Arabella Hodgkinson smiled as she caught sight of her friend fiddling with her mask for the fifth time in as many minutes.
“Would you stop doing that, Jillian? You’re going to break the string, and it won’t stay up.”
“It’s really itchy,” Jillian Cartwright grumbled, adjusting the mask before checking her hair. “I feel like everything is itchy right now. Is that meant to be normal?”
“I don’t know. I’m not the pregnant one.” Arabella looked at the other woman’s swollen belly. “You know you can stay home and give this evening a miss? Nobody will mind if you say that the pregnancy has been tough lately and you want to rest.”
Jillian swatted her arm.
“Don’t be silly. I’m not having a bad pregnancy. And I wanted to come here tonight. Masked balls are really fun.”
“Even so …”
“Stop it, Arabella. I know you’re concerned about me, but I’m fine. It won’t hurt me or the baby to be out of the house for a few hours.” Jillian gestured at the tall, fair-haired gentleman that was her husband across the room. “Josiah and I have agreed that we can stay for three hours, and if I feel uncomfortable and need to rest, he’ll take me home. He’s looking out for me.”
Arabella was glad about that. Josiah Cartwright, Baron Cheadle, really looked after his wife. Ever since they married a year ago – and even before that with their courtship – there was no doubt in how smitten he was with Jillian. Arabella had thought it was adorable that the baron, who was approaching his mid-twenties and still struggling with his title, would be head-over-heels for Jillian, who was practically the complete opposite of him in terms of personality and attitude.
But, somehow, it worked. Arabella didn’t think she had seen a couple more in love. She was glad that her friend had found someone who accepted her, flaws and all, and thought she was one of those people who walked on water.
I hope I’ll have one of those marriages like that.
Eventually. Not just yet.
“Anyway, why are you hovering around me?” Jillian asked, her mask hiding her expression but her tone sounding slightly incredulous. “Why aren’t you mingling with everyone else? That’s what you always do when we’re at a social gathering. I’m the one that has to drag you away when we’re leaving.”
“I just wanted to be sure you were alright,” Arabella replied, smoothing her hands down her dress. “After all, you are pregnant …”
“That doesn’t mean I’m sick or dying. I’m going to sit on the chaise by the window over there.” Jillian gestured at the settee underneath the huge bay window, “and I’ll watch the scene. You don’t need to do anything except go and enjoy yourself.”
“Stop fussing over me, Arabella.” Jillian reached out and squeezed Arabella’s arm. “Think about yourself for tonight. There’s nothing wrong with being selfish. I’m not going to get upset.”
“I know …”
“Anyway, I don’t think you’ll get a chance to stay by my side.” Jillian nodded at the door towards the dining room. “Your mother’s coming to join us.”
Arabella bit back a groan. Much as she loved her mother, the Countess of Shrewsbury did tend to be a little too focused on her inability to choose a suitor. Of course, at the age of twenty, she should have a suitor, if not a fiance, but Arabella didn’t think it was appropriate to get herself into a courtship where she didn’t have proper feelings for them. Sure, there were plenty of gentlemen she could spend time with and enjoy herself, but it was nothing beyond that.
That was unacceptable to Lady Shrewsbury, though. She wanted her daughter to be as close to thinking about getting married as possible by her next birthday, which was coming up in three months. And it wasn’t happening because Arabella was enjoying herself with her current life.
Fixing a smile, Arabella curtsied at her mother as she joined them.
“Mother. How were the strawberries?”
“They were lovely, as always.” Lady Shrewsbury’s face softened as she looked at Jillian. “And how are you feeling, Baroness Cheadle? You’re looking radiant tonight.”
“I’m glad my mask can’t hide that.” Jillian laughed as she adjusted her mask again. “But I might just take a seat for now. My feet will start complaining at me, and that is not very ladylike.”
“I understand. I remember when I was pregnant with my daughter.” The countess gestured at Arabella. “I’m sure my ankles swelled up, and I could barely walk.”
Arabella smiled. Her mother liked to talk about how she had struggled with her three pregnancies. Her older brothers had, apparently, been just as tough. But it was all in good humour; her mother always talked about these times in her life with a twinkle in her eye. Talking about babies and children always did that to her.
