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An Offer From a Gentleman: The 2nd Epilogue

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Because of Miss Bridgerton

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An Offer From a Gentleman

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The 1815 season is well under way, and while one would think that all talk would be of Wellington and Waterloo, in truth there is little change from the conversations of 1814, which centered around that most eternal of society topics—marriage.

As usual, the matrimonial hopes among the debutante set center upon the Bridgerton family, most specifically the eldest of the available brothers, Benedict. He might not possess a title, but his handsome face, pleasing form, and heavy purse appear to have made up for that lack handily. Indeed, This Author has heard, on more than one occasion, an Ambitious Mama saying of her daughter: “She’ll marry a duke . . . or a Bridgerton.”

For his part, Mr. Bridgerton seems most uninterested in the young ladies who frequent society events. He attends almost every party, yet he does nothing but watch the doors, presumably waiting for some special person.

Perhaps . . .

A potential bride?



For Cheyenne,

and the memory of a Frappucino summer.

And also for Paul,

even though he doesn’t see anything wrong

with watching open heart surgery on TV

while we’re eating spaghetti.




Part One Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Part Two Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23


An Offer From a Gentleman: The 2nd Epilogue

About the Author

By Julia Quinn


About the Publisher


Everyone knew that Sophie Beckett was a bastard.

The servants all knew it. But they loved little Sophie, had loved her since she’d arrived at Penwood Park at the age of three, a small bundle wrapped in a too-big coat, left on the doorstep on a rainy July night. And because they loved her, they pretended that she was exactly what the sixth Earl of Penwood said she was—the orphaned daugh; ter of an old friend. Never mind that Sophie’s moss green eyes and dark blond hair matched the earl’s precisely. Never mind that the shape of her face looked remarkably like that of the earl’s recently deceased mother, or that her smile was an exact replica of the earl’s sister’s. No one wanted to hurt Sophie’s feelings—or risk their livelihoods—by pointing that out.

The earl, one Richard Gunningworth, never discussed Sophie or her origins, but he must have known she was his bastard. No one knew what had been in the letter the housekeeper had fished from Sophie’s pocket when she’d been discovered that rainy midnight; the earl had burned the missive mere seconds after reading it. He’d watched the paper shrivel and curl in the flames, then ordered a room made up for Sophie near the nursery. She’d remained there ever since. He called her Sophia, and she called him “my lord,” and they saw each other a few times a year, whenever the earl returned home from London, which wasn’t very often.

But perhaps most importantly, Sophie knew she was a bastard. She wasn’t entirely certain how she knew it, just that she did, and probably had her entire life. She had few memories of her life before her arrival at Penwood Park, but she could remember a long coach journey across England, and she could remember her grandmother, coughing and wheezing and looking terribly thin, telling her she was going to live with her father. And most of all, she could remember standing on the doorstep in the rain, knowing that her grandmother was hiding in the bushes, waiting to see if Sophie was taken inside.

The earl had touched his fingers to the little girl’s chin, tipped her face up to the light, and in that moment they both knew the truth.

Everyone knew Sophie was a bastard, and no one talked about it, and they were all quite happy with this arrangement.

Until the earl decided to marry.

Sophie had been quite pleased when she’d heard the news. The housekeeper had said that the butler had said that the earl’s secretary had said that the earl planned to spend more time at Penwood Park now that he would be a family man. And while Sophie didn’t exactly miss the earl when he was gone—it was hard to miss someone who didn’t pay her much attention even when he was there—she rather thought she might miss him if she got to know him better, and if she got to know him better, maybe he wouldn’t go away so often. Plus, the upstairs maid had said that the housekeeper had said that the neighbors’ butler had said that the earl’s intended wife already had two daughters, and they were near in age to Sophie.

After seven years alone in the nursery, Sophie was delighted. Unlike the other children in the district, she was never invited to local parties and events. No one actually came out and called her a bastard—to do so was tantamount to calling the earl, who had made one declaration that Sophie was his ward and then never revisited the subject, a liar. But at the same time, the earl never made any great attempt to force Sophie’s acceptance. And so at the age of ten, Sophie’s best friends were maids and footmen, and her parents might as well have been the housekeeper and butler.

But now she was getting sisters for real.

Oh, she knew she could not call them her sisters. She knew that she would be introduced as Sophia Maria Beckett, the earl’s ward, but they would feel like sisters. And that was what really mattered.

And so, one February afternoon, Sophie found herself waiting in the great hall along with the assembled servants, watching out the window for the earl’s carriage to pull up the drive, carrying in it the new countess and her two daughters. And, of course, the earl.

“Do you think she’ll like me?” Sophie whispered to Mrs. Gibbons, the housekeeper. “The earl’s wife, I mean.”

“Of course she’ll like you, dearling,” Mrs. Gibbons whispered back. But her eyes hadn’t been as certain as her tone. The new countess might not take kindly to the presence of her husband’s by-blow.

“And I’ll take lessons with her daughters?”

“No point in having you take your lessons separately.” Sophie nodded thoughtfully, then started to squirm when she saw the carriage rolling up the drive. “They’re here!” she whispered.

Mrs. Gibbons reached out to pat her on the head, but Sophie had already dashed off to the window, practically pressing her face up to the glass.

The earl stepped down first, then reached in and helped down two young girls. They were dressed in matching black coats. One wore a pink ribbon in her hair; the other yellow. Then, as the two girls stepped aside, the earl reached up to help one last person from the carriage.

Sophie’s breath caught in her throat as she waited for the new countess to emerge. Her little fingers crossed and a single, “Please,” whispered over her lips.

Please let her love me.

Maybe if the countess loved her, then the earl would love her as well, and maybe, even if he didn’t actually call her daughter, he’d treat her as one, and they’d be a family truly.

As Sophie watched through the window, the new countess stepped down from the carriage, her every movement so graceful and pure that Sophie was reminded of the delicate lark that occasionally came to splash in the birdbath in the garden. Even the countess’s hat was adorned by a long feather, its turquoise plume glittering in the hard winter sun.

“She’s beautiful,” Sophie whispered. She darted a quick look back at Mrs. Gibbons to gauge her reaction, but the housekeeper was standing at strict attention, eyes straight ahead, waiting for the earl to bring his new family inside for introductions.

Sophie gulped, not exactly certain where she was meant to stand. Everyone else seemed to have a designated place. The servants were lined up according to rank, from the butler right down to the lowliest scullery maid. Even the dogs were sitting dutifully in the corner, their leads held tight by the Keeper of the Hounds.

But Sophie was rootless. If she were truly the daughter of the house, she’d be standing with her governess, awaiting the new countess. If she were truly the earl’s ward, she’d be in much the same place. But Miss Timmons had caught a head cold and refused to leave the nursery and come downstairs. None of the servants believed for a second that the governess was truly ill. She’d been fine the night before, but no one blamed her for the deception. Sophie was, after all, the earl’s bastard, and no one wanted to be the one to offer potential insult to the new countess by introducing her to her husband’s by-blow.

And the countess would have to be blind, stupid, or both not to realize in an instant that Sophie was something more than the earl’s ward.

Suddenly overcome with shyness, Sophie shrank into a corner as two footmen threw open the front doors with a flourish. The two girls entered first, then stepped to the side as the earl led the countess in. The earl introduced the countess and her daughters to the butler, and the butler introduced them to the servants.

And Sophie waited.

The butler presented the footmen, the chef, the housekeeper, the grooms.

And Sophie waited.

He presented the kitchen maids, the upstairs maids, the scullery maids.

And Sophie waited.

And then finally the butler—Rumsey was his name—presented the lowliest of the lowest of maids, a scullery girl named Dulcie who had been hired a mere week earlier. The earl nodded and murmured his thanks, and Sophie was still waiting, completely unsure of what to do.

So she cleared her throat and stepped forward, a nervous smile on her face. She didn’t spend much time with the earl, but she was trotted out before him whenever he visited Penwood Park, and he always gave her a few minutes of his time, asking about her lessons before shooing her back up to the nursery.

Surely he’d still want to know how her studies were progressing, even now that he’d married. Surely he’d want to know that she’d mastered the science of multiplying fractions, and that Miss Timmons had recently declared her French accent, “perfection.”

But he was busy saying something to the countess’s daughters, and he didn’t hear her. Sophie cleared her throat again, this time more loudly, and said, “My lord?” in a voice that came out a bit more squeaky than she’d intended.

The earl turned around. “Ah, Sophia,” he murmured, “I didn’t realize you were in the hall.”

Sophie beamed. He hadn’t been ignoring her, after all.

“And who might this be?” the countess asked, stepping forward to get a better look.

“My ward,” the earl replied. “Miss Sophia Beckett.”

The countess speared Sophie with an assessing look, then her eyes narrowed.

And narrowed.

And narrowed some more.

“I see,” she said.

And everyone in the room knew instantly that she did see.

“Rosamund,” the countess said, turning to her two girls, “Posy, come with me.”

The girls moved immediately to their mother’s side. Sophie hazarded a smile in their direction. The smaller one smiled back, but the older one, whose hair was the color of spun gold, took her cue from her mother, pointed her nose in the air, and looked firmly away.

Sophie gulped and smiled again at the friendly girl, but this time the little girl chewed on her lower lip in indecision, then cast her eyes toward the floor.

The countess turned her back on Sophie and said to the earl, “I assume you have had rooms prepared for Rosamund and Posy.”

He nodded. “Near the nursery. Right next to Sophie.”

There was a long silence, and then the countess must have decided that certain battles should not be conducted before the servants, because all she said was, “I would like to go upstairs now.”

And she left, taking the earl and her daughters along with her.

Sophie watched the new family walk up the stairs, and then, as they disappeared onto the landing, she turned to Mrs. Gibbons and asked, “Do you think I should go up to help? I could show the girls the nursery.”

Mrs. Gibbons shook her head. “They looked tired,” she lied. “I’m sure they’ll be needing a nap.”

Sophie frowned. She’d been told that Rosamund was eleven and Posy was ten. Surely that was a bit old for taking naps.

Mrs. Gibbons patted her on the back. “Why don’t you come with me? I could use a bit of company, and Cook told me that she just made a fresh batch of shortbread. I think it’s still warm.”

Sophie nodded and followed her out of the hall. She’d have plenty of time that evening to get to know the two girls. She’d show them the nursery, and then they’d become friends, and before long they’d be as sisters.

Sophie smiled. It would be glorious to have sisters.

As it happened, Sophie did not encounter Rosamund and Posy—or the earl and countess, for that matter—until the next day. When Sophie entered the nursery to take her supper, she noticed that the table had been set for two, not four, and Miss Timmons (who had miraculously recovered from her ailment) said that the new countess had told her that Rosamund and Posy were too tired from their travels to eat that evening.

But the girls had to have their lessons, and so the next morning they arrived in the nursery, trailing the countess by one step each. Sophie had been working at her lessons for an hour already, and she looked up from her arithmetic with great interest. She didn’t smile at the girls this time. Somehow it seemed best not to.

“Miss Timmons,” the countess said.

Miss Timmons bobbed a curtsy, murmuring, “My lady.”

