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By KATE PEARCE
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kate Pearce
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Chapter OneKnowles Hall, England, 1822
"Why on earth did you invite him, Christian?" Lisette Delornay-Ross nudged her twin's arm and nodded at the corner of the sunny breakfast room where Major Lord Gabriel Swanfield read the newspaper and continued to ignore everyone around him.
"I didn't invite him." Christian poured himself more coffee. "Philip did."
Lisette leaned her elbows on the table and contemplated her brother. "But he's nowhere near Father's age, so how do they know each other?"
"I've no idea. Why don't you stop bothering me and go and ask Lord Swanfield himself?"
"Because he'll stare at me as if I'm a worm and then give me a one-word answer that tells me nothing."
"I take it you've already met him then?" Christian smiled. "Is he really that unforthcoming?"
"When I was introduced to him the other night he barely bothered to say a word to me." Lisette stood up. "Perhaps I'll go and ask Father. He'll probably tell me the truth."
Christian leaned back in his chair to study her, his blond hair catching the light, his long, elegant body shown to advantage in his brown coat and black breeches. "The real question is, why are you so interested in Lord Swanfield?"
"Because I hate being ignored?"
"That's certainly true, but there are plenty of other gentlemen here this week eager to flirt with you. Why not go and bother one of them?"
Lisette frowned. "Are you warning me off?"
"As if you would pay any attention to me if I did." Christian shrugged. "As far as I know, he doesn't mix much in society."
"But what you do know of him, you don't like?"
"Don't start, Lis." He sighed. "As I said, if you really want to pry, go and talk to the poor man."
"Perhaps I will."
Determined not to be shown up by her brother, Lisette marched across to where Lord Swanfield sat hidden behind his newspaper and cleared her throat. He lowered the paper the merest inch and studied her over the top of it.
Lisette gave him her sweetest smile. "I just wanted to wish you good morning, my lord. We've scarcely had a chance to speak since your arrival."
The paper came down another three inches, allowing her to look into his eyes. Up close, they were a very dark blue and fringed with long lashes.
"And you are?"
Good Lord, the man didn't even remember being introduced to her! Lisette kept smiling. "I'm Miss Ross, Lord Knowles's eldest daughter. I'm acting as my father's hostess this weekend."
"Ah. A pleasure, ma'am." His fingers twitched on the newspaper as if he intended to flip it back up and dismiss her, but Lisette was quicker. If he intended to be so dismissive of her, she could definitely be a little forward.
"I was wondering what brought you here to Knowles Hall during this particular week. I don't remember your name being on the guest list." She smiled graciously. "Not that you aren't welcome, of course."
His dark brows drew together. "I'm looking for some horses. Your father told me to come down anytime I liked. I didn't realize all this nonsense would be going on."
"Or else you wouldn't have come."
He met her gaze properly for the first time, a hint of wary surprise in his. "Exactly."
Beneath the careful upper-class cadences of his voice there was a slight northern burr, which deepened his tone and made it rougher and far more interesting.
"Well, I'm sorry that we are spoiling your quiet week in the countryside."
She couldn't decide whether he was incapable of detecting her sarcasm or really quite rude. She suspected the latter. "You think us frivolous and unworthy of your interest then, my lord?"
He started to fold the paper and she caught sight of the deep parallel scars on his left cheek that disappeared below his high collar. "I didn't say that."
"But you obviously think so. I don't believe you've spoken a single word to anyone since you walked into this room."
He raised his eyebrows. "I've spoken to you."
She stared at him for a long moment as she struggled to control her tongue. "Are you going out with the shooting party this morning?"
A shudder of something that looked like revulsion passed over his face. "No, Miss Ross, I'm not."
"Then would you like to join me and some of the other ladies for a walk around the estate?" She wasn't quite sure why she made the offer when he was being so objectionable, but she refused to be defeated by any man.
"Unfortunately, I'm already engaged. Your father has found someone to show me around the stables."
"Which is why you came here in the first place."
He stood up and dropped the newspaper onto the table. She found she had to look up at him, which was unnerving. She'd only viewed him from above last night when her father had brought him into the great hall. At five foot eight, she was tall for a woman, but he topped her by at least five inches. He was as lean and elegant as a greyhound, his shoulders accentuated by the confines of his black coat and his long thighs encased in clinging buckskin. He inclined his head the barest inch.
"Good morning, Miss Ross."
She dropped him a quick curtsey. "Good morning, my lord."
He nodded and strolled away, stopped to talk to one of the footmen positioned by the door, and was directed on his way.
"Well," Lisette huffed as her half sister, Emily, and her friends came up beside her. "What an incredibly rude man."
"What did he say to you?" Emily inquired, her face flushed and her blue eyes eager.
"He said that he didn't want to be here, and that he'd only come to look at a horse."
