It is but one night, my truest, my dearest, Miss Darby, but it is all I need to carry you into the starry heavens of pleasure. I promise you this, come with me and from this evening forth you shall reign forever as the Queen of my Heart. —Prince Sanjit to Miss Darby from MISS DARBY’S RECKLESS BARGAIN
The Masquerade Ball, Owle Park
“Oh, there you are, Harry. I’m almost afraid to ask what the devil you are doing—”
Miss Harriet Hathaway looked up from her quiet spot on the patio to find the Earl of Roxley standing in the open doorway.
Some hero! Oh, he might look like Lancelot, what with his elbow-length chain mail glittering in the light, his dark blue surcoat and the leather breastplate trimmed with gold that seemed to accent both his height and breadth, but he’d taken his bloody time showing up to rescue her. It had been hard enough slipping out so that only he noticed.
And even then it had taken him a good half hour to come find her.
“Oh, Roxley is that you?” she feigned. “I hardly recognized you.”
“Wish I could say the same about you,” he said, his brow furrowed as he examined her from head to toe. “I’ve been sent by my aunt, oh, Queen of the Nile, to determine if you are awaiting Caesar or Marc Antony.”
She’d spent most of the night dancing with rogues and unsuitable partis, waiting for him to intervene, and now he had, only he hadn’t really…it had been by his aunt’s bidding that he’d come to claim her.
Yet Harriet wasn’t one to wallow in the details. For here he was, and this was her chance.
“Caesar or Marc Antony, you ask? Neither,” she told him. “I find both quite boring.”
“They wouldn’t find you so,” he said, stepping down onto the patio and looking over her shoulder at the gardens beyond. “You’ve caused quite a stir in that rag, minx.”
Harriet turned around, and grinned. “Have I?” Of course, she’d known that the moment she donned the costume. And had very nearly taken it right off and sought refuge in some milkmaid’s garb. But once Pansy, her dear friend Daphne’s maid, had done Harriet’s dark tresses up into an elaborate maze of braids, crowned them with a golden coronet of entwined asps and painted her eyes with dark lines of kohl, Harriet had known there was no turning back.
Roxley had come to stand beside her at the edge of the patio. Here, away from the stifling air of the ballroom, the soft summer breezes, tinged as they were with the hint of roses, invited one to inhale deeply.
It was magical. Well, nearly so, she discovered.
The earl glanced over at her again and frowned. “You shouldn’t be out here alone.”
“I’m not,” she pointed out. “You’re here. But I had thought to take a turn in the gardens.” Then she looked over at him again, standing there with a moody glower worthy of Lancelot. “Whatever is the matter?” she asked, hands fisting to her hips.
“It’s that … that … costume you’ve got on,” he complained, his hands wavering in front of her.
“It was supposed to be Daphne’s.”
That did not seem to appease him. “I cannot believe my aunt allowed you out in that shameful rag.”
So much for magic.
“There is nothing wrong with this gown,” she told him. “It is as historical as yours.”
Good heavens, I’m wearing more than I was when you kissed me in Sir Mauris’s garden, she wanted to remind him.
Then again, perhaps the kiss hadn’t been as memorable to Roxley as it had been to her … Her gaze flew up, only to find his face a glower.
“Historical, indeed! Mine covers me,” he replied. “No wonder Marc Antony lost his honor.”
Harriet brazened her way forward. Better that than consider that Roxley had no interest in kissing her again. “Perhaps I should go find him and see if he will walk with me in the gardens.” Since the only Marc Anthony inside the ballroom was Lord Fieldgate, this managed to darken Roxley’s scowl. For most of the evening, the resplendent and rakish viscount had done his utmost to commandeer Harriet’s time, declaring her his “perfect Cleopatra.”
Roxley, as it turned out, wasn’t done complaining. “How convenient for Fieldgate that Miss Dale’s untimely departure-”
“Elopement,” Harriet corrected.
“That is still left to be seen,” Roxley commented. “It is only an elopement if they marry.”
