamara Hughes had no idea what to do with her life. After graduating from college, she moved to a big city, started a family and a job, and still struggled to find that creative outlet she craved. An avid reader of romance, she gave writing a try and became hooked on the power of exploring characters, envisioning adventures, and creating worlds. She enjoys stories with interesting twists and heroines who have the grit to summount any obstacle, all without losing the ability to laugh. To learn more, stop by her website: www.tamarahughes.com.
Read an Excerpt
Once Upon a Masquerade
By Tamara Hughes, Gwen Hayes
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Tamara Hughes
All rights reserved.
New York City, March 1883
Five hundred dollars. God Almighty, how could this have happened?
In the evening shadows, Rebecca rushed to the servants' entrance at the Endicott house, her stomach clenched so tight she felt sick. She didn't have near that much money.
Grabbing the handle, she pushed the door wide, the memory of the three brutes who'd burst through her father's door less than an hour ago still making her quake in her well-worn boots.
She hurried ahead and caught sight of the head housekeeper at the table as she bent over the household ledger, her wire spectacles perched on the end of her nose. Hazel tore her gaze from the accounts, the strained look on her face a sure indication the numbers weren't adding up to her liking. "Rebecca. Where have you been? I expected you half an hour ago."
The tea kettle emitted a high-pitched whistle, and Hazel rushed to the stovetop. "It isn't like you to shirk your duties."
"I know. I'm sorry." Rebecca removed her old black coat and hung it on the back of a chair.
Hazel hastened over, a serving tray holding a fresh pot of tea in her grip. "Hurry now." She set the tray onto the table before Rebecca. "Take this to Miss Endicott and her guest in the parlor. Go on. You can't afford to dillydally."
Sadly true. With an outrageous debt hanging over her head, she couldn't afford much of anything. Heaving a sigh, Rebecca donned her apron and tied it in back, then picked up the heavy tea service and set off.
Father had outdone himself this time. Never before had he lost so much all at once. And on a mere card game.
At the parlor's entrance, she stopped. As usual, Miss Endicott was impeccably dressed. She wore a sky-blue gown that complemented her upswept blond hair. A gentleman sat on the sofa across from her, facing away from the door.
"Your tea, miss," Rebecca announced, her voice a strained whisper.
Miss Endicott looked up and motioned Rebecca inside.
Lowering her attention to the tray, she tried to relax her shoulders. Once she'd delivered the tea, she could have a moment to herself. Lord knew she needed one. Oh, what would she do? She inhaled a shaky breath, the memory of the bruise on her father's cheek and the faint bloodstain beneath his nose clouding her vision as she walked. How he'd managed to talk those horrible men into giving him more time was beyond her. Still, one more week wouldn't be enough, not for her to raise such a substantial sum. Her fingers clenched the handles of the silver tray until the metal bit into her palms.
"Mr. Black, I hope you enjoy the tea. It's a special blend we picked up during our trip to France," Miss Endicott told her guest.
A chill rippled down Rebecca's spine. If her father failed to pay those men ... They'd kill him, and then come looking for her.
The tip of her left shoe caught on the rug. The sudden misstep jarred the tray, and a stream of hot tea spurted from the spout of the teapot, splashing onto the gentleman's thighs. His breath hissed, and he leapt to his feet. A dark stain marred his stylish black suit, his trousers soaked through.
"Oh my!" Rebecca set the service on the rectangular table in front of the sofa, snatched up a serving cloth from the tray, and hurried to his side. Her starched white apron caught on the corner of the table and yanked her back while the rug beneath her feet slid. With a gasp, she reached out to prevent a fall, but her body pitched forward, and she crumpled onto the hardwood floor in an undignified heap.
The man's lean hands clenched and flexed once before he bent low beside her. "Are you injured?"
"I ... I ..." Heat crept up her neck to scald her cheeks. Even her ears burned. She didn't dare look up. She couldn't.
He reached out his hand. "Here, let me help you."
His palm touched hers, and he lent her his support as she rose. Her legs wobbled so badly he strengthened his grip until she stood solidly once again, his broad chest taking up much of her view. His thumb brushed over her first knuckle where a cinder burn smarted. She winced and tugged her hand from his grasp.
"My apologies," he whispered, the low rumble of his voice sending little shivers along her skin.
Slender and tall, but strong. He smelled heavenly, like sea spray ... mixed with tea.
Miss Endicott's dainty cough restored Rebecca's senses. "Thank you, sir," she murmured, adding a quick bob of her head.
He gave a nod and swiped a hand over the wetness.
Miss Endicott stepped closer. "I'm terribly sorry."
"It's all right. No harm done," he insisted, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket.
While he dabbed at the stain, Miss Endicott turned a stony glare on Rebecca and stalked toward her. "Indeed. Accidents do happen," she muttered, rewarding Rebecca with a vicious pinch. "Clean up this mess and leave us," she commanded in a harsh whisper.
Rebecca cringed. In the five years she'd served as a maid, she'd never treated someone to a tea bath before.
