About the book
And after all, what is a lie? It is but the truth in masquerade...
It all starts with a Masquerade Ball.
When Miss Aurora Mitchell, second daughter of the Viscount of Backton, abandons the dance floor for some fresh air, she never expects to find herself alone with a charming stranger in a mysterious dark mask.
Ethan Hart, Duke of Durston, is on a mission: discover the identity of the enchanting lady he met on the night of the ball. His trail leads him straight to Backton Manor and into Aurora’s waiting arms, certain that he has found everything he’s been looking for.
It all starts with a Masquerade Ball and ends when the masks finally fall off, only for Ethan to realize that he has made a terrible mistake. Aurora was never the one he found and he’s been courting the wrong lady all along...
Aurora and Florence Mitchell stood staring through the crack in their mother’s bedchamber door straining to hear what the physician had to say. The Viscountess had just suffered her sixth miscarriage in as many years, all sons, all born dead. “I am sorry to inform you, My Lady, but if you continue on this course of action, you will be dead within the year. Your body cannot manage another child. If you were to try again, both you and the babe would perish.”
“No,” the Viscountess’ voice caught on a sob of disbelief and sorrow.
“Are you certain?” The Viscount of Backton took his wife’s hand into his own. He was pale and drawn, his features naught but lines and shadows in the fire’s waning light.
“I am truly sorry, My Lord, My Lady, but the production of a male heir to Backton is simply impossible.” The physician, having done all that he could do, took his leather satchel and left the room, giving the family time to mourn their loss. At the door, he paused and turned back to the sorrowful noble couple. “Perhaps it would be good to go away for a time, to allow yourselves to heal and come to acceptance, apart from the cares and concerns of society.”
The Viscount nodded in acknowledgement of the physician’s well-meant advice. Then the physician turned back to the door, causing Aurora and Florence to scurry away before they were discovered eavesdropping. From the large window at the top of the stairs, they watched the man ride away. Turning, they crept back to their mother’s bedchamber door and found their parents holding each other as they cried.
“Oh, Nicholas, I am so very sorry,” She wept inconsolably, the sound holding all of her guilt and pain. “I know how desperately you have wished for an heir, and I have failed you.”
“Nonsense, Rebekah,” Nicholas rebuked gently. “You have not failed me. You cannot help what has happened any more than I can. We will find another way to secure the legacy of Backton.”
“How?” she sobbed in question. “The law of title is quite clear, and we have no sons, nor brothers, nor male cousins of your line that we are aware of.”
“’Tis true and a sorrowful truth at that, but we will find a way even if we must apply to the Prince Regent for a special dispensation. A male grandchild might be allowed to inherit. Perhaps once Florence is wed, or Aurora, were Florence unable to bear sons? The husband would stand pride of place, of course, until any grandson could come of age if I were gone.”
“That is many years from now, my love. The girls are but babes yet,” the Viscountess reminded him in gentle reproach.
“It is a heavy responsibility to place upon them, I know, but at nine and eight they are closer to their maturity than you think, my love. The time will be upon us before we have drawn a breath. Tempus fugit and all that.” He reached out and caressed the dampened copper wisps of hair from her face. “I am in good health and should live to a ripe old age, my dear. We have time. If only they could inherit the title for themselves, but alas, it is impossible. Never fear, my love, the good Lord will find a way.”
“Then may He bless us with many healthy grandsons,” she murmured, leaning her cheek into his caress.
Florence and Aurora exchanged a questioning look. At nine and eight, it was unfathomable for them to think of such horrors as childbirth. They had seen their mother go through it too many times to think of it as anything but a horrid painful experience to be avoided at all costs. Yet according to society, it was the very purpose of their female existence. Aurora opened her mouth to say something, but Florence shook her head and pointed a finger back at their parents.
“Perhaps we should take the physician’s advice and retire to our country estate in Scotland. It would be good to remove ourselves from the pressures of society as he said to heal and come to terms with our situation,” the Viscount was saying.
Their mother slowly nodded, her eyes traveling around the room to land on the empty cradle by the bed. “Yes, let us leave for Scotland as soon as I am able. This room, this house, holds too many sad memories for me to bear at this moment.”
The Viscount nodded placing a kiss upon her copper hair. It glinted in the fire’s light, a stark contrast to her husband’s black whiskers. He had not shaved since her labor pains had begun two days before, an oddity for an otherwise meticulously-groomed nobleman. They had been through the fiery depths of hell in those two days, and the pain of it haunted his blue-green eyes. He turned them now to meet his wife’s honey-brown ones and attempted a smile on her behalf. “We have been blessed with two beautiful daughters. That is enough.”
Florence and Aurora were the mirror image of their mother and each other, except for Aurora having a light dusting of freckles strewn across her nose and cheeks, while Florence did not. Florence was also slightly taller than either their mother or Aurora. Aurora turned to Florence and whispered, “Are we enough?” She could feel her eyes filling with tears once more. They had both cried nearly ceaselessly at the loss of yet another brother.
Florence frowned, shrugging her shoulders, her jaw firming in determination. “We will have to be.”
By the end of a sennight, the family had packed their trunks and left Backton Manor for their country estate in the Scottish Highlands. The Viscountess was firmly ensconced in a pile of blankets and pillows in one carriage with the Viscount, while Aurora and Florence followed with their governess in a second carriage.
Their governess, Mrs. Margaret Gibbons, was a childless widow of an advanced indeterminate age. Florence insisted that the woman had been on the ark with Noah, which often made the girls dissolve into laughter, but there was no laughter in the carriage today. A pall of quiet mourning hung over their little group that refused to lift. Tears filled the girls’ eyes as they watched their home fade from view.
“Now, now, my little swifts, all will be well in time. You will see,” Mrs. Gibbons comforted them. She always called them her little swifts after the beautiful birds that swooped and danced through the sky in groups called a murmuration as the sisters were always together running and dancing around the estate grounds after each other. “You will enjoy Scotland, just you wait and see.”
