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Chapter 1

 

Rose Danvers sat in her father’s library, her feet tucked delicately beneath her and a book in her lap.

The room was full of lavish furniture and rich décor, but the grandeur of the room was lost to Rose in that moment as she wandered pages of brave, independent heroines and the romantic, strong, kind men they loved. Such stories were her favorites, because she cherished the idea of spending the rest of a person’s days with the loves of their lives.

Rose was so engrossed that she did not hear the door creak open or the footsteps approach her. She was unaware that she was no longer alone in the room at all until she felt warm breath on face. As a pair of lips touched her cheek, she started a bit.

A deep, hearty chuckle followed the gentle kiss.

“Forgive me, my dear,” the Earl of Roxbough said, stroking her hair.

“Father,” Rose said, putting her book to the side and rising to hug him. “I did not know you would be back so soon.”

“Soon?” the earl said, shaking his head with affection. “Daughter, darling, I have been gone almost all afternoon.”

Rose blinked, fumbling for her watch and noting the time. She had been reading since just after breakfast.

Her father chuckled again, touching her blushing cheek with a gentle hand.

“Time does get away from you when you read, doesn’t it?” her father teased. “Some days, I believe that I will find that you have vanished into the very pages of the stories you read.”

Rose blushed and giggled.

“Just remember who it was that bought me all these books,” she teased back.

The earl laughed again.

“And I could not be prouder that you love to read so,” he said.

Rose beamed at her father.

“I trust that your trip to town went well,” she said, taking her seat once more.

Her father smiled. Not for the first time, Rose noticed a shadow of unhappiness under her father’s eyes, despite how gracefully he had aged. And, as with every time she noticed it, she wished that she could wipe away those shadows and make him truly happy again.

“Oh, yes,” the earl said, waving his hand. “Just a boring business meeting at the theater.”

Rose laughed.

“That meeting would be the only boring thing at the theater, to be sure,” she teased.

Her father gave an exaggerated exasperated sigh.

“You certainly speak the truth, my dear,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Then, his face lit up.

“However, there was one thing which I happened to overhear that was not quite so boring,” the earl said.

“Oh?” Rose asked, interested.

“This year’s Season will be starting in a couple of weeks,” he said.

Rose blinked, surprised.

“Are you thinking of attending some of the dances?” she asked.

Her father laughed heartily again.

“Oh, my, no,” he said. “But I do believe that you are ready to come out into the ton. You are of marriageable age, and quite a catch, if I do say so myself. And I would very much love to see you find a good man.”

Rose’s mouth fell open.

“Oh, but Father,” she said. “I have not even begun to think of marrying.”

The earl nodded and gave his daughter a kind smile.

“I know, my dear,” he said. “But I do wish very much to see you happy and well with a good, respectable husband, and meeting a few of the ton’s eligible men at these balls could do no harm.”

Rose frowned.

“I am afraid that I disagree,” she said. “I like life just as it is now. I do not have any interest whatsoever in finding a man.”

Her father took her hands in hers.

“You may feel that way now,” he said. “But I assure you, if you attend a few balls, you will begin to feel differently about it.”

Rose gave her head a firm shake.

“I must disagree again, Father,” she said. Her voice was gentle but determined. “My life right now includes my books and assisting you in managing the theater. And I am perfectly happy and content with that.”

The earl nodded.

“And having you assist me has been a true blessing, indeed,” he admitted. “But you deserve to be happy, with your own family and your own life.”

“And you do not deserve the same?” Rose asked.

Her father blinked in surprise.

“I do not know what you mean,” he said, confused.

Rose crossed her arms over her chest.

“I have seen the way you look at and interact with the Dowager Marchioness of Dolomore,” she said.

Her father blushed at once, and Rose barely suppressed a giggle.

He opened his mouth to speak but succeeded only in clearing his throat. This time, Rose did laugh aloud.

“He who attempts to tell fibs chokes on them,” she said, echoing one of her mother’s favorite sayings.

The earl cleared his throat again, with more authority this time.

“Yes, well,” he said, carefully averting his gaze from his daughter’s. “At present, we are discussing the necessity of getting you married.”

“But, Father,” Rose protested. “Do my wishes suddenly mean so little to you?”

“Of course, your wishes mean the world to me,” her father said. “I simply wonder if you do not realize that you are ready to marry because you have not yet sought a suitor.”

“I will find a suitor when I am ready to marry,” Rose said. She felt a pang of guilt as she noticed that her father’s face rapidly began to look more aged as they talked. She did not wish to upset him, but she could not reconcile herself with the idea of marriage just yet.

“And besides,” Rose continued, her voice taking on a tinge of pleading. “I wish to never be forced to marry for duty, or because it is expected of me by society.” She took her father’s hands in hers once more. “I want to marry for love, my true love. I want for myself and my husband, whenever I do at last decide to marry, what you and Mother had.”

The earl sighed, and for a moment his gaze became dreamy and distant. Rose winced, hoping that she had not caused her father fresh pain by so suddenly bringing up her mother. She had died when Rose was only eight years old, but Rose still had many clear memories of her. Rose often found herself using things like her mother’s favorite sayings or thinking about her superstitions frequently. She recalled the nights when she and her mother would read together. But the one thing Rose remembered most affectionately was the love between her mother and father.

As far back as she could remember, Rose had seen nothing but tenderness and true, unconditional love between her parents. It had never been strained or forced, like the interactions and relationships between partners in arranged marriages or marriages of convenience or duty. Their love, their mutual affection for one another, was a testament to just how perfect they were for one another. And from a young age, Rose knew that she wanted a life like the one they shared. She could not forget the sparkle in her mother’s eyes whenever she spoke about her father, and Rose knew that nothing else would do but to have someone who put that same light in her eyes.

However, she could see the continued strain that her refusal was putting on her father, and her heart broke. She wanted to see him happy, not so much sadder that he looked much older than his 45 years, and certainly not on her account. Then, an idea occurred to her.

“Why will you not tell me about what is going on between you and the Marchioness?” Rose asked.

Once more, the earl blushed.

“Because, as I told you, my dear, we are not talking about me,” he said. “Or her.”

“Well, let us suppose for a moment that we are,” Rose pressed. “What would you say about her if we were?”

Rose bit her lip to keep from giggling as her father’s flush deepened.

“I would remind you that prying eyes fill quite rapidly,” the earl said, mumbling another of Rose’s mother’s sayings. Yet Rose saw a smile he was trying in vain to hide.

“Father, please,” Rose said, giving her father an encouraging smile. “I am your daughter. You can talk to me about this. You must talk to someone about this.”

The earl sighed again, but this time he did not try to hide his smile.

“You sound so much like your mother at this moment,” he said.

“Then you know that I am right,” Rose said, patting her father’s hand.

“Indeed, you are,” he said. “And yes, you are quite right. The Dowager has captured my attention.”

Rose nodded, barely able to conceal her excitement.

“And does she return your affections?” she asked.

“Yes, I am certain that she does,” her father admitted.

“Oh, Father, that is wonderful news,” Rose said, hugging the earl.

“You celebrate far too early, I am afraid,” he said, his face darkening once more.

“But if the two of you care for one another, what is there to stop you?” Rose asked.

The earl gave his daughter a warm, endearing smile.

“You are still so young,” he said, stroking his daughter’s cheek. “At your age, love and marriage is celebrated and normal. Society expects to see men and women your age getting married and having families. Unfortunately, at my age, society is a bit less accepting.”

Rose laughed.

“At your age?” she said, giggling. “Father, you make it sound as if you are days away from your death bed.”

Her father did not smile, and Rose regretted her merriment.

