The Irresistible Lady Behind the Mask (Preview)

Chapter One

London 1816

The sun was filtering through the silk curtains when Tempest finally stirred from her bed. A delicate hand went to her throbbing forehead. She let out a sigh. She shouldn’t drink spirits so. Alas, she had allowed her customer to cajole her into drinking a lot of wine last night.

But what could she have done to avert it? It would have looked suspicious had she not indulged in the wine like every customer there. But maybe she shouldn’t have drunk so much. Well, it was too late now. In the future, she would look for a way to get out of such a foolish pastime.

Groping for the little bell on the bedside table to summon her abigail, she groaned as she had to move. The dreadful headache would cause her head to fall off if nothing was done about it posthaste.

A little sigh of joy escaped her lips when her hand located the bell. She rang it and grimaced as the sound increased the ache in her head. A moment later, she heard distinctive footfalls coming up the stairs and crossing the landing to her room.

“You summoned me, Miss Tempest,” Mary, her maid, said.

From the distance of her voice, Tempest surmised that she was standing by the door. She dared not open her eyes for she feared the headache might grow worse.

“I did, Mary,” she softly returned. “Whatever you do, don’t draw the curtains.”

A soft giggle sounded in the room. “Forgive my boldness, Miss Tempest, but you can’t possibly think of staying abed all day.”

Tempest groaned in an unladylike manner. Her father would want to see her. He would try to get her to go against her wishes. Giving her dowry to a lucky man out there so that it wouldn’t go to waste was her father’s primal concern.

The baron’s daughter listened as Mary moved about the room. Her purple silk dress would still be on the floor. That was the only piece of clothing she had removed before falling into bed last night. She sighed loudly.

“Please leave whatever you’re doing, Mary and fetch me a cold compress for my head before it splits into two,” she instructed sharply.

“Yes, my Miss. Mayhaps I could bring you a tray.”

Tempest shook her head and moaned. The thought of food was nauseating. Perhaps later, when she was feeling better.

“Cold compress, Mary,” she simply said.

“Yes, Miss Tempest.”

She heard Mary leave to do her bidding and hoped with all her heart that the cold compress would bring her head back to normalcy.

Tempest moaned some minutes when the front doorknocker banged repeatedly. The silence in the house was loud enough for her to hear the motions of the discourteous caller. The sound seemed to increase and fill the house, making her feel like she was standing right beside the door.

“Dear God, who could be calling at this ungodly hour?” she grumbled, assuming it was still quite early in the day, not realising that the sun was already high up in the sky.

When the noise carried on, she lifted one of the pillows and placed it across her head. Were all the servants excluding Mary still in bed like her? Why couldn’t someone answer the desperate caller?

The torture of the sound finally came to an end when someone decided to get her out of her misery. The front door slammed loudly.

“Who could be so rude as to shut the door so loudly to someone else’s house?” she muttered with indignation.

It wasn’t enough that they knocked so deafeningly to wake the dead, now they wanted to rip the door off its hinges!

She tried making out the voices she heard but decided not to bother. It could be one of her father’s friends. She wouldn’t be surprised if the person was foxed.

Some men didn’t mind visiting a tavern before going about their duties for the day. She surmised that she would be one of the topics of discussion between the man and her father.

The baron was annoyed with her because she maintained her stand that she wasn’t the marrying kind.

“You’ll remain on the shelf and be regarded as an old maid,” her father once argued with her.

She had giggled, for her cousin, Valerie, already called her that. “Better to remain an old maid, Papa, than to lose my independence to some dandy.”

Her father almost had apoplexy at her words. She had feared that if his complexion turned redder, he might just burst. Inwardly, she envisioned steam coming out of his ears and hid a laugh behind her handkerchief.

“A woman is meant to lose her independence to a man. She’s supposed to be seen and not heard,” he had countered impatiently.

“Not this woman,” she firmly replied. “I have no desire to become a wealthy man’s property. I’d rather die a spinster than make some man richer with my dowry.”

Her father’s hands had curled into fists. “I blame your aunt for leaving you such a sizeable inheritance. I fear it has gotten into your head.”

He would know about her wealth because he oversaw her financial affairs. She had pursed her lips to refrain from divulging what she had done with the said inheritance. It was a secret between her and her aunt. Her father might swoon if he ever got to know.

“Papa,” she had called, trying to muster as much softness in her voice as she could, for she was weary of such arguments all the time, “please don’t worry about me. I repeat I have no desire to be wed, and that’s that. I grow weary of such arguments all the time. Please accept this decision that I’ve made.”