The journey north seemed to take forever in the mind of two little girls stuck in a carriage rolling down the road for days on end. They only stopped long enough to sleep at whatever inns they found along the way, then would continue on their journey with all haste. The girls had nearly driven Mrs. Gibbons mad with their wiggling, arguing, and hair pulling.
By the time they finally arrived at their country estate, the girls had had all that they could handle being confined. The moment the horses stopped, and the carriage door opened, they took off running across the grand expanse of land surrounding the medieval stone edifice that towered over them, ignoring Mrs. Gibbons’ demands that they come back at once. They disappeared into the woods and ran weaving back and forth through the trees. “Catch me if you can!” Aurora called over her shoulder.
“I’ll get you!” Florence dashed after her, and Aurora dissolved into shrieks and giggles as she raced across the forest floor.
Suddenly the ground gave way and Aurora found herself falling downward. She tried to grab ahold of the earth as she fell but could not get a good hold. She landed at the bottom of a dark pit landing on her rump. The ground beneath her was cold hard-packed earth and stone, and a stream of light shafted in through the hole above. She saw Florence’s face hovering above. “
Are you hurt?” Florence called down to her.
“A little sore, but nothing feels broken. Mostly frightened,” she sniffled then sneezed as the dust settled all around her.
“Hold on and I will find something to pull you out,” Florence called down and disappeared.
Aurora bit her tongue to keep from crying out for her sister not to leave her. Instead, she stood and dusted herself off. Her backside hurt and would no doubt be bruised. Her joints were tender as if someone had shaken her fiercely. She peered around her and found that what she had at first thought to be a pit looked to be an old mine. Rotting timbers supported the walls and ceiling, which were also coated in black dust. It is a coal mine!
Moving forward, she saw that the way was blocked. It appeared that there had been a cave-in at some point in the mine’s history and that the owners had not dug it back out. She reached out and moved one of the stones in the wall of rubble to see if she could find a way out through it and let out a shriek as the stone rolled away to reveal a human skull.
“Florence!” she cried out in fear backing away from the bones.
“I’m here,” Florence called down and the end of a rope landed in the pool of light. “I brought help.”
Aurora peered up and saw the face of a boy about ten or so looking down at her. “This is Tovar MacPherson. He is a stable boy.”
“Are ye well, Lady Aurora?” Tovar asked in a thick Scottish brogue; his forehead scrunched up in concern.
“There is a dead body down here!” Aurora had been shaking from head to toe, and her initial fear was beginning to wear off, but now she was just curious.
“Truly?” Florence asked, poking her head down further into the hole in a mixture of awe and disgust.
“Yes, truly. Do you think I would lie about something like that?” Aurora answered somewhat offended.
“Well, no,” Florence admitted. “Who is it?”
“How am I to know that?” Aurora demanded, feeling a bit cross.
“Move away from the rope. I am comin’ down tae see,” Tovar called down and Aurora stepped back. Another shower of dirt fell down as Tovar shimmied down the rope and landed at her feet. “Lady Aurora,” he bowed swiftly, then turned to examine the mine around them. He spotted the skull and walked over to it. Another shower of dirt warned that Florence had decided to join them, and she fell in a pile of skirts, her eyes going wide as the wind knocked out of her.
She coughed and gasped as her eyes watered. When she finally pulled herself together, she was frowning fiercely at Aurora. “Why did you have to go and fall into a hole?”
“It is not as if I did so with purpose,” Aurora frowned back at her.
The three children moved toward the wall of debris and stared at the skull. “Do you know anything about this, Tovar?” Florence demanded to know.
“I dinnae ken anythin’ at all, Lady Florence. ‘Twas long afore my time tae be sure.” He bent down and studied the place in the wall where the skull protruded from it. “Do ye think the rest o’ him is in there?”
“Well, where else would it be?” Florence asked in a know-it-all voice.
“He could have been beheaded in the fall,” Aurora retorted. She was cross with Florence’s attitude.
Tovar nodded in agreement. “Aye, that he could.”
“I wonder who he was,” Aurora murmured bending down next to Tovar. “Other than a miner, I mean.”
“I dinnae ken, but it could nae have been a good way tae die crushed beneath all o’ that weight.”
Aurora’s eyes filled with tears as she thought of the man’s pain. “We should cover him back up and tell Father about this. Perhaps he can offer the man a proper burial.”
“Och, nae. Ye cannae disturb the dead, Lady Aurora, or they’ll come back tae haunt ye.”
“Do you really think so?” Aurora was wide-eyed in wonder at the boy’s knowledge of such things.
“Oh, aye. My uncle, Eion, was haunted once by a fearsome shade. Nearly killed him, it did.” Tovar nodded knowingly.
“What do you know?” Florence grouched in superiority, but she took a step back in spite of her brave words.
“I expect I ken more than ye do o’ such things bein’ a Sassenach Lady as ye are,” Tovar retorted.
Florence huffed and moved back toward the rope. Aurora followed her, and Tovar placed the stone back into the wall to conceal the skull. He said something in Gaelic that Aurora did not understand, but the tone and cadence reminded her of a prayer. Tovar crossed himself and backed away to join the girls. “He’s a Catholic!” Florence hissed in astonishment.
“Aye,” Tovar answered.
“I thought Scotland was Protestant,” Florence stated in an accusatory tone.
“Aye, much o’ it is now, but ‘twas nae always so. My faither is Scottish, but my maither is Spanish. ‘Tis why I am named Tovar, after her family surname back in Spain, de Tovar. ‘Tis also why I am Catholic. My faither was a sailor, ye ken, afore he returned tae his native highlands with my maither.”
Aurora studied Tovar’s face with interest. She loved to hear of far-off places and people. He had wavy black hair and dark brown eyes that were nearly black with flecks of gold in them. His features and complexion, however, were all Scottish with a square-jawed toughness that could be found throughout the Highlands. Florence snorted in derision, and Aurora turned to give her sister a reproachful look. As she turned, a tiny flash of light in the wall above Florence’s head gave her pause.
Aurora moved closer and reached out to swipe a hand across the black dirt of the wall. Several more small lights flashed at her from the surface. She gasped. “Look,” she urged her sister, waving a hand for her to turn around.
“What is it?” Florence asked, still frowning.
