The task of trying to place him among the hundreds of men to whom she'd been introduced during the last two years was formidable, but Whitney tried anyway. Mentally, she reviewed the men of her acquaintance, discarding one after another as being either not tall enough or with eyes of a color other than his unusual gray. His height, easily two inches over six feet, was his most outstanding feature. She reviewed the clues but still could not identify him. Yet, he knew her well enough to recognize her even though she was wearing a demi-mask. When the strains of the waltz died, she was no closer to identifying him than she had been when the dance began.
Whitney stepped away from him, half turning toward Nicki who was standing near the edge of the dance floor, but her partner firmly claimed her hand, tucked it under his arm, and drew her in the opposite direction toward the doors opening off the south side of the house into the gardens.
Several steps from the doors, Whitney began to doubt the wisdom of letting herself be led into the night by a man whom she couldn't yet identify. She was on the verge of refusing to take another step when she saw that there were at least two dozen guests scattered about the brick paths that wound through the lantern-lit gardens, any one of whom would come to her aid if her escort failed to conduct himself as a gentleman. Not that Whitney actually doubted he was a gentleman, for the Armands were notoriously meticulous in choosing their guests. Outside, she reached behind her and untied the ribbons of her demi-mask, letting it dangle from her fingers as she breathed in the fragrance of the spring night scented with blossoms. They came to a white ornamental iron table and chairs, well within sight of the house and other guests, and her escort pulled out a chair for her. "No, I'd rather stand," Whitney said, reveling in the relative quiet and the beauty of the dappled moonlight.
"Well, Prosperina, how are we to manage our friendship if none of your present friends are likely to do me the favor of dying in the foreseeable future?"
Whitney smiled, pleased that at least one person at the ball didn't confuse her with Venus. "How did you know who I am?"
She was referring to her identity of Prosperina, but evidently, Satan misunderstood her, for he shrugged and said, "DuVille isn't wearing a mask and, since rumor has it that the two of you are inseparable, when I saw him, I realized who you were."
A frown marred Whitney's smooth forehead at the unwelcome news that she and Nicki were being linked together by the gossips.
"Since that answer seems to disturb you," he said drily, "perhaps I should have been more honest and told you that there are certain ... attributes ... of yours that made it easy for me to identify you even with your mask on and before DuVille arrived."
My God! Did his gaze actually wander over her body, or was it only her imagination? When he leaned back and casually perched his hip on the wrought iron table, Whitney felt suddenly uneasy. "Who are you?" she demanded firmly.
"Absolutely not! I can't recall anyone of my acquaintance with your height or eyes, or with such outrageously bold manners, especially for an Englishman." She paused and studied him uncertainly. "Are you English?"
He gazed down into her searching green eyes and chuckled. "How remiss of me," he mocked lightly. "I should have said 'what ho' and 'egad' and 'quite so'-so that you would know I am."
His humor was infectious, and Whitney could not stop her answering smile. "Very well, now that you've admitted you're English, tell me who you are."
"Who would you like for me to be, little one?" he asked. "Women always admire noble titles-would you like it if I told you I am a duke?"
Whitney burst out laughing. "You may be a highwayman, or even a pirate." She twinkled at him. "But you are no more a duke than I am."
The amusement vanished from his smile, replaced by a quizzical puzzlement. "May I ask why you are so certain that I am not?"
Thinking back to the only duke she'd ever seen, Whitney impudently surveyed him from head to foot, deliberately repaying him for the lingering glance he'd subjected her to. "Beginning with the most obvious, if you were a duke you would have a quizzing glass."
"But how would I use a quizzing glass with a mask?" he countered curiously.
"A duke does not use a quizzing glass to see-it is merely an affectation. He raises it to his eye and peers at all the ladies in the room. But there are other reasons you cannot possibly be a duke," she continued irrepressibly. "You don't walk with a cane, you don't wheeze and snort, and in all honesty, I doubt you could claim even a mild case of gout to your credit."
"Gout!" he choked, laughing.
Whitney nodded. "Without the cane, the gout, and the wheezing and snorting, you cannot possibly hope to convince anyone that you are a duke. Couldn't you choose some other title to which to aspire? You might be able to pass yourself off as an Earl if you had a bit of a squint and a clubfoot."
He threw back his head and gave a shout of laughter, then he shook his head and regarded her with a thoughtful, almost tender expression. "Miss Stone," he asked with amused gravity, "hasn't anyone taught you that noble titles are to be revered, not laughed at?"
"They did try," Whitney admitted, with a laughing look.
"And, as you can see, they failed."
For a long moment, his gaze lingered on the elegant perfection of her glowing face, then settled on her entrancing green eyes. "But the initial clue that I am not a duke is the absence of a quizzing glass?" he said rather absently.
Whitney toyed with the ribbons of her mask and smiled as she nodded. "You would have ft with you at all times."
"Even riding to a hunt?" he persisted.
She shrugged lightly. "If you were a duke, you'd be too stout to ride."
In a deceptively casual move, he captured her wrists, drawing her forward so that her hip pressed against his hard thigh. "Even in bed?" he asked softly.
Whitney, who had been paralyzed into inaction by his unexpected move, flung off both his hands and fixed him with an icy stare while a dozen scathing remarks tumbled to be first from her lips.
Just as she opened her mouth, he stood up, looming over her. "May I get you a glass of champagne?" he offered soothingly.
"You may go straight to-" Swallowing her outrage in deference to his daunting height and powerful shoulders, Whitney nodded. "Please," she choked.
He stood there for a moment, his imperturbable gray gaze studying Whitney's stormy green eyes, then he turned, striding off toward the house for her champagne.