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John Breminster surveyed the ballroom and smirked at his good fortune. No one stopped before him and bowed, no society mamas whispered in their daughters’ ears as he passed, and no bright, false smiles flashed his way. The fine country people of Hampshire paid him no more mind than any other nominal gentleman. He was no longer the Marquess of Forster, heir to one of the richest dukedoms in England. No, tonight he was another man entirely. He had transformed into someone commonplace and it felt amazing. Better than wine, better than whiskey, better than winning at cards or walloping his friends in a curricle race.
Only one thing, in his experience, eclipsed the pleasure of his current subterfuge: a beautiful woman, bare and eager before him.
And tonight he would add to that lovely sight a singular enhancement. The woman he bedded this evening would be utterly ignorant of his true identity. She would fall prey only to his charms, not those of pedigree or coin.
He had, of course, not pulled off his transformation alone. His three best friends had spread his new name among the guests. He was now Mr. Overton, supposed penniless vicar and distant cousin of the Viscount Tremberley, one of said best friends and the host of this very ball.
Since they had left Oxford two months ago, the ton had dubbed John and his three best friends the Rank Rakes. They had earned their charming new moniker because they were all titled—and had quickly steeped themselves in the type of vice and dissipation that high society tacitly accepted but publicly deplored. John tended to regard the commentary about their conduct as absurd overreaction. Really, to call them rakes was a bit much.
Although, he thought, with a grin he failed to stifle, he was currently pretending to be someone else to give novelty to the act of seduction.
He was now affecting—rather well, he thought—the manner of a poor relation on his first trip to his great cousin’s countryseat. He stood to the side of the room, the arms of his plain wool coat crossed, as if he were struggling to compose himself amidst the unfamiliar splendor.
Scanning the crush for a suitable woman, John noticed one of his best friends, the Earl of Montaigne, flirting with a particularly buxom maid. Montaigne seemed to have waylaid the girl on her way to the retiring room, where she would see to the needs of the ladies in attendance. A maid couldn’t very well ignore the entreaties of an earl but John could see that her lingering presence in the ballroom was causing eyebrows to raise amongst the other guests. The ton would never tolerate such behavior. The people here this evening, however, were only good Hampshire gentry. They would neither complain to Tremberley about an errant servant girl nor recognize John as the Marquess of Forster.
John suppressed an amused scowl at Montaigne’s characteristic behavior. His friend was addicted to women far below his station—servants were his particular vice—and he had clearly found his quarry for this trip to Tremberley Manor.
“God, Montaigne’s at it again,” said a voice from just behind him. He turned to see the last of their quartet, the Marquess of Leith, emerge from the darkness of a nearby balcony.
“He really must stop with the servants,” Leith continued, his eyes still trained on Montaigne. “It’s becoming grotesque.”
“Leith,” John objected, “you know servants are Montaigne’s raison d’être. He will never give them up. We’ll be in our seventies—you, me, and Trem long put through the society ringer, old bastards who only care for whist and whiskey—and Montaigne will be below stairs, flirting with the housekeeper, the scullery maid, and the cook at the same time.”
Leith scoffed. John knew better than to think he was really disgusted. They watched as Montaigne dismissed the girl. The genteel faces on the other side of the room relaxed. They might be minor gentry and unlanded clergy but these people knew the reputation of the Rank Rakes and they didn’t want to regret having brought their daughters to this entertainment. Nevertheless, John would bet his life that the girl had just agreed to meet Montaigne in his bed later that evening.
“I’d like to see him try and seduce someone unmoved by the sight of a guinea.”
“You’ll have to tell him yourself. Mr. Overton would never speak to an earl in such an impertinent manner.”
“I forgot your little game.” Leith eyed the drab, cheap clothing of his disguise. “In that case, I won’t waste any more time conversing with a man so unequal to myself.”
