Authors: Christina McKnight
Â© 2016 by Christina McKnight
ll rights reserved
ISBN: 1-945089-06-7 (Paperback)
ISBN-13: 978-1-945089-06-0 (Paperback)
ISBN: 1-945089-05-9 (Electronic book)
ISBN-13: 978-1-945089-05-3 (Electronic book)
a Loma Elite Publishing
ll rights reserved
. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the author, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.
To Marc ~
Every story I write, every character I dream into reality within my pages, every creative idea that comes to mind has a bit of you in it. You are the essence of what goes into the perfect hero; compassion, caring, strength, integrity, faithfulness, loyalty, wit, intelligence, and above all else, endless, unconditional love for your family.
This book, the ones before it and the ones yet to be written, would never be possible without you by my side. You are the keeper of my hopes and dreams.
Thank you for allowing me the freedom to live my dream every single day!
ady Pippa Godfrey
, the only daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Midcrest, sat in the front row of Lord and Lady Sheridan's musicale recital, awaiting her turn at the pianoforte. It was the final evening of entertainment, thrown in Lady Natalie's honor on the eve of her introduction to society. The room was crowded, overly hot, and the competing voices were deafening as Pippa waited for the next debutante to be called to the dais to apply her talents to her chosen instrumentâsome played the harpsichord or another stringed instrument, while others favored singing.
Pippa's fingers ached, and her head swam at the thought of standing before the large crowdâmostly strangers and only a few she could greet by nameâand playing the complex piece her music tutor had requested she perform. It was then that she looked to her lap and realized her hands were clenched tightly, clutching the fabric of her gown, wrinkling the delicate material and causing pain in her fingers.
Forcing her eyes shut, Pippa took a calming breath and pleaded with her hands to release their death grip on her gown. The delicate material would likely be creased beyond her lady's maid's ability to straighten it. It was as if her hands had a mind of their ownâand Pippa feared they'd take over once more when she settled behind the pianoforte.
She mustn't make a spectacle of herself before so many peopleâit certainly would not do to start her first London Season being the topic of gossip in every salon and ballroom.
A raspy female voice cleared not far from Pippa, the sound quieting the room instantly as everyone held their breaths.
When Pippa opened her eyes, Lady Natalie stood on the raised dais with a coy smile as she surveyed the audience. They were all staring at her as if she were about to announce something far grander than the next young girl to massacre a piece written by a great composerâor worse yet, pierce every eardrum in the room as she sang a note far too high. Her friend, Lady Natalie, was certainly at ease in her place as hostess and honoree of this grand three-day-long celebration.
In no way did she envy Natalie's effortless grace, for all Pippa wanted was for this eveningâand her first Seasonâto be complete. For the moment, she'd settle for her time at the pianoforte to be over, for then she'd be allowed to depart the Sheridan townhouse for her own home in Mayfair. A few hours spent gowned in her night shift while reading a book by candlelight far into the morning hours, sounded much more pleasing to Pippa than standing before this crowd and announcing the piece that had been chosen for her to play while every set of eyes scrutinized her every move.
But Lady Natalie was her oldest and dearest friend.
Possibly her only friend.
And so, Pippa would smile, nod, and play the piano before giving a quick curtsey and allowing the next girl to take her moment in the spotlight.
It all sounded so very simple.
She'd been raised to do this exact thing, but no one could have expected the daughter of a duke to suffer from a shyness so severe she became short of breath and light-headed just pondering the notion of walking into a crowded ballroom. However, Pippa had pushed herself and fulfilled her daughterly obligationsâentering a ballroom full of elegantly dressed women and stodgy men clustered in groups around the room. She'd even spotted several handsome men taking their turn around the dance floor. At first, her mother had allowed her to hide among the palms bordering the large room, but that hadn't lasted long. Men had approached her father and, eventually, placed their name on her dance card. And this evening had been no differentâshe garnered quite a bit of interest from eligible men, or so Lady Natalie had whispered to her several times. Her friend's words should have been a boon of sorts for them both. They'd dreamed for many years of entering society together and marrying titled, wealthy, handsome menâto the dismay and envious stares of all the other debutantes and their mothers.
But, while Natalie had whispered her shock over Pippa's popularity among the men, it sounded more of a hiss than a sigh of happiness. She'd put this behind her quickly the eve before.
This evening, as a new debutante and Lady Natalie's friend, Pippa was expected to playâand play well, as she and Natalie had shared an instructor since before their ninth summers.
Glancing at her mother who sat next to her, Pippa felt the urge to claim an illness and beg to be released from this obligation. But her mother's serene smile and encouraging nod made Pippa's erratic heartbeat slow. She prayed the sheen of perspiration on her forehead would dry before Natalie called on her. It would be embarrassing to have the light from the chandelier above reflect off her damp forehead.
Belatedly, Pippa realized her mother was nodding at her because her name
been called and the room was silently awaiting her arrival on the raised platform featuring a piano, harpsichord, and flute stand. There was also a small table with a dozen bells of varying sizes perchedâoh, how Pippa wished she'd been assigned the bells. Not a soul would know if she shook one out of turn.
Except for Mr. Giles, Pippa's instructor, who stood not far from the stage, his hands clasped before him with a proud smile on his handsome faceâstaring directly at her as if she were the only woman in the room. It was his way of making his pupils feel safe and encouraged. Pippa was certain he'd cast the same intense, yet sensitive, look on Lady Natalie before she'd sang earlier in the evening.
“Go on, dear,” her mother prodded. “It is your turn.”
