In a Winter Mess with the Marquess Preview

A Steamy Regency Romance

About the book


Caught in the storm with her is a dangerous place to be…

After her only friend and own father abandoned her, Sabrina is an eligible Lady who’s desperate for affection. And she finds it in the face of her father’s solicitor. Or so she thinks...

After the incident that scarred his soul forever, Miles Danton, the Marquess of Loxley, swore never to step foot in his paternal home again. Until his father’s terminal illness forces him to spend the holidays with them. And Lady Sabrina.

When a blizzard brings the pair closer together, Miles knows he is treading on dangerous ground with the Ton’s tongues wagging about them and his body aching for her. The problem? He can’t allow her to marry a murderer...

 

Chapter One


It was common knowledge that love was not compatible with most marriages within the ton. In fact, Lady Sabrina Mathers was quite convinced that for any good marriage—as defined by those in Society— to survive the test of time, one merely needed to have a healthy respect for one’s spouse and nothing more.

Her mother died when she was too young to remember the Countess of Spencer, and her father was hardly ever around to counsel her on such matters, but from all accounts, her parents’ marriage had been one of duty, arranged by their parents before them.

Sabrina, bless her fiercely rebellious heart, wanted something different for herself, and she believed with all her heart that she had found the man she was truly destined to be happy with forever and ever. Of course, he was quite unsuitable for her.

She sighed as she craned her neck toward the stairs that led to the entrance of the ballroom. Earlier, she had received a secret note delivered through her maid, Elise, that informed her Robert had found an excuse to leave London.

How her heart leaped at the prospect of seeing her love once more! It had been quite agonizing to not even be able to hold on to a mere token from him for fear that their budding romance would be discovered too soon and destroyed before it had a chance to bloom.

“Oh, I do hope you will not do anything stupid.”

Her attention snapped back to her cousin, Lady Penelope Mathers, the only daughter of the Dowager Viscountess of Row, who wrinkled her nose in distaste. After her mother died, Sabrina had been left mostly in the care of her aunt, Lady Row, as her father, the Earl of Spencer, was frequently attending to his plantations in the colonies.

“Whatever do you mean by that, Penny?” Sabrina asked, her eyes wide in confusion.

Lady Penelope rolled her eyes in a most uncharacteristically unladylike fashion. “You know what I mean, cousin dear. You have been glancing at the door all evening.”

Caught! Sabrina blushed from beneath the bejeweled mask she wore. Penny’s eyesight is far too keen.

Both young ladies were attending a winter masquerade ball held by the Duchess of Harvey at her country estate. Under the dazzling lights of a grand chandelier, the guests mingled as they laughingly tried to guess who was who, emboldened by the anonymity offered by a slip of fabric plastered over the upper half of their faces. As her eyes ran over the crowded ballroom, she observed that almost every eligible young lady and her mama were in attendance tonight.

“I heard that Lord Loxley will be in attendance tonight,” Penelope told her in a hushed voice. “He is a very mysterious sort, is he not? I heard that he prefers to stay at his country estate all year, and when he does go to London, it is purely for business only.”

Sabrina frowned at this piece of gossip from her cousin. She had known the Marquess of Loxley in her childhood and spent summers playing with him and his younger brother, Stephen. However, after his brother died, she had never heard from Miles again. For him to suddenly emerge in a social gathering of the crème de la crème, she could only guess what his true purpose was.

“Mama tells me that the Duchess is looking for a bride for him,” her cousin continued. “No wonder she commissioned such fine costumes for us tonight.”

Indeed both young ladies had been outfitted to bring out their most attractive qualities. Sabrina, with her glorious golden curls, fair skin, and enchanting blue eyes was dressed as the fairy queen, Titania, in a dreamy concoction of pale blue with spring flowers sewn into her gauzy skirt. Her hair was coiled intricately with a crown of flowers, and the upper half of her face was obscured with a feathered mask.

Penelope, with her deep-brown eyes and auburn hair, was dressed as Persephone for the winter months in a draped dress of deep purple with a necklace of amethysts around her neck and several other gems embedded in her coif. Her mask was a bejeweled, deep purple affair that matched her attire perfectly.

“If anyone would know, Aunt Barbara would,” Sabrina replied wryly.

Although the Dowager Viscountess was five decades old, she was quite spry for her age and was forever gossiping with her set of friends over tea. Oftentimes, she would leave both young ladies, Penelope and Sabrina, to their own devices at balls and soirees, meeting up with them only when it was time to head back home. With her flighty, slightly irresponsible behavior, it was quite a wonder that neither Sabrina nor Penelope was embroiled in a scandal.

