The widowed Lady Stephen Tarkington, Fanny to her friends, has finished mourning her cad of a husband and is ready to enjoy her freedom. The kind of freedom neither a gently bred miss nor a close-watched wife is permitted: dressing up as Aphrodite for a masquerade, drawing gentlemen away from the party, and hinting at late-night assignations with her dance partners. All is going pleasurably according to plan—until the Roman god Fanny kisses during a masquerade turns out to be Matthew, Lord Lathbury, whose proposal she refused years ago . . .
Lathbury is charming, passionate, inventive, everything Fanny wants in a lover—but unfortunately, he’s on the hunt for a wife. He’s more than willing to use all his wicked skills to persuade her back to the altar, but he can’t wait forever. And now Fanny’s position is more precarious than she once thought. If the tongues of the ton set to wagging, it’s possible no offer in the world will save her from ruin. But does she want to be saved? . . .
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Glittering candles, the flames wafting to and fro with the gentle June breeze, illuminated Lady Beaumont's ballroom just enough for Frances, Lady Stephen Tarkington, to see the other revelers near her without being so bright as to take the fun out of the masquerade. As far as Fanny was concerned, masquerades should be conducted in semi-darkness at all times, even the unmasking. So much better to hide one's identity when one wished to be a little naughty. And oh, but she wanted to be the epitome of a naughty widow.
Her husband, Major Lord Stephen Tarkington, had died at the battle of Waterloo. Tonight, after a long year of mourning his passing, she had emerged from her widow's weeds in the most scandalous costume money could buy. Aphrodite in a filmy white muslin gown, the fabric so sheer she could scarcely feel it against her body. Arching her neck, Fanny pushed her breasts forward until they threatened to spill over her tight bodice, so low cut it skimmed the tops of the dark circles of her nipples. After a year of almost no social interactions, she wanted to burst back onto the stage of ton life in the boldest way possible. She smiled behind her glittery silver mask. From the looks of the costumed gentlemen, she had hit her mark.
"Good evening, my beautiful Aphrodite." A tall gentleman in a black mask and the red and white tabard of a Knight Templar bowed low before her. His deep voice seemed forced, obviously disguised.
"Good evening, Sir Knight." She curtsied, giving him a closer look at her décolletage. "Are you just returned from the Crusades? You seem to have the dust of the road still upon you."
"Gads, I do seem to." The knight brushed at his shoulders and a burst of motes flew upward. "M'valet took it out of the attics yesterday and the man obviously didn't attend to it properly."
"You must smite him forthwith, Sir Knight. Such insolence from a lowly squire cannot be tolerated." Ah, Sir Arthur Fremont. His annoyance at his valet had made him abandon his deep voice. She'd recognized the man's high-pitched tone. A dead bore really, although a wonderful partner at whist.
Sir Arthur laughed. "Off with his head, what?"
Holding up her slender golden snake, one of Aphrodite's symbols, she shook it at the wayward knight. "Be sure you do, Sir Knight! Accept no insubordination."
The man danced backward, bumping into a rather plump woman in the guise of some medieval lady in waiting, knocking off her precariously balanced cone-shaped headdress.
"My steeple! You've ruined my steeple!" Clutching the hat, now dented in the middle, the woman stormed off, Sir Arthur following and spouting abject apologies.
Laughing and looking for someone interesting to talk to, Fanny took advantage of the change of sets to make her way across the ballroom toward a rather brightly costumed man wearing the traditional green and brown garb of Robin Hood. He carried a bow and a quiver of arrows on his back; however, what drew her attention was his legs. Encased in fine brown stockings, Robin Hood's shapely legs set her heart to thudding. Of course, she saw men all the time in ballrooms in pantaloons and stockings, but something about those finely muscled calves fed a long dormant hunger and drew her toward him.
"Well met, Prince of Thieves." Fanny smiled up into the masked face, trying to determine who he was. A flirtation with this handsome gentleman might start the evening off well indeed.