John laughed as Leith slid away. He was most likely headed to the corner of the ballroom to perform social penance with the matrons and long-shelved spinsters. Regardless of whatever self-inflicted punishment Leith took on now, John knew he would end the night with the courtesan he had invited down from London and whose good looks and bright gown announced her profession to anyone who cared to take notice. Montaigne might love a servant but not more than Leith loved a high-class harlot.
John returned to evaluating the crush, casting about for a woman who might be to his tastes.
Instead he caught sight of Tremberley signaling to him from the other side of the ballroom. He stood next to his current obsession, a woman he had rhapsodized about for nearly a week: Miss Marisa Plinty, a voluptuous raven-haired young widow, apparently known throughout the parish as wild, unconventional and uninterested in marrying again. She and Tremberley had been exchanging lewd notes for weeks.
The viscount tipped his head once more in the direction of Miss Plinty and a young woman standing beside her. The other chit was largely obscured by the crowd, but John doubted that she would be worth his while. However, if he ignored Tremberley any longer, he would endanger his game. A man like Mr. Overton would never fail to heed his noble relative, which Tremberley, of course, knew very well.
John loped in his best friend’s direction, losing sight of him for a moment due to the tightly packed bodies. Finally, he came upon the trio right near the edge of the dance.
He could see the young woman who was not Miss Plinty clearly now. She was clad in light pink but the color was too unremarkable for a woman so striking. Her dress courted obscurity while she refused to cooperate. Her blond hair appeared from certain angles nearly silver. She was tall—almost at his shoulder—and her frock had a fashionable bodice that made her round, full breasts no secret. John noticed the way a flush stole up her exposed décolletage to her cheeks.
Pretty, unusually pretty even, but not what he was looking for tonight. Or any night, really. Respectable, marriageable girls never were. Despite her allure, there was no mistaking that this girl, whoever she might be, was a young lady of the gentry looking for her match.
“Mr. Overton,” Tremberley said, forcing John to look away from the young lady in the pink dress. “Please let me introduce you to Miss Plinty and to her cousin, Miss Musgrave, visiting from Derbyshire.”
Both women dropped into curtseys—not as low as those he usually received as a future duke—and John gave a more dramatic bow than that he would normally tender towards two gentry chits from neither title nor family. He reminded himself to adjust his greeting to match his new persona.
“The pleasure is all mine, ladies. I hope you excuse the intrusion. While there is much beauty arrayed here tonight, I saw you both and resolved that I must become acquainted.”
Miss Plinty tittered. Miss Musgrave simply raised her eyebrows. Their eyes met and he felt a shock of attraction reverberate from his molars down to his heels. It was desire, unmistakable and almost painful. And very unwelcome.
The blue of her eyes was so dark that it appeared, at turns, almost black. When she raised her eyes to his own, though, they appeared only a sensuous navy. The contrast with her pale skin and silvery hair made his breath catch.
He cleared his throat.
What was wrong with him?
He had to master himself. He couldn’t let his excitement at being free of his usual identity lead him to be overpowered by the first attractive female in sight. After all, he was used to beautiful women. He had had more than his fair share and he intended to continue. To be safe, he resolved not to speak to her, instead turning his attention towards Tremberley and Miss Plinty.
Still he couldn’t stop himself from looking at the beguiling girl while his best friend and Miss Plinty exchanged pleasantries clunky with double entendre.
John sighed in frustration.
He knew what Tremberley wanted. He wanted what Tremberley always wanted when he signaled to you from across the ballroom.
John had to dispose of Miss Musgrave so that Tremberley could get Miss Plinty alone.
He was already trapped. He had no means of escape. Not if he wanted to keep his cover as Mr. Overton.
John gritted his teeth and turned towards the girl.
“Would you do me the honor of the next dance, Miss Musgrave?”
“It would be a pleasure, sir,” she said, her voice cool and light, a little haughty even, and she gave another of her shallow curtseys. As she dipped, she flashed a smirk, as if she knew exactly what Tremberley had just done to him. He cursed inwardly—and, yet, even as he did so, he couldn’t help admiring the creamy stripe of bosom that her curtsey revealed.
