Releasing July 26th 2016
Thorncliff Manor is the perfect setting for a masquerade ball . . . where the heart’s secret desires are about to be uncovered in this scintillating Regency romance from Sophie Barnes
Richard Heartly has exiled himself from society since the war, plotting his revenge for a terrible betrayal. A masked ball at Thorncliff Manor is intended to be a brief diversion. Instead, he encounters a fascinating young woman as entranced by the music as he is. He can’t reveal his identity to Lady Mary. But her siren song keeps drawing him back, and their clandestine meetings could be hazardous to his plan—and to her virtue . . .
Avoiding an unwanted marriage was easy when Lady Mary was ignored by the ton. Thanks to her dazzling appearance at the masquerade, she’s a wallflower no longer. Eligible suitors abound, yet the only man she wants is the brooding, seductive companion who keeps his face hidden. A man who tempts her to disclose her own shocking secret, one that could divide them forever . . .
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“I must say that I have thoroughly enjoyed your company, Signor,” Lady Duncaster said as Richard led her away from the dance floor a short while later. “And you danced superbly, by the way.”
“You are too kind.” Nothing could be truer. He’d counted five missteps in total, though not on her ladyship’s toes, for which he was grateful.
“Not at all. In fact, I am quite sure that you have drawn attention to yourself.”
Following Lady Duncaster’s line of vision, Richard spotted a group of young ladies who appeared to be whispering behind their fans while looking his way. As soon as they noted his quiet perusal, they burst into unified giggles and batted their eyes flirtatiously.
“A lesser man might take advantage,” he told Lady Duncaster disapprovingly.
“Which is why I have every intention of finding their parents and having a word with them before their daughters get themselves ruined.” Leaning closer to Richard, she whispered, “I may not be as strict or judgmental as most, but I will not stand for naiveté either. Will you excuse me?”
“Of course,” he said, bowing low before her. He did not grant the giggling young ladies a second glance as he walked away, his eyes searching for the only lady who’d captured his interest. Perhaps she’d gone back inside? Pausing, he looked toward the French doors and the blazing light that filled the great hall beyond. It didn’t tempt him in the least, and he decided therefore that he would seek refuge amidst the shadows of the garden instead.
Crossing to the stairs, he snatched a glass of champagne from a nearby footman. Tossing back the drink, he discarded the glass and descended to the graveled path below, his long cape swirling out behind him as he went. There were plenty of revelers here as well, some strolling amidst the flickering lights of torches while others were seated on blankets spread out on the lawn. Some were even enjoying boat rides on the lake while violinists along the lakeside filled the air with music matching the tune being played on the terrace.
Stepping down from the bottom step, Richard breathed in the rich scent of jasmine permeating the air. He was just about to start forward when a lady wearing a purple gown stepped in front of him, blocking his path. Dipping into a slight curtsey, she offered him a broad smile. “My lord,” she said, by way of greeting.
He didn’t bother to correct her error. “Please excuse me,” he said instead, hoping she’d move aside and allow him to pass. Although she was older than when he’d last seen her, he’d immediately recognized her as his younger sister, Fiona. Not even her domino mask made him doubt her identity as she stood before him now, reminding him of the sprite who’d tugged at his coat tails when she was little, her hands often sticky from jam as she’d done so. He allowed a sentimental smile—one that he knew she could not see.
“Will you not offer to dance with me?” she asked.
For a second, he considered it. Indeed, his heart ached for her embrace. And yet, he could not allow himself to be tempted. She’d only want more than what he was willing to offer, as would the rest of his sisters, not to mention his mother. In all likelihood, revealing himself to Fiona would only serve to reignite the crying and begging that had taken place beyond his bedroom door when he’d refused to see them after his return from France. Gradually, their voices had faded into silence, though Richard could still hear the awful sound within the confines of his mind. He did not think that he’d be able to bear having to witness their pain again, as would likely be the case if Fiona discovered his attendance this evening.
“Not at present,” he murmured.
For a moment, she looked a little stunned, but then she straightened herself, pressed her lips together and stepped past him. Without another word, she disappeared quietly up the stairs. Turning, Richard watched her until she was out of sight. Again he smiled, pleased by the cut she’d given him in response to his rudeness and comforted by the knowledge that she had grown into the sort of lady who demanded respect.
Taking a moment to assess his surroundings, Richard walked toward the lake where the Endurance—a large frigate that confirmed Lady Duncaster’s fondness for the unusual—provided tables and chairs for the supper that would take place later.
Arriving at the lakeside, he watched as a couple moved hastily toward a copse of trees on the right, disappearing completely between the shadows. He wasn’t surprised. Masquerades were after all designed to cause mischief, which was why so many people disapproved of them even as they couldn’t help but be intrigued.
Turning left, he approached the violinist standing furthest away, his music swirling like stardust through the air. It carried Richard forward, all thought of revenge momentarily forgotten as the notes coursed through him, soothing his soul and calming his heart.
It wasn’t until he’d come within ten paces of the musician that Richard realized that he wasn’t alone. Seated on a stone bench that stood slightly concealed by a neatly trimmed hedge, was the lady he’d seen earlier on the terrace. Instinctively, he froze, his progress halted by the vision she presented. Her eyes were closed behind her mask while a smile of pure pleasure graced her lovely lips. By God, she was stunning, and it was all Richard could do not to fall on his knees before her like a subservient knight to her medieval maiden.
Instead, he studied the delicate curve of her neck and the vast expanse of pale skin below. Sucking in a breath, he forced himself not to stare or to wonder what it might be like to hold her against him . . . to lay her bare and to . . . He blinked, aware that his heart was thumping loudly against his chest. It couldn’t be helped. She was perfect in every way—curved in just the right places. Christ! His abstinence was clearly trying to knock the gentleman right out of him in favor of welcoming a scoundrel.