The Masquerade


The silence of this winter evening was interrupted by the sound of gravel crunching under his boots as Markus St. Vincent, Earl of Warwick, made his way to the castle. When he entered the kitchen door, his valet knew that his master was in a foul mood.

“Why Tyler is demanding my presence at this particular gathering is beyond me,” Markus exclaims. “I’ve attended every function he’s arranged this week.”

“Sir, if I may?” Ronald, Markus’ valet begins, following him up the back stairs and down the hallway to Markus’ rooms.

“Go ahead, Ronald. You’re going to give your opinion whether I request it or not,” he snaps impatiently.

“Your FATHER requires you to choose a bride before the year end. The festivities are being held in your honor, and that makes it mandatory that you attend them, ALL of them.”

“Well, if my FATHER needs someone to take a bride, then either HE can do it or have Thomas do it.”

“But Markus, do I need to remind you that since you are the eldest son, you must marry and produce an heir so the estate and all of the holdings with it do not pass to your Uncle Dante, who would only end up squandering them away just like he did his own?”

“No, Ronald, you do not have to remind me of that fact. My father does that every chance he gets.”

“Well then, I figured you would have come to terms with this by now.”

“Then you figured wrong. I don’t want a wife, Ronald. I love my life the way it is.”

“But do you not get tired of wenching every chance you get?”

“No Ronald, I don’t. I happen to like the ladies.”

They finally arrived at Markus’ rooms where Ronald had his bath already prepared. Markus was a rake and loved everything that went along with that title. He had no desire to give up his carefree ways and take a wife. Life was too short to be tied down, but his father’s health was failing and he knew that eventually he would have to do it. But why so soon? He sat in the tub and scrubbed his body from head to toe, then stepped out to dry off and dress. Markus stood 6’2” and was solid muscle, had dark eyes and bronze skin from spending so much time in the sun, and a smile that could sway any woman into his bed, unmarried and married alike.

Tonight’s festivities included the traditional dinner and dance afterwards, and he was thankful that this week was almost over. The hunt was to be held tomorrow, followed up tomorrow night with the masquerade ball, where Markus had to announce his choice for a wife. His father had deliberately chosen New Year’s Eve as the date that he had to make his choice.

Below stairs, maids and servants were rushing around to make ready for the dinner, and freshen up the Christmas decorations that has been displayed this past week during the festivities. Fir branches were brought in and laid all around the castle, giving off a clean, fresh scent. Garland and holly was wrapped all around the banisters and columns. Candles covered every surface. Since Markus’ mother’s death nine years ago, his father never went a single Christmas without the decorations. When asked about it, he would get a faraway look in his eyes and say that she would want him to keep up the tradition.

Ronald joined Markus in his chamber and helped him to dress. Black pants, white shirt buttoned half-way up, black boots. Although this was to be a formal affair, Markus did as he pleased. Once dressed, he made his way down to his father’s study.

Seeing his son walking through the door, his father shakes his head. “I thought you understood that this was to be formal, Vin.” The only time his father ever called him Markus was when he was in trouble. He had decided as a child that he wanted to be called this instead of his given name.

“Yes, father, I understood completely,” he says, making himself comfortable in one of the two leather chairs positioned in front of the fireplace.

His father laughed. “Why do I even bother with you?”

“Because you keep hoping that one of these days I’ll actually do something that you want me to,” he replied, rubbing his nearly bald head.

“Vin, I gave up on that a long time ago,” his father says, smiling. “That’s why I am enjoying these festivities immensely. You’ve had your way far too long. Now it’s time to finally do something that I want you to.”

“I understand what is required of me, and I’ll do what I have to in order to keep what is ours, but I will not enjoy it.”

“I never said that you had to enjoy it. But let me give you a little word of wisdom. Happiness comes from the most unexpected places. Just remember that.”

He hated it when his father gives his little words of wisdom. Ronald announces to the gentlemen that their guests have begun gathering in living room, so Vin helps his father up and they make their way down the hallway to the greet their guests.

“By the way, father, where is Thomas tonight?”

“He’ll be here. He had some errands to run for me earlier and has not returned yet.”

