Sara drew the borrowed cloak around herself and reached for the flask. The brandy was strong but mellow, a pleasant fire that eased the tautness of her nerves and the chattering of her teeth.
“My husband is probably wondering where I am,” Lily remarked.
“What will you tell him?”
“I’m not certain yet. It will have to be something close to the truth.” Lily grinned cheerfully. “Alex can always tell when I’m lying outright.”
Sara smiled. Not only did Lily take pleasure in recounting outrageous tales of her past misbehavior, but she freely gave her opinions about anyone and anything. She had an amazingly cavalier attitude toward men. “They’re easy to manage, and entirely predictable,” Lily had said earlier. “If something is easily given, they’re indifferent to it. If something is withheld, they want it desperately.”
As she mulled over Lily’s advice, Sara thought that perhaps she had been right about withholding. Perry Kingswood had always known that as soon as he cared to propose, Sara would accept. Perhaps if he hadn’t been so certain of her, it wouldn’t have taken four years to come to the brink of an engagement. When I return to Greenwood Corners, Sara thought, I’ll be a new woman. She would be as self-confident and independent as Lily herself. And then Perry would fall madly in love with her.
Pleased by the notion, Sara bolstered herself with more brandy.
“You’d better go easy on that,” Lily advised.
“It’s quite bracing.”
“It’s quite potent. Here—it’s time to put your mask on. Don’t be nervous.”
“It’s a lovely mask,” Sara said, toying with the narrow black silk ribbons before tying it in place. Monique had artfully fashioned it out of black silk and lace, and glinting blue sapphires that matched her gown. “I’m not nervous at all.” It was true. She felt as if some reckless stranger had replaced her usual cautious self. The midnight-blue gown molded to her figure, cut so low that her br**sts seemed ready to spill from the meager bodice. A broad satin sash fastened with a gold buckle emphasized her small waist. The mask covered the upper half of her face but revealed her lips, which Monique and Lily had insisted on darkening with the faintest hint of rouge. Laboriously they had arranged her hair in a cluster of curls on top of her head, allowing a few ringlets to dangle teasingly against her cheeks and neck. A perfume that reminded Sara of roses blended with some deeper foresty scent had been applied sparingly to her bosom and throat.
“A triumph,” Monique had declared, gloating over the transformation. “Beautiful, worldly, but still fresh and young…ah, chérie, you will make many conquests tonight!”
“Stunning,” Lily had said, beaming with delight. “What a stir she’ll cause. You’ll undoutedly hear all the gossip tomorrow morning, Monique.”
“Bien sûr, everyone will come in to ask who she is, clucking like a flock of jealous hens!”
As the two had congratulated themselves, Sara had stared at the unfamiliar reflection in the mirror, her stomach jumping excitedly The image was that of an experienced woman, well-versed in the art of seduction. “Not a mouse tonight,” she had whispered with a wondering smile. “You won’t even know me, Mr. Craven.”
At the sound of Lily’s vaguely anxious voice, Sara recalled herself to the present. “If you have any trouble tonight,” Lily was saying, “just shout for Worthy.”
“There won’t be any need for that,” Sara said airily, and tipped the flask for another deep swallow.
“You’d better say something to Worthy when you go in. He won’t recognize you otherwise.”
Sara smiled smugly at the thought. “Neither will Mr. Craven.”
“I’m not certain I like the look in your eyes,” Lily said uneasily “Be careful, Sara. Strange things have been known to happen at these assemblies. I ended up married after a particularly memorable one. Here, give me back that flask. I think you’ve had enough.”
Reluctantly Sara gave back the brandy, while Lily delivered a final lecture. “Don’t accept any wagers, or you’ll be tricked into playing prick-the-garter with some randy buck before you know what’s happened. And mind that you don’t go to the back rooms with anyone—that’s where people disappear for a convenient tail tickle.”
“Worthy didn’t tell me that.”
“He was probably too embarrassed,” Lily said darkly. “Those rooms are designed to muffle all sound, and they’re filled with questionable pieces of furniture upon which all manner of sordid things have taken place.”
“How do you know so much about them?”
“Hearsay, of course.” Lily grinned in a way that belied her innocent tone. “Out of the carriage, minx.”