"Any meeting with your loveliness, goddess, is sheer fortune." He sketched a bow and moved closer to her. "Are you not afraid I will steal something of value from you?"
Yes, a gentleman willing to play and one she did not recognize. That added spice to the wager. "What thing of value might I possess that you would desire?"
"I believe you possess many delights I could fancy, goddess."
"Indeed?" Again she lifted the snake. "I have only this bauble." She twirled it around, making it catch the candlelight. Oh, but she was enjoying this.
His eyes twinkled and he smiled. "Quite a bauble indeed."
She laughed and tucked the snake into her magical girdle, a leather belt of sorts, and reputedly Aphrodite's sole weapon. "And these."
From her pockets Fanny produced two golden apples, another symbol of the Goddess of Love. She held them before her bodice, right in front of her breasts. "Might you like these, my lord?"
The gentleman's eyes widened behind his mask, then went deepest black. "Ah, yes. You do have treasures I desire."
A shiver raced down her spine.
"I believe I will steal those jewels, goddess." Swaying closer to her, he took the gold-painted apples, his warm fingers brushing hers. He clutched the fruit and her body flushed.
Lord, it had been such a long time since she had flirted so shamelessly with a man. Years before Stephen had died. She'd need to keep her emotions under control while she was learning to navigate this world once more. Almost like being out for her first Season, yet fully aware of all the pleasures that could be the result of such a wild flirtation.
"Take pity on me, kind sir. Those are all I have, save my little snake." Fanny sent a soulful glance toward the thief's face and pulled it forth. "Would you let me exchange something for my apples?"
Robin Hood glanced around and grasped her arm. "Perhaps we should discuss this in a more private setting. I'm certain something can be arranged." A gleam of white teeth behind the mask and he was tugging her toward a darkened corner.
Too fast, even for her. Fanny slowed her steps. Yes, she'd come here tonight hoping for an assignation to a dalliance. A dalliance that might grow into something more than she had bargained for. "I think we should remain here, in the light of this sconce, lest you steal something more than I can afford." She plucked the apples out of his hands and stuffed them back into her pockets. "Even a goddess must be wary of a thief, no matter how handsome."
"Perhaps you shall change your mind before the night is out. May I help persuade you during the next set?"
"Not the next, but the one after it. By then I will have my guard in place."
"Do you think yourself impervious to me?"
"Is not a goddess more powerful than a mere woodsman?" She tried to look down her nose at him, but had to laugh at the effort. A mask made the gesture ridiculous.
"Not if the woodsman can overpower the goddess." He grasped her hands, warm skin to warm skin, no proper gloves between them. Peering deep into her eyes, he leaned forward, breathing into her ear, "Let us continue this lovely interlude in a more private place. The library —"
"There you are, my dear."
Fanny jerked back from the bold gentleman, who also straightened as a demure-looking Diana, complete with quiver and bow, appeared as from nowhere. She pounced on Robin Hood, grabbing his arm and squeezing it. "I have been looking for you, my dear. Wherever have you been?" The petite blond woman, in Greek robes and a white full face mask, smiled at her prey. "Not hiding from me, I hope?"
"Never that, my lady." Robin Hood's smooth voice betrayed a hint of annoyance.
"I have just been informed that Lady Beaumont has asked us to perform in a match of our archery skills for the entertainment of the guests. Two bowmen of strength, evenly matched." She cocked her head, cool eyes behind her mask glittering. "We don't want to keep our hostess waiting, do we?"
One lingering look from Robin Hood, then he took the lady's arm. "I am afraid duty calls, my goddess. Perhaps we shall continue our discussion of apples at a later time?"
"Assuredly, good sir. As we are promised for the third set, perhaps then." Fanny nodded to them both, thankful her silver mask hid her heated face. She made a shooing motion. "By all means, you must not let a lowly goddess keep you from the all-powerful hostess."
