LOCATING HER IS ONLY HALF THE BATTLE
Cyrus Ryland didn't become England's wealthiest bachelor by being a pushover, but the mysterious beauty he discovers sneaking around at his grand ball enflames his curiosity. When the clock chimes midnight and she's nowhere to be found, Cyrus vows to scour all of London to uncover who she is. Little does he know that not only does Claire Mayhew not want to be found, but she wants nothing to do with him at all...
Praise for Meet the Earl at Midnight:
"A refreshing Georgian spin on Beauty and the Beast."-Grace Burrowes, New York Times bestselling author of The Captive
"Delightful... [Conkle's] fresh, vibrant voice shines through...in a story where the simmering sexual tension builds to the perfect climax."-RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars
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No mask like open truth to cover lies,
As to go naked is the best disguise.
William Congreve, The Double Dealer
A woman on the verge of moral downfall ought to be well dressed. Claire's particular transgression was gartered to her thigh, a paper hidden by yards of silk. She walked through the empty alley, confident in one comforting truth: no one dared ask a lady what her skirts concealed.
She glanced down at her small bosom, where soft moonlight splashed a distracting display of flesh. "And no one will be alarmed by what's revealed there, not that any will see me."
The sparkling blue-and-silver creation would be off soon, after midnight. The ball gown was worn just in case, a costume of sorts to fit into a place she didn't belong. Despite each well-planned detail, damp palms proved her outward calm a hoax. She'd always been a good girl-minus a slip in judgment some years ago.
What she was about to do trumped her past error. In spades.
That is, if someone catches me.
A deep breath failed to stop a tiny hiccup. Looking at the grand house ahead, this evening's ruse proved one thing: a woman's independence came at a price. If she wanted a different path, everything hinged on tonight's success.
She hooked her plain cloak on a fence post. Wetness swathed cobblestones from a recent summer shower, wafting scents of washed earth. Nice for this part of London...so different from her Cornhill section of Town.
She stepped off Vigo Lane into the mews of one Cyrus Ryland, the King of Commerce. England's celebrated commoner and landlord for much of midtown had something she wanted-his signature. Somewhere in his palatial West End sprawl of a home she'd find it, forge it, and disappear back into the late August night.
The well-laid plan sounded reasonable.
Why then did the sheer size of Mr. Ryland's home put a lump in her throat?
"There you are," Abigail said, pots and pans banging behind her. She passed through the kitchen doorway with a busy woman's stride. "Didn't see you earlier. Thought you'd lost your nerve."
Abigail Green, housekeeper of Ryland House, jingled a set of keys. She searched out the right one as she moved along the limestone edifice toward the servants' quarters. Overhead, brass candle lanterns chased off the night where two of Mr. Ryland's hulking carriages claimed much space in the mews.
"Lost my nerve? No." Claire adjusted her beaded mask. "But I admit, I'm holding on to my last ounce of courage."
An iron key slid home in the lock. Abigail turned it with a quiet snap, but she kept one hand on the knob, her mobcap casting shadows over serious features.
"If you're having a change of heart, now's the time to say so."
Claire looked at the key nestled in the lock. "No. I'm going through with this."
The door clicked open to a stark, whitewashed hall stretching ahead. Both women marched through the lonely quarters, their footfalls echoing.
"Understand, I'll lead you to his study, but I won't stay with you." Abigail opened another door, this one broad paneled and crafted to blend into the wall. "The house is in an uproar what with being two footmen plus a maid short and this grand ball going on."
The portal offered entry into another world, the kind of place spun in fairy tales told for lesser mortals. People talked of Ryland House's grandeur, and now Claire stood, an openmouthed witness.
Massive chandeliers cast tiny rainbow prisms high on pale walls trimmed with elaborate boiseries. For the hall to be so well lit... Were there people in this section of the house? She couldn't imagine letting candles burn for no reason.
Lush murals of pastoral bliss covered ceiling panels, creating a wonderland. The artful display unfolded overhead like delightful pages of a child's picture book, stretching the length of the hallway.