“The earl tells me you will teach my daughters.”

“I will do my best, my lady.”

The countess motioned to the older girl, the one with golden hair and cornflower eyes. She looked, Sophie thought, as pretty as the porcelain doll the earl had sent up from London for her seventh birthday.

“This,” the countess said, “is Rosamund. She is eleven. And this”—she then motioned to the other girl, who had not taken her eyes off of her shoes—“is Posy. She is ten.”

Sophie looked at Posy with great interest. Unlike her mother and sister, her hair and eyes were quite dark, and her cheeks were a bit pudgy.

“Sophie is also ten,” Miss Timmons replied.

The countess’s lips thinned. “I would like you to show the girls around the house and garden.”

Miss Timmons nodded. “Very well. Sophie, put your slate down. We can return to arithmetic—”

“Just my girls,” the countess interrupted, her voice somehow hot and cold at the same time. “I will speak with Sophie alone.”

Sophie gulped and tried to bring her eyes to the countess’s, but she only made it as far as her chin. As Miss Timmons ushered Rosamund and Posy out of the room she stood up, awaiting further direction from her father’s new wife.

“I know who you are,” the countess said the moment the door clicked shut.

“M-my lady?”

“You’re his bastard, and don’t try to deny it.”

Sophie said nothing. It was the truth, of course, but no one had ever said it aloud. At least not to her face.

The countess grabbed her chin and squeezed and pulled until Sophie was forced to look her in the eye. “You listen to me,” she said in a menacing voice. “You might live here at Penwood Park, and you might share lessons with my daughters, but you are nothing but a bastard, and that is all you will ever be. Don’t you ever, ever make the mistake of thinking you are as good as the rest of us.”

Sophie let out a little moan. The countess’s fingernails were biting into the underside of her chin.

“My husband,” the countess continued, “feels some sort of misguided duty to you. It’s admirable of him to see to his mistakes, but it is an insult to me to have you in my home—fed, clothed, and educated as if you were his real daughter.”

But she was his real daughter. And it had been her home much longer than the countess’s.

Abruptly, the countess let go of her chin. “I don’t want to see you,” she hissed. “You are never to speak to me, and you shall endeavor never to be in my company. Furthermore, you are not to speak to Rosamund and Posy except during lessons. They are the daughters of the house now, and should not have to associate with the likes of you. Do you have any questions?”

Sophie shook her head.


And with that, she swept out of the room, leaving Sophie with wobbly legs and a quivering lip.

And an awful lot of tears.

In time, Sophie learned a bit more about her precarious position in the house. The servants always knew everything, and it all reached Sophie’s ears eventually.

The countess, whose given name was Araminta, had insisted that very first day that Sophie be removed from the house. The earl had refused. Araminta didn’t have to love Sophie, he’d said coolly. She didn’t even have to like her. But she had to put up with her. He had owned up to his responsibility to the girl for seven years, and he wasn’t going to stop now.

Rosamund and Posy took their cues from Araminta and treated Sophie with hostility and disdain, although Posy’s heart clearly wasn’t into torture and cruelty in the way Rosamund’s was. Rosamund liked nothing better than to pinch and twist the skin on the back of Sophie’s hand when Miss Timmons wasn’t looking. Sophie never said anything; she rather doubted that Miss Timmons would have the courage to reprimand Rosamund (who would surely run to Araminta with a false tale), and if anyone noticed that Sophie’s hands were perpetually black-and-blue, no one ever said so.

Posy showed her the occasional kindness, although more often than not she just sighed, and said, “My mummy says I’m not to be nice to you.”

As for the earl, he never intervened.

Sophie’s life continued in this vein for four years, until the earl surprised everyone by clutching his hand to his chest while taking tea in the rose garden, letting out one ragged gasp, and falling facefirst to the stone cobbles.

He never regained consciousness.

Everyone was quite shocked. The earl was only forty years old. Who could have known that his heart would give out at such a young age? No one was more stunned than Araminta, who had been trying quite desperately since her wedding night to conceive the all-important heir.

“I might be with child!” she hastened to tell the earl’s solicitors. “You can’t give the title over to some distant cousin. I could very well be with child.”

But she wasn’t with child, and when the earl’s will was read one month later (the solicitors had wanted to be sure to give the countess enough time to know for sure if she was pregnant) Araminta was forced to sit next to the new earl, a rather dissolute young man who was more often drunk than not.

Most of the earl’s wishes were standard fare. He left bequests to loyal servants. He settled funds on Rosamund, Posy, and even Sophie, ensuring that all three girls would have respectable dowries.

And then the solicitor reached Araminta’s name.

To my wife, Araminta Gunningworth, Countess of Penwood, I leave a yearly income of two thousand pounds—

“That’s all?” Araminta cried out.

—unless she agrees to shelter and care for my ward, Miss Sophia Maria Beckett, until the latter reaches the age of twenty, in which case her yearly income shall be trebled to six thousand pounds.

“I don’t want her,” Araminta whispered.

“You don’t have to take her,” the solicitor reminded her. “You can—”

“Live on a measly two thousand a year?” she snapped. “I don’t think so.”

The solicitor, who lived on considerably less than two thousand a year, said nothing.

The new earl, who’d been drinking steadily throughout the meeting, just shrugged.

Araminta stood.

“What is your decision?” the solicitor asked.

“I’ll take her,” she said in a low voice.

“Shall I find the girl and tell her?”

Araminta shook her head. “I’ll tell her myself.”

But when Araminta found Sophie, she left out a few important facts . . .

Part One

Chapter 1

This year’s most sought-after invitation must surely be that of the Bridgerton masquerade ball, to be held Monday next. Indeed, one cannot take two steps without being forced to listen to some society mama speculating on who will attend, and perhaps more importantly, who will wear what.

Neither of the aforementioned topics, however, are nearly as interesting as that of the two unmarried Bridgerton brothers, Benedict and Colin. (Before anyone points out that there is a third unmarried Bridgerton brother, let This Author assure you that she is fully aware of the existence of Gregory Bridgerton. He is, however, fourteen years of age, and therefore not pertinent to this particular column, which concerns, as This Author’s columns often do, that most sacred of sports: husband-hunting.)

Although the Misters Bridgerton are just that—merely Misters—they are still considered two of the prime catches of the season. It is a well-known fact that both are possessed of respectable fortunes, and it does not require perfect sight to know that they also possess, as do all eight of the Bridgerton offspring, the Bridgerton good looks.

Will some fortunate young lady use the mystery of a masquerade night to snare one of the eligible bachelors?

This Author isn’t even going to attempt to speculate.


“Sophie! Sophieeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

As screeches went, it was enough to shatter glass. Or at least an eardrum.

“Coming, Rosamund! I’m coming!” Sophie hitched up the hem of her coarse woolen skirts and hurried up the stairs, slipping on the fourth step and only just barely managing to grab the bannister before landing on her bottom. She should have remembered that the stairs would be slick; she’d helped the downstairs maid wax them just that morning.

Skidding to a halt in the doorway to Rosamund’s bedroom and still catching her breath, Sophie said, “Yes?”

“My tea is cold.”

What Sophie wanted to say was, “It was warm when I brought it an hour ago, you lazy fiend.”

What she did say was, “I’ll get you another pot.”

Rosamund sniffed. “See that you do.”

Sophie stretched her lips into what the nearly blind might call a smile and picked up the tea service. “Shall I leave the biscuits?” she asked.

Rosamund gave her pretty head a shake. “I want fresh ones.”

Shoulders slightly stooped from the weight of the overloaded tea service, Sophie exited the room, careful not to start grumbling until she’d safely reached the hall. Rosamund was forever ordering tea, then not bothering to drink it until an hour passed. By then, of course, it was cold, so she had to order a fresh pot.

Which meant Sophie was forever running up and down the stairs, up and down, up and down. Sometimes it seemed that was all she did with her life.

Up and down, up and down.

And of course the mending, the pressing, the hairdressing, the shoe polishing, the darning, the bedmaking . . .


Sophie turned around to see Posy heading toward her.

“Sophie, I’ve been meaning to ask you, do you think this color is becoming on me?”

Sophie assessed Posy’s mermaid costume. The cut wasn’t quite right for Posy, who had never lost all of her baby fat, but the color did indeed bring out the best in her complexion. “It is a lovely shade of green,” Sophie replied quite honestly. “It makes your cheeks very rosy.”

“Oh, good. I’m so glad you like it. You do have such a knack for picking out my clothing.” Posy smiled as she reached out and plucked a sugared biscuit from the tray. “Mother has been an absolute bear all week about the masquerade ball, and I know I shall never hear the end of it if I do not look my best. Or”—Posy’s face twisted into a grimace—“if she thinks I do not look my best. She is determined that one of us snare one of the remaining Bridgerton brothers, you know.”

“I know.”

“And to make matters worse, that Whistledown woman has been writing about them again. It only”—Posy finished chewing and paused while she swallowed—“whets her appetite.”

“Was the column very good this morning?” Sophie asked, shifting the tray to rest on her hip. “I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.”

“Oh, the usual stuff,” Posy said with a wave of her hand. “Really, it can be quite humdrum, you know.”

Sophie tried to smile and failed. She’d like nothing more than to live a day of Posy’s humdrum life. Well, perhaps she wouldn’t want Araminta for a mother, but she wouldn’t mind a life of parties, routs, and musicales.

“Let’s see,” Posy mused. “There was a review of Lady Worth’s recent ball, a bit about Viscount Guelph, who seems rather smitten with some girl from Scotland, and then a longish piece on the upcoming Bridgerton masquerade.”

Sophie sighed. She’d been reading about the upcoming masquerade for weeks, and even though she was nothing but a lady’s maid (and occasionally a housemaid as well, whenever Araminta decided she wasn’t working hard enough) she couldn’t help but wish that she could attend the ball.

“I for one will be thrilled if that Guelph viscount gets himself engaged,” Posy remarked, reaching for another biscuit. “It will mean one fewer bachelor for Mother to go on and on about as a potential husband. It’s not as if I have any hope of attracting his attention anyway.” She took a bite of the biscuit; it crunched loudly in her mouth. “I do hope Lady Whistledown is right about him.”

“She probably is,” Sophie answered. She had been reading Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers since it had debuted in 1813, and the gossip columnist was almost always correct when it came to matters of the Marriage Mart.

Not, of course, that Sophie had ever had the chance to see the Marriage Mart for herself. But if one read Whistledown often enough, one could almost feel a part of London Society without actually attending any balls.

In fact, reading Whistledown was really Sophie’s one true enjoyable pastime. She’d already read all of the novels in the library, and as neither Araminta, Rosamund, nor Posy was particularly enamored of reading, Sophie couldn’t look forward to a new book entering the house.

But Whistledown was great fun. No one actually knew the columnist’s true identity. When the single-sheet newspaper had debuted two years earlier, speculation had been rampant. Even now, whenever Lady Whistledown reported a particularly juicy bit of gossip, people starting talking and guessing anew, wondering who on earth was able to report with such speed and accuracy.