"I'm so glad you understand," Diana said, shooting her a nasty look that Fanny recognized at once. Lady Phoebe Campbell, who'd been out for two Seasons and had just managed to catch Lord Bayberry's youngest son. That must be Robin Hood here, to judge by the fierceness in Lady Phoebe's voice. An arranged marriage, or so her friend Charlotte had told their circle last week, which would explain why the lady wanted to keep Fanny as far away from her betrothed as possible.
"I wish you well in your competition. May the best bowman win."
The couple walked swiftly toward the doors that led to the main part of the house, Lady Phoebe grasping Robin Hood's arm in a death grip. Somehow she doubted Robin would be allowed to return for their set. No great loss if the gentleman was truly betrothed elsewhere.
Fanny stared after them, a smile forming on her lips. Where Lady Beaumont intended to hold such a match, she had no idea. Perhaps there was to be no such exhibition at all. A clever or determined woman wouldn't be above lying to secure her a husband. Fanny considered herself both, but didn't think she could stoop to lying to a man she loved. Stopping short in her musings, she shook off the image of her late husband, tall, wiry, always laughing. By the time she'd lied to him, she had no longer loved him. Anyway, that was in the past. Tonight was the beginning of her future life and she would damn well make the most of it.
With a shake that was partially a shiver, Fanny threw her head back and turned once more to the ballroom. The second set was making so if she waited just a little she could soon find an unoccupied gentleman to dally with. Even though she loved dancing and had not been able to do so for the past year, dancing was the last thing on her mind tonight. As though the clock had rolled back ten years to her own debut Season, she wanted to flit and flirt, to stretch her wings and soar amongst the ton's most eligible gentlemen. She had a deal of time to make up for and the possibilities were deliciously spread out before her.
Several Greek gods in strategically draped robes — everyone from Zeus with his thunderbolts to Hades clutching a huge drinking horn to Poseidon armed with his trident — mingled along the edges of the ballroom floor. A Roman soldier in a shiny breastplate towered over the crowd in the far corner. He must be Lord Walston, the tallest man by far in the ton, standing head and shoulders above all the other gentlemen. Height was impossible to disguise, unfortunately. That must spoil the fun for him every time. A sprinkling of Renaissance courtiers, one of whom she recognized as her brother-in-law, Lord Theale. A shock to her, to find him in attendance. Was her sister-in-law here as well? Strike her dumb with a noodle. She'd always known him to be such a high stickler; now to see him cavorting with a pretty shepherdess made her skin crawl.
She turned away quickly. Theale was the last person she wished to encounter when she was in search of a dalliance. Something he would never approve of, even though she was out of mourning. Speaking spritely to a couple of what she assumed were gentlemen in richly colored dominos, she continued her hunt for a flirtation. She spied a lowly shepherd in rough clothing, and a splendidly dressed sultan in colorful robes and a bejeweled mask. Surely a feast for a lady in search of male companionship.
About to head for the dazzling sultan, Fanny glanced about one more time, just to make sure no one else interesting had entered the ballroom, when she caught sight of two identically dressed men bearing down on her. Dark-haired, tall, and broad-shouldered — with shoulders and arms almost bared beneath a thin cape trimmed in gold braid — their slim hips covered in a skirt resembling a pleated kilt of white linen, showing off shapely legs in white stockings and sandals, the duo was breathtaking. Before she could blink they stood beside her, true Greek gods in beauty and stature. Her evening had just taken a most satisfactory turn. A pity their faces were obscured with identical silver half-masks, embossed with a cantering horse across the forehead. She'd wager they were equally handsome underneath.
"Goddess Aphrodite, we greet you in the name of our father, Zeus." The twin closest to her bowed and grasped her hand.
Suddenly unnerved by his very large, looming presence, she stepped back, trying to pull away but to no avail. The rogue held tight to her hand and raised it to his lips. "Do not be alarmed, my dear. We come to honor you with a request for the next set."