“I am old enough to have a grown daughter,” he said. “In the eyes of society, the time for romantic notions has long since passed.”

“And what of the Dowager?” Rose asked. “She is only 35, is she not?”

“And at 35, were she not a widow, she would be well into her spinster years,” the earl said, nodding.

“Do you mean to say that her age is troublesome to you?” Rose asked, raising her eyebrow.

“Certainly not,” her father protested quickly and vehemently. He blushed again and cleared his throat. “That is, age is certainly no obstacle for me. I do not believe it is for her, either. But society…”

“Society does not know everything,” Rose said.

The earl blinked at her, bemused.

“Is that another of your mother’s sayings?” he asked, his brow creasing in thought.

“No,” Rose said. “It is mine.”

Her father laughed.

“And when did you think up that one?” he asked.

“Just now,” Rose said defiantly. “And it happens to be the truth.”

The earl man gave a slow nod.

“It does feel a bit silly, though,” he continued. “To be considering love and a marriage at our age. And I believe that the Dowager would feel the same about that, as well.”

Rose gasped.

“You mean you have not asked her how she feels about this?” she asked, incredulous.

Her father’s face became sheepish.

“I feel that it is best if we do not discuss, or dwell on, it much,” he said.

“So, you would presume to tell two women you love what is best for them?” Rose said, but her voice was light and gentle.

The earl looked up at his daughter with worry, until he saw her kind smile. Then he chuckled.

“What matters most to me right now is what has always mattered most,” he said. “You and the theater are my life, and I am content enough with that. And your happiness always has, and always will, come before my own.”

“But, Father,” Rose said. “How can I possibly ever be happy when you yourself are so sad, and denying yourself your own happiness?”

“It is my job to worry about you, my dear,” her father chastised, his face relaxing as he fell into the comfortable, easy role of loving, protective father.

“And so long as I am the only woman in your life, it is my job to look after, and help, you,” Rose said.

“So much like your mother,” the earl repeated, but his face was relaxing, and the smile he was wearing just then melted away some of the age that had viciously taken up residence on his face since the two of them began talking.

“Please,” Rose said, still hopeful. “At least give the idea of courting the Marchioness some thought. Make me that promise, Father.”

“Well, I must say that I never expected you to be quite so excited about the prospect,” he said, winking.

“I am thrilled about any prospect that makes you as happy as you used to be,” Rose said.

He sat back in his seat, seemingly deep in thought about something.

Rose hoped that she had gotten through to her father, not only with her protestation against seeking a husband, but about his feelings for the Marchioness, as well. She wanted nothing more than for her father to be happy again. He had been so good to her mother, and to her after her mother died. He deserved to have someone who would be good to him and with whom he would be happy, and she felt certain that her mother would agree.

“Alright,” the earl said at last. “I will consider what we have discussed, and I will think about making a serious offer of courtship to the Dowager.”

Rose clasped her hands together in front of her chest and beamed at her father.

“Oh, father, that is wonderful,” she said, her heart overfull with joy.

“On one condition, that is,” he said.

“What condition?” Rose asked, her eyes wide. She thought that she would agree to any condition if it led to her father’s happiness.

“You must agree to attend this Season and find yourself a husband,” he said.

Rose stared at her father in disbelief for several moments.

“Well, you are nothing if not relentless,” she said, sighing. She still very much dreaded the notion of seeking marriage, but she knew that further resistance was counterproductive to her mission to help her father find joy in his life again.

The earl was watching her with expectation, and what she felt sure was hope. She loved her father dearly, and if this was what it would take for him to seize his own happiness, she could not deny him it.

“Yes, Father” she said, trying to give a smile that was more comfortable than she felt. “I will attend the Season.” Though I hold very little hope for a happy ending, she added silently.

 

Chapter 2

 

The sun was shining brightly in the blue, cloudless sky. The carriage was moving at a pace so leisurely that young Daniel Eaton could hear the songs of individual birds as they flew past the coach. Inside, Daniel sat across from his elder brother and his lovely wife. Despite the group’s merry laughter and the beauty of the day, something was tickling the back of Daniel’s mind. However, Daniel could not quite decipher just what it was. Perhaps it was just the anticipation of that evening’s theater performance.

“Oh, I am so nervous that I could burst,” Lisabeth said.

“You will be wonderful, darling,” George said.

Daniel nodded fervently in agreement, the strange sensation in his stomach distracting him too much to speak. Even at 15, his love for the theater ran deep, and he hoped to perform on stage himself someday. That night would only be his third time assisting backstage, and he still felt a little nervous. But he could not be sure if that was what was causing his unidentifiable anxiousness.

“Daniel,” his brother said, giving him a boisterous smile. “You are silent as the grave. Are you alright?”

Daniel nodded again, trying to find his voice.

“Yes,” he said at last. “I am just very excited.”

Lisbeth reached across the carriage and took Daniel’s hand. It was then that Daniel thought Lisbeth appeared to be holding something in the hand that remained curled up in her lap.

“Everything will be perfect,” she assured him. Daniel caught of something strange in her eyes, like she was not completely there, but she looked away before Daniel could look closely.

The carriage began to pick up speed, which Daniel found strange. The theater was not much further, which meant that it would soon need to be slowing. One of the wheels hit some sort of bump, and the hand in Lisbeth’s lap moved slightly. Daniel could see that there was definitely something there, but she closed her hand back around it quickly. Daniel looked at his sister-in-law with an inquisitive expression, but her gaze was fixed on his brother.

Suddenly, Daniel heard the horses whinny and stomp their hooves. All at once, the coach jerked from side to side, and Daniel heard the sound of splintering wood. He looked at George and Lisbeth in alarm, but their faces were suddenly cloaked in shadow. He glanced outside the carriage and saw that it was now as dark as night. However, the darkness was not that of the nighttime sky. It looked more like a thick black fog had settled around the carriage. His heart began to race, and he opened his mouth to cry out to George, but the fog seemed to leap at the chance to fill his mouth, and he choked on his brother’s name as the carriage flipped onto its side and began to roll. Young Daniel tried to grab onto something, anything, but his arms felt pinned to his sides…

Daniel awoke in a panic, trying to flail his arms about and regain his bearings. The sensation of his arms being pinned remained, and his heart raced until he felt it might leap out of his chest. He looked down in the dim, early dawn light, and saw the reason that he could not move his arms. In his nightmare fit, he had gotten himself tangled in his sheets, which were now wrapped around him like a white cocoon. He lay back onto the bed slowly, fighting to control his breathing and calm himself. As his racing heartbeat began to settle, he began to wriggle himself out of the sheets until his arms were free, and he could unravel the rest of the cotton cocoon from his body.

Once he had escaped his sheets, Daniel swung his feet over the edge of his bed. With no conscious thought, he began caressing the scar on his left palm. 11 years had done nothing to quell or even slow the nightmares of his brother and sister’s sudden demise. In fact, the vivid episodes of reliving that day seemed to worsen with every passing year. As of late, they worsened by the night, so much so that Daniel had begun to dread, and even fear, falling asleep.

With each terrible nightmare, some of the details were often a little different. Daniel attributed that to the shock he experienced after the tragic carriage accident, and his unreliable memory of the precise events that occurred. However, in 11 years of dreaming and reliving, Daniel had noticed one consistency. He always found himself waking as soon as the coach crashed. He never stayed asleep long enough to see anything that took place afterward. With a sigh, Daniel could not help wondering whether that was a curse or, in fact, a blessing.

The lingering nervousness from the dream caused him to jump at the sudden, yet gentle, rap on the open door to his quarters. Samuel, his valet, entered slowly, carrying a glass of water.