She would do it until Arabella got the hint to marry and start having children like her brothers. That much she was sure of.
“I hope I can still walk properly as time goes on.” Jillian gave Arabella a smile before turning away. “Enjoy your evening, Arabella. Don’t forget you’re still coming over to my house tomorrow morning?”
“Of course. I won’t forget. Why would I not go for your cook’s delicious strawberry shortcake?”
Jillian rolled her eyes before patting Arabella’s arm and walking away. As her friend headed towards the chaise, nodding a greeting as she passed a small group of matronly women talking, Lady Shrewsbury went to Arabella’s side.
“She’s looking well, isn’t she?”
“Certainly. I don’t know how Jillian can carry on as she is.” Arabella absently touched her stomach. “I’m sure I won’t be able to do the same thing.”
“All women know how to cope when the time comes.” Lady Shrewsbury put her arm through her daughter’s, and they started walking around the ballroom’s edge. “And you will go through the same. Once you find yourself a husband.”
“Mother, are we going to go through this again?”
“What do you think I’m going to say?”
“That I need to find a husband before I get too old to be considered an ideal woman. You do know that I don’t like the pressure, and I prefer to do things in my own time.”
“I know, darling …”
“It will happen when it happens. You can’t force it.” Arabella cast a sidelong glance at her mother. “Isn’t that what Father says?”
Lady Shrewsbury shook her head.
“I don’t think he meant it when it came to finding yourself a husband.”
“Well, I agree with him. You can’t force my current position to change.” Arabella shrugged, fixing a smile as she nodded to a mother and daughter walking past them. “If I fuss too much over it, I’m going to get frustrated, and that is not what I want. It’s easier to let things go their natural course.”
Her mother pursed her lips.
“I love you, Arabella, but I wish you would stop with this mentality. I’m beginning to get questions about your inability to get engaged …”
“Who are asking these questions, Mother?” Arabella stopped and turned to her. “Who is asking about something that has nothing to do with them?”
She kept her tone light, not wanting to show her mother she was annoyed by a stranger poking their nose into their business. Lady Shrewsbury looked flustered.
“Well, I mean … oh, what does it matter that someone asks me about you still being unmarried? The point is, it’s happening, and I don’t know what to say in response.”
“Just tell whoever is being intrusive that you trust what your daughter is doing. That you value my happiness among anything else.”
Arabella was pretty sure that nobody was asking her mother about her daughter’s lack of suitors. This was Lady Shrewsbury’s way of telling her that she needed to stop being an embarrassment. It wouldn’t be the first time she had tried to say people around them were asking questions to get her daughter to move in line.
She loved her mother, but she was tiring when she wanted to be.
“I just wish you would focus more on yourself and not on other people. You spend too much time at the poorhouses, and it doesn’t leave a good impression.”
“Why do you think that, Mother? Someone needs to look out for them, and it makes me feel happy that I’m doing something worthwhile.”
“That’s not …”
Lady Shrewsbury broke off, and Arabella sensed someone standing behind her. She turned and saw a fair-haired man watching her with a smile, his eyes drifting over her face.
“Lady Arabella.” He bowed and then bowed to her mother. “Lady Shrewsbury. Forgive me for interrupting you.”
“Lord Lucius.” Slightly flustered, Lady Shrewsbury cleared her throat. “Forgive us for not noticing you were there.”
“I’ve just arrived, and I had to come and find the loveliest lady in the room. Your masks are just exquisite, by the way. A pretty pair you two are.”
Arabella resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Edward Moran, Viscount Lucius, thought he was charming and could have any woman eating out of his hand. He was a good conversationalist, but that was about it. His pursuit of her was flattering, but Arabella wished he would back away a little; he was always there, and it could get stifling.
It was also difficult to converse with any other gentlemen with Lucius hovering around as if he owned her.
Arabella looked down at the royal blue mask in his hand.
“Are you not going to wear your mask, My Lord? It is a masked ball, after all.”
“I was going to put it on once I found you.” Lucius’ smile shifted a little as he raised said mask to his face. “I don’t want any mystery between us.”
“I think I would know who you were as soon as you started speaking, My Lord.”
