In Which Viscountess Roseborough Finally Unmasks

This short story was written for a historical romance Christmas series run in 2011 by Not Another Romance Blog and Ramblings from This Chick. The prompt they gave me was “11 Mamas Plotting”–meaning, my story had to include a plotting mama, and somehow, I also had to mention the number eleven.

The result was this Twelfth Night story, which features Gloria, the widowed sister of James (hero of Season for Temptation). Gloria had a difficult marriage and a still more difficult widowhood. By the end of Season for Temptation, things are looking up for her, and in this story she finally gets a happy ending.

This story takes place about nine months after the end of Season for Temptation, right at the same time as the events of Season for Surrender.

IN WHICH VISCOUNTESS ROSEBOROUGH FINALLY UNMASKS

As the widow of a man who had died in the bed of his mistress, the young Viscountess Roseborough had to watch her every social step. And for eighteen months, Gloria had done just as she ought.

She’d swathed herself in mourning and moved back into her family’s ancestral home. She’d secured a starchy governess for her young daughters. She’d offered tea to every curious caller and declined all but the most sedate outings.

And she hadn’t seen Jason Carrington one single time.

But when Lady Shelburne—that dear, motherly leader of the ton—had idly mentioned that she’d invited Jason to her Twelfth Night masquerade, Gloria had been hard-pressed to keep herself from hopping out of her chair.  Once Lady Shelburne had been safely filled with tea and biscuits and shuttled out the door, Gloria hurried upstairs to her bedchamber.

She eased the door closed, then yanked open her wardrobe. Jason would be attending the masquerade, cloaked and disguised? Well, so would she.

It would be no more of a costume than she wore every day. And this time…if all went well, there was a chance she could unmask at last.

Gloria stepped from her carriage and looked up at the proud mansion. Window-light stretched bright fingers into the street, beckoning guests in. Already, the ton was rolling up in carriages, raucous and joyful.

She held her gilded mask before her face. She’d dressed as a stork in a columnar gown trimmed in black and white feathers. The chill of the January air drove her inside quickly, tripping on her red heels and shedding feathers from her hem.

Once inside, she threaded her way through the crowd in Lady Shelburne’s ballroom, looking for Jason. There. Though he was wrapped, like dozens of other men, in a long black traveling cloak and demi-mask, she picked him out in an instant. Only Jason would seem so alone in a crowd.

Only Jason, and Gloria. Her husband’s death had made hermits of them both. When Roderick’s dissipation had killed him, his wife and his oldest friend had been pulled into the scandal by association.

She accepted a cup of punch from a young man dressed like Bottom—ass’s head and all—then slipped between costumed revelers until she reached Jason’s side.

“I didn’t expect to see you here tonight,” she lied.

The effect of her voice was gratifyingly shocking. His hazel eyes flew open wide, and his whole body jerked as though he’d been stung.

And then…then he simply looked at her for far too long, and she had to drink all of her punch rather quickly so as not to become flustered.

“Gloria. What are you doing here?”

Escaping Roderick. “Just celebrating,” she said lightly. “It’s a new year. I was ready for a bit of amusement.”

He nodded and led her to a quiet alcove between potted palms. “I’m glad you’re out in society again.” His shoulders hunched, then pulled down. He seemed far more fidgety than she remembered.

“It’s the first time,” she admitted. “And you see that I didn’t dare venture out as myself. Not yet.”

He chucked her under the chin. “You look far more like yourself than you have for years. I remember the girl you used to be.”

She shut her eyes. Yes, if she thought about it hard, she could remember that girl too. The warm curve of his knuckle on her skin was a sweet reminder: she hadn’t always been wife, widow, mother. Once upon a time, she’d simply been Gloria. Eighteen and shy, in hopeless love with mere Mister Carrington. The only man who’d made her laugh.

He hadn’t been good enough for her, her mother had said. As the daughter of a viscount, Gloria had to look higher. To Jason’s side, in fact, where his friend Roderick stood willing to exchange his title for her generous dowry.

Eleven years had passed since then. She’d waited a long time for the touch of Jason’s hand.

And then it was gone. Her eyes flew open, seeking the cause.

