Authors: Dominique Eastwick
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Short Stories & Anthologies, #Anthologies, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Two Hours or More (65-100 Pages), #Anthologies & Literature Collections, #Genre Fiction, #Historical Romance, #House of Lords - Book 3; A 1 Night Stand Story
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
The Earl and His Virgin Countess
Copyright © 2014 by Dominique Eastwick
Cover art by Cora Graphics
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work, in whole or in part, in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.
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Also by Dominique Eastwick
The Duke and the Virgin
The Marquis and the Mistress
The Earl and His Virgin Countess
House of Lords - Book 3
A 1Night Stand Story
Dedicated to all the readers who take the journey with me in every book I write and every book they read.
Special thanks to Val and Kate for pulling the very best from me, Lisa for being understanding and believing in my work, and to Dawn, Tam, Emmeline, Dwayne, Trish, Tracy, and Patty for always loving me.
As always, thank-you to Nadine who always pushes me to stop procrastinating.
The Duke of Foxhaven’s Masquerade Ball
Even in the dull flicker of candlelight, the domino Andrew wore could not hide his well-defined features, strong jaw, and sculpted cheekbones like those found on Greek marble statutes at the British Museum. Hope swelled deep within Miranda as she took a step toward him. Years had passed since she had been so close to him. She had often spotted him in the distance when he rode through town, and, like all of those times, his gaze passed over her. But, then, it would; to him, she was simply a name. A name on a contract.
Why she let his dismissal of her upset her every time, she didn’t know. Theirs was to be an arranged marriage, an arrangement between two families. She’d grown up more than aware there would be no love match for her, but one would think, in the last twenty years, his lordship could have taken the time even once to visit his future countess. Perhaps have sent a gift on her birthday or offered to escort her when she had been presented to the regent upon her coming out.
She hadn’t had a season, hadn’t needed one since she had already been betrothed. Unfortunately, knowing that hadn’t kept her heart from yearning. Miranda wanted to go to parties; she wanted the thrill of someone signing her dance card. Hell, she wanted to feel what it was like to be a part of his world. Instead, she’d been kept in the country to learn her French, perfect the pianoforte, practice her numbers, and prepare to run her future husband’s household. Only one word described her life: boring.
When the invitation inviting her to the masquerade ball had come, it had been an opportunity she would not pass up. No one could identify Miranda, and it gave her a chance to observe Andrew from afar, as always, or perhaps she might actually approach him for once. So far, however, he hadn’t done anything of note. He’d strolled around, chatted briefly with a few people. And other than the tall man who commanded the room—who she assumed had to be the infamous Duke of Foxhaven—no one had held Andrew’s attention longer than a moment. He had glanced at his watch twice in as many minutes, and, if she planned to make a move, she didn’t have any time to lose.
But why did it feel her feet were nailed to the floor? Why would walking across the room to a man she’d spent countless years training to be a perfect wife for frighten her? Because, although she had been trained to please him in almost every way, it terrified her he would find her wanting.
He chose that very moment to look up and meet her gaze. Damn. Caught staring, she averted her eyes. Steadying herself, she looked up again to find him gone. Of course he had taken off, since an insane Little Red Riding Hood had stared at him like he was the Big Bad Wolf. Convinced her life couldn’t get any more disappointing, Miranda went in search of her Aunt Sarah and then to call the carriage to take her home. The following day, Miranda would send a note to her brother, informing him she would be returning to the country house, where she would simply go back to waiting for her fiancé to claim her. She certainly wasn’t about to introduce herself now.
“Where are you running to, Red?” Andrew’s voice washed over her, forcing her to stop. “Heading to Grandma’s house?”
She faced her earl. “No, my aunt’s.” Does he recognize me?
“Must you leave? The ball is only beginning.”
Silly how her nerves acted up when she had the one thing she’d wanted for years—his undivided attention. “I should check on her.”
“I am sure your aunt is having a fine time and not ready to depart yet.” He took her gloved hand in his and brought it to his lips. “Why not take a stroll in the gardens with me first?”
She bit her lip. A proper lady never went anywhere with a gentleman, but he was her betrothed and therefore they were granted some freedoms most couples weren’t. Even if he didn’t appear to have the slightest idea of who she was, yet. “That sounds wonderful, milord.”
“Follow me.” He placed her hand in the crook of his arm. “This way. There is a side entrance to the gardens.”
If Miranda needed to find her way back, she would be out of luck, for her attention rested squarely on the man next to her rather than the hallways and rooms they passed through.
“You seem familiar with this house,” she said.
