Under the tutelage of her strict father, then that of an equally strict husband twice her age, Nessa, Lady Haughton, has been trained all her life to be a model of English propriety and virtue. But beneath the inexperienced young widow’s oh-so-prim exterior, she craves a taste of the wickedness she has always been denied. Now that she is finally free, she intends to satisfy that craving!
Notorious rakehell and war hero Jack Ashecroft finds himself unexpectedly elevated to Marquis of Foxhaven. But to claim the fortune that goes with the title, Jack must renounce his wild ways and establish himself as a respectable member of Society. The surest, quickest path, he is certain, will be to find and wed a woman beyond reproach—if one will have him.
When Jack and Nessa meet, each thinks the other is exactly the ticket to the changes they are seeking. Sparks will fly when they discover each other’s true goals—especially if it’s already too late to turn back!
“Brenda Hiatt handles the story beautifully: it is fast, witty and fun.” ~Publishers Weekly
“Witty and sensual, an easy, enjoyable writing style that makes for the best kind of reading.” ~The “M” Word Book Reviews
“A real gem, as witty and clever as any traditional Regency in which two intriguing characters square off in a mutual marriage of convenience.” ~RT Book Reviews
Nessa quietly closed the kitchen door and pulled her cloak and hood tightly about her face. Glancing up at the still-lighted windows of the narrow but imposing town house, she hoped her sister would not feel so concerned about her fictitious headache as to come to her room to check on her. If all went as planned, she’d be back inside of two hours. With luck, Prudence would never know she’d been away. Hurrying around the corner to the street, she hailed a passing hackney.
For the hundredth time she told herself she was mad to be doing this, and for the hundredth time she hushed her conscience. “King Street, St. James,” she told the driver, climbing into the conveyance.
This evening was a present to herself. From the moment she’d first seen the notice in the papers about this masquerade ball, she’d been determined to attend. In London for the first real visit in her life, Nessa felt she deserved some enjoyment.
As the hackney lurched forward, she took the red and black feathered mask she’d bought earlier that day from the pocket of her cloak and fastened it over her eyes. No one would ever know, and she’d have a delicious memory to look back on—the first such memory in her whole sheltered lifetime. It was only fair she have this reward for leading such a virtuous existence, she reasoned.
The one thing that did cause Nessa a pang of guilt was the fact that her year of mourning still lacked nearly three weeks till completion. Not for a moment did she believe her husband would have understood, sharing, as he had, her late father’s puritanical outlook on life. But she’d spent all of her four and twenty years conforming to the strictures of first the one and then the other. Now, for the first time in her life, she was free of them both—and ready to enjoy that freedom.
“This be King Street, miss,” the hackney driver called back to her just then.
“Thank you,” she called back. “Take me to the Upper Assembly Rooms, please. And if you could return in one hour, I’d be most grateful.”
The driver assented and pulled the carriage to a halt a moment later. Nessa paid him generously, hoping thereby to ensure his return. Then, lifting her chin, she strode regally up the stairs to those same hallowed rooms that housed Almack’s during the Season. Handing her cloak to one waiting lackey and her diamond-shaped pasteboard ticket to another, she swept into the ballroom.
A mere step inside the room she paused, surveying with bewildered delight this, her first masquerade. Gaily costumed revelers moved and shimmered in the candlelight of the chandeliers, dancing to the strains of a country tune or gathering in small groups to converse. Multihued dominoes vied with replicas of every historic personage imaginable.
Nessa glanced down at her own low-cut scarlet gown with black trim, smiling to think she had feared her costume too flamboyant. What pains she had taken to slip away from her sister and sharp-eyed abigail yesterday in order to purchase this cyprian’s costume! Prudence would doubtless have a spasm if she found it hidden in the back of Nessa’s wardrobe, but it was nothing compared to the plumage she saw here displayed.
“Eh there, me beauty! Might ye care to dance?” inquired a poor imitation of Henry the Eighth at her elbow.
Abruptly, she remembered her sister’s objections when Nessa had first mentioned this masquerade to her, about cits and other vulgar sorts attending. In her excitement and determination to attend she’d shrugged it off, but now the evidence was before her.
“Ah, not just yet, thank you,” she replied nervously, taking a step away from the man, who reeked of spirits. Somehow, she hadn’t really thought about what she’d do at the masquerade. She’d focused all her energies on simply getting here.
The man stepped closer. “‘Ere now, you’re not refusing to dance with yer monarch, are ye?” he prodded with a leer. “Royal privilege and all that.”
Nessa swallowed. “No, it’s not that. It’s only—”
“She has a prior obligation, to confess her sins,” interrupted a tall, brown-robed monk. “Even Your Majesty must admit to the superior claims of the Church in such matters.” The monk’s accent was cultured, reassuring Nessa that this, at least, was a man of her own class.
The drunkard appeared disposed to argue, but a tilt of the monk’s head and an ominous glitter of brilliant blue eyes from behind his mask dissuaded him. Muttering something about more wine, King Henry moved away.
“Thank you, sir,” said Nessa, relieved. “He really was becoming most persistent.”
“One can hardly blame him.” The monk looked her over with a most unclerical gleam in his eye. “What do you here alone? Or is your protector busy procuring you a glass of iced champagne?”