As he led her to the dance, he spared a glare backwards for Tremberley, who threw him a wink. He had been right—his friend clearly had plans for Miss Plinty that didn’t involve her maiden cousin.
At the center of the room, they glided into their positions. After the requisite two turns, he would pawn her off on Leith, who would hopefully still be interested in making up for Montaigne’s bad behavior. This evening John had every intention of misbehaving himself.
That plan faded the moment he took Miss Musgrave’s hand in the first sequence. John had thought dancing would dispel his attraction to her—he didn’t particularly care for the pastime; it was always a sure way to have him tire of a woman—but, instead, his initial instinct only deepened.
They had little opportunity to speak. The dance was fast and the thrum of conversation filled the room. Instead he watched her. Her eyes moved appraisingly over everything in their wake, her expression cheerful yet tinged with irony. She seemed aware that she was playing a role, the young miss at a country ball, but nevertheless her conduct was perfect, her every move in good taste. When their hands touched, he felt something disturbingly akin to yearning. He felt like he was in a bad novel, of the type his sister Henrietta had just discovered.
Yet this self-mocking thought would be chased from his mind the minute their fingers touched again.
John was so agitated after their two dances that he followed convention. He led her to an empty seat at the edge of the ballroom and proffered the following gem: “Would you like refreshment, Miss Musgrave?”
Usually, he knew how to delight a lady by staying just within the bounds of propriety. Now, he offered this line, delivered with the stiffness of an idiot just out of the nursery, to the bewitching woman before him.
He tried to train his countenance back into the familiar set of the bored aristocrat, before remembering that he was not supposed to be a brooding nobleman but Mr. Overton, the good-tempered vicar. So then he smiled, wide and inviting.
God, she must think I’m mad.
“You aren’t going to set me here and dash off elsewhere, are you, Mr. Overton? If you’re done with me for the evening, it is better to say it than pretend you are being a gentleman.”
“Not at all, Miss Musgrave. You mistake my intention,” he replied before he could check himself. That had been his intention. But now he was far from sure of his intentions. “I only worry for your comfort. If it is not refreshment, what is it that you desire?”
He sounded like an arse but at least he was managing whole sentences.
“To see the grounds.”
She flashed the same mischievous smirk she had before their dance.
This time, it made his bones ache.
And then the meaning of her words washed over him. She wanted to leave the ballroom. To go into the night. Alone and unchaperoned. With him.
He had never met a lady this forward. Could she be some sort of pickpocket murderess in disguise? Trying to cut his throat and take his blunt? Gently bred young ladies never made such bold requests. Although she was a relative of Tremberley’s Miss Plinty, which might go some way to explaining her forwardness. Even still, her request was very unusual.
“I am a bit of a history enthusiast, you see, Mr. Overton,” she continued, lowering her voice. “And I want to see the ruins. The Tremberley Ruins. I understand that the viscount does not allow visitors into his gardens—but I am dying to see them for myself.”
My God, is this chit flirting with me so that she can see the heap of old stones Tremberley has in the garden?
Tremberley received frequent requests from various quarters to tour the ruins. Lazy rogue that he was, he had put out that he disliked showing them—something about an old family dispute or some nonsense—because visitors cut into his time being a debauched layabout who only hunted, feasted and fucked.
At any rate, John would show her the stones. Tremberley wouldn’t care a whit. He would be delighted that the old ruins, which he regarded as eyesores, had finally come to a use he could appreciate.
Because if John took her into the gardens, there was no doubt as to what he would attempt. His attraction to her was too marked to ignore.
A beautiful woman just to his taste asking him to see the grounds—well, how was he supposed to resist that lure?
If she would let him, he would ruin her.
John realized that Miss Musgrave was tracing the consternation on his face. She was probably worried he would censure her for prying into Tremberley family matters or rebuff her request as improper.
