The stark white against the golden brown of her skin made both colors stand out. The combination was anything butau courant, but brought comfort to Bianca, as it made her feel closer to both of her parents. They were no longer with her in person, but she carried bits of them in her body. Their memories lifted her spirit.

Bianca had always been aware that the circumstances of her birth would forever mark her as an outsider, but she could not help but hope that tonight at least one kind soul would bless her with a smile. Or perhaps even offer to be friends.

She hurried from the servants’ quarters in the attic down two flights of stairs to the ground floor, where her guardian’s important guests had already begun to gather. Bianca smoothed her skirts with nervous fingers and took a deep breath. Before her courage could desert her, she stepped into the salon.

The large room brimmed with the beau monde. Lords, ladies, thecrème de la crèmeof polite society. They were all wealthier, whiter, more fashionable, more self-assured. The haut ton gossiped and tittered and clinked glasses of champagne in tight groups of two and three and four, never once looking in Bianca’s direction.

Cautiously, she edged further into the room. She tried to look friendly and approachable. If she did not acquit herself well tonight, the countess might not afford Bianca a second opportunity.

But gazes slid away from her like loose pebbles scattering down a hill. Bianca’s shoulders slumped. She was as invisible in her best gown as she was in her maid’s apron. If she did manage to capture an aristocrat’s attention, they would likely hand her their dirty plate and ask her to fetch them more champagne.

She caught Lady Quinseley’s sharp gaze alight on her for a brief moment before bouncing away like all the others. Bianca’s eyes stung. If she had been announced, or introduced, perhaps things would go much easier. But she supposed being invited to join the revelry was more than condescension enough from the cuckolded widow of the late earl. Bianca was lucky Lady Quinseley had opened the door to her at all. Just being in this room was an enormous concession.

To give her nervous hands something to do, Bianca crossed to the refreshment table and picked up a small plate with a tea cake. She didn’t plan to eat, out of fear she’d litter her bodice with crumbs, but she was not usually offered such delicacies and the warm nutmeg smelled divine.

As she debated breaking off the tiniest corner to nibble, her skin prickled with awareness.

Someone was watching her.

She jerked her head up at once, darting her gaze about the room until she encountered the one face pointed in her direction.

Her mouth went dry.

The gentleman was the handsomest man she had ever beheld. Obnoxiously handsome. Impossibly handsome. A mirage of aristocratic perfection.

Shining black boots. Trim black breeches accentuating muscular legs. An elegant black coat exquisitely tailored to emphasize wide shoulders and strong arms. Thick wavy ginger hair. A blood red waistcoat that sparkled like rubies below a jutting cravat, whose dangerously sharp folds were as snowy white as the rebellious ringlet dangling next to Bianca’s eye.

She batted the tendril away, recognizing that she was staring, yet unable to force her gaze away.

The gentleman’s sultry eyes did not waver in their singular focus.

Bianca should have squirmed beneath the intensity of his attention, but she was too busy absorbing the sharpness of his cheekbones, the strength of his jawline, the cleft in his chin, the firmness of his lips.

What color were his eyes? From this distance, she couldn’t say. Light, bright, possibly blue or green. She wanted to inch close enough to find out, drawn to him as helplessly as a fish on a hook. She could not be so bold. To speak to a gentleman without an introduction would be the height of folly. Lady Quinseley would never allow Bianca to attend a gathering again.

But nor was she capable of backing away. Not even when an arrogant smile curved those firm lips, and the handsome red-haired gentleman began walking in her direction. Slowly. Deliberately. A lion hunting his prey, and she the gazelle pinned helpless by the power of his gaze.

He stalked closer until a mere breath separated the tips of her toes from his. He took the trembling saucer from her shaking hands and placed it back on the refreshment table, never releasing his gaze from hers.

His smooth voice was a low rumble she felt over her skin. “How lovely to see you again.”

“I… We’ve never met.”

“Shh.” He lifted her fingers to his warm lips, his startling blue eyes never leaving her face. “If that were true, then we shouldn’t be speaking to each other. And wouldn’t that be a shame?”

“I… ” was all she could manage. Her fingers were still too close to his lips to allow conscious thought.

He had kissed the back of her hand, but had not released it, choosing instead to rub the pad of his thumb over the soft skin.

“Who are you?” she whispered.

He smiled. “The Huntsman.”

Her heart skittered, then beat twice as fast as before.The Huntsman. She knew exactly who this was. The Earl of Eagleton, unapologetic fortune-hunter, and a rakehell of such prowess that debutantes had been known to swoon upon sight of him.

But what was he doing talking to her? She was no debutante, no aristocrat, and certainly no heiress. The opposite of what he should be hunting for. Had he somehow confused her—her, with her brown skin and white-streaked hair and worn yellow gown—with a lady of means?

“I’m Bianca,” she stammered. “Lady Quinseley’s… ”

Tags: Erica Ridley Historical
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