The Masquerade of the Marchioness

The Masquerade of the Marchioness, a Regency romance by Claire Delacroix

Philomena Wright, Marchioness of Arlingview, is universally admired for her intellect, good sense and charitable efforts on behalf of widows and orphans. She seems to have every advantage, but secretly desires that her dashing husband, the one person indifferent to her accomplishments, would notice her. The issue, clearly, is that she is too dull to hold his attention—when she is offered the opportunity, Philomena cannot resist the temptation of pursuing her husband in disguise.

Garrett Wright misses the purpose—and the peril—of his work as a spy during the war and is bored with his long-time disguise as a reckless rake. When he accepts an assignment to identify a jewel thief preying upon London society, he meets a mysterious masked beauty kindles his passion with her bold touch. Could she be the thief? Garrett becomes determined to both possess and unveil the temptress, whatever the cost.

Philomena and Garrett’s game of cat-and-mouse enthralls them both, but when Philomena is revealed, Garrett fears his wife has another secret. Will catching the thief place his beloved wife in jeopardy? Forced to choose between honor and love, how will Garrett find a means to fulfill his duty and secure a happy future with Philomena?

Coming December 20, 2022

The Masquerade of the Marchioness will also be available in mass market paperback:

An excerpt from The Masquerade of the Marchioness:

If ever there had been a woman who could name a man’s desire before he spoke of it, that woman would be Esmeralda Ballantyne. The popular courtesan watched Garrett Wright, Marquis of Arlingview, swirl the brandy in his glass and decided not to disrobe just yet. Her guest had arrived late, well after midnight, yet was utterly sober. He wore evening dress, as elegantly attired as was his custom, but seemed distracted.

Sadly, he was not distracted by her.

Esmeralda took the opportunity of studying his profile. The marquis was a dangerously handsome man with his dark hair and blue eyes, distinguished with a touch of silver at his temples. His jaw was square, giving him a resolute appearance, and he was taller than most men. He could not be more than thirty-five, but his height combined with the muscular breadth of his shoulders to give him an imposing presence.

He was also the most deliciously wicked patron she had ever known. It was impossible to guess his thoughts most time, for the man was as impassive as a statue, and perhaps that contributed to the delight of his companionship. She looked forward to their encounters, for he always surprised her in bed.

But not, evidently, on this night. He had not even shed his jacket, but remained staring out the window at the street, brooding over some matter.

Esmeralda knew better than to pout. “Is the brandy a good one?” she asked as if unaware that he slighted her. She lounged on a chair before the fire, twining a loose curl around her fingertip. She knew the pose and the light favored her, but the marquis barely glanced her way. His gaze certainly did not linger.

“Yes. Why?”

“I thought to order more if it was of merit.”

She earned a hard look for that. “Haven’t you tasted it?”

“I have no desire for brandy these days,” she said lightly.

Wright smiled wolfishly then, his eyes glittering. “Feeling the years, are we?”

Esmeralda looked daggers at him, which clearly amused him, then composed her expression. She was supposed to be the perceptive one. “I prefer wine these days, that is all.”

He nodded once and swirled the glass again. She wasn’t sure he had even tasted its contents, which was unusual for him. “Curious thing, changing taste,” he mused.

Esmeralda waited but he did not continue. She smiled deliberately and prompted him. “How so?”

“Who can anticipate it? Who can predict it? One is certain of what one wants until…one is no longer certain of anything.” Wright shrugged and took the barest sip of the brandy before setting down the glass. “I should leave.” He reached for his hat, but Esmeralda rose smoothly to her feet, stepping into his path.

“There is no rush.” She placed a hand upon his chest and he looked down at it with a frown.

He should have covered it with his own, then led her to bed.

He lifted her hand away with a polite smile. “You may have other guests.”

“Not on this night.” She had cleared her schedule for him! “Stay and talk a while.” She gestured to the seat opposite the one she had chosen. There were two before the fire, facing each other, both upholstered in plum velvet.

He looked then met her gaze, as direct as ever. “I did not think you were interested in conversation.”

It was Esmeralda’s turn to shrug, then sank into her chosen seat. “We are old friends, are we not? Who else should converse late at night in privacy?”

Truth be told, she hoped his confession would lead their interaction in the usual direction.