“Lord Elbrook,” Samuel said, his voice calm and reassuring. “I heard you cry out and thought that you might require some assistance.”

Daniel took the glass from his valet with a trembling hand.

“Thank you, Samuel,” he said, giving the man a weak but appreciative nod. Samuel had attended him after many such dreams, so there would be no need for an uncomfortable explanation as to why he shouted or a terrible reliving of the all too frequent nightmare.

“Should I bring you something a bit stronger, milord?” Samuel asked.

Daniel considered the offer for a moment. Then, he shook his head.

“It is a bit early yet to imbibe, I should imagine,” he said, joking weakly.

Samuel laughed, his eyes kind and understanding.

“Perhaps,” Samuel said. “However, I would certainly never tell anyone if such a thing should occur.”

Daniel laughed, feeling the terror at last begin to slip away.

“I shall keep that in mind for the next time,” Daniel said.

“Have you any plans for the evening?” Samuel asked.

Daniel smiled at him, grateful for the distraction. In the aftermath of the dream, Daniel had almost forgotten something important.

“Yes,” Daniel said. “As a matter of fact, I do.”

“Oh?” Samuel asked.

“I will be going to the theater,” Daniel announced.

Samuel’s mouth fell open, and he stared at Daniel.

“Are you quite sure?” the valet asked after several moments.

“Indeed, I am,” Daniel said. With the remnants of the dream fading, his strength and bravado were returning.

“But, what will you do if your father finds out?” Samuel asked fretfully.

“What if he does find out?” Daniel asked.

“He will be none too happy with you,” the valet said.

“You are quite right,” Daniel said. “But he is often unhappy with me anyway. Would that I should suffer his unhappiness whilst doing something I dearly enjoy, rather than suffering it in misery.”

Samuel nodded slowly, seemingly unconvinced.

“You do not fear your father’s wrath, should he discover what it is that you have been up to?” Samuel asked.

“I do not fear my father,” Daniel said.

“Then, do you wish that he should find out?” Samuel asked.

Daniel shook his head.

“I have no intention of directly calling his attention to my doings, to be sure,” Daniel assured his valet. “I would keep it from him for as long as possible. However, I have spent long enough letting his disapproval dictate my life.”

“Forgive me if I am overstepping my bounds,” Samuel said, his brow furrowed. “But would he not be more furious by far if he learned publicly that you were defying his wishes?”

“I do not care,” Daniel said sharply, slamming his hand down on his bedside table. Samuel winced at the harshness of his words, and Daniel took a deep breath.

“You are not overstepping your bounds, Samuel,” Daniel said, more calmly. “And forgive my outburst. But my father has no control over my life now, and I am tired of fearing his wrath by meeting his disapproval.”

Samuel relaxed and nodded, but he was silent.

Daniel approached him and put his hand on his valet’s shoulder.

“Please, Samuel,” he asked, his voice low and urgent. “Do not fret about my father. I can handle him, whatever his opinion.”

Samuel nodded again, still saying nothing.

“Besides, how can Father be upset with me, when he will not actually see me?” Daniel said with a knowing smirk.

Understanding dawned on Samuel’s face and he smiled.

“Of course,” Samuel said with a laugh. “How, indeed, milord?”

Daniel joined him in his laughter for a moment. Then, he grew solemn.

“All I need is your continued and undying assistance and loyalty,” Daniel said.

Samuel nodded and put his own hand on Daniels arm.

“You have always had it, milord,” he said. “And you always will.”

Daniel smiled.

“Thank you, my friend,” he said.

***

Daniel made his way through page after page of dull business paperwork, barely reading a single word on any of them. The dream now all but forgotten, his thoughts centered on his anticipation of that evening. He came across what appeared to be a few invitations to dances for the upcoming Season, but he tossed them to the bottom of the stack of papers and forgot them almost immediately. His love for the theater rarely afforded him the time to worry about Season balls, outside of the few at which his attendance was required.

As the time to depart for the theater neared, Daniel called for Samuel, who came at once, already dressed for the evening. After much careful consideration, Samuel helped him choose one of his finest coats, a deep royal blue one, and matching breeches. Samuel helped him dress quickly. Once Daniel was ready, he looked himself over in the mirror, glancing at the reflection of his valet just behind him.

“Do you have everything?” Daniel asked.

Samuel held up a small, plain white cloth bag.

“Indeed, I do, milord,” he said.

Daniel nodded and smiled.

“Then, let us be off,” he said.

Night was falling quickly, and Daniel found his thoughts drifting back to his dream. As he often did since his brother’s death, he found himself feeling a bit apprehensive about the carriage ride. The feeling he always got when he was on his way to the theater was always dampened by this nervousness, and he tried to shake it off.

“Milord,” Samuel said, his voice warm and calm.

“Yes, Samuel?” Daniel asked.

“Everything will be alright,” he said. The carriage was darkening as nighttime settled in, but Daniel could hear the reassuring smile in his valet’s voice.

“Thank you,” Daniel said gratefully. He took a deep breath, reminding himself that Samuel was right, and once more turning his attention to the upcoming performance.

Several moments later, the carriage approached the theater. However, rather than stopping at the large, elegant entrance of the theater, the carriage drove past it and made a turn into the nearby alley. The driver slowed the pace of the coach considerably and traveled for what seemed like ages down the dark, narrow path.

By the time the carriage had come to a stop, Daniel’s apprehension had amplified. This was something that he and Samuel had done on many occasions, but his stomach always rolled, each time. He was so nervous that, when Samuel brushed him with the bag he was holding in his now outstretched hand, Daniel started. Wordlessly, the two men began removing their clothes. Despite the darkness of the alley, Daniel kept casting glances around to ensure that no one was approaching the carriage.

“I do not believe that we were followed, milord,” Samuel said from the shroud of darkness. Daniel heard a slight tinge of bemusement in his valet’s voice, and Daniel blushed at the notion that his thoughts had been so easily guessed.

“Of course, you are right,” Daniel said. As he always did, he felt a pang of guilt and paranoia whenever they stole away to this alley near the theater, and as always, it was accompanied by a flare of anger at his father. If the elder earl were not so stubborn and blind, this charade would not be necessary.

“Will I be attending the theater tonight?” Samuel asked. “Or, should I just ride around town in the carriage for a bit, until the performance is over?”

Daniel thought for a moment. It was getting late, so the chances of anyone seeing Samuel in the carriage, or paying him any mind, were decreasing. During matinee performances, Daniel often had Samuel ride around town in his clothes, to cast any potential suspicion of his theater involvement aside.

“Would you mind attending the performance tonight?” Daniel asked.

“Not at all, milord,” Samuel said.

“Very good,” Daniel said. His voice began to tremble, and he cursed himself. He was due onstage in mere moments, and he needed to keep his composure.

“Milord?” Samuel spoke again, his voice growing more serious.

“Yes?” Daniel asked.

“Good luck,” Samuel said, fumbling around in the darkness of the night with his own coat outstretched toward Daniel. “You will be phenomenal.”

Daniel took the jacket and handed over his own clothes to his valet. All thoughts of his father were drowned out by his renewed excitement and nervousness for the night’s performance, and the whole reason he was switching clothing with Samuel. He and his valet had swapped outfits many times so that Daniel could partake of his beloved passion for theater. However, the jitters Daniel got before each performance impacted him each time. But his love for the art always overrode that discomfort.

“Thank you,” Daniel said. Briefly, Daniel’s thoughts wandered to his brother, and he wished fervently that his brother was there to cheer him on, as well.

“Milord,” Samuel said. “Do not forget this.”