Warily, Fanny studied first the man holding her hand, then his partner. Twin Greek gods was an easy one to identify. "You are impertinent, sirs, as I cannot discern who is who. Are you Castor or Pollux?"
"I am Pollux, Aphrodite," the gentleman holding her hand said, giving it a squeeze that sent sudden tingles all along her arm. "My brother is Castor" — the other man bowed — "though friend, rather than brother, in earnest."
His rich baritone voice tugged at her memory, as did the deep blue eyes behind the mask. The warmth of his hand, however, addled her brain, turning it to mush. Grasping the obvious, she managed to ask, "How ... how do you propose to both dance with me in a single set, unless one of you secures another partner?"
"An apt question, from an astute goddess." Castor grinned. "I have already captured such a lady for my dancing delight. We four shall make up a set."
"Who is your partner?"
"That very pretty shepherdess over there in pink." He pointed to a young girl in a modest costume, laughing with a group of other young ladies. Well, she'd not have much competition in keeping the twins' attention.
"I should be delighted to make up your set. However" — she turned her attention back to Pollux — "the second set has not yet begun." Fluttering her eyelashes up at the handsome man, she squeezed his hand. "How are we to pass the time until our dance?"
His sharp intake of breath made her hold her own. Even more amazing, his eyes changed from deep blue to black in an instant. The wave of his desire hit her like a tangible thing. Her mouth dried, her heart raced, her whole head heated as though it had caught fire. Who was this man that he could affect her so?
"Come with me." He pulled her toward the double doors behind them that led to the other part of the house.
Heart pounding, Fanny ran on tiptoes in an effort to keep up with him. This was madness. Wherever was he taking her? And what on earth did he have in mind? Oh, but she knew what that was. That deep desire in his eyes told her exactly where his intentions lay. Would she allow him to have his way with her? She didn't quite recognize him; the mask hid just enough of his face. Still he reminded her of someone. Someone who had been most dear to her what seemed a lifetime ago. But that man had left London, swearing never to return to the ton years before. He'd retreated to his country estate and had not been seen in Town for seven years.
They raced down the corridor, Pollux still in the lead, Castor right behind her. That gave her some comfort. Pollux wouldn't ravish her in front of his brother, or friend rather. Still, the urgency of his headlong flight, dodging wide-eyed guests left and right, persuaded her that this man would stop at nothing to get her alone.
He turned a corner into a deserted hall and slowed finally. Stopping at a door on the far end, he glanced around then put his hand on the latch. "Keep watch, Cas. No one enters."
Castor grinned. "Not a soul, Pol. My word as a gentleman."
Pollux pushed down the latch, opened the door into a shadowy room, and drew her inside.
The flickering fireplace across the room gave the only light. Fanny's eyes took a moment to adjust to the dimness. A moment in which Pollux pulled her hard against him, crushing her breasts against his unyielding chest. He wrapped his arms around her, pinning her to him, and sank his mouth onto hers.CHAPTER 2
Fanny's building panic subsided at the touch of his lips. Soft, warm, almost tender, he kissed her with a gentleness that surprised her after the fierce desire that had erupted in him. She slipped her arms round his trim waist, every muscle hard beneath her hands. Oh, but she had missed this intimacy for such a long time. So good to be this close to a man again.
He slid his tongue along the seam of her lips and without thinking she opened them, eager for more. Their tongues tangled, then she drew him in, drinking in the glorious feeling once more. Here was the passion she had shared all too little in her married life and seldom with her husband. Only with ...
Realization hit like a blow from a fist. She pulled away, her hand going to her mouth. It couldn't be.
"Do you finally know me, Fanny?"
Speechless, she nodded, her heart beating oddly in fits and starts.
Pollux smiled and pulled his mask off over his head.
"Matthew." She whispered it, still unsure if it was truly him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "What A Widow Wants"
Copyright © 2019 Jenna Jaxon.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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