Months after his mysterious seductress disappears, Alex encounters her again. Far from the schemer the distrustful duke assumed her to be, Lorna is fiercely independent and resourceful. She’s the one woman capable of piercing his
defenses. But when danger threatens Lorna, Alex must prove himself not just the lover of her fantasies, but the man who will fight to protect her.
“It would be a waste of my time to tell you this is foolish, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t pay any attention.”
Nan stepped back and surveyed Lorna, shaking her head all the while.
The room they shared was small and with only a tiny mirror over the common bureau. Nan would have to be her eyes.
Each maid was assigned an oil lamp and a certain amount of oil. If it was used before the end of the month, she had to dress in the dark, a way of ensuring that she rationed the light better the following month.
Lorna hadn’t used any of her oil for a week, saving it all for this one night.
“Maybe it is foolish,” she said, glancing down at the wide panniers of the gown she wore. “But it is such a magical evening and when would I have another chance to experience a ball at Blackhall?”
“You’re a maid, Lorna,” Nan said, sighing heavily. “Not a guest.”
“Tonight, though, Nan, no one will know.”
Nan made a sign in the air and she obediently turned so that the back of the dress could be inspected.
Things happened for a reason, didn’t they? The housekeeper had sent her to find a certain table in the attic and she’d gone, reluctant to climb into the darkened space. She couldn’t disobey Mrs. McDermott. The dear lady had taken her on when she hadn’t a whit of training or background in service.
To her surprise, the attic wasn’t gloomy or dark at all. Porthole windows along the outer wall let in the June sunlight. For an hour she’d pulled up one sheet after another, only discovering the table at the far end of the attic. Between the stairs and the door, however, there’d been dozens and dozens of trunks, each begging to be opened and inspected.
In the third trunk she’d found the carefully wrapped wig and the golden dress with the panniers. A fortuitous find, especially since they’d been preparing for the fancy dress ball at Blackhall for over a month.
She was not one to overlook circumstances, especially when they were calling out to her. Her father had often said that fortune favors the bold – fortuna audaces iuvat.
“We could have found a dress for you, too,” she said now as she tugged on the wig.
She’d taken the precaution of grabbing some flour from the kitchen. None of her training had given her any insight into fashions from a hundred years ago, but the wig had given off a cloud of finely milled powder and the only thing she could think of to substitute was flour. Nan dipped a powder puff into the bowl and patted it on her temples and the tall crown of hair adorned with gold bows.
“I’m not as brave as you.”
“Or as foolish,” Lorna said.
“That, too.” Nan stepped back and surveyed her handiwork. “Mrs. McDermott will have no choice but to dismiss you if you’re found out.”
“Then I’ll make sure I’m not discovered.” She turned and smiled at Nan. “It’s a fancy dress ball, Nan. Everyone will be wearing masks. No one will know who I am.”
“What?” she asked.
Nan shook her head again. “You see what you want to see, Lorna. You have ever since I’ve known you. You’re lucky Mrs. McDermott didn’t assign you to serve the guests. What would you have done then? Come up with some sort of sickness?”
“I would have found some way,” she said, smiling down at Nan.
She’d been deliberately clumsy this past week, especially in the housekeeper’s sight for that very reason. She’d dropped an armload of books she was dusting, fumbled with the jar of spent tea leaves used to clean the carpets, and repeatedly stumbled holding her brushes and pail.
After all that, Mrs. McDermott would have been foolish to select her as one of the servers. Better to dismiss her early, send her to her room, and instruct her to appear at dawn to help clean the ballroom. To her relief the housekeeper had done exactly that.
“Well, how do I look?” she asked, carefully affixing the mask strings behind her ears. That, too, had been another miraculous find, a sign that she had to attend the ball.
It was as if Providence, well aware of her barely contained curiosity and fascination, had provided her with a way to see the Duke of Kinross up close. Granted, it would only be for a few hours on a June night in the Scottish Highlands, but who was she to deny Providence?
“You look beautiful,” Nan said, nodding. “The gold makes your brown eyes sparkle. And the white wig accentuates your complexion.”
“Could I pass for one of the guests?”
Nan sighed again. “Yes, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
“My father was Robert Gordon. I’m the equal to most of them there.”
“But it isn’t because of most of them that you’re going, is it? It’s to see the duke. We both know how foolish that is.”
Lorna reached over and hugged Nan, depositing a fair share of flour onto the other girl’s shoulders. Apologizing, she pulled back.
“Don’t worry, Nan. I’ll go and pretend to be someone else for a few hours. Then I’ll return and be a well disciplined upper maid, I promise.”
Nan didn’t appear convinced. Nor was Lorna, if she were to tell the truth. It was going to be so difficult to be herself after tonight.
Lorna and Alex were absolutely wonderful together. I loved how even though she was more than a little childishly obsessed with him in the beginning she got over it and gave him exactly what he had coming exactly when he needed it. And boy did he need it…strong heroines FTW!
Their near-instant attraction at the opening ball was a bit much, but as it was necessary to set up the rest of the book I went with it–and am so glad I did! Lorna ended up being exactly what Alex needed to finally pull himself out of the half-life he’d been living since his father and younger siblings died when he was sixteen. I liked that they both had their own “thing”–his research with fingerprints was fascinating, and her continuation and expansion of her father’s work with plants made them both that much more interesting as characters.
The secondary characters–almost to a one–were interesting in their own right, and really helped to flesh out the story. Alex’s mother and Lorna’s fellow servants and friends, especially Nan and Peter, helped keep me turning the pages. And please tell me we’ll get Alex’s uncle Thomas’s story sometime–because that’s one HEA I’d really like to see! There’s just enough hints here to really whet my appetite 🙂
In the meantime, though, Ms. Ranney has a healthy backlist for me to dive into–the upside of apparently being oblivious to such a good author for so long!
Rating: 4 1/2 stars / A-
Karen Ranney wanted to be a writer from the time she was five years old and filled her Big Chief tablet with stories. People in stories did amazing things and she was too shy to do anything amazing. Years spent in Japan, Paris, and Italy, however, not only fueled her imagination but proved she wasn’t that shy after all.
Now a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, she prefers to keep her adventures between the covers of her books. Karen lives in San Antonio, Texas.