Her father, his face flushed with anger, had stated, “I will never accept it. You have a generous dowry that would make men from here to Hyde Park beat down your door, but you’ve chosen to be foolish about it. You will be wed. Do not take my threats idly.”

She had watched him stalk out of the drawing room that day. She had wished she could make him understand that never would she avail herself of the travesty called marriage.

Tempest withdrew the pillow from her head as her face contorted in a frown. Her father was still angry with her for turning down several suitable matches as he was wont to call them. Thank goodness her rejections hadn’t created scandals for the ton to have something to gossip about.

Immediately the men had approached her, she had politely but firmly declined their offer. She hadn’t bothered to lead them on by going for a walk with them or a ride to the park. The ones who had offered to escort her to balls and soirees had also been turned down. Quite bluntly, she had told them she wasn’t in any way interested in whatever they had to offer.

Mary returned at that moment with the cold compress. She gently placed it on her mistress’s head. Tempest exhaled softly as the coolness of the cloth did wonders for her aching head.

“Begging your pardon, Miss Tempest, Miss Valerie is here to see you,” Mary informed her mistress.

Tempest couldn’t help letting out a groan. She toyed with the idea of telling her maid to inform Valerie that she was unwell. Knowing Valerie, she would stalk up the stairs to make sure. Not that she made it a habit to avoid her cousin; far from it. She was wary of the young chit’s talk about marriage.

Valerie, being eighteen years old, was desperate to be married. The silly child couldn’t hold a conversation without bringing marriage into it. She always went against her reasoning whenever Tempest told her the ills of answering to a man’s beck and call and pandering to his every need.

“I don’t care. I don’t want to be an old maid like you, Tempest. At twenty-two, you ought to be married with children.”

Tempest grimaced when she recalled the last conversation she had had with her cousin concerning marriage. Then, Valerie had been preparing for her second season. Her first hadn’t been successful.

Tempest chuckled as the pain in her head began receding. She remembered her first and only season with humour. Of course, she hadn’t wanted to engage in the folly of parading herself for a suitor to look her way, but her father had put his foot down on the matter. She gave him allowances to win their battles sometimes. So, she had prepared, trussed up like a turkey about to be auctioned and attended one ball after another.

From the stoical way she had replied to all the men who approached her at such soirees, she had been shocked to receive offers before the season was over. She had endeavoured to find one excuse or the other to reject their offers, much to her father’s chagrin.

She had vehemently refused to go on her second season, calling it a waste of time. Her father had threatened hail and brimstone, but she had stood her ground. She wasn’t going through that torture again of numerous balls, forced polite conversations and multiple dancing that could cripple someone. No, such things weren’t for her.

Resignedly, she said, “Tell her I’ll be down shortly. Then come back and help me prepare.”

“Yes, Miss Tempest.”

Over the next hour, as Tempest prepared to receive her cousin since she couldn’t avoid her, she pondered on her view concerning marriage. She couldn’t quite say when she started harbouring ill-feelings towards marriage.

Her parents had had a beautiful union before her mother’s demise. A smile played at her lips as she fondly remembered the love her parents had shared. An emotion, which she considered silly now. It made one do the most outrageous of things just to please one’s partner. Not that she had ever been in love, and she hoped to God that she would never succumb to the dreadful feeling.

Unperturbed was she by the whispers and snickering behind fans that she received whenever she was out in public. If she was going to be called an old maid for the rest of her life, so be it.

“An oddity you are,” her Aunt Beth would say.

At sixteen, she had already known she wasn’t going to get married. She wasn’t like those silly debutantes trying to snag wealthy and handsome men for themselves.

Oh, dear, that sounds pretty condescending.

Simply because she didn’t believe in the art of matrimony didn’t mean she had to belittle those who did. After all, her mother, bless her dear soul, had been ensconced in it.

Perhaps, Papa is right after all. Maybe coming into a considerable inheritance at such a young age altered my thoughts about men. Mayhaps if I wasn’t a wealthy lady, I too would be looking for a man to snag.

A giggle released from her lips as her maid pulled a brush through her hair. She imagined herself at a ball, batting her eyelids at a man and waving her fan at her flushed face, pretending she was about to swoon so the man could catch her.

Oh, how silly she would look. She had seen that act so many times during her first season and thought it shameless. Sometimes, she wished she were a man who ladies fawned over so she could tell them off in the sternest of ways.