Ah. He looked rather…odd. Below his demi-mask, his mouth was grim, and his shoulders were doing strange twitchy things again.

“I shouldn’t have come,” he blurted. “I shouldn’t…I ought to….please, you must excuse me.”

He tried to push past her, but his voluminous cloak thwarted him. Gloria grabbed a fistful of cloth and tugged him back.

“No. Don’t run off like this.” Lovely. She was practically begging him. But good breeding forced him to stop yanking at his garments once a lady had caught hold of them.

“Jason.” She took a deep breath and stepped out into the unknown. “I won’t let you leave alone.”

He shook his head, looking as desolate as when she’d first spotted him. “You don’t owe me anything, Gloria. Please, release my costume so I can—”

“No.” Inspiration struck, just in time. “Of course not for me.” She managed a strained little laugh. “But my daughters—you must come see them. They’re just children, and they miss you.”

Jason was as good as an uncle to young Anne and Sophia, so this was all true. Gloria wouldn’t even have to dodge celestial bolts of lightning when she left Shelburne House.

He turned his head away. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be welcome in your home. Or if it would be proper after…well.”

“Mr. Carrington is concerned with propriety? I must be hallucinating.”

He gave a dry bark of laughter. “Mr. Carrington is concerned with nothing else, lately. You’re a mother; a respectable widow. You deserve a fresh start, and I won’t jeopardize that.”

She held his cloak all the more tightly. “And what do you deserve?”

His throat worked, and he shook his head.

A stab of longing, bitter and sweet, stole her breath for an instant. “We both need a fresh start,” she said. “Please, come with me. Just to tell the girls hello. You needn’t be alone anymore.”

Thank God she had this gilded mask on. She was red as a strawberry beneath it.

But he relented at last. A quarter of an hour later, they were settling against the plush green-velvet squabs of Gloria’s carriage. They could be back by eleven o’clock, she’d promised; in plenty of time for the unmasking.

Or she could unmask now.

She’d requested the interior candle-lamps be left unlit, and her face fell into shadow as they rolled away from the brightly lit mansion. She flipped her mask up atop her head, as nervous and eager as though she was tossing aside the past eleven years.

This time, Roderick was nothing but a memory between them.

“It seems strange,” Jason said, “that another Christmas has passed and another year’s begun. Everything has changed, hasn’t it?”

“I should think so,” Gloria said crisply. “We’ve given a year and a half of our lives.” Actually, she’d given much more than that.

Rustlings told her that Jason was fidgeting again. “Gloria. I know you withdrew due to the great scandal after Roderick died. But I must confess, I did so out of a great guilt.” His voice was quiet as a lullaby, scarcely audible over the clop of the carriage horses and the rolling crunch of wheels on macadam.

“Nonsense. Why should you? No one was to blame except Roderick himself.”

Jason’s booted foot nudged Gloria’s. “Yet there was a part of me that was always…” He was silent so long that she thought he’d run out of words.

“Jealous,” he said on a sigh.

Gloria went a little numb around the edges. “Because of Roderick’s mistress?”

“God, no. Because of his wife.”

The numbness kept her from understanding for a moment. And then—oh.

There was no way to say it gracefully: that’s what I’ve wanted to hear for eleven years, you ninny.

So she simply said, “Oh.”

“All these months,” he said haltingly, “I’d hoped that your daughters weren’t the only ones who missed me.”

In an instant, Gloria slid from her seat to his side and laced her fingers into his. “No,” she said. “They weren’t—aren’t—the only ones.”

She took a deep breath and turned on the seat, sliding her free hand up his chest, his cravat-swaddled neck, over the fine planes of his face.

She felt his cheek curve into a smile as she pulled away his mask. “Are you sure?”

“Very sure,” she said. “Yes. I’ve wanted this for a long time.”

“Too long,” he agreed, his voice ragged. “Were you plotting this all along? To see me tonight?”

Her thumb traced his mouth. “Let’s call it a hope instead.”

“I’m ready for hope,” he said.

His lips found hers, a kiss slow and sweet and long. It stripped away the long months of isolation; it burned away her loss.

At last.

That was her last coherent thought as the carriage rolled onward to a new beginning.