When Lady Rebecca, daughter of the Earl of Airmont, faked maddness to avoid an undesirable marriage, she never thought she’d wind up secluded from society instead. Now with the Kingsborough Ball on the horizon, she’s determined to sneak out and meet the man of her dreams. There’s just one catch: not getting caught.
After losing the last of his monthly allowance in a game of cards Daniel Neville, rogue, reprobate and heir to the Marquisate of Wolvington, receives an ultimatum from his uncle: marry or get cut off without a penny. Faced with limited prospects due to his reputation, Neville can’t help but notice the beautiful young woman at the ball. He’s never seen her before and, better yet, she’s never met him either. This could just be a match made in heaven.
When Rebecca is unexpectedly shot at the ball and her cover is blown, the two are bound by the last thing either expected to find: a passion so binding that they will risk everything for the chance to be together.
About the Author:
Born in Denmark, Sophie has spent her youth traveling with her parents to wonderful places all around the world. She’s lived in five different countries, on three different continents, and speaks Danish, English, French, Spanish and Romanian. She has studied design in Paris and New York and has a bachelor’s degree from Parson’s School of design, but most impressive of all – she’s been married to the same man three times, in three different countries and in three different dresses.
While living in Africa, Sophie turned to her lifelong passion – writing. When she’s not busy, dreaming up her next romance novel, Sophie enjoys spending time with her family, swimming, cooking, gardening, watching romantic comedies and, of course, reading. She currently lives on the East Coast.
You find Sophie on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at @BarnesSophie. Visit her website atwww.sophiebarnes.com.
Kingsborough Hall, Moxley, England
Daniel Neville, heir to the Marquisate of Wolvington, removed himself to a corner of the Kingsborough ballroom—as good a place as any for a man who’d been labeled an outcast by Society.
Overhead, candles held by three large chandeliers spread their glow across the room, the jewels worn by countless women winking in response to the light. This was true opulence, and nobody did it better than the Kingsboroughs. Why, there was even a glass slipper sculpted from ice and a pumpkin carriage sitting outside on the lawn—a touch of fairy-tale splendor indicative of the theme that the dowager duchess had selected for her masquerade.
And what a masquerade. Never in his life had Daniel born witness to so many feathers. They were everywhere—attached to gowns, on the edges of masks, and sprouting from women’s hair.
The ball gowns were marvelous too. These were not the boring dresses generally on display at Almack’s. Certainly, one could still tell the debutantes apart, due to their tepid choice in color, but they all had a bit of something extra, like crystal beads that sparkled when they moved.
It was refreshing to see, and yet as he stood there, watching the spectacle unfold, Daniel felt nothing but bland disinterest. It was only one hour since he’d arrived, but it felt more like four. God help him, but he’d never been so bored in his life. Perhaps he should have remained in London after all. At least there he had his friends to keep him company and could avoid the constant reminder of how unwelcome he was among the finer set. His aunt and uncle were in attendance of course, but as soon as they’d entered the ballroom, they’d been approached by Lady Deerford. Daniel had hastily slipped away in order to avoid the countess who had a renowned tendency to talk the ear off anyone willing to listen. In hindsight, he was beginning to think that nodding his head in response to whatever she had to say, would be preferable to this self-imposed solitude. Recalling the glass of champagne in his hand, he took another sip of his drink and decided to request a brandy from one of the footmen at the first available opportunity. Stronger stuff would be required if he was to get through the rest of this evening. He watched as a group of ladies approach on their tour of the periphery. There were three of them, one being the Countess of Frompton. If Daniel wasn’t mistaken, the two young ladies in her company were her granddaughters—typical debutantes dressed in gowns so pale it was hard to discern where the fabric ended and their skin began. It would do them both a great deal of good to get married, if for no other reason than to be able to add a touch of color to their attire.
As they came nearer, Lady Frompton glanced in Daniel’s direction. Their eyes met briefly, then her ladyship quickly drew her granddaughters closer to her, circumventing Daniel in a wide arc that would have been insulting had it not been so expected. They weren’t the first to avoid him that evening. Indeed, the three youngest Rockly sisters had beaten a hasty retreat a short while earlier when they’d realized who they were heading toward on their own tour of the ballroom. Daniel wasn’t surprised, for his reputation was so tarnished that he could probably ruin a lady by merely glancing in her direction. Why he’d bothered to attend the ball at all, when the chance of enjoying himself had been as distant a prospect as traipsing through the African jungle, was beyond him.