Abigail pushed the door shut and pocketed the keys, a dark, weighty clump in her apron. "I'm only helping you because of what you did for my sister, but if you're caught, don't say my name. I'll deny everything."
There was finality in those pale blue eyes, so like Annie's.
"I'm only copying his signature." A quelling hand rested on her midsection. "Then I'll take my leave as quickly as I've come."
Saying her crime aloud brought to mind awful images of Newgate, but anyone of a reasonable mind would agree tonight's dubious errand wasn't the same as stealing money. She was a grown woman who wished to run an honest business, have a coffee shop of her own. The intractable Mr. Ryland wouldn't allow an unmarried woman the privilege.
Mr. Pentree, one of Ryland's agents, rang in her head: "Sorry, Miss Mayhew. Mr. Ryland's most insistent. It's one of his rules. A husband, father, or brother must be on the lease, or I can't give you the key to the property."
In other words, she needed a man.
She didn't have one in hand. Nor did she want one.
Mr. Pentree had pushed up his spectacles, informing her with all gentleness, "Your only recourse is to see Mr. Ryland in person. Plead your case. Get his approving signature."
Approving signature, indeed. A grown woman beseeching a man for the right to conduct lawful business? Yet, even there, she'd tried.
One probably had better luck setting an appointment with King George. There was a four-month wait for a spot of Mr. Ryland's time. Former housekeepers didn't rate high enough to gain entry on his calendar. One of his secretaries always responded with the same polite refusals and delays. Claire was done petitioning.
She had snatched back the document from Mr. Pentree that day, informing him she'd find a way to get the signature from the lofty Mr. Ryland, even if it meant accosting him on London's streets.
It was time she took matters into her own hands.
Now, Claire walked with Abigail through Mr. Ryland's elegant beige hallway, her bravado floating away, lost in the expensive chandeliers overhead.
She'd been in grand homes before, but the lights shined...differently here. What made this place so extraordinary?
Graceful orchestral notes drifted everywhere. Conversation and laughter threaded with music, weaving the kind of noise that turned a large ball into an impersonal entertainment, yet easy for a body to get lost in the crowd. The housekeeper nodded to where lights gleamed brightest.
"Go that away, and you'll find yourself in the ball. But if you turn left at that plant," she said, pointing at frothy greenery in blue ceramic pots, "you'll be in the kitchen hallway. Wait there when you're ready to leave."
"You don't think that's a bad idea? Meeting you in such a visible location?" Claire frowned. "Someone might see me and wonder."
"Did you get a good look at yourself?" Abigail's voice notched higher. "You're lovely. Same as any of those fine Society ladies with their gowns and such. You could easily be one of them."
Be one of them?
The glittering gown made all the difference. Tomorrow, she'd don her practical, starched gray broadcloth, and her conscience could lock away tonight's aberration in judgment.
They moved down the hallway and the housekeeper turned and pushed open an elaborately carved door set in an alcove. A dark room. The study. Claire stepped inside the modest space, high ceilinged but small and unexceptional when one considered England's King of Commerce transacted half the realm's business here.
It was said Ryland owned every warehouse from Manchester to London. Northern goods sat in one of his buildings waiting for a ride to London's harbor on one of his canals.
And this humble-sized room is where he labored?
"Remember, you must be out before the unmasking," Abigail warned.
And she shut the door.
The latch clicked like a pistol cocked at her back. Claire's fingernails dug into her palms while her vision adjusted to the dark. She dare not light a candle.
Her objective, Mr. Ryland's desk, claimed a spot by the window where moonlight spilled through open curtains. She raised voluminous skirts and slipped the folded signature page from her garter. The paper, warm from her leg, crinkled in her grip.
She moved with care, a sweet thrill shooting through her. The prize sat atop the middle stack of papers: the bold scrawl of Cyrus Ryland.
Silk skirts brushed leather, a murmur of sound, when she slid onto his seat. A brass clock ticked a steady cadence, and she concentrated on the bold C and R dominating the page, her fingers picking at her gown's lace.
