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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, witha 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. 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 situationpretty, 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 hes shouting at Blackmore."
"Poor Sophie! She must be mortified!"
"Poor Sophie? What about Blackmore?" He adjusted his mask with tapered fingers...