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John, Duke of Monmouth, has no idea that the anonymous pen pal who has stolen his heart is the same woman standing between him and his new canal…
Good God, he was nervous! Surrounded by a sea of masked guests inside Bishopswood’s ballroom, John tugged once more at the sleeves of his black kerseymere jacket.
He nearly laughed at himself. When had he ever been nervous about a woman before in his life? In his younger days, he’d bedded more women than he could remember, sharing in all kinds of pleasures with down-to-earth women from the markets, inns, and villages. In more recent years, he’d been too busy with his business to spend much time in pursuit of the women of the gentility that his new money brought him into contact with. Since he’d inherited, though, it was society ladies who vied to capture his attention, those women who were more than eager to raise their skirts for a wealthy duke. He rejected those ladies outright, knowing he’d find no pleasure in them, because they wanted to be with the title and not with the man.
But the woman who pinned those notes to the tree knew nothing about his title or his status as one of England’s most powerful men. He suspected that she wouldn’t care even if she did. At least he hoped she wouldn’t, preferring the true man he was. God knew how much he liked her.
If she were half as beautiful in person as she was in her letters, he feared that she might also capture his heart.
He snatched a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing footman, more so he could continue to take glances toward the top of the stairs over the rim than for the drink itself. His eyes hadn’t strayed far from the landing all night, although how he would know her when she arrived, costumed and hidden behind her mask, he had no idea. He only prayed that he would. And that she would come at all. When he’d returned to the tree to seek her response, the invitation was gone, but she’d left no reply. Nor did she write even once during the past week.
Since then, he’d kicked himself repeatedly that he’d pressed her to meet, fearing he’d gone too far. Would he ever hear from her again?
Quashing his worry, he watched as the parade of new arrivals appeared on the landing and handed their invitations to the Master of Ceremonies, who announced them based upon their costume. Tonight was a true masquerade, with all identities hidden until the midnight unmasking. He’d insisted on it. For a few precious hours he wanted to be nothing more than one of the crowd, so that he could enjoy the party himself before they set upon him like locusts in their rush to curry his favor. Most of all, he wanted time to enjoy the company of the woman who had written all those letters.
He had no idea what his secret authoress would look like or what costume she’d wear. If she’d appear at all. But he knew he’d feel her presence when she arrived, the way old sailors felt oncoming storms.
White flashed at the top of the stairs. His gaze darted to the landing—
A low tingle rose inside him as he watched her give her invitation to the Master of Ceremonies. His breath hitched with nervous anticipation despite a soft chuckle to himself as her name was announced. Lady Swan. A graceful, gliding vision in white silk and feathers, one in perfect opposition to the black clothes of his panther, of her softness and elegance to his hardness.
Meeting her gaze across the room, he held out his hand toward her in invitation, as if she were only a few feet from him rather than across the grand ballroom. The party faded away around them until it was only the two of them. No one else in the room mattered.
She drew in a nervous breath, her slender shoulders stiff. Then a smile spread beneath her white satin half-mask, and she moved on, gliding down the remaining stairs and into the crowd which parted around her as she came to him.
Wordlessly, she slipped her trembling hand into his. He raised it to his lips, unable to resist this small kiss, then led her forward to the dance floor, to take her into his arms and twirl her into the waltz.
As always, Read, Feel, Fall In Love!
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