Contrary to what Ana had surmised, Christian had not left the ball. Once he had observed Ana and Kate entering the ballroom, he had joined his parents in the receiving line, ensuring that his mother could not chastise him for his lack of familial duty. Why she insisted on his being at her side when clearly two thirds of those attending did not want to acknowledge his presence at all, was beyond him. However, he loved the Duchess unreasonably and would never seek to deliberately disappoint her. He had learned over the years, that the ton might not want to admit him into their ranks but they would never deliberately disappoint Grace, Duchess of Carrick, either. Sometimes it amused him to watch them squirm; tonight his mind was patently elsewhere.
“Really, Christian, it wouldn’t hurt you to smile.” Grace spoke through her own perfectly open visage, her eyes twinkling under a delicate frame of sea foam lace, as Lady Myrston and her tedious son drifted on to the ballroom wearing matching peacock masks that looked for all the world like they might take flight.
“I do believe that it would be the most painful experience of my life, Your Grace, second only to listening to your outrageous conversations with Sir Raymond over canapes.” The Grey men all wore understated silver-grey eye masks to match their dark green jackets and dove-grey breeches. Since they were all of a height and wore powdered wigs (their half-hearted attempt at dressing in costume for the occasion), they were easily confused by those who did not know them well. Elliot and Carrick both grinned at Christian, delighting in his discomfort, meanwhile Christian had plans that would mean he would not be joining them at 3am when their wigs would become overly hot and itchy, for which he was entirely grateful.
“Piffle! We were merely doing what people of our dotage tend to do. What else is left for me but to speculate on my lack of grandchildren? Speaking of which, when are you going to marry, young man? I shall be one foot in the grave and too old to enjoy your progeny if you don’t at least make half an effort to find a suitable wife.” Her Grace also wore a high powdered wig and a gown from the previous century, her waist cinched to show off the girlish figure she still maintained. She had toyed with affecting a French accent all evening until her daughter, Lady Mia, had pointed out that Marie Antionette was, in fact, Austrian and that the effort would be lost on their guests.
“Not for lack of trying,” Christian muttered under his breath.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, Your Grace. Be assured, I shall marry when my brother does.” Christian’s announcement was loud enough for Elliot to turn and thump him in the arm.
“Boys! Really! Please show some decorum,” the duchess hissed from behind her fan.
“Yes, mother.” The young men chimed in unison while their father chuckled.
“You know, Elliot, your brother is quite right,” Grace announced as Christian smirked at Elliot. His mother forcefully thwacked her fan on his shoulder causing him to yelp. “You really should consider your options carefully, this season. Your father is desperate to hand over the running of the estate to you and will not do so until he sees you settled.”
“I don’t know why he is in such a rush. He’s hardly about to shuffle off his mortal coil.” Thwap! The duchess really was far too liberal with her fan for Christian’s liking.
“My father passed the responsibility on when we were married and his father before him. It is the Carrick way. Besides, you’ve been running the minor estates for the past five years, Elliot, there really is no excuse.” Carrick’s resonance brooked no argument.
Christian glanced at his brother behind their mother’s back with a raised eyebrow. Yes, his older brother had proved he was perfectly capable to take up the reigns as the next Duke of Carrick but he was certainly not all work and no play. Elliot frowned at Christian, daring him to say anything. Christian chuckled then turned his attention back to the receiving line.
“Your Grace, divine as always.” Christian found himself unconsciously stepping back from the line as Lady Elena Lincoln, dressed head to toe in black satin, leaned in to greet Her Grace with a kiss on either cheek. He noticed that Elliot did the same.
“Elena, my dear, thank goodness.” The arrival of Lady Elena Lincoln usually signaled the official end of the formal part of the evening for the family. The lady in question gathered up the Duke and Duchess and swept them into the main hall, leaving Elliot and Christian standing with their sister, Lady Mia.