And for Sophie, Whistledown was a tantalizing glimpse into the world that might have been hers, had her parents actually made their union legal. She would have been an earl’s daughter, not an earl’s bastard; her name Gunningworth instead of Beckett.

Just once, she’d like to be the one stepping into the coach and attending the ball.

Instead, she was the one dressing others for their nights on the town, cinching Posy’s corset or dressing Rosamund’s hair or polishing a pair of Araminta’s shoes.

But she could not—or at least should not—complain. She might have to serve as maid to Araminta and her daughters, but at least she had a home. Which was more than most girls in her position had.

When her father had died, he’d left her nothing. Well, nothing but a roof over her head. His will had ensured that she could not be turned out until she was twenty. There was no way that Araminta would forfeit four thousand pounds a year by giving Sophie the boot.

But that four thousand pounds was Araminta’s, not Sophie’s, and Sophie hadn’t ever seen a penny of it. Gone were the fine clothes she’d used to wear, replaced by the coarse wool of the servants. And she ate what the rest of the maids ate—whatever Araminta, Rosamund, and Posy chose to leave behind.

Sophie’s twentieth birthday, however, had come and gone almost a year earlier, and here she was, still living at Penwood House, still waiting on Araminta hand and foot. For some unknown reason—probably because she didn’t want to train (or pay) a new maid—Araminta had allowed Sophie to remain in her household.

And Sophie had stayed. If Araminta was the devil she knew, then the rest of the world was the devil she didn’t. And Sophie had no idea which would be worse.

“Isn’t that tray getting heavy?”

Sophie blinked her way out of her reverie and focused on Posy, who was reaching for the last biscuit on the tray. Drat. She’d been hoping to snitch it for herself. “Yes,” she murmured. “Yes, it is quite. I should really be getting to the kitchen with it.”

Posy smiled. “I won’t keep you any longer, but when you’re done with that, could you press my pink gown? I’m going to wear it tonight. Oh, and I suppose the matching shoes should be readied as well. I got a bit of dirt on them last time I wore them, and you know how Mother is about shoes. Never mind that you can’t even see them under my skirt. She’ll notice the tiniest speck of dirt the instant I lift my hem to climb a step.”

Sophie nodded, mentally adding Posy’s requests to her daily list of chores.

“I’ll see you later, then!” Biting down on that last biscuit, Posy turned and disappeared into her bedchamber.

And Sophie trudged down to the kitchen.

A few days later, Sophie was on her knees, pins clamped between her teeth as she made last-minute alterations on Araminta’s masquerade costume. The Queen Elizabeth gown had, of course, been delivered from the dressmaker as a perfect fit, but Araminta insisted that it was now a quarter inch too large in the waist.

“How is that?” Sophie asked, speaking through her teeth so the pins wouldn’t fall.

“Too tight.”

Sophie adjusted a few pins. “What about that?”

“Too loose.”

Sophie pulled out a pin and stuck it back in precisely the same spot. “There. How does that feel?”

Araminta twisted this way and that, then finally declared, “It’ll do.”

Sophie smiled to herself as she stood to help Araminta out of the gown.

“I’ll need it done in an hour if we’re to get to the ball on time,” Araminta said.

“Of course,” Sophie murmured. She’d found it easiest just to say “of course” on a regular basis in conversations with Araminta.

“This ball is very important,” Araminta said sharply. “Rosamund must make an advantageous match this year. The new earl—” She shuddered with distaste; she still considered the new earl an interloper, never mind that he was the old earl’s closest living male relative. “Well, he has told me that this is the last year we may use Penwood House in London. The nerve of the man. I am the dowager countess, after all, and Rosamund and Posy are the earl’s daughters.”

Stepdaughters, Sophie silently corrected.

“We have every right to use Penwood House for the season. What he plans to do with the house, I’ll never know.”

“Perhaps he wishes to attend the season and look for a wife,” Sophie suggested. “He’ll be wanting an heir, I’m sure.”

Araminta scowled. “If Rosamund doesn’t marry into money, I don’t know what we’ll do. It is so difficult to find a proper house to rent. And so expensive as well.”

Sophie forbore to point out that at least Araminta didn’t have to pay for a lady’s maid. In fact, until Sophie had turned twenty, she’d received four thousand pounds per year, just for having a lady’s maid.

Araminta snapped her fingers. “Don’t forget that Rosamund will need her hair powdered.”

Rosamund was attending dressed as Marie Antoinette. Sophie had asked if she was planning to put a ring of faux blood around her neck. Rosamund had not been amused.

Araminta pulled on her dressing gown, cinching the sash with swift, tight movements. “And Posy—” Her nose wrinkled. “Well, Posy will need your help in some manner or other, I’m sure.”

“I’m always glad to help Posy,” Sophie replied.

Araminta narrowed her eyes as she tried to figure out if Sophie was being insolent. “Just see that you do,” she finally said, her syllables clipped. She stalked off to the washroom.

Sophie saluted as the door closed behind her.

“Ah, there you are, Sophie,” Rosamund said as she bustled into the room. “I need your help immediately.”

“I’m afraid it’ll have to wait until—”

“I said immediately!” Rosamund snapped.

Sophie squared her shoulders and gave Rosamund a steely look. “Your mother wants me to alter her gown.”

“Just pull the pins out and tell her you pulled it in. She’ll never notice the difference.”

Sophie had been considering the very same thing, and she groaned. If she did as Rosamund asked, Rosamund would tattle on her the very next day, and then Araminta would rant and rage for a week. Now she would definitely have to do the alteration.

“What do you need, Rosamund?”

“There is a tear at the hem of my costume. I have no idea how it happened.”

“Perhaps when you tried it on—”

“Don’t be impertinent!”

Sophie clamped her mouth shut. It was far more difficult to take orders from Rosamund than from Araminta, probably because they’d once been equals, sharing the same schoolroom and governess.

“It must be repaired immediately,” Rosamund said with an affected sniff.

Sophie sighed. “Just bring it in. I’ll do it right after I finish with your mother’s. I promise you’ll have it in plenty of time.”

“I won’t be late for this ball,” Rosamund warned. “If I am, I shall have your head on a platter.”

“You won’t be late,” Sophie promised.

Rosamund made a rather huffy sound, then hurried out the door to retrieve her costume.


Sophie looked up to see Rosamund crashing into Posy, who was barreling through the door.

“Watch where you’re going, Posy!” Rosamund snapped.

“You could watch where you’re going, too,” Posy pointed out.

“I was watching. It’s impossible to get out of your way, you big oaf.”

Posy’s cheeks stained red, and she stepped aside.

“Did you need something, Posy?” Sophie asked, as soon as Rosamund had disappeared.

Posy nodded. “Could you set aside a little extra time to dress my hair tonight? I found some green ribbons that look a little like seaweed.”

Sophie let out a long breath. The dark green ribbons weren’t likely to show up very well against Posy’s dark hair, but she didn’t have the heart to point that out. “I’ll try, Posy, but I have to mend Rosamund’s dress and alter your mother’s.”

“Oh.” Posy looked crestfallen. It nearly broke Sophie’s heart. Posy was the only person who was even halfway nice to her in Araminta’s household, save for the servants. “Don’t worry,” she assured her. “I’ll make sure your hair is lovely no matter how much time we have.”

“Oh, thank you, Sophie! I—”

“Haven’t you gotten started on my gown yet?” Araminta thundered as she returned from the washroom.

Sophie gulped. “I was talking with Rosamund and Posy. Rosamund tore her gown and—”

“Just get to work!”

“I will. Immediately.” Sophie plopped down on the settee and turned the gown inside out so that she could take in the waist. “Faster than immediately,” she muttered. “Faster than a hummingbird’s wings. Faster than—”

“What are you chattering about?” Araminta demanded.


“Well, cease your prattle immediately. I find the sound of your voice particularly grating.”

Sophie ground her teeth together.

“Mama,” Posy said, “Sophie is going to dress my hair tonight like—”

“Of course she’s going to dress your hair. Quit your dillydallying this minute and go put compresses on your eyes so they don’t look so puffy.”

Posy’s face fell. “My eyes are puffy?”

Sophie shook her head on the off chance that Posy decided to look down at her.

“Your eyes are always puffy,” Araminta replied. “Don’t you think so, Rosamund?”

Posy and Sophie both turned toward the door. Rosamund had just entered, carrying her Marie Antoinette gown. “Always,” she agreed. “But a compress will help, I’m sure.”

“You look stunning tonight,” Araminta told Rosamund. “And you haven’t even started getting ready. That gold in your gown is an exquisite match to your hair.”

Sophie shot a sympathetic look at the dark-haired Posy, who never received such compliments from her mother.

“You shall snare one of those Bridgerton brothers,” Araminta continued. “I’m sure of it.”

Rosamund looked down demurely. It was an expression she’d perfected, and Sophie had to admit it looked lovely on her. But then again, most everything looked lovely on Rosamund. Her golden hair and blue eyes were all the rage that year, and thanks to the generous dowry settled upon her by the late earl, it was widely assumed that she would make a brilliant match before the season was through.

Sophie glanced back over at Posy, who was staring at her mother with a sad, wistful expression. “You look lovely, too, Posy,” Sophie said impulsively.

Posy’s eyes lit up. “Do you think so?”

“Absolutely. And your gown is terribly original. I’m sure there won’t be any other mermaids.”

“How would you know, Sophie?” Rosamund asked with a laugh. “It’s not as if you’ve ever been out in society.”

“I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time, Posy,” Sophie said pointedly, ignoring Rosamund’s jibe. “I’m terribly jealous. I do wish I could go.”

Sophie’s little sigh and wish was met with absolute silence . . . followed by the raucous laughter of both Araminta and Rosamund. Even Posy giggled a bit.

“Oh, that’s rich,” Araminta said, barely able to catch her breath. “Little Sophie at the Bridgerton ball. They don’t allow bastards out in society, you know.”

“I didn’t say I expected to go,” Sophie said defensively, “just that I wish I could.”

“Well, you shouldn’t even bother doing that,” Rosamund chimed in. “If you wish for things you can’t possibly hope for, you’re only going to be disappointed.”

But Sophie didn’t hear what she had to say, because in that moment, the oddest thing happened. As she was turning her head toward Rosamund, she caught sight of the housekeeper standing in the doorway. It was Mrs. Gibbons, who had come up from Penwood Park in the country when the town housekeeper had passed away. And when Sophie’s eyes met hers, she winked.


Sophie didn’t think she’d ever seen Mrs. Gibbons wink.

“Sophie! Sophie! Are you listening to me?”

Sophie turned a distracted eye toward Araminta. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “You were saying?”

“I was saying,” Araminta said in a nasty voice, “that you had better get to work on my gown this instant. If we are late for the ball, you will answer for it tomorrow.”

“Yes, of course,” Sophie said quickly. She jabbed her needle into the fabric and started sewing but her mind was still on Mrs. Gibbons.

A wink?

Why on earth would she wink?

