About the book
“I can still tell we switched places. But I think we can fool everyone else…”
Diana hates three things. Storms, childbirth, and Christopher Fidgeralt. The night she lost her mother and gained a sister is to blame for the first two, but the third is purely the Duke’s own fault for antagonizing her at every turn since they were children. Still, she would face everything for her sister. And soon she may have to…
Christopher just wanted to have one witty conversation with Diana, the kind he has enjoyed since they were little. It was already too late when he realized he was talking to Susan, her sister, at the blasted masquerade and even worse, they had managed to create a scandal. And his family cannot handle another one…
One misunderstanding and a little carelessness are more than enough to create a false engagement and an impossible situation. Both of them are ready to sacrifice everything for their families, but are they ready to do it together? How can it be enough?
“Let me guess,” said a voice from behind Diana. “Lady Cartwright?”
Diana turned to find herself face to face with the Earl of Poundsworth. She favored him with a smile and said nothing, glad that he had guessed incorrectly at her identity, that his guess had led him to believe she was Lady Cartwright. There weren’t that many red-haired ladies in society. Lady Cartwright made for the handiest red herring at a time like this.
Because Lady Cartwright was married.
Lord Poundsworth would not expect a dance from her. Not without her husband here to give permission. And Lord Cartwright was nowhere nearby.
“And where is your charming sister?” Lord Poundsworth asked. Because, of course, Lady Cartwright’s younger sister, Lady Eleanor, was unmarried and hoping to find her match this season.
Diana pretended to look around. She saw Lady Eleanor in the crowd and pointed a finger in her direction.
“Lovely!” Lord Poundsworth turned and hurried off.
Diana watched him go, deeply thankful that this party was a masquerade. She was actually almost enjoying herself, which was deeply unusual for her at these events.
Then she spotted her father making his way over to her.
Her heart sank. He must have seen everything that had just transpired, and he would want her to explain herself.
Sure enough, he came to a stop beside her, even though by standing near her like this he was virtually giving away her identity to anyone who cared to notice.
“What happened?” he asked. “Why did you send Lord Poundsworth off? He’s a good man.”
“He wasn’t looking for me,” Diana explained. “He was looking for someone else. He just wanted my assistance in finding her.”
“I see.” Her father frowned. “But you didn’t think it was worthwhile to try to capture his attention?”
“Father, I’m not going to marry Lord Poundsworth.”
“I didn’t say—”
“I don’t wish to marry at all. You know that well enough.”
“But perhaps you might change your mind if you only gave a gentleman a chance,” he said, a note of desperation in his tone.
“Why are you so determined for that to happen?” she asked.
“I’m not. You know that I only want to see you happy. But I look at you, Diana, and you’re so lovely. You’re so kind-hearted. You’re very like your mother, you know.”
Something deep inside Diana tightened up at those words. It was a compliment—the best compliment he could give—and she knew that. But it was also excruciating to hear it spoken. It was like staring directly into the sun—deeply overwhelming, to the point of pain.
And her father knew that. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Now isn’t the time—I only mean to say that you could win the attention of any gentleman who captured your interest. You would need only to say the word, and he would be yours.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Diana said. “But even if it is, Father, I don’t want that.”
“You want to be alone? Forever?”
She sighed. “Must we have this discussion right now? It’s a party. And besides, you know I’ve expressed these opinions many times in the past. If you want to discuss it again, perhaps we can do so tomorrow after breakfast, in the privacy of home.”
“You’re right, of course,” he said. “Yes, very well. Go and enjoy the party.”
No chance of that. But her mask would at least allow her to pass through it relatively unscathed.
“Where’s your sister, by the way?” her father asked.
Diana was startled. “You mean Susan hasn’t been with you? I thought you were going to introduce her to the son of your business associate. Isn’t that what you said?”
“Yes, but that was nearly an hour ago now,” her father said. “And I haven’t seen her since. I assumed she would come and find you. You haven’t seen her?”
“No!’ Diana’s heart began to beat more quickly. “What do you mean, you assumed she would come and find me? Did she actually say she would do that? Or were you just guessing?”
“Diana, there’s no need to become so alarmed,” her father said. “I’m sure she’s still at the party.”
