Had it all been a lie?

She suddenly felt alone and very naïve. The ballroom was a crush, the earl whose arm she held was charming and devoted, and someone was speaking to her, but she felt as if she were an island in a vast sea.

“Are you unwell?” Ware whispered.

Shaking her head, she tried to look away from the man in the white mask and was unable to. She damned herself for looking for Montoya. If she had not, she could have kept the fantasy of his interest alive within her. Now that it was gone, she felt its loss keenly.

“Should we stroll?” Ware suggested. He bent over her in a highly intimate pose made acceptable by his smile and a wink at the gentleman speaking to them. “Lord Reginald’s discourse is coaxing me to sleep, as well.”

Amelia fought a smile, but felt it tugging at the corner of her lips. She turned her gaze from the masked man who watched her so closely and met Ware’s concerned blue eyes. “I should like that, my lord.”

He made their excuses and began to lead her away. As often happened when he sheltered her, her heart swelled with gratitude. She prayed that the feeling would grow into love and thought perhaps after they consummated their marriage it might turn into that. He would have a care for her in that regard, too, she knew.

She glanced at him, and he caught her gaze and held it. “Everything I do for you, sweet Amelia, is for the occasional moments when you look at me as you are doing now.”

Blushing, she looked away and watched the man in the mask moving, circling the room at the same pace she was, keeping himself directly opposite her.

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” she asked Ware, smiling.

“Only a moment.”

A female guest walked past them, her appreciative gaze roving the length of Ware’s tall frame.

“You provocative devil, you,” Amelia teased.

He winked, stepped back, and kissed her gloved hand. “Only for you.”

She rolled her eyes at the blatant lie, then made her egress, heading toward the hallway that led to the retiring rooms. She took her time, making certain it would be easy to follow her, then slipped down the hall. There were plenty of guests mingling about. Music swelled from the open ballroom doors. Candlelight flickered in sconces along the wall. She felt safe.

Taking a deep breath, she pivoted on her heel and faced him.

He stood several feet back. Amelia arched a brow and gestured him closer. He smiled and approached, but stopped a discreet distance away.

“Y-your mask . . .” she began.

“His mask,” he corrected with a definite French accent.

“Why? Does he want me, or St. John?”

“I do not know who St. John is.”

Amelia hesitated a moment, inwardly debating the wisdom of her actions; then she reached into her pocket. She withdrew what she hid there and held it out to him.

The Frenchman’s head tilted to the side as he considered her. He took what she offered and sketched a gallant bow. “Mademoiselle.”

“Give him that,” she said. Then, lifting her chin, she walked past him and returned to Ware’s side.

Chapter 5

“For God’s sake! Why did you go?”

Colin paced back and forth before the fire in his study and growled low in his throat.

“Because,” Jacques said easily.

“Because? Because!” Colin glanced down at the object in his hand, a miniature of Amelia as only a lover should see her. En dishabille, one shoulder provocatively bare almost to the nipple, her hair loose and flowing, her lips red and slightly parted. As if she’d been fucked long and well.

Who was this made for? Not for him certainly. It would have been commissioned many months ago.

“She looked beautiful, monsieur.”

Pausing before the fire, Colin leaned heavily against it, wishing he could have seen her. “What color was she wearing?”


“She approached you?”

“In a fashion.” Jacques sat on the settee and tossed one arm over the back, at ease. Which was completely opposite of Colin’s own turmoil. “I admire her.”

Colin released his breath in a rush. “Damn it. I wanted to keep my distance.”

“Why? To keep her safe? She is heavily guarded.” The Frenchman’s fingertips drummed silently against the wooden lip which framed the back of the settee. “Why is that?”

“Her sister and her sister’s husband are both notorious criminals. They fear she will be used against them, just as I do.” Leaving the grate, Colin sank heavily into his seat behind his desk.

“I thought her father was a man of some consequence.”

“A viscount, yes.” At Jacques’s raised brows, he continued. “His avarice was exceeded only by his cruelty. He could see nothing beyond his own wants and desires. He married a lovely widow to gain access to her daughter, Amelia’s sister. He sent Maria to the finest schools, then sold her into marriage to men he eventually killed to obtain their widow’s settlements.”

“Mon Dieu!” Jacques’s fingers stilled. “Why did she not flee?”

“Lord Welton had Amelia and was using her to gain Maria’s cooperation.”

The Frenchman’s face hardened. “I hope he has met his reward. There are very few things in this life that I find more detestable than crimes against one’s family.”

“His lordship was tried and hanged. In the course of her efforts to free her sister, Maria met Christopher St. John, a known pirate and smuggler. Together, they were able to manage a rescue and implicate Welton in the murders of Maria’s two husbands.”

Colin ran a hand through his hair. “The tale is far more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that St. John and his wife are two people with a multitude of enemies.”

“Considering Miss Benbridge’s past and present circumstances, it is even more curious that she would approach me as she did.”

“Amelia was never one to do what was expected.” His gaze returned to the miniature in his hand. It was an irresistible enticement that he must find a way to ignore.

“What did she give you?”

“An invitation.” A private request to meet with her at the Fairchilds’ musicale. Another chance to see her and speak with her.

“Will you go?”

“I think it would be best if I leave Town,” he said, considering alternative locations. He could travel to Bristol, where Cartland’s brood originated, and see what might be of interest there. A man like Cartland would not have a sterling past. There could be something Colin could use to lure the man into the open. “We cannot risk remaining in one location too long.”

“And I was just beginning not to thoroughly detest London,” Jacques said wryly.

Colin knew that although the Frenchman tried valiantly to hide it, he found England distasteful and obviously longed to go home.

“You do not have to come with me.” Colin smiled to soften his words. “Frankly, I do not know why you are here.”