Three hours later, Sophie was standing on the front steps of Penwood House, watching first Araminta, then Rosamund, then Posy each take the footman’s hand and climb up into the carriage. Sophie waved at Posy, who waved back, then watched the carriage roll down the street and disappear around the corner. It was barely six blocks to Bridgerton House, where the masquerade was to be held, but Araminta would have insisted upon the carriage if they’d lived right next door.

It was important to make a grand entrance, after all.

With a sigh, Sophie turned around and made her way back up the steps. At least Araminta had, in the excitement of the moment, forgotten to leave her with a list of tasks to complete while she was gone. A free evening was a luxury indeed. Perhaps she’d reread a novel. Or maybe she could find today’s edition of Whistledown. She’d thought she’d seen Rosamund take it into her room earlier that afternoon.

But as Sophie stepped through the front door of Penwood House, Mrs. Gibbons materialized as if from nowhere and grabbed her arm. “There’s no time to lose!” the housekeeper said.

Sophie looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “I beg your pardon?”

Mrs. Gibbons tugged at her elbow. “Come with me.”

Sophie allowed herself to be led up the three flights of stairs to her room, a tiny little chamber tucked under the eaves. Mrs. Gibbons was acting in a most peculiar manner, but Sophie humored her and followed along. The housekeeper had always treated her with exceptional kindness, even when it was clear that Araminta disapproved.

“You’ll need to get undressed,” Mrs. Gibbons said as she grasped the doorknob.


“We really must rush.”

“Mrs. Gibbons, you . . .” Sophie’s mouth fell open, and her words trailed off as she took in the scene in her bedroom. A steaming tub of water lay right in the center, and all three housemaids were bustling about. One was pouring a pitcher of water into the tub, another was fiddling with the lock on a rather mysterious-looking trunk, and the third was holding a towel and saying, “Hurry! Hurry!”

Sophie cast bewildered eyes at the lot of them. “What is going on?”

Mrs. Gibbons turned to her and beamed. “You, Miss Sophia Maria Beckett, are going to the masquerade!”

One hour later, Sophie was transformed. The trunk had held dresses belonging to the late earl’s mother. They were all fifty years out of date, but that was no matter. The ball was a masquerade; no one expected the gowns to be of the latest styles.

At the very bottom of the trunk they’d found an exquisite creation of shimmering silver, with a tight, pearl-encrusted bodice and the flared skirts that had been so popular during the previous century. Sophie felt like a princess just touching it. It was a bit musty from its years in the trunk, and one of the maids quickly took it outside to dab a bit of rosewater on the fabric and air it out.

She’d been bathed and perfumed, her hair had been dressed, and one of the housemaids had even applied a touch of rouge to her lips. “Don’t tell Miss Rosamund,” the maid had whispered. “I nicked it from her collection.”

“Ooooh, look,” Mrs. Gibbons said. “I found matching gloves.”

Sophie looked up to see the housekeeper holding up a pair of long, elbow-length gloves. “Look,” she said, taking one from Mrs. Gibbons and examining it. “The Penwood crest. And it’s monogrammed. Right at the hem.”

Mrs. Gibbons turned over the one in her hand. “SLG. Sarah Louisa Gunningworth. Your grandmother.”

Sophie looked at her in surprise. Mrs. Gibbons had never referred to the earl as her father. No one at Penwood Park had ever verbally acknowledged Sophie’s blood ties to the Gunningworth family.

“Well, she is your grandmother,” Mrs. Gibbons declared. “We’ve all danced around the issue long enough. It’s a crime the way Rosamund and Posy are treated like daughters of the house, and you, the earl’s true blood, must sweep and serve like a maid!”

The three housemaids nodded in agreement.

“Just once,” Mrs. Gibbons said, “for just one night, you will be the belle of the ball.” With a smile on her face, she slowly turned Sophie around until she was facing the mirror.

Sophie’s breath caught. “Is that me?”

Mrs. Gibbons nodded, her eyes suspiciously bright. “You look lovely, dearling,” she whispered.

Sophie’s hand moved slowly up to her hair.

“Don’t muss it!” one of the maids yelped.

“I won’t,” Sophie promised, her smile wobbling a bit as she fought back a tear. A touch of shimmery powder had been sprinkled onto her hair, so that she sparkled like a fairy princess. Her dark blond curls had been swept atop her head in a loose topknot, with one thick lock allowed to slide down the length of her neck. And her eyes, normally moss green, shone like emeralds.

Although Sophie suspected that might have had more to do with her unshed tears than anything else.

“Here is your mask,” Mrs. Gibbons said briskly. It was a demi-mask, the sort that tied at the back so that Sophie would not have to use one of her hands to hold it up. “Now all we need are shoes.”

Sophie glanced ruefully at her serviceable and ugly work shoes that sat in the corner. “I have nothing suitable for such finery, I’m afraid.”

The housemaid who had rouged Sophie’s lips held up a pair of white slippers. “From Rosamund’s closet,” she said.

Sophie slid her right foot into one of the slippers and just as quickly slid it back out. “It’s much too big,” she said, glancing up at Mrs. Gibbons. “I’ll never be able to walk in them.”

Mrs. Gibbons turned to the maid. “Fetch a pair from Posy’s closet.”

“Hers are even bigger,” Sophie said. “I know. I’ve cleaned enough scuff marks from them.”

Mrs. Gibbons let out a long sigh. “There’s nothing for it, then. We shall have to raid Araminta’s collection.”

Sophie shuddered. The thought of walking anywhere in Araminta’s shoes was somewhat creepy. But it was either that or go without, and she didn’t think that bare feet would be acceptable at a fancy London masquerade.

A few minutes later the maid returned with a pair of white satin slippers, stitched in silver and adorned with exquisite faux-diamond rosettes.

Sophie was still apprehensive about wearing Araminta’s shoes, but she slipped one of her feet in, anyway. It fit perfectly.

“And they match, too,” one of the maids said, pointing to the silver stitching. “As if they were made for the dress.”

“We don’t have time for admiring shoes,” Mrs. Gibbons suddenly said. “Now listen to these instructions very carefully. The coachman has returned from taking the countess and her girls, and he will take you to Bridgerton House. But he has to be waiting outside when they wish to depart, which means you must leave by midnight and not a second later. Do you understand?”

Sophie nodded and looked at the clock on the wall. It was a bit after nine, which meant she’d have more than two hours at the masquerade. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Oh, thank you so much.”

Mrs. Gibbons dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “You just have a good time, dearling. That’s all the thanks I need.”

Sophie looked again at the clock. Two hours.

Two hours that she’d have to make last a lifetime.

Chapter 2

The Bridgertons are truly a unique family. Surely there cannot be anyone in London who does not know that they all look remarkably alike, or that they are famously named in alphabetical order: Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Daphne, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory, and Hyacinth.

It does make one wonder what the late viscount and (still very-much alive) dowager viscountess would have named their next child had their offspring numbered nine. Imogen? Inigo?

Perhaps it is best they stopped at eight.


Benedict Bridgerton was the second of eight children, but sometimes it felt more like a hundred.

This ball his mother had insisted upon hosting was supposed to be a masquerade, and Benedict had dutifully donned a black demi-mask, but everyone knew who he was. Or rather, they all almost knew.

“A Bridgerton!” they would exclaim, clapping their hands together with glee.

“You must be a Bridgerton!”

“A Bridgerton! I can spot a Bridgerton anywhere.”

Benedict was a Bridgerton, and while there was no family to which he’d rather belong, he sometimes wished he were considered a little less a Bridgerton and a little more himself.

Just then, a woman of somewhat indeterminate age dressed as a shepherdess sauntered over. “A Bridgerton!” she trilled. “I’d recognize that chestnut hair anywhere. Which are you? No, don’t say. Let me guess. You’re not the viscount, because I just saw him. You must be Number Two or Number Three.”

Benedict eyed her coolly.

“Which one? Number Two or Number Three?”

“Two,” he bit off.

She clapped her hands together. “That’s what I thought! Oh, I must find Portia. I told her you were Number Two—”

Benedict, he nearly growled.

“—but she said, no, he’s the younger one, but I—”

Benedict suddenly had to get away. It was either that or kill the twittering ninnyhammer, and with so many witnesses, he didn’t think he could get away with it. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said smoothly. “I see someone with whom I must speak.”

It was a lie, but he didn’t much care. With a curt nod toward the overage shepherdess, he made a beeline toward the ballroom’s side door, eager to escape the throng and sneak into his brother’s study, where he might find some blessed peace and quiet and perhaps a glass of fine brandy.


Damn. He’d nearly made a clean escape. He looked up to see his mother hurrying toward him. She was dressed in some sort of Elizabethan costume. He supposed she was meant to be a character in one of Shakespeare’s plays, but for the life of him, he had no idea which.

“What can I do for you, Mother?” he asked. “And don’t say ‘Dance with Hermione Smythe-Smith.’ Last time I did that I nearly lost three toes in the process.”

“I wasn’t going to ask anything of the sort,” Violet replied. “I was going to ask you to dance with Prudence Featherington.”

“Have mercy, Mother,” he moaned. “She’s even worse.”

“I’m not asking you to marry the chit,” she said. “Just dance with her.”

Benedict fought a groan. Prudence Featherington, while essentially a nice person, had a brain the size of a pea and a laugh so grating he’d seen grown men flee with their hands over their ears. “I’ll tell you what,” he wheedled. “I’ll dance with Penelope Featherington if you keep Prudence at bay.”

“That’ll do,” his mother said with a satisfied nod, leaving Benedict with the sinking sensation that she’d wanted him to dance with Penelope all along.

“She’s over there by the lemonade table,” Violet said, “dressed as a leprechaun, poor thing. The color is good for her, but someone really must take her mother in hand next time they venture out to the dressmaker. A more unfortunate costume, I can’t imagine.”

“You obviously haven’t seen the mermaid,” Benedict murmured.

She swatted him lightly on the arm. “No poking fun at the guests.”

“But they make it so easy.”

She shot him a look of warning before saying, “I’m off to find your sister.”

“Which one?”

“One of the ones who isn’t married,” Violet said pertly. “Viscount Guelph might be interested in that Scottish girl, but they aren’t betrothed yet.”

Benedict silently wished Guelph luck. The poor bloke was going to need it.

“And thank you for dancing with Penelope,” Violet said pointedly.

He gave her a rather ironic half smile. They both knew that her words were meant as a reminder, not as thanks.

His arms crossed in a somewhat forbidding stance, he watched his mother depart before drawing a long breath and turning to make his way to the lemonade table. He adored his mother to distraction, but she did tend to err on the side of meddlesome when it came to the social lives of her children. And if there was one thing that bothered her even more than Benedict’s unmarried state, it was the sight of a young girl’s glum face when no one asked her to dance. As a result, Benedict spent a lot of time on the ballroom floor, sometimes with girls she wanted him to marry, but more often with the overlooked wallflowers.

Of the two, he rather thought he preferred the wallflowers. The popular girls tended to be shallow and, to be frank, just a little bit dull.

His mother had always had a particular soft spot for Penelope Featherington, who was on her . . . Benedict frowned. On her third season? It must be her third. And with no marriage prospects in sight. Ah, well. He might as well do his duty. Penelope was a nice enough girl, with a decent wit and personality. Someday she’d find herself a husband. It wouldn’t be him, of course, and in all honesty it probably wouldn’t be anyone he even knew, but surely she’d find someone.