“Of course she’s still at the party,” Diana said. “But you have no idea where she is? What if something has happened?”
“What could possibly have happened? Really, you worry too much about her,” Diana’s father said. “Remember, she is nearly twenty years of age. You were certainly capable of looking out for yourself when you reached that age.”
“But Susan and I are very different people,” Diana said. For one thing—one significant thing—Susan did wish to marry. She had come to tonight’s ball eager to meet gentlemen and win their attention and praise. Something about that idea said danger to Diana, though she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.
Regardless, she couldn’t allow her sister to be on her own. “I’m going to look for her,” she said. “You should do the same, Father.”
“Diana, I worry about what you’re going to do with yourself when Susan does marry—as you know well that she will—and it becomes someone else’s duty to look after her. Perhaps you should rethink the idea of marriage—if nothing else, so you can have a child of your own to look after.”
“That will never happen,” Diana said curtly and turned away from him. She did not wish to discuss it further.
Finding someone at a masquerade was twice as difficult as at any other time. Under ordinary circumstances, Diana could have scanned a crowd and picked out her sister’s face—so very like her own—without any trouble. They had both inherited their father’s bright red hair and sapphire-blue eyes. Their narrow chins and high cheekbones, though, weren’t present in their father’s face at all. They came from somewhere else.
Diana didn’t particularly like to think about where.
So, as she so often did when confronted with thoughts of something unpleasant, she turned her focus to her sister. Where had Susan gone?
She had been wearing a butterfly mask of purple and blue, with a large flower ornament at the side. It should be easy enough to see in a crowd, unlike Diana’s own plain black mask, which was intricate and lacy but had no ornaments or colors whatsoever. Although her hair made her stand out, Diana knew that her costume was nothing different from what was being worn by several guests at tonight’s ball. She had chosen it for that exact reason. She hadn’t wanted to be visible.
But Susan had.
And Diana couldn’t see her anywhere.
She approached a group of young ladies near her sister’s age. She would have expected, perhaps, to find Susan with them—her sister was very social. She wasn’t here, but maybe these ladies knew where to find her.
“Excuse me,” she said.
They looked up at her, their lips pressed tight as if she was interrupting something important. “Yes?” one of them asked.
“I’m looking for Lady Susan Baker.”
“The daughter of the Earl of Buxton, you mean?”
“Yes, that’s right. Have you seen her?”
One of the young ladies lifted her chin slightly. “How would you expect us to know if we had? This is a masquerade. None of us know who anybody is.”
Diana sighed. “But I know that you do,” she said. “The point of a masquerade is to solve the mystery before the stroke of midnight.”
“And it isn’t midnight yet,” one of the young ladies pointed out.
“Do you mean to tell me that none of you have figured out who each other are? You’re huddled over here like a bunch of hens. Like you’ve known one another all your lives. I suspect you know each other’s identities. I’m just asking you whether or not you’ve seen my sister.”
Not one of them showed an ounce of surprise at this revelation of Diana’s true identity, which more or less confirmed her suspicion that they knew precisely which mask was concealing her sister.
“You’re not doing her any favors by hiding her from me, you know,” she said.
“We might be,” one of the young ladies said.
Another one hissed at her, but it was too late. “So you do know where she is,” Diana said.
“She doesn’t want to be disturbed,” one of the young ladies said.
“But she doesn’t know what she wants,” Diana said. “She doesn’t know what’s best for her.”
“I wonder why she doesn’t want her sister to find her,” one of the young ladies said, eyes wide with mock disbelief. “I would definitely want to be followed around at a party by someone like this.”
“Just tell me which way she went,” Diana pleaded.
But they all turned their backs on her, giggling, and she knew she would get no more out of them. Half terrified and half furious, she moved on.
“My Lady! Would you favor me with a dance?”
She pretended she hadn’t heard. She didn’t even bother looking back to see who had asked. She didn’t want to know, nor did she want to be trapped into explaining why she wasn’t going to dance—or worse, into dancing. Even if she hadn’t been looking for her absent sister, she would have wanted nothing to do with that.
Because at midnight, the masks would fall. At midnight, it would be revealed to everyone beyond a shadow of a doubt whom they had interacted with over the course of the evening.
And you could never be sure how a gentleman might react to knowing he had danced with you.
