The very prim and proper Miss Maia Woodmore is dancing with a stranger at the masquerade. Little does she know that he is none other than her infuriating new guardian, Dimitri, the Earl of Corvindale…who is also a vampire.
“Hatshepsut, I presume,” said the Knave of Diamonds, glancing down at her as they began their second turn about the floor, still relatively slowly and carefully. “An exceedingly original choice of costume, despite the fact that she dressed as a man on many occasions.” His voice was low, hardly more than discernible to her over the sounds of conversation and music.
“Baring my lower appendages would not have been appropriate, even in the spirit of accurate costuming. But you are correct,” Maia said, keeping her own tones pitched low in hopes of disguising her identity. Although her partner definitely wasn’t Alexander, she also sensed that he was someone she knew. “I am Hatshepsut. Everyone else thinks that I’m Cleopatra.”
“Fools, all of them. Where is the asp if you are meant to be Cleopatra?”
His comment surprised a little laugh from her, and she saw his lips move, relaxing into fullness from their hard, serious line from a moment ago.
“But of course, no one truly knows what Hatshepsut looks like,” she admitted. “Or if she was anything more than a queen regent.”
“I find it remarkable that you are even aware of Hatshepsut’s existence, let alone such details about her questionable reign,” he said after a negotiating a particularly tight turn that made her a bit dizzy.
Emboldened by her continued anonymity...and perhaps by the champagne punch...Maia launched into a candid speech that she would never have imposed on a gentleman under different circumstances. They preferred to talk on their own topics, not that of their partners. “I’ve indulged my fascination with Egyptian history for many years now. It started when I read my brother’s copy of Biblioteca Historica in order to help him with his Greek. Ask me about the Babylonians or the Indians, and I know little about them. But if one reads Herodotus or Diodorus, for example, there is much to be learned about the Egyptians. And now that more antiquities are being shipped back from Egypt, I can actually see them in the Museum. That makes it all the more real.”
“You assisted your brother with his Greek?” Was there a note of humor in the knave’s voice?
“I didn’t like it any better than he did, but I was determined....” Maia’s voice trailed off as she realized how she’d been babbling. She bit her lower lip and swallowed. One of the things that had put off some of her early suitors had been her tendency to lecture and overexplain. Not that the knave was a suitor, of course, but she well knew that gentlemen did not like women who talked.
“Very interesting.” The knave seemed to stop whatever else was about to come out of his mouth and clamped his lips together.
As she looked up at him, Maia realized suddenly that when one was confronted by a masked individual, one’s attention tended to focus on the parts that were exposed—in this case, his mouth. And she found those lips to be more fascinating than they really should be, tracing their shape with her eyes, memorizing them. Wondering what it would be like to kiss them, for they seemed soft and full and very mobile.
“Careful,” he said suddenly, his hands tightening on her, and Maia realized she’d become somewhat dizzy. The room had a bit more spin than the dance steps warranted, and she clutched the top of his arm, her face warm beneath her own mask, her heart suddenly slamming in her chest.
Oh. Maia blinked and focused on something over his shoulder—anything to turn her mind from the sudden, unexpected thoughts about his mouth. She couldn’t remember feeling this odd before.
“How many glasses of champagne punch, Hatshepsut?”
Her attention flew back to him and his gaze fixed on hers, shadowed and dark behind small round eyeholes. His intense regard knocked the breath out of her as if she’d been punched. Or perhaps it was the champagne punch that made her feel breathless and warm and loose.
“I’m not tipsy,” she retorted, forgetting to keep her voice low.
Those lips quirked in something that might have been an almost-smile, and he replied, “Naturally. Perhaps some air would be in order?”
She suspected that he didn’t believe her; and in all fairness, she wasn’t certain whether to believe herself. She was feeling rather odd, in a pleasant, tingly sort of way. “Perhaps it would be best, though I am loath to cut short my rare opportunity to waltz.”
