Jordan Willis, the Earl of Blackmore, has played with the heart of many a society belleâyet one stolen kiss impulsively planted on the soft, irresistible lips of the preacher's daughter proves his undoing. The prim and proper Emily Fairchild's innocent response sends desire surging through the notorious rake, and he can't forget her. Now, meeting Lady Emma Campbell, an outrageously flirtatious debutante, leaves the earl more shaken than everâfor the brazen beauty is an uncanny double of the sweet Emily!Emily cannot reveal the reason for her scandalous masqueradeânot even to the earl whose heated embrace awakens a sizzling passion. Her very life depends on convincing society that she is Lady Campbell, yet no disguise can hide her dangerous attraction to the earl. But does "Cinderella' dare risk losing her handsome "prince" by revealing that she is just a country girl?
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
I 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."
"The Lord Blackmore? She's dancing with him?" 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."
"She is not! 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.