Read an Excerpt
December 31, 1888 Peppin, Texas
He'd found her.
Every false start, every mistake, all of the embarrassment of his previous failed attempts at courting and years of waiting faded away in that moment because he knew this was the woman his heart had been hoping for. It didn't matter that she, like everyone else at the masquerade ball, was wearing a mask and he didn't know her name or have any other clue concerning her identity. He was going to marry her Probably. Maybe. If he didn't mess things up like he usually did.
Rhett Granger kept his gaze riveted on the woman he was certain was his future wife as he crossed the crowded hotel ballroom toward her. She wore an emerald sheath dress belted at the waist with a braided golden rope. Heavy gold jewelry draped around her neck and delicate wrists while a low crown encircled straight black hair that looked to be a wig. Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, had more than her fair share of admirers hovering around, hanging on her every word. He'd be able to dispatch them with ease if he was half the swashbuckling buccaneer his tricornered hat, black leather pants and gray poet shirt portrayed him to be. He wasn't, but he still managed to cross the room.
The closer he got, the more something about the woman seemed unerringly familiar. Then again, something about everyone at Peppin's New Year's Eve Ball seemed familiar. That was probably because Rhett had met most of the folks who lived in this town at some point during the two and a half years since he'd moved here. He probably already knew or had at the very least met "Cleopatra" at some point before. Perhaps that meant there was a reason they weren't already a couple.
His courage faltered slightly along with his steps. Then, she glanced up and caught him staring at her. Her eyes widened before her thick, dark lashes lowered demurely. The soft light from the gas chandelier hovering above the dance floor did nothing to hide the slight blush that appeared just below her gold mask. No way was he turning back now.
He swallowed hard, squared his shoulders and continued on. He lingered near the outskirts of her circle of admirers to observe her. She was putting on a good show, but he could tell she was uncomfortable with all of the attention. The tension was there in her smile. Eyes that should have sparkled looked dull with disinterest. Her slim fingers hovered near her temple before coming to rest behind her neck as though a headache was starting. Her gaze gradually lifted back to his, revealing her deep green eyes. She tilted her head as though to ask a silent question. Was he there to join the fray or free her from it? Her rosy lips lifted in a hesitant smile that said she hoped it was the latter.
His heart began to pound in his chest. He opened his mouth to ask her to dance so that they could fall in love and get married. No words came out. He clamped his lips shut. He swallowed. He tried again. Not even so much as a grunt. Fine. Not a problem. Or at least, not an unusual one. He was accustomed to finding himself tongue-tied around beautiful women. This time it wouldn't stop him. He didn't need words to ask her to dance.
He unclenched his suddenly moist fist in preparation to offer his hand, already envisioning her taking it and him leading her onto the dance floor. Instead, another man brushed past him to stand in the middle of the circle. He was dressed as a roman warrior though he'd opted to wear pants under the kilt-looking part of the outfit. The Roman removed his helmet and gave a deep bow before Cleopatra. "Milady, may I have this dance?"
She glanced at Rhett then back to the Roman before speaking in an accent that sounded like a strange mixture of a Southern belle and an English lady. "And you are?"
Her mouth fell open. Pursing her lips closed, she narrowed her eyes in what seemed to be suspicion. That didn't stop her from placing her hand in Antony's and allowing him to lead her to the dance floor. The small gathering of her suitors disappeared like bees around a wilted bloom, leaving only Rhett to stare after the woman in disappointment. Why wasn't he surprised that another man had swept in and taken the woman of his dreams while he stood around like a bumbling idiot? Oh, that was right. It had happened beforeseveral times.
The last time had been the most embarrassing because he hadn't bothered to hide his interest in Amy Bradley from the town. He hadn't felt the need to. After all, they'd been paired on the infamous Bachelor Lista list of matches created by Ellie Williams, the town's most successful matchmaker. What could go wrong?
Him. He'd gone wrong precisely as he always did anytime a relationship took a turn toward romance. Not that he could call what had happened with Amy a "romance" even if it was the closest he'd ever gotten to one. All they'd shared were a few drawn-out glances and several laborious chats after church on Sunday. Still, it had been enough to give him hope.
That hope had been most decidedly and publicly destroyed when Amy eloped with a not-so-former suitor more than two months ago. Did that mean that Rhett had lost his only chance at love? He'd rather think that just this once Ellie had been wrong, and Amy wasn't the woman he was supposed to end up with.
That meant his true love might still be out there. He wanted to find her, but what would happen if he did? The same thing that had happened with Cleopatranothing. Absolutely nothing.
