A Masked Lady For Mr. Kenworthy
“Lady Faye,” said a voice from the open doorway of the drawing-room.
Faye Winters looked up from the pianoforte, at which she had idly been staring for the past few hours, to see Huston standing in the doorway. Faye offered him a small but warm smile, despite knowing that it was of no use.
“Yes, Huston?” she asked.
The man made a bitter face as she spoke his name, as she had anticipated he might.
“Lord Welborn requests your presence in his study immediately,” he said.
Without waiting for Faye to respond, Huston turned sharply on his heels, his nose high in the air, and exited the room.
Faye sighed, shuddering at hearing her cousin addressed as the lord of her family. Until eighteen months ago, her father had been the Earl of Welborn. When he passed away suddenly from a terrible illness, her cousin, Mayson Winters, had inherited her father’s title. At first, Faye had thought she and her mother would be well cared for and that her cousin would be a comforting presence in the house after her father’s death. She had never been more wrong about anything in her entire life.
Upon arriving at Welborn Manor, Mayson’s first act had been to dismiss every servant the family had had for years. He had left only the cook, Bretta, in his employ, and Huston, whom he had brought with him from his residence in London. Faye and her mother had disliked Huston from the moment they met him, but they thought that, perhaps, he was displeased at having to leave his home and follow his master to Welborn Manor. But they quickly discovered that both Huston and Mayson were very unpleasant men. They seemed to lack empathy and affection for everyone apart from one another, and they seemed to make every effort to make Faye and the dowager countess as unhappy as possible.
However, nothing could compare in the way of horror to the terrible news which Mayson had delivered to Faye in his first week at the manor. When Faye had inquired as to why he had terminated the household servants, he had told her coldly and without sympathy that her father had left her and her mother practically destitute. He claimed to have saved them from the poorhouse by dismissing the servants and that she should be grateful he had allowed the cook to remain. He further claimed to have brought Huston with him so that she and her mother would not be forced to tend to all the household duties themselves. At the time, she had been too stunned by the tidings that her father had left them with so little money to be anything but grateful that Mayson was there to help her and her mother.
She had always believed that her father was a shrewd businessman and handled his ventures well. They had never wanted for anything when he was alive, after all, and she could not imagine him ever getting himself into debt for any reason. At the very least, she would have thought her father would have told her mother if they were in such trouble. He was a proud man, but he was also honest to a fault. It made no sense that they could be poor without any prior knowledge of their situation. But her cousin had insisted that all her father’s ledgers proved what he was saying. She had at first thought that Mayson would pull them from debt and restore her family’s fortune. But she had seen no evidence that he was making any progress toward doing so, and she was filled with doubt as well as disdain for her cousin.
With another heavy sigh, Faye made her way out of the room and toward Mayson’s study. She did not bother trying to appear pleasant. He was indifferent to her, at best, no matter how sweetly she spoke to him. She was a benevolent, charitable, good girl, and most correct in her conduct, with manners that were held to be a standard of good breeding. For the time being, she chose to focus on being polite and professional with her cousin and on getting away from him as quickly as she could. Besides, she needed to see about her mother.
She rolled her eyes as she reached the closed study door. It was just like Huston and Mayson to summon her to a room and then close the door. She knocked firmly so as not to give her cousin a reason to pretend he did not hear her, as he often did.
“Come,” said Mayson, his voice muffled by the heavy wooden door.
Faye shuddered at the sound of his voice, pushing open the ponderous door and stepping inside.
“Next time, perhaps you could try not to tear down the door by pounding on it so hard,” Mayson said before she had even reached the desk.
Faye clenched her teeth, resisting the urge to lower her glance. She squared her shoulders and looked at her cousin, who was still staring down at some papers on his desk.
“Huston said you wanted to see me?” she asked, her voice carrying an impatient edge.
Mayson looked up sharply, raising an eyebrow at her.
“I should think you might want to watch your tone, Cousin,” he said, lowering his eyebrow in favor of a sly smirk. “You would not want to be disrespectful to your guardian, would you?”
Faye bit her lip to suppress a biting remark. She cleared her throat and set her jaw.
“I beg your pardon, Cousin. What can I do for you?” she asked. Her tone was marginally more polite, but she refused to acknowledge his question.
