Masquerade With a Marquess, Regency Romp #3
An excerpt from Cerise DeLand’s MASQUERADE WITH A MARQUESS
Copyright 2016, Cerise DeLand. All rights reserved.
Victor made his way toward the threesome—and stopped in his tracks.
Across the room, a woman stood near the wall. Attired in a simple gown of cream, she portrayed a Greek or Roman queen. Her half mask was white, covering a straight nose and framing eyes that darted and scanned, settling here and there and moving on. Her hair glowed like pale sunlight. Beneath a headband of gold and white satin, her tresses curled in a braid high around her head. In a bow to current fashion, delicate wisps dangled at her ears. But the disarray made her more elegant, more classically beautiful. He could not drink in enough of her—and his mind stalled.
His stomach clenched. Oh, most definitely, this was the elusive housemaid. Or more accurately, Sophia di Bertolla di Contini, the daughter of the famous Italian courtier and poet, Marco di Bertolla.
Why would she come here to this party disguised?
The irony that she should appear here in plain sight when he had searched for her for weeks had him setting his teeth. What game did she play?
The woman had disappeared from Whiting’s house that night in December. He’d run out into the streets to search for her, to no avail. He’d hired men he often employed to track thieves or those who owed him money. But they’d found no one answering her description in any lodgings in greater London. He’d extended their territory to search for her in Dover and Calais, assuming she might seek refuge there to book a packet across the Channel. They had come up short.
But here she was.
No maid’s drab cloth for her tonight. The opposite. Poised, shining and polished as a marble goddess, she surveyed the guests, all grace and purpose. She spoke with no one. In truth, she seemed to hug the walls. Was she here alone?
He made his way across the ballroom. In the crowd, that took him time. Too much, in fact. And as he wove his way among his guests, she left her secluded spot to wander toward the central hall. Odd, that. The ladies’ retiring room was on this wing. If she wondered precisely where, she need only ask a servant who would redirect her. But she didn’t.
She continued toward the foyer. Scurrying, really.
Then she froze. Her eyes rounded.
Victor followed her line of sight.
Dray appeared straight ahead of her in the doorway, his ginger hair mussed by the wind and the half-black mask he wore. She turned aside, deftly weaving around Dray with not so much as a nod of greeting. That easily, she slipped out.
Victor hastened to catch her. But damn the crowd.
Threading his way through the throng required more greetings and diplomacy than he had expected. Next year, by god, he’d stay home. He wished to speak only to this intruder who appeared here as a guest. A creature who perennially danced in his memory like Salome.
Muttering to himself about his failure to eradicate her from his thoughts, Victor picked up his pace toward the hall.
But in his path stood Dray.
“I must speak with you.” Dray stepped toward him, straightening his tailcoat but looking oddly agitated.
“Later.” Victor clasped his step-brother’s hand. “Wait for me, please.”
“This is important. Where’re you going?” He turned as Victor passed him by.
“A guest.” He’d explain her identity later. “She’s headed the wrong way to the retiring room.”
“Put a footman to the task. I have news from Windsor—”
Victor ignored him and hurried away.
At the first floor landing of the staircase, he came to a stop. He turned to one side, the movement of a figure catching his eye. But it was a man, not Sophia.
In a stealthy move, the man shut the door behind him. As the latch clicked, so did knowledge of who the man was.
Otis Underwood. A degenerate of the first order.
Was he stalking Sophia? Was she in that room?
The reason that she might have gone there rose like bile in his throat. Did she seek an assignation with Underwood?
Preposterous. She had better sense than that. Or had years ago. Why would she consider alliance with such a man as he? She had no reason.
But he squeezed his eyes shut a second. Of course, it was her looks. The soft blue eyes that mesmerized a man. The lush rosy lips that inspired erotic fantasies in any man who gazed upon her. Young, old, infirm, any man with blood in his veins took one long look and coveted her.
Distaste for Underwood and his nefarious actions washed away all condemnation of Sophia.
Still, why was she floating around Winterbourne’s house?
She wasn’t a thief. Or hadn’t been that night at Whiting’s.
But was she in that room and if so, what did she want?
Flummoxed, he ripped off his mask and swung about, once more in complete review of the hall. No doubt of it. Unless she’d left the house, she was in that room where she should not be.
He’d root her out. He would.
He took the hall on cats’ feet. With utmost care, he turned the knob and thrust open the door.
Across the moonlit room she stood in profile to him facing Underwood. The man advanced on her, a salacious smile upon his fleshy lips, his hawk-like nose hooked like the predator he was.