“You have no notion of what you are missing.”

“Forgive me for being callous, but if what I am missing is the melancholy that clings to you, I want none of it. It is attractive on you and lends you an air of mystery that I find irresistible. Sadly, I fear I would not fare so well. I suspect I would appear wretched, and we cannot have that.”

“The Earl of Ware wretched?”

He gave a mock shudder. “Quite impossible, of course.”


“So you see, you are perfect for me, Amelia. I enjoy your company. I enjoy your honesty and our ability to converse freely about nearly everything. There is no uncertainty or fear of reprisal for a careless act. You cannot hurt me, and I cannot hurt you, because we do not attribute actions to emotions that are not there. If I am thoughtless, it is not because I seek to injure you, and you know this. Our association is one I will appreciate and value until I take my last breath.”

Ware paused when they reached the bottom step that would lead them back up to the terrace. Their brief spell of privacy was nearly at an end. Her desire to spend unhindered time with him was an added impetus to marriage. It was only the sexual congress that would end their evenings that she resisted.

The memory of feverishly exchanged kisses with Colin haunted her, and she could not bring herself to risk disappointment with Ware. She dreaded the possibility of awkwardness intruding on their closeness. The earl was comely and charming and perfect. How would he look when he was flushed and disheveled? What sounds would he make? How would he move? What would he expect of her?

It was apprehension that goaded these ponderings, not anticipation.

“And what of the sex?” she asked.

His head swiveled toward her, and he froze with his foot poised above the step. The depth of his blue eyes sparkled with merriment. Ware backed down from the stair and faced her directly. “What of it?”

“Do you not worry that it will be . . . ?” She struggled to find the correct word.

“No.” There was a wealth of assurance in the negation.


“When I think about sex with you there is no worry involved. Eagerness, yes. Anxiety, no.” He closed the small gap between them and bent over her. His voice came as an intimate whisper. “Do not hesitate for that reason. We are young. We can wed and wait, or we can wait and then wed. Even with my ring on your finger, I will not ask you to do anything you do not wish to. Not yet.” His mouth twitched. “In a few years, however, I may not be so accommodating. I must reproduce eventually, and I do find you supremely alluring.”

Amelia tilted her head, considering. Then she nodded.

“Good,” Ware said with obvious satisfaction. “Progress, however incremental, is always good.”

“Perhaps it is time to post the banns.”

“By God, that is more than an incremental move forward!” he cried with exaggerated verve. “We are actually getting somewhere.”

She laughed and he winked mischievously.

“We will be happy together,” he promised.

“I know.”

Ware took a moment to once again secure his mask, and her gaze wandered as she waited. Following the line of the marble railing, she found a profusion of ivy climbing the brick exterior. That visual trail led to another terrace farther down, this one unlit in an obvious gambit to deter guests from lingering away from the ballroom. It appeared, however, that the lack of welcome was too subtle for two attendees, or perhaps they simply did not care to heed it. Regardless, the reason why they were there was not what caught Amelia’s attention. She was more interested in who was there.

Despite the deep shadows that blanketed the second patio, she recognized her phantom follower by the pure white of his mask and the way his garments and hair blended into the night around him.

“My lord,” she murmured, reaching out blindly to clutch Ware’s arm. “Do you see those gentlemen over there?”

She felt his attention turn as she directed.


“The dark-clad gentleman is the one who held such interest in me earlier.”

The earl looked at her in all seriousness. “You made light of the matter, but now I am concerned. Was this man an annoyance to you?”

“No.” Her gaze narrowed as the two men parted and set off in opposite directions—the phantom away from her, the other man toward her.

“Yet something about him disturbs you.” Ware rearranged her grasping hand to rest upon his forearm. “And his assignation over there is curious.”

“Yes, I agree.”

“Despite the years that have passed since you were freed from your father’s care, I feel caution would be wise. When one has an infamous criminal for a relation, every unknown is suspect. We cannot have odd characters following you about.” Ware led her quickly up the steps. “Perhaps you should stay close to me for the remainder of the evening.”

“I have no cause to fear him,” she argued without heat. “I think it is more my reaction to him that surprises me, as opposed to his interest in me.”

“You had a reaction to him?” Ware paused just inside the door and drew her to the side, out of the way of those who entered and exited. “What sort of reaction?”

Amelia lifted her mask to her face. How could she explain that she had admired the man’s powerful frame and presence without lending more weight to the sentiment than it deserved? “I was intrigued. I wished he would approach me and reveal himself.”

“Should I be concerned that another man so quickly captured your imagination?” The earl’s drawling voice was laced with amusement.

“No.” She smiled. The comfort of their friendship was priceless to her. “Just as I do not worry when you take interest in other females.”

“Lord Ware.”

They both turned to face the gentleman who approached, a person whose distinctively short and portly frame made him recognizable despite his mask—Sir Harold Bingham, a Bow Street magistrate.

“Sir Harold,” Ware greeted in return.

“Good evening, Miss Benbridge,” the magistrate said, smiling in his kindly way. He was known for his tough rulings, but was widely considered to be fair and wise.

Amelia quite liked him, and the warmth of her returning pleasantries reflected this.

Ware leaned toward her, lowering his voice for her ears only. “Will you excuse me a moment? I should like to discuss your admirer with him. Perhaps we can learn an identity.”

“Of course, my lord.”

The two gentlemen moved a short distance away, and Amelia’s gaze drifted over the ballroom, seeking out familiar faces. She spotted a small grouping of acquaintances nearby and set off in that direction.

After several steps she stopped, frowning.

She wanted to know who was behind the white mask. The curiosity was eating at her, niggling at the back of her mind and making her restless. There was such intensity in the way he had looked at her, and the moment when their eyes had met lingered in her thoughts.

