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Masquerade Secrets

By:Janelle Daniels

CHAPTER 1


London, 1835



If boredom could bring tears, Lady Aubrey Langston would be crying  buckets by now. She sat in the parlor, sipping tea with other women of  the ton as they waited patiently for the men to rejoin them after they  finished their after-dinner cigars and brandy.

The meal portion of their evening had gone well, although the  conversation had been quite dry. Why she was forced to endure such  tedious company was beyond her. It was just the way society worked.

"What are your thoughts on the matter, Lady Aubrey?"

Jumping slightly, Aubrey realized she hadn't been listening to the conversation.

"I'm sorry?" she asked, trying to seem like she had only missed the woman's latest comment.

Lady Penbrook smiled patiently, clearly knowing she had caught Aubrey  woolgathering. "We were speaking of Regency fashion compared to today's  fuller gowns. I was wondering which you would prefer if there were a  choice."

"Oh." Aubrey softly set down her cup of tea on the glossy side table,  giving the matron her full attention. "While the clean lines and  simplicity of the gowns were beautiful during the Regency, I much prefer  the gowns of today."

The rest of the women had quieted to listen to Aubrey's opinion. "Interesting. Why is that?"

Aubrey smiled knowingly. "I enjoy the full skirts and the more  decorative designs now. You can hide any imperfection behind a dress and  feel confident that you look your best. You can be anyone, anything.  There was much less possibility of that during the Regency.

Laughing, Lady Penbrook nodded her agreement, her full girth bouncing with the movement. "Quite so, my dear."

As Lady Penbrook turned to converse with another woman, Aubrey took a  sip of her tea and sighed. It was the beginning of a new season, and all  she could do was hope it would end quickly.

When she had come out into society three seasons ago, she had instantly  bonded with Lady Sera Winters, and they had stuck by each other's side  through most of the parties.

If only she were here now.

The doors that adjoined the dining room opened; the men spilled out of  the smoke laden room. Lady Penbrook rose to greet the men once again,  gesturing for them to be seated on the roomy settees.

Looking up to see the last man rejoin the group, Aubrey was surprised to  see a face that had been absent in recent months. Lord Bromley, the  Duke of Wathersby, strode into the room with a confidence she had grown  accustomed to over the last season.

"Lord Bromley," Lady Penbrook spoke with surprise. "When you did not  join us for dinner I despaired of you finding your way here this  evening. I hope all is well."

Taking Lady Penbrook's hand, he bowed over it in greeting, every strand  of his chestnut hair staying in place. "I apologize for my tardiness. I  was waylaid with a matter of business that could not be detained."

She waved aside his apology. "It's no matter, we are just grateful that  you have joined us. It has been quite lonely without you the last few  months. I do hope you plan to stay in town for some time." Lord Bromley  nodded, but didn't expand upon his plans.

He had set his cap for Aubrey's best friend, Lady Sera Winters, and with  her scandal and subsequent marriage to Lord Devericks, he had retired  to one of his estates to escape from the gossip.

This was his first appearance back into society. It was also the first time he had been unattached in almost a year.

"Please, be seated." Lady Penbrook indicated to the open spot next to Aubrey. "I'm sure Lady Aubrey would enjoy your company."

Indeed she would. While courting her friend, he had always managed to  make sure Aubrey enjoyed herself as well. He often asked her to dance  directly after Sera, making sure she always had a partner to enjoy the  music with.

Wanting to reassure him that there was no awkwardness because of her  friend's union     , she smiled invitingly at him, gesturing to the space  next to her on the settee.

His scent hit her first, rushing into her with a force she had difficulty deflecting.

In her opinion, he had always smelled as a man should. The sharp aroma  of soap clung to his skin, mingling with his own spicy scent. It was a  masculine smell that didn't cause her nose to wrinkle in disgust. He  never reeked of smoke or alcohol as other men so often did. It was  comforting, always allowing her to relax in his company. "Good evening,  Lady Aubrey. You are looking well."