He might decide, upon reflection, that the dance had been full of meaning. He might decide that he had felt a connection with you that couldn’t possibly be found with any other lady. And if a gentleman decided those things, it might not matter that the lady didn’t feel the same way. It might not matter that, to Diana, a dance had been just a dance.
If she gave even a scrap of attention to a gentleman, she couldn’t be sure that he wouldn’t come to Buxton Manor seeking her father’s permission to court her or even marry her.
And although her father knew her wishes when it came to marriage and was generally respectful of what she wanted, Diana knew that he disagreed with her. She couldn’t be sure that he wouldn’t push for such an arrangement if an opportunity presented itself.
She would give him no opportunities. She would make sure that no gentlemen ever took an interest in her. It was the only way to secure the future she wanted.
“Lord Buxton’s daughter—”
She stuttered in her step, thinking the voice was talking about her.
“Oh, yes,” another voice said. “I saw her too. Out in the garden with the Duke of Nealton. Do you know which daughter it was?”
“I don’t,” the first voice said. “I suppose we’ll find out when the masks fall, won’t we? She was wearing that fancy butterfly thing.”
“Those two look so much alike.”
“Well, whichever daughter it was, it’s an absolute scandal, in my opinion. Out alone in the darkest part of the garden with the Duke of Nealton, completely unchaperoned! If you want to know what I think, I’d say she was trying to seduce him. Everyone knows he’s the most eligible bachelor of the season. Poor Duke, he probably couldn’t see through her machinations.”
“Do you really think one of Lord Buxton’s daughters would do something like that? They’ve always seemed lovely to me.”
“I’m telling you, Dolores, she was there. There’s no mistaking that red hair.”
Heart pounding, Diana turned away from the voices before they could see her and try to draw her into that conversation.
They must be wrong. They have to be.
But she had to be sure.
She hurried out toward the garden, hoping against hope that she wouldn’t find Susan there with the Duke.
“Are you having a good time?” Christopher asked the young lady in front of him.
She smiled enthusiastically and nodded, her mane of red hair bouncing about her shoulders. He liked that she had left it loose instead of pinning it up, like most of the other ladies here had. He also understood that he probably had her upbringing to thank for that fact. It was common knowledge that Lord Buxton’s daughters had been affected by not having a mother in the house. It was something that showed itself in little ways. They were always perfectly well-mannered, of course, and they never lacked for fine attire. But a mother would have kept them abreast of the latest fashions. A mother would have ensured they came to tonight’s ball with their hair pinned up.
“It’s been wonderful,” the young lady said. “I was so excited when I found out it was happening.”
“Were you really?” That wasn’t like Lady Diana. She was usually a little more reserved than this and a little sharper tongued as well. He wondered what had her in such a favorable mood.
To be honest, he wasn’t sure what he thought of it. He always enjoyed the time he spent with Lady Diana—there just wasn’t anyone he’d ever met who could match wits with him quite as well as she could. He had hoped for another round of their usual banter. Why was she so unlike herself tonight?
Christopher had known Lady Diana since childhood. His father and hers had been business associates before his father’s untimely death. After his father had died, the Earl of Buxton had continued to meet regularly with Christopher, first in an advisory capacity and then, when Christopher had grown older, as a business associate of his own.
When they were children, he and Lady Diana had chased one another around the grounds of his father’s estate. When they’d grown a bit older, he had taught her to play chess, and they’d sat at the chessboard for hours, trading barbs about the customs of the noble class as they made their moves. She remained the only person who had ever beaten him at a game—even his own father couldn’t make that claim.
But now she was behaving as if all the sense had been drained from her. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“Of course,” she said. “Why do you ask, Your Grace?”
Your Grace. That was another thing that wasn’t normal. She had always referred to him by his first name, even though it wasn’t proper. He believed she did it to prove some point and show him that she didn’t find him intimidating. And even though it frustrated him, he had to admit that he also liked it. No one else in his life treated him that way—like he was just a person and not a duke.
“Susan!” a voice called.
A split second before the voice’s owner came around the hedge, Christopher understood what had happened.
Of course. It all made perfect sense now. This wasn’t Lady Diana. It was her sister, Lady Susan.