Ryland's signature slurred across the bottom as though he couldn't be bothered to form the remaining letters.
"Audacious man," she said under her breath and grabbed a quill.
Keeping the nib dry, she traced her quarry's name on foolscap, scratching the paper again and again. To convince Mr. Pentree, this had to be an excellent facsimile. Yet, within the quiet, the bold name she copied called to her.
Her hand slowed. Ink blurred, ceasing to be lines on a page.
Those lines turned into a name...a person.
Her brows knit together, brushing the inside of her mask. Could a signature reveal much about a man?
What she was about to do wasn't simply copying a signature, nor was she on the path of faceless transgression. She set out to deceive a man, a man who was someone's brother, someone's son, and deception could turn ugly, as well she knew.
The moon's telling light washed over Ryland's black signature, the lettering strong to the point of arrogance. Yes, arrogant and unstoppable and barely educated. A man quite like her father. She stumbled over that impression, letting the inkling sink deeper.
No one will get hurt.
Her thumb pressed a new wrinkle on the foolscap. "This is just a case of nerves."
Really, if Mr. Ryland hadn't been so difficult about leasing his properties to an unmarried woman, she wouldn't be in this predicament.
Why did men get to decide these things anyway?
She slid the original signature behind the document to be forged, paper brushing paper. Vexation dissolved into what was truly the heart of the matter: the longing for a place of her own, to make her own way in the world-a new path made possible by the single stroke of a quill.
At the moment, her success hinged on one man, or at least on stealing his name. Lips curving in a wry smile, she dipped the nib in ink and, with surprising ease, copied over faint lines.
The result produced a stunning imitation.
Once the signature was sanded, she leaned back in Ryland's chair, her thumb and forefinger pinching the aquamarine stone hanging from her neck. Footsteps crunched on gravel outside. A carriage rolled past the study window. Voices came closer. Louder and more of them.
She peered around the chair. Footmen loitered by the window, the tops of their white periwigs visible at the bottom. If one man angled his head just so, he'd spy her at Ryland's desk.
Slipping from the chair, she sought the room's lone settee, a safe harbor in the shadows. She sunk down, squashing her skirts like some rustic cousin new to Town. Her head lolled against the back cushion, finding needful support.
Who knew committing a crime could be so draining?
One. More. Minute.
Then, she'd be free.
The signature page nestled on her lap. Let the form get good and dry before tucking away the incriminating piece, but behind her, the door clicked. She jerked upright and faced the door.
A bright beam of light sliced the blackness.
A man stepped forward, his silhouette tall and well dressed. She blinked at the blinding glow. Every muscle seized with the want to flee. Her fingernails dug into chintz upholstery. The commanding figure shut the door, head bent as though lost in thought. He placed a single brass candleholder on a table, oblivious to her presence.
The study's late-night visitor took a step in her direction, tense lines bracketing his mouth. Immense shoulders shrugged off a fine velvet coat in slow, distracted fashion, the fabric rustling its intimate hush in the dark.
Excuses flew through her mind. She was looking for the lady's retiring room...she got lost-
"Who are you?" The coat stopped halfway down sizable arms.
Claire tried a fortifying breath, but her lungs refused to cooperate while her mind absorbed a new fact: she faced Cyrus Ryland. He loomed large, waiting in the silence.
Masculine brows shot up when her lack of response stretched too long.
"I'm Claire." The truth burst out, and she cringed as much from the social slip of blurting her Christian name as from revealing her identity.
His eyes flared, likely from her blunder of manners, but she hadn't thought of a false identity. Mr. Ryland took his sweet time removing his coat. His unhurried gaze traced her hair, the mask, finally settling on her plunging bodice with thorough consideration.
"Just Claire?" he asked. "Not Lady Claire Something-or-other?"
"For a masked ball"-she attempted a lighthearted smile-"just Claire."
He retrieved the candle, his granite-hard features severe behind the guttering flame. Mr. Ryland put his coat and the lone taper on a small table beside the settee. Her smile wobbled the closer he came, caught as she was in a neat trap of her own design.
