Most people hoped to spot familiar faces in a crowded ballroom. Augusta Meredith prayed to see only strangers.
For nearly a week, her prayers had been granted. In winter's waning days, the ton kept its distance from Bath. The resort city's fashionable years were in the past, and so the cream of society avoided it, favoring the rural delights of hunting or the sophisticated pleasures of London.
Not that Augusta had ever been part of the ton. But like a moth before an ever-closed window, she had fluttered around its bounds long enough that someone might recognize her.
Thus far, though, the crowds in Bath's Upper Rooms presented her only with strangers-merchants and cits and hangers-on. A lower social class; exactly the sort of people Augusta knew best. Exactly who she was. In Bath, she didn't have to pretend to be someone else.
Though larger than any ballroom Augusta had seen in London, the Upper Rooms were just as crowded with slowly churning waves of people. But there was one great difference: here Augusta inhabited the center, not the edge.
"Mrs. Flowers, m'dear!"
The voice floated above the din in the high-ceilinged room, and Augusta turned toward it. "Mrs. Flowers!" The call came again; this time, the shouting man waved his arms too.
Augusta returned his wave with a graceful flicker of her fan, then flipped it open to hide her grin.
Well, maybe she did pretend to be someone else.
The shouting man was heavyset and young, probably less than her twenty-five years. Every time he had spoken with Augusta, he had been tipsy; since she could not recall his name, she had mentally dubbed him Hiccuper. He shouldered toward her, making slow progress through the crowd. The pale-walled, elaborately plastered ballroom stretched high and long, yet dancing figures filled it to the brim. Babbling voices bounced from the barrel-vaulted ceiling, raining from the wrought ironfaced walkway across the room's end.
Bath was a city of carefully calculated comforts, from the regimented hours for bathing and taking the mineral waters to the location of the nightly assemblies. Everything was orchestrated to bring strangers together in harmony. And through this sort of artificial harmony, Augusta would slip into the escape she craved.
Hiccuper had almost reached her; no doubt he intended to escort her into the winding figures of the dance. When the steps brought them together, he would leer at her breasts; when the dance was over, he might try to persuade her to accompany him home.
All part of the plan she put into action when she entered a false name in Bath's social registry, the Pump Room's guest book. By writing "Mrs. John Flowers" instead of "Miss Augusta Meredith," she became a widow instead of an unmarried woman, shedding the social manacles of an heiress who drew her fortune from trade.
And she didn't intend to carry out her plan with someone like Hiccuper. Augusta Meredith might hope for no better, but Mrs. Flowers could.
Hiccuper was still feet away, swept into a conversation with friends, when another voice spoke in her ear. "Mrs. Flowers, what good fortune to encounter you here in Bath. Do you know, you greatly resemble a young lady of my acquaintance."
A male voice. A familiar male voice.
Damn. Her luck had just run out.
Still hiding behind her fan, Augusta turned toward the voice. From its cursed tone of humor, she at once recognized it as Josiah Everett's-and yes, here he stood, plainly dressed, handsome, and full of wicked glee. He was the worst sort of person she could have encountered: one who knew her too well to be fooled by her deception, but not well enough to take part in it.
"Mr. Everett." She forced a smile. "How unexpectedly delightful to see you. I would have expected you to remain in London for business reasons."
Like Augusta, Everett orbited society at a distance but had a few friends among the beau monde's permissive fringes. Although of respectable birth, his means were straitened. He worked for his bread, serving as Baron Sutcliffe's man of business.
This much Augusta had gleaned from the gossip that scattered whenever Everett made his occasional forays into society. She knew little else about him.
"I almost believe your delight in our meeting to be sincere." Everett bowed. "You are correct, I am generally in London at this time of year. At the present, though, a particular errand requires my attention in Bath. A happy accident, would you not say?"
Was that amusement in his dark eyes? Probably. Humph. He always looked amused.
"But what of you, Mrs. Flowers?" he pressed. "Your name tells me you have been recently married. Permit me to congratulate you."
"Oh, I am not married at present, Mr. Everett." A true statement. She fluttered her fan, an elaborate affair of lace and ivory and painted silk, before her bosom. Earlier this evening, a certain Mr. Rowe had informed her the gesture looked elegant.
As though a woman with hair the color of a persimmon, and no birth to recommend her, could ever truly be elegant. But elegance had its limits, and Augusta had grown used to enticing men with her figure instead.