“When they marry.”
“So you insist,” he demurred.
“I do,” Harriet said firmly. Daphne would never have run off so if she hadn’t been utterly positive that she was about to be wed. She just wouldn’t. “Besides, Preston will see them married.”
“The duke will do his level best. He just has to find Lord Henry and Miss Dale before her cousin interferes.”
Viscount Dale. Harriet hoped his carriage tumbled off the road. He was a rather bothersome prig, and could very well put a wrench into Daphne’s plans.
“True love can overcome all odds,” she said most confidently. At least it always did in her Miss Darby novels. Besides, she had to look no further than Tabitha and Preston, or Lord Henry and Daphne, for her proof.
True love always won the day.
And now she and Roxley would have their chance … Harriet glanced over at him, searching for confirmation.
“True love?” he scoffed. “Harry, you astound me. Now, here I’ve always thought you the most sensible, practical girl I’ve ever known, but-”
The earl continued on, though Harriet had stopped listening at that one wretched word.
Girl. Though sensible was nearly as bad.
Would he ever stop thinking of her as a child? He certainly hadn’t thought her merely a girl when he’d kissed her back in London.
Had he changed his mind since then? He couldn’t have. He’d kissed her, for heaven’s sakes. He wouldn’t have done that unless—
She shook her head at the doubts that assailed her.
The ones that had plagued her since their arrival here at the Duke of Preston’s house party.
What if Roxley didn’t think her worthy of being his countess. It was easy to think so when she compared herself to the rest of the company. Then it was all too easy to see she had faults aplenty.
A decided lack of a Bath education. Like a proper lady.
Not one provided by her brothers’ tutor.
She laughed too loud.
Her embroidery was nonexistent. Much like her skills at the pianoforte and watercolors.
In short, she wasn’t refined enough to be a countess.
But perhaps those things didn’t matter to him, she told herself for about the thousandth time.
And certainly there was one way to find out.
Harriet straightened slowly, and then tipped one shoulder slightly, letting the clasp at her shoulder-the one which held up the sheer silken over-gown-slide dangerously close to coming off her. The entire gown was like that-illusion after illusion that it was barely on, wasn’t truly concealing the lady beneath. For under the first layer of sheer silk was another one in a shimmering hue of gold and beneath that, another sheer layer. The wisps of fabric, one atop the other, kept the gown from being completely see-through, though when she’d first donned it, she had to admit, she’d felt utterly naked.
Now she wanted to see if Roxley thought the same.
She tilted her head just slightly and glanced up at him.
“Yes, well,” he managed, his gaze fixed on her shoulder. He looked as if he couldn’t quite make up his mind whether to intervene—because to save her modesty he would have to touch her.
So she nudged him along, dipping her shoulder just a bit more. Perhaps this was exactly how Cleopatra had gained her Antony—for even now, Roxley appeared transfixed, leaving Harriet with a dizzy, heady sort of feeling.
But just before her gown fell from her shoulder, the earl groaned, then reached out and caught hold of the brooch at her shoulder and pushed it back up where it belonged, his fingers sliding along her collarbone, her bare skin. His hand was warm, hard, steady atop her shoulder, and suddenly Harriet could imagine him just as easily plucking the brooch away …
And then he looked at her, and Harriet saw all too clearly the light of desire in his eyes. Could feel it as his hand continued to linger on her shoulder and knew it would be nothing for him to gather her in his arms and … and …
“Demmit, Harry—” he muttered, snatching back his hand and stepping off the patio.
More like bolting.
“Whatever is the matter?” She hoped she sounded slightly innocent, for she certainly didn’t feel it. His touch had left her shivering, longing for something altogether different.
“I … that is … I need some air. Yes, that’s it. I came out here to get some air.”
“I thought you came out to find me.” She let her statement drift over him like a subtle reminder. “Yes, well, if you just came out for air, that’s most excellent. I was of the same mind.” And with that, she followed him.
For she couldn’t help herself.