Wright considered the suggestion for a moment—rather too long of a moment for Esmeralda’s satisfaction—then abruptly decisive, he set aside his hat and sat down opposite her. He braced his elbows on his knees, utterly earnest as he locked his gaze with hers. “I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Esmeralda shrugged her lack of understanding.

“That is not true, exactly. I do want to gamble and dance and attend raucous parties. I do want to seduce beautiful women and arrive home sated in the middle of the morning. But I cannot summon the interest. The sense of discovery is gone, the thrill of forbidden pleasures is banished. I walk into a gaming hell and it is all the same as ever it was.”

“You crave novelty.” Esmeralda understood this urge. It often came upon her clients as they grew older. She had wigs. She had costumes. She could provide novelty, to be sure.

“Perhaps. I’ve been to Paris three times this year, to Brighton and even to Edinburgh. Nothing stirs my curiosity or captures my attention, and I cannot explain the change.”

“Your sons?”

“Both excel in their studies and are excellent marksmen.”

“Your father, the duke?”

“May never die, God bless him, and I would not have it any other way.”

“Your properties?”

“Are competently managed and as profitable as they can be expected to be.”

Esmeralda took a cherry from a bowl on the table and bit it slowly off the stem. She chewed it elegantly, but her guest was not even interested in her action or any implication. “Your wife?” she asked finally, hearing the slight edge in her voice.

Wright threw up his hands. “As busy and competent as ever. Truly, her accomplishments leave mine in the shade. I have never met a woman more driven to improve the world.” He frowned. “Nor a man, come to think of it.”

And there it was. Esmeralda heard the marvel in his tone, even a tinge of envy. His wife had a purpose, one that drove her choices throughout every day, and the marquis did not.

“Perhaps another child?” she suggested.

He shook his head. “Philomena and I agreed that two sons would suffice. We negotiated that detail before our marriage, and I will not press her beyond our agreed terms.”

Esmeralda was intrigued. “She does not enjoy your moments of intimacy?”

The marquis laughed, the move making him look young and reckless. “She endured them, for the sake of the future.” There was a glint in his eyes. “Everything Philomena does is for the good of the future. It is a rather tedious perspective, to my thinking.”

Yes, because the marquis made every choice for his present pleasure.

Esmeralda chose another cherry and studied it. She could not imagine any woman simply enduring the attentions of the marquis. He was a playful and considerate lover, irresistibly charming and energetic beyond expectations. She recalled the few times she had seen his wife, a pretty woman, she supposed, but definitely one with purpose.

The last time Esmeralda had glimpsed the marchioness had been at Carruthers & Carruthers’ lending library, she was certain of it. The lady had been returning three books and taking three more, arguing with the attendant that a fourth could not pressed upon her.

That gave her an idea. “Your wife is a great reader, is she not?”

The marquis was disinterested in this trait. “Yes, she always has a book at hand.” He flicked a glance at Esmeralda. “She even reads at luncheon when dining alone.” There was an undertone to his voice, a hint that his pride was bruised that his wife preferred a book to his company.

That could only be because the lady did not know what she spurned.

And Esmeralda could help. It had been enormously satisfying to encourage the wife of Baron Trevelaine in igniting the slumbering passions of their match over the previous Christmas, and Esmeralda thought she spied her next candidate for similar assistance. Fortunately, she had kept the costume for the meddling and fictitious Mrs. Oliver.

Her mood lightened immediately. She would send a message to Ophelia, the actress who had assisted her with the disguise, this very night.

“It sounds as if you need a new distraction,” she said to her guest, who nodded glumly.

“But I do not know what it is, much less where I might find it.” He looked up as if recalling where he was. “But I bore you for no purpose. I do apologize that I am such poor company this night.” The marquis reached again for his hat. “I thank you for your indulgence and will trouble you no longer.”

In a heartbeat, he was gone, striding from her drawing room and the many pleasures she could offer. Esmeralda ate another cherry, thinking of how she might find satisfaction in this situation of a less intimate kind.

Mrs. Oliver needed to encounter the marchioness and soon.

A call at the premises of Carruthers & Carruthers was in order.

An excerpt from The Masquerade of the Marchioness
© Copyright 2022 Deborah A. Cooke