“Arabella,” Lady Shrewsbury warned, subtly giving her a nudge. “Don’t be rude.”
“It’s fine, Lady Shrewsbury. I like a woman to speak her mind when the need arises.” Tying the string together to keep his mask in place, Lucius held out a hand to Arabella. “And now, Lady Arabella, may I have this dance? Only if your card is not marked for it, that is. I won’t dare intrude if you are taken.”
Arabella had been looking forward to dancing, but nobody had come to ask her if she wanted to join them, so her dance card, which dangled from her wrist, was empty. Smiling, she took his hand.
“You may, My Lord. Just this dance, though. I cannot have you monopolise my time all evening.”
From how his eyes flickered, Arabella felt that Lucius wouldn’t let it be just one dance.
“I’m really not sure about this, Oscar,” Alexander said, his hands going to his mask yet again. It hadn’t slipped, but even with it on, he still felt exposed.
Sitting across from him, rocking with the movement of the carriage, Oscar sighed and leaned over, swatting Alexander’s knee.
“Stop messing around with that. You’ll end up with it falling off if you carry on like that.”
“It’s easier said than done to stop fiddling around,” Alexander grumbled. “You might as well strip me naked and push me into the room, and I would feel less exposed.”
“For goodness sake, Alexander. I told you this isn’t so bad. You just go into the ball, spend a couple of hours there talking to people where nobody is staring at your face, and then you leave. Nobody even needs to know your name.”
But Alexander could already see the flaw in that plan. It may have been a masked ball, but people would know each other and ask newcomers who they were. It wasn’t like Alexander could lie to any of them. At his huge height of six-five, it would become evident who he was.
And the mask didn’t completely hide the scars on his face. Despite the design, which was beautiful, it didn’t cover up everything. The scars on his neck and cheek were still clear for the other guests to see. Nobody would need to know who he was once they saw that.
Then the rest of the guests would be openly staring at his scars. Or ask questions about it, both subtle and blunt. From Alexander’s experience, some people couldn’t be polite, and those were the people he had been avoiding for three years now. You didn’t know if someone was outright rude until you spoke to them, and the thought of speaking to someone he didn’t know completely terrified him.
This is not who you really are. You can do this.
Oscar had been urging him to get out and interact with other people for years, so Alexander had come to London for the first time in three years. His friend and brother-in-law was determined to get Alexander back into the ton and become a member of society again. Alexander would rather be at his estate in Suffolk; it was preferable to what was happening now. The only people he needed to interact with daily were the servants. That was how he wanted things.
Not this. Never this.
But he had promised Oscar that he would do this tonight. If he did one social event a week, then Oscar wouldn’t bother him any further. Alexander didn’t believe he would actually stop, but he wasn’t about to argue with their deal. If Oscar broke it, Alexander would return to Suffolk, and his friend knew that.
Even then, he felt like he shouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place.
Oscar nudged his knee and then nodded towards the door. It was then Alexander realised that the door was open, and a footman was holding it, waiting for them to disembark. Feeling his face getting warm, Alexander got out, resisting the urge to check his mask again. Now would not be the time for it to fall off and struggle to get it back on again.
What was wrong with him? He was thirty years old, not a little boy. Why did something like this scare him so much when he enjoyed them before? His injuries aside, he had nothing to worry about. As the Duke of East Anglia, he was a prominent figure.
Which made him stand out even more and left his palms feeling sweaty.
“Come on.” Oscar stood beside him, putting his mask on. “I promised Jess I would get you out of the house, and a masked ball sounded like the best way to do it.”
“I would rather not come out at all.”
“Just stop complaining and get inside.” Oscar nudged him into moving. “Two hours and we leave, yes? That’s what we agreed on. And if you feel uncomfortable with anything, I’ll be right there with you.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Of course. I promised, didn’t I?”
Alexander knew he could trust his friend. If he didn’t trust him, he wouldn’t have given his blessing for his friend to marry his sister. But he still wondered about the other man’s judgement that this was a good social gathering for Alexander to attend.
They were here now. And they had masks, so it covered up part of his anxiety. It would work.
