“My dear, who is that lovely blonde thing being partnered by Mr. Davies?”
“Miss Mariah Duncan. She is quite the popular young lady this Season.”
Miss Imogen Duncan just barely heard the words over the din of the orchestra and the hundred or so voices that rose up like the squawking of so many peahens in the glittering ballroom. But at the sound of her sister Mariah’s name, she started.
She peered around the column she’d been practically propping up the past hour and spied a group of older women conversing on the other side, their jewel-colored turbaned heads bent together. Squinting, she tried to make out their features before giving an irritated huff. She could see their blurry outlines, but all details were completely lost.
She clenched her gloved hands, helplessness coursing through her. How she wished for her spectacles. But no, they were safe on her dressing table back at home where her mother decreed they should stay when she forayed into public. Of course, that was not the most convenient place for them as far as Imogen was concerned. She would much rather have them perched on her nose. But she had learned to pick her battles long ago, and this was one she could not hope to win.
The women, having fallen silent for a moment, struck up their conversation again, drawing Imogen’s attention back to them.
“She certainly is the best of this year’s batch of hopefuls. The men are drawn to her like flies to honey,” said the third lady.
“With those looks, do you blame them?” chimed in the first, her voice dripping boredom. “If I had a figure like that I’m certain the young bucks would be at my heels as well.”
Irritation reared its head, wiping out Imogen’s initial benign feelings for the women. It was not the first time she had overheard remarks of this nature, and it would certainly not be the last. Was that all that people in this blasted city cared about, whether a woman was beautiful?
She scanned the crowd that twirled about on the floor, trying to make out her sister. Even with Imogen’s impaired vision, Mariah stood out right away, with her pale, almost white hair piled high on her head and the beacon of her white dress with the faintest hint of pink at the hem and bodice. She held herself with a poise, moved with a lithe grace that was unmatched by any of the other ladies present. Imogen did not need her spectacles to know that her sister outshone the rest.
But why could no one concentrate on the sweetness of her spirit? Looks were all well and good, but more importantly, Mariah had an uncommon kindness to her. If only people could see beyond her face.
“Who do you suppose will be the one to catch her?” asked the second, breaking Imogen from her reverie.
“She is prettier than her sister Frances, who married the Earl of Sumner several years ago. I don’t see why the chit couldn’t land herself a marquess before the year is out.”
“Her father would be a fool to accept less,” said the first. “With her face, she could get a duke if she wanted.”
Imogen frowned. The women’s comments were making her skin crawl, as if she’d just been immersed in a tub of dirty water. She began to back away, determined to rejoin her mother so she no longer had to hear the mercenary comments being directed at her sister. But the next words stopped her cold.
“Wasn’t there another sister?”
Every muscle in Imogen’s body froze. Her feet felt nailed to the floor. To her dismay, she found herself holding her breath and leaning closer.
“Yes,” the third woman answered after a thoughtful pause, “I believe there was. Plain thing, awkward to the point of being painful to watch. I wonder whatever became of her?”
Imogen did not want to hear this. So why couldn’t she move? What kept her rooted to the spot as those horrible women talked about her?
“Ah yes, I remember her now. Plump little mouse of a thing. Always squinting. She came out the same year as Lady Sumner. She was completely eclipsed, of course, and no one ever thought of her after that. Not that they ever did before, poor girl. I believe she had one more Season after her sister married, but her mother’s effort was wasted, to say the least.”
“I hear she’s back in town for Miss Mariah’s debut.”
One woman clucked her tongue in sympathy. “It can only be worse for her this time around. There’s no chance of her making a match now. Not at her age.”
“Well, at least Lord and Lady Tarryton can be assured they will have one daughter at home to see them through old age.”
Their titters reached her, finally propelling her from her hiding place. Tears burned her eyes as she sidled behind the women and through the thickly milling crowd, making certain to stay well out of their view. She could not bear to see the pity in their eyes if they caught sight of her. She should have moved away at the first mention of her sister. It served her right for listening in on gossip that was not meant for her ears.
What was incorrect about anything those women said about her, after all? She was awkward, and plain, and a spinster quite firmly on the shelf with no hopes for marriage. And she knew, even without hearing the words aloud at home, that her parents held the belief that she would be with them for the remainder of their lives. So why did it hurt so very much to hear three ill-mannered tabbies talking of her that way?