The earl nodded. “His grace is one of my closest friends. I spent most of my younger years here, as his mother and mine were best friends.” His smile lit his face and sent warmth to places a lady shouldn’t think about, and Miranda was glad the rooms were dark enough to hide the heat on her face. Her embarrassment faded as they exited the house, however, when the fragrance of the rose garden filled her nose. Chinese lanterns draped from poles around the immaculate plot cast a pale light over the grounds. “It is beautiful.”
“You are seeing her grace at her best.”
“The duke’s wife?
“No, Wolfe has not fallen into the parson’s trap yet. His mother lives to entertain, and this is all her doing. You aren’t from town, are you?” Even the half mask couldn’t hide his questioning glance.
Miranda wanted to scream then remembered she wore a mask as well and he couldn’t possibly recognize who she was. Ignoring the question, she asked, “Is that a hedge maze?”
“It is. Do you want to go in?”
Oh yes, she loved them. She had been through the one on his grounds several times while visiting them years before. “Is it as difficult as the one at your country estate?”
Andrew stopped to gaze upon her. Really look at her, before cocking his head as if trying to determine her identity. “You’ve made me.”
“Yes, I know who you are.” Years of training had made her the expert on the man, yet standing while he investigated every inch of her exposed face made her nervous.
“And you’ve been to my family estate?”
“It’s been a while, but yes.”
“Were you a guest at one of my house parties?”
Grinding her teeth, she prayed for strength to prevent her anger from surfacing. “I have never been invited to one of your house parties, but I was invited to many of your celebrations.”
While his mother had still been alive, she’d hosted elaborate all-day celebrations each summer, which everyone from town and the estate would be invited to enjoy. The grounds would be filled with people laughing and eating. Jugglers and puppeteers entertained the children, while the adults played croquet or sailed on the lake. The countess, though warm and welcoming, had always been cold and unapproving of Miranda. She’d never understood exactly why, but, in her soul she’d worried she hadn’t measured up, which pushed her to work with her tutors until she did everything without fault.
“It’s been a great many years since we hosted one of those,” he said thoughtfully.
“Yes.” Then, wishing to divert him, she asked, “So about this maze?”
“Hmm—oh yes, the maze. This one is more complicated than the one at my family estate, but I used to do it blindfolded. Anything to keep life exciting, I guess.” He pulled her behind him into the hedges, which stood two feet above Andrew’s head on either side. Meticulously trimmed bushes rose high on either side of them as they progressed farther into the maze. The lights from the lanterns faded, leaving only the moonlight to help them find their way. The darker it became, the closer she pressed against him, as he led her deeper.
“Almost there,” he said, his steps never faltering or pausing at any turn. In fact, with every navigation, his confident pace increased. Arriving at the center, the destination of their walk, she heard conversation.
Soft, feminine words floated through the hedge. “You’re smiling.”
A man responded, his words gruff and deep, “I’m happy, for more reasons than you can imagine. Shall we announce our impending wedding?”
“No, let’s surprise everyone,” the woman replied.
Andrew put a finger to his lips. “It appears we were about to interrupt a marriage proposal.”
“Shouldn’t we leave them be?” Miranda asked in a hushed voice, barely silencing a giggle.
Andrew paused. “Oh hell, I recognize that voice.” Releasing her hand, he headed for the opening, with Miranda following.
The couple started at the interruption, and the gentleman stepped forward to protect his apparent fiancée. “Andrew?”
Andrew led Miranda around the hedge, out of site of the clandestine couple. “Stay here, please,” he whispered, before heading back to speak with his friends.
“What the hell are you doing out here?” Miranda heard Andrew ask.
“Looking for some privacy,” his acquaintance, clearly put out, replied, seemingly unaware of Miranda’s presence as she peeked through leaves to watch.
“So I see.” Andrew motioned to the couple. “Good evening, Mrs. Mallory.”
“Lord Windenshire.” The seductive voice of the woman almost purred.
“You two know each other?” his friend demanded, and Miranda didn’t wait to hear Andrew’s answer.
She headed back in the direction they’d come, unwilling to eavesdrop, and, for some reason, afraid to ascertain how well he knew that Mrs. Mallory. It only took a few turns before Miranda became hopelessly lost however.
Ripping off her hood, but leaving the mask on, she sat on the ground. Voices mumbled in the distance, and she stared up at the sky. The stars twinkled far less in London than at home. How she wished to be there.
Andrew appeared. “Here you are. I wondered where you’d gone.” He extended a hand. “Apparently, my presence is required for a wedding tomorrow.”
She glanced up at him. “Tomorrow? How is that possible?”
“An eager groom who procured a special license already. Why did you wander off?”
“I wanted to give you some privacy.”
“Interesting. Most women would have used the moment to cause a stir and catch themselves a lord.”
Catch a lord? Anger rose within her. “I have no interest in trapping anyone.”
“Obviously not, as you didn’t use the moment to your advantage.”