“I take it that you two don’t want to come and join the dancing.” Mia looked at them from beneath a perfectly arched eyebrow framed in a mint lace that matched her mother’s mask in style and shape. Her dark hair tumbled elegantly in perfectly appointed ringlets over one shoulder and was woven through with delicate, silk violets.
“On the contrary, fair Titania. I would like nothing better than to share the first set with my cherished sister.” Elliot ever the charmer tucked her arm through his and led Mia through the main doors with some urgency. Christian was grateful to be left to his own devices. He made his way up to the balcony and gazed down on the crowd below. His eyes searched for and found her quickly. Breathtaking. Ana was dancing a quadrille and the heated flush of her skin, accentuated by her Grecian lavender gown and matching mask, made her glow. Her dark hair was laced with seed pearls. Kate’s work he would have to guess. A vision of removing each one had him grimacing with unwelcome lustful thoughts.
“Roughing it a bit, don’t you think?” From nowhere, Lady Elena had appeared at his side. The customary shiver ran through his spine.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” He kept his eyes forward. Looking directly at the woman would give him a headache. She was the reason that Ana had found herself with not one, but two proposals of marriage, after all. He couldn’t quite fathom what Elena had hoped to gain from spreading rumors about Ana.
“Lady Katherine’s appendage. You know there is some speculation that their relationship is not altogether… normal. No one can quite understand why Lady Katherine hasn’t married but then it would be difficult to find a husband of worth who might tolerate that sort of thing. Not right under his nose.”
Christian drew in a breath. “First, you are telling Mr Hyde that Miss Steele has been ruined and now you are accusing her of God-only-knows-what with Lady Katherine? You really have no morals. What do you get from spreading such vicious untruths about people, Elena?” He deliberately dropped her title. She was a bitch and didn’t deserve it.
“Oh, Christian, darling, I always find some benefit, don’t you worry about that.” She pressed in close to him, her body touching his from shoulder to knee. Lady Elena was known amongst his peers as forward. She had initiated most of them into sex as young men, after all. If his mother knew half of what her dear friend and cousin, Lady Elena, got up to, she would die.
“And that would be?”
“Open your eyes, my dear. Men lust after those two. They’ve dominated the season in their own sweet way, for more than four years and yet neither of them seem to notice their many suitors, nor do they care that half the men of the ton are falling over their own tongues to be of service to them. It isn’t seemly and some of the younger girls and their Mamas are starting to complain.” As they watched the dance changed and another young pup took Ana’s hand, making her laugh as he led her into a country dance. The urge to go down there and stake his claim was overwhelming. But what was Elena saying? That Kate and Ana didn’t have a natural relationship? If that kiss was anything to go by then Elena had no idea where Ana’s passions truly lay. However, it seemed that this relationship with Kate was not as he had been led to believe. Ana had no shortage of potential suitors, regardless of Sir Raymond’s financial position. Suddenly Elena had managed to raise to the surface, a range of questions to which Christian had not known he required answers.
“You speculate too much for my liking, Elena. You always have.”
“Well, someone has to. Your brother has lusted after Katherine Kavanagh for far too many seasons. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.” Christian raised an eyebrow. He was well aware how Elliot felt about Kate but he had not thought the rest of the ton would notice, nor care.
“Do not think to meddle in the affairs of my brother, Madam.”
“Oh, my darling. I am the affairs of your brother. If you had bothered to accept my card upon your recent return, you would have known that.” With that Elena flicked open her fan and turned to make her way to the top of the stairs leaving Christian staring impotently after her.
Resisting the urge to follow and push the harridan down the staircase, Christian turned his attention to seeking out his brother. Elliot had long since handed Mia into the arms of the next young man on her dance card and was standing at the side of the ballroom talking to their cousin, Lord James Hartley. A quick signal of his head and both men turned to make their way to some unseen location. Christian took an alternate route and met them both in the library, away from the general populace. He turned to lock the door upon his entrance, ensuring them complete privacy.