Alas, she was a woman who was beholden to be answerable to a man, which was unfair in her opinion. Her mother, as she taught her to read and write, and various etiquette meant for ladies, had also encouraged her to

accept the things she couldn’t change. Her aunt, however, tutored her differently.

“I believe in independence,” Aunt Beth once said. “I mean taking your destiny into your own hands.”

Little wonder she never married. And now, Tempest was following in her footsteps and loving it. She acknowledged that had her mother been alive, perhaps she might be married with two small children now.

A shudder went through her at the thought. No, Mama wouldn’t have forced her to get married as her father wanted. She would have talked about the beauty of falling in love until she sold the idea to her daughter.

Garbed in a pale yellow muslin gown, she sailed out of her room after instructing Mary to tell one of the kitchen maids to serve tea in the drawing room.

She crossed the hall in dainty steps and descended the carpet-covered stairs. Pictures of her ancestors graced the walls, but she didn’t bother to glance at any of them. The only portrait she was ever interested in was that of her late mother.

As she stepped her foot into the drawing room, Valerie pushed herself from the French windows. A woebegone look marked her lovely face, which got Tempest’s delicately carved brows rising.

“What took you so long? I’m in despair!”

Good Lord, I should have stayed abed all day.

Chapter Two
Strombridge, 1816.

Massive coughing wracked the body of the deathly thin woman on her sickbed. Agnes sighed as she wiped her mouth with her handkerchief. It was no longer a thing of surprise to see blood mixed with her spittle.

She was dying, and she knew it. As she lay back upon her satin pillows, looking as white as death with her ragged breathing, she recalled what Dr Camden had said.

The crushed expression on his face had told its own story. After examining her, he had shaken his head repeatedly.

“It’s not looking good,” he had finally informed her.

“Oh, please, Camden. I’m not a child. Tell me without mincing words how bad it is,” she had snapped at the man with a sour countenance.

Dr. Camden, still shaking the mop of grey hair on his head, had rubbed his chin before casting wary eyes on her.

“I reckon you have at most a few weeks to live. I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do to save you. The ailment has eaten deep in your body.”

Well, she had asked for it. Years of hiding her emotions had kept her from bursting into uncontrollable tears. Even as her lips had quivered, she had hidden it behind her handkerchief.

“Very well,” she had said. “I’ll put things in order before my demise. Thank you for your honesty.”

The doctor had nodded, put back his tools in his wooden box, and left. That was over a month ago. She had been confined to her sickbed ever since. Her lawyer had been called to make the appropriate arrangements.

Another bout of coughing wracked her body. The bed creaked heavily as she moved back and forth, willing the painful pangs to stop.

A sigh left her lips when it finally came to an end. Sometimes, she wished death would just take her so that she could stop going through such pains. But that would mean leaving her nephew too soon.

Tears smarted her eyes, and she hastily brushed them back. A fulfilled life she had lived. Married to the man of her dreams, she had experienced love until death took him away at a rather young age. After sizing up the male population, she had decided she wouldn’t remarry come what may. Instead, she had devoted her time in taking care of her nephew and traveling. Three countries, two continents; not everyone could boast of that.

Her only regret was that she wouldn’t see her dear Hudson get married before the cold hands of death took her away. Worry and fear for him kept her awake most nights—including her ailment.

She wished dearly that his proposal to his childhood friend hadn’t been rejected years back. He would have been married, and she would have been blessed to see his children; to carry them on her knees and tell them stories.

A lone tear slid down her pale cheek. Hudson had grown to become a handsome and wealthy man, but she feared he might end up a pauper without her to guide him through life. Strongly did she believe that a wife would be the one to curb her nephew’s excesses. Her fear that he might squander his wealth like some of his peers grew stronger by the day.

“Dear God, please take care of my precious boy,” she murmured as she dashed her handkerchief across her lips.

After a soft knock on it, the door opened silently. The man in question strode into the room, filling it with his presence. She had always known him to be a handsome lad, but at just twenty-two, he had become devastatingly attractive.

As he strode to her bed with long-legged strides, she studied him with fond eyes. At six feet four, he towered over her, staring down at her with those piercing, unreadable blue eyes that reminded her of the ocean. His brown slashing brows creased in a frown. His lithe and lean frame was a testament to his strength. She reached up a thin hand to cup his angular clean-shaven chin as he sat beside her. Just like his ancestors who he shared aristocratic features with, he had deep-set eyes, aquiline nose, and a strong jaw.

“How are you today, Aunt Agnes?” he questioned in his deep masculine tones.