Well, not entirely.
He needed to find himself a wife, or so his uncle had informed him last week when he’d discovered that Daniel had hosted a most outrageous party at his bachelor lodgings – an event that had been sponsored indirectly by his uncle via Daniel’s monthly allowance, where vingt-et-un had been played until most of the courtesans and gentlemen present had been divested of their clothing. What made the incident worse, was that Daniel had been so deep in his cups that night, he’d offered the diamond earrings that his father had once bestowed upon his mother, to his mistress. They had been a treasured family heirloom, but would now grace the lobes of Solange. “You’re a bloody curse on this family!” Daniel’s uncle, the Marquess of Wolvington, had said as soon as Daniel had entered his study the following day. The marquess had then delivered a long list of reasons as to why he’d thought this to be the case. “It’s time you grew up, learned a thing or two about responsibility or you’ll end up running your inheritance into the ground after I’m gone. Heaven help me, I’d love nothing better than to disinherit you and allow Ralph to take up the reins, but—”
“My nephew?” Daniel had said, unable to help himself in light of the fact that his uncle would rather entrust his entire fortune to an infant.
“I doubt he’ll do any worse than you.” Daniel had winced, but had done his best to hide all signs of emotion as his uncle continued. “Your sister’s a levelheaded woman, her husband too. I’m sure the two of them would be prepared to act wisely on Ralph’s behalf, but since the law prevents such an outcome, I rather think it’s beside the point.
“That said, your aunt and I have come to a mutual agreement—one which we hope will encourage you to get that head of yours on straight. You will cease your gaming immediately, or we will cut you off financially, which, to clarify, will mean that you will have to work for a living unless you wish to starve. Additionally, you will stop associating with loose women, engaging in haphazard carriage chases, or anything else that’s likely to embarrass the name your father left you. And finally, you will get yourself engaged within a month and married by the end of the Season.”
Daniel had stared back at his uncle in horror. The older gentleman, however, had looked alarmingly smug and satisfied with his new plan. Daniel had turned to his aunt, whose presence had only served to increase Daniel’s humiliation tenfold. Although she was not his blood-relative, she had always been kind toward Daniel, had treated him like the son she’d never been blessed with, and had often stood up for him against his uncle who’d been more stern and restrictive. “He cannot be serious,” he’d said, hoping to incur a bit of sympathy from her.
She’d glanced up at him, eyes crinkling at the corners as she’d offered him a sad little smile. “I’m afraid so, love, and I have to say that I am in full agreement. You cannot continue down this path, Daniel—it will be detrimental if you do. Please try to understand that we’re only looking out for your best interests, as well as those of the family at large.” Her eyes had been filled with disappointment.
Of course he’d understood, but he’d still been furious with both of them.
A wife—ha! Raising his glass to his lips, Daniel took another sip. As if finding one here was likely to happen when no self-respecting parent or guardian would allow their daughters and wards within a ten-foot radius of him.
No, Daniel was there because it had been Kingsborough who’d issued the invitation. They’d moved in the same circles once, and Daniel had always enjoyed the duke’s company immensely. Things were different now though. The duke had reformed, abandoning his rakehell ways in favor of supporting his family. There was much to be admired in the strength of character Kingsborough had shown, and Daniel had wanted to offer his friend some respect for everything he’d been through—the difficulty he must have endured in dealing with his father’s demise. But with so many people in attendance, Kingsborough had only been able to speak with him briefly, as there were many others who craved his attention.
Daniel fleetingly considered asking one of the widows to dance, but he decided against it. No sense in wasting time on fruitless pursuits, since none of them had any inclination to remarry. They’d gained their independence and had every intention of holding on to it. The only thing he could hope for was to enjoy the comfort of their beds later, but that would hardly hasten his progress to the altar, nor would it improve his aunt and uncle’s opinion of him if they happened to find out. Knowing them, they’d probably decide he’d gone too far in thwarting their wishes and cut him off before the month was up—an unwelcome prospect, to say the least.
Across the floor, he finally spotted someone who would appreciate his presence. He and Casper Goodard often gambled together, and Daniel decided to go and greet him. With wife hunting being a futile endeavor here, sharing a bit of friendly banter over a game of cards would be a welcome distraction.
Squaring his shoulders, Daniel started to head in Goodard’s direction when a flutter of red met the corner of his eye. Glancing toward it, he took a sharp breath . . . and froze.
