“Why not?” She raised one brow in challenge. “Do you seek to use it against me?”

“As if I would ever allow anyone else to see it.”

Possessiveness. Clear as day. He was possessive over her. Amelia was both startled and pleased.

“Why does Lord Ware not see you as you wish to be seen?” he asked, finally approaching.

His tall form stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight, setting her heart racing. There was something so predatory, yet elegant in the way he moved, his tails swaying gently with his determined stride. Power leashed and clad in a civilized veneer. It made his allure even more seductive, made her want to see him unrestrained and free. His features were austere, his beautifully etched lips enticing her to kiss him.

That is what I want, she realized suddenly. That is why I needed to see him again.

She was willing to be honest with him in order to achieve that aim. “We are longtime companions.”

“Is it not a love match?” he asked, stopping a few feet away.

“I should not answer that.”

“And I should not be here. You should not have lured me.”

“You had me followed.”

He shook his head. “No. Jacques took it upon himself. I am leaving Town. I need distance from you, before this matter progresses any further.”

“How can you leave? Are you not haunted by our dance in the garden?” Her hand lifted to the sapphires at her throat. “Don’t you think about the kiss we shared?”

“I cannot cease thinking of it.” He pounced and caught her hard against him, as if something in him had broken free of its bonds. “Waking. Sleeping.”

She felt his gaze heating her mouth. She licked the lower curve and breathed in the scent of his skin. He smelled exotic, spicy, purely male animal. Something instinctive inside her stirred in response.

“Do it,” she goaded, her chest moving against his with rapid pants.

Montoya whispered a low curse. “You do not love him.”

“I wish I did.” Tentatively, her hands slipped beneath his coat and settled at his waist. His skin was hot, so feverish, she could feel the heat through his garments.

“Is your heart already taken?”

Her exhale was shaky. “In a fashion.”

“Why me?”

“Why the mask?” she retorted, hating the feeling of being stripped bare by his questions.

He stared down into her upturned face. “My visage is not one you would wish to see.”

She was deeply disquieted by the finality in his tone. The feeling of incertitude disturbed her to the point that she released him and attempted to step back. He held fast.

“Let us settle this now,” he said, reaching up to brush callused fingertips along her cheekbones. “What do you want from me?”

“Did you approach me because of St. John?”

Montoya shook his head. “My motives were simple. I saw a beautiful woman. I lost all sense of manners and stared, which made her ill at ease. I attempted to apologize. That is all.” His hands cupped her spine and stroked downward, arching her into him.

He was so hard, so solid, Amelia wanted to cling to him and touch him without impediments. Only one man had ever held her this closely. Only a short time ago, she would have said her ability to enjoy such an embrace with every fiber of her being had passed with Colin. Now, she knew that wasn’t true.

How extraordinary to have found Montoya.

Or more aptly, how extraordinary that he had found her.

“That night . . . You recognized that others were coming,” she pointed out.

“I did.” The line of his lips hardened. “I am a man encumbered by a tainted past. It is why you should not send for me.”

“You did not have to come.” A tainted past, one that allowed him to recognize covert signals that most aristocrats would fail to notice. Who was he?

The corner of his mouth twitched with amusement, and she touched it with her fingertip. She could not see any deformity through the eyeholes of the mask or around his mouth. What she could see were dark eyes of a slightly exotic slant and a mouth made for sin. The curvature, shape, and firmness were perfection. She could imagine hours of kissing him and never growing bored. Whatever else may be wrong with him, she thought she might be able to bear it.

She touched the edge of the mask. “Let me see you.”

“No!” He pushed her hand away roughly, then caught it again and kissed the back. The press of his lips left tingles, even through her glove. “Trust me. It would be difficult to bear the truth of it.”

“Is that why you will not court me?”

Montoya stilled. “Would you wish me to?”

“Do you feel this way about many women?” Her gaze dropped to his throat where she watched him swallow hard. “I have felt this way about only one other man, and he is lost to me, as your love is to you.”

Suddenly his embrace tightened, and he pressed his lips to her forehead. “You have mentioned a lost loved one before,” he rasped.

“Sometimes it feels as if a piece of me is missing. It is unbearable. I do not understand why I feel so vividly about him after all these years, as if he might return, as if some part of me expects him to.” Her hands fisted in his coat. “But when I am with you, I think only of you.”

“Do I remind you of him?”

She shook her head. “He was vital and unrestrained; you are more subdued, but in a . . . primitive way.” Her smile was sheepish. “That sounds silly.”

“The primitiveness comes in response to you,” he said, nuzzling his jaw against her temple. He was so close, the smell of him inundated her senses and made her giddy. Joy, hot and sweet, filled her. The sensation of being alive after years of numbness. She felt guilty for that, burdened by a sense of betraying Ware, but she could not fight the attraction to Montoya. It was too strong, too heady and intoxicating.

“I would be willing to explore it . . .” she offered shyly.

“Are you propositioning me, Miss Benbridge?” he asked with a low laugh that she adored from the moment she heard it. It was the kind of laugh one worked to hear again. Already her mind was sifting through anecdotes she could share that might make him merry.

“I want to see you again.”

“No.” He cupped her nape and held her cheek to his chest, wrapping his big body around her. It was safe in his embrace. Warm. Delightful. Could two people spend hours hugging? A derisive snort escaped her. Hours of kissing and hugging. She was deranged.

“Was that a snort?” he teased.

She flushed. “Do not attempt to change the subject.”

“We should part,” he said, sighing with what sounded like regret. “You have already been absent from the festivities too long.”

“Why did you not say something when I first arrived?”

Montoya tried to retreat, but she held him to her. There was power in her proximity, she thought. The two halves warring within him—the part that wanted to hold her and the part that wanted to push her away—seemed stalemated when she was near.