“As well as I can be given the situation,” she answered lightly.

A tightening in his jaw was the only indication he gave that he was troubled by her unfortunate circumstance. He had been doing an excellent job of hiding his distress over her condition, but she saw the worry lines creasing his face at times when he thought she was sleeping, or wasn’t looking.

“I came to inform you that I’m off to London.”

“Oh.”

She hoped to God that he didn’t read the concern in her eyes. Whenever he made a trip to London, she would worry until he got back. A man of his vast wealth—though a lot of people weren’t aware of it—could easily fall prey to a life of debauchery.

He was already seen as a dandy because of his style of dressing. Although she didn’t understand what was wrong with a man preferring to wear trousers to breeches. Hudson was quite a stylish fellow with a clean cravat always tied around his neck.

One of her friends had once compared him to an elegant feline. Agnes had laughed because the woman knew nothing of her nephew. While Hudson was mild-mannered with relaxed moves, he could move very fast when riled. She had witnessed it a number of times.

Most people usually had the wrong impression about her nephew. Society saw him as a libertine, a never-do-well just enjoying his family’s wealth, but they had no idea he was a very brilliant man who had invested wisely and had two inheritances courtesy of his uncle. As the fourth son in his family, he hadn’t amassed great family wealth, but he was doing remarkably well on his own.

Therein lay her fears. The boy had done so well for himself that she feared that he might just gamble it all away. Not that she had heard any rumour about him being a habitual visitor to a gaming parlour, but it took only one visit to get hooked. She should know because her late uncle had done so and lived to regret it.

“I wanted it to be a surprise, but I might as well just tell you now.” Hudson lifted her hand to his lips as a small smile graced his face.

Her brows arched. “What are you talking about, dear boy?”

“A woman has agreed to my proposal. I’m heading to London to get a special license so we can be wed immediately.”

A smile to rival the sun spanned across Agnes’s face. Dear God, this was what she had been praying for, that Hudson would finally settle down and become a man.

***

The bright smile that crossed his aunt’s face made Hudson Danvers believe that all his efforts to get married were well worth it. She clasped her thin hands in his. Tears of joys glazed her eyes, which brought a thick emotion clogging his throat.

It was all for her. Even if he wished he had made another match, seeing how happy his words had made his aunt brought him joy. She was the only woman in the world he would go to the extreme for.

“Hudson, I don’t know what to say,” she finally said in a small voice.

Ever since the illness took over her body, his usual witty and loquacious aunt had shriveled. Observing as the ailment slowly took her away from him, every day was sheer torture. He had done everything he could to try to get her treatment to the unknown sickness all to no avail. No doctor seemed to be able to find a cure. They all shook their heads in sorrow after their examinations.

“Say you’re happy for me,” he told her, raising her hand to his lips again.

Tears spilled down her thin face. “Of course, I’m happy for you. But why didn’t you tell me? You would spring a wife on me? Oh, I suppose I should expect that from you. You’ve been doing that all your life, you naughty boy.”

Hudson smiled. This was the most extended conversation he had had with her in a while. Usually, she was too weak or too sick to talk much. The news of his impending marriage seemed to have brought life into her. Perhaps …

He shook his head. It was too much to hope that his marriage might bring a miraculous recovery. The doctors had been firm in saying that she had very little time to live.

Her hand went up to his chin. “What’s wrong, Hudson?”

Lowering his gaze for her not to see the sorrow in it, he said resignedly, “I wish—”

She shook her head as she cut him off. “No, don’t do this to yourself. I’ve made peace with my situation. I must confess that I was worried about you, but knowing that you’re about to settle down has given me immense joy. I believe I’ll go to my grave with a smile on my face.”

How this wonderful woman lying before him could be so relaxed about the fact that she was dying was beyond him. Granted, she had lived well, but didn’t she realise that he was going to miss her? He couldn’t bear to think of the vacuum her death would create in his life.

Don’t go! Please don’t die! He wanted to cry. Such behaviour was bound to alarm her because even as a boy, he had rarely shown any emotion. But she had no idea how much he loved her and how much he wanted to please her.

She had taken the position of his mother when the woman who birthed him was laid to rest. His three elder brothers had no inkling of how much she meant to him. They had been independent when their mother died except him who had still needed nurturing. Aunt Agnes had stepped in and given him all the love and attention he needed at such a young age. For that, he would be eternally grateful to her.

“Can I ask you a question, Hudson?”