Mayson seemed pleased with her sullen tone. He settled back in his seat, his smile changing to one of extreme satisfaction. He reached for one of the desk drawers, not taking his eyes off his cousin. Faye held his gaze, despite the sudden sense of dread that began to burden her as Mayson’s grin widened.
“Please, sit,” he said, gesturing with his other hand to one of the chairs in front of the desk.
Faye gave him a small, tight smile.
“No, thank you, Cousin,” she said. “I must go see Mother as soon as we’ve finished.”
Mayson’s expression did not change. However, movement from the hand that had been fishing in the drawer caught her attention. When she saw what he was holding, she gasped, her knees nearly collapsing from beneath her. Her cousin lifted a shiny, silver pistol onto the desk, pointing the barrel in her direction and using it to gesture to the seats once more.
“I insist, young Faye,” he said. “Make yourself comfortable.”
Faye sat, more out of inability to continue standing than to appease her cousin. He was taking pleasure in her fear, but Faye could not be outraged by the fact. She had not known that Mayson even owned a gun, let alone whether he could actually use it. Something in his hooded gray eyes told her he was almost certainly more than capable of doing so. He tossed his head back and laughed. Her fear-stricken mind could not help thinking about how handsome her cousin was, with his broad shoulders and aquiline nose, if Faye could not see the malice and evil in his every feature. She shuddered as she continued to follow the pistol with her eyes. She was grateful he did not seem to be waiting for her to speak because the gun had her mouth frozen shut.
Mayson chuckled, nodding.
“I see you understand me now, Cousin,” he said, sneering. “That means I do not need to say that you must do exactly what I tell you.”
Faye glanced up at Mayson, failing to control the trembling that had taken over her body. She had no idea what he was about to say, but she knew the only response she could give in that moment was a weak nod of her head. Her cousin, still sneering, nodded once more.
“Very good,” he drawled, as though praising a young child. Then, his expression became a scowl. “Now, listen well. I have made arrangements for you to attend the masquerade ball the Marquess of Turlington is soon to be hosting. Do not get excited, though, little Cousin. This is far from benevolence on my part. You will be going for the sole purpose of getting into Lord Turlington’s study unobserved and stealing a black leather journal he has in his possession. I fancy you are unacquainted with such matters of stealth, but you will do as I say.”
Faye’s mouth fell open, and she stared at her cousin with equal parts of fear and disbelief. She shook her head slowly, his words temporarily making her forget all about the gun in his hand.
“What in thunder are you about, Cousin? You must be mad,” she breathed. “You cannot ask such a thing of me.”
Mayson shifted his pistol hand, instantly refreshing her memory of its presence. He narrowed his eyes at her and snarled.
“You shall guard your tongue, little girl. I am not asking such a thing of you,” he said. “I am demanding it. And what’s more, you will do as I say.”
Anger began to flood through Faye. It was one thing for him to come in and treat her and her mother so poorly. It was a whole different matter to try to get either of them involved in criminal activity. She glared at him with angry defiance, balling up her hands at her sides.
“And what will you do if I do not?” she asked. “Shoot me, right here in my home? You would never get away with such a crime. You and I both know that.”
To her horror, Mayson’s smile widened. The pistol made a clicking sound in his hand, and he raised it ever so slightly.
“Do not be so sure of yourself, little Cousin,” he said. “You might be surprised what one can get away with. Especially if there are no witnesses to certain events.”
Faye shook her head, bewildered.
“Mother may be unwell, but she would certainly hear a gunshot,” she said, scoffing. “And she would know very well that I did not shoot myself.”
Mayson laughed wildly.
“You innocent little girl,” he said. “If your mother does not receive the care she needs, she will not live long enough to bear witness to anything.”
Faye furrowed her brows, momentarily confused. She looked at her cousin’s face, and the smug knowingness of his expression gave her the answer. She gasped, covering her mouth with her hands, shaking her head in disbelief.
“You would not dare,” she whispered, already knowing what her cousin’s response would be.
Mayson nodded, smirking.
“I would indeed,” he said. “If you do not do exactly as I tell you, I will see to it that your mother never receives any kind of medical treatment ever again.” Faye stared at her cousin, furious with the tears that began to stream down her cheeks. It was one thing for Mayson to know he had deeply upset her. It was another for him also to gain the satisfaction of seeing her cry. It was clear to her that her cousin was a terrible, cold monster. It was also apparent that she truly did not have a choice.