Turning abruptly on her heel, she again walked outside and down the steps into the rear garden. There were many other guests about, all seeking relief from the crush. Rather than going straight along the path she had taken with Ware or to the right where the second terrace waited in the dark, she turned to the left. A few feet off to the side, a marble reproduction of Venus graced a semicircular space filled with a half-moon bench. It was bordered by the same low, perfectly shaped yew hedges that surrounded the lawn and fountain, and it was presently unoccupied.

Amelia paused near the statue and whistled a distinctive warble that would bring her brother-in-law’s men out of hiding. She was guarded still, and suspected she would always be. It was an inevitable consequence of being the sister-in-law of a known pirate and smuggler such as Christopher St. John.

At times she resented the inherent lack of privacy that came with having one’s every movement watched. She could not help but wish that her life was simple enough to make such precautions unnecessary. But at other times, such as tonight, she found relief in the unseen protection. She was never left exposed, which enabled her to view her phantom in a different light. Having St. John’s men nearby also afforded her the opportunity to elicit help in relieving her curiosity.

Her foot tapped impatiently atop the gravel as she waited. That was why she did not hear the man’s approach. She did, however, feel him. The hairs on her nape tingled with awareness, and she turned swiftly with a soft gasp of surprise.

He stood just barely within the entrance of the circle, a tall, dark form that vibrated with a potent energy that seemed barely restrained. Beneath the pale light of the moon, the man’s inky locks gleamed like a raven’s wing, and his eyes glittered with the very intensity that had goaded her to seek him out. He wore a full cape, the gray satin lining providing a striking backdrop to his black garments, enabling her to fully appreciate the size and power of his frame.

“I was looking for you,” she said softly, her chin lifting.

“I know.”

Chapter 2

Her phantom’s voice was deep, low, and distinctly accented. Foreign, which complemented his swarthy complexion.

“Do not fear me,” he said. “I wish only to apologize for my lack of manners.”

“I am not frightened,” she replied, her gaze darting past his shoulder to where other guests were clearly visible.

He stepped aside and bowed, gesturing her out with a grand sweep of his arm.

“That is all you have to say to me?” she asked, as she realized that he intended for them to part.

His beautiful mouth pursed slightly. “Should there be more?”

“I . . .” Amelia frowned and glanced away a moment, trying to gather her thoughts into coherent words. It was difficult to think clearly when he stood in such close proximity. What had been compelling at a distance was nearly overwhelming now. He was so somber. . . . She had not expected that.

“I do not mean to detain you,” he murmured, his tone soothing.

“Lack of manners,” she repeated.

“Yes. I was staring.”

“I noticed,” she said dryly.

“Forgive me.”

“No need. I am not upset.”

She waited for him to take some action. When he stepped out of the small circle and again gestured toward the main part of the rear garden, she shook her head in denial. Her mouth curved at his apparent haste to be rid of her.

“My name is Miss Amelia Benbridge.”

The man stilled visibly, his only movement the lift and fall of his chest. After a moment’s hesitation, he showed a leg in a courtly bow and said, “A pleasure, Miss Benbridge. I am Count Reynaldo Montoya.”

“Montoya,” she breathed, testing the name on her tongue. “Spanish, yet your accent is French.”

His head lifted, and he studied her closely, his gaze caressing the length of her body from the top of her elaborate coiffure down to her kid slippers. “Your surname is English, yet your features are enhanced by a foreign touch,” he pointed out in rebuttal.

“My mother was Spanish.”

“And you are enchanting.”

Amelia inhaled sharply, startled by how the simple compliment affected her. She heard such platitudes daily, and they held as much meaning as a comment on the weather. But Montoya’s delivery altered the words, imbuing them with feeling and an underlying urgency.

“It appears I must apologize again,” the count said, with a self-deprecating smile. “Allow me to escort you back before I make a further fool of myself.”

She reached out to him, then caught herself and clutched the stick of her mask with both hands instead. “Your cloak . . . Are you departing?”

He nodded, and the tension in the air between them heightened. There was no reason for him to linger, and yet she sensed that they both wanted him to.

Something was holding him back.

“Why?” she asked softly. “You have not yet asked me to dance or flirted with me or made a casual remark about where you intend to be in the future so that we might find one another again.”

Montoya reentered the small circle. “You are too bold, Miss Benbridge,” he admonished gruffly.

“And you are a coward.”

He drew up sharply just a few inches from her.

A cool evening breeze blew across the top of her shoulder, carrying with it one of the long, artful curls that hung down her back. The count’s gaze focused on the glossy lock, then drifted over the swell of her breasts.

“You look at me as a man looks at his mistress.”

“Do I?” His voice had lowered, grown softer, the accent more pronounced. It was a lover’s tone, or a seducer’s. She felt it move over her skin like a tactile caress, and she relished the experience. It was rather like exiting a warm house on a frosty day. The sudden impact of sensation was startling and stole one’s breath.

“How would you know that look, Miss Benbridge?”

“I know a great many things. However, since you have decided not to acquaint yourself with me, you will never know what they are.”

His arms crossed his chest. It was a challenging pose, yet it made her smile, because it signaled his intent to stay. At least for a short while longer. “And what of Lord Ware?” he asked.

“What of him?”

“You are, for all intents and purposes, betrothed.”

“So I am.” She noted how his jaw tensed. “Do you have a grievance with Lord Ware?”

The count did not reply.

She began tapping her foot again. “We are having visceral reactions to one another, Count Montoya. As attractive as you are, I would venture to say that you are accustomed to snaring women’s interest. For my part, I can say with absolute certainty that a similar situation has never happened to me before. Stunning men do not follow me about—”

“You remind me of someone I used to know,” he interrupted. “A woman I cared for deeply.”