The seriousness in her tone got him jerking his head. Her intense gaze made him reach out to drag his cravat from his neck. Why did she still have the power to make him feel like a little boy who had done something silly?

At sixty and looking every bit her age due to her ailment, she could still make him squirm under her penetrating scrutiny. Her demure stature had never stopped her from being intimidating when she wanted to be.

Hudson cleared his throat and scratched the back of his neck with a lean finger.

“Yes, Aunt Agnes.”

Peering into his eyes as if trying to read his soul, she softly queried, “Are you happy? I mean, are you certain you’ve made the right choice? You were pretty broken when your proposal was rejected years ago.”

Hudson’s lips thinned. He didn’t want to remember the girl who had broken his heart by her rejection. He hastily pushed away the memory.

His aunt had asked a simple but difficult question. It went against the grain for him to fib, but he had to for her sake. If she got to know that she was the primary reason he had settled for his betrothed, she would tell him to call it off immediately.

Deep down inside, he wanted to settle down. However, he wasn’t confident that the girl he had chosen to marry was who he would have picked had he time on his hands. Aunt Agnes, despite a difficult pill to swallow, was dying. Getting married immediately would put her mind at rest, for he knew that she worried about him. Why? he couldn’t say. In her thoughts, she most likely felt being married with children would make a responsible man out of him.

Hudson didn’t think so. He knew quite a number of his peers who were married yet a great disappointment to their families.

“If it’s taking so long for you to answer my questions, mayhaps I should be concerned.”

His aunt’s words cut into Hudson’s thoughts. He smiled sheepishly at her. She gave him the stern eye, which got him reeling with laughter. He kissed her hand.

“Aunt Agnes, you have nothing to worry about. I chose a beautiful young woman who will bear my sons.”

“And are you happy?” she pressed, regarding him intently.

Searching his soul, Hudson couldn’t possibly claim joy at the proposed union. The girl had fit his prospects of a wife, and her father had readily and gladly accepted his proposal. Time couldn’t be wasted courting her, and so, he had offered for her immediately.

“Yes, Aunt Agnes. I’m happy,” he answered, hoping his voice was steady enough for her not to think otherwise.

She smiled. “That’s all I want, Hudson; your happiness.”

He nodded, avoiding her gaze as pain squeezed his chest. Losing his aunt would surely devastate him beyond words.

“Do I know her? What’s her name? What family is she from?”

Hudson shook his head. “You’ll get to know all that very soon, Aunt Agnes. All in good time.”

She smiled again. “I can rest easy now, knowing everything will be well with you.”

As Hudson descended the staircase to get to the front door, his aunt’s words came back to him. Although he had feigned happiness at his settling down, he wasn’t sure if everything would indeed be well with him.

A knot had formed in his chest that he couldn’t seem to shake off. His bride to be was beautiful, from a good home, and had a large dowry; although that was insignificant to him. He didn’t quite understand why he felt ill at ease with the union.

Maybe it’s just my mind, he surmised when he couldn’t come up with an explanation for the feeling of dread running through his body.

Hudson nodded at the butler, who opened the door. His carriage was already positioned in front of the house when he descended the stairs. He paused and turned to stare at the white Elizabethan manor he had grown up in. Nostalgic feelings hit him, which drove a wedge up his throat.

Sighing, he turned and swung swiftly into the carriage to relax on the padded seat. As the horses rode away from the grounds of his familial estate, Hudson’s heart beat a rapid thud against his chest. When next he set foot in Strombridge, he would be a married man.

 Chapter Three

Tempest warily eyed the younger woman who was looking quite fetching in a sea blue pastel and high-waisted gown which made her ample bosom prominent and emphasised her thin waist. Her shining blonde hair was caught in a chignon at the base of her neck.

The only similarity the two cousins shared were their height. They were both petite, standing at 5’6, but that was about it. While Valerie was blonde with blue eyes and with somewhat of a voluptuous figure, Tempest was a redhead with brown eyes and a slim frame.

They were both quite beautiful in their own right. But while Valerie’s beauty was the first thing one would notice about her, Tempest was a cool and classic beauty with a high forehead, a patrician nose, high cheekbones, and full lips.

In character, they also differed. Tempest was independent and hardworking, Valerie was selfish and manipulative. The younger woman made sure she got her heart’s desires irrespective of how it affected anyone around her.

Ignoring her cousin for a moment, Tempest settled herself on one of the brocade sofas in the drawing room. Seemingly unperturbed, she arranged the skirt of her dress across her legs.

“Didn’t you hear me, Tempest?” Valerie asked as she paced on the Aubusson carpet by the windows.