Big hands spun his jabot's lacy fall around to his nape and went to work on the knot under his chin. Glued to the seat, she couldn't stop from staring. Little scabs marred his knuckles. She lingered on those marks before her vision drifted upward to confident gray eyes watching her. His powerful presence made the idea of him being anyone's victim laughable.
The cushion dipped beside her, and her stomach dropped. They'd crossed paths once at Greenwich Park, when she was in service there. Would he have any recollection of her? One hand touched her mask, and she remembered: her face was half-covered in a dimly lit room.
She was safe. For now.
Mr. Ryland faced the wall, more concerned with his neckwear than the stranger in his study.
"Let me guess," he drawled. "You'll remain anonymous until midnight, when all will be revealed."
"Typical of these entertainments, don't you think?"
"Lovely as you are, being in here isn't a good idea. I'm not the type to marry because I'm alone with a lady."
Mr. Ryland assumed she'd come here to entrap him? She wanted to laugh at the absurdity. The evening's ironic twist was too delicious.
"Oh, I'm no lady, Mr. Ryland."
His keen stare slanted her way.
"And I promise not to accost you, sir."
What possessed her to toss out those forward morsels? She may as well have dropped a succulent lure to a hungry fish.
There was a snick of sound, velvet rubbing on chintz from his body shifting toward her.
She sat taller, drawing on reserves of coolness. Armed with enticing anonymity, her hand eased its grip on the settee. There had to be a way to extract herself from this predicament, but his inflated belief that she sought to snare him needed an adjustment.
"You may find this hard to believe, but not every woman in England wants marriage to you or any other man."
"Is that so?"
"Yes," she said, smoothing her skirts. "Some women want independence, the chance to forge their own path."
His stare locked on her. "An interesting consideration."
But her skirt-smoothing fingers missed something.
The signature sheet.
Her heart lurched. The page must have slipped from her lap when she'd turned around on the settee. Her hands hunted for the paper, subtle movements over her gown and the seat beside her, but she found only air and cloth. At the bottom of her vision, the page lay on the floor, a fallen soldier in the evening's covert skirmish.
The toe of her shoe inched the damning evidence closer to her hem, all the while she faced him and held the facade of a woman at leisure. Under the circumstances, diverting small talk wouldn't be out of the ordinary.
"I see you've unmasked already."
"It was off long ago...strap broke." Ryland winced, yanking on the ties. "Waste of fabric."
"The mask? Or the jabot you're about to strangle yourself with?"
A smile touched his lips. "Both, I suppose."
His hands eased their grip on the neckwear and rested on his thighs.
"I'm guessing the evening's been a trial, and you'd rather be elsewhere," Claire went on, looking across the room where the door marked her escape. "That makes two of us."
He followed her sight line. "And what could possibly drive a woman of independence to hide in my study? A man?"
She balked at his amused suggestion, her fingers tugging a loose silver thread on her bodice.
"In a manner of speaking, yes. It's been a most unusual evening."
The thread snapped, a tiny sound in the quiet study. Mr. Ryland's attention dropped to her waist.
"Rest easy. You're safe with me."
Her busy fingers fell to her lap. She believed him. His broad-shouldered presence was like facing a nicely dressed bulwark. How gallant that he offered his protection without question. The man was sparing with his words, but his deep voice soothed her.
His eyes narrowed a fraction on her mask.
"If you're not a lady, are you a courtesan?"
Her arms clamped under her bosom, laughter bubbling up sharply. "Rather blunt, are you?"
His stare dipped to the soft, white flesh pillowing from her low-cut bodice. Her arms went stiff, and air kissed her cleavage. Despite his bold attention, she would not move her arms.
"A fair question," he ventured. "A man can only wonder when he finds a pretty woman waiting in the dark. And I prefer getting to the point."
"And this assumption of yours, is it because you divide women neatly into marriageable and unmarriageable types, and you're not sure where to put me?"
"Never believed I thought of women quite like that," he said, the corners of his mouth twitching. "But you could be onto something."