Daniel finished shrugging Samuel’s coat over his shoulders and reached out into the darkness. His hand closed around the small cloth bag that Samuel had been carrying.

“Thank you, Samuel,” Daniel said again. Quickly, he reached into the bag and pulled out the black item within.

At last, Daniel was suited in his valet’s attire. He took one final deep breath before he exited the carriage. Once outside, he gave the carriage driver the signal to ride off and take Samuel to the front entrance of the theater.

Then, he slipped along the shadows to a secret door that led to the backstage area of the theater. The door was known only to the actors and the set crew, and it served Daniel well for making his sneaky, mysterious entrances. Fortunately, while there was a production, the door remained unlocked and largely unattended. He had a few minutes to spare, so he took a moment to collect himself before donning the mask from Samuel’s bag and slipping unseen through the rear theater door.

 

Chapter 3

 

As Rose dressed for the evening, she thought about the conversation she had had with her father. She wanted more than anything to do what she could to help her father find happiness, but she dreaded the upcoming Season. She had decided that, before she began to attend the insufferable balls of the Season, she could, perhaps, begin to mingle with the eligible men of the ton by attending other social events. And, since she loved the theater, it seemed only fitting that she should begin her venture there.

As her maid, Sarah, helped her into an exquisite, deep green dress, Rose tried to convince herself that it would not be so bad. So what if she had not given any thought before now to getting married? What if she had been denying herself the possibility of meeting the kind of man she hoped to eventually marry? Would it be so bad if she gave up her beloved books in favor of the right man? She sighed, feeling as though it would be that bad. But she had made her father a promise, and she fully intended to keep it.

Sarah studied her as she made a few minor adjustments to her dress.

“Milady,” Sarah said timidly. “Is the dress not to your liking?”

Rose smiled reassuringly.

“Oh, yes, Sarah,” Rose said. “It is beautiful. You chose well, and it looks just right on me.”

Sarah nodded.

“You just seem troubled, is all,” she said.

Rose’s smile saddened.

“Oh, I am alright,” she said. “I just wonder if I am doing the right thing.”

“Milady?” Sarah asked, confused.

Rose smiled again, blushing.

“Nothing,” she said.

Sarah looked at her for a moment, then nodded slowly.

“You look beautiful, milady,” Sarah said.

“I have you to thank for that,” Rose said, giving herself one final glance in the mirror. “Come. We do not want to be late to the theater.”

Late, they certainly were not. In fact, there were only a few patrons at the theater when they arrived. However, Rose noticed, many of them were men, and there were only two that she could see who were in attendance with their wives. She took a deep, calming breath, put on her brightest smile, and made her way through the theater’s lobby.

Right away, she could feel eyes on her. She forced herself to keep her smile steady and to suppress a groan. This was what she wanted. Besides, the awkwardness she was feeling would multiply, come the dances she had agreed to attend during the Season. She tried to shake off all thoughts of discomfort and settle into her best polite, amiable mindset. After all, it was not just herself she had to think about. Her father’s happiness mattered to her above all else.

“Good evening,” a smooth male voice said, pulling Rose from her thoughts.

Rose looked in the direction of the sweet, deep voice and smiled.

“Good evening,” she said, curtseying.

The man, who was quite handsome, in truth, bowed formally to her.

“Forgive me for being so forward,” the gentleman said. “But I cannot recall having ever seen a woman of such beauty, and I knew that I must introduce myself.”

The man’s arrogance made Rose’s head ache, but she maintained her polite smile.

“You are very kind,” she said.

“I am Foster Gerrit,” the man said, bowing once more. “Earl of Elster.”

Rose blushed.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, my lord,” she said. “I am Rose Danvers.”

The earl’s eyes lit up.

“The daughter of the earl of Roxbough,” he said, taking her hand and grazing it quickly with his lips. “The pleasure is mine, to be sure.”

Rose smiled modestly, suddenly wishing that she was anywhere but there.”

“You are very gracious,” she said. As nonchalantly as she could, she glanced around for Sarah, who, thankfully, had not yet gone back to the carriage and was just a few feet away, barely concealed by a small cluster of women.

Sarah must have been watching, because as soon as Rose spotted her, she stepped forward.

“Excuse me, milady,” Sarah said softly, looking pointedly at the gentleman standing next to rose. “We should find our seats presently. The show is not long from starting.”

Rose looked at the earl to whom she had been speaking, who now looked disappointed.

“Forgive me,” Rose said, feigning an apologetic tone. “But my maid is right. It was wonderful to meet you, my lord.” She gave the earl another curtsey, breathing an inaudible sigh of relief as she did so.

“Charmed,” the man said. “I do hope that I shall see you again.”

Rose smiled and waved noncommittally as she and Sarah walked away. As soon as they were out of earshot of the arrogant man, Rose looked at Sara.

“Thank you,” she whispered. However, Sarah did not get the chance to respond before another man with a look in his eye similar to the previous earl approached them.

***

After a few more similar interactions with the eligible wealthy and titled men in attendance that evening, Rose felt as though she might faint. She had never received so many remarks about her beauty, save for from her father, nor had she met so many people in such a short time. The show still had some time before it started, yet the large theater house began to feel as though it were shrinking, and the previously acceptable volume of the voices buzzing seemed to grow louder by the second. Desperate for a reprieve, Rose slipped away from the crowd and darted up a small, hidden staircase that led to a nice veranda on the top floor that was only accessible to people involved with the theater. Not many people ever had cause to use the staircase or to go to the veranda, so she knew that she would be able to escape the suffocating atmosphere and collect her thoughts in peace.

Quietly, she tiptoed up the staircase, not realizing she was holding her breath until she reached the door that led to the veranda. Once it was closed silently behind her, she let out the lung full of air, feeling the relief of the solitude almost instantly. She walked into the dim lighting of the veranda, looking around and soaking up the peaceful ambiance surrounding her. Suddenly, from the corner of her eye, she saw quick movement. She gasped softly and looked to her left, and saw a figure standing in the shadows, just outside the glow of the lighting.

“Hello?” she called. “Who is there?”

For a moment, the figure remained motionless. Rose opened her mouth to call out again, but slowly the figure moved into the light. It was obviously a man, but his face and features remained mostly shrouded.

“Forgive me,” Rose said curtly. “I did not realize anyone was up here.”

“Of course not,” the man said, his bemusement seeming to mask his own nervousness. “How could you have possibly known?”

“What I mean is that no one is allowed up here except for performers and the theater staff,” she said.

The man stepped further from the shadows, and Rose could make out a black mask on his face. She let out a little gasp.

“So, you are the famous Specter,” she said.

The man laughed.

“At your service,” he said with a nod of his head. He took another step forward, and Rose reflexively took one backward.

“Do not be alarmed,” the man said. “I assure you that I will not harm you.”

Rose scoffed, but her racing heartbeat rendered her silent. It was not fear that caused her reaction. It was the effect that his mysteriousness was having on her that had her feeling out of sorts.

“So, which one are you?” the man asked when Rose did not speak.

“What?” Rose asked, cursing herself for speaking so dumbly.

The man laughed.

“I do not recall seeing you at rehearsals or on the stage this evening, and you certainly are not dressed like any hired help.”

Rose blushed, avoiding the question for the moment. How dare someone who was invading her private space interrogate her?

“You are playing Oberon, King of the Fairies, in this production, are you not?”

The man took another slow step toward her. Now that she had recovered from her initial shock, she merely wanted him gone from her little sanctuary. She lifted her chin and gave him a look of authority as she awaited his answer.

“Indeed, I am,” he said.

“What is you name?” she asked, her annoyance giving way to curiosity.

The man smirked.