“I heard that you knew the Marquess,” Penelope murmured. “He was your friend, was he not?”

Sabrina smiled coolly at that. Yes, a friend who apparently did not cherish the friendship as much as I did, she thought to herself.

“You know,” her cousin prodded, “Lord Loxley would make a far more suitable—”

“Penny, no,” Sabrina cut in firmly. “My heart belongs to Robert, and I shall not be swayed by just any dandy who would waltz into my life and pluck me out from a sea of other girls, expecting me to be grateful for his attention.”

Penelope rolled her eyes. “I just cannot fathom what you see in that man, Sabrina. You have been quite popular in London since your coming out—” she trailed off. “I just hope you will not do something regrettable.”

 “Nobody else cares for me as much as Robert does,” she told her cousin quietly, “and I have been planning to elope with him as soon as we are able.”

“Are you mad?” Penelope hissed, her expression aghast. She looked over her shoulder to make sure nobody else heard her cousin’s declaration. “You would be ruined, Sabrina.”

“I do not care as long as I am with the one I love.”

The auburn-haired young lady opened her mouth to voice out in admonishment of her cousin when she was interrupted by the arrival of none other than Robert Dalton, the very topic of their discussion. He was an attractive man with dark hair that he always wore slicked back with pomade. Tonight, he dressed quite simply with a plain black mask over his eyes and a scarf over his mouth.

“Good evening, Ladies,” he greeted them with a smile, his gaze fixed on Sabrina, who blushed prettily. “I hope I am not interrupting anything.”

“Robert!” Sabrina exclaimed, her eyes shining with adoration. “Of course, you are not interrupting anything! What took you so long?”

“Business, my dear, I’m afraid,” he sighed with a despondent smile, “but I am here now. Could I have the honor of your next dance?”

Sabrina turned her pleading eyes toward her cousin, who could not find it in her heart to refuse her.

“Very well, I shall leave you both to it,” Penelope acquiesced before shooting her cousin a warning look. “Remember what I said.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Sabrina replied offhandedly. With one last brilliant smile at her cousin, she allowed Robert to lead her to the dance floor while the musicians struck up the music for a quadrille.

As they went through the motions of the dance, Robert gazed smilingly at her. “My Dear, you are absolutely breathtaking tonight. I gather that there were many who sought you out to dance.”

Sabrina blushed prettily at his praise. “There were some who did, but I was waiting for you.”

“I do apologize for making you wait,” he sighed. “There was much work to be done, and I could not leave right away; although, I would have if I could.”

“Oh, Robert! How I do wish we did not have to go the roundabout way like this!” Sabrina could not hide the frustration that had already simmered too close to the surface earlier. She was pleased to note, however, that the same frustration lurked in the dark-brown eyes of her beloved.

“Dear Sabrina,” he murmured in a low voice, “I love you, and I want nothing more than to spend all my days with you.”

“Then, why do you not?” she shot back under her breath. “Robert, I love you too. We could just elope—”

“Absolutely not,” he interjected. For a moment, Sabrina was taken aback and hurt by his swift rejection. “I could never marry you without the blessing of the Earl. To do so would be a dishonor to you.”

Sabrina frowned at his words. Sometimes, she wished he was not so gentlemanly. Although Sabrina had heard snippets of gossip of how his mother had fallen from grace in her youth, she knew that the woman was from one of the fine families in London, and Robert had received a fine education courtesy of her efforts and connections which was how he was able to become her father’s most trusted solicitor in spite of him being younger than most of his colleagues.

“But Robert—” The dance ended, and they curtsied and bowed to each other. Slowly, they began to walk back to the corner of the ballroom where they met. Penelope was still on the dance floor with young Lord Faraday, about to begin the next dance. She and Robert still had more time to talk.

“I know you mean well for me,” she told him softly. “It is just that…I miss you so much, and it hurts to be apart.”

Robert gazed back at her forlornly. “Oh, dearest Sabrina, how I wish that was possible right now! But you must wait, My Darling. Soon enough—”

“Sabrina, darling! There you are!” Sabrina turned around to find her Aunt Barbara, bustling toward them with a huge smile. She managed a few hasty apologies as she nearly knocked over two young ladies and a gentleman on her way over. When she turned back, Robert was already gone.

