The man in the white mask was following her.
Amelia Benbridge was uncertain of how long he had been moving surreptitiously behind her, but he most definitely was.
She strolled carefully around the perimeter of the Langston ballroom, her senses attuned to his movements, her head turning with feigned interest in her surroundings so that she might study him further.
Every covert glance took her breath away.
In such a crush of people, another woman most likely would not have noted the avid interest. It was far too easy to be overwhelmed by the sights, sounds, and smells of a masquerade. The dazzling array of vibrant fabrics and frothy lace . . . the multitude of voices attempting to be heard over an industrious orchestra . . . the mingling scents of various perfumes and burnt wax from the massive chandeliers . . .
But Amelia was not like other women. She had lived the first sixteen years of her life under guard, her every movement watched with precision. It was a unique sensation to be examined so closely. She could not mistake the feeling for anything else.
However, she could say with some certainty that she had never been so closely scrutinized by a man quite so . . . compelling.
For he was compelling, despite the distance between them and the concealment of the upper half of his face. His form alone arrested her attention. He stood tall and well proportioned, his garments beautifully tailored to cling to muscular thighs and broad shoulders.
She reached a corner and turned, setting their respective positions at an angle. Amelia paused there, taking the opportunity to raise her mask to surround her eyes, the gaily colored ribbons that adorned the stick falling down her gloved arm. Pretending to watch the dancers, she was in truth watching him and cataloguing his person. It was only fair, in her opinion. If he could enjoy an unhindered view, so could she.
He was drenched in black, the only relief being his snowy white stockings, cravat, and shirt. And the mask. So plain. Unadorned by paint or feathers. Secured to his head with black satin ribbon. While the other gentlemen in attendance were dressed in an endless range of colors to attract attention, this man’s stark severity seemed designed to blend into the shadows. To make him unremarkable, which he could never be. Beneath the light of hundreds of candles, his dark hair gleamed with vitality and begged a woman to run her fingers through it.
And then there was his mouth . . .
Amelia inhaled sharply at the sight of it. His mouth was sin incarnate. Sculpted by a master hand, the lips neither full nor thin, but firm. Shamelessly sensual. Framed by a strong chin, chiseled jaw, and swarthy skin. A foreigner, perhaps. She could only imagine how the face would look as a whole. Devastating to a woman’s equanimity, she suspected.
But it was more than his physical attributes that intrigued her. It was the way he moved, like a predator, his gait purposeful and yet seductive, his attention sharply focused. He did not mince his steps or affect the veneer of boredom so esteemed by Society. This man knew what he wanted and lacked the patience to pretend otherwise.
At present it appeared that what he wanted was to follow her. He watched Amelia with a gaze so intensely hot, she felt it move across her body, felt it run through the unpowdered strands of her hair and dance across her bared nape. Felt it glide across her bared shoulders and down the length of her spine. Coveting.
She could not begin to guess how she had attracted his attention. While she knew she was pretty enough, she was not any more attractive than most of the other women here. Her gown, while lovely with its elaborate silver lace underskirts and delicate flowers made of pink and green ribbon, was not the most riveting on display. And she was usually disregarded by those seeking a romantic connection, because her long-standing friendship with the popular Earl of Ware was widely assumed to be leading to the altar. Albeit very slowly.
So what did this man want with her? Why didn’t he approach her?
Amelia canted her body to face him and lowered her mask, staring at him directly so he would not have to wonder if she was looking at him. She left him no doubt, hoping his long legs would resume their deliberate stride and bring him to her. She wanted to experience all the details of him—the sound of his voice, the scent of his cologne, the impact of proximity to his powerful frame.
Then she wished to know what he wanted. Amelia had lived the entirety of her motherless childhood being secreted from place to place, her governesses changed often so that no emotional attachment could form, she was cut off from her sibling and anyone who might care for her. Because of this, she distrusted the unknown. This man’s interest was an anomaly, and it needed to be explained.