He looked over his shoulder at her. “Harry—”
“Yes, Roxley?” she tried to appear as nonchalant as possible.
“You cannot come out here with me,” he said, pointing the way back to the well-lit patio.
“Whyever not?” she asked, as if she hadn’t the slightest notion what he was saying.
And he didn’t look like he wanted to discuss the subject either. But he did anyway. “It wouldn’t be proper.”
“Proper?” She laughed as if he were making a joke. “Oh, bother propriety. How long have we known each other?”
“Forever,” he grumbled.
“And have we ever indulged ourselves in anything scandalous?” She strolled toward him and then circled him like a cat.
Other than that kiss …
“Not entirely,” he managed, sounding a bit strangled, as he gaped at her, at her bare shoulder, and then just as quickly looked away.
Well, that was something of an admission. At least she hoped it was.
“So whatever is wrong with you escorting me into the garden for a bit of air, especially since you’ve promised my brothers to keep an eye on me—which you have, haven’t you?”
“Do you think they would prefer I go for a walk in the gardens with Lord Fieldgate?”
More to the point, Roxley, she wanted to say, do you want me out there with that bounder?
“Bother you to hell, Harry. No, they wouldn’t like it.”
Neither would she. “So?”
His jaw worked back and forth, so much so, he did look like Lancelot caught between his loyalty to his liege and something less honorable.
Harriet hoped the less honorable part would win.
And to her delight it did. For the most part.
Roxley muttered something under his breath, and then caught her by the elbow and tugged her down the path. “Come along. Just don’t do that thing with your lashes again.” He frowned at her. “If your mother could see you—”
“She’s in Kempton.”
“As should you be,” Roxley said, more as a threat. “I blame my aunt. She should never have brought you to London.” He glanced at her again. “It’s changed you.” Then he added, “And not for the better.”
“I see nothing scandalous about taking a walk in the gardens. I did this earlier with Lord Kipps and there was nothing so very wrong there. Why, your aunt encouraged it.”
“She did?” he said, sounding none too pleased.
They rounded the first corner and came to a complete stop, for there before them was a couple—a water nymph and her Neptune—entwined together beneath an arbor, kissing passionately, between murmured endearments and confessions.
My dearest, my darling—
Oh, however did you know it was me?
How could I not?
“You see,” Roxley was saying once they were well past the scandalous pair. “You are far better off out here with me than with Fieldgate.”
“Yes, I suppose.” She let every word fall with abject disappointment.
This brought the earl to a halt. “You suppose? Do you know what the rogue would do out here? Alone with you?”
Harriet shrugged. Truly, he had to ask? She had five brothers. She knew exactly what Fieldgate would do given the opportunity.
Wasn’t it much the same as what Roxley had done back in London? Granted he’d been a bit foxed that night.
Oh, good heavens. She’d nearly forgotten that. He had been foxed.
What if he didn’t remember kissing her? Or worse, he didn’t want to recall the evening. Harriet drew in a deep breath, knowing full well the only way to get Roxley to admit anything was to provoke him.
Just a bit …
“I suppose, being the horrible rake that he is, he would have tried to take advantage of me—” Harriet sighed as if it were the most delicious notion she’d ever considered.
“Most decidedly,” Roxley said with a disapproving tsk, tsk and a shake of his head, as if that made him the hero.
“You truly think so?”
He huffed a sigh. “Of course he would. You wouldn’t have made it past the patio before he’d have tried.”
“Oh, that is excellent news,” she said, catching up the hem of her gown, turning on one heel, and starting to march back toward the ballroom.
Roxley caught up with her about where the couple was still locked in each other’s embrace. Discreetly—well, as much as one could—he tugged her back down the path. “Where were you going?” he whispered as he dragged her away.
“I would think my plan was obvious. At least to a rogue like you. I was going to find the viscount.”
“Fieldgate?” Roxley couldn’t have sound more shocked.
“Yes. Is there another lascivious viscount by the name of Fieldgate that I’ve missed?”
