Sophie Wembley is about to discover two hard truths: When planning a rushed betrothal, one must not be picky; and when the perfect earl happens by, one must not be shy....
After receiving word that her sister has eloped, even ever-optimistic Sophie has trouble staying positive. She needs to secure her future before the scandal destroys her prospects, although she doesn’t relish the idea of a hasty marriage. But her longtime crush has just shown up for the summer festival in Bath. He may be the key to avoiding disgrace and getting a happily ever after...if she can bring herself to pursue him.
John “Evan” Fairfax, Earl of Evansleigh, is one of the most popular bachelors in the ton. However, his easygoing ways hide a dark past he’s determined to keep secret. Evan has always kept acquaintances at arm’s length for self-preservation, but there’s something irresistible about Sophie...and her seductive charms may well sway the confirmed bachelor to seize a chance at love.
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Erin Knightley is the author of the Prelude to a Kiss series and the Sealed with a Kiss series. Despite being an avid reader and closet writer her whole life, Ms. Knightley decided to pursue a sensible career in science. It was only after earning her BS and working in the field for years that she realized doing the sensible thing wasn’t any fun at all. Following her dreams, Erin left her practical side behind and now spends her days writing. Together with her tall, dark, and handsome husband and their three spoiled mutts, she is living her own Happily Ever After in North Carolina.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE NOVELS OF ERIN KNIGHTLEY
THE PRELUDE TO A KISS SERIES
Also by Erin Knightley
The Prelude to a Kiss Series
The Baron Next Door
To my editor, Kerry Donovan, and my agent, Deidre Knight, I’m so grateful to have both of you on my side!
Less conventionally, I would also like to give a shout-out to YouTube. Where else could I watch dozens of opera performances—often at two in the morning—without ever having to leave my home? I may adore the Regency era, but it’s modern conveniences like this that let me know I was born at exactly the right time!
Sophie Wembley had always prided herself on being able to find the bright side of any situation. When she was compelled to play the oboe when all the other girls were learning violin or pianoforte, she’d chosen to embrace her mother’s belief that the more unique the instrument, the more memorable the musician.
When she’d discovered how embarrassingly modest her dowry would be, she’d brushed off any pangs of disappointment. At least she could be sure that no self-respecting fortune hunter would ever consider her prey. Any man wishing to marry her would do so because of his regard for her, not her money.
Finding the silver lining today, however, was proving somewhat more elusive. But then again, hearing the words “Your sister has eloped” did tend to drown out all other thoughts in one’s head.
Without the least twinge of guilt, she reached for yet another shortbread biscuit. It was her fourth of the morning, but with news of the elopement sending her mother into such a dither, Sophie’s indulgence was the least of their worries. Taking full advantage of her mother’s distraction, Sophie bit into the crisp treat, savoring the buttery goodness. It was absolutely divine. So good, it almost made up for the minor issue of Penelope ruining the family’s good name by running off to Gretna Green with the estate manager’s son.
Sophie sighed deeply, still unable to believe her sister could have done such a thing. If the missive hadn’t been written in Papa’s own hand, Sophie could have easily believed the whole thing was a cruel joke.
One look at her mother confirmed that this was no laughing matter.
“What could she possibly have been thinking, Sophie?” Her mother paced past the sofa table for perhaps the hundredth time, her hands red from hours of wringing them. Tearstains marked the pale skin of her cheeks, though thankfully the tears themselves had finally abated. “Does she hate us so very much? Does she think herself above the lot of us?”
Swoosh. Her emerald skirts billowed out behind her as she turned for another circuit of the tidy drawing room. “The ton will have a field day with this. I’ll never be able to show my face in polite society again. And you—” she said, shaking her head with the quick, jerky movements of one who had consumed entirely too much tea for one morning. “You and Pippa will never find husbands now. Thank God Sarah is safely wed.”
Sarah’s marriage last month was the only reason Sophie had been allowed to travel to the two-month-long first annual Summer Serenade in Somerset. So far, the music festival had been everything she had hoped it would be, filled with musicians and music lovers from the world over, and with so many events and activities, there had yet to be a dull day in the whole first month. It was absolute heaven.
Her mother had claimed the trip was a special treat, a chance for Sophie to relax after such a whirlwind spring, but Sophie knew better. The festival had drawn many an eligible bachelor, and where there was an unmarried gentleman, there was opportunity for matchmaking.
Or at least there had been.
She took another bite, willing the tastiness of the biscuit to overwhelm the dreadfulness of the morning. Numbness had settled deep in her chest. In a few weeks’ time, when news of the elopement got out, she’d be a pariah. All the things that she had taken for granted these two years since her debut—the grand balls, the lavish dinners, the friendly waves during rides at Hyde Park—all of it would be gone.