He did not even say goodbye, she thought morosely to herself. Her eyes darted all over the crowded ballroom, hoping for one last glimpse of him before he left.

“I was right!” Aunt Barbara exclaimed with a bright smile on her face. “I have it on good authority that Miles Langston, the Marquess of Loxley, will be in attendance tonight! Heard it straight from the Duchess herself!”

Sabrina pressed her lips into the semblance of a smile. “That sounds fairly exciting, Aunt Barbara!”

“My sources are rarely wrong, my dear!” she beamed. She assessed her niece and frowned. “Why do you look so distressed?”

The young lady shook her head. “I’m perfectly fine, Aunt Barbara. Mayhap, it is just too crowded.”

“Of course, it is! Every chit on the marriage mart and her mama is here tonight!” Sabrina smiled weakly, trying to keep up with her aunt’s excited chatter. However, when she looked up, she saw his familiar figure heading out into the gardens, and once again, a small smile bloomed on her face.

The conversation, as far as she was concerned, was simply not yet over.

***

The Duchess of Harvey looked at her son. She had watched him grow up from a child to the man who now stood before her, and yet, she felt as if she did not truly know him at all.

His dark-blue eyes were cold with fury, and his tall, broad-shouldered frame was stiff with barely restrained anger. He held up something in his hand with two fingers. She immediately recognized it as the note she had sent him just yesterday, begging him to come back home for Christmas.

“You said,” he growled, “that Father was sick…that he was practically on his deathbed.”

Cleopatra Langston, one of the most esteemed ladies in Society, smiled weakly at her son, having been caught in a falsehood. But within the ton, who was not adept at lying? In a Society that placed the importance of appearances above all things, the matter of lying had become almost second nature.

“And it was true,” she replied softly, walking over to place a gentle hand on his broad shoulder. “Dr. Abernathy told us that he was gravely ill; that he would have a few weeks—months, at best—to live.”

“Then, how does he seem to be enjoying this lovely masquerade that you have prepared for him, Mother?” Miles replied in clipped tones. “Or is this another one of your lies?”

The Duchess shook her head vigorously at that and glanced back to the ballroom, where her husband, the Duke of Harvey, was conversing with his peers with a genial smile on his face and a glass of his favorite brandy in his hand. When Miles arrived earlier, he had taken one look at his father dancing, and he had been absolutely livid.

“You know your father, Miles,” she told him in a low voice. “He would not want to show any weakness.”

Miles frowned at his mother’s words. They did carry a bit of truth in them. Throughout his childhood, he had viewed his father as a rock—one that remained standing, unyielding through the test of time. Even when everything had gone to Hell, his father had held himself and the rest of their family together. Miles knew that even if he truly was ill, he would never show it to the public.

“Very well,” he muttered, finally conceding. “I shall stay for the night. Just,” he shot his mother a warning glance, “do not, under any circumstances, foist another one of your friends’ daughters on me, Mother. I have had enough of those vapid young chits who flutter their eyes so rapidly at me, I fear that they would faint.”

His mother laughed happily and hugged him. “Oh, thank you so much, Miles! And I promise I shan’t introduce another young lady to you. Although,” she added meaningfully, “half the ballroom is here to meet you.”

“Then, tell them I am currently ill with some sort of malady that makes me unable to tolerate useless chatter,” he replied blandly.

“Very well,” Cleopatra Langston smiled and held up a mask for him. “In that case, you might as well wear one of these.”

As his mother left, he turned his eyes back to the ballroom. His father was still with Lord Danbury and Mr. Argyle. The Duke appeared to be in the peak of health with a robust body and ruddy cheeks as he spoke animatedly to his friends.

Hardly the look of a man at the end of his days, Miles thought to himself. He sighed and turned away when he caught a flash of gold that felt vaguely familiar to him. However, when he turned back to the ballroom, it was already gone, lost in a sea of blondes, brunettes, and redheads.

He frowned and turned to the hall.

He had promised his mother he would stay tonight. That did not necessarily mean he had to be in the ballroom.


Chapter Two


Sabrina glanced fretfully outside to the gardens. It had taken the better part of half an hour to get her Aunt Barbara to stop talking to her and flit on back to her friends. Her aunt would not stop talking about how the Duchess of Harvey had finally managed to successfully draw her wayward son back into Society.

“Although I do wonder,” she whispered in a low voice to Sabrina, “if he is in any way—deformed.”