She peered at him, glad for the anonymity of her mask. The harsh bracket lines around his mouth were gone, replaced by the semblance of a smile. The changes made her want to lean closer for a better look at what else might happen. Were these subtle shifts because Mr. Ryland fed on candid conversation? She was certain he wasn't at all put off by her tart tongue.
"Did it ever occur to you there's more to the fairer sex?"
"No, but Lucinda likes to argue a similar point."
"My sister. The ball honors her birthday. This evening's part of my blunt attempt to get her wed." His tone dropped with dangerous softness. "But you'd know it's her birthday if you went through the receiving line."
She lowered her lashes, avoiding his questing stare. He likely suspected a man sneaked her into the festivities. Now she was caught. Her status was akin to a mouse trapped in an audience with a lion. She tensed, ready to spring. The door was not too far.
"Relax," he said. "You're welcome to stay if you free me from this noose. Bothered me all night."
"You mean untie your jabot?"
Such a personal request, but then he believed her to be a woman who removed lots of male clothing. Freeing him of neckwear was modest by comparison.
"You did say you wouldn't accost me." His chin tipped high, giving her access to his neck.
Claire scooted nearer to Mr. Ryland, keeping her spine properly rigid. The change in proximity spread a flush of warmth across her bare skin; probably shared body heat was all. The way he sat, assuming trust, muddled her.
She raised stiff arms, inching into unfamiliar closeness. A marionette master could be maneuvering her, so stilted were her hands. Mr. Ryland's sheer size dominated the settee, and his lopsided smile stayed in place.
"I see you're entertained."
"More like glad to be in your company...a woman speaking her mind."
"Oh." He took the starch right out of her, stoking her curiosity. Faint aromas of smoke and a woman's perfume clung to him, but another indefinable essence about the man played on her wits.
"We've just met, but you're not put off by me."
His deep voice sent a pleasant tickle down her spine.
"Should I be?"
Her hands worked the jabot's knot. Sitting this close, his chest gave the impression of solid armor plates beneath his burgundy silk waistcoat. Nothing could knock him down. Rumors had spread concerning his youth as a farmhand. Many said he worked as a laborer, digging ditches in the early days of the Bridgewater Canal Company.
How could a man like that rise to become a major stakeholder?
His soft chuckle drew her attention upward. "I grew up with seven sisters. Never got through a meal without my ears blistered by unshakable female opinions." His ribs expanded from a deep breath. "Something I never thought aristocratic women would lack."
"Perhaps you haven't met the right ones." She concentrated on the knot, surprised at wanting more conversation with him.
"I've met plenty."
His accent was decidedly lacking the crisp syllables of Town, more Midlands or Manchester by the way he honored vowels over consonants with every word.
"I think I understand. You fear a future of dull dinners with a woman who says what she thinks you want to hear. But aren't you courting a duke's daughter?"
Ryland's chin dipped, his stare pinning her.
"Since you like bluntness," she said, giving him a pert smile. "Besides, we are virtual strangers in a dark room."
"As in, strangers with the freedom to say anything."
His leg moved, his knee gently bumping hers. The contact was obvious despite layers of silk skirts.
"Something like that," she murmured, keeping her knee against his.
Her focus went back to the knot, but the undercurrent shifted between them. Mr. Ryland's warm breath mingled with hers. The simple task of unloosening a tie threatened to dismantle her thinly veiled composure. She had caused herself enough turmoil by sneaking into his house to steal his signature on the incriminating document half-exposed under her hem.
And now she added this unexpected element to the mix? Matters weren't helped by the man's intense scrutiny either.
"Is that part of your occupational talent? Listening...to men."
His voice rumbled strong and sure above her head. She licked her lips, concentrating on the balled fabric.
This is sheer madness.
How long since the headiness of attraction last touched her? Her throat thickened on notions of tenderness and men. She'd locked away those parts, hiding them in a safe place. Tonight, one man cracked open flirtation's door, and she was ready to skip happily forward.
No matter that Mr. Ryland thought her a woman of loose morals. She couldn't deny the charged atmosphere sparking between them.