Without another word, he drew her from the dance floor, managing them through the other swirling partners. Oddly enough, once removed from the smooth rhythm of the waltz, Maia felt even warmer and lighter in the head, and she actually bumped against him in mortifying clumsiness. He tightened his arm and led her away from the crowd, where she was able to draw in cooler, cleaner air devoid of attar of roses—which seemed to once again be this Season’s favored scent, as well as every other of the last years since she’d been out.
Maia’s heart hadn’t ceased its heavy pounding, and in fact seemed to increase as the Knave of Diamonds directed them away from the loud, close ballroom. Toward an alcove down one of the corridors, near which an open window offered a waft of breeze.
Perhaps it was because there was no other competition for her attention, for she was away from the music filling her ears, the mish-mash of the smells associated with such a crush, and the need to concentrate on the unfamiliar dance steps…that Maia found herself overly aware of the strong arm to which she found herself clinging.
How many glasses of champagne punch had she had? There’d been one before her dance with the court jester...or perhaps two? And then another—
“I do hope you aren’t about to cast up your accounts on my waistcoat, your majesty,” he said, easing her away from him a bit, even as he steadied her step.
“I beg your pardon?” she demanded, suddenly indignant. “Of course I shouldn’t do such a thing.”
No, indeed not. She simply would not allow it to happen, no matter how odd she felt. And she did feel a bit odd.
She blinked hard, realizing that she, the very proper Miss Maia Woodmore, was using the Knave of Diamonds to keep the floor from tilting and, quite possibly, her knees from buckling.
Pulling away from the knave, she found that she was able to stand on her own, even on the high-heeled shoes that put her face just...a bit...below...his.
Maia looked up from the brocade waistcoat and the ruby-studded, bloodred neckcloth that was much too close to her face, willing herself to focus on the matter at hand—which was...well, she wasn’t certain. They hadn’t been conversing, exactly, had they?
Her eyes traveled over a stiff black collar that brushed his jaw, hiding the full shape of his face, then beyond a square chin...and to that same mouth that had fascinated her as they spun gently, if not smoothly, around the dance floor.
It was a mouth, that, when relaxed boasted a full lower lip and a slanted upper one—soft and smooth without being the least bit feminine when it wasn’t flattened grimly.
“Hatshepsut?” Those lips moved, firming in something like exasperation. “Do you need to lie down?”
“Of course not,” she retorted, annoyed again. “I am perfectly capable of holding my cups. I merely got a bit dizzy from the dancing. It was so very close in there.”
“Very well. As long as you don’t—”
“You might be much too tall, sir knave, and a bit overbearing,” she heard herself commenting, the words simply pouring from her, “but, despite what nonsense comes from it, you have been blessed with a well-formed mouth.”
There was a pause for a moment, and then he replied, “Ah.” The syllable sounded a bit strangled.
“I’m not an expert on mouths, you know,” she continued, vaguely wondering why she was so fascinated by his lips. “One doesn’t normally examine them quite as closely as one might think, unless the rest of the face is masked, and excepting if one is intending to kiss said mouth...and even then, one might not even have the chance to do so before the kiss commences.”
“Ah,” he said again after she paused.
“Of course, I’ve only been kissed by a limited number of pairs of lips,” she said. Purely for clarification.
“And how many pairs would that be?” His voice rumbled deeply. Those lips were rather flat again.
She paused, pressing her own lips together in thought. Her mask shifted as she did so, and Maia was grateful for the reminder that she was still blissfully anonymous. “Perhaps three. No, four. Hmmm. Perhaps...no, four.” She wouldn’t count Mr. Virgil. He didn’t deserve to be counted, and the very thought of him made her feel ill. She looked up at her companion. “Four, my lord knave.”
Their eyes locked, his so dark and shadowed behind those small holes that she could hardly fathom that they could have such a hold on her. But they did. Her stomach felt as if the bottom dropped, leaving her warm and nervous in a very pleasant way.
Thanking God and all the angels in heaven for the fact that she was enmasked and completely anonymous, she whispered boldly, “But perhaps there might be a fifth.”
And Maia held her breath.
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