Imogen worked her way through the ballroom, knocked this way and that by the mass of bodies, tears blurring her already useless vision. She blinked them fiercely back. Now was not the time, not here in front of all these people, most of whom probably thought the same of her as those women did, if they thought of her at all. But it seemed her heart would not listen, for it repeated in an endless litany what she fought so hard to forget: that she would remain unloved by any man, with no future, no hope for a life of her own.
She bit her lip as a sob threatened. Spying the open terrace doors to her right, she swiftly changed course and headed for them. No one, not even her mother, would begrudge her a few minutes alone.
The coolness of the evening air settled about her, and it was only as the faint breeze turned her cheeks icy that she realized her tears had not been held in check and had in fact left wet trails down her face. She swiftly clamped a hand over her mouth as another sob welled up in her chest. No, the terrace was no good. She needed to get further away. She grabbed her skirts in both hands and flew down the stone steps into the garden, needing the cover of darkness so she could give vent to what was quickly breaking through the surface.
She sped along the well-tended paths, deeper into the dimness of the foliage. The lanterns that had been strung about grew sparse the deeper she went, but it was still not private enough. And as her eyes darted about uselessly, skimming the darkening vegetation for a hiding place, she called herself ten times a fool. She was six and twenty, for goodness’ sake. She’d had eight years to come to terms with her unmarried state. She had realized upon her first entrance into Society that she would not take, that she would be the focus of no man’s affections. It was no surprise to her.
It was not as if her life were horrible, however. Her dear sister Frances, of the much-lauded brilliant marriage, was the unhappiest woman Imogen knew. Seeing how miserable she was made Imogen realize the heartbreaking truth that no marriage at all was better than being mired in a heartless union.
And Imogen truly was blessed in so many ways. She had the love of her family and security. There were many women in the world in much worse situations than she. But to hear herself spoken of as if she were not a person in her own right was almost too much to bear.
She so very rarely allowed her control to slip. Her future was not something she permitted to invade her thoughts, though it was always in the back of her conscious mind, like an evil specter waiting to haunt her. So when it did break through her defenses as it did now, it was with a cruelty that stunned her.
She began to stumble about, having difficulty staying on the path now that moonlight was the only thing guiding her. Several branches caught on her dress and slapped her arms. In vain she once again wished furiously for her spectacles.
That wish was compounded upon only seconds later when she ran smack into a very large, very warm, very male person standing in the shadows. Two strong hands clamped firmly on her upper arms. Before she could call out for help, the man’s mouth found hers in the darkness.
She stood stupidly for a long moment in shock, aware of the hard, lean body pressed to her own, the faint scents of sandalwood and soap, the lips firm as they plundered hers. She had never had a man so much as embrace her other than her father and brothers, much less had one kiss her. And such a kiss! She felt as if he were stealing the very breath from her.
Something that had been dormant in her up until then flared to life. Her limbs began to tremble, her fingers itching to grip onto him. But when the man gave a groan, his tongue pushing into the recesses of her mouth and the taste of brandy overwhelming her, she was finally jolted back to herself. She lodged her hands between their bodies and, planting her feet firmly on the ground, shoved with all her might.
• • •
Caleb Masters, Marquess of Willbridge, was having a fine time. He was pleasantly inebriated, had won a hefty sum in the card room, and was waiting in a cool garden for a very willing widow with a taste for sexual adventure. He didn’t have long to wait. Suddenly she was there, throwing herself against him. Ah, so Violet was even more eager than usual. He grinned, gripping her arms, and thanked his lucky stars for lonely, mature women just before he claimed her mouth with his own.
Unexpected sensations bombarded his fuzzy brain. What wonderful changes were these? Typically, Violet tasted of sherry and smelled of some cloying scent she’d had made up for her on Bond Street. But now she tasted pleasantly of lemonade, her lips soft and slack, her breasts full and pressing into his chest. Her scent was heady, a simple, clean smell with a faint hint of something citrusy that was altogether mouthwatering.
There was something new and exciting about her tonight. He longed to run his hands down her body, to explore the delectable roundness of her. But even one such as she required a bit of wooing before doing the deed. More than willing to take his time tonight, he deepened the kiss…
And was shocked when he was pushed violently away. He stumbled back, catching himself on the hedge just before he toppled over.
He straightened, frowning as he brushed leaves from his jacket. “What’s gotten into you, Violet? You’ve never been missish about my advances before.”
A soft, outraged gasp followed his surly comment. Instantly a strange feeling of unease uncurled in his belly. He turned to the woman, looking at her fully for the first time in the dim moonlight.
Instead of the inky, artfully arranged curls he had expected, he could just make out light-colored hair, pulled back severely from a full, heart-shaped face. And where a shockingly low-cut silk gown should have been was a modest, plain affair lacking even a single flounce or ruffle.
