“Egads! Kingsley! Is that you?”
Major Kingsley looked up from where he’d been standing, or rather hiding, on the fringes of the ballroom. All around him, the Duke and Duchess of Setchfield’s annual masquerade was in full force.
Considering how scandal ridden the ball always seemed to be year after year, Kingsley had come specifically in hopes of finding some lascivious widow or a stray courtesan who’d dared to come mingle in the rarefied air of Mayfair, then wander off for a bit of sport.
It was, after all, his last night of freedom in so many ways.
But it seemed the Fates weren’t inclined toward romance this evening as a short, square-figured little man in a bright gold costume came toddling toward him.
There was only one soul on earth who would dare such an ensemble.
“Augie!” Kingsley replied, pushing off the wall, for while this was not quite how he’d envisioned his evening progressing, he was genuinely happy to see his old boon companion. “Well, I never.”
Lord Augustus Charles Hustings, or Augie to his friends, was the sort of fellow who always enlivened an evening—what with his nonsensical views and his misguided banter.
Best of all, Augie would never hound a fellow to get married, which was why Kingsley had been loitering about in the shadows—if only to avoid being recognized by some marriage-minded mother with a passel of daughters.
“When did you get back from the Continent?” Augie asked, thumbs tucked into his gold embroidered waistcoat.
“A fortnight ago,” the major admitted.
At this, Augie’s eyes widened. “And you couldn’t call on an old friend after, what? Three, four years?”
“My mother saw me first,” Kingsley sheepishly admitted.
Augie snorted, for it was a situation he could hardly condemn anyone else over. His own mother, Lady Prendwick, was a notable handful. “Demmed inconvenient, that. Had you over a barrel, eh?”
“To say the least,” Kingsley told him. “My dear maman insisted I be kitted out with ‘proper’ togs for her house party. Supposed to be riding down there tomorrow. You did get your invitation, didn’t you?”
Since that particular house party was known by every man in London as a thinly veiled Marriage Mart, where at least three engagements could be counted upon, Augie coughed and pretended he hadn’t heard his friend correctly.
Then to change the subject entirely, he glanced at the major’s costume. “Whatever is that you are wearing? Is that the best your mother could command?” His friend shook his head furiously. “Need to find you a new tailor, my good man.”
Kingsley laughed, for it seemed that Augie hadn’t changed in the least. He reached up and waggled the black piece of silk covering the upper half of his face. “What, my mask isn’t dashing enough for you?”
“Hardly,” Augie replied, tucking his nose in the air.
“And who are you supposed to be?” he dared to ask, taking a step back and making an inspection—not that it helped, for he was still at a loss as to what Augie’s mishmash of gold raiment was supposed to signify.
“Zeus,” his diminutive friend announced with great flourish and a stately bow.
Kingsley nearly doubled over with laughter.
Augie frowned, glancing down at his costume to assure himself nothing was amiss. “My valet claims the choice is divinely ironic.”
“Yes, something like that,” Kingsley agreed as he took another glance around the room and found himself face to face with yet another friend from his days at Eton.
“Kingsley! Dear God! Thought that was you! Wouldn’t have recognized you save for this dog in your company.” The Honorable Roscoe Evans laughed and nudged Augie aside.
Augie shook his head with annoyance. He didn’t find that sobriquet any more amusing now than when Roscoe had come up with it when they were all twelve. “Thought you were in the country after that dustup with Lady Verwood. Or rather Lord Verwood.” His tone implied he wished him still well away from Town.
Roscoe waved him off. “Nonsense. Not with the Setchfield ball at hand. Always a fair bit of sport to be found, eh, Augie?” He winked, and then turned to the major. “So you are back, aren’t you?”
“As observant as ever, Roscoe,” Kingsley said, wishing him—as Augie obviously did—well away. For it wasn’t that he didn’t like Roscoe; he did, in an offhanded fashion.
But wherever Roscoe went, there was always trouble. And right now Kingsley was dancing on the edge of a sword with his parents—who were first and foremost furious with him for not returning home after Waterloo. That he’d taken it in his head to caper about the Continent was a grave sin in their estimation, and one for which it was now time he atoned.
The last thing he needed was an imbroglio to leave him completely at their mercy.