“I am the Specter, remember?” he asked.

Rose huffed at his pretentious response. Who was he, a mere actor, to presume to be so arrogant to her?

“The show will be starting soon,” she proclaimed. “Should you not be preparing with your fellow thespians?”

The man laughed.

“I am sure that no one is missing my absence just now,” he said simply.

Rose blinked.

“Do you always skulk about in theater houses before you perform?” she asked. “I thought you always came and went completely unseen.”

The man laughed.

“Do you often steal away to secret places in theater houses and interrogate the actors you find who were there before you were?” he asked.

“Excuse me,” she said. “But, as I am sure that you are aware, my father owns this theater. I believe that I have every right to go anywhere I please here, and to not be pestered by an actor while I do so.” She flinched at once, regretting how snooty her words had sounded.

The man smirked again.

“I was here first, remember?” the man reminded her again.

The stranger was right, of course. She felt as though this spot belonged to just her, but it was, in fact, a space for anyone involved with the theater to come and go as they pleased. That fact annoyed her even more, and she put her hands on her hips and huffed again.

“Why must you be in this space?” the man asked, his voice now sounding more curious than mocking. “You seem to feel as it belongs to you, and you alone.”

“Because my mother brought me to this spot when I was a child,” she blurted without thinking. “This was her favorite place to go in the entire theater, before she died.”

The man’s face which, from what Rose could see around his mask was quite handsome, went from teasing to solemn. She tried to get a good look at his eyes, but the shadows cast by his mask made them difficult to see.

“Forgive me,” the man said. Rose could hear the sincerity in his voice.

She smiled.

“How could you possibly have known?” she asked.

The man studied her for a moment as she echoed his first words to her. Then, he laughed gently.

“Well, I shall not intrude on your special spot any longer,” the man said.

“No, it is alright,” Rose said hurriedly. Moments ago, she could not wait to be rid of the man. Now, suddenly, she hoped he would not rush away. “You were, after all, here first.”

Once more, the masked man chuckled. He stared at her silently for another moment.

For a reason Rose could not explain, her heart began to race again as she looked into the eyes, which were still too shrouded to reveal their color, that were watching her so intently. She broke his gaze and walked past him, giving him a wide berth, as she looked around the spacious veranda.

“I always feel closer to my mother when I come up here,” she murmured. “We used to climb atop here and sit together, looking out at all the roofs throughout London that we could see. My mother especially loved looking at the dome of Saint Paul, while I enjoyed watching the river from here…”

Rose shook her head. What was she doing? She did not even know the man.

“I apologize,” she said, her voice once more becoming polite but formal. Why did I confide all this in this man? What if he is, in fact, a psychopath?

Rose spared the man a glance and, to her surprise, he looked nothing like he did when they first began speaking, despite having not removed his mask.

 “It is quite alright,” he said. His voice, like his expression, had changed. All traces of wit had evaporated and had been replaced by something gentler. Understanding, perhaps? Rose could not be sure, but she was beginning to feel less perturbed by the stranger’s presence, and more flustered all at once. She became acutely aware of the fact that the man was now studying her more carefully, and she shifted uncomfortably.

“It is a pre-performance ritual of mine,” the masked man said suddenly.

Rose looked at him, confused.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

The man laughed again.

“You asked me why I was not preparing for the show with my fellow actors,” he said gently. “It is because finding a nice, quiet place just before show time is something of a ritual for me.”

Rose blushed at her blunder. She could not understand why the stranger was affecting her so. She had spoken so eloquently and smoothly with all the men who had showered her with their compliments and attention. What was it about him that had her so nervous?

“Oh,” she said. “I see.”

She turned her back to him so he would not see the deepening blush in her cheeks. She tried to compose herself so that she could calmly excuse herself before she further embarrassed herself, but her heart continued to race, and she found that she was enjoying talking to him.

“It seems that, no matter how many times I step onto the stage, I still get quite nervous before each performance,” he continued, smiling almost apologetically.

“You will be wonderful,” Rose reassured the man warmly. She blinked, surprised at her sudden and sincere response. She did not know the mysterious man. She supposed that it came naturally to her, after so many years of speaking with many frightened and nervous actors.

The man seemed as surprised as Rose. After a moment, he gave her a bright, warm smile, and his bottomless blue eyes sparkled.

His smile was infectious, and Rose returned it.

“Do you ever plan to remove that mask?” she asked, her teasing tone returning.

The man looked at her with a sly smirk. Instead of answering her question, however, he closed much of the distance between them. Rose’s heart beat faster still as he took her hand and slowly put it to his lips. He gave her a gentle kiss across her knuckles, and Rose bit her lip to keep from giggling.

“I must be going,” he said, looking in her eyes. “The play will be starting shortly. I do truly hope to see you again.”

Rose smiled. Something about the man was indeed quite charming, despite the mystery of his identity. Or, perhaps, because of it.

“Well, it seems that the advantage you have over me would make it possible for you to see me again,” she said coyly.

He looked at her with bemusement.

“I am afraid I do not know what that advantage might be,” he said.

“It seems that no one knows who you are,” she said. “Including me. However, you now know that my father owns the theater, and therefore you undoubtedly know who I am.”

The man laughed pleasantly.

“You are quite right, Miss Danvers,” he said. “I suppose I am at a slight advantage.”

He smiled again and bowed formally, but once more refused to respond to her curiosity about his identity.

“Well, Rose Danvers, daughter of the theater owner,” he said. “I do hope that you enjoy the performance.”

With that, he seemed to melt into the shadows before he exited the veranda. Rose stared after him in wonder for a few moments more, before she too left the veranda and went to take her seat for the production.

 

Chapter 4

 

The sound of applause never ceased to thrill Daniel. As the curtain closed and that night’s production concluded, the excitement and pride was such that he had to remind himself to not rip off his mask as he joined his fellow actors in congratulating one another on a job well done.

Amongst the handshakes, back pats and compliments, a small group of actors, consisting mostly of extras and those with much smaller roles, had gathered around someone Daniel could not see through the crowd. Presently, however, the loud female voice revealed her identity.

“Yes, I was rather magnificent, wasn’t I?” she said with a boisterous giggle. “Oh, really, you are all too kind.”

Daniel recognized the voice as that belonging to Miss Allison Beets. Daniel rolled his eyes as he recalled how she had flaunted herself all over the stage during rehearsals, making demands and throwing tantrums in the traditional diva fashion. She had even threatened to quit the production on many occasions, but Daniel had doubted that she would have ever mad good on those threats. The production staff, however, had believed her bluff, and had proceeded to grovel and cater to her demands, which had disgusted Daniel. She had some measure of talent, to be sure, but she was hardly the best actress Daniel had ever seen, and not even the best in the current play.

Daniel tried to slip past the growing crowd and make his way further backstage. No such luck was to be had, however.

“Specter,” Allison called.

He groaned inwardly, not at the name, as it was the one with which he was christened by the staff, actors, and a few of the spectators of the theater. But he had desperately hoped to avoid catching the eye of any actor. Especially Allison Beets.

Outwardly, he turned slowly and gave the actress his best stage smile.

“Hello, Miss Beets,” Daniel said, nodding his head. “Wonderful performance this evening.”

“Yes, you are quite right,” she said, blushing and waving her hand fan coyly. “But I could not have performed so well without such a talented partner.”

Daniel widened his smile, recognizing at once that she was vying for his attention.

“You flatter me, Miss Beets,” he said. “But you were the true talent of our two roles.”

Daniel thought he heard some faint snickering coming from the direction of another smaller group of actors, and his lips twitched, dangerously close to laughing.