Lisette smiled at her younger sister's indignant expression. "He most certainly did. I suspect he wishes us all to the devil."
Emily's two friends giggled and whispered at Lisette's language and she reminded herself to be more careful. At eighteen, Emily's prospects for an excellent marriage were much on her mind. Lisette didn't want to spoil anything for Emily by drawing the ton's attention to her less than reputable half sister.
"I wonder if he will attend the ball on Friday."
Lisette sighed at the hopeful gleam in Emily's eyes. What was it about dark-haired brooding men that sent all young girls into a flutter? In her experience, good-looking men did not make good husbands or lovers, being far too concerned with their own appearance to care about a woman's feelings.
"I'm not sure if he'll be staying the full week, Emily. Once he's decided on a horse, he'll probably be off."
"Oh." There was a wealth of regret in Emily's response that Lisette tried to ignore. She was very fond of her sister, but frequently amazed at the differences between them. Emily had been protected by their father all her life, whereas Lisette had only met him three years ago. Emily's safe, romantic view of the world had never been Lisette's and never would.
"If he does stay, I'm sure he'll dance with you." Lisette patted Emily's shoulder. "He can hardly say no." She paused to consider her words. "Well, he probably could, but I'm sure Papa can persuade him to change his mind."
Emily pouted. "But I don't want him to ask me out of duty. I want him to ask me because he can't bear not to dance with me. He is an earl, Lisette!"
Lisette struggled not to smile. "Then make yourself pleasant to him over the next few days, and I'm sure he'll come around and ask you to dance. Why wouldn't he?"
"He'd probably rather ask you. What man wouldn't?" Emily looked glum.
Lisette chuckled, remembering the complete lack of interest in Lord Swanfield's rather fine eyes. "After the way he just spoke to me, I doubt that."
Emily grabbed her hand. "Oh, shall we have a wager to see who can get him to ask us to dance first? Wouldn't that be fun, Lisette?"
"But I don't want him to dance with me."
"Then you'll let me win, won't you?" Emily smiled at her companions and the three of them disappeared in the direction of the gardens, still whispering and giggling.
Lisette smiled lovingly at Emily and went to talk to the other guests. The house party wasn't large and was mainly for Emily's benefit as she was going up to London for the Season later in the month. Philip had decided to introduce Emily to some of the other girls who were making their curtsey to the Polite World so that she would feel more comfortable during her debut.
Lisette stopped at the table to look at Christian who was grinning up at her. "Well, what?"
"Did Lord Swanfield tell you why he was here?" Christian asked.
"He did, thank you." She made as to go past him and he caught her hand.
"Don't tell me: he's looking for a wife."
"How amusing, Christian. However did you guess?"
His hazel eyes narrowed. "He's not after Emily, is he?"
Lisette disengaged herself from his grasp. "Of course not, although she seems to have developed quite a tendre for him."
"But he's only been here for a few hours!"
"That's all it takes, brother mine—think of Romeo and Juliet."
Christian laughed and rose to his feet. "And think how happily that ended." He reclaimed Lisette's hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm. They walked to the door and into the shadowed hallway beyond. "You weren't as silly as Emily when you were eighteen."
"Thank goodness. But there was scarcely an opportunity for me to be silly in a convent-run orphanage, was there?"
"That's true, but since we moved to live with Maman you've certainly made up for it."
There was an edge to Christian's words that made Lisette pause. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"You've gained a reputation, sister mine, a reputation that won't help Emily at all."
Lisette stopped walking completely. "Are you suggesting I'm too 'fast' to associate with my own half sister?"
He regarded her steadily, his long body aligned with hers as he leaned in close. "Yes, I think I am."
"And since when did Emily's well-being and comfort become more important to you than my own?" Lisette was surprised at how much Christian's defection hurt. They'd always had each other. Were things about to change?
Christian sighed. "Lis, that's not what I meant, and you know it. I'll always put you first."
"Obviously not, and, for what it's worth, your reputation is far worse than mine."
He shrugged. "And I'm a man, so it doesn't matter as much. You might not like it, but that's the way of the world."
Lisette realized she was a breath away from losing her temper. Dealing with obstinate males one after the other was extremely trying. "What do you think I should do? Find a husband and make myself respectable enough to please everyone?"
His smile was wicked. "You could always start with Lord Swanfield. I believe I said he was looking for a wife."
Before Lisette could retaliate, Christian was gone, his laughter echoing down the long hallway to the back of the house. She stared after him, her lower lip caught between her teeth. How dare he suggest that she was somehow at fault? She'd been more than polite to Lord Swanfield, endlessly kind to Emily, and was being the perfect hostess for her father. What more could she do to ensure the house party went off well? Remove herself from it?