As unable to answer Mayson as she was unwilling, Faye merely lifted her chin, scowling at her cousin despite her trembling lip and tear-stained face. Then, she turned on her heel and stormed out of the study. Mayson’s howling laughter followed her out of the room and down the passageway told her he understood perfectly that she would do as he demanded, even though she had not verbally agreed. The thought made her ill, and she rushed up to her bedchambers before her stomach could reject the meager food she had attempted to eat that day, right there on the hallway floor. She wanted to check in on her mother, but she did not want the dowager countess to see her in such distress. How could she ever tell her mother what Mayson had just demanded she does for him? Could she ever look her mother in the eyes again if she did it? As she realized she had no choice, she slid down onto the floor, her back against the door. She covered her face with her hands and spent the next few hours crying softly.
Despite exhausting herself crying and worrying about the task Mayson was forcing on her, Faye lay awake in her bed that night, unable to close her eyes. She kept trying to tell herself that things would be all right if she refused Mayson’s demand. However, she knew her mother’s condition had worsened drastically over the past few weeks, and she was barely surviving as things were. If Mayson cut off her medical care, as he had threatened to do, she would surely die before Faye could find another way to take care of her. Her heart began to ache as she thought about her late father. How could he ever have left them in such a dire situation? And how could he have ever allowed them to end up under the guardianship of such a horrible man? She bit her lip and tried to reign in her blameful thoughts. Surely, her father had not known her cousin was involved in any sort of criminal activity. Even if her father’s businesses were not running as profitably as she had believed they were, he would never have turned to any sort of criminal activity to support his family after his demise. Would he?
Faye shook her head to rid herself of such thoughts. She refused to believe her father would ever be so irresponsible with her and her mother’s wellbeing, even if he had allowed his businesses to flounder. Perhaps, he’d had plans to rebuild his fortune, but he had died before he could see them through. Whatever the case, she knew he had loved her mother and her dearly and that he would never have purposely jeopardized their safety once he was no longer there to protect them. Besides, none of that mattered now. What mattered was her mother and how close she was to follow her husband into death.
As the reality crashed down onto Faye, she began to cry again. She had watched her mother rapidly turn into the hollow, weak husk of the woman she had once been, who now lay ill in a bed which appeared far too large for her. She had witnessed the countess’s once lush, light-brown hair turn gray in a matter of months and seen the light gradually dim in her sky-blue eyes. The dowager countess, who had only recently looked more like an older sister than Faye’s mother, now resembled her grandmother. And now, she had to face the real possibility that her mother might not live to see another Christmastide. She loved her mother dearly, and there were still so many times to look forward when she had always dreamed of having her mother there by her side, such as her wedding day and the birth of her own children. It was unbearable to think that those times might now never come to pass. And the only way she could prevent such a devastating thing as losing her mother from happening was to comply with Mayson’s demands.
Faye shuddered, wiping vainly at the tears in her eyes. It was one thing for Mayson to be a criminal, but for him to blackmail her into joining him in his life of crime by holding her mother’s life over her head was abhorrent. It showed Faye that her cousin had no remorse, that he was indeed what one would call evil. Only a man with no soul could be so horrible to his own flesh and blood and take pleasure in their suffering. She wished desperately that there was someone she could turn to who could help her and her mother out of their predicament. But, with her father gone and no other relatives that she knew of, there seemed to be no one to rescue them both before it was too late.
Thomas Kenworthy slowed his pace and brushed a strand of ash-blond hair out of his blue-green eyes. He held his breath, covering the lower half of his face with one hand to regain control of his breathing before he took another step forward. After a moment, he lowered his hand, running it through his circle beard in a vain attempt to soothe his raw nerves. At just under six feet, he had to slouch to pass beneath a broken archway down the dark alley he was traversing, but he did so with practiced stealth. The smells assaulting his upturned nose were nauseating, but he forced himself to take another quick, deep breath and hold it as he continued with his mission.