‘Lucky bastard,’ Vin thought to himself. His brother gets all of the breaks.

Most of the guests had been at the estate all week, but a few guests had only arrived tonight. One of these being Lord Graystone, his father’s best friend. Making their rounds and meeting everyone, Vin was introduced and reintroduced to all of the young ladies. This is what he hated. He hated the way their mothers and grandmothers paraded them around, as if they were horses to be auctioned off. ‘Well’, he thought, ‘some of them I might like to ride’. A devilish grin played around the corners of his mouth.

His father was talking to Lord Graystone when he motioned for Vin to join him. Lord Graystone was like a second father to Vin. When he was a boy, if he wasn’t at home, he could always be found terrorizing the Graystone’s estate with their son, Blake. Unfortunately, Blake had taken a wife a few years ago and moved to one of his father’s estates.

“Lord Graystone, how are you and your wife this evening?” Vin politely asks.

“Not too bad, considering winter has set in,” Lord Graystone answered. “Oh, I am getting so absent-minded in my old age. Let me introduce you to my niece, Kathryn Belmont,” he says, pulling her to his side. “She is the daughter of my wife’s sister and visiting us over the holidays.”

Vin looked into the bluest eyes he had ever seen. When he finally tore his gaze away from them, he took in the rest of her features. Blonde hair swept up off of her very graceful neck, small upturned nose, and a mouth that begged to be kissed. If asked later, he would not be able to recount what her dress looked like, he was so captivated by her lips. Lips that he wanted to feel on him, gliding over his skin, wrapped around him.

Shaking himself back to reality, he took her hand. “I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Belmont.”

She looked up at him and smiled. “My lord,” she said.

Her voice was too much for him. “Please excuse me,” he says, turning on heel and abruptly leaving the room. Ronald, always close by, followed him back down the hallway to his father’s study.

“Markus, what do you think you’re doing, leaving the gathering like that?”

“Ronald, go. Leave me be.”

“What excuse am I to give your guests?”

“I don’t know. Make one up. You used to be good at that when I was a boy.”

“That I will do. But this is me that is asking now.”

Vin turned to face him. “Keep her away from me. Whatever you do, keep her far away from me.”

“But why?” Ronald asks.

“She makes me want to do things to her that I have no business wanting to do. She is the niece of my father’s best friend and a virgin to boot. Not something I need to get involved in.”

“Is that why you turned tail and ran?”

“Ronald, you’re pushing it.”

“Very well, I’ll go make your excuses.”

Vin sat in the study for a long while, missing dinner, and wondering just where these feelings came from. Not that he wasn’t above bedding a virgin every now and then, but there was something more about her, something he could not put his finger on. He heard the strains of music coming from the ballroom and decided that enough was enough. He wasn’t going to let one virgin ruin what was left of the festivities. Several couples were on the dance floor when Vin entered the ballroom. He knew immediately where Kathryn was without even looking around. He walked directly over to where she was sitting and asked if she would like to dance. ‘Get her in your arms so you’ll realize that she’s not for you,’ that little voice deep inside said.

But once he was holding her, he realized that he had just made a monumental mistake.

“So, my lord, where did you go to earlier?”

Damn it, she’s speaking. “I remembered some unfinished business that needed to be completed tonight.”

“But why, if this party is in your honor? Wouldn’t you have thought to take care of things beforehand?”

Vin was stumped. “Well, yes, but this one was more difficult to handle and took a little longer to finish.”

“I see,” was all she said.

Vin was torn between fury and amusement. Fury because she had no right to ask him such questions, and amusement because she did ask.

“You do not remember me, do you?” she quietly asks.

“I’m sorry, no.”

“Well, that’s probably for the best considering that the last time I saw you I had blonde ringlets and was following you and Blake around.”

Vin looks into her eyes again. “Kitten?” he asks.

“I haven’t been called that in a long while.” That was the nickname Blake and Vin had given her when they were small.

Vin let out a burst of laughter. “Well, let me be the first to say that you have grown into a beautiful young woman.”

“Thank you, my lord.” They finished the dance in silence, and when it was over, Vin was reluctant to let her go.