“Christian, good to see you, cousin.” James had the look of all the Grey men, with generous height and intimidating good looks. He greeted Christian with a hug, the fourth member of a tightly woven friendship group that had begun in childhood. Elliot poured his father’s best brandy into three glasses, handing them to his brother and cousin. Whatever business they were about to discuss would not be done until a glass was raised to their absent friend, Ethan, who was never far from their thoughts.
“What news from across the channel?” Christian would get to the reason he had summoned them but this topic always took precedence.
“There have been some developments. Haverstock has found Ethan’s location and this time we know it is definitely him.” James removed a stained and crumpled parchment from his pocket and passed it to Elliot. “Our contact managed to obtain this.”
Elliot peered at the paper carefully before handing it to Christian. The mark was indistinct but from the dark ash smudge, one could discern the shape of a diamond, the eastern point having been deliberately altered with an extra line intersecting the apex. It was the sign they had been searching for, for years. Smiles broke out on all of their faces as they clapped each other on the back with relieved laughter.
Wiping a small tear from the corner of his eye, Elliot studied the note again. “And our contact is to be trusted? They can help us get in?”
“They can help me get in, brother,” Christian stated. Elliot looked up, his eyes tumultuous green. Christian was not phased. “Your role is to stay here.”
“The hell I will. I’m not going to let this attempt fail” This was the direct hit that Christian expected and dreaded at the same time.
“This attempt will not fail. Don’t challenge me on this, Elliot.” Christian’s eyes hardened.
“This is my best friend, Christian. You won’t leave me behind.” Elliot’s temper was rising as he stood nose to nose with his brother.
“You are the future Duke of Carrick. Ethan will not thank either of us for risking your life!”
“Both of you stop before you attract the attention of your mother’s guests. Or worse, your father.” James chose to stay out of most fights between his cousins, but there was a time and place. “Christian is right, Elliot. It would be foolish for you to go at this time. Besides, I think we might have other problems that might require your attention here at home. Least of which, is that our contact has confirmed that Ethan was captured on information that could only have come from our home office. Someone is going to have to work with Haverstock to gain more information and that job would be best suited to you.” He looked at Elliot rather pointedly. A grim line formed on Elliot’s face but his eyes did not move from his brother. Christian reached up and placed a hand on either side of his sibling’s head and pulled him in until their foreheads were touching.
“Please. I know that I failed you before but I will not do so again. Leave Ethan to me. Trust me, I beg of you.” Elliot was one of only three men in the world that could bring Christian to his metaphorical knees. James placed a hand on each cousin’s shoulder in solidarity. They all had their roles to play and they were each, in their own way, laying their lives on the line, just as their friend had done for them.
Elliot kissed his brother’s forehead before pulling away. James was satisfied that the brothers would not hurt each other in some grandiose display of one-up-manship. He pulled his gloves from his breast pocket.
“Now, I must away. Haverstock has given me leave to pursue another lead regarding Ravensthwaite. I hope to bring you more information before you leave, cousin.” With that announcement, James stepped through the library doors and disappeared. Elliot still held the note from Ethan in his hand and was indulging himself in a further reassurance that his friend was indeed alive.
“Brother, may I ask you a question?” Given the emotional temperature of the room, Christian was not sure about broaching his topic. However, he could not go to France without some reassurance. Elliot looked up at him. “Have you been seeing Elena Lincoln?”
The twisted, raw look of pain and guilt on Elliot’s face spoke for him. “I…”
The words hadn’t left his mouth before Christian’s fist connected with his jaw. Elliot staggered back, clutching at his face.
“What the hell was that for?” Elliot yelled.
“Don’t make me hit you again, brother.” Christian was winding up once more but Elliot was ready for him this time and caught his fist in his hand.
“Just listen to me! For God’s sake!”
“Why? We made a promise, we four. How could you?” Christian had suddenly lost what little patience he had had.
“I didn’t break our agreement. She summoned me. She said she had information about Ravensthwaite that I would want to hear. I went to her rooms and when I got there she offered me tea. That was the last thing I remember. When I awoke, I was in her bed but she was nowhere to be found.”