Everett refused to be enticed; he only folded his arms in his plain, black coat. "Dear me. Ought I instead to offer condolences? Has Mr. Flowers departed this earth?"
Augusta snapped her fan closed. "Is there something you require of me, sir?"
"Merely a confirmation." Everett's dark features held a sardonic expression. "My condolences, then. I did suspect you to be a widow"-he paused over this final word-"since half the men in this ballroom are caterwauling your praises."
"Only half?" She arched a brow. "How sad. My popularity is declining."
Everett's smile grew. "I haven't been present long. It might be more."
"And what are these caterwauling men saying of me?"
He lifted his gaze to a chandelier, one of five elaborate gilt affairs that lit the stretching room and cast down as much heat as they did light. Outside, night hung like dark velvet over the clerestory windows. "I believe," he drawled, "that someone said your bosom could launch a thousand ships. That seems a bit much to ask of a bosom, though. It is not a dockyard."
"Certainly not for you," Augusta muttered. It was, however, her best feature. Her indigo silk's low-cut bodice was trimmed in gold cord and lace, a fashion flattering to a young woman with more curves than subtlety.
"Perhaps I shouldn't have told you what I'd overheard." Everett was looking at her again, dark brows slightly lifted as though he were challenging her. "Then again, if you're a widow, you can handle a bit of scandalous talk."
"Mrs. Flowers!" Hiccuper had pushed his way through the crowd at last, panting boozily. "Mrs. Flowers, m'dear."
"Ah, Mr...." She covered her uncertainty over his name with a titter. "How good to see you."
"You must dance with me, Mrs. Flowers. They're forming a cotillion." The young man leaned closer, the odor of perspiration and cheap sherry as sharp as a slap. When he breathed out, setting the curls at Augusta's ears into a dance, she went stiff.
Avoiding Everett's gaze, she simpered, "I'm sorry, dear sir, but I've just agreed to dance with this gentleman." She waved her fan in Everett's direction with languid disinterest, hoping he had manners enough not to give the lie to her words.
Indeed, Everett spoke up at once. "So sorry, dear sir, but perhaps you may have a later dance. Mrs. Flowers, shall we take our places in the set?" He held out a gray-gloved hand.
With a parting wave, she left a surprised Hiccuper behind and joined Everett in pressing through the crowd. "Thank you for covering my little falsehood-"
"One of several."
"But," she added in a slightly louder tone, "you don't really have to dance with me. I could develop an urgent requirement for tea. Or a rest."
"I certainly do need to dance with you, if that's the sort of man who follows you around discussing your bosom." Everett frowned back at Hiccuper. "Your dear sir smelled as though he hadn't washed for a week. Has he bothered you before?"
"No. No one bothers me."
Everett slanted a sideways look at her, then set his jaw.
It was a rather nice jaw, clean and strong. As though his veins carried Mediterranean blood, his skin was a dark olive, his hair black and slightly curling. Within his gray gloves, his hands had a firm, pleasant grip.
How unfortunate that such a fine form belonged to such an unnerving man, with such a pestilent wit.
Though at the moment, his usual satirical expression had settled into solemn lines. "It is, of course, your affair if you want to throw away your time on men who compare you to a dockyard."
"You were the one who made that comparison." She tried to tug her fingers from his grasp, but an elderly man with grizzled side whiskers jostled against them. To steady her, Everett drew her closer. The contact surprised a hitching breath from Augusta; at Everett's side, she caught a faint, spicy scent. Sandalwood?
Again, he looked at her sidelong. "Yes, well. I certainly wouldn't deny you could find better company than me. Though at least I wash every day. That's something, I suppose."
"That's something," she repeated. Under the guise of stumbling against his arm, then catching her breath in the crowd, she inhaled again. Yes. Sandalwood. A faraway scent, as unusual as it was masculine. Because it had to be imported from afar, from sultry corners of the world like India or Hawai'i, the golden oil was costly.
As the heiress to a cosmetics fortune, Augusta knew fragrances as well as most women knew fashion. Sandalwood was an unusual choice for any Englishman, much less one of limited means.
She had just learned something else about Josiah Everett: he was a man of at least one surprise.
Maybe he would hold one more, if she could persuade him. Rising to her toes, she whispered in his ear, "Mr. Everett. How can I convince you to keep my secret?"