“I do not know but it is lovely,” Aurora breathed. She reached out and touched one of the black crystalline stones that were reflecting the light. She started to dig one out, but Tovar stopped her.
“Ye dinnae want tae anger the dead by takin’ their treasures,” he warned, crossing himself again. “’Twould bring down a curse upon yer head it would.”
A shiver passed down Aurora’s spine as she lowered her arm and backed away. “Let us climb out of here before anything else happens,” Florence demanded, grabbing ahold of the rope. She tried to climb it but fell on her backside instead.
Tovar stifled a laugh and moved to help her to her feet. Aurora felt sorry for Florence having fallen twice, and she reached out to comfort her sister to no avail. Florence jerked her arm out of Aurora’s grasp and turned away to hide her embarrassment. “Allow me, My Lady,” Tovar offered, bowing, then climbed up the rope with the ease of a primate. His head peeked back over the side, and he called down for Florence to tie the rope around her, and he would pull her up.
Aurora helped her sister to do so, then stood back and watched Florence move up into the air then over the side of the hole. Tovar threw the rope back down to Aurora and then pulled her up. “Just look at the state of my dress!” Florence exclaimed with displeasure. “Father and Mother will be so cross.”
Aurora looked down at her own and found that she was in a worse state than her sister. She thought of their poor mother and all that she had suffered. She did not wish to disappoint her or cause her any more trouble. “Tovar, do you think that you could help us get into the house without our father and mother noticing us?”
“Oh, aye. ‘Tis easy enough if ye use the servants’ entrance and back stairs. ‘Twill take ye right tae the nursery. I heard yer governess, Mrs. Gibbons, yellin’ at ye that she would be there when ye stopped actin’ like heathens. Her words nae mine.” He chuckled, shaking his head. “I wouldnae wish tae face that woman in the state yer in either. Come with me, and I will help ye tae get cleaned up a bit afore ye face her fury.”
Tovar motioned for them to follow him, but then stopped and turned back. “Will ye be tellin’ Himself about the dead man then?”
Florence and Aurora looked at each other and then down at their clothes. “Do you truly believe that he will haunt us if he is moved?”
“Aye, I do.”
“Then perhaps it would be best if we did not tell anyone. I would not want to be responsible for anything bad happening to Father or Mother over this,” Aurora answered.
Florence nodded her head. “I agree. Besides that, if they find out that you fell in a hole while running through the forest, then we will both be in trouble, and I do not wish to be restricted to the house for your clumsiness,” she told Aurora.
Aurora frowned at her, wishing to retort that she had not fallen in on purpose but thought better of it. “Then we are agreed?”
“We are,” Florence nodded firmly.
“Ye have tae swear on it, so the man’s ghost kens ye mean him nae harm. Ye have tae swear a blood oath,” Tovar insisted.
As he was the resident ghost expert, Florence and Aurora did not argue the point. Tovar pulled a small knife out of his breeches he called a sgian- dubh, then motioned for them to hold out their thumbs. They both did and he made a tiny cut in each of them. The girls could not help but to gasp slightly as the blade sliced their skin; however, they said nothing in protest. Their blood spattered the ground as they swore never to tell another soul about the mine and to protect the ghost’s secrets.
“Now we are safe?” Aurora asked as she wrapped her handkerchief around her thumb.
“Now ye are safe,” Tovar nodded, and the three of them grinned at one another in the way that people do who bears a secret that no one else in the world knows.
“Friends again?” Aurora asked, turning to her sister to see if she had been forgiven the mishap.
Florence nodded, rolling her eyes in acceptance. “Friends.”
“What about me?” Tovar asked, shuffling his feet back and forth in the dirt.
Aurora grinned and looped her arm through his. “Oh, I think that we will become fast friends, friends for life even.” Then the three of them took off laughing and running back through the forest toward the house—the ghost in the ground naught but a quickly-fading memory.
Twelve Years Later
Aurora stood in front of the mirror in her room at Backton Manor and surveyed her reflection. The door opened and Florence wafted in on a cloud of pale-yellow taffeta and silk. “What do you think?” her sister asked, twirling around for her to see the full effect.
Aurora turned to her sister and smile. “You look beautiful,”
Florence came over to appraise Aurora’s choice of dress. “Hmmm,” she mused in judgment. Aurora stifled the impulse to roll her eyes. Florence always needed to be the prettiest girl in the room. She could not countenance any other way, even if the only other girl in the room was her own sister. “I suppose you will do,” she said begrudgingly.
Aurora shook her head in exasperation, but smiled at her sister fondly, nevertheless. “You will be the loveliest woman there,” she reassured her sister.
“Of course, I will, even if it is a masquerade ball where no one will get to see my face behind this mask.” She fluttered the mask in question in the air. It matched her dress and was covered in silk, yellow ribbon, and semi-precious gemstones of a similar hue.
Aurora knew that the unwed young ladies of the ton usually wore pale colors or even white as a general rule, but Aurora had always been fond of the darker jewel tones. So, she had chosen an emerald-green silk that highlighted the copper color of her hair and brought out the gold in her eyes. The annual masquerade ball was one of the few times she was allowed to wear such rich dark colors, and she accented her ensemble with a mask made of the same silk with black trim and onyx stones and a matching onyx pendant around her neck.
Every autumn, Her Grace, Helena Kingston, the Duke of Wilhelm’s wife, would host a masquerade ball. Everyone who was anyone within the ton attended and Aurora could barely contain her excitement. She loved to float around the ballroom, listening to the colorful stories of all the beautiful places various members of the ton had absconded to over the past year.
Due to the Viscountess’ failing health, Aurora had never been anywhere further than Scotland, but she treasured every moment of the time her family spent there. There was a great deal of pressure for Florence and Aurora to marry well, and soon, in order to secure an heir to their father’s title. Perhaps she would someday be able to travel to the places she so longed to see on her future honeymoon. She could only hope to find a husband as enamored with the delights of foreign climes as she was.
“Hurry, Aurora! Father and Mother are ready to leave,” Florence’s voice interrupted Aurora’s thoughts.