Jacques shrugged his sturdy shoulders. “Some men are born to lead. I was born to serve.” He stood. “I will begin packing our belongings.”

“Thank you.” Colin closed his fist around the precious image of Amelia, then put it away in his drawer next to the mask. “I will join you.”

Rising to his feet, he told himself distance from Amelia was the best thing he could do for her.

But the image of her portrait refused to leave his mind, gnawing at his soul in a way he wondered if he would survive.

Amelia had always been known for her wanderings. Her unusual childhood led her to detest solitude as much as she craved it. She was never one to sit still for long, and she often made excuses to be alone, even at the most intimate of dinner parties. Ware understood her restless wanderlust, which was why he was always quick to suggest a stroll and a breath of fresh air.

So when she begged a few moments’ absence to use the retiring room, Ware paid her no mind, nor did Lady Montrose, who acted as her chaperone. They both smiled and nodded, freeing her to attend her assignation.

If Montoya came.

She moved through the downstairs as silently as possible, slipping once into a conveniently located alcove when the sound of approaching voices made discovery a very real hazard. With a racing heart, she waited for the guests to pass.

Would he appear? Would he have found a way? His attendance at the masquerade led her to believe that he was a man of some consequence. A casual introduction to Lady Fairchild would have sufficed to be extended an invitation to tonight’s event. However, she had inquired about him and was answered with a blank stare.

He had not been invited.

That did not mean he would not be here.

If his interest in her was related to St. John, she imagined he would have the knowledge required to gain entry to the house and find the private sitting room. She could not decide if that meant it would be best for him not to come. With the household she lived in and the man she was promised to marry, she could not afford any more trouble. But her heart recklessly ignored the situation as a whole and concentrated solely on what it wanted. She wasn’t certain what she would do if he responded to her invitation; she knew only that she wished he would.

Anticipation and heady expectation filled her at the thought. She had dressed with purpose this evening, choosing a gown made of dark, thick sapphire damask accented with delicate silver lace at the bodice, elbows, and underskirts. With sapphires in her hair, at her throat, and adorning her fingers, she looked older and worldlier.

If only she felt that way inside. Instead she felt as she had as a young girl—breathless with the desire to see Colin and eager to feel the emotions that only he roused in her. She had thought she would never feel similarly again. It was both thrilling and frightening to feel that way about a masked stranger.

Finally, she reached the small sitting room she had specified in the note. Sarah had learned of the room from her cousin who worked in the Fairchild household. The abigail passed the information on to Amelia, wanting her to have a quiet place to retreat if necessary.

Pausing a moment with her hand on the knob, Amelia took a deep breath and attempted to calm her riotous nerves. It was hopeless, so she abandoned the effort. Opening the door, she slipped inside. The drapes were open, allowing a sliver of silver moonlight to slant in through the sash.

She waited just inside the door, giving her eyes the time necessary to adjust to the reduced lighting. She held her breath expectantly, her ears straining to listen above the rushing of blood, hoping that he would be there and call out to her.

But there was nothing more than the ticking of the clock on the mantel.

Amelia moved to the window and turned, taking in the contents of the room. Two settees, one chaise, two chairs, tables of various sizes scattered about . . . There was more, but no Montoya.

She sighed, and her hands moved restlessly over her voluminous skirts. Perhaps she had arrived too early, or he was having some difficulty gaining entry. She looked out the window, half frightened by the thought that he might be standing outside. But there was no Montoya there either.

A few minutes. She could spare that much.

As she began to pace, the clock ticked relentlessly. Her heart rate slowed and her breathing settled into a natural rhythm. Disappointment weighed on her shoulders and the corners of her mouth. After ten minutes passed, Amelia knew it was impossible to linger, though she thought she might wait all night if not for those who would seek her out in worry.

She walked toward the door. “Well . . . Now there is nothing to distract from the wedding plans,” she muttered.

“Who was the miniature created for?”

Amelia paused with her hand on the knob, shivering as that dark, deep voice wrapped around her like a warm embrace. Gooseflesh covered her bared skin, and her lips parted on a silent gasp. Wide-eyed, she pivoted slowly to face the room. It was then that she saw the faint glow of the white half mask and cravat in the far corner. Montoya wore black again, enabling him to hide in the shadows of the unlit room.

“Lord Ware,” she answered, slightly dazed by her phantom’s sudden appearance and the realization that he had been there the whole time. Watching her. Why the mask? What was he hiding?

“Why was it created?” he asked gruffly. “It is not a gift commonly given from a virginal bride to her fiancé.”

She took a step toward him.

“Stay there and answer the question.”

Amelia frowned at his curtness. “I wanted him to see me in a different way.”

“He will see you in all ways, in the flesh.” There was bitterness in his tone, and the sound of it softened her apprehension, which enabled her to say what she might not have said otherwise.

“I wanted him to see that I was willing to share that side of myself with him,” she admitted.

The sharp alertness that tensed his frame was palpable. “Why would he doubt it?”

“Must we talk about him?” Her foot tapped impatiently. “We have so little time since you spent all of it hiding in that corner.”

“We are not talking about him,” Montoya said silkily. “We are discussing why an intimate gift meant for your fiancé found its way into my possession. Did you intend for me to see you in a different way as well?”

Amelia caught herself fidgeting nervously and hid her hands behind her back. “I think you see me differently,” she murmured, “regardless.”

His smile flashed white in the darkness. “So if I, a stranger, can see you as a sexual creature, why would your future husband have difficulty doing the same?”

She held her breath, considering his perceptive probing. “What is it that you want me to say? It is inappropriate for me to discuss private matters.”

“Sending me a provocative image of you is appropriate?”

“If it troubles you so, return it.” She held out her hand.

“Never,” he growled. “I will never give it back.”