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me?” There were times when Christian wondered if his brother had any sense at all.
“I had all my money, there was no one in the room. It was bizarre but it seemed rather harmless and pointless.”
“Nothing that woman does is harmless nor pointless. You should know better than that.”
“I know, I know. I just thought…” Elliot shook his head. “I have no idea what I thought. I’m sorry, I should have told you days ago but then you asked for my assistance with Lady Katherine and Miss Steele and it completely slipped my mind.”
“Well, it clearly hasn’t slipped hers. She’s up to something and she seems intent on maligning your reputation along with Kate and Ana.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s all but accused them of an unnatural relationship and she insinuated that you had been intimate with her.”
“I’ll kill her.” Christian had no doubt that Elliot would do exactly that.
“No, we need to be smarter than that. We need to make sure her husband does it.” Christian smiled at Elliot who after a moment’s shock, gave a wry chuckle. “In the meantime, I have an appointment with Captain Blackheart.”
Two hours later, a figure clothed in black, appeared at the top of the staircase, his body still, eyes alert behind the mask. The whisper went up around the room, bringing ladies, young and old to the edge of the dance floor to peer expectantly up at the balcony. Captain Blackheart had made very few appearances at the balls and soirees of the ton but when he did there was always a furore. Mia, who had been standing talking with the Duke and Duchess, broke away as quickly and politely as she could and rushed to the bottom of the stairs. Kate and Ana had caught the tail end of the excitement as they emerged into the ballroom and Kate followed in Mia’s wake.
“Kate, stop, what are you doing?” Ana whispered.
“This is the opportunity I have waited for for months. I missed his every appearance the last two seasons so I am not going to let this chance slip.” Kate’s giddy and somewhat childish behavior was starting to worry Ana. She wasn’t sure that her dearest friend wasn’t losing her marbles.
“Wait! This is unseemly. You can’t just throw yourself upon his mercy like some harlot in front of the ton. What happened to asking Captain Grey for an introduction?” The zealous look in Kate’s eyes disturbed Ana beyond belief. This was not the plan. After months of investigation, Kate had discovered that Captain Christian Grey, her brother’s childhood friend, had once sailed with Captain Blackheart and knew him very well. The story had come to them from the widow of one of Blackheart’s crewmen, who had told them that Captain Grey had rescued Blackheart and his crew a year ago in a standoff with a Spanish galleon off the coast of Gibraltar.
Just then, the man himself appeared at the bottom of the stairs and Ana found herself stepping back away from the crowd of ladies. The Captain radiated raw energy and malevolence as he stood over them. It was impossible to discern anything about him except for the clear gray of his eyes. His hair was hidden beneath a black head scarf and tricorn hat. His eyes were covered in the black silk eye mask that secured his head gear in place. His shirt, jacket, breeches, boots and gloves were all black; the effect menacing. Ana felt her body start to tremble at his proximity. Then to her horror, she watched as the crowd parted and the Captain stalked toward her. Just as he gained her side, she all but turned to run from the room when his hand grasped her elbow and the audience sent up a collective gasp.
“I believe you promised this dance to me, M’Lady.” That deep resonant voice hit her in the chest and her breath hitched.
“I think you are mistaken, Sir. I don’t believe that we have met.” But her words were too little too late. To her horror, at that moment the orchestra struck up the supper waltz. Ana glanced around in panic, seeking eyes, any eyes, that might save her. While there was plenty of interest, a little too much interest, no one stepped forward to stop him from laying claim to her. Plenty of young women around her began to flutter their fans against the heat he stirred up but none would lift a hand to help her.
“Come, my dear, you would not refuse me.” A statement, not a question. He brushed a gloved hand over her bare shoulder causing a tremor to go through Ana’s body. Unlike, Captain Grey, who could sometimes be so cold and aloof, Captain Blackheart smiled with warmth, humor and kindness and Ana felt her heart stop. “Breathe, my dear. I promise I won’t bite.”