“Thank you,” Sara said earnestly. “Thank you for everything. I do wish you would let me pay for the gown, and the silk undergarments, and—”
“I won’t hear of it,” Lily interrupted. “You can tell me all about the ball someday. That will be payment enough.” She waved Sara away with a laugh.
The footman assisted Sara from the carriage, and she walked up the steps alone. Perhaps it was just a touch of giddiness from the brandy, but she was feeling most strange. The night was magical, menacing, kaleidoscopic. The marble steps beneath her feet seemed to shift like sands moved by the tide. Something was going to happen to her tonight. Whether the morrow brought happiness or regret, she knew that for at least a few hours she would have lived as boldly as she had always dreamed of doing.
“Madam?” the butler asked imperturbably as she swept into the entrance. It was his responsibility to filter out uninvited guests, otherwise the assembly balls would swell to unmanageable proportions.
Sara smiled faintly as she slipped off the black cloak, revealing the sumptuous curves of her figure outlined snugly in blue velvet. “Good evening,” she said, lowering her voice at least an octave. “You must be Ellison. Miss Fielding has told me about you.”
Ellison, who had confided everything to her, from his mother’s recent illness to his fondness for kidney pie, clearly didn’t recognize her. “You’re a guest of Miss Fielding’s?”
“I’m very close to her,” Sara assured him. “She said I would be welcome tonight.” She shrugged her silky shoulders. “However, if that’s not the case—”
“Wait, madam…” A trace of wonder entered his usually impassive voice. “May I ask your name?”
She leaned close to him. “I don’t think that would be wise,” she confided. “I’m afraid my reputation would tend to make things quite inconvenient.”
Ellison’s face turned pink. It was easy to read the thoughts that whirled through his mind. A beautiful, mysterious woman, with a vague connection to Miss Fielding…“M-madam,” he stuttered in barely restrained excitement. “Could it be? May I ask if you are…M-Mathilda? The real Mathilda?”
Her red lips pursed thoughtfully. “It’s possible.” She handed her cloak to him and glided into the building. She felt no shame at her ruse. After all, if anyone had a right to assume Mathilda’s identity, it was her creator!
A cluster of three young rakes who had stood behind Sara at the entrance stared after her eagerly. “Did you hear that?” one of them gasped. “Hang me if that ain’t Mathilda.”
“It could be a masquerade,” one of his companions pointed out reasonably.
“No, no, that’s her,” the first insisted. “I’ve a friend who spent an evening with Mathilda in Bath last June. She’s just as he described her.”
“Let’s follow her.”
“Mathilda couldn’t have been in Bath last June,” the third argued. “I heard she was touring the continent with one of the Berkleys.”
“Was that before or after she joined the convent?”
Sara did not notice the three men debating and following her. Having caught sight of Worthy, she made her way through the central hazard room. Her progress was impeded by a multitude of men suddenly offering to bring her punch, asking her to dance, pleading for her attention. Someone pressed a glass into her hand, and she accepted it with a smile. Pausing to sip the spicy mixture, she savored the flow of warmth through her veins. Gracefully she lifted a black-gloved hand to push a dangling curl away from her forehead, and smiled at the crowd around her. “Gentlemen,” she said in a throaty voice, “you’re quite a dashing assortment, and I’m flattered by your attentions, but you’re all speaking at once. I can only manage three or four of you at a time.”
They renewed their efforts enthusiastically. “Miss, may I escort you to one of the card rooms—”
“—a glass of wine?”
“—a sweetmeat or two?”
“—if would dance the waltz with me—”
Sara declined all the invitations with a regretful pout. “Perhaps later. I must leave to greet an old friend, or he’ll be heartbroken at my neglect.”
“I’ll soon expire of a broken heart myself,” one of them exclaimed, and the gathering attempted to follow Sara as she slipped to the side of the room where Worthy stood.
Smiling in triumph, Sara stood before him and made a small curtsey. “Well?” she demanded.
The factotum bowed deferentially. “Welcome to Craven’s, madam.”
As the factotum resumed his preoccupied perusal of the room, Sara frowned slightly and inched closer. “Are you looking for someone?” she asked in her normal voice, following the direction of his gaze. “Is something happening?”