A heavy sigh filtered through his lips as Cleopatra and Mark Antony floated past him in a waltz. Why wouldn't God take away whatever stupid affliction he had that changed him from an intelligent, personable and confident man into an ineloquent, dull-witted, insecure boy at the first sign of romance in a relationship? Perhaps he was destined to be alone for the rest of his life and this was merely God's way of showing him that. In that case, the kindest thing he could do for himself would be to stop getting his hopes up about something that would never happen.
He bowed his head. God, show me what You want me to do. Send me a sign or
Rhett jerked as something bounced off his chest and landed on the floor near his boot. He knelt to examine it more closely. An arrow? It was. Though, it had been made in miniature out of papier-mache.
He glanced up to find a woman grinning down at him. She was dressed in a pink dress that flowed and draped like those of ancient Greece. A small set of wings peeked out from behind her shoulders and she carried an equally small bow to go with her arrows. Was she ? Cupid. She was Cupid, which meant
He stood and crossed his arms. "Ellie Williams, who gave you a weapon?"
The blonde glanced around as if looking for someone, then vanished into the crowd. She returned with her husband of two months in tow. "Lawson gave me a weapon and showed me how to use it."
"I don't know what I was thinking." The small shake of Lawson's head was exaggerated by the huge hat, which, along with his costume, designated him as one of the three musketeers. Rhett was pretty sure that meant Lawson's brothers-in-law were the other two.
Lawson winked at Ellie. "She's already dangerous enough without it."
Rhett glanced away, feeling decidedly uncomfortable as Ellie sent her husband a look that was warmer than Texas in the spring. Once they were finished staring into each other's eyes, Rhett presented Ellie with the arrow. "I believe this is yours."
"You can keep it, Rhett. I have plenty of them left. Look, it says 'Happy New Year' on the shaft."
He handed it back to her anyway. "Thanks, but Wait. How do you know who I am? I thought my costume disguised me pretty well."
Lawson nodded. "It does. Ellie, how did you know it was Rhett?"
"I have my ways."
Her cryptic answer didn't fool him. "You saw me, didn't you? You saw me try to ask that woman to dance."
Lawson frowned. "What woman?"
"Cleopatra," Ellie answered, then winced. "I mean, what woman?"
"What happened, Rhett?"
"Same old, same old," he said. The couple had witnessed his limitations when it came to communicating with the opposite sex on numerous occasions. "Who is she, though, when she isn't Cleopatra?"
Ellie shrugged. "What makes you think I would know? Midnight isn't too far away. Stick around for the unmasking and find out for yourself."
"Actually, I think I'm going to head home." He hadn't decided on that until he said it, yet he knew that was probably the best idea he'd had all evening. They both protested, but Rhett knew it was the right decision. There was no point in sticking around. He'd probably only find some way to make a fool of himself again. It would be far wiser for him to go home.
Of course, he'd be alone on New Year's Eve. But how was that different than any other day?
He pushed away the loneliness and disappointment that threatened him. It was going to be a new year. Perhaps it was time to put old dreams aside and move on.
Tonight, she was a woman of intrigue, sophistication and mysteryCleopatra, Queen of the Nile.
At least, she would let herself pretend to be that until the stroke of midnight when the masks would come off, and she'd turn into a pumpkin. Or, more accurately, she'd go back to being practical, boring and uninspiring Isabelle Bradley. There were only fifteen minutes left before that would happen. That mean meant the only person who knew her true identity, besides the four male boarders who'd escorted her from her family's boardinghouse, was Marc Antony.
He smiled down at her. "You look beautiful, Isabelle."
She feigned disinterest. "What makes you think my name is Isabelle?"
"Because you're the only one who ordered a wig like that from my family's mercantile."
Her dance partner was Chris Johansen, then. She'd suspected as much. She didn't even bother to hold back her frustrated huff. She'd gone through a lot of trouble to disguise herself from her older sister's former suitors. Apparently, her efforts hadn't worked. "Sophia promised she wouldn't tell anyone that I'd ordered the wig."
"Don't worry. My little sister refused to answer a single one of my questions about who it was for. I figured it out on my own by looking at your account records."
Why he'd go through all of that trouble was beyond her. She simply couldn't get used to the tenacity or attentions of Chris and her other so-called suitors. They'd never paid her any mind before her sister's elopement. She could hardly take them seriously now when, despite their best efforts to prove otherwise, it was obvious they were only seeking a replacement for Amy. Isabelle aspired to few things in life, but allowing herself to become a faded tintype in the eyes of a man who should cherish her for herself was not one of them. She'd try to make that clear by avoiding the men altogether. They didn't seem to be getting the message. Perhaps she ought to try being a bit more assertive. Starting with "Mark Antony."