A sudden movement ahead of him in the alleyway refocused his attention. Thomas narrowed his eyes and watched the stranger he had been tracking, careful to make a note of his every movement so as not to lose sight of him. He saw the stranger was now walking a bit faster, so he picked up his own pace. As he walked, he scanned the ground, searching for any holes or obstacles littering the broken road before him, so he did not step on something that would make a sound and alert the stranger to the fact he was being followed. His heart leapt into this throat when the man stopped abruptly and looked over his shoulder, and Thomas had to press himself against the wall beside him. For a horrible moment, Thomas was sure the man had detected him, and he held his breath.
After a moment, he glanced toward the man and saw he had knelt and was making a tugging motion. Thomas realized the fellow had gotten his trousers caught on a jagged piece of brick and was trying to free himself with relief. Thomas waited until the man began moving again before stepping away from the wall and continuing his pursuit. He saw the alley was coming to an end soon, and, once more, Thomas stopped. He did not know this part of London well, and he could not see clearly enough to tell if the path stopped at a dead end. A moment later, the man ahead of him turned to his left and disappeared around a corner.
Thomas moved faster, walking on his toes to keep his footsteps quiet. He could not afford to let the man get away from him, but he did not wish to run straight into him either, should the path be blocked or come to a sudden end ahead. He clung to the wall as he reached the corner, slowly peeking around it to assess the situation. The man was walking several paces ahead of him, and Thomas could see, just ahead, the little light that had illuminated the road thus far was all but gone. If he was going to act, it must be now.
He crouched low and sped up his steps, remaining as quiet as he could. He reached the man from behind without being detected and wrapped his arm around the fellow’s neck. Fortunately, he caught the man completely unaware and was able to reach into his jacket pocket and pull out the cloth he had previously doused with laudanum before the man had time to understand what was happening. It took little effort to place the cloth over the man’s mouth and nose, and he only struggled against Thomas’s grasp for a moment before his body began to go limp.
Thomas held the cloth in place for another moment more to be sure the laudanum had taken effect. Then, he lowered the unconscious man to the ground. He took a moment to look around to ensure they were still alone in the alley. He could not calculate exactly how far away from his carriage he was, but he prayed it was within earshot. He gave a single, high-pitched whistle, the signal for his driver to bring the carriage to his location. He expected to have to give the signal again, listening carefully for an indication that the driver was struggling to find him. However, a moment later, his carriage appeared from around the same corner he had rounded before grabbing the stranger. He sighed, wiping sweat from his forehead with the palm of his hand, as the coach came to a stop in front of him.
Thomas made quick work of lifting the man into the landaulet. At first glance, the man had seemed light enough to handle on his own. However, as Thomas hoisted the man onto the floor of the carriage, he realized he had grossly underestimated the man’s weight. With a sigh, he shoved the man’s legs into the coach, groaning as he felt a terrible pull in his back. He paused for a moment, rubbing what he was sure would be a horrifically sore spot the following morning. Then, he positioned the man on the floor and slammed the landaulet’s door shut as quickly as he could. The coach began moving shortly thereafter, and Thomas sat back on the bench, wincing as the pain began to radiate throughout his entire back. This is a cursed business. Thomas cursed his superiors for tasking him with such a difficult mission, but he knew the man would prove very valuable to the current case the War Office had assigned him. They could have assigned someone to help me, though, he thought bitterly, wincing again as the carriage’s rough progress shot bolts of searing pain through his back.
“Look,” the man, who had told Thomas his name was Jones, said, trembling, “I have told you everything I know. I swear. I am not mixed up in anything deeply enough to know any more.”
Thomas nodded slowly, glaring suspiciously at the man. In truth, he believed him. But one could never be too confident that one had gotten all the information from someone until they had their informant, voluntary or unwilling, properly frightened.
“My tastes don’t run in that direction, lad. Why don’t you tell me again?” he asked. “Let us make sure you don’t suddenly remember something new.”
The man sighed, his breath as shaky as his body.
“The Marquess of Turlington,” he said hoarsely. “There are rumors circulating that he is working for the French as a spy.”
Thomas nodded, reciting the man’s words with him silently as he spoke.
“And how can I be sure these rumors are reliable?” he asked.
The man shook his head.
“I do not know for certain,” he said. “No one does that I know of. But he has been spotted carrying around a black leather journal from time to time, and he has been seen getting very testy if anyone gets too close to him while he has it. One man swears that he saw a page of it one day when walking past a table in a club where the marquess was sitting, though.”