Sabrina nearly choked when her aunt said that. From what she recalled about Miles Langston in their childhood, he had seemed quite normal, and as a child, he had been considered quite adorable. She was fairly certain he was not deformed in any way.

“Or,” Aunt Barbara tittered, “he could be deficient in some way.”

Sabrina raised her eyebrows at that. “Deficient?”

“Oh, you know…unable to perform his duties in bed!” the Dowager Viscountess giggled in the most scandalous manner. “But this is not a suitable conversation for young ladies such as yourself, my dear.”

I would wager that, the young blonde thought to herself. With her mother gone at an early age, she had been vastly reliant on her aunt for knowledge in these kinds of things. It was just a pity that her Aunt Barbara was more than just a little unreliable.

Sabrina was vastly relieved when her aunt finally stopped talking about the mysterious Marquess of Loxley. She had a niggling suspicion that her aunt might have imbibed a little too much wine tonight as Aunt Barbara’s words bordered on being scandalous. In the very least, they were highly inappropriate to discuss with an unmarried young lady in a crowded ballroom.

In many ways, the costume the Dowager Viscountess of Row wore truly suited her as she was like an outrageous butterfly in the sense that she flitted from one thing to another, never truly settling down. Throughout most of her life, Sabrina recalled that her aunt was always at some tea party or gathering or soiree.

Aunt Barbara also had the worst memory of any person alive and was always forgetting certain things. Penelope often joked that if her head were not attached firmly to her shoulders, Lady Row might one day misplace it.

“Has Mama told you of her latest news?” Penelope asked Sabrina, breathless from a lively bout of dancing, her cheeks flushing becomingly.

“It was all she could talk about,” Sabrina replied with an offhanded wave of her hand. “One would think she wished to marry the man herself as long as he wasn’t perceivably deficient in some way.”

“Now that,” her cousin giggled, “would set the rest of the ton on its head!”

Both girls laughed as they talked for a while before Penelope caught Sabrina glancing toward the gardens. She frowned since her cousin was barely able to keep hiding her infatuation for a man deemed so unsuitable for her that it could, quite possibly, provide the kind of fodder for gossip that mothers warned their daughters about.

“Sabrina,” she murmured, placing a gentle hand on her cousin’s shoulders, “we are at a ball.

“I know,” Sabrina replied in frustration. “It is just that Robert is being absolutely difficult.”

“Difficult?” Penelope raised a dark eyebrow. “And this is coming from you, dear cousin?”

Sabrina flushed a pretty shade of pink. “He just refuses to see reason is all.” She loved him with her whole heart, and she believed that he loved her too. The distance between them was becoming unbearable when Sabrina wanted nothing more than to be able to freely love Robert.

However, he worked for her father as his solicitor, and as much as it galled her that he was right, the gentlemanly thing to do was to obtain her father’s permission to court her properly. How unfortunate for Sabrina that her father was rarely in England at all!

The Earl was forever in the colonies, attending to his plantations. However, unlike Robert, Sabrina had been reconciled to not seeing her father for long periods of time. Unfortunately, she must keep their relationship a secret or risk losing Robert altogether.

“And you wish to enlighten him, is that so?” Penelope asked her skeptically. In her opinion, a man did not need much convincing—he either wanted to do something, or he did not.

Women, on the other hand, needed to weigh their options, for marriage was as much a financial decision as an emotional one.

“Quite.” Penelope sighed in frustration. It would appear that there was just no logic to an argument with a person so infatuated, particularly with one as stubborn as her cousin. Sabrina had always been headstrong, but with Robert, she was on an entirely new level of mulishness.

“I do wish you would not do anything that would be detrimental to yourself,” Penelope sighed. “You already know how I feel about Robert.”

Sabrina glanced back at her cousin, incensed. “Robert is the only one who truly cares for me, Penelope. You will never understand that.”

“But I care for you,” her cousin argued, “and I cannot just stand back and let you ruin your life for just a man.”

“He is not just any man, Penny—he loves me!” Sabrina hissed. “And I love him. And what need do I have for etiquette and propriety, anyway, when we plan to elope?”

The frustration that had been simmering within her for weeks was coming close to the surface.

“Are you mad? If you did that, you would never be able to hold your head up at another ball in the future!”

“I do not care much for balls, anyway,” Sabrina replied, her cheeks burning. “All I want is to be with the man I love. All I need is to find an excuse to go to London and meet him, so we can elope to Gretna Green. Father will not be able to do much of anything after that.”