With a sigh, Benedict started to make his way toward the lemonade table. He could practically taste that brandy, smooth and mellow in his mouth, but he supposed that a glass of lemonade would tide him over for a few minutes.

“Miss Featherington!” he called out, trying not to shudder when three Miss Featheringtons turned around. With what he knew could not possibly be anything but the weakest of smiles, he added, “Er, Penelope, that is.”

From about ten feet away, Penelope beamed at him, and Benedict was reminded that he actually liked Penelope Featherington. Truly, she wouldn’t be considered so antidotal if she weren’t always lumped together with her unfortunate sisters, who could easily make a grown man wish himself aboard a ship to Australia.

He’d nearly closed the gap between them when he heard a low rumble of whispers rippling across the ballroom behind him. He knew he ought to keep going and get this duty-dance over with, but God help him, his curiosity got the best of him and he turned around.

And found himself facing what had to be the most breathtaking woman he’d ever seen.

He couldn’t even tell if she was beautiful. Her hair was a rather ordinary dark blond, and with her mask tied securely around her head he couldn’t even see half of her face.

But there was something about her that held him mesmerized. It was her smile, the shape of her eyes, the way she held herself and looked about the ballroom as if she’d never seen a more glorious sight than the silly members of the ton all dressed up in ridiculous costumes.

Her beauty came from within.

She shimmered. She glowed.

She was utterly radiant, and Benedict suddenly realized that it was because she looked so damned happy. Happy to be where she was, happy to be who she was.

Happy in a way Benedict could barely remember. His was a good life, it was true, maybe even a great life. He had seven wonderful siblings, a loving mother, and scores of friends. But this woman—

This woman knew joy.

And Benedict had to know her.

Penelope forgotten, he pushed his way through the crowd until he was but a few steps from her side. Three other gentlemen had beaten him to his destination and were presently showering her with flattery and praise. Benedict watched her with interest; she did not react as any woman of his acquaintance might.

She did not act coy. Nor did she act as if she expected their compliments as her due. Nor was she shy, or tittering, or arch, or ironic, or any of those things one might expect from a woman.

She just smiled. Beamed, actually. Benedict supposed that compliments were meant to bring a measure of happiness to the receiver, but never had he seen a woman react with such pure, unadulterated joy.

He stepped forward. He wanted that joy for himself.

“Excuse me, gentlemen, but the lady has already promised this dance to me,” he lied.

Her mask’s eye-holes were cut a bit large, and he could see that her eyes widened considerably, then crinkled with amusement. He held out his hand to her, silently daring her to call his bluff.

But she just smiled at him, a wide, radiant grin that pierced his skin and traveled straight to his soul. She put her hand in his, and it was only then that Benedict realized he’d been holding his breath.

“Have you permission to dance the waltz?” he murmured once they reached the dance floor.

She shook her head. “I do not dance.”

“You jest.”

“I’m afraid I do not. The truth is—” She leaned forward and with a glimmer of a smile said, “I don’t know how.”

He looked at her with surprise. She moved with an inborn grace, and furthermore, what gently bred lady could reach her age without learning how to dance? “There is only one thing to do, then,” he murmured. “I shall teach you.”

Her eyes widened, then her lips parted, and a surprised laugh burst forth.

“What,” he asked, trying to sound serious, “is so funny?”

She grinned at him—the sort of grin one expects from an old school chum, not a debutante at a ball. Still smiling, she said, “Even I know that one does not conduct dancing lessons at a ball.”

“What does that mean, I wonder,” he murmured, “even you?”

She said nothing.

“I shall have to take the upper hand, then,” he said, “and force you to do my bidding.”

“Force me?”

But she was smiling as she said it, so he knew she took no offense, and he said, “It would be ungentlemanly of me to allow this sorrowful state of affairs to continue.”

“Sorrowful, you say?”

He shrugged. “A beautiful lady who cannot dance. It seems a crime against nature.”

“If I allow you to teach me . . .”

“When you allow me to teach you.”

“If I allow you to teach me, where shall you conduct the lesson?”

Benedict lifted his chin and scanned the room. It wasn’t difficult to see over the heads of most of the partygoers; at an inch above six feet, he was one of the tallest men in the room. “We shall have to retire to the terrace,” he said finally.

“The terrace?” she echoed. “Won’t it be terribly crowded? It’s a warm night, after all.”

He leaned forward. “Not the private terrace.”

“The private terrace, you say?” she asked, amusement in her voice. “And how, pray tell, would you know of a private terrace?”

Benedict stared at her in shock. Could she possibly not know who he was? It wasn’t that he held such a high opinion of himself that he expected all of London to be aware of his identity. It was just that he was a Bridgerton, and if a person met one Bridgerton, that generally meant he could recognize another. And as there was no one in London who had not crossed paths with one Bridgerton or another, Benedict was generally recognized everywhere. Even, he thought ruefully, when that recognition was simply as “Number Two.”

“You did not answer my question,” his mystery lady reminded him.

“About the private terrace?” Benedict raised her hand to his lips and kissed the fine silk of her glove. “Let us just say that I have my ways.”

She appeared undecided, and so he tugged at her fingers, pulling her closer—only by an inch, but somehow it seemed she was only a kiss away. “Come,” he said. “Dance with me.”

She took a step forward, and he knew his life had been changed forever.

Sophie hadn’t seen him when she’d first walked into the room, but she’d felt magic in the air, and when he’d appeared before her, like some charming prince from a children’s tale, she somehow knew that he was the reason she’d stolen into the ball.

He was tall, and what she could see of his face was very handsome, with lips that hinted of irony and smiles, and skin that was just barely touched by the beginnings of a beard. His hair was a dark, rich brown, and the flickering candlelight lent it a faint reddish cast.

People seemed to know who he was, as well. Sophie noticed that when he moved, the other partygoers stepped out of his path. And when he’d lied so brazenly and claimed her for a dance, the other men had deferred and stepped away.

He was handsome and he was strong, and for this one night, he was hers.

When the clock struck midnight, she’d be back to her life of drudgery, of mending and washing, and attending to Araminta’s every wish. Was she so wrong to want this one heady night of magic and love?

She felt like a princess—a reckless princess—and so when he asked her to dance, she put her hand in his. And even though she knew that this entire evening was a lie, that she was a nobleman’s bastard and a countess’s maid, that her dress was borrowed and her shoes practically stolen—none of that seemed to matter as their fingers twined.

For a few hours, at least, Sophie could pretend that this gentleman could be her gentleman, and that from this moment on, her life would be changed forever.

It was nothing but a dream, but it had been so terribly long since she’d let herself dream.

Banishing all caution, she allowed him to lead her out of the ballroom. He walked quickly, even as he wove through the pulsing crowd, and she found herself laughing as she tripped along after him.

“Why is it,” he said, halting for a moment when they reached the hall outside the ballroom, “that you always seem to be laughing at me?”

She laughed again; she couldn’t help it. “I’m happy,” she said with a helpless shrug. “I’m just so happy to be here.”

“And why is that? A ball such as this must be routine for one such as yourself.”

Sophie grinned. If he thought she was a member of the ton, an alumna of dozens of balls and parties, then she must be playing her role to perfection.

He touched the corner of her mouth. “You keep smiling,” he murmured.

“I like to smile.”

His hand found her waist, and he pulled her toward him. The distance between their bodies remained respectable, but the increasing nearness robbed her of breath.

“I like to watch you smile,” he said. His words were low and seductive, but there was something oddly hoarse about his voice, and Sophie could almost let herself believe that he really meant it, that she wasn’t merely that evening’s conquest.

But before she could respond, an accusing voice from down the hall suddenly called out, “There you are!”

Sophie’s stomach lurched well into her throat. She’d been found out. She’d be thrown into the street, and tomorrow probably into jail for stealing Araminta’s shoes, and—

And the man who’d called out had reached her side and was saying to her mysterious gentleman, “Mother has been looking all over for you. You weaseled out of your dance with Penelope, and I had to take your place.”

“So sorry,” her gentleman murmured.

That didn’t seem to be enough of an apology for the newcomer, because he scowled mightily as he said, “If you flee the party and leave me to that pack of she-devil debutantes, I swear I shall exact revenge to my dying day.”

“A chance I’m willing to take,” her gentleman said.

“Well, I covered up for you with Penelope,” the other man grumbled. “You’re just lucky that I happened to be standing by. The poor girl’s heart looked broken when you turned away.”

Sophie’s gentleman had the grace to blush. “Some things are unavoidable, I’m afraid.”

Sophie looked from one man to the other. Even under their demi-masks, it was more than obvious that they were brothers, and she realized in a blinding flash that they must be the Bridgerton brothers, and this must be their house, and—

Oh, good Lord, had she made a total and utter fool of herself by asking him how he knew of a private terrace?

But which brother was he? Benedict. He had to be Benedict. Sophie sent a silent thank-you to Lady Whistledown, who’d once written a column completely devoted to the task of telling the Bridgerton siblings apart. Benedict, she recalled, had been singled out as the tallest.

The man who made her heart flip in triple time stood a good inch above his brother—

—who Sophie suddenly realized was looking at her quite intently.

“I see why you departed,” Colin said (for he must be Colin; he certainly wasn’t Gregory, who was only fourteen, and Anthony was married, so he wouldn’t care if Benedict fled the party and left him to fend off the debutantes by himself.) He looked at Benedict with a sly expression. “Might I request an introduction?”

Benedict raised a brow. “You can try your best, but I doubt you’ll meet with success. I haven’t learned her name yet myself.”

“You haven’t asked,” Sophie could not help pointing out.

“And would you tell me if I did?”

“I’d tell you something,” she returned.

“But not the truth.”

She shook her head. “This isn’t a night for truth.”

“My favorite kind of night,” Colin said in a jaunty voice.

“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Benedict asked.

Colin shook his head. “I’m sure Mother would prefer that I be in the ballroom, but it’s not exactly a requirement.”

“I require it,” Benedict returned.

Sophie felt a giggle bubbling in her throat.

“Very well,” Colin sighed. “I shall take myself off.”

“Excellent,” Benedict said.

“All alone, to face the ravenous wolves . . .”

“Wolves?” Sophie queried.

“Eligible young ladies,” Colin clarified. “A pack of ravenous wolves, the lot of them. Present company excluded, of course.”

Sophie thought it best not to point out that she was not an “eligible young lady” at all.

“My mother—” Colin began.

Benedict groaned.

“—would like nothing better than to see my dear elder brother married off.” He paused and pondered his words. “Except, perhaps, to see me married off.”

“If only to get you out of the house,” Benedict said dryly.

This time Sophie did giggle.

“But then again, he’s considerably more ancient,” Colin continued, “so perhaps we should send him to the gallows—er, altar first.”

“Do you have a point?” Benedict growled.

“None whatsoever,” Colin admitted. “But then again, I rarely do.”

Benedict turned to Sophie. “He speaks the truth.”