“And unscathed, I see,” Roscoe said, glancing sideways at him. “Thought I heard you got shot in that last brush with Boney.”
“A scratch or two, nothing of note,” Kingsley told him.
“Good news, that. Means you are in fine form for a bit of a wager.”
“A wager?” Suddenly Augie’s interest came back to life.
Roscoe leaned in. “Mrs. Spenser is here.”
“Mrs. Spenser?” Augie shook his head again. Rather like a wet dog, but Kingsley was too well-mannered to point that out. “You’re bamming us, Roscoe. Won’t fall for any of your capers.” He huffed, tucked up his nose, and crossed his arms over his chest, as if to ward off whatever mischief the man proposed.
“No, indeed it is true,” Roscoe shot back, all affronted. “Apparently the duke and duchess attended her ball last month. In disguise of course.”
“Of course,” Augie agreed, for apparently that was old news.
“Yes, well, Mrs. Spenser is here and I have it on good authority that the fellow who unmasks her before midnight gets to uncover the rest of her, if you know what I mean.” He nudged Kingsley as if helping him along.
“Yes, yes, I know what you mean. I’ve been on the Continent, not in a convent,” Kingsley told him.
“And have you heard of the lady? Mrs. Spenser?” Roscoe pressed.
“Yes. I’ve heard of this nonpareil.” Kingsley hadn’t been in London a day before the tales of Mrs. Spenser and her beauty (along with her lascivious practices) had reached his ears. Exactly the sort of woman he’d come here searching for—the sort he could lose himself with for a night or so … before he must absolutely make his way to his mother’s house party.
And all that it entailed. Proposed. Demanded.
Roscoe rocked on his boot heels. “I know which lady she is.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Augie shot back. “If you know who she is, why haven’t you gone and claimed her for yourself?”
“Was going to do just that, then I saw our good friend here.” He nodded at Kingsley. “Home from the war, I said to myself. Served his King and country with heroism—if the newspapers are to be believed. Be rather selfish of me not to offer her up to our own Major Kingsley, a thank-you as it were.”
Kingsley laughed in skeptical agreement. “Roscoe, I’ve never known you to share anything, least of all a willing woman. Were you, perhaps, hit by a mail coach while I was away?”
“Nothing of the sort,” Roscoe replied, once again in a pique over having his intentions questioned. “I thought you might like the opportunity, especially when the word all over Town is that your mother has your bride and nursery at the ready.”
Kingsley flinched. Gads, he’d hoped that part of his life wasn’t being bandied about, but here was Augie, looking away and whistling, and Roscoe grinning confidently over the news.
Yes, it was all over Town.
“Not interested,” he told his old friend, for certainly there was some hitch in all this.
It was Roscoe doing the offering after all.
“Now, now, now. Wait until you behold the lady before you refuse this choice opportunity,” Roscoe said, catching him by the arm and turning him toward the open garden doors. “See the milkmaid there, lingering as if she hadn’t a single concern about her flock or her virtue?”
Against his better judgment, Kingsley looked.
He should never have done so.
Even Augie gasped, for indeed, the lady near the doors was the loveliest creature Kingsley had beheld in a very long time. Long hair fell in curls all the way down her back. Her gown, rather than the usual fluff and frills of some noble version of a milkmaid, was instead simple and classical, a soft sheath of muslin tied at her waist with a single silken cord.
A plain white mask covered the upper half of her face, but beneath it were a pair of pink, full lips that right now she was nibbling with her teeth.
Kingsley blinked even as his body tightened. Yes, this was exactly what he’d had in mind to discover.
More to the point, however had he missed her before this?
She was Sheba with a shepherdess’s crook.
Demmit, what man wouldn’t want her?
“What is the wager?” Kingsley said, taking a step toward her.
“A monkey,” Roscoe told him. “And of course, the pleasure of her company.”
“Kingsley, I wouldn’t—” Augie began, but was quickly overshadowed by Roscoe, who had clapped his hand over Augie’s mouth and shoved Augie behind him.
“Should I put your name down?” Roscoe asked, all innocence.
“Ah,” Kingsley said with a grin. “Why not.”
“Kingsley—no—” Augie struggled to get free, but it was too late, for the major was already striding confidently off through the press of guests.
Roscoe waited until their friend was well out of earshot, then began to laugh. Uproariously.