Elevating her head, Tempest asked, “What has you in despair, Valerie?”

“I’m to be wed,” the girl answered sharply.

Oh, dear. I’m going to have my ears filled again about the benefits of marriage. But wait, why is she in despair if she’s to be married? Something isn’t right.

Coolly, Tempest said, “Congratulations.”

“You can’t congratulate me.”

Tempest’s brows lifted. “Oh! Why ever not? Isn’t it what you’ve always wanted? To hand over your wealth to a man in exchange for being his personal slave?”

Valeria paused in her stride to fix angry eyes on her cousin. “How dare you describe the beauty of marriage in such a horrid manner?”

Tempest simply shrugged. She wondered why her cousin was looking at her in such a scandalised manner. She had never made excuses for her distaste of the so-called holy matrimony.

She wasn’t being harsh or anything of that nature. Realism was what she usually employed when dealing with such matters. She was a firm believer that women were the losers when it came to marriage. That fact had never been hidden from Valerie.

“Why do you appear shocked?” Tempest questioned her cousin, who she had always regarded as a sweet, silly girl without common sense. “I have never minced words when I’m referring to what you debutantes see as a lifesaver, your only future.”

“You can’t go on addressing marriage that way!” She stomped her slipper-clad dainty feet on the carpet. “It’s preposterous of you to continue thinking that women who marry become slaves to their husbands.”

Tempest sighed. “Dear innocent Valerie, you must open your eyes and see things exactly as they are. After offering your wealth to your husband as dowry, he marries you, then secures you in one of his houses. After that, he carries on with his life while you are turned into a breeder for him to get his heir. Does that look even the remotest to being enticing?”

Valerie was prevented from answering when a soft knock on the door admitted a maid who came in bearing a tray. Both cousins were silent as the maid served the steaming cups of tea and handed each of them theirs.

“You get to be someone’s wife,” Valeria stated firmly as soon as the servant shut the door, placing her untouched tea on one of the small stools. “You get to love someone and be loved in return!”

“Bah!” Tempest waved a hand reflecting her disdain at the word ‘love’. “What a useless emotion!”

Tempest considered herself fortunate that she didn’t believe in the silly sensation that made fools of the indulgers. If only she could get Valerie to see it was all a waste.

But the young chit wouldn’t listen to her. Valerie had always had her head in the clouds; she still believed that a handsome and wealthy man would make an offer for her, and she would live happily ever after. Tempest surmised that it was due to all the novels she loved reading. Tempest couldn’t be bothered by such pure lies.

She knew the emotion was all a hogwash in fact. After listening to her fellow debutantes during her first season, she got to know most of the young chits who weren’t from wealthy homes and were being sponsored were after only wealthy husbands.

Tempest had her ears filled with talk about snagging men with vast properties and means of income. Most, if not all, had come to London for the sake of increasing their family’s social circles and wealth. Love hadn’t been mentioned, not once.

Eyeing her cousin now, she wasn’t sure if Valerie fell under the few who had wished the suitors they were in love with would meet their family’s approval.

“Do you want to tell me that you’ve never been in love?”

Tempest only just held herself from bursting into laughter. Valerie would find it unkind of her if she did. Not an ounce of inkling did she have concerning love, but she didn’t want to appear as cold and unfeeling as her cousin obviously saw her.

“I was fond of a young man once,” she related lamely.

The surprise in Valerie’s eyes got Tempest giggling.

“Oh, come now, Valerie. Surely you don’t think I’m devoid of human emotions.”

Her cousin licked her lips. “You always give the impression of one who would freeze hell if you found yourself about to be married to the Devil himself.”

Tempest laughed so hard that she spilled a little of her tea. She gently placed it on the small stool beside the sofa.

“What a wild and vivid imagination you have, Valerie,” she chided gently.

“I’m just saying,” her cousin defended her words. “You don’t believe in love, and you don’t believe in marriage. Tell me, what exactly do you believe in?”

“I believe in a woman’s independence. I believe in a woman having the right to choose what she wants in her life. I believe in a noblewoman engaging in any work she chooses to do without having society frown at it. In place of her wasting her time with sewing, knitting, managing the home or bearing children, she could put her brain into proper use.”

Valerie’s eyes widened like saucers. “Good Lord, Tempest! Surely you don’t mean such insane things. A woman having to work!” She clicked her tongue in disgust.

Tempest regretted instantly sharing her views with the naïve and impressionable chit. She should have known better than to share her idealism with someone who only saw things as black and white.