Suddenly Worthy’s eyes were riveted on her. He removed his spectacles, polished them roughly, and replaced them to stare at her in amazement. “Miss Fielding?” he asked in a shocked whisper. “Is that you?”
“Of course it’s me. Didn’t you recognize me?” She beamed at him. “Do you like the transformation? Lady Raiford is responsible for all of it.”
Worthy choked and stammered, and could not seem to reply. As he glanced at her lusciously exposed figure, his face turned pale with fatherly dismay. Sara accepted another glass of punch from a passing servant and drained it thirstily. “How delicious this is,” she exclaimed. “It’s very warm in here, isn’t it? That music is enthralling—I can scarcely keep my feet still. I’m going to dance tonight, the quadrille and the waltz and—”
“Miss Fielding,” Worthy gasped, “that punch is much too strong for you. I’m going to have Gill bring you a drink without spirits—”
“No, I want to drink what everyone else is drinking.” She inclined her head toward him until her fruit-scented breath fogged his spectacles. “And don’t call me Miss Fielding. There’s no Miss Fielding here tonight.”
Worthy stuttered helplessly, polishing his spectacles once more. In the space of a few seconds he prepared a speech that would herald her immediate departure from the ball. He had never suspected Sara Fielding could be transformed into a blood-stirring temptress. Everything about her was different; her voice, her movements, her entire demeanor. Even the shape of her face seemed to have changed. By the time Worthy fitted the spectacles back onto his nose, she was gone, whisked away by a pair of dandies who managed to look bored and lecherous at the same time. The factotum began to signal frantically for Gill, hoping that between the two of them, they could avert the coming disaster. If Mr. Craven happened to see her…
Sensitive to Worthy’s harried expression and wild gestures, Gill approached from the opposite side of the octagonal-shaped room. “Trouble?” the young man asked.
“Miss Fielding is here! We must find her at once.”
Gill shrugged, seeing no reason for concern. “She’s probably in a corner somewhere, watching and listening to everyone as usual.”
“Miss Fielding is not herself this evening,” Worthy said tersely. “It’s a dangerous situation, Gill.”
“You sound as if you expect her to cause some sort of trouble,” Gill said, and laughed at the notion. “That sweet, quiet little spinster…”
“That sweet, quiet spinster is capable of setting this entire club on its ear,” Worthy hissed. “Find her, Gill, before Mr. Craven does. She’s wearing a blue dress and a black mask.”
“That describes at least two dozen women here,” Gill pointed out. “And I don’t think I could recognize her without her spectacles.” He poked Worthy’s arm, his interest occupied by a more urgent matter. “By the by, do you know what I heard just before I came over here? Mathilda may be attending the ball. Mathilda herself! Well, I’d like to hear Miss Fielding try to claim there’s no Mathilda after this.”
“Find her,” Worthy said in a strangled voice.
“I’ll try,” Gill said dubiously, and sauntered away.
Worthy scanned the crowd for a sight of Sara’s blue gown, his foot tapping the floor. As he considered alerting more of the club’s employees to search for the elusive Miss Fielding, he heard a soft drawl that sent a chill down his spine.
“Looking for someone?”
After gulping painfully, Worthy turned to face Derek Craven’s grim countenance. “Sir?” he croaked.
“I know she’s here,” Derek said, his green eyes hard behind the stark black mask he wore. “I saw her not a minute ago. Slinking around to look for me, asking questions—she’s as subtle as an elephant stampede. I hope I can keep from killing the bitch with my bare hands—or giving her a scar to match the one she gave me.”
With equal parts of relief and horror, Worthy realized Craven was referring to Lady Ashby. “Lady Ashby had the effrontery to attend the ball?” Temporarily he forgot about the problem of Sara Fielding. “Would you like me to remove her from the club, sir?”
“Not quite yet,” Derek said grimly. “First I’m going to talk to her.”
Lady Ashby waited by a massive column, watching the milling crowd like a cat studying its prey. Her slender body was draped in a gold silk gown that matched her hair. A mask of gold and silver feathers covered her narrow, perfectly sculpted face.
Suddenly a clenching pain attacked the back of her head, as a large hand twisted in the mass of her curls. The unseen man behind her twined his fingers more tightly, preventing her from turning her head. Her breath escaped in a hiss of pain. Slowly she relaxed. “Derek,” she murmured, staying perfectly still.