“Coming!” Aurora snatched up her mask and quickly followed her sister outside to the waiting carriage.
The ride to the Wilhelm Estate was somewhat longer than one would like while swathed in finery, but thankfully not overly so. Florence babbled on about this and that while Aurora half-listened and watched the landscape roll past the window. Her sister had a plan in place to snare a high-ranking husband by employing the full barrage of her charms at the masquerade ball that night.
“There is not a man born that could resist my daughters,” the Viscountess encouraged her eldest’s plans. “I know you will both do your father and me proud.”
Aurora glanced across the carriage at her mother’s wan countenance and, not for the first time, felt a pang in her chest at the sight. The Viscountess had never fully recovered from losing so many children consecutively, the last nearly having taken her own life. A moan escaped her lips as the carriage hit a bump in the road.
“Are you well, my dear,” the Viscount inquired softly, concern for his wife furrowing his brow. “Should we turn back?”
“Nay, husband, I will be fine. Florence is correct in that our daughters should use this night to their fullest advantage. Heirs do not grow on trees, more’s the pity.” The Viscountess reached out and squeezed his hand in reassurance.
“I will not have you sacrifice your health in pursuit of my legacy,” the Viscount argued.
“Hush now, Nicholas,” she murmured reassuringly. “All is well.”
Aurora could tell that her father was not convinced, but he sat back against the seat in respect to his wife’s wishes. He continued to hold on to the Viscountess’ hand until they arrived at their destination, the frown of concern only leaving his brow for social propriety. Descending the carriage, he offered his hand to his wife and daughters, then escorted them inside.
The grand hall and ballroom were breathtaking with so much glittering candlelight and crystal. Aurora gasped with delight at the myriad of colorful gowns and the elegant dark suits adorning the men and women of the ton. The air was awash in music and conversation ebbing and flowing around them in a sort of choreographed chaos.
Florence spotted the Duke’s daughters, Lady Winifred and Lady Persephone, surrounded by a gaggle of giggling young ladies clearly demarcated as the two most-opulently dressed girls in the room. She grabbed Aurora’s arm and pulled her along to greet them. Florence moved through the ballroom without care for who might be standing in her way. When they reached the group of girls, the sea of skirts parted to allow them access.
“Florence, Aurora, ‘tis so good to see you. Have a look at what Papa brought back from his latest hunting trip in Scotland,” Winifred greeted enthusiastically. “It is called a kaleidoscope. Put it to your eye and turn it like so.” She demonstrated for all to see, then handed one each to Florence and Aurora.
Aurora did as instructed and was greeted by the fantastic sight of colors cascading one over the other illuminated in refractory splendor by the candlelight. “How marvelous! How ever did he come across such a thing?”
“It was created by a Scottish scientist, Sir David Brewster, in 1816. It is becoming quite the rage,” Persephone proclaimed, looking quite self-important at having the ownership of such a piece.
“I can see why. What an entertaining invention,” Aurora smiled, handing back the kaleidoscope.
“We must have Father acquire us one of these,” Florence decided. “Might I borrow this one for a moment to show him?”
“Of course. I shall go with you,” Persephone replied, and the two of them crossed the ballroom to seek out the Viscount.
Winifred took Aurora by the arm and led her over to a chair in the corner. “You will never believe my good news,” she whispered to Aurora. Her eyes danced excitedly behind her mask. The exposed skin of her neck and chest blushed a pretty shade of pink telling Aurora more than her words ever could.
“You are betrothed,” Aurora stated more than asked.
“Yes! However did you know?” Winifred’s eyes went wide with surprise.
“You have the glow of love about you. How could it be anything else?” Aurora smiled affectionately at her friend. “Who is the fortunate fellow?”
“Lord Stephen Bates, heir to the Earl of Ables.”
“A marvelous catch,” Aurora was suitably impressed. “I can see that you are greatly pleased with the arrangement.”
“Oh, yes. I could not have asked for more. Persephone, of course, says she will not marry anyone short of a duke. She refuses to be a part of a household that is lower in rank than our own dear sweet Papa, but I do not care. I will marry for love or not at all, in spite of any urgings I might receive from others. Besides, an earl is but two stations below a duke, only preceded by a marquess in noble favor.”
“Perfectly respectable in every way.” Aurora knew all too well the difficulties of being the second daughter in such matters. Florence, too, had designs upon marrying a duke, though their own father was but a viscount one step below an earl; however, as the eldest daughter, her dowry was of an excellent size to draw such a prize. Aurora, on the other hand, would do well to find a baron as a suiter, though her father had often praised her beauty as being worthy of kings.
“You will, of course, attend,” Winifred enthused.
“Of course. When is the happy day to be?”
“We are hoping for a Christmas wedding.”
“How utterly romantic,” Aurora smiled, squeezing her friend’s hand. “I am so very happy for you.”
“Have you any such prospects for yourself?” Winifred inquired, hopefully. “It would be such a splendid thing if we were to experience the joys of wedded bliss together. I can see it now, our children growing up together as we did.”
“Nay, no such fortune, I am afraid,” Aurora shook her head. “But I have not been in any hurry for such things, as you know. It is Florence who must find an appropriate husband to carry on our father’s legacy.”
“But if she should fail…” Winifred let the horrible thought hang in the air between them unspoken.
“Perish the thought.”
“It would fall to you to manage bearing sons then.”
Aurora nodded frowning. “Florence will manage it. There is no need for concern just yet.”
“Indeed.” Winifred shook herself from thinking such negative thoughts and returned to the blushing future bride that she had been upon Aurora’s arrival. “Let us not dwell further upon the matter. This evening is a time for frivolity and other such delights. Perhaps your future husband is in attendance even now.”
“Is yours in attendance?”
“Sadly, no. He was called back to attend the Earl. The Earl has taken a turn for the worse, and they are not certain that he has much time left.”
“And then your Stephen will be the Earl.”
“Quite, but it is a sad passing to be sure.”
The girls continued to talk about the latest news between this family and that until the dancing began. Winifred’s brother, Lord Benjamin, asked Aurora to dance, and they swept out across the floor in grand style with everyone else. Aurora danced with many more noblemen until her head was spinning, and she was flushed with the heat of it. In desperate need of fresh air, Aurora slipped out into the gardens away from the bustle and noise.
