Chapter One: "Lady Victoria Shania Britney Jessica Simpson-Spears awoke that morning feeling both reckless and passionate. Although she had awakened feeling one way or the other every day since puberty, the fact that she had awakened feeling both meant that today was going to be a special day. She did not awaken suddenly, for she had been immersed in a dream so rapturous, so tempestuous, so passionate, so timeless, so filled with the manifold ecstasies of love that she surely would have swooned had she not already been asleep. Now, blinking her long-lashed Delft-blue eyes once or twice to remember where she was, a saucy smile played across her full, lush, supple, ruby-red, heart-shaped lips as she recalled the rhapsody to which her nocturnal trance had transported her. She had dreampt, as she did every night, that a tall, mysterious stranger had swept her up onto his dashing white steed, his arm firm and strong as it encircled her slight, perfect waist, and had carried her across the foggy moors to a lush, Eden-like glade, where they had alighted and at once declared their everlasting love for each other while birds twittered in the trees and the dashing white steed relieved itself in the moss. He had pulled her to him impetuously, and though she had tried to restrain him, he was too irresistible to withstand and so she had given in to his fiery caresses. He had crushed her pliant body to his and...and... But then she had been awakened by a shaft of sunlight rudely penetrating the curtains of her bedroom window, and the rapturous trance was dissolved, transporting her back to reality. As she arose, placing one foot upon the delicate carpet of Persian wool, then another foot, then another, a warm sense of anticipation permeated her perfect body and a smile as beautiful as life itself played upon her always- moist lips. This was, she remembered suddenly, the day of the Duchess of Winston's Masquerade Ball, the most important event of the Devonshire social season. Everyone would be there, virtually the entire peerage of the realm; The Lord of Marlborough, the Duke of Kent, the Earl of Tareyton, the Marquis of Chesterfield, both the Dukes of Benson and Hedges. And, yes, Victoria would be there, too! It was to be her first ball. True, she would not be wearing as beautiful a gown as her three sisters. And, true, she would not get to see what her escort looked like until this evening, when he would come by in his carriage to pick her up. But she was going at last! After all the years of drudgery, of sitting at home in the castle playing endless games of solitaire, or that fashionable new game from France, " Toss the Toast," while her half sisters went to all the balls and galas, she, the eldest daughter of Lord Simpson-Spears, was finally going to have a night of her own! Her father, so often intimidated by her sisters, had given his assent secretly, provided she went with young Lord Gastleigh, whom she had never met. And, if her gown did not meet the fashion standard of her sisters, she was certain her Beauty would make up for it. For Beauty was somethinjg she possessed in a way that few had ever posessed it before. She was the very definition of the word. Green eyes the colour and texture of the most precious sapphires blazed like yellow beacons from aquamarine sockets. A flawlessly patrician nose separated those eyes from an equally flawless set of full, lush, supple, ruby-red, heart-shaped lips that, when parted, allowed her to speak or consume food. Pitch-black hair the colour of willow bark cascaded from her slender forehead, and the russet tresses floated down to her shoulders, which were like alabaster in the morning sun, though more like the finest marble by moonlight. she was Beauty personified, and uncanny combination of Venus and Aphrodite. How beautiful was her Beauty? It was a Beauty so heart-stopping that the spindly old Duc de Beaujolais, on a visit from Versailles, spotted her on the streets of Devonshire one afternoon and promptly toppled headfirst onto the cobblestones, later to be pronounced dead of heart stoppage. But, Beauty, as she knew only too well, could also be a curse. Unfortunately, Lady Victoria's three half-sisters had not been graced with a beauty as remarkable as hers, and though Victoria felt only kindness toward them, their envy and jealousy of her occasionally showed. When the old Lord wasn't looking, which was much of the time, due to his various distractions, her sisters had a tendency to treat Victoria like a common scullery maid, ordering her to scrub floors and dressing her in rags inappropriate to her family's wealth and station, and that were completely out of fashion anyway. Was it her fault that her natural Beauty had lured her sisters' suitors away, one after the other? Was she to blame that Lady Agnes had always seemed somewhat plump about the ankles? Or that Lady Gertrude had, at birth, been more or less deprived of a neck?Or that Divine Providence had made her third sister, Lady Ralph, both taller and wider than most of the castle doorways? She could only hope that her father, never considered the swiftest peer in the county, would be able to rouse himself to get the sisters suitable husbands. Only then would she have her freedom! Only then would she find True Love!