He still thought of Lady Susan as a child. Not as this lovely, mature young lady standing before him. But of course, she was grown up now and was ready to attend balls and seek a match of her own.
She wasn’t hoping I’d be interested in her in that way, was she?
And then Lady Diana came around the corner.
Immediately, Christopher wondered how he could have mistaken her sister for her. Though both ladies shared the same red curls and heart-shaped face, Lady Diana was petite and fuller-figured, whereas Lady Susan was taller and lankier, still fairly girlish in her figure. If he hadn’t known them as well as he did, the mistake might have made more sense, but things being as they were, he felt quite foolish.
“Lady Diana,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to see you.”
Lady Diana ignored him completely, turning on her sister instead. “What in heaven’s name are you doing?” she demanded.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Lady Susan said. “I was only talking to the Duke.”
“We’re not—” Christopher cut himself off as he looked around. They were alone. When had that happened? When they had come out here, there had been others around. He had made sure of it. He knew how to guard a lady’s reputation. He had grown up knowing it. And he would never want to be a party to anything that caused either of these ladies harm.
“What were you thinking?” Lady Diana demanded, grabbing her sister by the wrist. She pulled Lady Susan a few feet away. “How could you allow yourself to be out here on your own with him?”
“It’s only the Duke!” Lady Susan said, laughing. “We’ve been around him dozens of times! He’s perfectly safe.”
“It isn’t safety that concerns me,” Lady Diana said. “I know he wouldn’t do anything to harm you. But what about your reputation, Susan?”
“What do you mean?”
“You were seen,” Lady Diana said. “People know that the two of you are out here together. Alone together.”
Lady Susan still looked perplexed, but Christopher’s heart sank. He understood what Lady Diana was saying, and he was perfectly aware of what a problem it could cause.
Scandals had erupted over lesser things than this. And if people knew that he was alone in the garden with Lady Susan, who knew what stories might spring up.
He thought of her as a younger sister. He always had. Would he now be responsible for the destruction of her reputation? The ruination of her life and prospects?
“I’ll tell everyone the truth,” he said quickly, hoping that the situation might be salvaged. “Nothing untoward happened, Lady Diana, I promise you that.”
She scoffed. “You’re naive if you think that what actually happened will matter to anyone. What’s the matter with you, Christopher? I always believed you were intelligent. I knew you were careless and self-centered, but not to this degree. Didn’t you realize what you would be doing to her by bringing her out here by herself, with no chaperone? Didn’t you care?”
“Don’t you think you might be overreacting?” Christopher asked her. “I don’t actually think anyone saw us come out here.”
“I tell you, you were seen,” Lady Diana said. “How do you think I knew where to come and look for you? People are already talking about it! The things they’re saying…” She shook her head. “I won’t repeat them.”
“I’ll confront anyone who dares to speak ill of Lady Susan,” Christopher promised. “She did nothing wrong.”
“She did do something wrong,” Lady Diana objected. “She should have stayed with me, or with our father. She should not have allowed herself to be drawn away by the likes of you.” She turned to her sister. “Have you heard nothing I’ve told you over the years? Don’t you understand what kind of gentleman he really is?”
“What does that mean?” Christopher demanded.
“It means you’re the kind of gentleman who would take a lady into the garden and not even notice that you had put her in a very compromising position,” Lady Diana said. “It means that you’re the kind of person who’s casually cruel without thinking, because you only think about yourself.”
“That isn’t true,” Christopher said furiously. He knew he could be thoughtless sometimes. He knew he could even be a bit selfish. But it was not true that he only cared about himself. “I demand you take that back.”
“I don’t care what you demand,” Lady Diana said. “Even the fact that you think what I have to say about you matters proves to me that I’m right. What’s important right now is not what I think of you, Christopher. It’s what the other people at this ball are saying about my sister. How are we going to fix this situation?”
“I told you that I’d make sure everyone knows nothing happened between us,” Christopher said. “I am a Duke, you know. People do tend to listen to what I say. Just because you never have, that doesn’t mean nobody else respects me.”
“Fine,” Lady Diana snapped. “Prove me wrong about you, then. I would love to be wrong. Go in there and put a stop to the rumors that are already circulating about my sister. I’ll stay out here with Susan for a few minutes. Perhaps we can make people believe that I was with the two of you all along.”