Alexander’s mind was racing as they entered the house and gave their outdoor garments to the servants. Alexander tried not to touch his mask as he looked around. There were quite a few guests around, even in the foyer. They seemed to be spilling out from the ballroom, from which was music, laughter, and the loud rumble of voices. No different from what he remembered, but somehow it wasn’t the same. The changes were subtle, and Alexander was painfully aware of them.
Alexander stiffened. Nobody knew him well enough outside of his family to address him so informally, and certainly not in public. But he knew that voice; it was one he had heard for many years, and then it had disappeared abruptly.
Bracing himself, he turned and saw the petite, raven-haired woman wearing a cream mask to match her gown standing behind him. Even with something covering her face, he could see the surprise. Alexander stopped himself from shuffling from foot to foot.
“Lady Charlotte. I didn’t think you would recognise me.”
“I did know you for quite some time. It’s quite clear who you are, even when you have something hiding … well …” Charlotte Richardson cleared her throat. “I don’t really need to say, do I?”
Alexander didn’t want her to say anything further. They had been engaged at some point, only to end abruptly because of what happened to Alexander. Charlotte had declared that she didn’t want to be married to someone who looked like a monster, no matter how rich he was. One minute she was there, and then the next she had vanished with a letter left behind explaining everything. Alexander didn’t hear from her again.
She still looked pretty. The mask didn’t hide how stunning she was. It was like time had barely passed for her.
He took a deep breath.
“How are you? I haven’t heard anything about you in three years.”
“There is a reason,” Charlotte said quietly.
“It didn’t have to be.”
“Well, it was a reason for me.”
Alexander wanted to point out that he wasn’t the one who started the fire, and he wasn’t the one who set it so it killed his parents, most of his servants, and his sister, barely getting out unscathed. But Charlotte wouldn’t hear any of it; she had an opinion, and it wasn’t easy to shift it. There was no point in changing her mind now.
“So, how are you?” God, that sounded really flimsy. “Are you doing well?”
“Very well. I got married.”
That shouldn’t have surprised him, but it did. Alexander tried not to react to that.
“Really? Since when?”
“Since about six months after we ended our engagement. I married Lord Langley.”
“He’s a prominent member of parliament, isn’t he?”
“He is. And we’re really happy with two children.”
Alexander had a sneaking suspicion that the marriage wasn’t completely happy, and she simply said that to tell him she was content with her life. But he wasn’t good at understanding how someone felt; he hadn’t been good at understanding Charlotte, after all. He thought she would be with him no matter what, and when something bad happened, she ran away without trying to help. It was all about the money for her, nothing more. Alexander was relieved that he didn’t marry her if she was going to treat him like a leper with no money the moment something shocking occurred.
Even so, he wanted to feel a little satisfaction knowing that Charlotte wasn’t as comfortable as she desired.
“Congratulations.” Alexander nodded and glanced at Oscar, who was watching him closely. “If you’ll excuse me, Lady Langley?”
“It’s good to see that you’re finally making appearances.” Charlotte’s voice stopped him as Alexander turned away. “It wouldn’t have done you any good staying hidden away for the rest of your life.”
Alexander didn’t respond. His chest was tightening as he prepared himself to go into the ballroom. Even though they could have been words of encouragement, Charlotte made them sound like something harsh.
He walked away, Oscar falling into step beside him. They had barely entered the crowd of guests gracing this huge house, and he was already panicking after one interaction. This couldn’t go well, could it?
How would he manage to be in mixed company for two hours?
Arabella became aware of the new arrival as soon as he entered the room. Something was shifting in the air around her, and even Jillian had stopped talking to stare openly. She looked around and saw a really tall, broad-shouldered man with dark hair and a midnight-blue mask covering most of his face standing just inside the doorway. He was glancing around, but it looked less like a calculated move and more like an animal cornered and unable to run away. Beside him was a red-haired gentleman in dark green with a matching mask, this one smaller and fitted better to his face. He was reasonably tall as well, but somehow he seemed short next to his companion.
Arabella felt the hair on her arms stand up. Something about the tall, imposing individual tickled awareness along her skin. Normally, seeing someone with that build would be a little unnerving. But not for Arabella. She found herself unable to take her eyes off him, hoping she didn’t look like a fool gawking at him.