Roxley’s jaw set as he marched her farther down the path, through the long column of plane trees that lined the way.
Harriet could only hope this was the path to ruin, much as the other young lady had found.
A very unladylike tremor of envy sprang up inside her.
“Why would you want that clod to take advantage of you?” Rowley was asking. No, demanding.
“Because I’ve merely been kissed—and that lady”—she said with nod over her shoulder—”who I believe is Miss Nashe—”
Now the earl’s head swiveled. “I highly doubt that’s—”
But then he must have realized that just as Harriet’s costume was so very memorable, so was the one Miss Nashe was wearing-of course minus the feathered hem that had caused her so much trouble earlier in the week.
“Told you,” Harriet said triumphantly once they were well out of earshot. “That is Miss Nashe and Lord Kipps.”
She held back an indignant harrumph. Lord Kipps had walked her down this very path and hadn’t tried to kiss her.
Then again, Harriet wasn’t an infamous heiress like Miss Nashe. Just plain old Harriet Hathaway. A spinster from Kempton. With barely enough pin money for just that.
Oh, why couldn’t she have been born fair and petite like Daphne, or inherited a fortune like Tabitha?
Roxley was still glancing back at the entangled couple. “Then I suppose we can expect an announcement at midnight. Lucky Kipps. He’s gone and borrowed my family motto.”
“Ad usque fidelis?” Harriet said, thinking that “Unto fidelity” was hardly the translation for what was transpiring in the arbor.
“No, minx, our other motto. The one we Marshoms find more apropos.”
“Marry well and cheat often,” he teased.
This took Harriet aback. “The Marshoms advocate cheating on their spouses?”
“No.” He laughed. “Unfortunately, we tend to love thoroughly and for life. We’re an overly romantic lot—we just make sure to fall in love with a bride with a fat purse. And when that runs out, then there is nothing left but living by one’s wits. My parents were a perfect example.”
“You mean your parents lived by cheating at cards?”
“Of course. If only to stay ahead of their debts.”
“Then it’s a terrible shame,” Harriet said, looking back at Miss Nashe and realizing how convenient it was that she’d found her countess’s coronet with that earl, and not Harriet’s.
“What is?” her earl asked.
“Kipps catching Miss Nashe’s eye before you could cast your spell on her … and her fat purse.”
Roxley shrugged. They had come to a stop by one of the larger trees. “Actually, I’m quite distraught about her choice.”
“You wanted to marry her?” Harriet reached out and steadied herself against the white trunk of the tree.
He laughed. “No, Kitten. I had no designs on the lady. But I wagered she’d corner Lord Henry.”
Kitten. Harriet nearly sighed at the familiar endearment. It held so much promise. Like a daisy being plucked of its petals.
He loves me …
Harriet laughed, at him and her hopes. “You should stick to cheating at cards.” She put her back to the trunk, leaning against it, and letting the solid strength of the tree support her.
“You still haven’t answered my question.” Roxley dug the toe of his boot into the sod.
Harriet glanced up. “Which was?”
He looked up at her. “Why the devil would you want to come out into the gardens with Fieldgate?”
“For the very simple reason that I want to be kissed. Properly, that is. By a man of some skill.” Harriet let her gaze drift back once again toward the house, her insinuation landing precisely as she’d intended.
“Kissed properly? Of all the insulting …” he blustered.
Harriet laughed again, and realizing he’d been lured into a trap, Roxley laughed as well.
“Good God, Harry!” He pushed away from the tree. “You’re going to be the death of me.”
“Well, if you were to kiss me … again …”
“Which I won’t,” he shot back.
“If you insist.” Harriet did her best to appear indifferent, as if his quick retort was the least of her concerns.
Truly, did he have to sound so adamant? “But if you did-”
He paused. “Harry, you can stop right there. Kiss you? Once was enough.”
Harriet whirled around on him. “Aha! So you do admit to kissing me.”
His voice ran low, rumbled up from his chest, his words filled with longing. “How could I forget?”