“That might work,” Christopher said.
“And when we come in, if the rumors have been put to bed—well, then I’ll owe you an apology,” Lady Diana said. “But if people are still talking about Susan, I’ll make certain you go down right along with her.”
“You’ll destroy your own reputation as well, behaving in such an unladylike way,” Christopher pointed out.
“Maybe so,” Lady Diana said. “But unlike the two of you, I don’t have anything to lose. I’m not trying to make a match this season. I don’t wish to marry. So if my reputation is destroyed, it means nothing, and I’m willing to let that happen if it means justice for my sister’s prospects being destroyed.”
He believed her. He knew Lady Diana well enough to know that she wouldn’t shy away from anything, particularly when it came to protecting and defending her sister.
‘Very well,” he said. “I’ll do what needs to be done. You’ll see. There will be no harm from this incident.”
“You had better hope not,” Lady Diana said.
Why was I hoping to spend time with her in the first place? Lady Diana was certainly capable of matching wits with him, but she could also be downright impossible to reason with when she believed she was in the right about something.
He made his way along the garden path and back into the ballroom. No sooner had he stepped inside than he was stopped by Lady Annabel, with whom he had been conversing earlier that evening.
“Your Grace!” she said. “I wondered where you had gone. Didn’t we say something about sharing a dance?”
“Indeed.” He held out his arm. “No time like the present, is there?”
She accepted his arm and allowed him to lead her out onto the dance floor. “Where were you?” she asked. “I looked everywhere. And then I heard a rumor that one of Lord Buxton’s daughters had taken you into the garden alone.”
“No one took me anywhere,” he said firmly. “I was out in the garden, yes, and I did run into a few people while there. But there was nothing untoward about any of it. Those who gossip should hold their tongues. They don’t know what they’re talking about.”
“Nevertheless, Your Grace, you should be cautious,” Lady Annabel said.
“You may not realize,” she said. “But Lord Buxton’s daughters…well, they’re not like other young ladies.”
“In what way?” he asked. “I’ve always found them perfectly polite and charming.”
“Well, yes, of course. But they were raised without a mother. Their sense of what it means to be a lady is less than ideal,” Lady Annabel said. “Neither one of them is fit to consort with a duke. And both of them are liable to attempt to seduce or manipulate their way into your attention.”
“You shouldn’t speak so about others,” he said firmly, letting go of Lady Annabel in the middle of the dance floor. “And you shouldn’t insult me by assuming I don’t know when I’m being manipulated. I tell you that nothing inappropriate happened in the garden. I expect you to take me at my word.”
“Of course, Your Grace,” Lady Annabel said quickly.
But as they resumed their dance, he couldn’t be absolutely sure that she had believed him.
“Stop tugging at my arm, Diana!” Susan pulled herself free. “You’re hurting me.”
Diana felt a pang of remorse. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be rough with you, Susan.”
“I don’t understand why you’re making such a big deal of all this,” Susan said. “Didn’t you hear what His Grace said? He isn’t going to let anyone believe that anything inappropriate happened. Don’t you believe him?”
“Yes, I believe him,” Diana said. “He’s a careless rake and a scoundrel, but I know he wouldn’t ruin your reputation on purpose. He’s not that low.”
“Then why are you so upset? Everything’s going to be fine.”
“I’m not so sure,” Diana said. “I believe he’ll try to convince people that nothing happened between the two of you, but when have the gossips ever listened to a true story that was less salacious than the one they invented for themselves? I think Christopher believes everyone will take him at his word because he’s a duke. I think he’s in for an unpleasant surprise here. He’s going to find out that that doesn’t matter quite as much as he thought it did.”
“You do believe me, don’t you?” Susan asked. “All we were doing was talking.”
“Of course, I believe that,” Diana sighed. “You may be naive, but you’ve always behaved impeccably. I know you wouldn’t do anything untoward, or anything that might reflect badly on yourself or Father.”
“I just don’t understand what the problem is.”
“The problem is that people will speak badly of you because of this. They might decide you were trying to entrap the Duke into a marriage.”
“But that’s ridiculous!” Susan protested. “Of course I wasn’t doing that.”
“I didn’t say that was what I believed,” Diana said. “But can you honestly tell me you weren’t so much as flirting with him?”
