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.”

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