Who on earth is that?
Next to the terrace doors, partially concealed by a pillar and an oversized arrangement of daffodils, stood a woman unlike any he’d ever seen before. Her hair was black, and from the looks of it, exceptionally long, for it wasn’t cut in the style that was fashionable but piled high on her head in an intricate coif. And her skin…it was not the milky white tone that made most English women appear a touch too pale for his liking. On the contrary, it looked bronzed – as if she’d been basking in the afternoon sun. It took a moment for Daniel to come to his senses and realize that he was not only staring openly at her but gaping as well. Quickly snapping his mouth shut, he cursed himself for being such a fool—it was just hair, after all.
And yet he suddenly had the most bizarre and uncontrollable urge to unpin it and run his fingers through it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the woman promised to be a tantalizing beauty if the fullness of her lips was anything to go by. Unfortunately, the upper half of her face was concealed by a mask, but if he could only get close enough, he ought to at least be able to see the color of her eyes.
He began going over all the ladies he’d ever been introduced to, attempting to recall someone who shared her attributes, but it was to no avail. Clearly, he’d never encountered this woman before, and he found the mystery most intriguing.
Moving closer, he watched as she tilted her chin in profile, her jawline fine and delicate beneath her high cheekbones. A lock of hair falling softly against the sweep of her neckline had come to rest against the bare skin of her right shoulder, and the unexpected urge he felt to brush it aside and place a kiss there in its stead was startling. Daniel hesitated briefly. Women didn’t affect him, and whatever was said to the contrary was untrue, for the charm and soulful eyes he chose to display were no more than tools he applied in his endless pursuit of pleasure. He was methodical in his seduction. If he placed a kiss against a lady’s shoulder, it would be for a reason, not because he couldn’t stop himself. The fact that he’d felt a helpless need to do so now, however brief it had been, disturbed him.
Whoever she was, she couldn’t possibly be an innocent, dressed as she was in scarlet silk. He wondered if she might be somebody’s mistress, or if not, then perhaps a widow he hadn’t yet met—one who might be willing to remarry? As unlikely as that was, he could always hope.
Knowing that the only way to find out would be to talk to her, he decided to do the unthinkable—ignore etiquette and address her without being formally introduced. After all, it wasn’t as if his reputation was likely to suffer further damage at this point, and considering her gown, he thought it unlikely that hers would either. Dressed in such a bold color, the lady could hardly be a saint.
One thing was for certain however—he needed a wife, and he needed one fast. If her reputation did suffer a little from his talking to her, then so be it. Perhaps he’d marry her and tell all the gossipmongers to go hang. The corner of his mouth lifted at the very idea of it. What a satisfying outcome that would be. Hands clasped behind his back, he stepped up beside her and quietly whispered, “Would you care to dance?”
Rebecca flinched, startled out of her reverie by a deep, masculine voice brushing across her skin. Turning her head, she caught her breath, her body responding instinctively as it flooded with heat from the top of her head all the way down to the tips of her toes. The man who stood beside her was nothing short of magnificent—imposing even, with his black satin mask that matched his all-black evening attire.
His jawline was square and angular, his nose perfectly straight, and the brown eyes that stared down at her from behind the slits of his mask sent a shiver racing down her spine—there was more intensity and determination there than Rebecca had ever seen before in her life. He wanted something from her, no doubt about that, and as nervous as that made her, it also spoke to her adventurous streak and filled her with excitement. “Good evening,” she said quietly, returning his salutation with a smile.
He studied her for a moment, and then he smiled as well, the corners of his mouth dimpling as he did so. Oh, he was a charmer this one. “I hope you will forgive me, considering we haven’t been formally introduced, but I saw you standing here from across the way and found myself quite unable to place you. Naturally, I had no choice but to make your acquaintance. I am Mr. Neville at your service, and you are . . . ?”
Rebecca knew her mouth was scrunching together in an attempt to keep a straight face. Oh, how she’d love to tell him exactly who she was. The knowledge would undoubtedly shock him, but unfortunately the risk of discovery was far too great for her to divulge her true identity.
Rebecca gazed up at the gentleman before her. “This is a masquerade, Mr. Neville, is it not?” she asked, deciding to keep his company a little while longer. How pleasant it was to be in the presence of a young and handsome gentleman for a change, rather than suffer the attentions of men who coughed, croaked and hobbled their way through what remained of their lives, as was the case with the suitors her aunt and uncle kept pressing upon her.