Thomas nodded again. So far, the man’s account matched the few details he and Rupert had managed to gather since beginning the case. But he wanted to be sure the man’s story did not suddenly change. Rarely was that the case in such interrogations, but too much was at stake for Thomas not to be positive the man was speaking the truth.
“And what did this man say was on the page?” he asked.
The stranger sniffed.
“I have not the remotest clue, but it is said it showed a list of French names,” he said. “The man did not make a note of any of them, as the marquess noticed his presence and glared at him, but he did see a large note written in the margin beside some of them which read ‘Report to.’”
Thomas took a deep breath. He refrained from exhaling it in a sigh of disappointment. He had truly hoped the man would give up the names listed on the journal page, but it was becoming clear to Thomas he truly did not know any of them. He knew there was a chance that what the man had said could be misinformation calculated to mislead. There was no shortage of rumors in London on any subject people found interesting enough to gossip about. However, Thomas had also heard from other sources that the marquess did seem to favor one certain book and was very protective of it. And this was the most information about the book Thomas had garnered so far, so he would have to make do with it.
“And you give me your word this is all you know about the matter?” he asked at last.
The stranger nodded fervently.
“Good God, I swear, sir,” he said. “That is everything I know.”
Thomas nodded slowly, allowing his stern, professional persona to slip away. He gave the man a warm smile. This man was, after all, not a criminal. At least, not as far as Thomas knew. His presence in that seedy alley indicated he was most likely a gambler, but that alone did not make him part of London’s scum.
“Very well,” Thomas said calmly. “You are free to go.”
Thomas spent much of the following day in bed. His back, as he anticipated, was bothering him immensely. He used heated cloths and some herbal pain medicine he had at home from a previous injury to ease the pain and tension in his back as much as he could. By that evening, he felt almost fit enough to tackle the important task that awaited him. He rose from his bed and freshened himself up, adding a splash of some nice cologne. Then, he got himself dressed, taking great care with the mask, which matched his outfit. Once he was ready, he took one last look at himself in the looking glass. Although he had not chosen it for himself, he had to admit he looked quite dashing in the midnight-blue suit. Even the matching mask complimented his slightly triangular-shaped face rather than making him look awkward or out of place. Though he had not thought so at first, he was now certain he would blend in well with all the other guests in attendance at Lord Turlington’s masquerade ball. Thomas himself was no lord or nobleman, but he had worked with many of the ton over the years. He knew he could act the part, and now he would truly look the part, as well.
Satisfied, he hurried down the stairs, where the butler opened the door and led him to the waiting carriage. Inside, Rupert, the Viscount Daleshire, and Thomas’s partner and friend already waited for him. When Thomas entered the carriage, Rupert looked up from the paper he had been studying, no doubt a review of the notes for their mission that evening. He smiled approvingly at Thomas, tucking the paper snugly into his coat pocket.
“You clean up rather nicely, good sir,” he said, his green eyes sparkling mischievously. “Aren’t you glad you let me pick out your outfit for this evening?”
Thomas rolled his eyes, but he could not help smiling.
“Your taste is, as always, far better than my own, my lord,” he said, giving an exaggerated half bow from his seated position on the bench across from his partner.
Rupert laughed heartily.
“It is too bad, though, that I could do nothing about that face of yours,” he teased.
Thomas glared at him but joined his friend in a chuckle.
Rupert signaled for the carriage to begin moving. Then, he looked back at Thomas.
“Shall we go back over the plan for tonight?” he asked.
Thomas nodded. He knew the plan, but Rupert was always one to overprepare rather than the opposite. Though his partner could be a bit of a handful sometimes, he took his errand very seriously. He had to, as he was considered one of the best operatives the War Office had ever employed.
Rupert gave a single nod and then continued.
“As soon as we arrive at the ball, we will go our separate ways,” he said. “I will mingle with as many people as I can to see if I can gather any more tidings on the marquess. You may mingle as you please, but I want you to keep an eye out for anything suspicious. I shall be keeping a close eye on Lord Turlington, but if he should slip away from me, you must be on alert. I do not expect him to do anything this evening, not at his own ball. But he might be meeting with someone to plan something. A packed ballroom would be the perfect place for him to do so, after all, especially his own.”
Thomas nodded again, imagining everything as Rupert spoke.
“And I am to be prepared to slip into the marquess’s study at just before eleven o’clock,” Thomas said, reciting the words from memory. “Once I am inside, I am to search for, and retrieve, a thick black journal.”