She shivered, for it was longing she shared, one that resided in her heart, restless and tempting.
“But you are being ridiculous,” he continued. “If I were to ruin you, your brothers would shoot me.”
“If they were in a good humor,” she conceded. Actually, all five of them would most likely insist on taking a shot.
Unfortunately, Roxley knew this as well, for he echoed her thoughts exactly. “And since I don’t favor an untimely death by firing squad, I fear for tonight your desire to be kissed again is going to have to remain on the shelf.”
Like her life. Like her chances of ever being loved.
Passionately. Her gaze slid back in the direction of the arbor.
Oh, it all seemed so patently unfair. And yet, a few months ago, she would never have considered such things possible. She had lived her entire life content in the knowledge that as a spinster of Kempton she would never marry, never be kissed, never …
And then, on that fateful day when Preston’s carriage had broken down in Kempton and she’d seen Roxley after all that time apart, she hadn’t been able to help herself, she’d begun to dream of the impossible.
So, after coming to London with Tabitha and Daphne, and seeing her two dearest friends find happiness in such unexpected ways—not just happiness, but love—she’d begun to hope.
And here she was, with the only man she’d ever desired, in this garden, under this moon, and why shouldn’t she want to be kissed?
Again. And again …
“No one would have to know,” she whispered. “No one would ever find out.”
“Someone always does, Kitten,” Roxley told her. He’d circled round the tree and now stood much as she did, leaning against the great trunk but on the opposite side, so the wide breadth separated them.
How she longed to cut it down, to make it so that nothing could keep them apart.
“There are no secrets in the ton,” he added.
Well, she didn’t care if the entire population of the England, Ireland and Scotland knew. It wasn’t like she was an heiress with prospects, or anyone else was going to come along and claim her.
But the real question was, would he?
She pressed her lips together every time he called her that. Did he have to use that horrid name? But taking a deep breath, she dove in. “What do you see when you look at me?”
“Not much,” he said. “If you haven’t noticed it is rather dark out here.”
She rolled around the tree, her fingers tracing over the rough bark as if seeking a clear path, until she was right beside him. “Oh, do stop being him. I deplore him.”
“You know very well who I mean.” Harriet was losing patience with him. If he pushed her much further she would go find Fieldgate. “Stop being the fool all London takes you for.”
“But he’s quite a handy fellow, that fool.”
“He’s an annoying jinglebrains.”
“That’s the point, minx.”
“I know who you are.”
“Do you?” He’d turned a bit and whispered the question into her ear.
Her breath caught in her throat, so that she was only able to answer with one word. “Yes.”
Oh, yes, she knew who he was. The only man who had ever made her heart beat like this.
And then he moved closer, brushing against the hem of her gown, and Harriet clung to the tree to steady herself. “No one would believe you, Kitten.”
Kitten. Not Harry, but Kitten. His Kitten.
Harriet looked up at the bit of the night sky peeking through the thick canopy of leaves overhead and spied a single star. A lone, twinkling light. And so she wished.
“You don’t have to hide from me,” she whispered.
It was an invitation, one she knew he desired. She’d seen his struggle for months now—this game he played, this role he lived. This capering fool. Society’s ridiculous gadfly.
But that wasn’t the man she knew. The man she’d kissed in Sir Mauris’s garden in London. The earl she’d known since they were children.
No, the one she loved, adored, desired, was the one with his gaze fixed on hers, his jaw set as if he were determined to do the right thing.
Oh, he’d chosen the right costume for the night. Lancelot. A man conflicted by duty and passion.
And he told her as much, his words almost desperate. “Why did you have to grow up, Harry? Why couldn’t you have stayed in Kempton—stayed my impossible imp?”
“I still am.”
“Oh, you are, but in an entirely new and utterly impossible way.”
“Why is it impossible, Roxley?” It certainly wouldn’t be if you would but kiss me.
“I promised your brothers I’d keep an eye on you.”
Harriet moved closer, caught hold of his lapels and did the impossible, even as she whispered, “Then close your eyes.”