Her silent challenge caused a sudden, visible tension to grip his body. He stared back, his eyes glittering from the shadows of the mask. Long moments passed, time she barely registered because she was so focused on his response to her. Guests walked past him, momentarily obstructing her view and then revealing him again. His fists clenched along with his jaw. She saw his chest expand with a deep breath—
—just as she was bumped roughly from behind.
“Excuse me, Miss Benbridge.”
Startled, her gaze turned to identify the offending individual and found a wigged man wearing puce satin. She muttered a quick dismissal of his concern, managed a brief smile, and swiftly returned her attention to the masked man.
Who was gone.
She blinked rapidly. Gone. Lifting to her tiptoes, Amelia frantically searched the sea of people. He was tall and blessed with an impressive breadth of shoulder. His lack of a wig provided an additional means of identification, but she could not find him.
Where did he go?
The low, cultured drawl at her shoulder was dearly familiar, and she shot a quick, distracted glance at the handsome man who drew abreast of her. “Yes, my lord?”
“What are you looking for?” The Earl of Ware mimicked her pose, craning his neck in much the same fashion. Any other man would have looked ridiculous, but not Ware. It was impossible for him to appear anything less than perfect from the top of his wigged head down to his diamond-studded heels six feet below. “Would it be too much to hope that you were looking for me?”
Smiling sheepishly, Amelia abandoned her visual hunt and linked her arm with his. “I was seeking a phantom.”
“A phantom?” Through the eyeholes of his painted mask, his blue eyes laughed at her. Ware had two expressions—one of dangerous boredom and one of warm amusement. She was the only person in his life capable of inspiring the latter. “Was this a frightening specter? Or something more interesting?”
“I am not certain. He was following me.”
“All men follow you, love,” he said with a faint curve to his lips. “At the very least with their gazes, if not with their legs.”
Amelia squeezed his arm in gentle admonishment. “You tease me.”
“Not at all.” He arched one arrogant brow. “You often appear lost in a world of your own making. It is supremely appealing to men to see a woman content with herself. We long to slip inside her and join her.”
The intimate timbre of Ware’s voice was not lost on Amelia. She glanced up at him from beneath her lashes. “Naughty man.”
He laughed, and the guests around them stared. So did she. Merriment transformed the earl from the epitome of an ennui afflicted aristocrat to a vibrantly attractive man.
Ware began to stroll, expertly carrying her along with him. She had known him for six years now, having met him when he was ten and eight. She’d watched him grow into the man he was today, watched him take his first steps into liaisons and the way relations with women had changed him, although none of his inamoratas held his attention long. They saw only his exterior and the marquessate he would rule upon his father’s passing. Perhaps he could have lived with that depth of interest, if he had not met her first. But they had met, and become the closest of friends. Now lesser connections displeased him. He kept mistresses to relieve his physical needs, but he kept her close to see to his emotional ones.
They would marry, she knew. It was unspoken between them, yet understood. Ware simply waited for the day when she would finally be ready to step beyond the boundaries of friendship and into his bed. She loved him for that patience, even though she was not in love with him. Amelia wished she could be; she wished it every day. But she loved another, and while death had stolen him from her, her heart stayed true.
“Where are your thoughts now?” Ware asked, his head tilting in acknowledgment of another guest’s greeting.
“Ah, lovely,” he purred, his eyes lit with pleasure. “Tell me everything.”
“I am thinking that I shall enjoy being married to you.”
“Is that a proposal?”
“I’m not certain.”
“Hmmm . . . well, we are getting closer. I take some comfort in that.”
She studied him carefully. “Are you growing impatient?”
“I can wait.”
The answer was vague, and Amelia frowned.
“No fretting,” Ware admonished gently, leading her out a pair of open French doors to a crowded terrace. “I am content for now, so long as you are.”
The cool evening breeze blew across her skin, and she inhaled deeply. “You are not being entirely truthful.”