“Precisely,” Rupert said. “I plan to meet with you at five minutes before eleven, so I can keep watch for you. Or, at the very least, keep Lord Turlington busy for a few minutes, so I can be sure he does not leave the ballroom for any reason.”
Thomas nodded once more and sighed.
“It is strange how suddenly he has managed to bring himself back from the brink of bankruptcy,” he mused.
“Such is the life of a good criminal,” he said. “He claims that a recently deceased uncle on his mother’s side of the family named him as the sole heir to his entire fortune. But stranger still is that no one close to the marquess seems to know anything of any such relation.”
Thomas shook his head slowly. He already knew that information, as well, but he had spent a great deal of time leading up to that evening trying to make the details add up. He supposed it was plausible that what the marquess had said was true. But surely, at least one person would know something about this alleged uncle. Instead, though, the information they had received about the marquess seemed to indicate his sudden fortune had been obtained by far less legal means. And it was Thomas’s and Rupert’s job to find out exactly what they were. The book Thomas was assigned to find would contain all the answers they sought. Therefore, Thomas was determined to find that book and turn it in to his superiors at the War Office. And absolutely nothing would stand in his way.
Faye nervously smoothed out her dark-blue silk dress and readjusted the matching mask for the hundredth time since she had arrived at the ball. Even though she was dressed just as all the other guests were, she still felt out of place. Ordinarily, she would enjoy such an event. But, given the task she was there to perform, there was no possibility of her enjoying herself, not even for a moment. Nevertheless, she put on the best smile she could muster and held her head high as she pretended to look calmly around the ballroom.
Though she avoided making eye contact with any of her fellow guests, she took in every detail of the room around her. Despite her dread and nervousness, she was impressed with the ballroom of Turlington Manor. It was the largest ballroom she had ever been in, seeming to stretch on impossibly far in every direction. Its grandeur was breathtaking, reminding Faye of what the ballroom at the King’s palace must look like. It was clear that no expense had been spared when the room was constructed or on its maintenance, as the rich green of the walls was fresh, as though it had been painted just days before the ball. The silver pillars lining the walls of the room were just as bright and fresh as the walls themselves, and the four chandeliers hanging from the ceiling were apparently made from solid gold and far larger than any she had ever seen in any manor in London.
The decorations for the ball were extravagant, as well. The lord of the manor had had what appeared to be hundreds of small masquerade masks made in varying colors and hung throughout the room. Even the black drapes had the small masks wound around them, nearly all the way up to the ceiling. The dishes at the refreshment table, which ran the entire length of the room, were solid silver and crystal, and the food spread upon the table was nothing short of a feast. In the center of the table was a giant ice sculpture that appeared to be a bust of Lord Turlington himself. Faye could not help rolling her eyes. It seemed the man was as full of himself as he was seedy and untrustworthy. Not unlike Mayson, she thought bitterly, as she gave her head a shake and began to search for possible ways to exit the ballroom unseen.
Faye continued making her way through the crowd. The room seemed to be packed, and it took her ages to make very little progress through the room. All around her, young women smiled shyly and laughed coquettishly at young gentlemen, who were inviting them to dance. She sighed, thinking back to her debut ball two years prior. Her very first season, especially her debut, had been positively magical. She had enjoyed herself at every ball she attended, and she never wanted for gentlemen to dance with her. It had all changed, however, when her father had fallen terribly ill. She had not minded taking the rest of the season off to concentrate on helping her mother care for her father. But now, she could not help wondering how different things would be if he were still alive.
“Excuse me, my lady,” said a deep voice from behind Faye, startling her.
Faye whirled around, trying to force herself to keep her lips together until she had assessed the situation. Her mind first told her that, somehow, someone had figured out that she was up to something sinister. But she quickly realized that was quite ridiculous. She had not so much as looked at anyone, and she had not yet made a break for any of the doors leading out of the ballroom. But the man before her, wearing a very striking midnight-blue suit, would quickly catch on to her suspicious behavior if she did not find a way to calm herself quickly. She cleared her throat and beamed at him in a way she prayed looked authentic.
“Good evening, my lord,” she said, curtseying to give herself a chance to fix her expression. “I was so lost in thought, and you gave me quite a start.”
