How astonishing that a gentleman would ask a perfect stranger to become his mistress without so much as an introduction.
—Letter from Miss Roslyn Loring to Fanny Irwin London, June 1817
“They say he is a marvelous lover.” Unable to ignore such a provocative comment, Roslyn Loring reluctantly shifted her gaze across the crowded ballroom to scrutinize the tall, lithe nobleman who had just entered.
She had never met the handsome, rakish Duke of Arden, although she’d heard countless tales about him. He was the picture of a wealthy aristocrat–his fair hair gleaming amber under the chandeliers’ light, his commanding, elegant form garbed in a black domino, the cloaklike garment his only concession to costume for the masquerade ball.
He wore no mask, so his striking features were clearly visible. And his attendance was obviously welcome to everyone but her
. Immediately he became the intent focus of a bevy of beauties, all eager to attract his notice. “What makes him so marvelous?” Roslyn asked, intrigued despite her regret at the duke’s unwanted arrival.
Her friend Fanny Irwin smiled. “His amorous skills, my dear. It is said he has the power to make women weep.”
Lifting an eyebrow behind her own mask, Roslyn pursed her lips wryly. “Why in heaven’s name would making women weep be a coveted skill?”
“Weep with rapture,
my dear. Arden is extraordinary because of the exquisite pleasure he can bring a woman.”
“I cannot imagine.”
Fanny responded with the musical laugh that had helped make her one of London’s most sought-after courtesans. “I should hope not, since you have no experience with carnal matters. But it is a rare man who is concerned with his paramour’s satisfaction, or who will see to her pleasure even before his own. That kind of lover is priceless.”
Roslyn’s gaze narrowed thoughtfully. She was here tonight in order to gain a measure of experience, yet she had no desire to begin with the duke. Arden was a close friend of her new guardian, the Earl of Danvers, who had recently become engaged to marry her elder sister Arabella. Roslyn didn’t wish for the duke even to see
her, since she was courting scandal attending a notorious Cyprians’ ball. She expected to make his formal acquaintance at her sister’s wedding in a fortnight, and it would never do to have him recognize her.
No doubt his grace would disapprove of her brazen excursion into the glittering realm of the demimonde. According to Arabella, Arden had been severely critical of his friend’s betrothal, skeptical that Lord Danvers could have fallen in love with the eldest Loring sister so quickly or so wholeheartedly.
Viewing the duke now, Roslyn had little trouble understanding
his cynical response. His lean, chiseled features were remarkably handsome but rather proud; his bearing much as she would have expected from an aristocrat of his consequence–refined, commanding, a bit imperious. But a duke of Arden’s extensive wealth and power had the right to arrogance, Roslyn supposed.
That he was reputed to be such an extraordinary lover, however, quite surprised her.
Her musings were interrupted as Fanny continued her frank observations. “Not that I have any personal
knowledge of the duke, I want you to know. He prefers to keep one mistress at a time. Doubtless that is why he has come tonight–to choose a new mistress.”
“What happened to his last one?” Roslyn asked, interested in learning all she could from Fanny.
“Possessiveness, my dear, which is a cardinal sin if you mean to keep your protector content. Particularly for a nobleman like Arden, who can have his pick of females.”
He did seem to be examining the merchandise, Roslyn saw as the duke casually scanned the ballroom. Just then his gaze lit on her and paused in obvious interest. Reflexively, she took a step backward, feeling the sudden urge to hide. She had come incognito, the upper half of her face concealed by a mask, her own pale gold hair covered with a powdered wig and widebrimmed bonnet.
But perhaps it was her uniqueness itself that attracted his attention. Although her décolletage was much lower than she liked in the costume she had borrowed from Fanny, she was dressed rather modestly as a shepherdess, while most of the other females here
were scantily clad in the alluring costumes of Greek goddesses or Roman slave girls or Turkish harem beauties. Fanny had come as Cleopatra, which complemented her exotic features and raven hair.
When Roslyn saw that Arden’s focus remained fixed on herself, her heart skipped a beat. Even at this distance, she could feel the impact of his penetrating gaze.
“He is looking directly at me,” she murmured, half vexed and half concerned.
“That is hardly surprising,” Fanny said in amusement.
“Your combination of elegance and innocence is a novelty at a fete such as this. You are a rare English rose compared to the more exotic blooms for sale here.”
Roslyn slanted her friend an exasperated glance.
“You know very well I am not for sale.”
does not know it. Arden naturally assumes you are here to display your wares and sell your services.”
“Well, I am not. I only came to find out how your colleagues comport themselves with their patrons.”
“You should be flattered to pique his grace’s interest,” her friend remarked, teasing.
“Good heavens, I am not flattered, Fanny! Rather I am alarmed. I don’t dare let Arden discover my identity. I will have to face him across the church aisle in two weeks, and I don’t want him bearing tales about me to my new guardian. I think I should find a potted palm to hide behind. Look . . . he is moving this way!” Taking another step backward, Roslyn slipped behind a marble column. Fanny joined her there, laughter lurking behind the eyeholes of her mask.
“You may cease laughing, traitor,” Roslyn muttered.
“It is not your
reputation at risk.”
“No, I suppose not, since I gave mine away several years ago.” Fanny’s expression suddenly sobered a little.
“It is just as well that you have no interest in Arden, Roslyn. He may be a magnificent lover, but he reportedly has no heart. And you only want a man who is capable of falling in love.”
She intended to make a love match someday, and cynical, rakish dukes were not known for contracting matrimonial unions for any reason other than their duty and convenience.
Canting her head slightly, Roslyn peered beyond the column. “Blast it, he is still headed this way.” More urgently, she glanced behind her at the rear entrance doors. “I cannot stay here. There must be someplace I can take refuge until he quits the ball.”
“There is a gallery at the rear of the building with numerous alcoves where couples may be intimate, but they shouldn’t all be occupied yet, since the night is still relatively young. Why don’t you seclude yourself there for a time? Arden never remains long at these events. I will find you once he leaves.”
“An excellent idea,” Roslyn said, turning quickly.
“Don’t run,” Fanny advised. “That will only arouse his primal male urge to pursue fleeing prey.”
Forcing herself to pause, Roslyn threw an arch glance over her shoulder. “I have no intention of becoming any man’s prey. And if he should speak to you, Fanny, you cannot give me away.”
Her friend affected a mock wounded look. “I’ll have you know, I am the soul of discretion. In my profession, a guarded tongue is worth more than
gold. Now go! He will forget all about you if he cannot find you. And if he persists, I will attempt to mislead him.”
“I wish you will send him to the devil,” Roslyn muttered as she moved away, vexed at having her plans for the evening spoiled by Arden’s unexpected presence. She was here to learn the secrets of attracting a gentleman’s ardor, and being forced to hide herself away would hardly help her attain her goal.
Keeping her head bent low to prevent her bonnet from being tracked, Roslyn skirted the crowd and slipped out the rear doors, only to find herself in a dim corridor. When her eyes adjusted, she made her way down the hall to an even dimmer gallery that apparently ran the width of the building. The yearly Cyprians’ ball was a public assembly, but for this occasion, all the rooms save the main ballroom had been poorly lit, the better for trysts and assignations.
As Fanny had advised, Roslyn found numerous empty alcoves stationed along either side of the...