Telling her there was more that she could attain in life other than marrying and breeding children was a total waste of her breath. In the future, she would watch her words against such silliness.

“Forget I ever said such things,” she quickly put in, realising that she was being a tad unfair. Simply because her cousin and the rest of the world didn’t share in her ideas didn’t mean she had to cast aspersions on their beliefs. Aunt Beth had taught her better.

“Indubitably, I’m going to erase such thoughts from my mind. I really ought not to have such conversations with you, else you poison my mind, and I start having such thoughts, too. God forbid I end up an old maid like you!”

Had it been last year Valerie spoke such harsh words to her, it would have made her stricken with hurt. But now, she wasn’t concerned what her cousin thought of her. Old maid, left on the shelf, or whatever phrase was given to an unmarried woman she might be, at least, she was happy and satisfied with her life.

***

Guilt stole up Valerie’s face and reddened her cheeks. She hadn’t meant to call Tempest to her face the name she and her friends called her when they were talking about her.

Her cousin would definitely end up like Aunt Elizabeth, who was still unmarried at sixty, but she didn’t think it was fair of her to call her an old maid.

Tempest was unmarried by choice, not because she lacked suitors. She was beautiful and had a good dowry which would attract even wealthy men. Rumour had it that she had turned down all the men after her first season. Tempest never discussed it with her. So she couldn’t be sure about it.

“They were unsuitable,” Tempest had once said when she asked. Her cousin had changed the topic, and no matter how she tried, she hadn’t been able to draw her back to it.

Even if she lived to a thousand years, she would never understand the kind of woman her cousin was. When they were children, Tempest wasn’t like this. She was very easygoing and impressionable like her. Although they were four years apart, they used to play games together.

They played the ‘damsel in distress’ game with their dolls. Knights in shining armour would come to their rescue, and they would marry them. They were always delighted at the outcome of such games.

Valerie figured it was the death of Tempest’s mother that caused the change in her. Perhaps Aunt Elizabeth had sold her silly spinster ideas into the poor child she had come to take care of. And now, poor Tempest was just like her; truth be told, even worse.

What a waste! Such a beautiful and intelligent woman with riches was willing to while away her life as a spinster doing only God knows what. She hadn’t quite asked Tempest what she hoped to do with her life without a husband by her side or children.

“With such inane ideas, Tempest, I’m forced to ask you what you wish to do until you’re old and greying. A woman without a husband or children doesn’t seem to have a lot of options in our society. Even widows strive to remarry.”

Valerie’s eyes narrowed when she noted a spark of mischief in her cousin’s eyes. What was it about this woman she couldn’t understand?

A mischievous smile dancing on her lips, Tempest said, “There are a variety of things I could do with myself, Valerie. You don’t have to worry your pretty little head about it.”

Tempest’s condescending tone grated on Valerie’s nerves. She couldn’t care less if her cousin decided to spend the rest of her days ensconced in her room; she was more interested in her own life, which reminded her of her reason for seeking out her cousin that morning.

For all her sins, Tempest was a very reliable person. She would go out of her way to help anyone in need. She could be quite demanding, but she had a heart and took care of others; sometimes finding time to have fun with them like taking a walk, a ride to the park, or having tea. Whatever she lacked in stature, she made up for it with her wit.

Tempest was a force of nature when someone stepped out of line. Valerie was ready to use her cousin’s hatred for marriage to her advantage. Since she could cry at the drop of a hat, she dredged up tears in her eyes.

“Oh, Tempest, you just reminded me why I indeed have to worry.” Valerie broke down in tears as she flounced herself beside her cousin on the sofa.

***

Although she didn’t appreciate theatrics, Tempest had to give her cousin onus for always engaging in it. If she weren’t already used to Valerie’s mood swings, she would have batted her eyelids in shock at the change. One minute, she was all serious, looking down at her with disdain at what she termed crazy ideas, now she was all teary-eyed. Maybe she ought to tell Aunt Beth to find a place for Valerie with a theatrical group since the former used to be an opera singer. Tempest had no doubt that her cousin would fit right in.

Tempest sipped her tea, waiting for the weeping girl to get a hold of her floundering emotions and tell her what had got her so distraught. Perhaps she just found out that she wasn’t really in love with her betrothed. Or maybe he didn’t love her.

She stifled a giggle that almost burst from her throat. She didn’t mean to be cruel; such obvious heartache was what she tried to avoid at all cost. Not only was the person affected, but everyone around her as well.