He stood and held out his arm.
“Whatever you wish, Miss Musgrave.”
John tried to ignore the pleasure that radiated through him when she placed her hand on his elbow. He needed to control himself. To approach her like a man, not a rutting animal. If he was going to ruin her, if he was going to have that on his soul, then he wanted her to beg for it.
He knew he should surrender her to the ballroom and walk away. He shouldn’t be leading her out into the dark grounds. Not when her touch gnawed at his self-restraint.
And yet he couldn’t relinquish her arm.
They exited into the hallway and then out the passage that led to the gardens. He nabbed a lantern from the wall and they left the manor, finding the gravel path that wound down to the ruins.
The cool night was heaven in contrast to the heat of the ballroom. The fresh air filled his lungs. He concentrated on walking, still trying to disregard her nearness. Their solitude seemed to press down on them, dissipating the flirtation of moments before. Her silence seemed an acknowledgment of the risk they had taken in leaving the safety of the assembled guests and setting out into the night alone.
“I assure you the ruins are really unremarkable,” he finally said, trying not to choke over the words. Aloud in the night air, his voice was surprisingly smooth. The lantern illuminated the way through the garden and he could just see the looming silhouettes of the Tremberley Ruins up ahead. “I saw them for the first time yesterday afternoon with the viscount. I think he would have them cleared away if keeping them intact weren’t part of the entail. They destroy all his plans for fashionable landscaping.”
He couldn’t forget his assumed identity, he warned himself. In her mind-addling presence, it would be an easy thing to do. His Mr. Overton scheme was working even better than he had ever dreamed, although it was leading him down far riskier paths.
“You can’t be serious.” Her tone was almost as light as it had been inside, making him wonder if he had read her silence wrong. “They were built in the time of the Romans.”
John shrugged. He wanted to tell her that Tremberley didn’t care about history, only about his next erotic conquest and showing up rivals from Eton, but Mr. Overton, the poor cousin, would never be that disrespectful, so he said nothing.
She dropped his arm and moved away from him towards the stones. Her departure made a spot just above his sternum throb. But he let her go, knowing that the space would help him think clearly—a faculty he sorely needed.
“I am glad that Lord Tremberley cannot uproot them. God knows what monstrosity he would erect in their place.”
“He is mad to even think of it.”
John had to smile at the blithe way she insulted a nobleman. Clearly, her enthusiasm for the stones was real. It hadn’t been a feint. Perhaps, he thought with displeasure, she really had nothing untoward in mind when she had asked for an escort.
“Do you truly think Lord Tremberley would dispose of them if he could?”
John bit back his own laughter at this question, reminiscing about Tremberley stalking across the grass and kicking the stones and yelling at his steward, the impassive Mr. Foxcroft, that he wanted the damn things out.
“I am sure of it. And I understand his feelings. Lord Tremberley wants to control what belongs to him. He doesn’t want his present dictated by the past.”
“These ruins are a miracle.” Her dismay was severe and yet, somehow—damn her—he found it arousing. “He can’t escape the past. No one can. What we have of history is just the scraps—but we have to try to understand it anyway.”
John didn’t answer. He could be relied upon to proffer a wry comment or charming anecdote but speculative metaphysical conversation was something he generally disdained. He never spoke like this to anyone.
In the lantern light, she was searching his face with those dark blue beams again.
Then she dropped her eyes altogether. And she began to tug on one of her long white gloves.
She was removing her gloves.
The sight made his blood boil.
“May I have the lantern?” Her voice was once more a slip of cool calm.
John handed it to her, his fingertips grazing her now-bare ones. Even from this glancing contact, he had to hold back a groan.
He watched her half-lit form flit from stone to stone. She ran her hands over the strange indentations, as if she could read their ancient language by touch. She then peered down over the mosaic and traced her fingers over its design, murmuring and smiling. He could not believe the pleasure he was taking from watching this woman study these crumbling stones. When she sighed and ran her fingers over their edifices, he envied the stones.