She watched as the newcomer looked around the room, most of the guests carrying on as normal, with just a few closer to the door actually watching him. She saw his hands clenching into fists before he flexed his fingers and clenched them again. His friend leaned into him and whispered something, but it didn’t seem to do anything. The tension was still there.
Suddenly, the tall gentleman moved away and made his way towards the nearest doors set by Arabella and Jillian. As he passed, their eyes met, and Arabella saw green eyes blazing back at her. There was anger there, distaste, and … fear?
What was he fearful about?
As he disappeared out of sight, Arabella turned to Jillian.
“Do you mind being left alone for the moment?”
“I don’t, but …” Jillian frowned. “You’re not going to do what I think you’re going to do, are you?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Maybe it’s best not to look after him as well. He’s not one of the people from the poorhouse who need help.” Jillian shivered. “If anything, he looked like he wanted to be alone.”
“I just want to ensure he’s alright,” Arabella protested. “Will you cover for me if Mother asks?”
For a moment, it looked like Jillian was going to protest and tell her friend not to follow the gentleman, who was in some sort of distress. Then she sighed heavily and waved a hand.
“Alright, off you go. I’ll say you went outside for some air. But if you get caught …”
“I’m not doing anything untoward. And I’ll remember my boundaries.” Arabella smiled as she stood up. “Thank you, Jillian.”
“Just be careful. He didn’t look too happy, and I don’t want him lashing out at you.”
“I doubt he’s going to do that.”
Whatever was going on, that man was in pain, and Arabella wanted to make sure he was safe before she carried on with her evening. Besides, it was getting warm in the ballroom, and the breeze coming through the door wasn’t actually helping. She did need to cool herself down.
Although Arabella momentarily regretted doing that when she stepped out onto the terrace. Being late March, the weather could go from warm to cold at a moment’s notice, and it had certainly gone cold right now. Arabella shivered, feeling goosebumps on her arms, and she rubbed them until she felt a bit warmer again. She really shouldn’t stay out here without a coat, but she wouldn’t be able to feel comfortable until she had found the gentleman who had suddenly left.
What had just happened? Had he seen someone he didn’t want to interact with? Was he about to have a breakdown? It could be anything. Arabella knew she was being nosy, but she couldn’t help it.
He drew her in, and they had only locked gazes for a second.
Someone was standing in the shadows at the edge of the terrace, out of sight of everyone. It had to be him, especially with those shoulders. He was staring out at the garden, which had been swallowed up by the dark.
Something was on the ground near Arabella’s feet. She picked it up and saw that it was the mask he had been wearing. It was certainly bigger than the one she wore, easily three times the size of hers. From what she remembered back in the ballroom, it had almost covered his entire face, hiding one cheek and jaw. It was unique, certainly very different.
Why would he want one of these? Was he really shy?
“Leave that alone.”
Arabella looked up. The figure in the shadows seemed to have moved. Had he turned around? Arabella couldn’t tell.
“Don’t you want it?” she asked.
“I said leave it alone. I don’t want anyone touching it.”
His voice was coming out as a growl. He sounded angry as if trying to scare her. Arabella wasn’t scared, though. Her curiosity was getting the better of her.
She moved closer and held out the mask.
“Why don’t you take it, then? It’s going to get broken on the ground.”
“Why do you care?”
“Am I not allowed to care?”
Silence. Arabella took that moment to move closer, still holding out the mask. It was heavier than she anticipated, and her arm was beginning to hurt. If he didn’t take it soon, she would end up dropping it. Then it would break.
“I wanted to make sure you were alright. You were barely in the room before you were gone again.”
Another growl made her stop. Was he moving closer? The shadows did seem to be shifting.
“You’re not very good at taking hints, are you?”
“Did you give me any hints?”
“I want to be left alone.”
Arabella shook her head.
“I don’t believe that. You’re lonely, and you want someone to talk to.”
“You don’t know anything about me, My Lady. Don’t make assumptions about something you know nothing about.”
“Then why don’t you tell me? I won’t be judgemental of you.”