Exhaling softly, Tempest decided not to say anything. She would wait until the young woman was good and ready to share what had her so upset. The older woman, however, grew alarmed when her cousin continued to weep for minutes on end.

Tempest placed her teacup on the small stool and turned to study Valerie, who was dabbing her wet eyes with her flowery handkerchief.

“Valerie! Whatever is the problem?” Tempest couldn’t help the alarm that rang in her voice. She did so loathe seeing someone so distressed, even if it was over something silly.

Gulping as her chest heaved, Valerie curved her body to fix her wet eyes on her cousin.

“Tempest,” she called, her cheeks flushed, “I fear I have made a bad match.”

“A bad match? What are you talking about?”

How could Valerie possibly make a bad match when all she had ever dreamed of was getting married to a man worthy of her? The young chit had been very selective during her first season. Had desperation caused her to choose anyone, and now she realised her mistake? Tempest wouldn’t be surprised.

When Valerie continued weeping, compassion flowed from Tempest. Even if she was averse to what the girl held dear, she didn’t like seeing her like this. So, she drew closer and put an arm around the girl’s quivering shoulders.

“There, there, Valerie. Pull yourself together and tell me what’s going on,” she comforted in a soothing voice.

Accepting solace from her cousin, Valerie hiccupped and said, “He approached Father for my hand. I wasn’t even informed before Father accepted. Now, I must marry him!”

Tempest sighed, still cuddling her cousin in her arms. Her father’s brother was a very strict man, consequently she wasn’t in the least surprised at the turn of events. The man must have had it with Valerie’s fickle ways and decided to take matters into his own hands.

Unlike her, Valerie wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. She was afraid of even her father’s shadow and would dare not challenge him, which was a pity. Now she would end up marrying a man she was ill-suited for after her years of dreaming of a perfect man.

Tempest fought for words to tell her cousin. What could she say? Defy your father? The girl would probably have a fit at hearing that. Tempest knew it would be a fruitless exercise going to have a word with Valerie’s father. To put it kindly, the man was as stubborn as a mule.

As things were, Valerie just had to brace herself and marry whoever the man was. Tempest didn’t see what she could do in the matter although she would have loved to help. It seemed so unfair that her cousin wouldn’t get her heart’s desire.

Tempest was enjoying her own life because she chose to live it that way. It was only fair for Valerie to enjoy hers with the man she chose to marry, not some man foisted on her by her father.

A thought crossed her mind just then. What if it wasn’t actually a bad match? Valerie sometimes behaved like a silly child. Perhaps it’s something as trivial as the man’s looks. Maybe he wasn’t as tall as she wished or an elegant dresser.

“Valerie,” she began softly, “please stop crying and tell me why you think you’ve made a bad match.” Pushing back the laughter in her chest, she lightly added, “Isn’t he handsome enough?”

Valerie jerked from her embrace and sniffed. Shaking her head, which loosened some strands from her chignon, she replied, “He’s handsome. Very. You won’t find any fault in his appearance at all.”

Tempest’s interest was more than piqued by now. A very handsome man hadn’t caught Valerie’s approval? How strange!

“Who is this man if I may ask?”

Sniffing, Valerie reached for her reticule and brought out what looked like a crumpled picture. She thrust it at her cousin.

“He gave this to me.”

All the colour drained from Tempest’s face when she recognised the man in the picture.

Hudson Danvers!


“The Irresistible Lady Behind the Mask” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Tempest Haddington is a woman who thrives to be independent. Not caring much about marriage, she focuses her efforts on secretly running a gaming parlour. When she helps her friend break off her engagement to the libertine Hudson, she thinks she’s doing the right thing. Unfortunately, her scheme does not go unnoticed and he wants payback…in the form of a marriage between them! When her mask is off, will Tempest succumb to the handsome man, or will her stubbornness cost her a true romance?

Hudson is desperate to get married ever since his aunt expressed her desire to see him wed before dying. Valerie might not be his first choice, but it seems like it’s the only solution. Unfortunately, he is set up at a secret gaming parlour and the engagement is broken. When he discovers that the mastermind behind all this is his stunning childhood friend, he will choose a wicked way to take his revenge. When sparks start flying between them, how will he convince her that he has a burning desire for her, one that he’s never felt before?

A passionate tale of intrigue, suspense, and twists that will leave you gasping for more. When their initial flame turns to full-fletched fire, will they be able to handle it despite the forces that try to keep them apart?

“The Irresistible Lady Behind the Mask” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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