Masquerade Secrets

By: Janelle Daniels

Abruptly, he realized he hadn’t spoken a word to her. Clearing his throat, he spoke in a rich, deep tone. “I fear I have just realized that I have neglected to introduce myself.”

His voice broke through Aubrey’s dreamy haze like a splash of cold water. She knew that voice, had heard it many times in the past year. The Duke of Wathersby.

But no, it couldn’t be, she thought, stiffening in his arms. She watched as his brows puzzled and almost cursed her lack of control.

“Have I said something to offend you?” he asked, his voice low with concern.

With a deep breath, she tried to stabilize the flutters in her stomach. How could she not have instantly known who he was? “On the contrary,” she said, her voice sounding a bit hoarse. “I was surprised is all. I had not recognized you in your costume, Your Grace.”

His features quickly arranged in shock. Did he really not know who she was?

Searching his face, she could see that he didn’t. Did she truly look so different? They had danced many dances together just like this, had conversed formally on so many occasions that she had lost count. Yet he didn’t recognize her.

He cleared his throat. “We have already met?”

She nodded once before looking down. She had thought him a stranger, someone who perhaps lived in the country and hadn’t met or heard of her. There had been a connection between them when they had first locked eyes. There was still one now. She could feel it wrapped around her like a tight band, slowly cinching until she couldn’t breathe. Why these feelings? Why now?

She looked up at him with a touch of hopelessness. Once he realized who she was, he wouldn’t want to have anything to do with her.

“Many times?” he asked, seeming to hedge away from her answer.

“Yes, my lord. Many, many times,” she said quietly.

He shook his head in denial as he pulled her closer. “I don’t believe it! Had we met before this night…” he trailed off, seeming to struggle with something.

Did he feel the pull between them as she did? Did he feel it closing in on him, harnessing them together? She looked up into his eyes, searching for her answers.

How could she not have felt this before? It felt so normal, so right.

She was a fool.

She shook her head and looked away, despair filling her. There was no future between the two of them.

Clearly reading her thoughts, he squeezed her hand, willing her eyes to connect with his. “Who are you?”

She inhaled quickly, stumbling over a step. He caught her, using the momentum to twirl her around the floor.

“I’d rather not say.”

“I must know.”

She shook her head. “Let’s just leave it how it is. Let’s just enjoy the dance until it ends.”

“And that is enough for you?” His voice took on a gruff edge that settled inside her.

His eyes searched hers, trying to pry out her secrets. Lowering her head she confessed softly, “No. But there is no other way.”

Seeming frustrated, he looked around the room before dancing them to the edge of the floor, discreetly slipping them out to a terrace that was a bit more private than the crowded ballroom.

The rain had stopped, leaving a clean, brisk scent on the stones.

Walking to the railing furthest from the door, the music that floated into the warm night seemed distant, hazier as if she were in a dream. She wasn’t in danger of being compromised here, but the thought of being alone with him caused a tingle in her spine.

Pulling her gaze from the doorway, she turned to look at him, surprised to find him staring out over the gardens.

Longing rushed through her so quickly she gasped. His form wasn’t bulky, but she could clearly see his muscles flexing beneath his clothes. Had she ever been so attracted to a man before?

As if sensing her thoughts, he turned to face her, desire clearly shown through his eyes before he masked it. His smile threw her off.

“So I cannot convince you to tell me your name?”

She hesitated, feeling a trap being set around her, but couldn’t figure out what it was. “I would rather not, Your Grace.”

“Call me, Bradford.” Opening her mouth, she wanted to tell him that it would be best if she didn’t, but he cut her off. “I have no desire to have such formality between us.”

She swung around in frustration. Could he not see how difficult this was for her? “I should go back inside.”

“Why do you wish to leave?”

Pivoting, she turned halfway toward him with a ready excuse, but seeing him, she couldn’t lie. “Nothing can come between us, Your Grace.”

“Bradford.” He took her hand gently. “And why not? Are you married? Betrothed?” he asked, the concern in his voice evident.

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