“So then,” Colin said to Sophie with a grand flourish of his arm, “will you take pity on my poor, long-suffering mother and chase my dear brother up the aisle?”

“Well, he hasn’t asked,” Sophie said, trying to join the humor of the moment.

“How much have you had to drink?” Benedict grumbled.

“Me?” Sophie queried.


“Nothing at all,” Colin said jovially, “but I’m thinking quite seriously of remedying that. In fact, it might be the only thing that will make this eve bearable.”

“If the procurement of drink removes you from my presence,” Benedict said, “then it will certainly be the only thing that will make my night bearable as well.”

Colin grinned, gave a jaunty salute, and was gone.

“It’s nice to see two siblings who love each other so well,” Sophie murmured.

Benedict, who had been staring somewhat menacingly at the doorway through which his brother had just disappeared, snapped his attention back to her. “You call that love?”

Sophie thought of Rosamund and Posy, who were forever sniping at each other, and not in jest. “I do,” she said firmly. “It’s obvious you would lay your life down for him. And vice versa.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Benedict let out a beleaguered sigh, then ruined the effect by smiling. “Much as it pains me to admit it.” He leaned against the wall, crossing his arms and looking terribly sophisticated and urbane. “So tell me,” he said, “have you any siblings?”

Sophie pondered that question for a moment, then gave a decisive, “No.”

One of his brows rose into a curiously arrogant arch. He cocked his head very slightly to the side as he said, “I find myself rather curious as to why it took you so long to determine the answer to that question. One would think the answer would be an easy one to reach.”

Sophie looked away for a moment, not wanting him to see the pain that she knew must show in her eyes. She had always wanted a family. In fact, there was nothing in life she had ever wanted more. Her father had never recognized her as his daughter, even in private, and her mother had died at her birth. Araminta treated her like the plague, and Rosamund and Posy had certainly never been sisters to her. Posy had occasionally been a friend, but even she spent most of the day asking Sophie to mend her dress, or style her hair, or polish her shoes . . .

And in all truth, even though Posy asked rather than ordered, as her sister and mother did, Sophie didn’t exactly have the option of saying no.

“I am an only child,” Sophie finally said.

“And that is all you’re going to say on the subject,” Benedict murmured.

“And that is all I’m going to say on the subject,” she agreed.

“Very well.” He smiled, a lazy masculine sort of smile. “What, then, am I permitted to ask you?”

“Nothing, really.”

“Nothing at all?”

“I suppose I might be induced to tell you that my favorite color is green, but beyond that I shall leave you with no clues to my identity.”

“Why so many secrets?”

“If I answered that,” Sophie said with an enigmatic smile, truly warming to her role as a mysterious stranger, “then that would be the end of my secrets, wouldn’t it?”

He leaned forward ever so slightly. “You could always develop new secrets.”

Sophie backed up a step. His gaze had grown hot, and she had heard enough talk in the servants’ quarters to know what that meant. Thrilling as that was, she was not quite as daring as she pretended to be. “This entire night,” she said, “is secret enough.”

“Then ask me a question,” he said. “I have no secrets.”

Her eyes widened. “None? Truly? Doesn’t everyone have secrets?”

“Not I. My life is hopelessly banal.”

“That I find difficult to believe.”

“It’s true,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve never seduced an innocent, or even a married lady, I have no gambling debts, and my parents were completely faithful to one another.”

Meaning he wasn’t a bastard. Somehow the thought brought an ache to Sophie’s throat. Not, of course, because he was legitimate, but rather because she knew he would never pursue her—at least not in an honorable fashion—if he knew that she wasn’t.

“You haven’t asked me a question,” he reminded her.

Sophie blinked in surprise. She hadn’t thought he’d been serious. “A-all right,” she half stammered, caught off guard. “What, then, is your favorite color?”

He grinned. “You’re going to waste your question on that?”

“I only get one question?”

“More than fair, considering you’re granting me none.” Benedict leaned forward, his dark eyes glinting. “And the answer is blue.”


“Why?” he echoed.

“Yes, why? Is it because of the ocean? Or the sky? Or perhaps just because you like it?”

Benedict eyed her curiously. It seemed such an odd question—why his favorite color was blue. Everyone else would have taken blue for an answer and left it at that. But this woman—whose name he still didn’t even know—went deeper, beyond the whats and into the whys.

“Are you a painter?” he queried.

She shook her head. “Just curious.”

“Why is your favorite color green?”

She sighed, and her eyes grew nostalgic. “The grass, I suppose, and maybe the leaves. But mostly the grass. The way it feels when one runs barefoot in the summer. The smell of it after the gardeners have gone through with their scythes and trimmed it even.”

“What does the feel and smell of grass have to do with the color?”

“Nothing, I suppose. And maybe everything. I used to live in the country, you see . . .” She caught herself. She hadn’t meant to tell him even that much, but there didn’t seem to be harm in his knowing such an innocent fact.

“And you were happier there?” he asked quietly.

She nodded, a faint rush of awareness shivering across her skin. Lady Whistledown must never have had a conversation with Benedict Bridgerton beyond the superficial, because she’d never written that he was quite the most perceptive man in London. When he looked into her eyes, Sophie had the oddest sense that he could see straight into her soul.

“You must enjoy walking in the park, then,” he said.

“Yes,” Sophie lied. She never had time to go to the park. Araminta didn’t even give her a day off like the other servants received.

“We shall have to take a stroll together,” Benedict said.

Sophie avoided a reply by reminding him, “You never did tell me why your favorite color is blue.”

His head cocked slightly to the side, and his eyes narrowed just enough so that Sophie knew that he had noticed her evasion. But he simply said, “I don’t know. Perhaps, like you, I’m reminded of something I miss. There is a lake at Aubrey Hall—that is where I grew up, in Kent—but the water always seemed more gray than blue.”

“It probably reflects the sky,” Sophie commented.

“Which is, more often than not, more gray than blue,” Benedict said with a laugh. “Perhaps that is what I miss—blue skies and sunshine.”

“If it weren’t raining,” Sophie said with a smile, “this wouldn’t be England.”

“I went to Italy once,” Benedict said. “The sun shone constantly.”

“It sounds like heaven.”

“You’d think,” he said. “But I found myself missing the rain.”

“I can’t believe it,” she said with a laugh. “I feel like I spend half my life staring out the window and grumbling at the rain.”

“If it were gone, you’d miss it.”

Sophie grew pensive. Were there things in her life she’d miss if they were gone? She wouldn’t miss Araminta, that was for certain, and she wouldn’t miss Rosamund. She’d probably miss Posy, and she’d definitely miss the way the sun shone through the window in her attic room in the mornings. She’d miss the way the servants laughed and joked and occasionally included her in their fun, even though they all knew she was the late earl’s bastard.

But she wasn’t going to miss these things—she wouldn’t even have the opportunity to miss them—because she wasn’t going anywhere. After this evening—this one amazing, wonderful, magical evening—it would be back to life as usual.

She supposed that if she were stronger, braver, she’d have left Penwood House years ago. But would that have really made much difference? She might not like living with Araminta, but she wasn’t likely to improve her lot in life by leaving. She might have liked to have been a governess, and she was certainly well qualified for the position, but jobs were scarce for those without references, and Araminta certainly wasn’t going to give her one.

“You’re very quiet,” Benedict said softly.

“I was just thinking.”


“About what I’d miss—and what I wouldn’t miss—should my life drastically change.”

His eyes grew intense. “And do you expect it to drastically change?”

She shook her head and tried to keep the sadness out of her voice when she answered, “No.”

His voice grew so quiet it was almost a whisper. “Do you want it to change?”

“Yes,” she sighed, before she could stop herself. “Oh, yes.”

He took her hands and brought them to his lips, gently kissing each one in turn. “Then we shall begin right now,” he vowed. “And tomorrow you shall be transformed.”

“Tonight I am transformed,” she whispered. “Tomorrow I shall disappear.”

Benedict drew her close and dropped the softest, most fleeting of kisses onto her brow. “Then we must pack a lifetime into this very night.”

Chapter 3

This Author waits with bated breath to see what costumes the ton will choose for the Bridgerton masquerade. It is rumored that Eloise Bridgerton plans to dress as Joan of Arc, and Penelope Featherington, out for her third season and recently returned from a visit with Irish cousins, will don the costume of a leprechaun. Miss Posy Reiling, stepdaughter to the late Earl of Penwood, plans a costume of mermaid, which This Author personally cannot wait to behold, but her elder sister, Miss Rosamund Reiling, has been very close-lipped about her own attire.

As for the men, if previous masquerade balls are any indication, the portly will dress as Henry VIII, the more fit as Alexander the Great or perhaps the devil, and the bored (the eligible Bridgerton brothers sure to be among these ranks) as themselves—basic black evening kit, with only a demi-mask as a nod to the occasion.


“Dance with me,” Sophie said impulsively.

His smile was amused, but his fingers twined tightly with hers as he murmured, “I thought you didn’t know how.”

“You said you would teach me.”

He stared at her for a long moment, his eyes boring into hers, then he tugged on her hand and said, “Come with me.”

Pulling her along behind him, they slipped down a hallway, climbed a flight of stairs, and then rounded a corner, emerging in front of a pair of French doors. Benedict jiggled the wrought-iron handles and swung the doors open, revealing a small private terrace, adorned with potted plants and two chaise lounges.

“Where are we?” Sophie asked, looking around.

“Right above the ballroom terrace.” He shut the doors behind them. “Can’t you hear the music?”

Mostly, what Sophie could hear was the low rumble of endless conversation, but if she strained her ears, she could hear the faint lilt of the orchestra. “Handel,” she said with a delighted smile. “My governess had a music box with this very tune.”

“You loved your governess very much,” he said quietly.

Her eyes had been closed as she hummed along with the music, but when she heard his words, she opened them in a startled fashion. “How did you know?”

“The same way I knew you were happier in the country.” Benedict reached out and touched her cheek, one gloved finger trailing slowly along her skin until it reached the line of her jaw. “I can see it in your face.”

She held silent for a few moments, then pulled away, saying, “Yes, well, I spent more time with her than with anyone else in the household.”

“It sounds a lonely upbringing,” he said quietly.

“Sometimes it was.” She walked over to the edge of the balcony and rested her hands on the balustrade as she stared out into the inky night. “Sometimes it wasn’t.” Then she turned around quite suddenly, her smile bright, and Benedict knew that she would not reveal anything more about her childhood.

“Your upbringing must have been the complete opposite of lonely,” she said, “with so many brothers and sisters about.”

“You know who I am,” he stated.

She nodded. “I didn’t at first.”

He walked over to the balustrade and leaned one hip against it, crossing his arms. “What gave me away?”

“It was your brother, actually. You looked so alike—”

“Even with our masks?”

“Even with your masks,” she said with an indulgent smile. “Lady Whistledown writes about you quite often, and she never passes up an opportunity to comment upon how alike you look.”

“And do you know which brother I am?”

“Benedict,” she replied. “If indeed Lady Whistledown is correct when she says that you are tallest among your brothers.”