She sat on a bench beneath a trellis of white roses that almost glowed in the light of the moon. The trickling sounds of a fountain in the near distance washed over her in soothing tones. Aurora closed her eyes and breathed in the scents of the flowers. Heaven… She was startled by the sound of rustling in the grass behind, and her eyes swept open as a masked man dressed entirely in black stepped out of the shadows to stand before her.
Light from the nearby lanterns silhouetted his tall, muscular form, flickering in the depths of his eyes, eyes that were the deep shade of the forest green in summer. She could not see his features for the mask that he wore, but his dark hair was tied back from his face in a style that showed off the clean, strong lines of his jaw—a bit rebellious with the shorter styles currently worn by a majority of the ton. “My Lady,” he bowed in apology for disturbing her respite. His voice was deep and smooth.
“My Lord,” she murmured, bowing her head. Her heart trembled in her chest. Something about the man exuded a sense of danger, and Aurora was dismayed at the shiver of delight such a notion caused.
He bowed over her hand, his eyes holding hers, sparkling with mystery and mischief. “Your servant, My Lady,” he murmured against her hand then kissed it. Aurora’s heart stopped.
Oh, dear Lord in Heaven, save me from myself…
Ethan Hart, Duke of Durston, gazed into the honey-brown eyes of the copper-haired beauty before him. Though her features were concealed, her other attributes were stunning to behold. Her breath caught in a gasp at the feel of his lips upon her skin, and he smiled at the wicked pleasure her reaction gave him. “I apologize for startling you, My Lady.”
“Not at all, My Lord.”
“Isn’t it just.”
Her breath was coming in short pants at his nearness, and her obvious reaction to his presence was a delight to his senses. “May I?” he asked, gesturing to the seat next to her.
“Oh,” she blushed and moved to the opposite side of the bench, leaving plenty of room between them. “Yes, of course.”
Ethan moved to sit down on the bench. He did not recognize the woman as anyone within his own social circle, but she was quite young. If he had to guess, he would have placed her as eight or so years his junior and as such, most likely out of his scope. He had been abroad for some time and had doubtless missed her coming-out season. He thought he would have remembered her fiery copper hair with such glowing eyes had he ever made her acquaintance in the past.
He could tell by the searching look in her eyes that she did not recognize him either as she covertly studied him from beneath her lashes. Wearing masks might be a thrilling adventure, but at the moment, he considered it to be more of a nuisance than anything else. He contemplated removing his mask and asking her to do the same but knew their hostess, the Duchess of Wilhelm, would be greatly displeased.
He leaned back, appraising her profile as best as he could behind the silk covering but was unable to ascertain anything more of her origins. He could ask for her name but found he was not quite ready to relinquish the mystique of anonymity. He enjoyed the current of secret attraction running between them. “Have you been enjoying yourself?” he inquired, wishing to hear her voice again.
“Oh, yes.” Her eyes sparkled. “I love the masquerade ball.”
“What is your favorite part?” The light in her eyes was so beautiful that he wished to keep it there if only for a little while longer.
“I love all of it, the music, the dancing, the color, the stories…”
“Oh, yes. I love to hear about everyone’s travels abroad. I have never been farther than Scotland, and though I love it there, I long to see so much more of the world than my little corner of England.”
“Travel is a passion of mine, as well. In fact, I have just returned from the Continent.”
Her eyes lit up and she opened up before him, all shyness gone. She asked a torrent of questions about the places he had been and the cultures and customs of its peoples. He gladly told her all that he could, answering each and every question. Time passed without notice until the strains of a waltz came filtering down through the garden. Standing, Ethan bowed, offering her his hand. “Will you dance with me, My Lady?”
Blushing, she extended her hand and took his. A jolt of heat akin to lightening passed over him at her touch, and he pulled her to him sweeping her up into the slower more intimate movements of the dance. He reveled at the warmth of her body beneath his hands and could not resist the urge to pull her closer to him. She smelled of cinnamon and cloves from the spiced wine, and he longed to taste her lips. Swept up in the moment he leaned down to kiss her.
Her eyes grew wide then closed as his lips brushed hers, then lingered to become a more passionate embrace. She heard the sound of people approaching and turned her head away and stepped back from him. Her eyes wide, heart racing, she turned and ran away from him before anyone could spot them.
“Wait, I did not get your name,” he called out, but she was already gone. Ethan followed after her in hopes of catching her before she became lost in the crowd, but the Duke of Wilhelm stopped him. By the time he extricated himself, she was nowhere to be found.
Aurora ran, her face flushed, breath coming in pants. He kissed me, her body thrilled with delighted horror, and I kissed him back. She could not believe her own brazen behavior. It had been the sheer and utter romantic intimacy of the moment: the garden, the anonymity, the dark quiet of the waltz. It had unnerved her beyond bearing, yet it took everything she had not to turn around and do it again. It was as if his very presence had set her to madness.
She entered Wilhelm Manor and weaved her way through the crowded ballroom. “There you are,” Florence’s voice beckoned. “Father has been searching for you everywhere. Mother has taken a turn for the worse and needs to be taken home. We were nearly forced to leave without you.”
“I am here now. Let us go.” Aurora felt a flush of guilt at having caused such distress and hurriedly followed after her sister. They found their parents at the front of the house, their mother having already been ensconced inside the carriage.
“There you are. Where on earth were you?” The Viscount demanded to know of his daughter. “Never mind,” he shook his head, cutting off any answer she might give. “Get in the carriage.”
Aurora immediately obeyed, followed by Florence, then their father. The ride home was spent in silence as their mother drifted in and out of sleep. In the quiet darkness, Aurora’s thoughts turned back to the stranger from the garden. She had never met a more well-traveled man. He had taught her so much about the world in the brief hours that they had spent together. She had enjoyed every moment of their time together, but it had only served to heighten her hunger for adventure.