“It is,” Mr. Neville said, dragging out the last word with a touch of wariness.
“Then part of the amusement comes from the mystery of not always knowing the identity of the person with whom you’re speaking. Wouldn’t you agree?”
She watched as Mr. Neville’s eyes brightened and his smile turned to one of mischief. “Tell me honestly,” he said, ignoring her question, “are you married?”
“Certainly not,” she said, attempting to sound as affronted as possible, which in turn made him laugh. Surrendering, she allowed the smile that threatened to take control of her lips. “If I were, I would have ignored you completely and rudely walked away.”
“Is that so?”
“Well, then I suppose I should inquire if you have any brothers that I ought to live in fear of.”
She grinned this time and shook her head with amusement. “You are incorrigible.”
“I’ve been called much worse, I assure you.”
“I do not doubt it for a second.” And it was the truth, though she had no intention of sharing any of the adjectives that were presently coursing through her own mind, like magnificent anddelicious. Her cheeks grew instantly hot and she cringed inwardly, praying he wouldn’t notice her blush. Heaven forbid if either word ever crossed her lips—the embarrassment of it would likely be impossible to survive, particularly since her mind had now decided to turn those two words into one singular descriptive, namely magnificently delicious. Her cheeks grew hotter still, though she hadn’t thought such a thing possible.
“Would you care for some air? You’re looking a bit flushed.”
She’d rather hoped he wouldn’t have been able to tell. Looking over her shoulder, she considered the escape the French doors offered. She wouldn’t mind the cooler outdoors right now, not only to cure her overheated reaction to Mr. Neville but also to avoid for just a little while longer the task she’d set herself. Looking the way she did, how on earth was she to make a good impression on any of the young gentlemen present? She wasn’t sure, though she knew she’d have to figure it out before the evening ended and she lost her chance altogether.
Her eyes met Mr. Neville’s, and the promise of trouble in them only compounded her instinct to dismiss him as a possible candidate. But instinct could be wrong, couldn’t it? So far, he was the only person she’d spoken to, the only man who’d asked her to dance. Granted, hiding behind a pillar probably hadn’t helped her much in that regard. Still, despite her better judgment, she couldn’t help but acknowledge that when Mr. Neville looked at her in that particular way, she lost all interest in the other gentlemen present. Perhaps she ought to consider him after all.
“It’s very kind of you to offer,” she said as she looked him squarely in the eye, “but I must consider my reputation. Why, you look precisely like the sort of man who’d happily kiss me in some secluded corner without a second thought for the consequences.”
Mr. Neville’s mouth quite literally dropped open. She knew her words were bold and inappropriate and that she probably ought to have been mortified by what she’d just said. But she wasn’t. Mr. Neville’s reaction was entirely too satisfying to allow for any measure of regret. Folding her hands neatly in front of her, she stared back at him instead, challenging him to respond while doing her best to maintain a serious demeanor.
“I . . . er . . . assure you that I would do no such thing,” he blustered, glancing sideways as if to assure himself that nobody else had heard what she’d just said.
It was all too much, and Rebecca quickly covered her mouth with one hand in a hopeless attempt to contain the laughter that bubbled forth. “My apologies, but I was merely having a bit of sport at your expense. I hope you’ll forgive me—and my rather peculiar sense of humor.”
He leaned closer to her then—so close in fact that she could smell him, the rich scent of sandalwood enveloping her senses until she found herself leaning toward him. She stopped herself and pulled back.
“Of course . . . Nuit.” His eyes twinkled. “I must call you something, and considering the color of your hair, I cannot help but be reminded of the night sky. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” she said, attempting a nonchalant sound to her voice, though her heart had picked up its pace as he’d said it, the endearment feeling like a gentle caress of her soul.
Who was this man? Could she really have been so fortunate to have stumbled upon the man of her dreams? A man who might potentially agree to marry her once she confessed to him the true nature of her situation? She dismissed the hope, for it was far too naïve and unrealistic. Besides, Mr. Neville’s suave demeanor screamed rake and scoundrel rather than incurable romantic, which was what she would need. In fact, he was probably precisely the sort of man she should try to avoid, although . . . she made an attempt to look beyond the debonair smile and the lure of his eyes. Could he be genuine? Surely, if he really was a rake, he wouldn’t have been so shocked by her suggestion that he might try to compromise her. Would he? She wasn’t sure and decided to give him the benefit of the doubt instead.