“You’re quite the detective.”

She looked slightly embarrassed. “I merely read a gossip sheet. It makes me no different from the rest of the people here.”

Benedict watched her for a moment, wondering if she realized that she’d revealed another clue to the puzzle of her identity. If she’d recognized him only from Whistledown, then she’d not been out in society for long, or perhaps not at all. Either way, she was not one of the many young ladies to whom his mother had introduced him.

“What else do you know about me from Whistledown?” he asked, his smile slow and lazy.

“Are you fishing for compliments?” she asked, returning the half smile with the vaguest tilt of her lips. “For you must know that the Bridgertons are almost always spared her rapier quill. Lady Whistledown is nearly always complimentary when writing about your family.”

“It’s led to quite a bit of speculation about her identity,” he admitted. “Some think she must be a Bridgerton.”

“Is she?”

He shrugged. “Not that I’m aware of. And you didn’t answer my question.”

“Which question was that?”

“What you know of me from Whistledown.”

She looked surprised. “Are you truly interested?”

“If I cannot know anything about you, at least I might know what you know about me.”

She smiled, and touched the tip of her index finger to her lower lip in an endearingly absentminded gesture. “Well, let’s see. Last month you won some silly horse race in Hyde Park.”

“It wasn’t the least bit silly,” he said with a grin, “and I’m a hundred quid richer for it.”

She shot him an arch look. “Horse races are almost always silly.”

“Spoken just like a woman,” he muttered.


“Don’t point out the obvious,” he interrupted.

That made her smile.

“What else do you know?” he asked.

“From Whistledown?” She tapped her finger against her cheek. “You once lopped the head off your sister’s doll.”

“And I’m still trying to figure out how she knew about that,” Benedict muttered.

“Maybe Lady Whistledown is a Bridgerton, after all.”

“Impossible. Not,” he added rather forcefully, “that we’re not smart enough to pull it off. Rather, the rest of the family would be too smart not to figure it out.”

She laughed out loud at that, and Benedict studied her, wondering if she was aware that she’d given away yet another tiny clue to her identity. Lady Whistledown had written of the doll’s unfortunate encounter with a guillotine two years earlier, in one of her very earliest columns. Many people now had the gossip sheet delivered all the way out in the country, but in the beginning, Whistledown had been strictly for Londoners.

Which meant that his mystery lady had been in London two years ago. And yet she hadn’t known who he was until she’d met Colin.

She’d been in London, but she’d not been out in society. Perhaps she was the youngest in her family, and had been reading Whistledown while her older sisters enjoyed their seasons.

It wasn’t enough to figure out who she was, but it was a start.

“What else do you know?” he asked, eager to see if she’d inadvertently reveal anything else.

She chuckled, clearly enjoying herself. “Your name has not been seriously linked with any young lady, and your mother despairs of ever seeing you married.”

“The pressure has lessened a bit now that my brother’s gone and got himself a wife.”

“The viscount?”

Benedict nodded.

“Lady Whistledown wrote about that as well.”

“In great detail. Although—” He leaned toward her and lowered his voice. “She didn’t get all the facts.”

“Really?” she asked with great interest. “What did she leave out?”

He tsked-tsked and shook his head at her. “I’m not about to reveal the secrets of my brother’s courtship if you won’t reveal even your name.”

She snorted at that. “Courtship might be too strong a word. Why, Lady Whistledown wrote—”

“Lady Whistledown,” he interrupted with a vaguely mocking half smile, “is not privy to all that goes on in London.”

“She certainly seems privy to most.”

“Do you think?” he mused. “I tend to disagree. For example, I suspect that if Lady Whistledown were here on the terrace, she would not know your identity.”

Her eyes widened under her mask. Benedict took some satisfaction in that.

He crossed his arms. “Is that true?”

She nodded. “But I am so well disguised that no one would recognize me right now.”

He raised a brow. “What if you removed your mask? Would she recognize you then?”

She pushed herself away from the railing and took a few steps toward the center of the terrace. “I’m not going to answer that.”

He followed her. “I didn’t think you would. But I wanted to ask, nonetheless.”

Sophie turned around, then caught her breath as she realized he was mere inches away. She’d heard him following her, but she hadn’t thought he was quite that close. She parted her lips to speak, but to her great surprise, she hadn’t a thing to say. All she could seem to do was stare up at him, at those dark, dark eyes peering at her from behind his mask.

Speech was impossible. Even breathing was difficult.

“You still haven’t danced with me,” he said.

She didn’t move, just stood there as his large hand came to rest at the small of her back. Her skin tingled where he touched her, and the air grew thick and hot.

This was desire, Sophie realized. This was what she’d heard the maids whispering about. This was what no gently bred lady was even supposed to know about.

But she was no gently bred lady, she thought defiantly. She was a bastard, a nobleman’s by-blow. She was not a member of the ton and never would be. Did she really have to abide by their rules?

She’d always sworn that she would never become a man’s mistress, that she’d never bring a child into this world to suffer her fate as a bastard. But she wasn’t planning anything quite so brazen. This was one dance, one evening, perhaps one kiss.

It was enough to ruin a reputation, but what sort of reputation did she have to begin with? She was outside society, beyond the pale. And she wanted one night of fantasy.

She looked up.

“You’re not going to run, then,” he murmured, his dark eyes flaring with something hot and exciting.

She shook her head, realizing that once again, he’d known what she was thinking. It should have scared her that he so effortlessly read her thoughts, but in the dark seduction of the night, with the wind tugging at the loose strands of her hair, and the music floating up from below, it was somehow thrilling instead. “Where do I put my hand?” she asked. “I want to dance.”

“Right here on my shoulder,” he instructed. “No, just a touch lower. There you are.”

“You must think me the veriest ninny,” she said, “not knowing how to dance.”

“I think you’re very brave, actually, for admitting it.” His free hand found hers and slowly lifted it into the air. “Most women of my acquaintance would have feigned an injury or disinterest.”

She looked up into his eyes even though she knew it would leave her breathless. “I haven’t the acting skills to feign disinterest,” she admitted.

The hand at the small of her back tightened.

“Listen to the music,” he instructed, his voice oddly hoarse. “Do you feel it rising and falling?”

She shook her head.

“Listen harder,” he whispered, his lips drawing closer to her ear. “One, two, three; one, two, three.”

Sophie closed her eyes and somehow filtered out the endless chatter of the guests below them until all she heard was the soft swell of the music. Her breathing slowed, and she found herself swaying in time with the orchestra, her head rocking back and forth with Benedict’s softly uttered numerical instructions.

“One, two, three; one two three.”

“I feel it,” she whispered.

He smiled. She wasn’t sure how she knew that; her eyes were still closed. But she felt the smile, heard it in the tenor of his breath.

“Good,” he said. “Now watch my feet and allow me to lead you.”

Sophie opened her eyes and looked down.

“One, two, three; one, two, three.”

Hesitantly, she stepped along with him—right onto his foot.

“Oh! I’m sorry!” she blurted out.

“My sisters have done far worse,” he assured her. “Don’t give up.”

She tried again, and suddenly her feet knew what to do. “Oh!” she breathed in surprise. “This is wonderful!”

“Look up,” he ordered gently.

“But I’ll stumble.”

“You won’t,” he promised. “I won’t let you. Look into my eyes.”

Sophie did as he asked, and the moment her eyes touched his, something inside her seemed to lock into place, and she could not look away. He twirled her in circles and spirals around the terrace, slowly at first, then picking up speed, until she was breathless and giddy.

And all the while, her eyes remained locked on his.

“What do you feel?” he asked.

“Everything!” she said, laughing.

“What do you hear?”

“The music.” Her eyes widened with excitement. “I hear the music as I’ve never heard it before.”

His hands tightened, and the space between them diminished by several inches. “What do you see?” he asked.

Sophie stumbled, but she never took her eyes off his. “My soul,” she whispered. “I see my very soul.”

He stopped dancing. “What did you say?” he whispered.

She held silent. The moment seemed too charged, too meaningful, and she was afraid she’d spoil it.

No, that wasn’t true. She was afraid she’d make it even better, and that would make it hurt all the more when she returned to reality at midnight.

How on earth was she going to go back to polishing Araminta’s shoes after this?

“I know what you said,” Benedict said hoarsely. “I heard you, and—”

“Don’t say anything,” Sophie cut in. She didn’t want him to tell her that he felt the same way, didn’t want to hear anything that would leave her pining for this man forever.

But it was probably already too late for that.

He stared at her for an agonizingly long moment, then murmured, “I won’t speak. I won’t say a word.” And then, before she even had a second to breathe, his lips were on hers, exquisitely gentle and achingly tender.

With deliberate slowness, he brushed his lips back and forth across hers, the bare hint of friction sending shivers and tingles spiraling through her body.

He touched her lips and she felt it in her toes. It was a singularly odd—and singularly wonderful—sensation.

Then his hand at the small of her back—the one that had guided her so effortlessly in their waltz—started to pull her toward him. The pressure was slow but inexorable, and Sophie grew hot as their bodies grew closer, then positively burned when she suddenly felt the length of him pressing against her.

He seemed very large, and very powerful, and in his arms she felt like she must be the most beautiful woman in the world.

Suddenly anything seemed possible, maybe even a life free of servitude and stigma.

His mouth grew more insistent, and his tongue darted out to tickle the corner of her mouth. His hand, which had still been holding hers in a waltz-pose, slid down the length of her arm and then up her back until it rested at the nape of her neck, his fingers tugging her hair loose from its coiffure.

“Your hair is like silk,” he whispered, and Sophie actually giggled, because he was wearing gloves.

He pulled away. “What,” he asked with an amused expression, “are you laughing about?”

“How can you know what my hair feels like? You’re wearing gloves.”

He smiled, a crooked, boyish sort of a smile that sent her stomach into flips and melted her heart. “I don’t know how I know,” he said, “but I do.” His grin grew even more lopsided, and then he added, “But just to be sure, perhaps I’d better test with my bare skin.”

He held out his hand before her. “Will you do the honors?”

Sophie stared at his hand for a few seconds before she realized what he meant. With a shaky, nervous breath, she took a step back and brought both of her hands to his. Slowly she pinched the end of each of the glove’s fingertips and gave it a little tug, loosening the fine fabric until she could slide the entire glove from his hand.

Glove still dangling from her fingers, she looked up. He had the oddest expression in his eyes. Hunger . . . and something else. Something almost spiritual.

“I want to touch you,” he whispered, and then his bare hand cupped her cheek, the pads of his fingers lightly stroking her skin, whispering upward until they touched the hair near her ear. He tugged gently until he pulled one lock loose. Freed from the coiffure, her hair sprang into a light curl, and Sophie could not take her eyes off it, wrapped golden around his index finger.

“I was wrong,” he murmured. “It’s softer than silk.”

Sophie was suddenly gripped by a fierce urge touch him in the same way, and she held out her hand. “It’s my turn,” she said softly.

His eyes flared, and then he went to work on her glove, loosening it at the fingers the same way she had done. But then, rather than pulling it off, he brought his lips to the edge of the long glove, all the way above her elbow, and kissed the sensitive skin on the inside of her arm. “Also softer than silk,” he murmured.