Encountering Augusta Meredith was not the first surprise that had befallen Joss since his arrival in Bath three days before, though it was certainly more pleasant than the ones that had preceded it.
Hearing Augusta Meredith referred to as "Mrs. Flowers"? Another surprise, and this one less pleasant. For a dreadful, swooping moment, he thought she had finally got herself married off.
But no. It seemed the name and the widowhood were equally fictitious, part of some plan of hers. As, no doubt, was her warm breath in his ear. Her husky whisper. The faint floral scent she wore, so delicate and sweet he could almost taste it.
How can I convince you to keep my secret?
He ought to require no convincing at all; he ought simply to do a lady's bidding. But as he knew quite well, secrets came at a great price. That was, after all, why he was in Bath to begin with.
So he reserved a definite reply, at least until he could determine what sort of scheme the lady had in mind. "At the moment, my dear Mrs. Flowers, you need do nothing but dance with me." He drew her to one side of a set. Throughout the enormous ballroom, couples were grouping, four by four, into the squares of the cotillion.
Joss hoped he remembered the steps. He hadn't danced since he was a half-grown boy, filling in the sets with maids and servants to help his second cousin, Lord Sutcliffe, learn the figures he would need to move about in high society.
How many years had Joss spent helping Sutcliffe with figures? Though he was only thirty-one years old, it seemed the task of a lifetime. Now, though, the baron needed his aid with figures of a different sort: amounts of money, curves of women.
But soon that would all be done, Joss's long servitude at an end. If he could get a few damned people to speak with him. So far, the so-called Mrs. Flowers was the only person who had given him more than a curious glance, or a dismissive one. And though her smile had been polite, he was fortunate her eyes were incapable of firing bullets.
He had hoped the fluctuations of Bath society, always bidding bonjour and adieu to travelers, would allow him to conduct his business more efficiently than in London. But no, even here, gazes skated over him. Maybe because of his dark complexion or the plainness of his clothing. To them, Joss did not appear as though he had anything to offer.
At least he made a better dance partner than an unwashed sot.
He looked down at Miss Meredith, standing to his right, impatient and fidgety under her lush tangle of red curls threaded with amber beads. Her bosom-which might not truly launch a thousand ships, but which was certainly worthy of a flotilla-rose and fell with fascinating force within her purple silk gown. Maybe she intended to use her pneumatic talents to befuddle him into agreement.
He was quite willing to let her try. "Take hands, my dear widow."
With a filthy look quickly turned angelic, she let him draw her into the small circle of their dance.
"I wonder at your grimaces, Mrs. Flowers," he murmured, sliding over the smooth wooden floor in some semblance of the correct balances and steps and chassés. "You invited me to dance, after all. Is this cotillion not the fulfillment of your ambition?"
Her light brown eyes opened wide, but a retort was arrested by the movement of the dance: the four women stepped inward, forming a cross with their joined hands. After they completed their steps and turns, the men did the same. Joss's three companions bore a familiar look of determined concentration; one man was actually counting the steps to himself.
This was Bath in miniature: a polite grouping of strangers thrust into close proximity. All unwilling to give offense, but unsure whether they ought to have anything to do with one another. Yet the people, like the ballroom walls, were plastered and painted. Hoping to impress.
Joss was no different, was he? Except that plaster and paint were beyond his means. He had only ever seen the ton from the outside, peering out from the corner of a ballroom or down from a balcony's dizzying height. This feeling of being melted and mixed into a crowd was unfamiliar and thus not entirely pleasant.
Before the dance dragged them apart again, Miss Meredith managed to hiss in his ear. "I will grant that I find you preferable to being pawed by a drunkard."
"You honor me. As I am not intoxicated, may I be permitted to paw you instead?"
Stepping, sliding, hopping again. This dance was not conducive to conversation. And Joss much preferred boots to the ridiculous glossy shoes required by Bath's master of ceremonies at formal assemblies. It was so difficult to find his footing in this sort of place.
When they next passed each other, Miss Meredith gave him a truly lovely smile. "You are welcome to try it and see what happens. Are you fond of all your fingers?"
"Indeed I am, my dear Widow Flowers, so I shan't put a hand on you except as part of this dance. You deserve every courtesy, having married and buried a husband since we last met-when was it?"
"Last summer." She frowned. "Just before the Duke of Wyverne's house party."