The edge of her lips curled upward into a smile. “How about a refreshment,” she suggested. “A glass of champagne, perhaps? And then I believe I’d like to take you up on that offer to dance.”
“Yes, of course,” Mr. Neville said as he glanced sideways, undoubtedly trying to locate the nearest footman. There was none close by at present. “If you will please wait here, I’ll be right back.”
Rebecca followed him with her eyes as he walked away, his confident stride reflecting his purpose. She was not unaware of the looks of reproach he received from those he passed, and she couldn’t help but wonder if her instincts about him had been correct after all. Was she wasting her time on a scoundrel? She hoped not, for she’d quite enjoyed their conversation. It had been comfortable and unpretentious, spiced with a sense of humor.
As he vanished from sight, she gave her attention to the rest of the guests. One gentleman, she noticed, was making his way toward a cluster of young ladies with quick determination. She watched him, wondering which of the women had caught his interest. But right before he reached them, another gentleman cut in front of him and offered his hand to one of them—a lovely brunette dressed in a dusty pink gown. Placing her hand upon his arm, the pair walked off without as much as acknowledging the presence of the first gentleman. Rebecca wondered if they’d even seen him. Perhaps not, she decided, except that the second gentleman suddenly looked back, grinning with victory at the first gentleman.
She was just about to turn her attention elsewhere when a man’s voice said, “I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of making your acquaintance.”
Turning her head, she was forced to look up until her eyes settled upon a handsome face, but where there was something playful about Mr. Neville’s features, this man looked almost menacing—as though he was not the sort who was used to having his wishes denied. “I really wouldn’t know,” Rebecca told him, feigning boredom as she did her best to still her quaking nerves. Whoever he was, he was huge—the sort of man who could easily fling her over his shoulder and carry her off without anyone being able to stop him. “Perhaps if you told me your name . . .”
He smirked. “Lord Starkly at your service. And you are?”
She offered him a tight smile in return. She was not about to play the same coy game with this man as she’d done with Mr. Neville. That would only lead to trouble. But she could hardly give her real name either, so she said, “Lady Nuit.”
Lord Starkly frowned. “I don’t believe I—”
“This is a masquerade, my lord, is it not?” She heard the impatience in her voice but didn’t bother to change it. “Let’s just say that I’d rather not give away my real name for personal reasons.”
“Yes, of course,” Lord Starkly said, his features relaxing a little. The predatory glimmer returned to his eyes. “I understand completely why a woman such as yourself would prefer to remain incognito, though I—”
“A woman such as myself?” Rebecca asked, unable to keep the blunt tone of indignation from seeping into her voice. She shouldn’t have been shocked, considering her gown, but she didn’t seem to be able to stop herself.
“Come now, Lady Nuit. There’s no need for you to keep up your charade for my benefit. I mean, what other reason would a woman possibly have for engaging in conversation with Mr. Neville unless she was already a fallen angel? Not to mention that your attire is rather indicative of your . . . ah . . . experience in certain areas.” He paused, leaned closer and lowered his voice to a whisper. “I trust that you are his mistress or perhaps hoping to become so, which is why I decided to hurry over here and proposition you myself.”
Rebecca could only stare at him, agog. Who was he to so blatantly insult a woman as if she was nothing more than bothersome dirt tainting his boots? She so desperately wanted to hit him that she could barely contain her enthusiasm to do so, her fingers already curling into a tight fist at her side. And what was it he’d said about Mr. Neville? That keeping his company was what had led him to believe that she was a doxy in the first place? Disappointment washed over her. She should have known. Mr. Neville had only his own interests in mind as far as she went, and they would not include marriage. He might have more charm than Lord Starkly, but when it came to it, they were cut from the same cloth—libertines through and through. Neither man would do. Rebecca needed the permanence and security of marriage, not to a relic, but to a man of her own choosing if she was to escape the future her aunt and uncle had in mind for her, and for that, she would have to look elsewhere. Deciding she’d had enough of Lord Starkly’s presence and hoping to be gone before Mr. Neville returned, she resolved to walk away and find someone else entirely.
With a swift “If you’ll please excuse me,” she spun on her heel, only to barrel straight into Mr. Neville, who’d just come up behind her with two champagne flutes in hand, the bubbly liquid spilling onto both of them in the process.