Sophie used her free hand to grip his shoulder, no longer confident of her ability to stand.

He tugged at the glove, allowing it to slide off her arm with agonizing slowness, his lips following its progress until they reached the inside of her elbow. Barely breaking the kiss, he looked up and said, “You don’t mind if I stay here for a bit.”

Helplessly, Sophie shook her head.

His tongue darted out and traced the bend of her arm.

“Oh, my,” she moaned.

“I thought you might like that,” he said, his words hot against her skin.

She nodded. Or rather, she meant to nod. She wasn’t sure if she actually did.

His lips continued their trail, sliding sensuously down her forearm until they reached the inside of her wrist. They remained there for a moment before finally coming to rest in the absolute center of her palm.

“Who are you?” he asked, lifting his head but not letting go of her hand.

She shook her head.

“I have to know.”

“I can’t say.” And then, when she saw that he would not take no for an answer, she lied and added, “Yet.”

He took one of her fingers and rubbed it gently against his lips. “I want to see you tomorrow,” he said softly. “I want to call on you and see where you live.”

She said nothing, just held herself steady, trying not to cry.

“I want to meet your parents and pet your damned dog,” he continued, somewhat unsteadily. “Do you understand what I mean?”

Music and conversation still drifted up from below, but the only sound on the terrace was the harsh rasp of their breath.

“I want—” His voice dropped to a whisper, and his eyes looked vaguely surprised, as if he couldn’t quite believe the truth of his own words. “I want your future. I want every little piece of you.”

“Don’t say anything more,” she begged him. “Please. Not another word.”

“Then tell me your name. Tell me how to find you tomorrow.”

“I—” But then she heard a strange sound, exotic and ringing. “What is that?”

“A gong,” he replied. “To signal the unmasking.”

Panic rose within her. “What?”

“It must be midnight.”

“Midnight?” she gasped.

He nodded. “Time to remove your mask.”

One of Sophie’s hands flew up to her temple, pressing the mask harshly against her skin, as if she could somehow glue it onto her face through sheer force of will.

“Are you all right?” Benedict asked.

“I have to go,” she blurted out, and then, with no further warning, she hitched up her skirts and ran from the terrace.

“Wait!” she heard him call out, felt the rush of air as his arm swiped forward in a futile attempt to grab her dress.

But Sophie was fast, and perhaps more importantly, she was in a state of utter panic, and she tore down the stairs as if the fires of hell were nipping at her heels.

She plunged into the ballroom, knowing that Benedict would prove a determined pursuer, and she’d have the best chance of losing him in a large crowd. All she had to do was make it across the room, and then she could exit via the side door and scoot around the outside of the house to her waiting carriage.

The revelers were still removing their masks, and the party was loud with raucous laughter. Sophie pushed and jostled, anything to beat her way to the other side of the room. She threw one desperate glance over her shoulder. Benedict had entered the ballroom, his face intense as he scanned the crowd. He didn’t seem to have seen her yet, but she knew that he would; her silver gown would make her an easy target.

Sophie kept shoving people out of her way. At least half of them didn’t seem to notice; probably too drunk. “Excuse me,” she muttered, elbowing Julius Caesar in the ribs. “Beg pardon,” came out more like a grunt; that was when Cleopatra stepped on her toe.

“Excuse me, I—” And then the breath was quite literally sucked out of her, because she found herself face-to-face with Araminta.

Or rather, face to mask. Sophie was still disguised. But if anyone could recognize her, it would be Araminta. And—

“Watch where you’re going,” Araminta said haughtily. Then, while Sophie stood openmouthed, she swished her Queen Elizabeth skirts and swept away.

Araminta hadn’t recognized her! If Sophie hadn’t been so frantic about getting out of Bridgerton House before Benedict caught up with her, she would have laughed with delight.

Sophie glanced desperately behind her. Benedict had spotted her and was pushing his way through the crowd with considerably more efficiency than she had done. With an audible gulp and renewed energy, she pushed forth, almost knocking two Grecian goddesses to the ground before finally reaching the far door.

She looked behind her just long enough to see that Benedict had been waylaid by some elderly lady with a cane, then ran out of the building and around front, where the Penwood carriage was waiting, just as Mrs. Gibbons had said it would.

“Go, go, go!” Sophie shouted frantically to the driver.

And she was gone.

Chapter 4

More than one masquerade attendee has reported to This Author that Benedict Bridgerton was seen in the company of an unknown lady dressed in a silver gown.

Try as she might, This Author has been completely unable to discern the mystery lady’s identity. And if This Author cannot uncover the truth, you may be assured that her identity is a well-kept secret indeed.


She was gone.

Benedict stood on the pavement in front of Bridgerton House, surveying the street. All of Grosvenor Square was a mad crush of carriages. She could be in any one of them, just sitting there on the cobbles, trying to escape the traffic. Or she could be in one of the three carriages that had just escaped the tangle and rolled around the corner.

Either way, she was gone.

He was half-ready to strangle Lady Danbury, who’d jammed her cane onto his toe and insisted upon giving him her opinion on most of the partygoers’ costumes. By the time he’d managed to free himself, his mystery lady had disappeared through the ballroom’s side door.

And he knew that she had no intention of letting him see her again.

Benedict let out a low and rather viciously uttered curse. With all the ladies his mother had trotted out before him—and there had been many—he’d never once felt the same soul-searing connection that had burned between him and the lady in silver. From the moment he’d seen her—no, from the moment before he’d seen her, when he’d only just felt her presence, the air had been alive, crackling with tension and excitement. And he’d been alive, too—alive in a way he hadn’t felt for years, as if everything were suddenly new and sparkling and full of passion and dreams.

And yet . . .

Benedict cursed again, this time with a touch of regret.

And yet he didn’t even know the color of her eyes.

They definitely hadn’t been brown. Of that much he was positive. But in the dim light of the candled night, he’d been unable to discern whether they were blue or green. Or hazel or gray. And for some reason he found this the most upsetting. It ate at him, leaving a burning, hungry sensation in the pit of his stomach.

They said eyes were the windows to the soul. If he’d truly found the woman of his dreams, the one with whom he could finally imagine a family and a future, then by God he ought to know the color of her eyes.

It wasn’t going to be easy to find her. It was never easy to find someone who didn’t want to be found, and she’d made it more than clear that her identity was a secret.

His clues were paltry at best. A few dropped comments concerning Lady Whistledown’s column and . . .

Benedict looked down at the single glove still clutched in his right hand. He’d quite forgotten that he’d been holding it as he’d dashed through the ballroom. He brought it to his face and inhaled its scent, but much to his surprise, it didn’t smell of rosewater and soap, as had his mystery lady. Rather, its scent was a bit musty, as if it had been packed away in an attic trunk for many years.

Odd, that. Why would she be wearing an ancient glove?

He turned it over in his hand, as if the motion would somehow bring her back, and that was when he noticed a tiny bit of stitching at the hem.

SLG. Someone’s initials.

Were they hers?

And a family crest. One he did not recognize.

But his mother would. His mother always knew that sort of thing. And chances were, if she knew the crest, she’d know who the initials SLG belonged to.

Benedict felt his first glimmer of hope. He would find her.

He would find her, and he would make her his. It was as simple as that.

It took a mere half hour to return Sophie to her regular, drab state. Gone were the dress, the glittering earbobs, and the fancy coiffure. The jeweled slippers were tucked neatly back in Araminta’s closet, and the rouge the maid had used for her lips was resting in its place on Rosamund’s dressing table. She’d even taken five minutes to massage the skin on her face, to remove the indentations left by the mask.

Sophie looked as she always looked before bed—plain, simple, and unassuming, her hair pulled into a loose braid, her feet tucked into warm stockings to keep out the chill night air.

She was back to looking what she was in truth—nothing more than a housemaid. Gone were all traces of the fairy princess she’d been for one short evening.

And saddest of all, gone was her fairy prince.

Benedict Bridgerton had been everything she’d read in Whistledown. Handsome, strong, debonair. He was the stuff of a young girl’s dreams, but not, she thought glumly, of her dreams. A man like that didn’t marry an earl’s by-blow. And he certainly didn’t marry a housemaid.

But for one night he’d been hers, and she supposed that would have to be enough.

She picked up a little stuffed dog she’d had since she’d been a small girl. She’d kept it all these years as a reminder of happier times. It usually sat on her dresser, but for some reason she wanted it closer right now. She crawled into bed, the little dog tucked under her arm, and curled up under the covers.

Then she squeezed her eyes shut, biting her lip as silent tears trickled onto her pillow.

It was a long, long night.

“Do you recognize this?”

Benedict Bridgerton was sitting next to his mother in her very feminine rose-and-cream drawing room, holding out his only link to the woman in silver. Violet Bridgerton took the glove and examined the crest. She needed only a second before she announced, “Penwood.”

“As in ‘Earl of’?”

Violet nodded. “And the G would be for Gunningworth. The title recently passed out of their family, if I recall correctly. The earl died without issue . . . oh, it must have been six or seven years ago. The title went to a distant cousin. And,” she added with a disapproving nod of her head, “you forgot to dance with Penelope Featherington last night. You’re lucky your brother was there to dance in your stead.”

Benedict fought a groan and tried to ignore her scolding. “Who, then, is SLG?”

Violet’s blue eyes narrowed. “Why are you interested?”

“I don’t suppose,” Benedict said on a groan, “that you will simply answer my question without posing one of your own.”

She let out a ladylike snort. “You know me far better than that.”

Benedict just managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes.

“Who,” Violet asked, “does the glove belong to, Benedict?” And then, when he didn’t answer quickly enough for her taste, she added, “You might as well tell me everything. You know I will figure it out on my own soon enough, and it will be far less embarrassing for you if I don’t have to ask any questions.”

Benedict sighed. He was going to have to tell her everything. Or at least, almost everything. There was little he enjoyed less than sharing such details with his mother—she tended to grab hold of any hope that he might actually marry and cling on to it with the tenacity of a barnacle. But he had little choice. Not if he wanted to find her.

“I met someone last night at the masquerade,” he finally said.

Violet clapped her hands together with delight. “Really?”

“She’s the reason I forgot to dance with Penelope.”

Violet looked nearly ready to die of rapture. “Who? One of Penwood’s daughters?” She frowned. “No, that’s impossible. He had no daughters. But he did have two stepdaughters.” She frowned again. “Although I must say, having met those two girls . . . well . . .”

“Well, what?”

Violet’s brow wrinkled as she fumbled for polite words. “Well, I simply wouldn’t have guessed you’d be interested in either of them, that’s all. But if you are,” she added, her face brightening considerably, “then I shall surely invite the dowager countess over for tea. It’s the very least I can do.”

Benedict started to say something, then stopped when he saw that his mother was frowning yet again. “What now?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Violet said. “Just that . . . well . . .”

“Spit it out, Mother.”

She smiled weakly. “Just that I don’t particularly like the dowager countess. I’ve always found her rather cold and ambitious.”

“Some would say you’re a