The gentleman bowed when she straightened up and gave her a warm, charming smile.
“I beg your pardon, good lady,” he said smoothly. “My intention was not to frighten you. In fact, I had hoped for the opposite reaction, as I was hoping you might honor me with the next dance.”
Faye blinked, surprised. Even though she was at a real ball, she had not anticipated actually being asked to dance. She had been so dedicated to her mission. She had left no room for any other thoughts. Now, she must continue with considerable acumen. She had to make a quick decision. Dancing with a man would detract from the time she had to complete her task. However, a skittish, abrupt refusal could draw the wrong kind of attention to her. The man would surely remember a woman who jumped at a simple human interaction and fled from a mere request to dance. It would serve her better to blend in and behave as all the other guests were doing.
She gave the man another, more relaxed smile, even though her heart was pounding in her bosom. She held out her hand and nodded.
“I would be delighted, my lord,” she said.
The man took her hand, placing it on his arm as he led her onto the crowded dance floor. Faye cursed herself as their dancing position placed her far away from the doors she had been surveying. She would have to make the trek back through the crowd once more, which would waste even more time. But she knew she must make the best of it. After all, surely Mayson would not care how long it took her to commit her crime. As long as she left the ball with the black journal, he should be happy enough.
As the song began, Faye looked into the gentleman’s blue-green eyes. They were especially alert and, although they regarded her cordially, there was a sort of detachment in them. She gave him a warm smile, trying to think of some way to strike up a conversation.
“By the by, this is a lovely ball, is it not?” she asked.
The gentleman nodded, glancing at her briefly.
“It is,” he said, though his voice lacked any real enthusiasm.
Faye nodded, pondering at the man’s aloofness. Perhaps he was shy and merely needed to be properly engaged to open up. She offered him another brilliant smile. She glanced down at his suit, and an idea struck her.
“I could not help noticing that our outfits look as though they were cut from the same piece of fabric,” she said.
The gentleman looked at her, at last flashing a warm, charming smile.
“That is one of the reasons why I asked you to dance,” he said, giving her a wink.
Faye blushed. Now the man’s eyes were lit up with interest, and she could see how beautiful they really were. His ash-blond hair bounced as they twirled, and the muscles along his angled jawline twitched as he smiled.
Faye raised her eyebrows, pleased that he was at last responsive.
“Oh?” she asked. “There was more than one reason why you asked me to dance?”
She looked at him expectantly, but it was soon clear he had not heard her question. She studied his face, frowning as she noticed he seemed more intent on surveying the ballroom than her. She bit the inside of her cheek to stifle a sound of displeasure. Surely, he had not asked her to dance simply to make another woman jealous? She did not think herself the most beautiful woman in London, but she felt she was pleasant enough looking, and she was a very skilled dancer. Even though meeting gentlemen was not the purpose of her attendance at the ball, it would be insulting to think that the only man to dance with her that evening had only done so to get another young lady’s attention. And, if his mind was otherwise occupied, why should he ask anyone to dance at all?
She cleared her throat pointedly, thinking it might pull the man’s attention back to her. He did not seem to hear her again, either because of the loud music or his wandering thoughts. Frustrated, Faye did the only other thing she could think of. She switched her weight to the wrong foot for that particular dance and purposely stepped on the man’s feet. That worked instantly. Faye could not help feeling a sense of gratification as the gentleman whipped his head toward her, his eyes wide and confused.
“Are you alright?” he asked, glancing down at their feet, which had simultaneously stopped moving across the floor.
Faye feigned her best sheepish expression and bit her lip, nodding slowly.
“Oh, forgive me,” she said, removing her hand from his shoulder and placing it on her cheek. “How clumsy of me.”
The strange expression on the man’s face surprised Faye. Rather than giving her a sympathetic smile, he appeared to be studying her carefully. His jaw was set, and his eyes regarded her with almost calculating alertness. Her heart thumped fiercely in her bosom as she stared into his eyes. They were such a beautiful shade of blue-green, and she found herself quickly getting lost in them.
“Hm,” the man said, bringing her back to herself. “Are you sure you did that by accident?”
Faye blinked, stunned and confused.
“I beg your pardon?” she asked.
“Forgive me, but I cannot help thinking that, perhaps, you stepped on my foot intentionally, my lady,” he said. “You are, so far as I can tell, a very gifted dancer. I am struggling to believe you could have made such a blunder accidentally.”