Isabelle pinned him with an accusatory stare as he whirled her around the crowded dance floor in a waltz. "Well, all I have to say is you've got a lot of nerve, Chris Johansen, dressing to match me. What exactly are you trying to achieve by doing this? Because the only message I'm getting is that you're a cheater."
He rolled his eyes. "I didn't know what else to do. I've been trying to get your attention for weeks. You won't stay still long enough to listen."
No, she hadn't, but perhaps he'd leave her alone if she let him say his peace. After a long-suffering sigh, she nodded. "All right, I'm listening now. What is it you want to say?"
"You and I have been friends a long time, haven't we?"
"Uh-huh." She found refuge from his too-intense eyes by scanning the crowd of onlookers. It wasn't until her gaze landed on the tall, powerfully built pirate who'd approached her earlier that she realized she'd been looking for him all along. He stood at the edge of the dance floor talking to a couple. They must have been saying their goodbyes for he shook the man's hand and received a quick hug from the lady. He turned. For one intense moment, their eyes caught and held across the distance. But then the steps of the waltz spun her around and she lost sight of him.
"Isabelle, did you hear me?"
She forced herself to refocus on her partner. "Hmm?"
"I was trying to ask you" He froze, which was probably a good thing since he looked downright exasperated.
It was only when he turned slightly away from her that she saw the man at his heels. Dressed in a costume fit for a drawing room in Regency England, he gave a shallow bow. "May I cut in?"
Chris scowled. "No."
The gentleman stroked the curves of his immaculately shaped auburn mustache as he affected a very poor English accent. "Mr. Johansen, it is common courtesy to yield in such occasions."
Chris's eyes narrowed. "How do you know who I am?"
"As an artist always knows his own work, a barber recognizes every haircut he gives."
As Chris slid his fingers through his blond hair, Isabelle barely withheld a groan of recognition. She should have recognized Amy's childhood sweetheart the second she saw his mustache. "John Merriweather."
"Miss Isabelle, I presume." He bowed again. "May I have this dance?"
Chris kept hold of her hand. "Now, see here, John. You'll just have to wait"
"Absolutely, you may cut in, Mr. Merriweather." She glanced between two menone dejected, the other gloating. Lifting Chris's hand, she placed it squarely in John's. "It might look a little strange, but you gentlemen enjoy yourselves."
She lingered only long enough to watch their mouths drop open as they jerked their hands back and glared at each other. Their protests rang in her ears as she left them on the dance floor. Fearing one or both might attempt to follow heronce they were done arguing with each othershe slipped out a side door into the hotel's garden. A cold wind set her teeth chattering and hastened her down the path leading to the wide back porch. She reached for the door to reenter the hotel, but hesitated. Stepping farther into the shadows of the porch, she considered her options.
If she went back into the ballroom, she'd likely spend the rest of the night trying to avoid Amy's spurned suitors. Her only other option was to leave the masquerade altogether. She grimaced at the thought of returning home early on a night free from her parents' suspicious and watchful gazes. As much as she loved them, their overprotectiveness of her and her fifteen-year-old sister, Violet, had become stifling.
In the aftermath of Amy's elopement with a former boarder at the family's boardinghouse, her parents had become fixated on not letting that situation repeat itself. They'd even gone so far as to say they'd sell Bradley Boardinghouse if one more thing went wrong. Isabelle had laughed the first time they'd said it, thinking they were joking. They weren't. However, all they'd done so far was talk about the possibility of selling. She was certain that with a little time they'd regain their love for the boardinghouse and no longer be tempted to consider anything as drastic as that. In the meantime, she'd simply have to make sure nothing else went wrong.
The sound of the door opening startled her from her reverie just as a man stepped out onto the porch. It wasn't merely any man, though. It was the pirate she'd noticed inside. A coat covered most of his costume now, but he still wore the unmistakable tricornered hat. He paused to remove it. His mask came off next. A soft gasp filled her lungs as the golden light of a nearby lantern illuminated his handsome features. Shock eased his name from her lips with a mix of amusement and exasperation. "Rhett Granger."
He spun toward her. His eyes widened as she stepped from the shadows. "It's you. What Why are you out here? In the cold porch. On the cold. In the porch. I mean." He shook his head and gave up.
Tilting her head, she stared at him in confusion. Land sakes! What had happened to him all of a sudden? She hadn't heard him stumble around with his words like that since he'd been sweet on Amy.
From what she'd seen, Rhett had been left truly brokenhearted by Amy's elopement. Isabelle had gotten to know him relatively well in the few months since her best friend, Helen, had married his best friend, Quinn. Before then, she'd only really thought of him as one of Amy's admirers. Now she knew for certain that he was as honest, trustworthy and honorable as his reputation said he was. He was also about ten times as exasperatingusually.