Read The Forbidden Lord Online
Authors: Sabrina Jeffries
To all my wonderful fellow writers in the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers, and especially Judy, Judith, and Theresa, who helped critique the book: Thanks so much to all of you for welcoming me into your chapter
I might as well be playing hide-and-seek in a circus,…
Emily stared at Lord Blackmore blankly. “I beg your pardon?”
Since it was the servants’ day off, the rectory was…
Emily shivered and gathered her fur-edged pelisse more tightly about…
Of all the wretched luck, Emily thought as Jordan waltzed…
An hour later, Emily still couldn’t decide what bothered her…
Ophelia settled her ample body on the settee across from…
Minutes later, Jordan stormed out of Lady Astramont’s after taking…
The language of the note Emily received the day after…
Excellent, Jordan thought as the door clicked shut. As usual,…
Ophelia looked askance at St. Clair as she rose from the…
Emily had never attended an opera. Willow Crossing had an…
A dinner party, of all things. Jordan still couldn’t believe…
Hours later, Emily stared out the window of the carriage,…
Jordan’s bedchamber wasn’t what Emily had expected. To be sure,…
Emily climbed into the Blackmore carriage and sat on the…
When Jordan came to, he was lying in a puddle…
Later, Emily sat in her chemise, drawing on her stockings.
Jordan had to make a decision. After another two torturous…
Emily sat down near the fireplace in the Nesfield drawing…
The Christmas ball at his stepsister’s estate was more crowded…
Children, I grant, should be innocent; but when the epithet is applied to men, or women, it is but a civil term for weakness
A Vindication of the Rights of Women
might as well be playing hide-and-seek in a circus
, Emily Fairchild thought as she surveyed the ballroom at the Marquess of Dryden’s country estate. There were hundreds of masqueraders, four hundred at least, all wearing exotic, expensive costumes far beyond Emily’s means.
And none of them was her good friend Lady Sophie. Where was she, for goodness sake? Emily couldn’t leave the ball without finding her; Sophie would be so disappointed if she couldn’t get the elixir Emily had made up especially for her.
“Do you see her, Lawrence?” Emily asked her cousin in a voice pitched to be heard over the delightful orchestra. “You’re tall enough to spot her.”
Lawrence frowned as he craned his head forward. “She’s over there, engaged in that absurd
and pointless activity society considers entertainment.”
In other words, she was dancing. Emily bit back a smile. Poor Lawrence. He’d come from London to visit her and her father at Willow Crossing for the first time in years, and in return, had been forced to stand in for her father by escorting her to a masquerade ball—an event Lawrence considered “stupid, wasteful idiocy.”
Well, at least he needn’t be further tortured by having to dance with her. Propriety forbade her from dancing, since she was in the final weeks of mourning for her mother. Indeed, she was the lone guest wearing black bombazine, with a silk mask her only concession to the masquerade theme.
“Who’s Sophie dancing with?” Emily asked.
“I believe her partner is currently Lord Blackmore.”
Lord Blackmore? She’s dancing with
?” A man of some consequence, the Earl of Blackmore was the brother of the Drydens’ new daughter-in-law.
Envy quickly assailed Emily, and just as quickly she banished it. How silly to envy Sophie what was hers by birthright. It wasn’t as if Emily would ever have the chance to dance with the earl herself. She was merely a rector’s daughter with no lofty family connections.
She was lucky to be here at all. Lady Dryden had only invited her in payment for a small service Emily had rendered her. The marchioness had no reason to introduce Emily to any of the wealthy, sophisticated lords and ladies who’d traveled from London for the occasion.
Still, what would dancing with an earl as famous as Lord Blackmore be like? Nerve-wracking, she imagined, especially if he were handsome. Was he?
She stood on tiptoe and squinted through the slits in her eye mask, but couldn’t see a thing beyond the sea of wigs and odd headdresses that swirled and churned about her.
“Do tell me what’s going on, Lawrence. Are they dancing a waltz? Does Lord Blackmore seem to be enjoying it?”
“How could he? First of all, he’s dancing. Secondly, he has Sophie for a partner. He deserves better.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“Lord Blackmore is a man of some substance, you know. Despite being one of the youngest members of the House of Lords, he has instituted more reforms for the poor than any other member.”
“And why does that mean Sophie isn’t good enough for him?”
Lawrence shrugged. “It pains me to tell you this, but your friend is a twit, wholly unsuitable for a man of intelligence and experience.”
! What do you know of her? You only met her yesterday!”
“Yes, and she spent the entire visit snubbing me. I suppose she considered a London barrister far beneath her notice.”
His attempt to sound nonchalant failed so miserably that Emily had to stifle a laugh. “Oh, Lawrence, you misunderstood her entirely. She wasn’t snubbing you. She was terrified of you.”
“Terrified?” There was skepticism in his tone. “Why on earth should a marquess’s daughter be terrified of me?”