Faye bit her lip to keep her mouth from falling open. Had he managed to read her mind? There was no possible way that a perfect stranger should be able to tell she had done it on purpose.
Don’t be silly, Faye, she scolded herself silently, no person in the world could possess such a gift. Quickly, she realized she had been silent a moment too long. She lifted her chin defiantly, eyeing the stranger with as much indignance as she could muster.
“Good grief, I would never do such a thing on purpose,” she said, more harshly than she had intended. “I merely lost my concentration for a moment, and my foot slipped.”
The man studied her for another moment. It seemed as though he was preparing to say something more, and Faye swallowed. She realized how foolish she had been to do such a thing. Now, the gentleman would surely remember her, and he might keep an eye on her for the rest of the evening.
Once more, she chastised herself for having such mad thoughts. She simply imagined things, of course. With the task she had ahead of her, she was allowing her mind to play tricks and run completely away with her. That would not do. If she did not find a way to get herself under control, she would surely botch the mission completely. Her mother’s life depended on her success that night, and she could not afford to forget it, even for a moment. She held her breath and waited to see what the man was going to say to her.
The final chords of the cotillion resonated just then, and, instead of speaking, the gentleman smiled. He offered her his arm and escorted her off the dance floor. Faye returned his smile, unable to suppress the relief she felt that he had been unable to question her further. Though, beneath that relief came a slight wash of disappointment. It was not until the gentleman thanked her warmly for the dance and wished her a good evening, then almost instantly vanished into the crowd of guests that Faye realized butterflies were flitting about in a frenzy in her stomach. Something about him had excited her, and she could not help wondering who he was and wishing she had met him at a regular-season ball rather than at a party where everyone wore masks.
When Faye realized where her thoughts were leading her, she bit her lip and scolded herself once more. She had no business having such thoughts about anyone at present. She had not come to the ball to find a potential match for love. She had come to save her mother’s life, and she could not allow her thoughts to stray as they were doing. Faye looked around the ballroom, giving a firm shake of her head until her eyes found the tall, ornate clock against the wall by the entryway into the room. She craned her neck to see it was just before eleven o’clock, and Mayson had told her the ball would be ending at around midnight. She only had one hour to find the book he wanted, and she prayed it was enough time.
As calmly as she could, Faye began the slow trek through the crowded ballroom once again. As she had earlier in the evening, she avoided eye contact with the guests, training her gaze on the door through which she planned to slip out. She sent up silent prayers that she would be successful in finding the black journal and would make it out alive to give it to her cousin. She made herself a promise to try to come up with a plan for getting herself and her mother away from Mayson once the evening’s business was finished. She had no idea how she would ever succeed with such a feat, but she knew that she and her mother were in greater danger with every passing day so long as he was around.
Her stomach twisted into knots as she saw a tall, heavy door at the end of the aisle. After a few running steps, she reached the door. She glanced over her shoulder and, when she did not see anyone paying special attention to her, she slipped out into the grand lobby of Turlington Manor. The instant noise reduction almost caused her to jump because the pounding of her heart was suddenly louder than anything she could ever remember hearing. The manor’s interior was more luxurious than she could ever have imagined. Directly in front of her, she could see two grand staircases leading up to the same floor, which had been designed on a scale to allow some dozen persons to walk up abreast. She could hear the wood snapping in the fire burning in the stone hearth between the two staircases.
Servant’s voices came to her ears from the staircase on her right hand, and she quietly tiptoed past the left staircase that led up to the manor’s second floor. With the briefest glance around her to ensure there were no servants around to bear witness to her actions, she slinked around the corner and into a long hallway.
Mayson had described the interior of the marquess’s manor to her in detail, so it did not take her long to find the door to the study. She took a deep breath, but she could not stop her hand from trembling as she reached for the study door key Mayson had given her when explaining her task.
She squeezed hold of the key so as not to drop it, steadying the hand holding it with her other as she guided it toward the lock. She forced herself to remain calm. She had made it this far, and soon enough, the entire thing would be over. Then, she could return home, secure in the knowledge that her mother would get the care she needed, and Mayson would, for the time being, be satisfied. With one final deep breath, she quietly turned the key in the lock and pushed her way inside the study.