Behind a mask the man can be anyone and he can do anything.
Lady Mercedes Burton
London, England 1801
Lionel Drake, Viscount Hastings and heir to a dukedom had much to his credit by the time he was twenty four years of age. Shrewd investments overseas were adding to overflowing family coffers. More importantly, unlike younger brother Leopold, Lionel, “Leo” to his parents and “Drake” to his peers, was not involved in any hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.
Thence a masquerade ball hosted by Lord Hamilton was an unlikely venue to allure him with its possibilities.
“Why do you want to go disguised as a gypsy?” Lord Harry inquired perplexed.
Drake glanced at his bosom bow.
“No woman can resist having her fortune told.”
Harry, whose star crossed love affairs were laughingstock in the betting book at White’s, was still stumped. His face wore a question mark.
Drake grinned watching Harry’s reflection in the mirror. He examined himself and satisfied dismissed his valet before tossing a thick wad of bills at Harry who caught it reflexively.
“For you to wager tonight,” he answered the latter’s unspoken question, “as to which fair lady can discover my identity first.”
“Beware of Greeks who come bearing gifts,” Harry muttered in a jaded undertone. Drake overheard, thanks to senses honed by extensive military training.
‘Never judge a book by its cover,’ might have been more apt, he thought himself.
Drake held court in the Hamilton library earning dark, sinister looks from the men- especially a Phantom and a Pirate- as ladies lined up outside thick oak doors vying for the gypsy’s attention. The phantom and the pirate were the Cunningham cousins- Vane and Trace.
It was tradition for the Hastings and Cunningham’ to feud, vie and denigrate. Fates had mixed the golden child of fortune Lionel Hastings and the dark, saturnine Vane Cunningham like a Montague with Capulet.
That night there was no disputing the victor.
Women were in a flutter over the enigmatic gypsy wagering over his real identity. The brazen not averse to using their charms negotiated with kisses; the timid lured him with beguiling smiles.
Lady Adrienne Fowler entered the room, an apt portrait of the ravishing Helen of Troy.
Drake felt as if he had already spent a lifetime waiting for that incomparable jewel. It was a pity her parents were dead, their title and estates inherited by her uncle. To honor his brother’s deathbed request the dour Lord Fowler assumed guardianship of the orphaned girl. After a year of mourning he sponsored her debut in society. Rumor was rife that the avaricious earl would settle for none less than the scion of an ancient dynasty. Drake did not doubt the veracity of that.
His mouth settled in a grim line. If he knew the cold blooded earl well, Fowler was undoubtedly angling for a power alliance. His fingers clenched when the doors of the library shut behind Adrienne. Everything within his being revolted at the thought of this angel used as a chess pawn in convoluted political games.
“Won’t you step into my parlor?” Drake invited, curling a finger in the gold hoop on his right ear, a sexual timbre deepening his voice.
Adrienne inclined her golden head regally as she graced the chair opposite to his and extended her left hand- “read me a wondrous fortune gypsy.”
There was an imperious command in her husky voice; the trademark of a lady who knows she is a coveted jewel.
“Patience my dear,” Drake flashed a feral grin, “you will need my cooperation to win your wager tonight.”
“What wager,” she prevaricated.
“Why as to whom I really am in this disguise?”
Drake was surprised he could speak while in thrall of her goddess like perfection. It was a surreal, out of body experience captivated by undoubtedly the most beautiful woman alive on earth.
Adrienne’s violet eyes gleamed with silent humor as if acknowledging him a worthy opponent.
“How did you know that?”
He winked enjoying the sensation of omnipotence, “I know everything.”
Lady Mercedes Burton almost snorted.
When the gypsy appropriated her sanctuary, she first chose to take a higher road. Ignoring distractions was something Mer (for she did not have the patience to think of herself as Mercedes) had perfected to an art form.
She rolled her eyes at the gullibility of women and by the time that fraudster was detailing a grand fortune to the third credulous fool she returned back to an absolutely riveting world with Achilles.
Till subtly the charlatan hovering on the edge of her awareness changed eddying currents in the room from flirtatious to something edgier.
Drake unaware of his concealed critic was mesmerized by the amusement lurking in Adrienne’s unspeakably radiant oceanic eyes. For the first time in his life he silently acknowledged why men resorted to poetry when it came to describing her bewitching spell. He swallowed Adam’s apple moving.