“You will come and and celebrate with us, won’t you?” Allison asked, blinking her eyes in a blatantly flirtatious manner. “Or, perhaps we can rehearse some of our lines to prepare for our next performance.”

Daniel suppressed another urge to roll his eyes. The last thing he wanted was to spend one second longer with Allison than absolutely necessary. However, invoking her diva wrath might serve to turn the entire cast against him, or even to lose him his beloved role in the play.

“I would never presume to pull your attention away from your adoring fans and friends,” he said, gesturing to the crowd surrounding her, his face becoming humble and timid. “But you do me great honor with your invitation.”

He knew his answer must have been the correct one, because the actress raised her head in what he assumed was meant to be an elegant, regal fashion, and gave a rather self-satisfied smile.

“Of course, you are right,” she said, holding her hand in front of her and touching her hair as though she were looking into a hand mirror. “Perhaps I will find a few moments before we depart the theater for the evening.”

“I look forward to it,” Daniel said, having no intention of meeting with her before leaving the theater.

The actress beamed at him briefly, before turning her attention back to the doting actors. They seemed positively entranced by her, but Daniel could not be less interested. In truth, within seconds, Allison and her attentions were the furthest thing from his mind. His mind was focused solely on Rose Danvers.

Of course, Daniel had known who Rose was, even before she told him. As the daughter of an earl, she was well known within the ton. And because her father did, indeed, own the theater, she was there quite often helping him. What he had not known, however, was just how beautiful she truly was.

He had never met her formally at any of the social events and, in truth, had never had much cause to pay any special attention to her. That night, however, he found himself enchanted by her. He thought about their brief interaction earlier in the evening, and he knew that he could not wait to see her again.

He made his way very slowly to the back-theater door through which he had made his entrance at the beginning of the evening. The play had only concluded a few minutes before, but he was not sure exactly how long those in attendance might stay to socialize. Fortunately for him, more props had been shifted toward the door, further obscuring it from view. As soon as he was confident that none of the other actors were watching or could see him, he slipped quietly out and into the alley, where Samuel and his carriage were waiting.

“Shall we go back home now, milord?” Samuel asked.

“Not yet,” Daniel said. “However, I do need back my clothes.”

Samuel began shedding his master’s clothes at once.

“Is everything alright?” Samuel asked.

Daniel smiled, even though his valet could not see his expression in the ink black night.

“Yes, Samuel,” he said. “Everything is quite alright.”

Daniel could hear a pause in Samuel’s progress undressing.

“You never wish to go back into the theater after a performance is over,” Samuel said, his voice bemused and suspicious.

Daniel laughed.

“I just wish to speak to someone before departing for the evening,” Daniel said. As he recalled Rose’s lovely face, he could feel his smile spreading, and he was glad that the darkness hid his face so completely.

“Would this person happen to be a lovely young lady?” Samuel asked, finishing handing over Daniel’s clothing.

Daniel laughed again heartily as he removed his mask and handed it over to Samuel.

“I shall meet the carriage out in front of the theater in about half an hour,” Daniel said, without answering his valet’s question.

Samuel chuckled, as well.

“Very well, milord,” Samuel said as Daniel exited the carriage. “And enjoy yourself.”

Sticking to the shadows, Daniel slipped around the side of the building until he reached the front. He chose to walk around to the front door of the theater because, if someone exiting the lobby had seen him disembarking from the carriage, his fib would be ruined. As it was, if there was anyone inside the lobby, he would be able to claim that he had merely stepped outside for some air.

Fortunately, there were few people in the lobby, and those who were did not notice his entrance. He casually proceeded into the auditorium and glanced around. He hoped against hope that he would see the face he sought. After several moments, he spotted a beautiful mass of red hair attached to a slender woman in a deep green dress.

She was standing in front of a gentleman and, as Daniel slowly approached, he could see that her smile was strained and her formerly pink cheeks looked a bit pale. She looked terribly uncomfortable, and Daniel started to move toward her and rescue her.

However, he quickly reminded himself that he was no longer wearing his mask, and she would not recognize him. He instead continued moving in her general direction. He did not wish to appear to be eavesdropping, so he made a grand show of pretending to search for someone. When he was within touching distance of her, he took a calculated step forward that brought him just a bit too close to her, and he bumped gently into her arm.

“Oh,” she said with a startled gasp.

“Please, forgive me, my lady,” Daniel said, now genuinely sorry that he had startled her. “I was looking for someone and grew careless of my surroundings.”

“Careless, indeed,” Rose said, her face turning from shock into indignance. “You could have caused some unsuspecting person to trip and fall.”

Daniel bit his cheek to stifle a laugh. He recalled her indignant anger as she had spoken to him on the veranda, and he found himself even more charmed with her than he had been when he had begun seeking her out.

“You are right, my lady,” he said, bowing to hide the smile that tickled at the corners of his mouth. “I beg your forgiveness and ensure that I will be much more careful.”

Rose eventually smiled. Not as she had on the veranda, but politely, nonetheless.

“No harm done, I suppose,” she said.

Her male companion cleared his throat.

“For whom are you looking?” the man asked brusquely. “Perhaps we can point you in the right direction.”

Daniel resisted another smile. It was very clear that the man wanted Rose all to himself again and was trying to chase off Daniel. Daniel, however, did not intend to comply. He had to think quickly, however, since he was not, in fact, looking for anyone but Rose.

“It looks as though, perhaps, I am too late to catch them,” Daniel said slowly, looking around as though he wanted to be sure.

“Would you like me to help you look for them?” Rose offered.

Daniel and the gentleman looked at her quickly. The other man looked surprised, but Daniel could tell with a glance what it was she was trying to do. He recalled how uncomfortable she had looked when he first spotted her, so he quickly nodded.

“That is very kind of you,” Daniel said.

“Not at all,” she said. Daniel noticed the look of gratitude she was giving him, though her smile remained unchanged. “My father owns the theater, and it can be so easy to lose someone if you do not know your way around.”

She paused briefly to address the gentleman. She curtseyed and gave him a sweet, apologetic smile.

“Please forgive my rudeness,” she said to the man. “I cannot bear to see a poor soul get lost in here, not knowing the theater the way I do.”

The man was obviously frustrated, but he put on his best smile.

“You have a very kind heart, Miss Danvers,” he said, bowing slowly. “I do hope that I shall see you again before I leave.”

Rose curtseyed again quickly and smiled. Daniel noted that she did not reply to the man as she gestured for Daniel to follow her.

“Good evening, my good man,” the gentleman said. Daniel did not miss the hint of coldness in the man’s words.

“Good evening, my lord,” Daniel said, nodding curtly.

When they were well out of earshot, Rose let out a quiet sigh of relief.

“Thank you,” she said. “Forgive my candor, but that man was insufferable.”

Daniel could not hide a chuckle.

“I am glad that I could be of service,” he said.

Rose blushed, seemingly embarrassed at having spoken so freely to a perfect stranger. Daniel bit his lip, as only he knew that they were not total strangers.

“So, for whom did you say you were looking?” she asked quickly, apparently trying to change the subject.

Daniel took a deep breath.

“In truth, I am not looking for anyone,” he said. He could feel himself flushing as he hoped that she would not storm away at having learned that he lied.

Instead, however, she merely tilted her head and looked at him suspiciously.

“Then why ever would you claim such a thing?” she asked, putting her hands on her hips. “Were you so embarrassed that you had bumped into me that you could not simply tell me that it was an honest mistake?”

Daniel shook his head.

“I suppose that it is my turn to be candid,” he said. “I could see your discomfort as I was walking through the theater, and I thought that I might be able to offer some assistance.”