He had never met a woman who cared more for old stones than for him. When he was himself, he was used to the fawning and simpering of ladies. It was the first time he had been passed over for a ruin. He would have preferred her open and willing in his arms but he could appreciate the novelty of the situation.
Perhaps if she knew who he really was, she wouldn’t ignore him in favor of the ruins. And yet John wanted to believe that she would have ignored any man for these stones. Watching her, he did believe it.
When he thought she had forgotten him completely, her voice floated to him across the darkness.
“You know the story of the Tremberley Ruins, don’t you?”
He smiled at the question. It proved that her mind was only on the stones.
“I thought you said all history was just grasping at scraps?” He wanted to rile her and draw her attention. He was rewarded when her gaze drifted in the direction of his voice.
“Sometimes the scraps have to do.”
“I don’t know it. The story.”
And it was true. He didn’t.
Miss Musgrave raised her eyes once more, searching for his face beyond the radius of the lantern light. She was illuminated—he could see all of her—but he was in darkness. Finally, her eyes located his form in the shadows.
“You are Lord Tremberley’s cousin and you don’t know the legend?”
Bollocks. John Breminster not knowing the story made sense enough but Mr. Overton was a different matter altogether. He tried to find a plausible reason for this ignorance. The younger, poorer branches of great families tended to know the famed stories even better than the dukes and the earls. Lesser relations’ connection to a great family was an asset that needed to be constantly burnished.
He cleared his throat. “I am sure I knew once, when I was a child. But I have forgotten.”
Her eyes narrowed at this inadequate explanation. For what felt like an unbearable length of time, neither of them said a word.
John took a step forward into her circle of light. “Tell me the story.”
She stared at him for another heavy second. Then her gaze turned back to the ruins. “See the mosaic,” she said, pointing downward. “How it has these tiles, and the symbol in the middle—the animal? It’s the triple-tailed horse of the Atrebates. They say the king built this whole site. The entire structure was once a temple with this image at the center. See how they stand in a circle?”
He murmured his assent, moving deeper into the light. He felt he might lose control if he got any nearer to her and yet he couldn’t resist the pull of her voice. The thought that he had been so close to her before, with her arm in his, made him feel a bit light-headed, as though he had been walking along the edge of a steep cliff without realizing it.
“When the Romans invaded what we now call Hampshire,” she continued, her voice going even lower, drawing him another step nearer, “instead of destroying the ruling tribe and its king, they decided it would be wiser to keep them in power as rulers loyal to them. To avoid slaughter, the Atrebates agreed. Looking to cement the loyalty of the local king, who was old and feeble, the Romans demanded that his son, his heir, marry the daughter of their general.”
He was standing in front of her now. If he wanted, he could close the length in one stride. But her eyes were still downcast, trained on the ruins.
“The problem was that the heir loved another woman—who he had known since he was a child. But the Roman general insisted and he had no choice. The heir agreed to marry the Roman girl. When she heard what the heir had promised, the woman he loved drowned herself in the Alre. The heir was devastated. He refused to bed his new bride and never produced a son to replace himself. The tribe fell into ruin. His heartbreak made his sacrifice amount to nothing. Instead of tending to his people, he built this temple. He thought if he built the perfect temple, she would come back to him.”
“And did she?” John asked the question without thinking, needing to know.
Miss Musgrave looked up at him in surprise. “She was dead.”
“Sometimes, in old stories, the dead come back to life.”
She shook her head. “Not in this one.”
The glow of the story, its warm sorrow, snapped the last of his restraint.
John stepped forward and took her bare hand in his own.
She startled but didn’t draw away. He examined her fingers in the glow cast by the lantern. They were stained with ink. When his fingertips ran over the ink stains, she laughed and tried to pull her hand away. In doing so, she twisted closer to him, brushing up against him. He felt himself go hard at the contact, the softness of her body making all of him stiffen.