“Badly done,” Augie scolded, coming round him and watching in dismay as Kingsley made his approach. “Do you know who that lady really is?”
“Of course I do,” Roscoe said with glee.
“He’ll call you out when he discovers what you’ve done,” Augie pointed out. “Years of practice aiming at those wily Frogs … you’ll make an easy target in comparison.”
“Hadn’t thought of that,” Roscoe admitted, making a noncommittal shrug, but nonetheless taking an uneasy glance at Kingsley.
“You never do, Roscoe,” Augie replied. “You never do.”
# # #
“Ah, fair milkmaid,” came a rich, deep voice off to Lady Arabella Tremont’s right.
Fair milkmaid. How original. She nearly sighed. For she knew what would come next. The comparisons of her eyes to sapphires. How her hair was a river of honeyed chestnut. Her form that of a …
With this being her fourth Season out, she’d heard every compliment, every greeting men seemed capable of offering. Was there a single man in London who didn’t steal his lines of besotted admiration from the same tired book of poetry?
When she turned around she knew what she would find—some costumed blade who might be mildly handsome. He’d have come this way to claim her hand because he was “madly in love with her,” but what he was madly in love with was the prospect of her dowry, that and being married to the Duke of Parkerton’s only daughter.
So it was each time she attended a ball, a soiree, some costumed fête. There was nothing about tonight that hinted that this encounter would be any different.
Yet when she did turn, her dull, predictable world tilted. Before her stood a tall, plainly dressed gentleman—wearing what could hardly be called a costume, just an unassuming black jacket, breeches, and a simple half mask—yet there was nothing simple about this man.
His bearing came with a sense of power, strength, as if he expected his every wish, his every command to be answered. From the breadth of his shoulders, to the way they tapered down to a narrow waist, to his long limbs and the set of his solid jaw, everything about him drew her eye—such raw masculinity couldn’t have been hidden by any costume.
Certainly his plain drapings only accentuated the wide expanse between him and his preening counterparts. Set him on a commanding pedestal all his own.
A height that left him able to let his gaze rake over her with an intimacy, a claiming that had her wishing for her wrap.
Good heavens, it was as if the man was imagining her naked.
Naked, indeed! Now she was the one being ridiculous. For next he’d offer some well-practiced endearments, a bit of poetry, some offer to guess who she was, when the fellow knew very well who she was.
Everyone did. Oh, to be an anonymous miss with a world of possibilities before her.
“Lovely milkmaid,” he continued as he bowed slightly, and with daring presumption caught her hand in his steely grasp and pulled her close, so he might whisper in her ear. A smooth, quick sally that left her unable to protest.
For he was doing what no other man had ever dared—breaching the high, proper walls that were her due as an heiress and the pampered daughter of a duke. Why, the rogue was peeling her glove off with a slow deliberateness, as if it was common practice to remove a lady’s glove.
In full view of the entire ballroom.
That, and his breath was teasing over the shell of her ear in a most delicious way, leaving her feeling a bit light-headed.
Her! Lady Arabella Tremont. The girl who’d been thrown out of Miss Emery’s School for being too bold.
Not to be undone by his brazen manners, she straightened and did her best to appear unruffled and uninterested in what this rake had to say.
Save his touch was sending the most dangerous and teasing tendrils of desire through her.
This was desire, wasn’t it? Was this what it was like to be seduced?
Well, there was one thing to be said for this rogue—he was very good at it. Because as her glove slid from her hand, she had the outlandish irritation that he was taking much too long to remove it.
“I have heard your praises sung daily since I returned to London,” he was saying.
“You have?” she replied, looking around for her father. This was exactly the sort of thing he was always railing on about—and she couldn’t make up her mind if she wanted his intervention or for the duke to be well out of the way.
“Certainly,” he told her, a slow grin lighting up his smooth, hard lips, while behind his mask, his eyes twinkled with mischief. “And none of the tributes were exaggerated. For even from across the room, your lips drew me closer. And now there is nothing I would love more, my dear milkmaid, than for you to wrap them around my cock tonight, and when you are finished, I promise I shall return the favor and devour the rest of your delicious and notable delights until you can’t even remember your name.”
Enter the Tuesday Lunch Break Contest on my Blog.