Adrienne’s sharp gaze narrowed. “What is the liberty you are asking for?”
“Liberty?” Drake’s mind was growing sluggish, his male focus shifting.
“The prize one usually demands for these parlor games- a kiss or embrace.”
Her cultured voice sounded bored as she elaborated with a casual airy wave of a slender hand.
Adrienne had correctly diagnosed him smitten and now her interest waned.
Drake bent forward capturing her liquid gaze with his heated eyes. “If the chase is so dull milady, why are you in the hunt?”
The direct strike sparked her like flint to tinder, “I like to win.”
Drake’s probing fingers had found her pulse. For Adrienne Fowler to be smitten he had to earn her respect first by proving himself no easy conquest. He felt an upsurge of triumphal joy but instinctively locked his muscles keeping each feature impassive. Instead he arched an eyebrow subtly mocking her.
“But milady, do I want a favor so freely given?”
Mercedes did not even notice the book fall. It slid from her lap and fell to the carpet- neglected. Homer had lost his audience. No literary hero could compete against a flesh and blood man who sparred skillfully with words. She leant forward and gingerly parted the heavy curtains.
Adrienne’s lilac eyes were feline in their magnificence, “are you insulting me?”
“For the liberty ye promise, I could tell thee for sure.”
He leaned back in his chair stretching his long length, the grace of the movement bringing to Mer’s mind a jungle cat. A long index finger stroked the chiseled set to his jaw as he watched his prey with hooded lids.
Adrienne impetuously took the bait.
“Pray tell gypsy, how can I be certain it’s a fair bargain?” She asked leaning forward with a sensuous deliberation. Drake could feast his eyes on the exquisite feminine assets displayed artfully by a fashionably low décolletage. He felt the blood pool in his lower body. His face flushed and his voice strangled at the blatant invitation in catlike eyes, mentally cursing an infatuation that was apparently obvious to her experience.
Intelligence gleamed twin stars in indigo eyes.
“Kisses are stolen not beggared for,” Adrienne mocked.
Mercedes felt quite light headed. She had never seen a woman behave so… her mind went blank and she pressed a hand to her open mouth for her jaw had dropped.
It was an invitation to plunder.
Adrienne drew in a shaky breath, a warm rush of excitement making her skin glow in the light of the chandelier overhead. She touched the barest tip of a pink tongue to moisten her fragile pink rose lips. Drake arose spellbound.
He plucked her into his arms. Adrienne shivered delicately. It had the opposite effect on Drake. He changed the tender tenor of his worshipping kiss to an impassioned thrust that she parried with a sensual welcome. She clutched at his broad shoulders impatient and guided her heated body into intimate contact with his.
Adrienne purred sinking in his arms as he pushed the sleeve of her gown off a slim shoulder with roving hungry hands…
Mer gasped and sank back against the window seat scandalized at the compromising scene played in front of her eyes.
“What is taking them so long?” A female voice demanded loudly.
Drake was distracted. As if waking from a dream he realized women were clamoring outside in the hall.
“Who are you?”
At her question spoken in a soft bemused voice Leo looked down satisfied to see Adrienne unsteady on her feet.
“Lionel Drake,” his lips curved. He sketched an elegant bow.
Adrienne opened her mouth to speak then visibly changed her mind compressing her lips in a thin, uncompromising line. Drake arched a rueful brow at her disbelieving gaze.
“Shall we continue this later?”
“I—uh—no!” She made a helpless gesture with her hands appearing vulnerable to Drake for the first time since their acquaintance.
“Did you mistake me for Vane?”
He could have kicked himself for asking. With that one question he gifted her advantage. Now she knew.
For a minute Adrienne and he stared eye to eye. She looked as if she would have spoken but for the commotion outside the library doors. He could have happily strangled the intrusive world with his bare hands.
The library door suddenly sprang open.
“Feeling restless, darling?” With biting sarcasm Adrienne cut Lady Lansdowne to size for it was the latter’s unfortunate luck she had been pushed to the front by the crowd that had gathered.
Adrienne was in her element. She quit the room a triumphant belle of the ball for unmasking Drake. He faced the tide of envious lords gamely and responded to the ladies’ arch reproaches with savoir faire. Gradually when the dancing began interest shifted from Drake’s fictitious abilities to the ballroom.