Pulling her into his arms, the Captain swept her in a wide circle and Ana could do no more than try to keep up with the pace of his fluid movement. His grip was firm on her back, pulling her a little closer to his hips than she would have thought seemly, but since she had dance so few waltzes in her time, she had very little on which to base a judgment. His hand firmly held hers,the warmth flowing through their gloves. More than anything, she felt herself completely trapped in his gaze that was both full of the warmth of an unshared joke and the turbulence of wild sea. Ana bit her lip and prayed that her heart could not be so easily taken by two equally as compelling men in as many days.
“Smile, Ana. You look like a frightened deer.” Ana’s eyes widened. How did he know her name let alone presume to use it?
“What do you want with me?” Trying to keep her voice level was a feat of great strength.
“The question is what do you want of me? I’ve heard that you and your friend have been looking for me.”
It was true. Only two months ago, the letter had come from the palace informing Kate that time was drawing close for the Ravensthwaite estate to pass back to the crown. At the same time, other information had reached her regarding Ethan. Whereas before, Kate had trusted that the war would end and her brother might return, now, it seemed that time was of the essence.
“You are mistaken, Sir. It is Lady Katherine who has some need of your services.”
“And you?” She didn’t understand the question. She didn’t quite know how.
“I am merely a paid companion.” He swung her around in a wild circle then resumed dancing her backward. The predatory gleam in his eye made her feel stalked.
“Come, my dear. You are so much more than that. I can sense that you are drawn to your own adventures. Tell me, don’t you want something that only I can offer?” He smirked in a way that had Ana fuming with anger. How dare he? The presumptuous man. He was every inch a pirate. She made to pull away from him but his grip tightened.
“You are insufferable and arrogant and…” To her dismay he threw back his head and laughed before swinging her in another wide arc. She hissed, “Will you stop making such a scene, please. Everyone is looking at us.”
Her gritted teeth were causing her jaw to ache.
“Oh, my dear, I think the real scene is that nasty tower of rotting fruit on top of the Countess Durham’s head. Look, at Lord Melthrop trying to steal her grapes.” Ana caught the movement of the Earl’s hand from hat to mouth and developed an uncontrollable case of the giggles, her shoulders shaking and tears threatening. “Oh, and look at Lady Lincoln with her hand on the footman’s thigh. Poor man looks like he’s going to be ill.”
“Stop it!” Ana laughed. “I’m mad at you. How dare you make me laugh.”
“My point is that we are hardly the only spectacle with all of that going on. You and I are merely a sideshow.”
“Somehow, I don’t think you have ever been a mere sideshow in your life.” Ana tried to feign indifference by looking past his shoulder. Every time she stopped looking at him he twirled her again and drew her eyes to his.
“You have no idea.” At that moment the dance ended and Captain Blackheart gave a gallant bow before leading her from the dance floor. At that moment, Kate came charging over to them with a determined look on her face. Upon arriving in front of them her manner immediately changed and Ana had a terrible premonition that Kate was about to swoon. And on cue, much to Ana’s abject horror, Kate did exactly that, collapsing into the arms of the black-clad buccaneer, who, without missing a beat, swept her up and carried her through nearby doors to a small private study.
Shaking off her trance, Ana followed, wondering just what her friend was up to. Kate never swooned, even when she had received news that her brother had been taken prisoner. Nor when she had found out that her parents had died. Ana had thought to escape after her dance but now she could not very well leave her friend to the mercy of the pirate. Meanwhile, the Captain laid Kate down on a chaise and began to fiddle with the her costume. Ana gave a little yelp.
“Really! There is no need for that.” Kate sat up suddenly and batted away his hands. Ana was ready to chastise her friend for her dramatics but found herself giggling at the Captain’s ineffective attempts to fend her off.
“I was only trying to assist you to breathe. You ladies wear such confining stays that I thought perhaps you might not be able to take in any air.”