The man in the shadows snarled, and then he grabbed Arabella’s wrist, yanking her forward. Arabella gasped and stumbled, falling into him. He seemed so tall that Arabella practically squashed her face into his chest before getting her balance. The shadows were fading away from him, and Arabella could see his face a little more clearly. Something didn’t seem to be right.
“What about now?” he hissed, moving them towards the light. “Are you still going to say what you did?”
His face was ravaged. Down the right side was a mass of scars, criss-crossing his skin and pulling it tight in places. It dropped over half of one eye, and the tightness of the skin tugged down one side of his mouth. There was a scar over his left temple that looked like a battle wound.
But the right side of his face drew Arabella’s attention more. They looked like burns. Oh, God, had he been caught in a fire? Her heart ached, knowing that he had gone through all this pain.
“Had enough now?” he sneered at her. “Do you gain some sick pleasure looking at my imperfections? If you have, leave me alone now.”
He finished by snatching the mask from her hands. Arabella didn’t move, unable to comprehend what she was looking at. Even with the scars dominating most of his face, something was devastating about his looks. He must have been extremely handsome before whatever happened to him.
Even so, her heart was missing a few beats. He was still devastating to look at, although maybe in a different way.
“Do they still hurt?” she asked.
His head snapped up.
“Your scars. Do they still hurt?”
He faltered. Had he not expected her to say anything further?
“Sometimes. Depends on what is going on.”
It explained the mask and the unique design. All his scars couldn’t be hidden with a regular mask. Arabella made a decision and reached up to take off her own mask.
“What are you doing?”
“It seems only fair that you see me as well.” Arabella lowered her mask and gave him a smile. “After all, I’m still hiding my identity, and we should be equal, shouldn’t we?”
He looked like he had no idea how to react to that. Arabella waited, seeing him choosing his words carefully. She wasn’t going to push him; whatever was going on made it hard for him to interact. It was hard to believe that a grown man would be that scared to interact with other people, but it was possible.
And given his physical imperfections, it wasn’t really a surprise.
Arabella knew she should leave him alone and return to the ball, but she couldn’t. For some reason, she wanted to know what was happening with this gentleman, a man she didn’t know. She hadn’t asked for a name, something she should have done already. And yet that didn’t seem as important as making the gentleman feel more comfortable.
She just wanted to help. Nothing more. But telling herself that felt like she was telling a lie, and Arabella wasn’t sure why.
“Why are you so focused on making me feel comfortable?” he asked, staring at her with narrowed eyes. “I don’t understand why you would want to be around me, especially when I look like this.”
“What does your appearance have to do with what’s going on?”
“You’re not a child. You know it has everything to do with this.”
“But you’re still here, aren’t you?” Arabella pointed out. “You say it’s an issue, but you’re still here.”
“Not by choice.”
“You were forced?”
“I wouldn’t say forced. More like someone twisted my arm and tried to give me an incentive.” He waved a hand. “But that’s nothing to do with anyone else.”
“Talking to someone else should make you feel better. So why not talk to me? I’m a good listener.”
“Why are you so intent on bothering me?”
“Because I know someone in pain when I see them. And I want to help.”
Most importantly, Arabella wanted to put her arms around and comfort him, leaving her feeling unnerved. That had never happened with anyone else, so what was so different about him? This was very confusing.
But Arabella didn’t want to leave. Not right now.
Alexander had no idea what was going on. He was already embarrassed by the fact he had panicked as soon as he entered the ballroom, and he had left very quickly so he could breathe properly again. And he had to be followed by a young woman wearing a pale pink gown and matching mask, which seemed to sparkle each time she moved. She refused to leave despite Alexander’s insistence.
Did she find his scars something to gawk over as well? Now she had him cornered, and Alexander knew if he did anything to upset her, she would scream, and everything would be blamed on him.
But, even as he thought that he sensed this wasn’t why she had followed him. She genuinely wanted to help. This petite, golden-haired beauty, her mask barely hiding what she possessed, wanted to stay and help him. She was actually being kind.
And she didn’t appear to be horrified or sickened by his scars. Her dark blue eyes showed compassion, and Alexander didn’t know how to react. It felt like a dream, and he would wake up and find that she wasn’t there.