Once more, Daniel expected Rose to walk away, angry that he had assumed that she could not handle herself. And once more, she surprised him. She looked at him and smiled, bemused.

“So, you felt it appropriate to put yourself in the business of a complete stranger?” she asked.

Again, Daniel bit his lip to refrain from telling her that he was no stranger.

“I felt it appropriate to offer aid where I could,” he said, his eyes twinkling.

Rose thought for a moment. Then she nodded, smiling.

“Well, your aid was most certainly appreciated,” she said. “But just who are you? I would like to properly thank my hero by name, if you do not mind.”

Daniel smiled.

“Of course,” he said, bowing graciously. “Forgive my lack of manners. I am Daniel Eaton, Earl of Elbrook.”

Rose paled slightly, giving him another strained smile.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lord Elbrook,” she said with a small curtsy.

Daniel continued to smile.

“Do not worry, Miss Rose Danvers,” he said. “I am not here to throw myself at you, as I am certain that others surely have tonight.”

Rose blinked and looked at him oddly, and Daniel winced inwardly. How could he have spoken so carelessly?

“That gentleman just now seemed to be doing that, so I suspect that many other men must have been doing the same,” he said, trying to sound nonchalant. “He also spoke your name, and you yourself told me that your father owns the theater. Who here does not know the daughter of the earl of Roxbough?”

Rose nodded and smiled, visibly relaxing. Daniel suppressed a sigh of relief. He would need to be much less careless with his words from now on.

Suddenly, it seemed as though something occurred to Rose. She glanced around behind Daniel, her eyes searching briefly for something. When she noticed him studying her, she smiled brightly again. Almost too much so.

“So, Lord Elbrook,” Rose asked, glancing behind him once more. “Did you enjoy the performance this evening?”

Daniel hid a secret smile.

“It was certainly an entertaining production,” he said.

“Indeed, it was,” she said. Her eyes flickered with something he could not read, and he thought he saw her mouth twitch ever so slightly.

At once, it occurred to Daniel that she was searching for someone, as he had feigned to do to arrange a chance meeting with her. At first, Daniel felt inclined to excuse himself. But then, he realized that some of the actors were now exiting the theater. She must have been looking for the Specter.

“Few women have a true appreciation for the theater,” he said.

Rose looked at him, at last focusing her attention back to him.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Many of them go merely for a laugh, or because society deems it proper entertainment,” he said. “However, few of them truly appreciate the plays are performed or have a real love for theater.” Daniel reached out and took a beautiful white rose from a nearby vase. “But it would seem that you have a love for the theater that surpasses that of even the most devote actors.”

Rose smiled widely and blushed.

“My father does own the theater, after all,” she said sweetly. “I grew up loving the theater.”

Daniel held out the rose to her. She looked at him bashfully and took it from him gently.

“A rose for a Rose,” he said. “And I do hope to see one of those Rose’s again soon.”

Rose laughed, and Daniel noticed how musical the sound was.

“Well, I could give you back this one now, if you like,” she teased.

Daniel laughed heartily. Beautiful, smart, and witty, he thought. I must get to know her better.

“I do not take back anything I give,” he said, his eyes sparkling but his voice more serious.

Rose looked at him again, still smiling, and brought the rose to her nose.

“Please, tell me that you will see me again,” Daniel asked. He winced again, realizing that he must sound like every other man who has approached her that evening. As ever, Rose surprised him. She blushed more heavily and looked at him, blinking her eyes.

“I would love to see you again,” she said.

 

Chapter 5

 Rose Danvers

Rose’s father went out of town on business the very next day, giving her plenty of time to think about the two men who so captivated her. She had said nothing to her father about the men, but now she wished that she had.

She had met so many gentlemen that evening, but she could barely recall their faces, let alone their names. The two that she could not forget were Daniel Eaton and the Specter.

For several days after her evening at the theater, she thought about the two men. Lord Elbrook had not made the best of first impressions when he had bumped into her, and at first, she had been quite annoyed. In truth, she was still slightly irritated when he had told her the real reason.

 However, in truth, had Daniel not done what he did, she might have never escaped the boring conversation with the gentleman whose name she could no longer recall. And, as Rose discovered the longer she talked with Daniel, it had truly been an act of kindness at the sight of her discomfort, rather than a false act of chivalry just to be the next in line for her attention. That, of course had charmed her quite effectively.

However, she also could not get thoughts and the memory of the Specter out of her mind. She had, of course, seen him all throughout the theater, but that was the first time she had ever come face to face with him.

Before that night at the theater, she had been a bit wary of him, despite his other performances on stage and the praises that the other actors spoke of him. She had never understood how a person who hid behind a mask could be anything but strange, or, perhaps, even dangerous. After her meeting with him, however, she found that not only did she no longer see him as dangerous, she was also drawn to the mystery of him.

He had also been very well spoken and witty, and she found herself hoping more each day that she did, in fact, have cause to see him again, and rather soon.

Her father came home early one afternoon, almost a week after she had attended the theater. She rushed to embrace him as the servants tended to her father’s trunks.

“Hello, Father,” Rose said. “I have missed you so.”

“And I have missed you, my dear,” the earl said, returning his daughter’s embrace.

“How was your trip?” she asked as she followed her father into his study.

He smiled.

“It went very well,” he said. “We should be ready to start making a few repairs and renovations within the next couple of months.”

Rose clapped her hands.

“That is wonderful,” she said.

“How were things while I was away?” he asked.

“Well, a couple of actors began arguing one day during rehearsal,” Rose said, giggling. “I believe that it was over something as silly as some small prop.”

Her father rolled his eyes.

“They are thespians for a reason, I suppose,” he said.

Rose giggled again.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” she added quickly. “You received a couple of letters. I had Sarah put them on your desk.” She pointed to the pile of mail that was awaiting her father.

“I shall read them later,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “Right now, I should like to spend time with my daughter.”

Rose smiled and hugged her father again. Then, he held out a chair for Rose before moving behind his desk and taking his own seat.

“I regret that we did not have more time to talk about your evening at the theater before I left,” her father said. “Tell me all about it, my dear.”

“Oh, it was wonderful,” she said. “The production was spectacular, and the cast was wonderful.” Her mind could not help wandering to one actor in particular.

“Yes,” her father agreed. “That is a group of actors and actresses with enviable skill.” His eyes twinkled. “Did you meet any gentlemen there?”

She rolled her eyes, but with a smile.

“I believe that I met every pompous entitled bachelor in the ton,” she said.

The earl laughed.

“Oh, my dear,” he said. “You mean that you did not meet even one who sparked an interest?”

She thought carefully. She wanted to find out more about the Specter, but she was not yet ready to tell her father that she had met him.

“Well, I noticed just how talented the Specter is,” she said. She felt a small pang of guilt, even for just omitting her meeting with the masked man.

The earl nodded in eager agreement.

“Indeed, he is,” he said. “One of the very best that the theater has seen.”

Rose laughed.

“I do not know if I would call him one of the best,” she said although, deep down, she very much agreed.

“You are too young to remember the earlier years of the theater,” her father said. “I have seen many performers on that stage, and the Specter is definitely of unique talent.”

“Well, he certainly is unique,” she said.

Her father looked at her quizzically.

“Oh?” he asked.

She cursed herself silently. She had almost said too much.

“Well, he is the only actor who persistently wears a black mask,” she said. “And no one has ever seen him anywhere besides at the theater. He is a very mysterious man.”

The earl chuckled.

“That is quite true, my dear,” he said.

“Has he ever revealed himself to you?” Rose asked, hope rising within her and making her heart beat faster. She forced herself to slow her breathing and keep her seemingly casual demeanor.