The incensed voice that came from her was the final blow. Whereas Violet had a throaty voice that you could feel clear to your toes, this girl had a trembling, light tone that barely carried on the faint breeze.
“How dare you assail me in such a fashion, sir.”
Suddenly disgustingly sober, he felt the full weight of his mistake. Even one as debauched as he would never molest an innocent woman. Collecting himself, hoping to smooth over his gaffe, he flashed his most charming smile, the one that had gotten him out of countless scrapes, and bowed deeply.
“My abject apologies, miss. I was waiting for another, you see, and I fear I mistook you for her.”
There was no reaction from the diminutive woman. She stood silently, her arms hugging her middle. It was only after a long moment of waiting for a response that he noticed she was trembling. Moonlight glinted on the unmistakable wetness of a tear on her cheek.
His ton persona disappeared in an instant. Oh hell, what had he done? He rushed to her, extracting a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket, and closing her fingers around it when she made no move to grab it herself.
“I’m so sorry. Please don’t cry.” Now that he was closer to her he could see the utter misery etched on her face.
She sniffed, pressing the handkerchief to her eyes. “No, it’s not you. It is I who must apologize. I was looking for a place to hide and should not have come upon you so unexpectedly.”
Despite her words, the guilt he felt from pawing an innocent woman was enough to make him want to swear off drinking for the next decade or better. But knowing a tennis match of apologies would do no one any good, he looked about for a place where she could rest and collect herself. Spying a stone bench not far from where they stood, he took hold of her elbow and guided her to it. She sat gratefully, attempting a small smile up at him in the gloom.
He sat beside her. “Hiding? Whatever were you hiding from?”
“Just unpleasant people, is all.”
“Has anyone harmed you?”
“No, nothing like that. I only overhead some distressing comments about myself. It is my own fault, I suppose, for I should not have stayed to listen.” Her lips twisted in the semblance of a smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. They were a light color, but in the pale moonlight he couldn’t see their hue.
“It is most certainly not your fault,” he said. He felt a strange protective surge for this lady. The sensation gave him pause. He might have some morals when it came whom to seduce, but he was certainly no Galahad. He had never been overly concerned with the innocent female population, had never cared for their dramas or troubles or desires. But it was as if everything suddenly shifted in the space of a heartbeat. Who was this quiet, tragic woman? She was quite a bit older than the debutantes he was forever skirting. And yet it was obvious from her dress and lack of jewelry that she was unmarried.
He placed a hand over his heart and bowed in his seat. “Forgive me, but as there is no one about, perhaps you will allow me to introduce myself. I am Caleb Masters, Lord Willbridge.”
Dawning recognition lit her eyes. “Ah yes, I have heard of you.” She looked back in the direction of the ballroom, a faint frown marring her smooth face. “Perhaps it’s not wise for me to be alone with you.”
“You may be assured, you are quite safe with me. My reputation, though deserved in many areas, has been grossly twisted in others.”
For the first time a hint of humor lit her face. “So you are not a consummate rake and womanizer?”
He smiled slyly. “Oh yes, that’s true.”
She laughed then, and the sound was like bells.
“But you have not told me your identity,” he persisted.
She sobered. Clearing her throat, she replied in a very small voice, “I think perhaps that would be ill-advised.”
“Ah, I see. You are trying to be mysterious. Well, you are succeeding admirably.”
“No, you mistake me,” she said in some alarm. “Such subterfuge is quite beyond me, I assure you.”
“I was teasing,” he said.
Even in the dim light he could see the dark flush that stained her cheeks. “Of course you were,” she murmured. “But you see, even if we were to meet publicly I could never acknowledge you, having never been formally introduced. So it is best if we leave things as they are.”
He looked down at her bent head. He knew he could tease her identity from her, and quite easily too. But he also knew if he did he would cause her even more distress. He watched her hands clench in her lap. No, that he could never do. He was guilty of enough in his life without adding that to his list of sins.
“As you wish,” he said in a light voice.
She nodded, the movement jerky. “I think I had best go back inside.”
As she rose, he stood along with her and held out his arm. She looked at it uncomprehendingly for a moment.
“I will not allow you to traverse the wilds of the Morledge gardens without a chaperone,” he said. “There is no telling what kind of beast may be lurking about.”
A ghost of a smile passed over her face. But as she took his arm and they turned for the lights of the ballroom, he thought soberly that for one as sweet and innocent as her, she could encounter no worse beast than him.