“Ooh! How dare you? Women haven’t been wearing confining stays since the turn of the century and nothing would give you the right to take such liberties with an unmarried woman.” Kate was in her stride now and Ana knew that Captain Blackheart, scourge of the seas, was about to get a dressing down that would match the ire of the little French emperor himself. She was tempted to escape the room and leave them to it but the pirate looked up at her with pleading eyes, clearly out of his depth.
“Kate, perhaps now would be the right time to make your request, instead of berating Captain Blackheart?” Ana inclined her head, hoping to send a subtle message to Kate to remind her of just what was at stake. So much effort had gone into obtaining an introduction to Captain Blackheart. It seemed a shame to have spent all that effort only to stumble at the final hurdle.
“Oh. Oh, of course.” Kate swallowed back the insults she was preparing to hurl and tried for demure. From the look on Blackheart’s face, Ana didn’t think it was working. Just then, the door burst open and a man walked in looking for the world like a god of war or thunder. One glance told Ana all she needed to know. This was the Lord Grey, ready to tear the limbs off Captain Blackheart. For his part, the roguish pirate had risen and was poised for battle.
“Lord Grey, how wonderful that you should come to check on our well being.” Ana stepped in front of Elliot and placed her gloved palm on his chest which brought about an angry hiss from Blackheart. This was all a little too confusing as both men glared at her hand. Slowly, removing it, Ana suddenly didn’t like her or Kate’s chances of leaving this room without a spanking.
Elliot knelt at Kate’s feet, removing his mask and taking her hand. “Are you alright, my dear?” He was so earnest and Kate’s eyes, usually clear and knowing suddenly became glassy with emotion.
“Oh, Lord Grey, I am so very happy to have you here.” Ana wondered if this were not an act as well. Kate had wanted an audience with Captain Blackheart, not a tryst with Elliot, Lord Grey. Although, she was sure that a tryst wouldn’t have been unwelcome. Only not with an audience. Ana wound her hand through the Captain’s arm and began to walk him around the edges of the small room in an effort to give them some privacy.
“Captain Blackheart, I wonder if I might speak with you on a matter of some urgency.” The captain’s body was tense, his muscles hard beneath her hand. So similar to Captain Grey, only, while the naval Captain radiated arrogance and determination, the pirate was clearly more dangerous.
“I would be delighted to be of service.” He seemed relieved to be removed from Kate’s side but not in a way that said he had any desire other than to be walking right at this moment with Ana. His eyes were warm and earnest, his smile genuine. Mmmm…another difference. She had the distinct impression that Captain Grey had heard her out with a sense of duty. This man was proving more…approachable, even if he was a complete rogue. She had not expected that. His voice, deep and warm, had her melting and she wondered if perhaps she was going through some sort of womanly change to be so affected so deeply by two very similar but also very different men.
“I would beg a favor of you, sir, if I may?” The pirate smiled and Ana found her body relaxing against his.
“What is it, dear one?” Ana glanced around her. He had managed to maneuver her out through the terrace doors without her notice. Goodness, the man was quite something. She knew she shouldn’t be alone with him, not after that risque dance, but quite honestly, she found herself not wanting to be anywhere else. This was not how she usually acted and she felt quite wanton. He turned her body to face him and was shifting a lock of hair away from her eyes with the backs of his fingers. Although the action itself reminded her of Captain Grey in many ways, this moment was uniquely about Captain Blackheart. It took every effort not to sigh into his touch.
“I…” For one shocking moment, she thought that she might actually lose her words. She glanced back into the room to where Kate was obviously being severely reprimanded by Lord Elliot. “I would like to employ your services, on behalf of Lady Katherine Kavanagh and Lord Ethan Kavanagh, Earl of Ravensthwaite.”
“Would you indeed?” She could hear the raised eyebrow, even if, between mask and darkness, she could not see it. He was mocking her.
“Yes, quite. I have an urgent mission to complete.”
“A mission? Pray tell, what is this mission, sweet lady?” Oh, the man was so forward. Ana must take back control of this conversation.
“I should like you to take me to France.”