"No doubt you are right," he said lightly, as though he could not remember the exact dates. She had not been present at the ducal house party in Lancashire; he had noticed at the time. And he had wondered how bright her hair would appear under the cold northern sky.
A violin wandered out of tune; with a sweet rebuke, an oboe called it back. Joss stepped forward into the cross with the other men. Now the chain, in which his feet were supposed to do something intricate while he and Miss Meredith held hands. He settled for taking her fingers and shuffling back and forth just enough not to smack into the other dancers.
"As I said before, you have my condolences for your recent bereavement," he pressed mercilessly. "This festive interlude must be an attempt to kick away your mourning. How brave and noble of you! Though it is a bit soon, if-"
"It's all a lie, all right?" she whispered. "Now stop talking. You know I'm not a widow."
Her sudden frankness surprised him into silence, as did the hard expression that crossed her soft features.
For a moment they simply shuffled gracelessly, hands clasped and bodies a breath apart. The pale swell of her flotilla-launching breasts, the fiery glints of her hair under the chandelier light had him wishing she were a widow in truth.
But she was a maiden. A dishonest maiden. And two generations of family scandal had taught Joss that, though dishonesty was sometimes permissible, dallying with maidens was not.
"I know you are not." Regret thickened his voice. "I would love to lie about who I am. I simply didn't think of it."
"If only you had, then we would be on equal footing. As it is, my reputation is in your hands."
"Mrs. Flowers, every time a woman dances with a man, her reputation is in his hands. That is why it is such an honor when a lady agrees to dance with a man."
"But I asked you to dance," she said. "Or if we are to be accurate, I informed you that you were to dance with me."
"Then I suppose my reputation is in your hands."
She looked at him with some surprise; then the dance separated them. There ensued an interminable winding and stepping and crossing, until finally the orchestra's sawing dwindled away. As Miss Meredith applauded with the other dancers, Joss caught her elbow and steered her to the edge of the room.
The crush was slightly less here. When Joss glared at a dandy seated on a small bench, the fellow scrambled away and Joss handed his partner into the seat. "Do tell me, Mrs. Flowers," he said as he looked down at her, "how have you passed off this new identity?"
A fan dangled from one wrist; she caught it up in her other hand and began teasing it open. It bore a painting of some curly-headed, Greek-looking youth, with white draperies and tiny wings and puffed-out cheeks.
"Zephyr," she said, noticing Joss's gaze. "The god of the west wind. An apt decoration for a fan, don't you think?" She waved it at him, and a welcome eddy of cool air brushed his features.
Joss ignored this attempt at diversion, lifting his brows.
She snapped the fan closed. "Very well. I'm visiting Bath in company with the Countess of Tallant. You have made her acquaintance, I think?"
"Yes, certainly." The young auburn-haired countess and her doting husband were a popular pair, sharing unshakable good humor.
"Lady Tallant is"-Miss Meredith paused-"not well. She's here to take the waters and does not plan to mix much in Bath society. So I was tasked with visiting the Pump Room after we arrived, to sign our names in the guest book and meet the master of ceremonies and whatnot. I took the opportunity to...not be me anymore."
"You are still you," Joss reminded her. "You simply called yourself something different. Why Mrs. Flowers, by the way?"
She coughed. "I saw a vase of flowers in one corner as I was introducing myself, and that was that."
"To think, if the master of ceremonies had made your introduction in a different room, Bath might now be admiring the charms of Mrs. Roman Statue."
Her attempt at a frown was a dreadful failure; in a moment, it flipped into a smile and a low chuckle. The sound was throaty and knowing, entirely different from the feathery giggle she had used with the portly drunkard who had tried to seize her for a dance.
That had been a maiden's laugh. This? This was the chuckle of a woman who liked the company of a man.
Only when her laugh fell silent, the smile vanishing, did Joss realize he had been staring at her in some wonder.
"So you'll keep my secret?" she asked in a brittle voice.
"That depends on why you possess a secret in the first place." Though his brows were getting tired from all the lifting, he kept the blasé expression on his face. "Why are you posing as a widow, Miss Meredith? Are you in some danger?"
Her features crumpled; then she straightened her shoulders. "Not at all." She looked up at him, and her smile almost reached her brandy-gold eyes. "It's as simple as this, Mr. Everett. I require a lover."