"Thank you, my lord. You are also looking well this evening." His formal  attire was crisp, clean, almost as if he had just dressed. His  shoulders filled out his coat nicely, not to the point where he looked  ready to tear the seams, but enough to hint at the muscles hidden  within. She knew of his strength. Enough dancing around the ballroom,  his frame strong and secure, had given her all the evidence she needed.  She cleared her throat, trying not to think of those muscles, or  anything else of his. While she didn't mind having improper thoughts,  thinking of Lord Bromley that way was a bit unnerving. Up until a few  months ago, he was all but engaged to her best friend. "I hope your  journey was pleasant."         

     



 

"Yes, it was. The roads were clear and made the trip a short one." He  glanced over the rest of the group that was clearly involved in another  discussion of some sort. "I hope it is not too much of an imposition,"  he paused, seeming to reconsider his words before continuing. "I was  wondering if you could tell me how Lady Sera is faring in her marriage  to Lord Devericks," he said in a low voice, careful not to let the rest  of the room hear his request.

Discreetly glancing at the other guests to make sure they were fully  occupied elsewhere, she leaned toward him. "She is doing well, my lord.  She is still with Lord Devericks on the continent, and they aren't  expected back for several more weeks. She seems quite happy."

"Ah." He smiled ruefully. "Well, I am glad to hear she is content."

"Yes, she is." It was a bit awkward speaking of Sera, because she knew  everything that had happened between Lord Bromley and her friend. It  wasn't commonly known that Lord Bromley had kidnapped Lady Sera and had  tried to take her to Gretna Green to elope, hoping to help Sera out of  an unwanted marriage, before Lord Devericks caught up with them. Had he  guessed that Sera had told her of it?

She looked at him, searching his expression to see if he suspected that  she knew what had transpired. "Did the country agree with you? Everyone  was so surprised by your sudden withdrawal from town."

He smiled roguishly at her, a glimmer of humor in his eye. "It was very …   peaceful. I admit though that I was ready to come back."

Looking away from him, she tried to hide her smile. So, he knew that  Sera had told her, and didn't look contrite at all. "Well, everyone will  be so pleased that you have returned."

"No doubt," he said dryly, pointedly avoiding eye contact with a young debutant's mother.

Seeing the interaction between the two, Aubrey couldn't help but  chuckle. "Indeed. I fear there will be many young women setting their  cap for you."

He visibly shuddered at the thought. "I do hope you are wrong." At her  arched eyebrow, he laughed. "But I doubt you are. It isn't all that easy  being an unmarried duke, you know."

"Really? I find it hard to believe that you suffer over much from the title."

"You have no idea. You wouldn't be half as eager to tease me if you knew the truth of the matter."

She regarded him skeptically. "I doubt it could be worse than being an unmarried lady."

"You'd be surprised." He grinned at her.

"I doubt it. You will always have the choice of whether to extend an  offer of marriage or not. You may pursue whomever you wish without fear  of your reputation. Women can hardly claim such freedoms."

"Touché." He nodded as if awarding her the point, and Aubrey couldn't help but smile at the small triumph.

Lady Penbrook jumped up in excitement, pulling Aubrey and Lord Bromley  out of their friendly banter. "What a fabulous idea!" All conversation  in the room stopped to listen to what Lady Penbrook was so animated  over.

Turning toward the rest of the room, Lady Penbrook gestured wildly in  her excitement. "Lady Templeton has decided to host a masquerade in one  month's time."

As the room's noise level rose in excitement, Aubrey glanced over at the  older woman who had now promised to host one of the most looked forward  to events of the season. Her silvery evening gown glimmered with  sequins, matching the silver plume in her greying hair.

"Lord Bromley, would you please come and offer your suggestions for the  event?" Lady Penbrook trilled, gesturing for him to come forward.

With a nod to Lady Aubrey, he bravely went forth into the world of planning.

Aubrey watched him leave, willing her eyes to leave his form, but  without success. He was an attractive man, but he was too far above her.  There wasn't anything wrong with appreciating his form and then moving  on. And indeed she would move on. She'd have to.

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