Home > The Scandal in Kissing an Heir (At the Kingsborough Ball #2)

The Scandal in Kissing an Heir (At the Kingsborough Ball #2)
Author: Sophie Barnes

Chapter 1

Kingsborough Hall, Moxley, England

1817

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 borne 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 of 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 have been 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 approached 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’d been heading toward on their own tour of the ballroom. Daniel hadn’t been 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 the fact that Daniel had been so deep in his cups that night that he’d offered his mistress the diamond earrings his father had once bestowed upon his mother. 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 and 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 in response to this retort, but he’d 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 parents or guardians 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 Daniel 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 other 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.

 

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