With those final words, she picked up her skirts and made her way out into the gardens, presumably to search for Robert and “make him see reason. Penelope wanted to call after her, to pull her back, but even she knew that if she aroused too much attention, then Sabrina truly would be ruined.

Penelope sighed and stood back in the corner, wishing she had more courage to stop her headstrong cousin from doing so much irreparable damage.

If Sabrina truly got what she wanted, Penelope could only pray that her rebellious cousin would not regret it in the end.

***

The house was exactly as he remembered it.

As Miles walked down the empty hallway, he thought back to what his mother had just told him in their conversation earlier.

He had received the letter just yesterday, and as much as he avoided his childhood home, she had sounded so urgent at that time that he had canceled whatever else he had scheduled for the next few weeks to spend time with his father in his final days. He had not even bothered to pack properly, thinking he could just send for more of his clothes as soon as he was back at Harvey Hall.

Imagine his surprise when he came home to a masquerade ball in full swing with his mother playing the dazzling hostess and his father very well having the time of his life. Miles had arrived just as the musicians struck up the music for a lively quadrille, and his surprise and confusion quickly gave way to anger at having been so thoroughly misled, when he saw the Duke of Harvey dancing merrily with the other guests.

The Duchess of Harvey had taken one look at her son’s stony features and rightly came to the conclusion that he was angered at having been manipulated to attend yet another of her parties after he had sworn not to.

His mother’s excuses sounded weak at best, but she had been right about one thing—his father was not one to display weakness in public. If the doctor did tell him he had a few more weeks to live, then throwing a grand ball would be in line with his character.

He could also be trying to disguise his pain and agony. Miles stilled as that thought infiltrated his mind. After all, he knew all too well how people grieved differently, and he knew for a fact that some people preferred to devote their energies to doing something else with their grief.

In his case, he had managed to build successful businesses at a rate that surprised even those who were far more experienced than him. With money in great supply, he had turned his attentions to his country estate, Loxley Manor, and had it renovated and outfitted to his specifications until it had become a marvel that the rest of Society talked about.

It was a shame that even all the money in the world could not change the past. The sound of a young boy’s laughter broke through the stillness of the hallway, and Miles turned around swiftly with a look of longing and horror on his handsome features.

There was no one else in the room. He felt a haze settle over his senses, and he staggered over to the wall, bracing himself with an arm to remain upright as he struggled to get his wits back together.

This is a mistake, he told himself. I should have just remained at Loxley Manor. I should have never come home.

He heard the unmistakable sound of laughter again and felt the whole room tilt and sway as it filled his ears.

“Stop!” he muttered, holding his hands up to his ears. “Stop!

But the ghosts of the past were only rendered stronger by a guilty conscience, and Miles knew that he was the guiltiest of them all. When he opened his eyes, he saw the hallway stretch endlessly before him as his lungs struggled to breathe. The deluge of memories crashed on him like a dam that had been burst open, releasing everything he had spent years containing.

Memories, feelings, became a whirl of indistinguishable colors that gathered around him, bringing him to his knees.

“Go away!” he whispered to no one, to himself.

He clutched at his head as he leaned against the wall, feeling ill, fighting to stay above water. For a moment, the hallway tilted and swayed, and when he opened his eyes, he could see the light from the lamps penetrating the haze and could hear the lively ballroom music accompanied by the chatter of the guests permeating his senses.

Air, he thought as he staggered out of the Hall. I need to get out and get some fresh air.

He pushed the door open and relished in the biting chill of winter that hit him squarely in the face. And then, he ran.

He ran until he was out of breath, until his heart pounded so loudly in his chest that he feared it would break open his ribcage. He ran until he reached the gazebo in the middle of the garden, pleased and surprised that it was still there. He leaned against one of the posts as he breathed heavily, the snow crunching under his feet, as he looked around him.

He had very few memories of this part of the garden, mainly because he and Stephen had been forbidden from wandering so far from the Hall. One day, he escaped his governess’ grasp and sneaked out into this very same gazebo, fully intending to explore what forbidden mysteries lay beyond it.

To his dismay, it was nothing more than an ordinary gazebo although he did find one of his mother’s handkerchiefs lying on the soft grass. He smiled to himself at that odd memory. It was certainly far tamer than the other ones that attacked him.

Miles sighed to himself, wondering if he had made the right decision in coming home, or if he should head back to Loxley Manor in the morning, after he talked to his father.

