“What’s your hurry, my sweet?” whispered a deep voice against her ear.
His warm breath kissed her skin, sending shivers racing down her spine. She caught a whiff of brandy and cigars. By the polished tone of his voice, he wasn’t one of the king’s guards. Probably a guest who’d wandered away from the masquerade ball.
No, not hopeless. Merely an unfortunate delay.
“Are you aware how this entrance to Queen’s House differs from all the others?” he added.
Dreya shook her head.
Gently he spun her around but did not release her. “It was once used for secret liaisons.”
She steadied her vision and scrutinized her unexpected companion. Slender build. A good five inches taller than she. Darkness hid the rest of his features. If she surrendered to the impulse to run, no doubt he would catch her before she reached the gate.
Dreya straightened her backbone. “How dare you assault me,” she snapped, assuming the proper English accent. “Release me at once.”
Surprisingly, he did. “I apologize, my lady. I simply wished to place myself between you and the opportunity to disappear beyond this wall.”
Did he recognize her? Unlikely, or he would’ve alerted the guards. However inconvenient, the situation had not become dire.
She gathered her wits and sweetened her tone. “My lord, apparently you’ve mistaken me for someone else. Now if you will step aside...”
His fingers brushed her chin before inching upward. “You’re quite the mystery, slipping away as you did.”
Dreya backed out of his reach.
He followed. “It’s past midnight. Shall I remove your mask?”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
The awkward silence stretched for several moments.
“Why did you leave the ball?” he inquired.
“I grew bored.”
“I can offer a cure.”
A different type of caution prevailed now for his seductive tone left little doubt why he’d followed her.
Dreya calmed her fears. “An intriguing proposition, my lord, but I--”
“Let me guess. You’ve another liaison?”
She didn’t bother responding to the vulgar taunt.
He leaned close. “I’d be happy to take his place.”
“And I’d be pleased if you stepped aside.”
“A bit eager are we, my lady?”
“Only to be rid of your company, my lord.”
He laughed low, but it sounded more like an unpleasant huff. “No gentleman escort and too inexperienced to be a man’s mistress. If I were of a mind to make a wager, I’d say that more than likely...” His seductive game of cat and mouse ended abruptly. “You’re a thief. ”
“Thief?” Her face flushed. “How dare you insult me, you...you...”
“If I searched your bodice, would I find a collection of stolen jewels?"
“You lay one finger upon my bodice or any other part of my person, and I’ll...” Instead of finishing the verbal threat, Dreya stomped on his booted foot.
The man groaned, swearing beneath his breath.
She darted toward the gate.
He quickly caught her, snagging the hood of her cape and yanking her back against his chest. “I admire your spirit, my lady, but you’ve just committed a foolish mistake.”
“Let go of me."
His hands slid down her arms. “Is the word ‘please’ missing from your vocabulary?”
She clenched her fists. “What the devil do you want?”
“An interesting question, but first...” Again he spun her around. Roughly this time. “Who are you?”
“Who are you? And why have you accosted me?”
“Any lady who attends a ball yet refuses to join in the festivities is worthy of attention, wouldn’t you agree? As to your first question...” He tucked a finger beneath her chin. “I’m the gentleman who intends to call the king’s guards unless you tell me your name within the next five seconds.”
This Englishman possessed some intellect, for clearly he’d watched her from afar. A rather disturbing thought.
She relaxed her tone. “Ana.”
“Thank you. Do you possess a surname as well?”
Dreya slid one hand inside the pocket of her cape. “My lord, I understand your suspicions, but I’m no thief.” Her fingers closed around the handle of the pistol. “I merely overheard a guest speaking of this secret entrance and thought to see it for myself.”
“In the dark of night?”
“It never occurred to me to bring along a candle.”
“Or an escort?”
“Yes, how silly of me to forget both.”
“How did you obtain the key to the gate?”
“I borrowed it. Now let me pass.”
“You’re in no position to make demands, Lady Ana.”
With the utmost satisfaction, Dreya withdrew the pistol and shoved the barrel beneath his chin. “I disagree, my lord.”