Amelia came to a halt at the wide marble railing and faced him. Several couples stood nearby, engaging in various conversations, but all were casting curious glances in their direction. Despite the shadows created by the cloud-covered moon, Ware’s cream-colored jacket and breeches gleamed like ivory and enticed admiring perusals.
“This is not the place to discuss something as auspicious as our future,” he said, reaching up to untie his mask. He removed it, revealing a profile so noble it should have graced a coin.
“You know that will not dissuade me.”
“And you know that is why I like you so well.” His slow smile teased her. “My life is regimented and compartmentalized. Everything is orderly and firmly in its place. I know my role and I fulfill the expectations of Society exactly.”
“Except for courting me.”
“Except for courting you,” he agreed. His gloved hand found hers and held it. He adjusted his stance to hide the scandalous contact from the curious. “You are my fair princess, rescued from her turret tower by an infamous pirate. The daughter of a viscount hanged for treason and sister to a true femme fatale, a woman widely considered to have murdered two husbands before marrying one too dangerous to kill. You are my folly, my aberration, my peccadillo.”
He brushed his thumb across her palm, making her shiver. “But I serve the opposite purpose in your life. I am your anchor. You cling to me because I am safe and comfortable.” His gaze lifted to look over her head at the others who shared the terrace with them. He bent closer and murmured, “But on occasion, I remember the young girl who so boldly demanded a first kiss from me, and I wish I had responded differently.”
“Have I changed so much since then?”
With his mask dangling from one hand and her hand captured in the other, he turned abruptly and led her down the nearby flight of stairs to the garden. A gravel pathway bordered low yew hedges, which in turn bordered a lush center lawn and impressive fountain.
“The passing of time changes all of us,” he said. “But I think it was the passing of your dear Colin that changed you the most.”
The sound of Colin’s name affected Amelia deeply, provoking feelings of overwhelming sadness and regret. He had been her dearest friend, who later became the love of her heart. He was the nephew of her coachman and a Gypsy, but in her sheltered world they were equals. They had been playmates as children, then found their interest in each other changing. Deepening. Becoming less innocent.
Colin had matured into a young man whose exotic beauty and quiet strength of character had stirred her in ways she had not been prepared for. Thoughts of him had ruled her days, and dreams of stolen kisses had tormented her nights. He had been wiser than she, understanding that it was impossible for a peer’s daughter and a stableboy to ever be together. He had pushed her away, pretended to feel nothing for her, and broken her adolescent heart.
But in the end he had died for her.
Her silent exhale was shaky. Sometimes, just before she drifted into sleep, she permitted herself to think of him. She opened her heart and let the memories out—stolen kisses in the woods, passionate longing and budding desire. She had never felt that depth of emotion again and knew she never would. Some childish infatuations faded away. Her love for Colin had been built with firmer stuff, and it stayed with her. No longer a raging fire, but a softer warmth. Adoration enhanced by gratefulness for his sacrifice. Trapped between her father’s men and agents of the Crown, she could have been killed had Colin not spirited her away. A reckless, love-fueled rescue that had delivered her to safety at the cost of his precious life.
“You are thinking of him again,” Ware murmured.
“Am I so transparent?”
“As clear as glass.” He squeezed her hand, and she smiled fondly.
“Perhaps you think my reticence stems from my lingering affection for Colin, but it is my affection for you that restrains me.”
Amelia could see that she had surprised him. They turned back toward the manse, following the subtle urging of the path. Brilliant light and the glorious strains of stringed instruments spilled out in abundance from the many open doorways, enticing strolling guests to linger close to the festivities. Others wended their way through the rear garden as they did, but all resisted straying too far.
“Yes, my lord. I worry that perhaps I will steal you from your great love.”
Ware laughed softly. “How fanciful you are.” He grinned and looked so handsome, she gazed a moment longer to admire him. “I admit to curious musings when you wear that faraway look, but that is the extent of my interest in affairs of the heart.”