Suddenly, a soft, warm body collided against his, pressing against him intimately as a lovely, feminine scent washed over him.

His mind whirled in the darkness for a moment. What was an unchaperoned young lady doing out here in the gardens?

However, he had no time to ponder more on that matter as he was unceremoniously pulled down into a kiss that fairly stole the breath from his lungs and threatened to push him to the brink of insanity.


Chapter Three


What the— His first thought had been one of bewilderment when the strange woman pulled him down for an intense kiss. Was she, perhaps, one of those young ladies his mother kept putting in his path?

Miles quickly dashed that thought on the rocks, for the Duchess of Harvey would never approve of such a wanton chit as the one before him.

As her soft lips moved against his, Miles had the impression the enchanting seductress before him was not as skilled in the art of seduction as he initially believed—a discovery that ignited something within him, and he groaned and hauled her into his arms, intending to teach her a thing or two about the game she was playing.

Did someone, perhaps, put her up to this? He learned, however, that she was a quick student as she wholeheartedly followed his lead, heating his blood when she did. He speared his hands into her hair, sending a few hairpins clattering down as he tilted her face up to his kiss. His tongue traced the seam of her lips, and she shyly opened up to him with a soft moan, triggering a shocking arousal from him.

“Robert—” The moment the name slipped from her lips, Miles awoke from the haze of lust that clouded his mind, and he realized, with much disappointment, that the lady in question had mistaken him for someone else!

“Oh, Robert, I thought you had already left me,” she complained in a mournful tone.

Miles, unable to stand having been perceived as somebody else, opened his mouth to refute her, but she shushed him, putting a soft finger against his lips. He was overcome with the strange desire to nip at that finger and see what her reaction would be, but he restrained himself from doing so.

“I know that you are too much of a gentleman, and I do love that about you,” she carried on, “but Robert, don’t you think we’ve suffered long enough from hiding in the dark? If we ran away, we could be together, and nobody would be able to do much about it—not my father nor Penelope nor Aunt Barbara.”

Miles felt that this farce had gone on long enough, so he sighed and stepped back, pulling off the thrice-damned mask his mother had made him put on for that night. At that same moment, a shaft of moonlight highlighted his handsome features and the sardonic grin that twisted his lips.

The young lady suddenly stepped back, and he saw her eyes widen in realization. He thought he saw her features soften the slightest bit before they changed into shock but it was so fleeting that he might have imagined it.

He chuckled softly at her reaction. “As much as I am tempted by your offer, I am afraid you have mistaken me for somebody else!”

“I would say!” she bristled, clearly embarrassed and incensed at the same time. “And is this how you spend your free time, nowadays? Misleading people into thinking you are someone else?”

He frowned at her words. “Have we, perhaps, met before?”

“Obviously!” the young lady flung back sarcastically. She tore off her own mask and glared at him, raising her chin as she stared him down.

Well, as much as she could anyway, seeing as the top of her head just about reached his chest. Nonetheless, she did a pretty good job of looking at him like he was a lowly bug on her shoe.

Miles sucked in a breath when he saw the soft, delicate features, the pert nose, and the soft, pink lips he had just ravaged earlier. Her face framed by a glorious mass of golden curls, Lady Sabrina Mathers was a sight to behold in the soft moonlight, her blue eyes spitting fire as she regarded him angrily.

His memory of a young child with a riot of golden curls competed with the image before him. His childhood friend, it would seem, had grown up to be quite an attractive woman with a penchant for artless seduction.

“So, it is you,” he muttered coolly. “It has been a long time, Lady Sabrina. Is this how you spend your free time, nowadays?”

She flushed at having her words thrown back at her. “The words I spoke earlier were not intended for you. They were for—”

“This Robert whoever,” he finished offhandedly. “I had surmised as much. But if that kiss was any indication then he might need a little more convincing.”

Sabrina looked at him in shock, and then, belatedly realizing that he was making light of her kiss, she glared at him.

“That was because, deep down, I knew you were not Robert,” she recovered primly. “It was a mistake, My Lord—one that I do not intend to repeat.”

She shook her head, sending her soft curls bouncing on her cheeks in a most adorable manner. Miles felt the strangest compulsion to reach out and wind one of those little locks around his finger, but he knew she would not be pleased by that.

“I can’t believe I would run into you here, of all people!” she muttered.