The tip of her finger nudged his chin higher, lingering there. "I need you looking up."
He obliged her, and the air warmed from the faint touch.
She coaxed free a loop of cloth, the slow slide of cotton against cotton matching the tenor of her voice. "I have lots of talents, Mr. Ryland. Listening is only one of them."
His breath hitched. Her words, as potent as her tone, offered shameless encouragement. She played with fire, but she liked how Mr. Ryland was just as taken with the unusual interlude. And in the unspoken balance of power, the scales tipped gently in her favor.
He kept his head back, eyelids closed as though shutting away the world, save the two of them.
"Since we're speaking freely, the duke's daughter...the Lady Elizabeth Churchill. I'm not officially courting her. Nor do I want to." His words flowed in the lax way of a wearied man. "But that doesn't stop her determined mother from pressing the matter."
"I see." Claire inched closer. "And by the way, her perfume's all over your clothes. Lady Churchill's resorting to desperate measures to gain your attention."
Ryland's hands fisted on his thighs. "The perfume belongs to another woman."
Who? Her eyebrows shot up, brushing the inside of her silk mask.
"Well, at least you're honest. For a man who doesn't appreciate aristocratic women, you certainly have your share of their attentions."
"And yet, here I sit, seeking refuge in my study."
The uninvited thought slipped past her defenses.
Their conversation took a peculiar turn on this already peculiar evening. Ryland's rules of business were unconscionable to her, but his directness gave an unexpected delight. She asked forthright questions; he gave forthright answers.
She adjusted her hold on the jabot, the backs of her hands brushing his neck and under his chin. Burgeoning whiskers and warm, male flesh grazed her skin.
"Careful," he teased. "A body might think you're trying to accost a vulnerable man after all."
She laughed softly, dipping her head closer to his chest. "Something tells me, Mr. Ryland, you're vulnerable to no one."
"Cyrus," he said. "At least in here...call me Cyrus."
Was there a hint of longing in his voice?
She studied him under the veil of her lashes. England's stalwart King of Commerce, a man said to own almost every warehouse from Manchester to London, proved to have a vulnerable side.
"Aren't you on the marriage hunt for yourself?" she asked, adding quickly, "For a noblewoman, I mean."
The steel-hard quality in his voice brooked no further discussion. Mr. Ryland was a riddle to unfold, an attractive one at that. The lone candle flickered behind him, outlining powerful shoulders, tempting solidness she wanted to test.
"But an evening of harmless flirtation isn't out of the question."
His gaze fixed on her. "I'd welcome an evening free of complications."
Did he just proposition her?
Her legs relaxed under her skirts, his overture pushing open closed places. Tonight an element more dangerous than her forgery lurked. She uncurled his fist resting on his thigh and placed the bothersome neckwear in his hand.
"And now you're free," she said softly.
His shirt's neckline opened, the cotton seams bunching and wrinkling enough to reveal the tempting flesh of his upper chest. Sitting this close, interesting details like a minute cut on his jaw drew her attention. The split marked the center of a maroon bruise the size of a ha'penny.
A hard force must've struck this strapping man to leave the deep cut. Near that mark, a cleft dented the center of his strong chin. Before she could stop herself, her fingertip touched the small cleft, then slid along his jaw to circle the bruise.
"Battles with your valet?"
He grabbed her hand, holding her fingers in his warm grip. Ryland suspended his hold midair before slowly lowering her hand to her knee.
"My turn for questions."
They sat closer than propriety allowed, with his warm hand possessing hers. This strange meeting blurred Society's rules, but to Mr. Ryland, she was a woman of easy virtue sitting alone with him in a dark room. In these circumstances, both parties set their own boundaries, didn't they? Though he had no idea who she was, she sensed they sat as equals.
She sat up straighter, aware this shared power was of a sensual nature only; there'd be no parity outside the bedroom with Mr. Ryland. He was a man who led, expecting others, especially the gentler sex, to follow. Yet his strong-boned face would appeal to most women, women who'd forgive his overbearing ways and find his rough magnetism and substantial fortune qualities of great consideration.