Mercedes waited with bated breath for the voices to recede. She dared not chance a peek. Yet it was difficult to sit still for she was restlessly stirred by bewildering emotions churning within. Mer felt shivery all over and rubbed her hands over her arms to quell the agitation.
She jumped up with a muffled gasp as suddenly the damask curtains were swept away-
An ivory skinned maiden in an ink blue gown stared at Drake horrified.
Black curly hair worn in some upswept coiffure had long lost their confining pins and tumbled over slender shoulders. The navy dress contrasted with her fair complexion in the light of the chandeliers overhead.
At that instant thought struck him that she had seen him kiss Adrienne and she had overheard their racy conversation.
He glared with an intimidating hauteur in his manner. “Who are you?”
“Why can’t you tell? Look again in your crystal ball,” the chit was concentrated acid.
“I am not the one who has been playing voyeur,” Drake reminded her coldly.
“No. You sir, are a rake.” The way she looked daggers at him confirmed his high estimate in her opinion.
She was judgmental, viewing his actions from a lofty pedestal and authoritative.
His grandmother Deidre, the dowager, would have been thus, Drake thought. He could not fathom why a young lady of evidently good breeding would spy on him unless-
“Who are you hiding from?”
Brown Eyes flashed vitriolic. “I am not hiding. I was reading.”
Drake’s gaze fell on the Iliad that lay at her feet. Homer was kissing the hem of her gown. His lips curled. “Ah- a bluestocking!”
She flushed a deep red lunging for the book concealing it clumsily in the folds of her voluminous gown.
He seemed to have inadvertently hit upon a sensitive nerve.
Drake wondered how old the little virago was. From his vantage position he glimpsed the softly rounded tops of her breasts and just a hint of the dark valley between. Her waist was narrow. His male instincts did not miss the bare toes peeping under the hem of the gown. Where the devil were her stockings?
He did not question the compulsion to step closer and crowd her. Extending a hand he drew back the curtains confining them in a narrow space lit by the light of the full moon streaming in from the open windows. Silk cushions were scattered about in the cozy bower she had created for herself. He spied one errant stocking spilling in a silver waterfall over the edge of the semicircular seat pointing a rumpled arrow to a dainty shoe. The night breeze held a cold sting and the faintest perfume of jasmine teased his senses.
Mer’s body went taut like a stretched bowstring as she arched her spine stiffly aloof a gut reaction spelling inexperience, not that she knew it.
Inordinately pleased to have discomfited her, Drake flashed a smug grin.
Mercedes resented Lionel Drake who had so effortlessly drawn all the air out of the room, his lofty height and his supercilious manner.
By rights she should have been frightened but all she could think was a need to teach the upstart some manners.
“How dare you,” she gasped her voice breathless and all wrong. “Step aside, I say.”
“And deny you your adventure?”
“What?” Mercedes was genuinely flummoxed.
“If you really wanted to read you would not seek to do so in the public room of a house hosting a masquerade ball. One wonders about your motive.”
“Hear ye a pot calling the kettle black!” She retorted stung.
He shrugged a shoulder. “As opposed to certain hypocrites who lack the courage to act as their nature dictates and titillate themsel-”
“You beast,” she fumed interrupting, stamping her foot, “at least I do not treat a person as if they were made for my- my expedience.”
Drake burst into helpless laughter, “did you just stamp your foot?”
She blushed easily. Drake reached for her, crooking a finger under her chin to tilt it up, so he could look into her guileless eyes.
“Truly an original,” he murmured intending it to be a compliment.
It was the wrong verdict to pass.
“You are despicable! I have heard you lie abominably to every lady that has entered this room. Maybe they deserve to be taken advantage of for refusing to exercise their intellect but …”
Unwitting or not she made his hands itch. Drake did not wait for her to complete her barrage. He tangled a fist in her riot of curls and pulled her to him.
In all the books she had read, and certified bluestocking Lady Mercedes Burton had been reading since she could recall, kissing was a pious act.
When a man kissed a woman, she was the one special person in God’s creation who he acknowledged was meant to complete him. To kiss, in Mer’s books and she had written many (hidden in her desk in her schoolroom), meant a summit attained after an arduous mountain had been scaled, the sensational climax that marked the end of three hundred pages of high drama.
Incensed, she raised her hand and delivered a sharp, stinging slap on Drake’s left cheek. She was furious and she made sure the red imprint on his lean cheek reflected her ire.
For a second they glared at each other nose to nose; his nostrils flaring her chest heaving.