Once again, he laughed.

“Now, I could hardly divulge such information if he had entrusted me with it, could I?” he asked, humor tinting his eyes and playing with the corners of his mouth.

Rose crossed her arms, trying to keep her expression playful.

“You could not keep secrets from your beloved daughter, could you?” she retorted.

The earl looked at her with bemusement.

“You know I could never deny you anything, my dear,” he said. “Except for that which I do not have to give.”

“So, the Specter has never told you his true identity?” she asked, feeling more than a little disappointed.

“No, he has not,” her father said. Rose thought that he sounded a bit disappointed, too.

“Why do you not make him identify himself?” Rose asked. Her frustration at not knowing who the Specter was growing rapidly. She would not admit to herself just then that the continued mystery was also drawing her in even more.

The earl laughed again.

“He has proven to be quite trustworthy over the years,” he said. “He is very clever and pleasant, and most definitely a man of his word. And his business transactions have been quite beneficial to the theater. Not to mention his talent.”

Rose frowned at her father.

“Do you mean that his money has been beneficial?” she asked crossly

Her father looked at her in confusion.

“Why are you suddenly so interested in the Specter?” he asked. “As I recall, you have had little at all to say about him before now.”

Rose blushed. She had not meant to be so blatant with her interest in the masked man. She cleared her throat and gave her father a bright, warm smile.

“Oh, it only irritates me when there is a mystery that I cannot solve,” she said truthfully.

“Well, my dear, our Specter is not a character in one of your stories,” her father said with a laugh. “I do not believe he wishes to be as easily understood.”

Rose laughed with her father.

“There is one man I met who was not a complete boor,” she said, changing the subject.

“Oh?” her father said, all traces of his teasing demeanor vanishing.

“Yes,” Rose said, measuring her words and the emotions behind them very carefully. “And he was quite possibly the least insufferable person I have ever met.”

“Is that so?” her father said with a hearty laugh.

Rose looked at her father and nodded, stifling a giggle of her own.

“Yes,” she said. “I believe you know a Lord Elbrook?” She had phrased the words as a question, but she knew that her father already knew Daniel Eaton.

“Ah, yes,” her father said, suddenly sitting upright in his chair. “He is the son of the marquess of Bickenhall.”

“Yes,” Rose said.

“Well, what was he like?” the earl asked, full of an earnest interest.

Rose laughed at her father’s enthusiasm.

“As I mentioned, he was by far not the most insufferable man I have ever met,” she said.

Her father smiled, but his focus remained unchanged.

“And for you, my dear, that is saying something,” he said.

“You cannot tell me that you do not find most of the ton superbly stuffy and boring,” she said teasing.

Her father’s face became dreamy, and she did not need to ask to know that he was thinking of the widow.

“Yes, you are quite right, my dear,” he said. “But you still have not told me what you think of Lord Elbrook.”

Rose blushed again. She meant to keep no secrets from her father, but she did not wish to give him any hope that she had found someone, anyone, with whom she believed there might be a good match, at least until she herself was sure.

 However, as she thought about Daniel, she could not deny the charm that had entranced her, even now, so many days after their meeting at the theater.

“Who says I think anything special about him, Father?” she asked, trying once more to sound casual and calm, as she had when discussing the Specter.

“You do, my dear,” her father teased. “You are the one who mentioned him, are you not?”

Rose flushed furiously. Her father was right, of course, but she was cursing herself for being so flustered about the young gentleman.

“He was very kind,” she said honestly. “And very polite and well spoken.”

Her father nodded.

“Yes, I have had some business dealings with the marquess in past years,” the earl said. “He is rather direct and blunt, but he is a good man. I have heard that young Lord Elbrook takes after his father in that regard.”

Rose remained silent for a moment, thinking back to how suavely Daniel had bumped into her to save her from her grand discomfort as she spoke to that older gentleman.

“He is quite confident, to be sure,” she said, her own voice sounding far away as she drifted in the memory of their interaction and conversation.

“Yet you do not say that as if it were such a terrible thing,” her father said, his tone cautious but not disapproving. As though trying to rein in any jubilance that might frighten his daughter away from the subject, the earl began casually sifting through the letters that had amassed on his desk in his absence.

“No,” she said. “In fact, I would say that it suited him quite nicely,” she said.

“Yes,” her father said, more distractedly than before as he carefully studied one of the letters he had opened. “He does seem to be quite the gentleman.”

“He certainly offers far more tolerable company than any of the other men I have met recently,” Rose said, not without a hint of bitterness.

“Speaking of other gentlemen,” the earl said, still preoccupied with the letter in his hand. “Did you meet anyone else of note?”

Rose thought again of the Specter, but once more she decided that she was not yet ready to tell her father about meeting him. The more she thought about it, she hesitated to ever mention it to anyone. Although nothing untoward had occurred, the two of them had been alone on the veranda, and word of their private, though accidental, meeting, could cause quite the scandal.

“Oh, I do not even remember the names of all the men that I met,” Rose said truthfully. “They were all either pretentious, boring, or self-centered.”

The earl nodded, finally glancing up from the paper in his hand.

“Well, here is something that you might find of interest,” he said, holding out the paper to his daughter.

Rose took it, her brow furrowing.

“What is this?” she asked, even as she began reading the words on the page.

“It is an invitation,” her father said. Rose noticed that his voice sounded calculatedly blasé and disinterested, but his face seemed ready to light up at brightly as the midday sun.

“An invitation?” she asked, barely aware she had spoken. She was reading the page now, already aware by the elegant, fancy script on the paper and the first few words at the very top as to what sort of invitation it was.

“It seems that there will be a ball in just a few weeks,” the earl said.

“Yes,” Rose said, not quite understanding why her father would be so preoccupied by, or interested in, this invitation. “Are you thinking of attending?”

Her father laughed.

“Oh, certainly not,” he said, his voice once again jovial and boisterous. “I believe that I am a bit past the age of meeting young ladies seeking marriage in the ton.”

Rose opened her mouth to ask more questions, but realization dawned on her.

“You wish for me to go to the ball to meet more men,” she said, her words a statement, not a question.

“Not men,” the earl said emphatically. “But perhaps you might see the young Lord Elbrook there.”

Rose considered her father’s words. With the Season soon to be in full swing, it was almost a certainty that Daniel would be in attendance, at least at a few of the dances. Although she was still very much intrigued by the Specter, she had promised that she would see Daniel again.

“And what if this is an opportunity for you to see the Dowager?” she said, her voice light but her tone meaningful.

Her father seemed to come to a different sort of realization. He first looked hopeful, then doubtful.

“I suppose that is possible,” he said cautiously. “But what of it? What would I do if I should see her there?”

“Well, it is a dance, is it not?” Rose asked. “What would be the harm in asking her for a dance?”

The earl looked at her thoughtfully. Rose knew that he wanted a chance to be so close to the widow, and that the ball would give him that very chance. She only hoped that he would realize that, as well.

“Let us make a deal,” her father said after a moment.

“Alright,” Rose said, looking at her father expectantly.

“I will escort you to this ball,” he said. “And I will keep an open mind, but you must promise me that you will do the same.”

Rose rolled her eyes, but she smiled brightly. She wanted so much for her father to be happy, and it was becoming more apparent that he wanted that, as well, not just for her, but for himself. And she knew that he would be happiest by far if she found her own happiness.

“I accept your deal, Father,” she said. “We shall attend the ball together.”

The earl rose from his chair and walked over to his daughter, pulling her into a warm embrace.

“Thank you, my dear,” he said.

The Earl behind the Mask” will be available on Amazon very soon…
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