A lump formed in her throat and Pippa was glad she hadn't any vocal talent. It was unlikely any sound could maneuver past her blocked airway.
After a quick smile for her mother, Pippa glanced once more to Mr. Giles where he stood just off the daisâhis shoulders stiff with pride at his accomplishments as an instructor. His hair was evenly combed into place, so much at odds with its haphazard messiness during their tutoring sessions. Pippa thought she much preferred the disorderly locks he favored in the schoolroom back in Somerset, where she and Natalie had grown up.
She stood, hoping her smile was one of beauty and not terror as she stepped toward Natalie, who'd barely had a free moment in the last few days to speak with Pippa. If they had been given a few minutes together, she would have told her friend that she dreaded playing before a crowdâ¦that she'd be happy to sit with the second and third-Season young women and refrain from the piano. But the conversation hadn't happened, and Natalie was unaware that her friend wanted nothing less than to perform.
And it would speak negatively of Mr. Giles' tutelage if one of his studentsâthe daughter of a duke, no lessâwere unable to play before a crowd. Pippa desperately wanted her tutor to be looked upon favorably by all of London society.
“Next to grace the stage, is Lady Pippa Godfrey, daughter of the esteemed Duke and Duchess of Midcrestâand my
friend.” Natalie gestured in Pippa's direction as an odd expression crossed her face. It was not one Pippa was familiar with; almost as if a bank of storm clouds moved across her friend's face. However, the look quickly passed, and Natalie's eyes sparkled once more. “Lady Pippa and I have been bosom friends since before we were allowed to touch a pianoforte. But since meeting, we've shared everything, including our music tutor, Mr. Giles, though I dare say Pippa is far closer to the man than my parents would ever allow. Her skills at the pianoforte certainly show the many hours of additional lessons she's endured.”
Pippa's skin flared so hotly, she feared a candle had lit her gownâor her neatly pinned hairâablaze.
Light female laughter and deep, manly chuckles filled the room, floating from the far back of the congregated crowd to the very front, where Pippa had sat back down with her parents.
She stole a glance to Mr. Giles who stood close to the edge of the dais, having only moments before congratulating another pupil on her success before the crowd. It was impossible to tell if his face flamed as hot as hers because he'd retreated a few steps into the shadows and was now backing out the terrace door.
A moment of confusion clouded her mind as the laughter dimmed and a light breeze assaulted her faceâas if someone had opened a window to a gusty wind.
At her side, Pippa's mother fanned her face. Her wrist whipped to and fro, increasing as the room went silent.
Everything froze around her but her mother's thrashing fan.
The Duchess of Midcrest, her dear mother, who'd labored for over twenty years to rise above her merchant-class upbringing, would once again be embroiled in a scandalâall because of Pippa.
“Do you wish to depart?” her mother whispered.
“I did notâ¦” Pippa stammered. “I would neverâ¦”
“I did not believe you had, my child.” Her mother sought to soften the blowâsomething that society had done to the current Duchess of Midcrest a hundred times over. “However, that does not change the appearance of things, no matter what we say or do in this moment.”
Pippa lifted her chin to keep her tears from streaming down her face.
“I do not understand why,” Pippa said as she leaned in close to her mother to whisper. “Lady Natalie and I are such friends.”
“Friendship and jealousy often hold hands so tightly that one cannot distinguish between the pair.”
Pippa could not imagine why Lady Natalie would say such a thingâbefore the many people gathered at her parents' townhouse, amidst their first Seasonâand knowing her family sought a favorable match for her.
They'd shared a magical couple of days before the formal dinner introducing Natalie and then her ball the evening before. Pippa had danced every dance, her card filling quickly after entering the ballroom at the Sheridan townhouse. Lady Natalie had also danced almost every set and was escorted to dinner by the Marquis of Durshire, a wealthy, respected man whose handsomeness was legendary. Pippa and her family had stayed the night as the ball had lasted into the early morning hours. The girls had fallen into a deep slumber of exhaustion, their feet sore and their minds running wild at the grandness of their evening, only to sleep late into the day. When Pippa had awoken, Natalie was already surrounded by maids in preparation for this evening's entertainments. They hadn't time to speak on the matter of the recital.
But now, only a few short hours later, Pippa's dear friend had spoken aloud a comment that would ruin Pippa's chances of securing any type of promising matchâand tarnish her family's name, once again.
Pippa wanted to ask whyâwhat had she done to deserve such a comment before all these people?
She and Natalie had discussed their handsome music tutor in confidence, each laboring over the set of his strong jaw, the way his hair fell a bit too long in a very rakish way, and the muscles that lay under his loose linen shirtâcertainly not obtained by musical endeavors.
Mr. Giles had removed himself entirely from the room by the time Pippa stared deeper into the shadows bordering the stageâleaving all eyes on Pippa with her back to the crowd. Lady Natalie smiled at her, awaiting her acceptance on the dais.
It was then that Pippa noticed Natalie's upturned smirk was not a smile at allâat least, not a smile one would bestow on a lifelong friend. And that smirk paired with the glare in her dear friend's eyesâ¦ Something drastic had changed since they'd journeyed to London a few days before to prepare for their Season.
Lady Natalie was issuing Pippa a challengeâ¦much like a rival.
Pasting a serene smile on her face, Pippa squared her shoulders and stood to take her place behind the pianoforte.
She refused to allow her defeat to showâbut certainly, Pippa had been bested, and by her bosom friend, no less. She only wished she'd known there was a battle at hand.