From the comfort of the Herrick coach, Lady Philippa Latham watched her mother alight from Mr. Booth-Barrows’ carriage in front of a massive neo-classical house on Saville Street. Booth-Barrows tucked Mother’s hand over his arm and they climbed the steps of the townhouse, their heads bent close together. Like lovers. Philippa seethed. Loveless marriage or no, how dare Mother openly cuckold Father? And only days after she’d informed Philippa she must marry this season. How was she to accomplish that while her mother was cavorting about town with a man who wasn’t her husband?
Philippa clasped her fingers tightly around the door handle, and before she knew her own mind, she was stepping from the coach. The footman leaped to help her.
With murmured appreciation and a directive to wait until she returned, she dashed across the moonlit street. She followed her mother’s path, intent on convincing her to come home immediately.
A black and silver liveried footman opened the front door, and Philippa stepped into a cavernous marble entry. But instead of her mother, other guests, or some sort of receiving line, she found emptiness punctuated by the gentle swell of conversation and muted laughter coming from a chamber on the opposite side of the foyer.
“Would you care for a cloak?”
Philippa turned toward a second footman who held up a voluminous black cloak, complete with a large hood. She frowned. Why on earth would she want to wear a cloak inside? “No, thank you.” Puzzled, she turned from the footman and squared her shoulders.
Head high, she strode across the gleaming marble and did her best to appear as if she belonged, though she’d no idea whose house she’d invaded. Not that she cared, so long as she found her mother and took her home. While it was true some women had liaisons outside of their marriage, her mother shouldn’t be one of them. Not after twenty-two years of insisting upon propriety and respectability above all else. Philippa’s outrage bubbled anew.
She paused at the threshold to the large, dimly lit room beyond the foyer. It was crowded with people. Masked people. Faint tendrils of trepidation curled in her chest.
She stepped into the room, seeking her mother’s peacock blue gown. In the center, a woman stood on a table in nothing but her chemise and garters. Philippa gaped, completely unprepared for such a shocking display.
She spun about, clenching her teeth. Curse her impulsivity, which she rarely indulged. How fitting that on her first foray she’d stumbled into precisely the impropriety her mother had warned against. And how ironic that she’d done so in pursuit of Mother.
A man clasped her elbow. “Lady Philippa.” The whisper came next to her ear and sent a shiver down her neck.
Philippa jumped. She turned her head to look at the man, but a dark mask covered the upper half of his face. Panic rooted in her belly. “How do you know who I am?”
He dragged her to the side of the room, deeper into the shadows, and pressed her against the wall. The edge of the wainscoting dug into her lower back. Then he stepped close. Too close. He put his hands up behind his head. “Quickly, take my mask.” He worked another moment then muttered, “Bloody hell, the tie is knotted.”
She didn’t know what sort of event she’d stumbled into, but clearly it was wicked, and the only thing standing between her and certain ruin was—literally—this bold stranger. Right now, she’d take this man’s audacity over discovery.
“Let me.” She stood on her toes, for he was quite tall, and found the knot at the back of his head. He smelled of rosemary and sandalwood, very pleasant.
“Where’d she go?” a male voice behind her rescuer asked. “I saw the loveliest creature, dark hair, pale gown—no mask, if you can imagine. She was just here.”
Her rescuer leaned his head down so that their mouths were a breath apart. If she nudged up the slightest bit, their lips would touch… Her fingers fumbled as she tried to work the knot free.
“Eh, there she is, against the wall.”
Philippa gave up her struggle with the mask and moved her hands to her rescuer’s lapels. She pulled him closer so that her bodice grazed the front of his coat. “Don’t you dare move.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he murmured, his warm breath caressing her mouth.
More shivers. This time dancing down her arms.
He clasped her waist and she would’ve jumped back if the wall behind her had allowed any such movement. “I ought to convince the men behind me you are engaged, ah, with me. Pardon my familiarity, but I do believe kissing you is necessary. You might take the opportunity to continue working at the ties of my mask.”
Before she had time to make sense of anything he’d just told her, his lips met hers.
The pressure of his mouth was warm and soft. She’d been kissed before—a swift brushing of lips that had left her curious—but pressed against a stranger in a dark corner, this was something quite different. Somehow more than just a kiss. A moment later his advice sunk into her befuddled thoughts. The mask.
She lifted her arms, which only served to bring her body up against him rather snugly. His chest pressed against hers in a terribly intimate fashion, while he moved his lips slowly, sensuously over hers. Her sensibilities were scandalized, but her body didn’t care. Her flesh heated, and little whorls of excitement replaced the panic in her belly.
A dissatisfied grunt came from behind her rescuer, followed by, “Someone else got to her first.” Two sets of footsteps trailed away.
She plucked at the ties of the mask, and at last it came loose. He broke the kiss and caught the mask before it fell. Then he turned it around and covered the upper two-thirds of her face. He quickly tied the thin strands around the back of her head. The mask was too large for her, but that only meant it covered more and she wouldn’t complain about that. Not when there were plenty of other things to worry about.
Such as how disappointed she felt that their kiss was over. Ludicrous! She needed to concentrate on getting out of there without being identified. “You recognized me immediately. I suppose it’s too much to hope no one else did.” She tested the knot at the back of her head and was satisfied it wouldn’t come loose even as she feared it didn’t matter. Though the other men hadn’t referred to her by name, her heretofore pristine reputation would be ruined if any of them had discerned her identity.
“You aren’t sure if anyone saw you?” The dark timbre of his voice wrapped around her.
The mask tunneled her vision, and even squinting she couldn’t make out his features in the shadowed corner they inhabited. “Just the footmen. One of them offered me a cloak. Oh dear, was that to shield my identity? How was I to know?”
“What were you expecting to find at Lockwood House?” His tone carried a hint of sarcasm.
“Lockwood House?” Dear Lord, she’d marched through the gates of Hell and straight into Lucifer’s bedchamber. “Is this one of those…parties?” She wasn’t even sure what those ‘parties’ were—proper girls like her never would—but she’d heard enough to know that being caught attending one would mean the death of her reputation.
She reined in her shock to indulge her rising panic. “I have to get out of here. Now.”
“I agree.” He took her elbow and turned her toward the door.
They took two steps and then stopped short as a group of people stepped inside. He drew her around and guided her along the perimeter of the room. “Sorry, I’d rather not go out that way, particularly since I’m now without a mask.”
“I’m sorry to have taken yours. It was very kind of you to offer it, Mr…?”
She stumbled as the full reality of her situation permeated her panicked brain. “Lord Sevrin.” She sounded breathless, but the implications to her reputation were disastrous. And perhaps irreversible.
He clasped her waist to steady her. “As usual, I see my reputation has preceded me.”Return to To Seduce a Scoundrel