“No, I wasn’t!” Susan said hotly. “I don’t want to marry him, Diana! I was speaking to him because he’s a friend of Father’s! But he’s much too old for me to marry.”
“He’s only six-and-twenty,” Diana countered. “He isn’t that much older than you are.”
“Do you want me to marry him?”
“I want you to marry whomever you’d like. But I want you to go about it the right way. If you’re interested in the Duke, we should talk to Father and have him make the proper overtures.”
“I am not interested in the Duke,” Susan said. “I’d rather die than marry him!”
“Well, now who’s being dramatic?” Diana asked.
“I don’t love him,” Susan explained. “And I never could.”
“You’re so certain?”
“I thought you didn’t like him anyway.”
“I don’t like him. I think he’s terribly irresponsible. But I didn’t imagine you harbored this dislike for him. Why were you even talking to him if this is the way you feel?”
“You misunderstand,” Susan said. “I like him perfectly well. But I don’t want to marry him. My heart belongs to someone else.”
“What?” Diana turned to face her sister. “You’ve never mentioned anything about a gentleman.”
“He doesn’t know about my feelings for him,” Susan said. “I’d hoped we would be able to forge a connection tonight, but I haven’t seen him so far.”
“Well, who is it? You must try to position yourself near him at midnight.” Her worries about Christopher were momentarily forgotten. If Susan found herself a suitor tonight, it wouldn’t matter what had happened in the garden.
“Lord Hess,” Susan said. “You know him. The handsome one.”
Diana nodded. She had seen Lord Hess at plenty of parties and events. He was a few years older than her sister and a few years younger than herself. He had thick brown hair that fell into his eyes, and he seemed to be constantly laughing about something. He was fun loving and easygoing and would be an excellent match for Susan if her interest in him was returned.
“Let’s go and find him,” she suggested. “I’m sure he’s here. He wouldn’t miss this ball.”
“You would help me?” Susan asked.
“Of course,” Diana said. “I’ll always do whatever it takes to help you be happy, Susan. You know that.”
Susan smiled. “You’re the best sister anyone could ask for, Diana.”
Diana felt a pang. She wanted to be a good sister. It was the most important thing in the world to her. But every time Susan said something like that, Diana couldn’t help but remember the reason it was so vital for her to have a good older sister.
She needs me because she’s never known what it is to have a mother. Her life began with a loss that I can never replace.
“Come on.” She linked arms with her sister. “Let’s go look for Lord Hess.”
They made their way around the perimeter of the dance floor. It wasn’t long before they spotted him, a fair-haired young lady on his arm.
Susan tensed. “Who is she? I don’t know her.”
“That’s Lady Annabel,” Diana said. “Her father is the Viscount of Maybery.”
“Do you think she wants Lord Hess for herself?”
“Don’t worry,” Diana said firmly. “He won’t be making any decisions tonight. You have plenty of opportunities to meet him and show him why he ought to choose you.”
“But he won’t pick me over her. Look how lovely she is.”
“What, just because she’s fair-haired?”
“No, not only that,” Susan sighed. “She has a lovely figure, like you. She’s not horribly skinny, as I am.”
“Stop that. There’s nothing wrong with being slender. Plenty of gentlemen like that in a lady. And you’ve always been beautiful. Come on, let’s go over there, and you can say hello to him.”
“You don’t think that’s being too forward?”
“As long as you’re chaperoned, it’s fine,” Diana said. “And I’ll stay right with you, I promise.”
They approached Lord Hess. But as they got closer, they were able to make out the conversation, and Diana pulled her sister to a halt.
“—don’t know if you heard about it or not,” Lady Annabel was saying. “But it’s all anyone is talking about. Apparently, it was one of Lord Buxton’s daughters. But nobody knows which one.”
“It sounds like a very cruel bit of gossip, to me,” Lord Hess said.
“Do you know Lord Buxton’s daughters?” Lady Annabel asked.
Susan looked at Diana in shock. Diana could see that, until this moment, she hadn’t really believed that she would be the source of unpleasant talk.
“I’ve met the elder of the two,” Lord Hess said. “She’s always been perfectly civil to me, if a bit standoffish.”