“My best ideas always come to me right before I dash out the door.”
“And what was your idea tonight?” He imagined some note for her maid, or a shopping list, or a postscript to a letter.
“You will laugh.” She paused, her expression uncertain. She looked once more into his face and then away again. “This is not my first time examining ruins. I am writing a book on the landmarks of England. Or, truly, the stories about them. I remembered how an old cottager once said that Corfe Castle looked like a single tooth poking up from a baby’s gum. I thought it might make a pretty opening.”
He looked down at her in disbelief. Who was she? What daughter of the gentry was writing a history of old stones? And yet he couldn’t concentrate on the question.
“And do you find it inconvenient to have ink-stained fingers?”
“Only when I remove my gloves. Fortunately, a ball supper is usually conducted in near darkness. I am seldom revealed.”
“So now you have been unmasked.”
She gave him that radiant, mischievous smile again, the smooth apples of her cheeks catching the lantern light.
He reached down and softly kissed her. She returned his kiss with a pressure of her own. Her mouth, her taste, enveloped him, so sweet it threatened to undo him, but he fought to keep his kiss gentle, teasing her lips with his tongue and drawing out from her a mewl of pleasure. Every bit of him tensed as she pressed herself into him and she opened her mouth to let him in further. He felt a groan escape his own lips. He would have been embarrassed by the sound—how she reduced him—but she felt too exquisite for him to care.
She broke away from him. He held still. He didn’t want to take anything that wasn’t freely given. That was, after all, the whole purpose of this evening, of his ruse, of being Mr. Overton. He wanted a woman to give herself to him and him alone, not a title or the idea of a man.
“I hardly know you.” She said the words so softly he would have missed them if he hadn’t been starving for her voice.
“We can return to the manor.” He put all the sincerity he could into this statement but he was careful not to sound eager. He wasn’t that much of a gentleman.
She said nothing in response.
John wanted more than anything to stay here with her. Still he held back his arts of persuasion. She needed to choose what came next.
Her fingers began tracing underneath his waistcoat, roving from the planes of his chest downwards. He stifled his reaction, still waiting for her to fully commit, but her fingers through the fabric tantalized him, making his breath come fast and shallow. He closed his eyes, the sight of her combined with her touch too much to take. Then, he felt her mouth on his again, teasing his open, sending shivers of desire from his lips to his groin.
“God, you’re perfect,” he said, breaking the kiss. It was a reflex he couldn’t suppress, just as he couldn’t stop himself from reaching forward and wrenching down her tight bodice as he had wanted to since he had first laid eyes on her.
Exposed, her breasts were even more beautiful than he had imagined, her hardened nipples a pale raspberry that looked almost painfully sweet, just like her mouth. He cupped their soft fullness in his palms before reaching down and taking the pebbled peaks into his mouth, glorying in the moans that he drew from her with each stroke of his tongue.
From within his arousal, he felt the urge to speak, to say again how she was perfection itself, but he found that it would kill him to form words. He had to completely surrender to this sensation. To her.
Because, with her against him, his mouth on her breasts, his hands exploring the peaks and hollows of her body, he knew the truth. He would marry her tomorrow if she wanted. He would marry her for only a few minutes more right now. He would make her his marchioness if it meant he could have her now and then again and again. He would have thought she was a witch, if she wasn’t beyond loveliness, beyond perfection, beyond life as he had ever known it. Her body, her mischievous smile, her grace, and the way she had told that story. That story which seemed, in a way that he didn’t understand, something like the story of his own life.
He couldn’t say that right now, though, because he had to fill his senses with her. He lifted her up towards him and her legs clasped around him. Through the fabric of her dress, she pressed her heat to his cock, which strained against his breeches with an insistence previously unknown to him.