But Christian had implied she should do just that and distance herself from Emily. Lisette set off to the kitchens to meet with the cook, her thoughts in turmoil. Perhaps she shouldn't have volunteered to help out this week and should've stayed in London with her mother. Philip had already found an elderly relative to chaperone Emily through her first London Season. Helene, Lisette's mother, was hardly a suitable candidate for the job, being the proprietor of a pleasure house.
Lisette sighed as she fixed a smile on her face. It was too late to change anything now. She would make sure Emily was protected from any hint of scandal, even if it meant staying in the background for once and behaving herself. Perhaps she should simply sit beside Lord Swanfield and be ignored. She could scarcely get into any trouble with him.
Gabriel Swanfield admired the twenty-stall stables and the large barn beside them and wished he had something half as grand at his property in Cheshire. Not that he ever went there, not that he cared whether the place thrived or rotted to the ground ...
He turned to attend to the head coachman who had been assigned to be his guide. "I do apologize, Mr. Green, what were you saying?"
"I was just mentioning that the current Lord Knowles has spent the last few years improving the stables, the facilities, and the breeding stock, sir. We have several very promising colts to show you."
"Excellent. I'm also looking for at least one four-year-old to ride now, and a couple of youngsters to bring on."
"Well, we'll be happy to help you, sir. Would you care to walk down to the main paddock?"
Gabriel followed behind the older man and admired the greenness of the fields, the wilderness areas, and the maze spreading out around the mellow Elizabethan manor house. In the near-distance he could just see the colorful skirts of the young ladies on the terrace, no doubt getting ready to go for their walk.
He imagined Miss Ross taking charge of them and knew that like a good sergeant at arms, she would have no trouble controlling her troops. She'd startled him that morning with her directness, the way she'd taken him on and left him in the dust. Despite himself, he'd also admired her hazel eyes and light brown hair, the high arch of her eyebrows, and the determined angle of her chin.
For a chit not long out of the schoolroom, she was indeed a formidable opponent. She seemed more assured than most of her contemporaries and far more aware of her effect on a man. It had been difficult not to stare at her as she flitted back and forth between all the gentlemen, her smile bright, her eyes far too knowing.
He glanced back at the huddle of ladies and realized they were meandering down toward the stables. He quickened his step and caught up with Mr. Green and enjoyed the sight of the young foals kicking up their heels in the pasture. He pointed at a young black horse.
"That's the one I'd pick."
"You have a good eye, sir. That's Thunderbolt, his lordship's pride and joy."
"Then I doubt he'll be selling him." Gabriel searched the other horses. "What about the gray?"
"That's Shadow. He's a three-year-old and also very promising. I'm sure his lordship would be more than happy to tell you all about him."
"Good." With one eye on the rapidly approaching ladies, Gabriel gestured back at the stables. "Shall we go and look at the older horses?"
Gabriel managed to avoid the chattering women and took his time peering into all the stalls as Mr. Green told him about each horse. At the end of the second row, he found a horse he liked, a big chestnut-colored gelding. He nodded his approval at Mr. Green.
"Is it all right if I go into his stall and take a good look at him?"
"Of course, sir. That's Wellington. He's got a nice temperament, that one; he's not scared of much." Mr. Green unlocked the door. "Take your time, sir, and if you want me to get him saddled up for you, just give me a shout." He gave a heavy sigh. "I need to go and be civil to the ladies and stop them scaring my horses with all that squeaking they like to do."
Gabriel went into the small stall and put one hand on Wellington's rump so that the horse knew he was there and hopefully wouldn't kick out. He walked around the flank of the horse, noticed the way its ears flicked toward him with interest but without fear. He ran his hand along the horse's withers and up his long neck until he reached his face.
"You're a nice lad, Wellington, aren't you?" The horse whickered back and appeared to nod his head. Gabriel scratched under the horse's chin, produced a carrot top Mr. Green had given him, and held it out on his palm. "Here you go, boy."
Nice manners, a soft mouth, and an intelligent face. Gabriel slid his hand down the horse's front leg and checked his tendons, and finally his hoof. Then he repeated the process on the three other legs. As he crouched down in the straw, he heard girlish laughter and stayed where he was. Hopefully the ladies would pass by without noticing him.
To his dismay, they seemed to stop right outside the stall door.
"I'm sure Mr. Green said Lord Swanfield was around here somewhere. I wonder where he has gotten to?"
"If he has any sense, he's probably running back to the house as fast as he can. No man wishes to encounter a large group of ladies while he's talking horseflesh."
Ah, Gabriel recognized that second voice, the slight hint of a French accent, the sharp intelligence behind every word. It was Miss Ross, but who was she talking to?
"Well, I'm disappointed. I wanted to begin my campaign to get him to ask me to dance at the ball."
Excerpted from SIMPLY FORBIDDEN by KATE PEARCE Copyright © 2011 by Kate Pearce. Excerpted by permission of APHRODISIA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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