He swallowed, stepping away from her.
“There’s nothing you can really do to help me. I’ve been in pain for a long time.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. You shouldn’t be talking to me, My Lady. Certainly not alone.”
Her mouth twitched. There was a small beauty mark just above her upper lip, and it seemed to draw Alexander’s eye.
“Do you think someone’s going to accuse you of something untoward? Are you someone I should be afraid of?”
“You should be. Especially with the way I look.”
“Do you have others afraid of you because of that?”
He glared at her.
“Do you really need me to answer that question?”
She didn’t blink at his snapping response. She just regarded him with a soft expression, as if she were expecting him to lash out, and she would wait until he was done. Something his nanny used to do with him when he was a child. Alexander had hated it back then, but now it had him losing the wind in his sails. He wanted to be as rude as possible to make her turn her nose up at him and storm away, but he couldn’t do it. There was something sweet and warm about her, and Alexander wanted to be selfish for a while. He wanted her company despite it being a bad idea with no witnesses.
What was wrong with being selfish now and then? Especially when he had the attention of a beautiful woman.
“What happened to you?” she asked, tilting her head to one side. “Did you get badly burned in the war?”
“I’m assuming you fought against Napoleon in France? That’s all I can think of why you’re this scarred. My brother lost an arm fighting for the Duke of Wellington.”
Alexander was surprised at how candidly she was talking about the war against France’s leader. In his experience, women didn’t talk about such things. Then again, the only two he had experience with talking about the war had been his mother, sister, and Charlotte. His mother and Jessica would listen to him talk if they were in the same room, but they never discussed it themselves while Charlotte said she wanted to hear nothing about it. Alexander respected that, and the only two he had spoken to about his experiences in great detail were his father and Oscar.
It had been a while since he had talked to anyone else.
He touched the scar on his temple.
“That is from the wars. I got caught by a Frenchman’s sword in close combat. I had to have fifteen stitches.”
“And you can be sure I felt all of them.” Alexander hesitated before running his fingers over his burns. “But this wasn’t the war. There was a fire at my ancestral home. I went back in to rescue my parents. The floor gave way, and I fell through.”
Her eyes widened, her hand going to her mouth.
“Oh, my. That’s horrible. And what about your parents?”
“They didn’t make it.”
Alexander didn’t want to think about his parents. It always brought him a lot of pain, especially when he went into that wing of the house. Even though he had arranged for the house to be rebuilt, most of the wing where his parents slept hadn’t been touched beyond fixing the structure. He hadn’t stepped foot in there for three years and didn’t think he could in the future.
“Forgive me, I … that was callous of me.” Arabella’s hand moved to her chest, which Alexander tried not to follow. “I didn’t realise …”
“There’s no need to apologise. It’s just something that happened.” Alexander gestured towards the house. “This is meant to be the first time since the fire that I’ve been out in public. My brother-in-law said interacting with more people would do me some good, but now I’m not so sure.”
She nodded. There was no judgement in her eyes. If anything, she was still smiling at him.
“It’s difficult, but sometimes you need to take small steps into doing something you don’t want to do. Plenty of people have been in your position.”
Alexander didn’t want to ask if the other people had been through what he had. It just made him sound sullen. Sighing, he turned his head to show her more of his scarred face. It was a force of habit he had been doing for some time now, and Alexander couldn’t get out of doing it, even with this beautiful girl.
He should have left already. Why was he still talking to her?
“I just want to go back to Suffolk,” he mumbled, feeling more vulnerable than he had been a few minutes ago. “Hide away from everyone. Then I wouldn’t be dressed up like this with a ridiculous mask wondering if people would recognise me. I’m not exactly good at hiding in the crowd.”
“People won’t care.”
“Oh, they’ll care.” Alexander couldn’t help tugging the ruined side of his mouth into a wry smile. “You haven’t been part of the ton for very long, have you?”
She wrinkled her nose.
“I am approaching my first-and-twentieth birthday this year. I’ve been part of society for a while now.”
“From how you speak about your peers, you have me wondering otherwise.”
She put her hands on her hips.
“We just happened to look at people differently, that’s all. Nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“If you want to live in a happy place, that’s nothing to do with me. But I have a different idea about it, and it’s not something I’m agreeable with.”