She cast a sideways glance at her cousin. Like many of the young men who hadn’t bothered with costumes, he wore standard evening attire with his mask. But although the mask covered his straight nose and part of his smooth brow, it didn’t disguise
his silky auburn hair or good looks. Not to mention that Lawrence was a trifle opinionated, which in itself would cow the timid Sophie.
“Well?” he asked impatiently. “Why is she afraid of me?”
“Because, my dear cousin, you are a man. A handsome, bold, and consequently terrifying man.” When he snorted in disbelief, she added, “Trust me, Sophie was only too painfully aware of your presence yesterday. That’s why I couldn’t coax her into mumbling more than a few words until you excused yourself from the room.”
“That’s absurd. A woman of her situation—pretty, rich, and well connected—has nothing to fear from anyone. At her coming out, she’ll have numerous suitors clamoring after her inheritance. She’ll make a spectacular marriage and go live in a grand estate with some duke or marquess.”
“That may be true, but it doesn’t prevent her from fearing your sex.”
A sudden commotion on the dance floor roused the crowd’s attention. Lawrence peered over their heads, his eyes narrowing. “Well, that put an end to that, didn’t it? Doesn’t surprise me, either.”
“Put an end to what?” A bald man in a toga wearing a lopsided crown of laurels swayed in front of Emily and blocked her view. Goodness gracious, what she wouldn’t give for a stepping stool right now! “What’s happening?”
“Sophie’s father just wrenched her out of Blackmore’s arms. What a fool Lord Nesfield is.” He leaned forward to survey the scene she couldn’t see. “Now he’s shouting at Blackmore.”
“Poor Sophie! She must be mortified!”
“‘Poor Sophie’? What about Blackmore?” He adjusted his mask with tapered fingers. “Wait a min
ute. Why, jolly good, Blackmore! That’s the way to handle a fool.”
She rose up on tiptoe again, but could only see a giant Merlin’s hat. “What is it? What’s he doing?”
“He’s walking away, cool as a cucumber. Nesfield is following him, ranting, but Blackmore’s ignoring him, which makes Nesfield look ridiculous.”
“I don’t understand. Why won’t Lord Nesfield let Sophie dance with Lord Blackmore?”
Around her, people were murmuring, and they seemed to share Lawrence’s opinion of the Marquess of Nesfield.
“Nesfield is Blackmore’s chief opponent in Parliament.” An acid tone entered his voice. “The marquess believes in leaving people downtrodden, because helping them might encourage them to rise up and overthrow the aristocracy. To him, Blackmore is the worst of rabble-rousers and thus much too sullied for the pure Sophie.”
“The marquess has always been suspicious of men where Sophie’s concerned,” she said indignantly. “Ever since she was a girl, he’s been worried that some blackguard will carry her off. That’s why she’s so afraid of men—because he hasn’t allowed her to be around boys her age, and she knows only what he tells her about them.”
Lawrence cast her a skeptical glance. “I thought she had a brother. Surely he taught her better.”
“Her brother ran off when she was eight. He was very young—seventeen, I think—and he and his father had a great row. He lives on the Continent, I believe. So without her brother around and with her mother dead, Sophie has only her father to guide her, and
has her believing that every man is suspect.”
“I think you’re making excuses for her, though Lord Nesfield
an idiot.” Suddenly his face grew more somber. “Wait, she’s coming toward us. While her father was haranguing Lord Blackmore, she slipped off. Now you can give her that elixir so we can go. But if you don’t mind, I’ll absent myself, before she sees me and grows ‘terrified.’” With a sniff every bit as haughty as any he could attribute to Sophie, he stalked into the crowd of dancers.
As soon as he left, Emily saw Sophie burst through the crowd, her face mottled with shame. The poor dear. And her looking so pretty tonight, too. This ball was something of a practice for Sophie’s coming out, which was probably why she wore no costume. But her lavender silk gown was fine and rich, accentuating her petite figure and raven hair. No wonder Lord Blackmore had wanted to dance with her.
Sophie caught sight of Emily, then hurried to her side in a rush of skirts. “Oh, Emily, did you see?”
“No, but Lawrence told me about it.”
Her face reddened. “Your cousin saw it? Oh, I’ll never live down the shame! It was horrible, simply horrible! Everyone must think awful things about me now!”
Emily embraced her poor friend. “It’s all right, dear. No one will think anything about
. They’ll only blame your father, as well they should.”
Sophie’s small body trembled, and Emily could tell she was on the verge of tears. That wouldn’t do.
Emily set Sophie firmly away. “Chin up, dear, it’s over now. You must behave as if it didn’t rattle you, or everyone will talk of it in the morning.”
Choking back a sob, Sophie rubbed at her eyes with one delicate fist. “Yes, you’re right.” She
glanced around. “They’re all watching me, aren’t they?”
“Never mind them.” Seeking to distract her, Emily added, “I brought the calming elixir you wanted.”