“I am clearly just as surprised as you are,” he replied with mock solemnity. “Imagine, having just come out for a breath of fresh air, and then to suddenly be accosted by a strange, masked woman. I fear that you have ruined my reputation.”

“Oh, do shut up!” she shot back him. “What were you doing here, anyway? Waiting for somebody else?”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Unlike you, I came here—as I said—for a breath of fresh air.” He did not need to tell her how suffocating it had been to step back into the Hall, to have that deluge of memories crashing over him until he found it hard to even breathe.

Sabrina would never understand. Nobody ever did.

She tilted her head like a curious sparrow. “Well, I should have expected your presence in any case. Aunt Barbara did mention that you would be in attendance tonight which,” she grimaced, “is probably why every unmarried young lady and her mama descended on Harvey Hall tonight.”

“I take it you do not approve.”

“I did not think that a fine lord such as yourself needed to be launched into Society like all the young ladies,” she replied breezily. “But since you might be socially impaired from locking yourself up at your country estate, I can understand Her Grace’s need to, ah, help you along in finding a bride.”

Good God, but she has a rather sharp tongue! Miles thought to himself. She probably turned the ton on its head upon her coming out.

“I am not socially inept,” he bristled. “I just don’t generally go around kissing strangers in the dark.”

“I think I should be heading back to the ballroom,” she sighed despondently. “It seems that Robert has already left.”

He frowned at hearing her mention that name again. Whoever this Robert was, he had her wrapped around his finger, doing things no respectable young lady would think of doing.

What if she came upon some other man tonight? Miles was all too aware that not all gentlemen in Society were truly as noble as they made themselves out to be. The thought of someone else taking advantage of Sabrina and her gullibility left a bad taste in his mouth.

“So, tell me,” he said conversationally, as she searched for her missing hairpins. “Who is this Robert fellow? And why would he allow his beloved to go running about in the night?”

She glared up at him and pursed her lips. “I don’t see how that concerns you, My Lord. Now, if you shall excuse me, I need to return to the ballroom before we cause a scandal, and I am forced to marry you.”

She huffed and turned away angrily from him, causing him to chuckle. “Now, wouldn’t that be an absolute tragedy?” he remarked.

She stiffened for a moment. “I find that I do not enjoy your company in the slightest,” she retorted icily. “I shall take my leave now.”

Miles watched her stomp back in the direction of the ballroom, a small smile playing on his lips. Lady Sabrina Mathers…who would have expected that she would grow up to become such a spitfire?

A gullible, naive spitfire, he corrected himself.

He shook his head, and he rubbed his temple. No gently bred young lady of the ton would think of running about in the dark gardens, chasing after a man, even daring to propose elopement! It would seem that she had grown up to be more outrageous than she had been when they were children.

***

“Where have you been? And why is your hair all in disarray?”

Penelope regarded her cousin in shock as she ran up to her. Fearing that Sabrina had truly done something impetuous this time, Penelope decided to follow her cousin out into the gardens, only to find her on her way back to the ballroom with her golden curls in a mess.

“Quick! Help me fix my hair, Penny.” Penelope frowned as she motioned for her cousin to turn around and took the pins, restoring as much order as she could to Sabrina’s coif. Fortunately, her costume did not call for an overly elaborate style, and Penelope was able to successfully restore Sabrina’s mass of curls into a semblance of her earlier style. Penelope stepped back and fixed the flower crown that sat slightly askew on her cousin’s curls before declaring that everything seemed to be in order.

“There,” she muttered under her breath. “That should do it.”

Sabrina smiled gratefully at her. “Thank you so much, Penny. I can always count on you for anything.”

Her cousin smiled weakly at her. “As long as you don’t go off like that again. You had me worried for a while there.” She paused and looked her cousin from head to toe before settling on her disgruntled expression. “You do not seem to be in high spirits. Were you able to talk to Robert?”

“No, I was not,” Sabrina replied with her lips pressed in a grim line. Her eyes flashed for a moment, and Penelope followed her line of sight to find a tall, broad-shouldered man in a dark mask emerging from the gardens. She could vaguely make out his strong chin as he walked with the certainty of a man who knew his place in the world.

She turned back to Sabrina. “Who is that?”

Sabrina grimaced at her probing. “Just an acquaintance from my childhood. He is not as entertaining now as he was back then.”

“Oh.”

Thankfully, Penelope failed to notice the warmth that had spread across Sabrina’s cheeks upon seeing Miles emerge from the garden, the memory of their searing kiss still fresh in her mind. In truth, she had never felt such…heated emotions when Robert kissed her before.

