Flirting with Fortune
Sealed With a Kiss 3
For Papa, because you would have been so proud of me.
For Dad, because you have always been proud of me.
And for Kirk, because you are almost as proud of me as I am of you.
Whenever I have a story idea, it begins as a tiny seed, full of promise but without form. It’s only thanks to the help of others that it grows and flourishes, becoming a book that I can be proud of. This book in particular would never have happened without the help of Heather Snow, Catherine Gayle, Olivia Kelly, and my wonderful critique group. Thank you all for sticking by me with my endless brainstorming and plotting, always there to lend an ear or a helpful suggestion.
A heartfelt thank-you to my fantastic editor, Kerry Donovan, and her team at New American Library—including the wonderful art department! I’m so lucky to have such gorgeous covers. As always, a big hug and lots of gratitude to my agent, Deidre Knight, and all the ladies at the Knight Agency.
Last, thank you to all my wonderful fans—nothing lifts my heart more than to know my stories make you smile. Please feel free to join me on my Facebook page or on Twitter—I’m always happy to say hello!
When one attends one of the most anticipated balls of the Season—even if it was only the Little Season—one is supposed to, well, attend the ball. But as Lady Beatrice Moore walked down Lady Churly’s deserted portrait gallery, accompanied by nothing but the muted whisper of the distant orchestra and the slightest sense of accomplishment, Bea couldn’t help the sigh of pleasure that escaped her.
She was in heaven.
Finally, she was away from the crowd, far from the eyes of fortune hunters who watched her as a hawk eyed a field mouse and beyond the earshot of the gossipmongers looking to snap up the latest on-dit. Bea was alone, with the soft glow of the turned-back lamps lining the hall and an entire wall full of some of the greatest masterpieces England had ever produced.
In no hurry now that she had escaped, she clasped her hands behind her back and strolled across the narrow hall, her slippers silent on the herringbone-patterned wood floors. This was why she had really agreed to come to this ball—well, one of two reasons, anyway. Lady Churly possessed the single largest collection of acclaimed painter Sir Frederick Tate’s work: four spectacular portraits that were so much more than the sum of their subjects. His true genius had been in the play of light, particularly the incredibly lifelike shadows that always gave his pieces such moody brilliance. Dark yet full of life, each portrait was an absolute masterpiece.
Even more so now that he was gone.
She felt an odd sense of loss, thinking of his death. His work had made such an impact on her as a young artist—it was impossible to think that she could never meet the man who had somehow become her absentee mentor.
At least, as an artist, his legacy was preserved. She paused, studying a painting of a small boy standing in a library, a book in his hand. His dark hair fell across his forehead while challenging gray eyes stared directly at her. Impossibly, Beatrice felt as though she could see the spirit within him, almost pull the thoughts from his mind.
The tap of approaching footsteps broke through her study. Had someone followed her after all? No, the sound came from the opposite direction of the ballroom, presumably from the family’s private rooms. She scowled, glancing around for someplace to slip out of view—not the easiest thing to do when one was draped in yards and yards of snowy white lutestring.
Even if it wasn’t some fortune hunter trying to get her alone, or her mother come to chide her, the company was still most unwelcome. And really, she did not want to be caught snooping. Where was a decent potted palm when a person needed one, anyway? There were few places to hide, with only one viable option: behind one of the heavy gold curtains that fell in generous velvet waves from the high ceiling to the floor.
Feeling like a thief in the night, she gathered her skirts and slipped behind the nearest fabric panel, pressing her back against the freezing-cold glass of the window. She gritted her teeth against the chill as she flattened herself as much as she could. She almost grinned—who would have thought she would discover a situation where her small bosom was actually a good thing?
Whoever was out there certainly wasn’t in any hurry. Judging by the heaviness of the tread and the harsh sound of the hard-soled shoes on the wood, she thought it must be a man. Beatrice willed him to move faster as the cold seeped through her and raised gooseflesh on her arms. Still, she didn’t dare move a muscle. It was all so very undignified. She hadn’t found herself in a position like this since she was a child. She was nineteen, no longer a silly girl listening at keyholes, for heaven’s sake.
The footsteps slowed further as they drew closer and closer, and Bea held her breath when they stopped mere feet away.
And then, nothing. The man just stood there, unintentionally pinning her in place like a trapped mouse. She waited, her lungs burning more with every passing second. Blast it all, what was he doing? She quickly realized that it was a mistake to hold her breath. Now if she tried to release it, she would surely gasp with the need to draw air, giving herself away.
Move, for heaven’s sake. Move!
Just when she thought her lungs would explode, he stepped away. As quietly as humanly possible, Beatrice released her breath and sucked in a fresh supply of air. No matter that it tasted of musty velvet and dust motes—it was the sweetest breath she had ever taken.
The intruder seemed to have stopped again, this time close to the opposite wall. Was it his plan to hold her hostage all night? Never mind that he had no idea she was even there—it was still annoying. Who was out there, anyway?
The old, familiar itch of curiosity flared to life deep within her. She knew it well. It had gotten her into plenty of trouble with her siblings over the years. Of course, it had also resulted in her discovering all kinds of secrets—all of which she had kept to herself, of course. Her siblings might have called her a spy, but she had scruples.
She focused on possible answers: a butler or footman? But if it were a servant, why would he loiter in the portrait hall during a ball?
The only other option was that it was a family member, but Beatrice had taken care to locate each of them before sneaking away. They were all atwitter about a surprise guest who was to be revealed at midnight, and Lady Churly, her son, Captain Andrews, and her deceased husband’s three children had been milling about all night, smiling knowingly and shaking their heads at anyone who begged to know the secret guest’s identity.
Beatrice stiffened. That was it! This must be the person who had the ton holding its collective breath all night. Oh, how utterly delicious it would be to know his identity before anyone else. The fact that she even knew it was a man was a step above anyone else.
Restlessness welled up within her, making it nearly impossible to hold still. She bit down on her lip, trying to suppress the sensation as she willed her body to stay motionless. It was always like this. She simply couldn’t stand not knowing what was going on around her. People could call her nosy and a snoop all they wanted—she needed to know things. It was the other reason she had come to the ball in the first place.
Without even making a conscious decision to do so, she started sliding sideways a quarter inch at a time. The edge of the drape was tantalizingly close, and if she could only make it over far enough to peek out, the burning curiosity would be satiated.
She barely breathed as she moved, pacing herself to about the speed of paint drying. At this rate, it would probably strike midnight before she could catch a glimpse of the mystery person in the room with her. For the thousandth time, she wondered who Lady Churly had secured for the ball. The woman was well respected and in all the best circles, so Beatrice knew it wouldn’t be anyone scandalous or improper, which didn’t leave much in the way of interesting people. She had pondered the topic all week—along with the rest of the ton, from what she had heard—and hadn’t been able to come up with a single plausible candidate for the surprise guest.
Which annoyed her to no end.
Now was her chance. She could be the first to know who it was, a thought so tantalizing, she moved the slightest bit faster the last two inches toward freedom—more like the speed of grass growing. The gold velvet brushed across her hair, then her temple, and finally slid past her right eye.
The flash of triumph was immediately trumped by something else altogether as she focused on a man leaning against the opposite wall, his arms folded and amusement lifting the corners of his mouth. Her stomach flopped to the floor with an almost audible thump.
He was staring directly back at her.
“So this is the lady who belongs to the scent of lilacs. How lovely of you to come out and join me.”
He was amused.