“So we should agree to disagree about our different experiences.”
She was feisty. Alexander liked that. It wasn’t often that he had encountered women before he withdrew from society who had fire in their blood and weren’t afraid to argue. At the time, he had thought Charlotte was like that, but it was only when there was a discussion of money.
How had he not truly noticed that about his future bride? He must have been blind to love. At least the blinkers were off once Charlotte realised she would be married to a heavily scarred man. Money meant nothing if her husband wasn’t pleasing to look at.
Then again, given that she had married a man approaching fifty …
“East? Are you out here?”
Alexander stiffened. Then he stifled a groan. Of all the times Oscar had to come and find him, why did it have to be now? He could see Oscar in the doorway, stepping out onto the terrace. While his friend would understand, if anyone saw that Alexander was alone with a young woman …
Without thinking, he grabbed the woman and urged her towards the wall. She squeaked but didn’t say a word even as she bumped against the bricks.
“East? You haven’t run away, have you?”
Through the darkness, Alexander could see her frowning. He put a finger to her lips, indicating her to remain silent. Trying to ignore how warm and soft her lips felt, he turned away and moved out of the shadows.
“I’m here.” He tried not to look behind him, hoping that Oscar wouldn’t notice. “What do you want?”
Oscar heaved a sigh of relief.
“At least you didn’t leave. That would have been difficult to explain if you left as soon as you arrived.”
“Well, I’m very tempted to.” Alexander scowled towards the ballroom, laughter and music coming through the open doors. “I don’t want to hear more of this. It’s making my head hurt.”
“Is that why you ran away?”
“Oscar, you know this is hard for me.”
“I do know, and you need to remember that there are times when you need to take a deep breath and act a bit more accordingly. Now people are going to be gossiping about what you just did.”
Alexander frowned at his friend.
“That’s not helping, Oscar. You’re supposed to be on my side.”
“You wouldn’t be on mine if you had to explain plausibly to people who saw you run away while not making yourself look like a fool. I can lie, but I’m not good at it.”
“I didn’t ask you to do that.”
“You didn’t need to.” Sighing, Oscar beckoned him to follow. “Let’s get back inside. Remember, two hours and then we’ll go. And don’t run out on me again. Unless you want to explain to your sister what you did …”
“Alright, fine. I’m coming.” Alexander put his mask back on. “If it will stop Jess from scolding you for losing sight of me for five seconds.”
“Enough. We’ll find somewhere quiet to sit if it gets too overwhelming, but please don’t charge out of the room again.”
Alexander felt like he was being scolded by his mother again. She didn’t like it when he suddenly disappeared and nobody could find him. Sighing, he nodded in acquiesce.
“Alright, fine. I’ll do as you wish. Just don’t ask me to do this again for the rest of the week.”
As they went inside, Alexander couldn’t help looking over to where he had urged the woman to hide. But with the shadows, he couldn’t see her.
He mouthed an apology before he went inside, hoping that she understood.
“Unlocking a Beastly Duke’s Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Lady Arabella Hodgkinson has never been one to judge people by appearances. Therefore, meeting the heavily scarred Duke of East Anglia at a masked ball, leaves her totally undeterred, and yet somehow intrigued. Her tender heart flutters like never before when she receives an invitation to the Duke’s estate, which she decides to accept, despite the discouraging warnings from her family…
And so, her journey to discover the man behind the mask begins…
Alexander Meadows, the brooding Duke of East Anglia, has been living in a self-imposed exile since a fire killed his parents and disfigured his face. Even though his heart is made of gold, he believes that his presence is not fit for the world outside. After losing all hope of ever finding true joy, he is suddenly invigorated by the captivating Arabella, who ignites a profound spark within him.
Could she be the salvation he has been looking for?
As Arabella and Alexander start spending more time together, their attraction grows, but so do the worrying incidents around them. With someone clearly determined to make sure they do not end up together, their newfound emotions are put to a test. Is this going to bring them closer in a time of danger? Or will this drive Arabella away and leave Alexander dwelling in his bitter loneliness for eternity?
“Unlocking a Beastly Duke’s Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.