Amelia smiled a woman’s smile. “You could not allow me to walk away, could you?”

“Is that vanity I hear?”

“Is that evasion?”

The flash of a rakish dimple made her stomach flutter. “If my circumstances were different, nothing could keep me from making you mine.”

“Oh?” She looked up at him from beneath her lashes. “Would you come bearing honorable intentions, or would you seduce me as you are doing now?”

“Sweet . . .” He laughed again. “The only seduction at work here is yours.”

“Truly?” Her breasts were full and heavy, pressing uncomfortably against her corset. Her mouth was dry, her palms damp. She felt seduced. Could it be that his body was responding to her as well? “What am I doing to you?”

“Why?” His smile was charming. “So you can do more of it?”

“I might. Would you like that?”

“When did you become so flirtatious?”

“Perhaps I have always been so,” she rejoined, batting her lashes coyly.

Montoya turned pensive. “Can Ware manage you?” He caught her wrists and pulled her hands away from his waist.

“I beg your pardon?” Amelia frowned as he evaded her and moved toward the door.

“You are mischievous baggage.” His gaze narrowed as his hand wrapped around the knob.

“I am not baggage.” She set her hands atop her pannier.

“You will forever land into trouble if not watched carefully.”

She arched a haughty brow. “I have been watched my entire life.”

“And yet here you are, luring strangers with tantalizing miniatures and holding a highly inappropriate assignation.”

“You did not have to come!” She stomped one slippered foot, irritated by his condescending tone.

“True. And I shan’t come again.”

His tone was too familiar. He had asked her if he reminded her of Colin. Up until this moment, he had not. They were built differently, their voices were inflected with dissimilar accents, and their strides boasted different kinds of confidence. Colin had a bit of a stomp, as if to forcibly establish his presence. Montoya had sultriness to his gait, a more understated way of defining his dominance.

But in their mulish determination to set her aside, they were the same. As a young girl, she’d no choice but to tolerate it. That was not the case now.

“As you wish,” she said, moving toward him with a deliberate swaying of her hips. “If it is so easy for you to walk away and leave me behind, it would be best if you go.”

“I did not say it would be easy,” he bit out.

Amelia set her hand atop his where it gripped the knob. “Good-bye, Count Montoya.”

He turned his head, and she lunged, pressing her lips to his. He froze, and she took the advantage, tilting her head to deepen the contact. His breathing grew labored, his skin hot. Still, he did not move. She was unsure of how to proceed, and without his participation the kiss became awkward. Then she thought perhaps she was overthinking the thing.

Closing her eyes, Amelia allowed instinct to take over. Her hands settled lightly upon his tense shoulders, and he shuddered. She licked his lower lip, and he groaned. Her stomach churned madly with delight and fear. What if they were caught? How would she explain?

Then she did not care because it was too delicious taking him as she wanted. He did nothing to help her, but he did nothing to stop her either. Stretching her arms up, she reached behind him and tugged off her glove; then she curled her fingers around his nape. The moment their bare skin touched she was lost to him. His mouth opened on a gasp, and she pushed her tongue inside, licking the taste of him as she would a favorite treat. She tugged on his queue, and he growled.

His tongue stroked along hers, a practiced, smooth glide that made her moan into his mouth. The tiny sound broke him. He moved so quickly, she barely registered it. The next she knew, she was pinned to the door by over six feet of aroused male, and he was kissing her back, ardently and possessively.

“Damn you,” he cursed in a harsh whisper. “I can’t have you.”

“You will not even try!”

“I have done nothing but try. Nothing. That does not change the fact that my circumstances make me unsuitable and dangerous for you.”

Montoya cupped her nape and slanted his mouth hungrily over hers. It was a dark kiss, rife with sensual intent. Delicious. She sagged into the door and took it, all of it. Every thrust of his tongue, every nibble of his teeth, every caress of his beautiful lips. She took it and begged for more with pleading whimpers that drove his fervency to greater heights.

There was a mask between them and endless secrets. There was the wall that existed between strangers who shared nothing of each other beyond a single moment in time, yet the connection she felt with him was there, threading through all of that.

Was it mere lust? How could it be when she could not see all of him? But this thrumming in her veins, the ache in her breasts, the dampness between her thighs . . . Lust was there, part of the greater whole.

“Amelia,” he breathed roughly, his warm breath gusting across her damp skin. His parted lips drifted across her face, from jaw to cheekbone. Then higher. “I want to strip you bare, lay you on my bed, and kiss you all over.”

She shivered, both at the serrated way he said her name and the images his words invoked in her mind. “Reynaldo.”

“I must leave Town or that will happen, and I cannot lay claim to you if we progress that far. Not now.”

“When?” Tormented by yearning and a body that was wracked with unappeased desire, she would promise anything in this moment to see him again.

“You have Ware, a friend of long acquaintance who can give you things that I cannot.”

“Perhaps you and I can be friends.”

“You do not know me well enough to say that.”

“I want to know you.” Her voice was a throaty purr. Never in her life had she sounded like that, and it affected him. She could tell by the way he wrapped himself around her in an even tighter embrace. “I would like you to know me.”

He pulled back, and she realized she found the mask attractive. Arousing. How odd, but true, nevertheless. She did not find it alarming, but rather comforting. She felt too open, and the sight of the mask shielded her as well as him.

“The only thing you need to know about me,” he said in a rasp, “is that there are those who want me dead.”

“Such a statement might frighten other women away,” she retorted, tugging his mouth back down to hers, “but I live with people who have similar problems. Some would say I live a similar circumstance simply by association.”

“You won’t change my mind,” he grumbled, licking at her parted lips, his body acting in opposition to his words.

“I was attempting to leave the room; you detained me.”