“Yes, I don’t think she was the one in the garden,” Lady Annabel said. “Because it’s hard to imagine her so much as carrying on a conversation with a gentleman, isn’t it? The younger one, though…no one knows anything about her. It’s her first season. We don’t know what sort of mischief she’s capable of.”
Diana grabbed her sister and pulled her behind a large urn so they wouldn’t be seen. She pressed a finger to her lips.
“Lady Annabel, really. I’m hesitant to believe anything like this about another person. You really think one of those young ladies was trying to manipulate the Duke into a forced arrangement?”
“I can’t believe you don’t think so,” Lady Annabel said. “Everyone wants to win the Duke. You must realize that. I’m saying nothing against you, of course, Lord Hess. You’re very desirable. But the Duke is the gentleman all the young ladies have their eye on this season.”
“But then, if Lord Buxton’s daughters are interested in him, why wouldn’t they just engage him in conversation and hope to be asked for a dance?” Lord Hess asked.
“Perhaps they never learned that that was what a young lady ought to do,” Lady Annabel speculated. “After all, given the way they were raised, without a mother, you can hardly expect them to be as well-bred as the rest of us.”
“That’s a tragic thing,” Lord Hess said quietly.
Diana felt her sister tense beside her.
“But even so, it’s no excuse,” Lady Annabel said. “No excuse for crass behavior, and certainly no excuse for making brazen overtures toward the Duke. If you want my opinion, I think whichever daughter it was probably had some kind of inappropriate physical contact with the Duke out there. They might have been kissing, or even something more.”
That absolute witch! Diana wanted to storm out and confront Lady Annabel, but she knew she couldn’t. Causing a scene would only make matters worse.
“And you think it was Lady Susan?” Lord Hess asked. “Really?”
Susan sucked in a breath.
“That’s the only thing that makes sense to me,” Lady Annabel said. “Lady Diana is just so cool to people that I can’t believe she would be capable of such a thing. Of course, we won’t know for certain until midnight, though. That’s when everyone will remove their masks. I happen to know that one of the sisters is wearing a colorful butterfly mask, and the other is wearing a dark lacy one. And the brightly masked one is the one who was seen going into the garden with the Duke.”
“Well, I suppose we’ll learn the truth at midnight, then,” Lord Hess said. “Personally, I think you’re assuming too much. I’m not sure if I believe either one of them is capable of what you’re describing.”
“I certainly hope you’re right,” Lady Annabel said. “I’d like to believe we won’t see our duke fall prey to such transparent machinations this season! It certainly would be a shame when there are so many worthy young ladies who would love to catch his eye.”
Herself, she means. Personally, Diana thought that Lady Annabel and Christopher deserved each other. They were both self-centered enough to balance one another out.
But this conversation had made one thing very clear—the gossip was still raging about what might have transpired between Susan and the Duke in the garden. And when midnight arrived, and they removed their masks, things were only going to get worse. Because when that happened, the little bit of mystery that still remained in this situation would be removed for everyone. Right now, they only thought Susan had been the one who’d been out there with the Duke. Once her mask came off, everyone would know for sure.
There must be something I can do to protect her from this!
Perhaps they ought to leave early. There were still twenty minutes to go before midnight. They could find Father and sneak out without saying goodbye, and then…
But no. It wouldn’t work. Too many people had been talking about them. Their absence at midnight would be noticed. It would be conspicuous. It would make them look even more guilty than they already did. People would assume they had been correct about Susan and that she had snuck out to avoid being implicated.
Susan looked up at Diana, wide-eyed with fear. “What are we going to do?” she whispered. “You were right all along. I never should have gone outside with him. What will Lord Hess think when he finds out it’s all true? He’ll never want to be with me after tonight.”
“It’s not true,” Diana snapped. “All right, yes, you were out there alone with the Duke. But nothing else they’re saying is true. You need to remember that, all right? You did not actually do anything wrong.”
“But that won’t matter,” Susan said miserably. “Not if everyone thinks I did. My life is ruined, Diana. Father is going to be so disappointed, and no gentleman will look twice at me after this.”
Diana’s jaw tightened.
She knew her sister was right.
She knew it would take something big to get Susann out of the position she was in.
She also knew that she would do anything for her sister.
Whatever it took.
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