His riches didn't interest her. His inviting mouth did.
A thin guise of civility covered this brute of a man who, through will or wealth, got his way. But his brotherly admission of listening to, even liking, his sisters' opinions turned her on end-not at all what she expected. How extraordinary to be in the company of a difficult man and discover he's not so...difficult.
She leaned back for mind-clearing space. "What do you want to know?"
He let go of her hand and stretched his arm along the back of the settee. "Who's your protector?"
"Perhaps I'm a woman of independent means. An honest businesswoman."
Cyrus laughed, a full sound radiating from his chest. "Sounds dangerous."
With fluid movement, he stood up and walked across the room to his desk. She turned around on the settee, watching his broad back.
"You don't think a woman should live a life of independence?"
"An invitation for trouble, if you ask me. Women need a man's guiding hand. Been that way since the beginning of time. Why change what already works?" He picked up the brass clock from the corner of his desk. "What about those baubles around your neck? Made of paste?"
Her hand shot up, touching the necklace. By his inflection, she caught Ryland's assumption that the jewels were a gift from a man. He'd be right. Her fingers rolled the largest stone, evidence of a past mistake.
"They're real," she said, her tone flat. "But I mean to sell them."
"Not sentimental jewelry, then?"
"No." She'd give no more on the necklace.
Her shoe pressed the floor, ready to grind stinging memories underfoot, when something crunched beneath her heel. The signature sheet. How could she let rampant flirtation muddle her mind and make her forget the very reason for being here?
Mr. Ryland angled the clock's face toward the moonlight. "Midnight approaches."
Midnight. The unmasking hour. She was supposed to meet Abigail. Her glance dropped to the sheet, shot to the door, and ricocheted back to the man by the moonlit desk. Was he going to suggest she go into the ball with him?
How was she going to get out?
She bent down, the air squishing out her lungs from whalebone stays poking and prodding-her corset and false hips made touching the floor nigh on impossible. Nimble fingers folded the paper into quarters, then once more, all done in time to quick, shallow breaths.
Stuffing the incriminating piece down her cleavage, her eyes shut for a split second.
The shop, her plans...all were within reach.
The necklace swung forward at the bottom of her vision, a pendulum of sparkling aquamarine, reminding her it was time to move on with her new life. Out of the corner of her eye, polished black shoes came into view.
"You've got to give me more about yourself before the unmasking-" He slipped on his coat and started to bend low. "Is something wrong?"
"Fine. I'm fine," she said, breath huffing and moving upright again. "My hem needed fixing."
Mellow candlelight touched Ryland's brown hair, the queue restrained in a black silk wrapped ribbon. He adjusted his sleeves, and the bottom seam of his fine waistcoat skimmed well-formed thighs. The man was granite hard without an ounce of excess. She stroked a white-blond lock of hair curling against the top of her left breast. The coy move was unintentional, but caught his eye all the same.
She could be any woman she wanted to be tonight.
Wasn't she doing that already?
Free, masked, unknown-a woman once in service, now wearing a ball gown, playing a part she'd never play again. What woman didn't want a taste of the forbidden at least once in her life? The chance to masquerade as someone else if only for a night?
And then she'd leave, escape as harmlessly as she came. No one would be hurt. What better place to slip away unnoticed than in a crowded ballroom? Tomorrow would bring the beginnings of her more reliable adventure as midtown proprietress of a humble coffee shop.
"What were you saying?" she asked, champagne-like giddiness pouring over her.
She'd sipped the stuff twice in her life, and tonight's victory made her feel as though she had consumed the sweet, golden nectar again.
Growing up a steward's daughter on the grand Greenwich estate afforded her many opportunities. But life changed one fateful night, a reminder of who and what she was. Since then, she labored hard, building calluses anew on her hands and heart, all in an effort to fall into a deep sleep every night and forget what had happened years ago. Many more years of hard work stretched ahead of her.
Why not sip champagne once more?
What harm could come of that?