“Thank you for the dance, my lord,” she says.

“It was my pleasure,” Vin responded, hoping she wouldn’t notice a certain other body part responding to her.

‘Get a grip, Vin. You know that she’s off limits. Yeah, but think of the things that you could teach her,’ he thought to himself.

He danced with several other young ladies, some who were blushing the entire time because they were dancing with him, and others who were blushing for other reasons. He would be making several visits around the castle tonight, just as he has been doing all week. ‘Well, if I have to choose one, at least I’ll know how they are in bed,’ he thought to himself.

The night wore on and everyone finally decided to turn in. Vin went up to his rooms and waited until everyone was asleep, then decided to make his first visit of the night. Climbing over the balcony, he quietly lowered himself down to the ground and then made his way around to the east wing where the guests were staying. Vin had given Ronald a list of names and in turn, Ronald had given Vin the information he needed about the room assignments, with one small exception. Ronald had no fears of losing his job over this one small infraction. After all, he was helping Vin, even if Vin didn’t know it.

Arriving at his first destination, he stood on a planter and quietly pulled himself up to the second floor balcony. Just as planned, the outer doors were left unlocked and he made his way into the bedroom. The curtains around the bed were drawn, so he slipped in and tasted a sample of what was offered. Afterward, Vin lay there until she was asleep, and then made his way out onto the porch and over the short divider wall to the next room.

Again, the doors were left unlocked. He loved sneaking around almost as much as he loved being with a woman. Well, in these cases, young ladies. This time, instead of the bed curtains being closed, they were drawn back, revealing a very beautiful nude body lying on the bed. Vin’s palms itched to touch her, but first he wanted to enjoy looking at her. In all his days, he had never just sat and watched someone sleep. There was something erotic about out. He wondered what she was dreaming, if he was part of her dreams. He had his answer when she softly said his name. He couldn’t believe his luck and he knew exactly what he was going to do.

Quietly he undressed and made his way onto the bed, trying not to disturb the sleeping angel. She called his name again and turned over, giving him an up-close and personal look at the rest of her body. Perfect was the only word that came to mind. Her face was hidden in the shadows of the curtain, but he had the moonlight to thank for showing him her beautiful body.

A soft moan escaped her lips and she grew restless in her sleep, as if searching for someone or something. Vin gently moved closer to her and placed his mouth warm and moist against her cool skin, causing goose bumps to race along her spine. The tip of his tongue trailed up toward her ear, and softly he whispered, "Enjoy your dream, my lady.”
She remained asleep but turned into his waiting embrace. His lips brushed against hers as her arms crept up along his shoulders and pressed her breasts against his hard chest. Passion exploded in their kiss as they reached deep into each other's mouths, their tongues dueling, his hands tangling in her silken hair, then gently tugging her head back to nibble on her neck. Her fingers danced along his scalp as she lead his mouth from the hollow of her neck to her breasts. His hands roamed all over her body, leaving no place untouched. Her soft moans urged him to do more. He moved down her body slowly, his tongue exploring each inch of her flesh as he gently parted her legs with his hands. The musky scent of her was assaulting his senses. His fingers separated her and his tongue moved slowly against her. He loved her this way until her body shuddered violently.

Vin could wait no longer. He positioned himself at her opening and slowly started to enter her. With two whispered words from her, "My lord," he gently sank himself into her. Her teeth dug into his tender shoulder as her legs wrapped around his waist, drawing him in deeper, pain and pleasure combining into one incredible sensation as their bodies moved together. Her body trembled under him and he felt her climax rise and build like the tide. He was overcome with desire as his found his final release. It was then that he made his decision.

They had been lying together for some time, when Vin asked, “What will you be wearing at the ball tomorrow night?”

She smiled in the dark and whispered, “My lord, it would not be proper to give away my costume. Is it not a masquerade ball, where everyone knows not the others until we unmask?”

“Yes, I know what kind of ball it is. But, since I am the reason for the festivities, please tell me what you will be wearing.” Vin was losing his patience, although it didn’t show. Never had he come across someone that would dare defy his wishes.