If you had asked him that morning if he found the Tremberley Ruins erotic, he would have laughed. Yet, if she would let him, he knew that he would not be able to stop. His shame at his abandon, at his ruining a gently bred woman on a pile of rocks, would only be a drop in the sea of his pleasure.
Carefully, he pushed her back on one of the long, tablet-like stones. He kissed her again, drinking her in, and into this fierce, wanting kiss, he put all his hunger for her, and she responded in kind.
Just as he had completely given himself over to this kiss, to the certainty of what would soon follow, he heard shouting. John ignored it and she did the same, not startling beneath him.
Instead, she reached for the falls of his breeches. Intoxicating sensation throttled through him as her hand rubbed his pulsing cock through the fabric. She looked up at him, that same beguiling smile playing across her face, but this time it sent a complete riot through his blood. More than anything, he wanted to plunge himself inside of her, to escape into the ecstasy that he knew awaited him there.
The shouting grew louder. He heard his name, his real name, Forster, and he realized that the shouting was for him.
Still he couldn’t tear himself away. He hoped that whoever wanted to find him wouldn’t. She was still stroking him through his breeches and, half mad, he found her skirts and began to push them upwards.
Light washed over them on their slab of ruin. She pulled back, looking in the direction of the shouting.
He turned towards the noise and the light. When his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he saw Tremberley standing over him, lantern in hand. Seconds later, Miss Plinty appeared at his shoulder.
“What the devil, Trem?”
His own voice sounded scarcely human, unrecognizable even to himself.
Tremberley cast the lantern down and bent over, trying to catch his breath.
In another scenario, John would have laughed at his friend’s physical distress. But he was too angry now for mirth. He wanted to thrash Tremberley and only the hope that his best friend could soon be dispatched with kept him at bay.
Miss Plinty broke forward and lunged towards her cousin on the stone, grabbing her arm.
“He’s not who he says he is, Catherine,” she said, her voice high with panic. “He’s the Duke of Edington.”
Miss Musgrave looked alarmed. But then she laughed.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Marisa. The Duke of Edington is over forty years of age.”
Very true. But how did she know his father? Was she from Dorset? She had mentioned Corfe Castle, which wasn’t far from Edington Hall, his family’s countryseat, but he had hardly attended to it.
“You misunderstand. He is to be the Duke of Edington.”
“Properly, he is the Marquess of Forster,” Tremberley snapped.
John snorted. Tremberley never cared for rank until he did.
“This is ridiculous, Trem. What does it matter?”
He turned to his silver-haired beauty and gave a mock bow.
“You’ve caught me, Miss Musgrave. I am John Breminster, Marquess of Forster, at your service.”
His game for the evening—playing at Mr. Overton—hardly seemed consequential anymore. All he cared about now was her. That he be allowed back into her embrace. That they finish what had been interrupted.
When he rose from the bow, he saw that Miss Musgrave’s face had gone ashen.
“You’re the Marquess of Forster?”
“Yes. And I don’t want to blunt my own significance, but dare I ask, why should it matter to anyone here?”
“Because, mate,” Tremberley replied, “she’s Catherine Forster.”
Now he felt the blood drain from his face. He looked at her again and felt revolted—with himself most of all, for he should have known. With her silvery-blond hair and navy eyes, her smart mouth, her arcane facts, and most of all the power she had over him from first glance, how could she be anyone else? Of course she was a Forster. Not like him, who just carried the title, but a real one. The actual Forsters were a different family altogether, although they too came from Edington, his parish, and had been there almost as long as the Breminsters. The Forsters had been the cause of the scandal that had destroyed his family and tarnished their name almost eleven years ago.
How could he have mistaken her for a common country girl? How could he have been so self-deceived? He could still feel his lust for her and something else, something tender and just beginning to come into being, pulsing below the surface of his humiliation.
“Get them off the grounds, Trem.”
He turned and walked towards the manor. He didn’t spare another look at Catherine Forster.
It nearly killed him to turn his back on her.
But he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself had he done anything else but walk away.
End of Excerpt