When they arrived home, the Viscount aided his wife from the carriage only to have her collapse into his arms, her face ashen, speech slurred. “Mother!” Aurora gasped, reaching out to catch her as the Viscount swept his wife’s lithe form up into his arms.
“Mr. Sanders, please send a man for the physician at once!” the Viscount commanded the butler standing in the doorway.
“Yes, My Lord.” The butler bowed and scurried away, calling out for the Viscountess’ lady’s maid as he went.
The Viscount carried the Viscountess into the manor house and up to her bedroom. Aurora and Florence followed close behind. The Viscount laid his wife gingerly on the bed. Her lady’s maid, Mrs. Bayles, came forward and began removing the Viscountess’ jewels and ball gown, dressing her in a modest nightdress. One of the maids brought a basin of water and a cloth to bathe the Viscountess’ face in hopes of restoring her, but she remained inanimate.
It felt as if an eternity had passed before the physician arrived, and he herded everyone, but the lady’s maid, from the room and closed the door. The Viscount retreated to his library, where the sounds of him pacing the floor could be heard to echo down the hall accompanied by the clinking of crystal from the decanter and the clanging of iron from the fireplace. His restlessness was contagious, and Aurora could not remain still herself. She began to pace back and forth in the hall.
“Would you please cease such unladylike behavior,” Florence scolded irritably, her concern for their mother causing her to be in an ill mood. “Sit down and help me to pass the time. Tell me what you were doing when we could not find you at the ball.” Aurora blushed at the thought and Florence noticed. “Oh, now you must tell me.” Her eyes took on a fiercely inquisitive look.
“I met someone,” Aurora breathed, a fluttering in her middle.
“I believe so, yes. He was wearing a mask, so I could not see his face, but he was in attendance as a guest, so he must be. His clothing certainly bespoke of wealth, and he has traveled the world many times over. His manner and way of speech were that of an educated man from the highest echelons of society.”
“Tell me more.”
“We talked for hours about the many places in the world that he has seen. I admit, I asked a frightful amount of questions, but he did not seem to mind.”
“And what has you blushing so?”
Aurora shook her head in refusal. “Nothing.”
“Either you tell me this instant, or I will inform Father of your absconding off to the gardens with an utter stranger and without a proper introduction.”
“I would.” Florence nodded her head, curtly.
Aurora gave her sister a look of reproach for her insensitivity. “You would do that even with Mother’s troubles?”
“Yes, I would.”
“How could you be so selfish?”
“It is not I who am being selfish. Have you done something so beyond bearing that you cannot tell your own sister?”
“Of course not!”
“Fine,” Aurora grumbled under her breath, then squared her shoulders. “He kissed me.”
“He did what?”
“You heard me.”
“What on earth possessed him to do such a thing?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“You must have done something to make him think that he could take such liberties with your person upon your first meeting.”
“I did not,” Aurora retorted indignantly.
“Did you slap his face then?”
Aurora could feel her cheeks growing warm once more. “Nay, I did not.”
Florence’s brows raised in question. “Your face gives you away, little sister. You kissed him back, did you not?”
Aurora sighed and nodded reluctantly, embarrassed to be called out. “To my surprise, I did.”
“How positively scandalous!” Florence’s eyes flashed with mischief. “Will you see him again?”
“How am I to do that when I know not who he is?”
“There are ways. The Duchess will know her guests, will she not?”
“I suppose so.”
Before Aurora could answer, their mother’s bedchamber door opened, and the physician emerged. “His Lordship?”
“Here,” the Viscount’s voice answered from the door to the library having heard the Viscountess’ bedchamber door opening. The physician joined him, and the Viscount closed the door blocking Florence and Aurora from following.
“That does not look promising,” Florence noted with some irritation at being left to wonder.
Aurora hesitated whether to go into her mother’s bedchamber or to wait outside in the hallway for news from her father. She had just decided to go to her mother when the library door opened, and the physician stepped forth. The frown marring his brow told her more than she wished. “I will return later in the day to look in on her and see if there has been any improvement. Until then, she should not be left alone. I have left medicines to be administered and gave instructions to the lady’s maid for Her Ladyship’s care.”
“Thank you.” The Viscount followed the physician out into the hall and walked him to the front door. When their father returned, he looked drawn and tired. He passed the girls in the hall without a word and disappeared into the Viscountess’ room, closing the door behind him.
“Are we to wait in suspense indefinitely?” Florence huffed.
“He will tell us in time,” Aurora attempted to soothe her sister’s ill temper.
“Preferably before I have perished of old age.”
“Florence, how can you be so insensitive?”
Florence waved her hand at Aurora dismissively as if to say her selfishness was inconsequential to the argument. Aurora sighed and shook her head in exasperated disapproval but said no more. They continued to wait outside the Viscountess’ bedchamber in silence. Florence eventually gave up and went to bed. Aurora remained steadfast in her vigil, sitting in the hall well into the night. When the Viscount finally emerged, his eyes were red-rimmed, and his clothes disheveled.
“How is she?” Aurora arose and went to her father.
“The fever has abated. We are through the worst.” His hands shook as he raked them through his hair. “It was a close thing,” he whispered, his eyes haunted with the fear of losing the woman he loved.
“Is that why you would not say anything to us? You were afraid for us to see her like that?”
“Did I not?”
“Nay, you did not.” She knew her father had a tendency toward being in his own mind and did not doubt that he believed himself to have spoken with them already.
“I am sorry, my dear. I was beside myself with worry.”
Aurora patted her father’s hand in sympathy. “I will sit with her now. You go and get some rest.”
“Nay, I will not leave her side. You go on to bed. You may spell me in the morning.”
“As you wish.” Aurora stood on tiptoe and kissed her father’s cheek. She retired to her room but could not erase the feeling of foreboding that plagued her mind and heart. Her mother had managed to bring herself back from the brink this time, but it was clear by her father’s reaction that the next time might not prove to be so fortunate. Father will not survive it if Mother were to leave him alone. He simply will not survive it.
Ethan had searched the length and breadth of the ball but had not seen the copper-haired maiden again. He had retired to his room for the night but had been unable to shake the feeling of her in his arms, his lips upon hers in delicious rapture. He could still taste the spice even now. Rising, he descended to join the Duke and Duchess in breaking the fast.