“Very well. I will be wearing an emerald green gown with a matching feather mask.”

“Now, was that so hard?”

“No, my lord.”

“Now, sleep my dear. There is a full day on the schedule tomorrow.” He leans down and gives her one last kiss. “Until tomorrow,” he says, getting up from the bed and dressing. Walking out onto the porch he decides to take his own advice, so he heads back to his room, in spite of several other visits that he had planned for that night. That one was more than enough.

Sun streaming through the curtains in Vin’s room woke him. He threw the covers back and stalked to the window and closed them, then fell back into bed, thinking about his visit last night. Who was this mysterious angel, the one who had made love without reservations, the one who stirred feelings deep inside of him? All would be revealed tonight, he thought. With her in his bed, he may not need to take other lovers. She would be more than enough for him, if last night was just a sample.

The hunt was scheduled for later that afternoon, and judging by the position of the sun in the sky before he closed the curtains, he needed to get dressed and ready to meet all of his prospective fathers-in-law. God, how he hated doing this. But it was something that was required of him, and even though he went his own way with most things, some he did conform to, and it was those things that he despised the most.

The hunt went off without a hitch, and before long, it was time for dinner. When dinner was over, everyone retired to their rooms to dress for the masquerade ball. Kathryn took her time in dressing, wanting to look her best for Vin. She wanted everything to be perfect. An hour later, she made her way down the stairs with her emerald green feather mask covering most of her features.

Vin was dressed in black, including the mask covering only his eyes. A smile tugged at his sensual mouth as he watched her come down the stairs. The music started playing and he knew he must make the rounds on the dance floor with each young lady, but he would save her for last. The night seemed to drag on, and Vin was getting impatient. He was ready to unmask his future wife.

Finally the time came for him to ask her to dance. Taking her in his arms, he knew he was making the right decision. She would certainly keep him entertained in the bedroom. They danced around the ballroom, lost in their own thoughts; him thinking about the night ahead and her wondering what he was going to say when he unmasked her and saw who she was.

When the dance ended, he lifted her gloved hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the back of it. “My lady, would you join me on the stairs?”

“Yes, my lord. It would be my pleasure.”

Vin escorted her to the stairs and all eyes turned to them while his father joined them. Whispers spread through the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” his father began. “As you all know, the celebrations during this week have been in honor of my eldest son, Markus, and the step he is about to take. I would like to take this time to thank each and every one of you for attending and hope that you had a wonderful time. Now, I’m sure that everyone is just as curious as I am, so I will step aside and let Markus take over.”

Vin turns and slowly reaches his hand up to her face, his fingers tracing the edge of the mask, gently pushing it away. There, standing before him, was his angel. He looked deep into her blue eyes and knew that he was doing the right thing. A sensual smile spread across his face and he took off his mask.

“I didn’t know,” he quietly said.

Tears filled her eyes as she looked up at the man that she has loved since they were children playing together. He took her hands in his and brought them to his lips, pressing a kiss to them.

Turning to the crowd, he makes his announcement. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you Miss Kathryn Belmont.”

Everyone in the room showed mixed feelings. Parents were relieved that Markus, the notorious rake, had not chosen their beloved child, and the young ladies were upset because they weren’t the one chosen. His father and Lord Graystone were standing at the bottom of the steps, a knowing smile on each of their faces.

Vin escorted his future bride down the steps towards the dance floor. Vin’s father stopped them. “I am more than pleased by your decision, Vin,” he said, wearing a grin on his face.

“As am I,” Lord Graystone commented, shaking Vin’s hand. Then turning to Kathryn, he asks, “Kathryn, are you pleased with the decision?”

“Yes Uncle, I am very pleased.”

Vin stood back and looked at the two of them. “Why do I get the feeling that you two had a hand in this?”

“We merely gave you a gentle nudge in the right direction,” his father answered. “But before you get too far, I have one last item that needs to be completed.” His father turned to another man standing beside him. “Father, will you please do the honors?” he asks.

“It will be my pleasure,” the priest answers, taking off his mask and walking to the center of the room.

Vin just stood there. “Do you mean to tell me that the ceremony will take place tonight?”

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