Bending low, she swiped the serving cloth over the spill pooled on the polished floor and peeked over at the gentleman. Dark, unruly hair that hung low over one brow tried to conceal warm hazel eyes. Their intensity smacked of intelligence and confidence. Indeed, there was something magnetic about him. In the way he stood. He had an air of authority, but seemed at ease, approachable yet still in control. Here was a man capable of caring for others, someone to lean on in times of trouble.
She smoothed her fingers over the palm he'd touched. For the first time in her life, she wished she could switch places with Miss Endicott.
* * *
Christopher's thighs stung. With a silent curse, he tucked his kerchief back into his pocket and glanced at the servant girl who'd taken a tumble, her hair the color of fine brandy. Her face averted, she wiped the floor. She seemed well enough. No worse for wear.
"Please don't go." Miss Endicott sauntered toward him. "My parents will be home soon, any minute now I'm sure. And we've hardly had a chance to talk." Her brown eyes glowed as if she held a well-kept secret. "Your visit was an unexpected, but most pleasant, surprise."
"I could stay a bit longer if you'd like." Christopher sighed inwardly. He watched the maid hurry from the room, her head bowed, and reminded himself of the promise he'd made to Nathan. He only hoped Miss Endicott wasn't the woman he was sworn to protect. Tolerating her infatuation already rubbed his patience raw. Perhaps it was time to dispense with the small talk and use a more direct approach. "I heard the police stopped here yesterday."
Miss Endicott arched a brow at the sudden change in topic and perched herself on the settee once more. "Yes, it appears the investigation of Nathan Gebhardt's murder has uncovered new clues."
"Indeed? What did they want?" he asked, although he already knew. In fact, that was part of the reason he'd come. Bryce Barkham, the Police Chief and his father's closest friend, hoped Miss Endicott would divulge something more to a peer since investigators had gotten few answers.
"Come now. Everyone knows you like to work with the police, especially on this case. You probably know better than I what they wanted."
Christopher almost shook his head. It never failed. Nothing could be done discreetly in this town. Which begged the question, just how much did the gossips already know when it came to this case? "The police found a jeweled comb in Nathan Gebhardt's house."
"Yes, lodged in his chandelier of all places." With her eyes sparkling, she patted the cushion next to her.
He took a seat, amazed at how quickly word spread. Only last week, while cleaning out the immense house before it sold, Nathan's servants had found the piece and reported it to the police. "Who do you think it belongs to?" he asked. The emerald and diamond butterfly comb had been an important find, a link to the woman Nathan wanted protected, and to the Chief's way of thinking, a suspect in the case.
The gossips' enthusiasm to spread the news could be a good thing this time. In all likelihood, they were speculating whose comb it could be. He needed a name, a description, anything to help him track her down once and for all. That is, if the woman in question wasn't sitting beside him. Please, Lord, don't let it be her.
"I have no idea," Miss Endicott insisted, her expression all innocence. "And what does it matter? One comb is hardly enough evidence to build a case."
The police disagreed. A prominent person had been killed, and all of society watched to see if the killer would be caught. All clues would be investigated, and all avenues exhausted. The comb was one of a custom-made set. Nathan had purchased it days before his death. If he could just find its twin ...
"Tea?" she asked.
"No, thank you. I've had my fill."
With a quiet laugh, Miss Endicott poured herself a cup.
"Some would say you knew Nathan Gebhardt fairly well," he pressed, watching her reaction carefully.
Her cup rattled against the saucer as she set it down. "Yes, that foul coachman led the police to our doorstep."
True. After a year of silence, Nathan's coachman had stepped forward and admitted that, on a handful of occasions, he'd brought Nathan within a half-block of the Endicotts' home and waited for his return. He'd been sworn to secrecy by both Nathan and later Adele, Nathan's sister, possibly to avoid the scandal of a secret love affair.
"I'll tell you what I already told the police. I had nothing to do with Mr. Gebhardt's rather late evening visits." A small smile touched her lips. "I'm afraid as much as I tried to dissuade him, Mr. Gebhardt was besotted with me. He crept to our door bearing a bouquet, which I didn't accept." She shifted closer, her eyes hinting. "I was never interested in him."
Christopher ignored the look, his mind reeling with unanswered questions. He'd searched out the jeweler who'd sold the comb to Nathan. The man had asked about an engagement ring Nathan had ordered but never picked up. Had he planned to propose to Miss Endicott? Impossible. Just the thought of the two of them together was laughable. With his devout care for the poor, and her greed for her own gain, they were the worst match he could imagine. "Was there someone else he'd been seen with?"
She sipped her tea. "I don't know of anyone."
Of course not. Should he tell her of Nathan's last words? Would that inspire her to admit to her relationship with Nathan? Christopher's gaze focused on the silver tea service before them, the dampness on his lap beginning to dry. He remembered the night of Nathan's death as if it had happened just moments ago. If only he'd arrived sooner, he might have saved him. Hell, if only he'd listened to Nathan's pleas for money days before ... His gut twisted with the memory of Nathan gasping at the foot of the stairs, half out of his head.