“My—?” Nessa glanced down at her costume again and flushed. Perhaps it was a trifle too realistic. “No, I assure you I am here alone—but I do not intend to stay long. No more than an hour.”
The monk smiled, and Nessa realized how very handsome he was, even with a mask obscuring much of his face. “Then pray, allow me to act as your escort for the brief time you mean to grace this gathering with your presence.”
Nessa frowned, wondering if perhaps she had tumbled from the frying pan into the fire. “I, ah—”
“Surely you cannot feel less than safe with a man of the cloth?” he prompted. “Besides, our costumes complement each other so well.”
That forced a chuckle from Nessa, making her instantly more comfortable. Surely a man with a sense of humor could not be too evil. Though why she should think that, she did not know. Neither her father nor her husband had ever shown the slightest hint of whimsy, and both had been regarded by the world as the most upright and estimable of men.
“Very well, Friar, I place myself under the protection of the Church for the present.”
The tall, handsome monk took Nessa on a tour of the rooms, pointing out their shortcomings. “Makes one wonder what everyone sees in the place, doesn’t it?” he asked. “But during the Season, ladies have been known to pine away or even leave Town in disgrace for being denied admittance to Almack’s of a Wednesday night.”
“I take it, then, that you are a regular attendee yourself, Friar?” asked Nessa, hoping to discover a bit more about him.
“Me? Hardly!” His laugh was almost a snort. “Not that I’ve attempted it, of course, especially since— Ah, here comes a tray of champagne! Would you care for some, milady?”
Nessa wondered what he’d been about to say. “No, thank you. Is there lemonade, perhaps?” She suspected her judgment was impaired enough this evening without adding spirits to the mix.
The monk spoke to the servant, who returned in a moment with the required beverage. With a flourish, he presented it to her. “In my present guise, I suppose I dare not request a kiss in return for such gallantry. But allow me to tell you your eyes are most haunting, even through that remarkable mask.”
“You flatter me, sir.” More than ever, Nessa suspected her escort’s costume was decidedly at odds with the man underneath. He might be the greatest rake in all London, for aught she knew. She cast about for some way to discover his name—not that it was likely to mean anything to her, as unfamiliar as she was with London Society.
Apparently she was not alone in her curiosity. “Since you do not intend to remain for the unmasking at midnight, might I know the name of the lady I have taken under my protection?”
Though he was but mimicking her earlier words, his phrasing still caused Nessa a thrill of alarm. Surely he did not truly believe her to be as she dressed tonight, a woman of easy virtue? Considering what her life had been until now, the idea was both outrageous and highly amusing. More than ever, she knew she must guard her identity at all costs.
“You may call me Monique,” she informed him. It was a name she’d always liked, and sufficiently French to fit her present role.
His well-shaped lips curved into a smile. For a fleeting moment, she wondered what it would be like to kiss those lips—then cut off such thoughts, shocked at herself. Clearly, she was taking her masquerade role far too seriously!
“Might I request this dance, Monique?” A waltz was just beginning.
“First might I know your name, Friar?” she asked boldly.
“In return for the dance, you may call me Brother Eligius,” he said loftily, taking her hand to lead her to the floor.
Nessa hung back. “One might ask what it is you are worthy of, Brother Eligius.”
“Ah, a lady who knows her Latin! Worthy of this dance, of course—and anything else you might see fit to bestow upon me,” he added with a lascivious wink. She might have been alarmed were it not clear he was teasing—and if his words didn’t send her thoughts down most improper channels.
She stood her ground. “I see. Perhaps I shall bestow the next dance upon you, then. This one is nearly over.” That was not quite true, but she could not bring herself to admit that she had never learned to waltz. Given her parents’, and later her husband’s, views on the dance, she had never even dared to ask.
To her relief, the monk did not press the issue, but stood trading quips with her about both of their pseudonyms until the orchestra struck up a country dance. The dance was lively, allowing little opportunity for conversation, and by its conclusion Nessa’s hour was nearly up.
The two of them had drawn many curious stares, and as they left the dance floor a lanky man dressed as a harlequin approached them.
“What a sight this is!” he exclaimed. “Have you persuaded your partner to join you in a life of virtue, J— er, Friar?” A quick motion by the monk had prevented him from uttering the monk’s name, to Nessa’s frustration.
“Indeed, for her I believe it won’t be so much of a stretch, despite appearances,” he replied, making her wonder how on earth he had guessed that. “Am I not right, milady Monique?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not,” she replied, stung that her attempt to throw off propriety had been such a failure. With sudden recklessness, she swooped up onto her tiptoes to plant a swift kiss square on the monk’s mouth. Then, more shocked at her own boldness than he could possibly be, she turned quickly away.
“I really must be going, now,” she said breathlessly, not meeting his eye. “I wish you success in your conversions, Brother Eligius.” Before he could respond or even react, Nessa fled the scene of the most daring thing she’d ever done in her whole sheltered life.
The hackney was waiting when she stepped outdoors, and as she rode home, Nessa’s brief elation ebbed. She should be pleased, she knew, that there was virtually no chance that she would ever again encounter the mysterious monk, as he’d likely identify her if she did. But somehow that reflection brought less than complete satisfaction.
Arriving back at her sister’s, she again paid the driver and reentered the house as quietly as she’d left it. Her brief taste of freedom was over, with none the wiser.