But to think that Miles would be able to evoke such feelings and then taunt her after made Sabrina more than a little incensed.

It would seem that he was no longer that kind young boy from her childhood. In his place was a man in his prime—and an arrogant one at that.

“By the way, have you seen Robert? I was unable to find him in the gardens tonight.”

“Of course not, Sabrina. He already left.” Penelope let out a frustrated sigh. “I tried to find you to tell you that.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, she wished she had said them in a gentler way. Sabrina looked utterly despondent and, once again, Penelope cursed the charming solicitor in her heart. He was clearly wrong for Sabrina, but he kept stringing along her hopes, plying her with promises that seemed too good to be true.

“Let’s head back to the ballroom, Penny,” Sabrina sighed. “Aunt Barbara will be wondering where we went off to.” Her cousin nodded, and they entered the ballroom together. They had barely set foot on the carpeted floor when the Dowager Viscountess descended upon them in her usual blustery manner.

“Oh, there you are!” she exclaimed with a churlish pout. “I have been looking all over for both of you. His Grace has just started introducing the Marquess of Loxley to the guests.”

She took one girl in each hand as she led them into the ballroom. “I heard that he is quite an accomplished young man and vastly wealthy at that, so you both need to be on your best behavior!”

Sabrina and Penelope shared a look. According to the Dowager Viscountess, the ton seemed to be riddled with “accomplished” and “vastly wealthy” young men, and she was forever shoving both of them in their faces.

“Are we not always on our best behavior, Mother?” Penelope argued, shooting her cousin a look.

“Why, yes. Yes, of course, my dear,” Lady Mathers chortled. “But you need to try harder for this one. I heard he is quite the catch!”

Why, yes, he is, Aunt Barbara, Sabrina thought to herself. Which is precisely why all the eligible ladies of the ton have descended to this side of the country for this particular night.

She did not particularly care for the way the ton referred to men as a “good catch” as if they were some sort of prized fish, and all the young ladies were the proficient anglers. She already had her heart set on Robert, and no “catch” was going to dissuade her.

Besides, were not most, if not all, men of Society very much like her father? Sabrina did not want to marry a nobleman, merely because he was the most “suitable” for her. She wanted to marry for love even though she knew Robert was not among those considered by the matrons of Society to be a “good catch”.

Which is just as well, Sabrina thought to herself with a small smile. Most young ladies of the ton are much too fixated on titles and wealth to ever consider a good man like Robert.

“By the way, I have good news for both of you,” her aunt announced with a brilliant smile. “Oh, Penelope, do stop scowling! You will never be able to attract suitors if you glower at everybody like that.”

Penelope, who had been caught frowning, immediately put on a smile so fake that Sabrina had to choke on her laughter.

“What good news, Mama?” Penelope asked with false excitement that was clear to everyone but her own mother.

The Dowager Viscountess beamed at both of them. “Why, Her Grace, the Duchess of Harvey, recalled that Sabrina and Miles were rather inseparable when they were children, and she has invited us to stay here in Harvey Hall for the holidays. Isn’t that absolutely grand?”

Sabrina wanted to scream. “No! Absolutely not!” Not only would staying in Harvey Hall throw a wrench into all of her plans, but it would also make it more difficult for her to see Robert over the holidays. After all, the solicitor could not very well just waltz into the ducal seat of the Duke of Harvey without a proper invitation.

No, no, no!

Penelope, sensing that her cousin was very much against the idea, gave her mother a meaningful look. “But we have already made preparations to spend the holidays at Spencer Manor, and didn’t Uncle say that he would be home for the holidays?”

“Oh, pish-posh!” the Dowager Duchess exclaimed. “Samuel rarely makes it in time for Christmas. It would be much more fun to spend more time with our neighbors, wouldn’t you agree?”

Sabrina begged to differ on that account. Not only would she find it hard to see Robert if they stayed over at Harvey Hall, but she might have to put up with Miles Langston a little bit more, seeing as she would be staying at his parents’ Hall.

Fortunately, she had heard through the grapevine that the Marquess rarely ventured out of Loxley Manor, and on the rare occasion that he did, it was purely for business and nothing else.

Very well, I can endure for a bit more— Sabrina thought, biting her lower lip. Besides, she still needed to come up with a better plan to be with Robert. If tonight had been any indication, she could not afford to be so reckless again.

Once is already enough.

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