"Promise me you'll save her," he'd choked out, a trickle of blood running from his mouth.
"Who? Adele?" Christopher cradled Nathan's head in his hand, his thoughts racing. Should he carry him to the closest doctor? Or leave him and bring help here?
"No ..." Nathan's eyes rolled back, and he expelled a long breath, his last.
Who was this woman? Certainly not the murderer the police were looking for, or Nathan wouldn't have wished for her safety. Was it Miss Endicott? She insisted she had no interest in him. Then again, perhaps if he explained why he needed to know ...
Miss Endicott leaned forward, capturing his attention once more. "Perhaps Mr. Gebhardt had a secret love," she said as if to comfort him.
"Why would he keep secrets?"
She shrugged a shoulder. "Maybe her family wouldn't have approved or she was married. There could be any number of reasons. Such as they wanted a little privacy." Picking a speck of lint from the shoulder of his suit coat, she smoothed her hand over the material. "We both know how difficult it is to find the person you want to spend the rest of your life with. You want to find someone who's special, someone with common interests, someone you're attracted to." A sympathetic smile curved her lips. "Mr. Black, you need to let go of your obsession with this case, and start living again."
Christopher suppressed a groan. If he told Miss Endicott the real reason he looked for Nathan's love, she'd confess to the relationship, whether true or not. No, she'd told him she had no ties to Nathan, and he would believe her, for now, and hope beyond hope she was telling the truth. Besides, if Nathan had fancied Miss Endicott, there would have been no need to keep their courtship secret. As peers, they could have made their attraction known.
He prepared his excuse to leave. Damn. This visit had yielded him nothing more than scalded flesh and a headache.
For a full year, he'd wondered who Nathan's mystery woman was and had all but given up on finding her. Now that the comb had been found and the coachman had come forward, he'd give it one more try, and then he had no choice but to consider the matter a lost cause.
* * *
Rebecca peeked inside Miss Endicott's bedroom, feeling like a Barnum's Circus performer, risking life and limb by placing her head in the lion's mouth. "Is Miss Endicott here?"
With a snort, Miss Endicott's lady's maid reached for a wayward stocking, her honey-blond hair pinned loosely to her head. "No, but she certainly was."
"Oh, Mary." Rebecca set down the pail of coal she'd brought for the fire. "What a mess!"
The cream and pink bedding of the four-poster bed peeked through a bevy of elaborate gowns, while stockings, petticoats, and shoes lay scattered about the polished oak floor.
Mary scowled. "After Victoria's precious visitor left, she tore through her wardrobe in a fit, insisting the man must be blind or stupid not to notice her affections."
"Watch your tongue." Rebecca wiped her hands on her apron and set to work, helping Mary to clean up. "You know better than to speak Miss Endicott's Christian name. Maids have been let go for far less."
"Bah. No one is around to hear me." Mary tugged a long white glove from the bed's headboard and gave Rebecca a wink. "Miss High-and-Mighty blathered on and on about how many marriage proposals she'd turned down waiting for Mr. Christopher Black. Then she rushed off to dear Mother. They've gone shopping to raise her spirits. Wish someone cared to raise mine."
Christopher Black. So that was the gentleman's name.
"I'm sorry. This mess is my fault. I'm afraid I spilled hot tea on her guest's lap, putting her in a foul mood." Rebecca touched the bruise on her arm, evidence of Miss Endicott's quick temper.
Mary's shoulders shook, and her lips trembled moments before she burst into a fit of laughter. "So our dear Rebecca isn't perfect after all."
"Mary, please. It was horrible," Rebecca groaned. "I don't know what came over me." She scooped up a pink satin slipper and stared at its delicate trimmings. "I suppose I'm just out of sorts today."
With a few more giggles and a hearty sigh, Mary regained her composure. "And why are you out of sorts?"
Rebecca shook her head. "I need money."
"Isn't that the way of it for all of us."
"You don't understand." She stowed the slipper in the bottom of the wardrobe. "It's my father. He's in trouble."
"What kind of trouble?"
The sheer hopelessness of the situation sapped her strength. Her shoulders sagged. "He's amassed a huge gambling debt. He owes hundreds of dollars to dangerous men."
"What does this have to do with you?"
"They'll kill him if I don't come up with the money to pay what my father owes. I know no one with that kind of money, and a bank isn't going to give me the time of day." She rubbed her forehead with the heel of her hand, but the memory of the terror in her father's eyes remained. "He's the only family I have left. And now I could very well be dismissed for dousing a guest. Then where will I be? Even poorer than before."
"Don't worry. I doubt Victoria even knows your name." Mary blew out a tired breath and sorted through the gowns. "Besides, if she had the freedom to do as she wished, I'd be let go every other day. Lucky for me her mother is weary of how many personal maids Victoria has dismissed on a whim. It's likely half of New York has worked for her at one time or another."
"I hope you're right."
Excerpted from Once Upon a Masquerade by Tamara Hughes, Gwen Hayes. Copyright © 2014 Tamara Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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