“Ethan, my dear,” the Duchess greeted as he entered the room.
“Good morning, Auntie.” He leaned down and kissed the Duchess of Wilhelm on the cheek. Helena Kingston was his late mother’s younger sister.
“How did you enjoy the ball?” she asked as she absently slathered marmalade on a piece of toast.
“It was as lovely as always.” He sat down across from her after filling his plate at the breakfast buffet. “Auntie, I was wondering about one of your guests?”
Their conversation was interrupted by the entry of the Duke. “Good morning,” his deep voice rumbled, still rough with sleep. “Quite a night, was it not.”
“Indeed,” Ethan acknowledged the Duke with a nod.
“What were you saying as I entered?”
“Ethan was asking about one of our guests,” the Duchess answered with a spark of interest in her eyes.
“Oh?” the Duke’s brows arched in question. “Who is that, then?”
“I do not know her name, and she was masked as we all were. She was ensconced in an emerald gown of silk, with hair the color of copper in the sunlight, and eyes as golden as honeycomb.”
The Duke and Duchess smiled with amusement at his tender description. “That sounds to me a description of one of the Viscount of Backton’s daughters, though I could not say which one, as even their voices are so similar one cannot tell the difference. I can usually only tell them apart by the fact that one has freckles, and the other does not,” the Duchess answered.
“Not something that can be distinguished through a mask, I dare say,” the Duke pointed out.
“Nay, but it is more information than I had before. Surely, it is only a matter of calling upon the Viscount to ascertain which of his lovely daughters that it might be.”
“Shall I accompany you in the introduction?” the Duchess asked. “I could come up with some reason or another.”
“Nay, I would like to be forthright with my intentions from the very beginning.”
“And your intentions are?” the Duke asked, amused.
Ethan smiled but did not respond, and the Duchess smiled back knowingly. The conversation lapsed into pleasantries, but Ethan’s thoughts remained with the masked beauty from the night before.
Aurora awoke, feeling groggy, and disquieted. She had dreamed of the masked stranger from the ball, his eyes, his hands, his lips. She sighed and crawled out of bed. One of the maids entered, helping her to dress for the day. “How is the Viscountess this morning?” she asked the maid, hoping she had heard something.
“The physician is in with her now, My Lady.”
Aurora nodded. She is still alive, and that is all that we can ask for at the moment. She had intended to go and sit with her this morning, but it would have to wait until the physician had left. “And the Viscount?”
“His Lordship is with them, My Lady.”
“I will go down to breakfast then. Please inform me the moment the physician has departed.”
“Yes, My Lady.” The maid curtsied and left the room.
Aurora descended the stairs to the dining room. The room was empty, and she savored the silence. Florence must still be sleeping. Filling her plate from the sideboard, she sat down and gazed absently out of the bank of windows and the landscape beyond. The Backton Estate was a beautiful stretch of land near England’s eastern coast.
The smell of the sea lingered in the air revitalizing the senses, and she took a deep cooling breath as it floated in through the open windows. Autumn was upon them, and it would not be long before such pleasantries as the wintry blows of ill weather would disallow open windows. Aurora savored the moment while it lasted. She loved the sea with its seemingly endless expanse of marine beauty, whether wild or calm.
The butler entered the room with a letter upon a silver tray. “A letter has come for His Lordship, but he is otherwise occupied with Her Ladyship and cannot be bothered with it just now. The messenger awaits a response. My Lady, could you perhaps?”
“Yes, of course, Mr. Sanders.” Aurora retrieved the letter from the tray and opened it just as Florence entered the dining room.
“What is this?” Florence asked as she spied the letter.
“It is from Ethan Hart, the Duke of Durston. He asks if he might pay us a call on his way home from Wilhelm Manor.”
“And, are you acquainted with the Duke?” Florence inquired her brow raised in inquiry.
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Durston is toward Cornwall, is it not? A fair distance from here to be sure.”
“Yes, I believe so. He must have been a guest of the Duke of Wilhelm for the ball.”
“And could he be your masked man?”
Aurora paused to consider this idea. “Perhaps. As I said, he had all the manner of the most noble of men.”
“I see. You must have made quite the impression upon him with that kiss.”
Aurora blushed at the memory and hid her face behind the letter pretending to reread it. “What shall we say to His Grace? With Mother as she is, it is not the best time to be entertaining guests.”
“Would it not be rude to refuse him? He is a duke, after all.”
“Yes, I suppose it would be.”
“And if he is the man that you were with at the ball, then you should most certainly accept him here. Perhaps he wishes to propose,” Aurora teased.
“Of course not!” Aurora blushed furiously. “We barely know one another.”
“And yet…” Florence raised a brow in censure of what she perceived to be her sister’s forward behavior.
“Oh, very well. Perhaps he will be contented with being entertained by the two of us for tea and then continue on his journey without disturbing Father. Mr. Sanders, you may tell the messenger that His Grace is welcome to stop for a brief respite before he continues on with his journey westward.”
“Very well, My Lady.” The butler bowed then went to relay the message.
“And if he is your nobleman?” Florence asked.
Aurora flushed but said nothing. What if it is him? Her heart raced at the idea, and her skin warmed at the memory of his touch. Aurora shook her head in exasperation at her own ridiculousness. Really, it is quite enough to be getting on with. She was angry with herself for allowing him, a perfect stranger, to affect her so. Chances are the Duke is not the man that I met at the ball. He is probably an old man with warts who wishes to pass the time with Father.
A door opened and closed above their heads, and they heard the sound of boots descending the stairs. “That will be the physician,” Aurora stated, rising from her chair. “I will go up and see to Mother if Father will allow it. He has been most protective of her during this most recent ordeal. Most men would leave such nursing to the maids, but Father has not left her side for barely a moment. I must say that I admire him for that aspect of his character, though I worry for them both immensely.”
“If you ask me, he should leave it to the maids.” Florence frowned in disapproval of their Father, flouting the accepted social course of such things.