Sophie’s face brightened. “You did? Truly?”
“I could hardly resist your begging, could I?” Emily smiled as she drew the glass vial from her reticule. “You wouldn’t have sneaked out to visit me yesterday if you hadn’t been desperate.”
Sophie took the vial from Emily and examined it, her eyes still shimmering with unshed tears. “I can never thank you enough for this, my dear, dear friend. You don’t know how you’ve saved my life!”
“Nothing so spectacular, I’m sure, but I hope it helps.” Sophie’s enthusiasm gave her a moment’s unease. Only once had Emily’s nostrums caused harm…
No, she wouldn’t think of that. Nothing could happen this time. The elixir was mild as chicken soup, a mere diffusion of chamomile, lavender flowers, and balm leaves.
“I know it will be a
help,” Sophie said. “Everyone swears by your nostrums.”
Not everyone. Certainly not Lord Nesfield, who would kill her if he knew she’d given this to Sophie. “If your father should find out—”
“He shan’t,” Sophie assured her as she slid the vial into her reticule. Her blue eyes clouded over. “Anyway, it’s worth risking his anger, especially after tonight. I’m near to being a candidate for Bedlam already. Look.” She held out her gloved hands, which twitched and trembled.
Emily murmured her sympathy.
“Tonight has been such a nightmare,” Sophie added, her mouth forming a delicate pout that would soon be breaking hearts in London. “First,
Lady Dryden introduced me to her elegant friends, which was vexing enough. I’m sure I behaved like a complete rattlebrain. And then the disaster with Lord Blackmore!”
“Surely it wasn’t a disaster until your father came along.”
“Not true! I was in a perfect terror the entire time we danced! The earl is well-known for treating respectable women with coldness and contempt.”
“Don’t be absurd.” She couldn’t reconcile Lord Blackmore’s reform efforts with this rumor. “Did your father tell you that?”
“Not just him. Lady Manning said that Lord Blackmore rarely attends social events, and then refuses to dance with any of the eligible women. Instead, he consorts with fancy women and scandalous widows! They say he has a heart of stone when it comes to decent women of marriageable age.”
Emily rolled her eyes. Sophie was still so very young. She couldn’t distinguish legitimate fact from politically motivated gossip and rumor. “You shouldn’t listen to such nonsense. I’m sure Lord Blackmore is perfectly polite to every woman, or Lady Dryden wouldn’t have introduced him to you, nor would he have danced with you.”
Sophie worried her lower lip with her perfect teeth. “Perhaps you’re right. He was quite the gentleman while we danced, though he was a bit stiff.”
“Besides, if he was indeed so cruel to young women before, he’s clearly reformed. If any sweet innocent could melt a heart of stone, it would be you, dear friend.”
Emily thought she heard something like a muffled snort nearby, but when she glanced around, no one was there. It must have been the wind coming through the open balcony door at her back.
“It doesn’t matter, in any case,” Sophie said. “Papa will never let me dance with Lord Blackmore again. Not that I would want to, after Papa’s horrible scene. Oh, Emily, I’ll never last a day in London! I’d rather run away with one of our footmen than have my coming out. At least I
Emily groaned. “You can’t mean that. Imagine your father’s reaction!” As if Sophie, who thought hardship was having to peel her own oranges, could ever be a servant’s wife!
“No, I…I don’t suppose I do. But I so dread this trip to London.” Sophie’s chin quivered dangerously.
Emily changed the subject at once. “So you danced with the famous Earl of Blackmore. What was he like? Handsome? Charming? Or too pleased with himself to endure?”
“He was very charming and quite handsome, from what I could tell. He wore a mask, you know, like your cousin.” She colored a bit, then went on reflectively, “Come to think of it, he actually
a great deal like Mr. Phe—” Sophie broke off, her eyes widening in terror. “Oh, no, Papa is just over there. I’m sure he’s searching for me.”
Emily turned around to see Lord Nesfield’s golden lorgnette aimed in their direction. Though he was squinting and obviously having trouble seeing at that distance, she groaned.
Sophie ducked down. “He mustn’t see me talking to you. You know how he is.”
She certainly did. Though she and Sophie had been close friends from childhood, the Marquess of Nesfield had recently discouraged their friendship. Sadly enough, Emily knew why.
“We’d best separate,” Emily said, squeezing Sophie’s hand. “Go on now.”
“You’re the dearest friend a girl could have,” she whispered, then fled.
Oh, dear, what if he’d spotted her giving the elixir to Sophie? She’d best make herself scarce, before he decided to waylay her. Ducking through the balcony door, she peered back into the ballroom to make sure he hadn’t seen her.
“Hello,” said a voice behind her, and she whirled around in surprise, then relaxed when she saw it was Lawrence. She wouldn’t have recognized him in the darkness if not for the bit of candlelight from inside that glinted off his red hair.