Aurora bit her tongue to keep from informing Florence that no one had actually asked her for her opinion. Instead, she left the room and ascended the stairs. She found her father kneeling by the bed, clasping his wife’s hand between his own. The Viscountess lay exhausted upon her pillows, her face pale with dark circles beneath her eyes. “Father?” Aurora spoke quietly.
The Viscount looked up, barely registering that she was there. “She grows weaker by the day,” he murmured, his voice anguished.
Aurora moved to lay a reassuring hand on her father’s shoulder. “She will recover. She always does, perhaps not to the extent that we would all prefer, but some nevertheless.”
“Thank you, my dear, for attempting to cheer me up. You are always able to find hope in even the darkest of circumstances. It is a true gift.”
“I only speak the truth.” She smiled down at him warmly, then moved over to the other side of the bed. Sitting down, she took her mother’s hand and kissed it. It was cool to the touch and felt as if she were to squeeze it the bones within would shatter into pieces. She said a silent prayer for her mother’s recovery then released her hand. “I can sit with her while you rest, Father.”
He shook his head. “I do not want to leave her side. I slept off and on in the chair last night. I will do so again, now that the physician has come and gone. The fever is gone and has not returned, so I should be able to get enough rest as I am.”
“Are you certain?” She hated to leave him as he was but knew that once he set his mind to something, there was very little chance of altering it.
“I will have the maids bring you up a breakfast tray.” Aurora arose to do so.
“Thank you, my dear. What would I do without you?”
Aurora smiled affectionately at the rumpled man before her, then left the room. She returned to the dining room to inform Florence of their mother’s condition and to have breakfast sent up to the Viscountess’ bedchamber. Upon hearing that their father refused to leave his wife’s side, Florence, shook her head in disapproval. “What does he think maids are for? They are not mere decoration to stand about.”
Aurora frowned at her sister but said nothing. She did not have the energy to argue with her. “What do you have planned for the day?”
“I am going to pay a call on our neighbor Lady Penelope Windcrest. She was not at the ball last night and will want to know every little detail of what she missed.” Florence preened with her own self-importance. “Did you tell Father about the Duke coming tomorrow?”
“Nay, I did not wish to disturb him further. He is quite beside himself with concern for Mother. Will you be here to help me receive him for tea?”
“Of course. I would not miss it.” Florence eyed her with a mischievous look.
Aurora blushed and turned away to gaze out of the window. “I hope it is not a mistake.”
“It is too late now to be worrying about such things.”
“True,” Aurora sighed and turned back to her sister.
“I assume you will be staying around the house to be of use to Father with Mother’s care.”
“Yes, I will. I would feel most guilt-ridden were I not here when needed. I attempted to persuade him to rest to no avail. Regardless, I will not leave him alone in his misery.”
“Very well,” Florence waved her hand as if such concerns were beyond her purview. “I will give Penelope your regards.”
“Please do. Tell her I will pay call once Mother has sufficiently recovered.”
Florence nodded, then arose from the table to get ready for her journey. “I will return for the evening meal.”
Aurora followed her out. “I have asked the cook to prepare a leg of lamb with rosemary, carrots, and potatoes. It is Father’s favorite, and I wish to keep his spirits up as best as I can.”
“As long as there is a lovely pudding to conclude the meal,” Florence smiled, then climbed the stairs to her bedchamber.
Once Florence had departed for the Windcrest estate, Aurora wandered the halls listlessly. Concern for her parents kept her from being able to settle into any productive task. She had attempted to read but found that her mind drifted too frequently to absorb a single word. She attempted to sketch but would stare out of the window absently instead of returning her attention to the paper. Sighing, she exited the house and took a turn around the gardens, careful to remain within shouting distance of the house.
She met Tovar MacPherson exercising the horses near the stables. He had come to work at Backton from their Scottish country estate the year before. “Mornin’, My Lady.” He doffed his bonnet in deference. “How is Her Ladyship? I saw His Lordship carry her tae the house last night.”
“She is weak, but the fever has passed. It is our hope that she will recover before too terribly long, but only time will tell.”
“’Tis sorry I am that she is ill. She is a kind mistress tae be sure.”
“How are your own dear parents?”
Tovar smiled fondly at the thought of his family. “They are well, My Lady. Da was tellin’ me o’ a late foal that dropped, in his last letter. He says that Mam has been keepin’ busy with my sister’s new wee bairn, a braw lad by all reports.”
“How lovely!” Aurora smiled at the picture his words painted of his happy family. “I am sure that they miss you.”
“Och, aye, they do and I them, but it was the right thing tae do comin’ here. ‘Tis good for a man tae make his own way in the world, just as my faither did afore me.”
Aurora nodded in agreement. “I find that I envy you the freedom of such a choice.”
Tovar grinned. “I ken well enough that ye dinnae wish tae be a stableman.”
“Nay,” Aurora laughed. “But I would ever so love to be allowed to travel about the world of my own accord.”
“Aye, I ken that. I remember ye nearly exhausted my maither with all o’ yer questions about her growin’ up in Spain and my faither with his travels aboard ship when we were but bairns.”
Aurora gave him a playful look of reproach. “I did not exhaust them. They were all too happy to oblige my curiosity.”
“Aye, that they were. Ye brought them both a great deal o’ delight with yer interest in their lives. ‘Twas quite the honor for them, My Lady, ye bein’ the Viscount’s daughter and all.”
“I look forward to seeing them again when Mother’s health allows. Maria’s baby will be quite grown by then, I fear.”
“Yes, I fear it will be a long time before Mother is able to travel again, certainly not before winter is upon us.” She sighed wistfully, already feeling the confines of the estate all too keenly.
“Then, I shall pray for Her Ladyship’s swift recovery.” He crossed himself in silent prayer.
“Thank you, Tovar. You are always so kind to my family.”
“’Tis nae at all.” He smiled in farewell and returned to his work.
Aurora sat in the grass and watched him work for some time before returning to the house for luncheon. Her mind drifted to the next day’s visit, and her heart beat faster with the renewed thought that the Duke might be her masked stranger. Could Florence be right? Could he be coming to propose? Her mouth went dry at the thought. Certainly, I would say no… Or would I?
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