Taking a deep breath, Sophie fought back against the fear that threatened to dislodge the numbness. This wasn’t the end of the world. They’d figure something out—hopefully before life as she knew it ceased to exist. Hadn’t she spent the last two years wishing that Mama would stop pushing so hard for her to make a match? She almost laughed. Be careful what you wish for.
Setting down the uneaten portion of shortbread, she wrapped her icy hands around her still-warm teacup. “At least we have a bit of time before the news becomes known. We might even be able to make it to the end of the festival! Since there is nothing we can do to change what Penelope has done—though hopefully Papa will come up with something—I say we make the most of the time we have.” She offered up a helpless little grin. “Why walk the plank when we can waltz it instead?”
Her mother blinked once, twice, then not at all, staring at her as though she’d quite lost her mind. Perhaps she had. Why else would she suggest they carry on as though their family hadn’t just been shaken by what was sure to be the scandal of the summer? It was fanciful thinking, born of desperation.
At a loss, Sophie stuffed the rest of the biscuit in her mouth and flopped back against the sofa. What were they going to do? They’d undoubtedly be packing for home before the day was out. For the first time, a spark of anger pushed past the shock at hearing of her sister’s impetuousness. Why did Penelope have to do something like this now, just when things were going so well? This had been the best summer of Sophie’s life so far, and she wasn’t ready to give it up yet.
Blast it all, she wished she could turn to her friends in Bath now for their advice. May would know exactly what to do. She was bold and fearless and unswayed by such insignificant trifles as scandal and rumor. And Charity would know exactly what to say to calm the emotions building in Sophie’s heart like steam in a teapot.
But Charity was away for a funeral until next week and May’s aunt had decreed that Sundays were strictly for worship and reflection, so Sophie was well and truly on her own until tomorrow at the earliest.
“You are right.”
Sophie looked up, startled by the pronouncement. “I am?” she said around a mouthful of biscuit. It was not a sentiment she was used to hearing from her mother, particularly when Sophie herself wasn’t sure if she was making a good point or simply sounding delusional.
Nodding with impressive confidence, Mama swept her skirts aside and sat for the first time since receiving Papa’s letter. “Indeed you are. I imagine we’ll have two, perhaps three, weeks before the gossips catch wind of the scandal. That is more than enough time, if one is committed.”
She leaned forward and poured herself yet another cup of tea as though the entire issue had suddenly been resolved. Sophie eyed her mother suspiciously. Was this what hysteria looked like? Calm, rational words said with overbright eyes and the nervous tapping of one’s foot? Should she ring for a footman just in case Mama suffered a fit of vapors from the stress of it all?
Brushing the crumbs from her lap, Sophie tried to work out what exactly her mother meant. After a minute, she finally gave up and asked, “Committed to what, exactly?”
Mama held up her index finger as she took a long sip of her tea. Soft morning sunlight filtered through the pretty white sheers on the windows overlooking the street, lending a much cheerier atmosphere to the room than the subject warranted.
“We must carry on as we have been. Parties, recitals, dances—we shall attend as many events as possible for the next two weeks.”
So, if they weren’t going home after all . . . then they were merely postponing the inevitable. “To what end? Do we pretend that all is well, laugh, dance, eat, and be merry until the moment someone points in our direction and brands us outcasts? No, thank you.”
There was no mistaking the determination tightening her mother’s mouth. “No, my little magpie. I shall laugh, dance, eat, and be merry. You shall laugh, dance, eat, and catch yourself a husband.”
Choking on her shock, Sophie fumbled for her tea, nearly knocking it over before getting a proper grip and downing the contents of the cup. “You can’t possibly be serious!” she gasped. “If I haven’t caught a suitor’s attention in two years, what on earth makes you think I could catch one in two weeks?”
Her mind spun. It was absurd in the extreme. She wanted a husband she could adore, and who could adore her in return. She was even mad enough to hope for a love match, despite what the ton thought of such a thing. Finding such a man took time and, well, more time. She put a hand over her suddenly rioting stomach, heartily wishing she had stopped at biscuit number three.
Mama’s eyes changed in an instant, narrowing on Sophie with utter seriousness and disconcerting intensity. “You haven’t a choice, my dear. I don’t care how you go about it, I don’t care whom you choose, but by the end of a fortnight, you will be betrothed.” She stood, smoothed her skirts, and smiled. “Now, if you will excuse me, I need to write to your father. Be ready in an hour, if you please. The husband hunt begins today. I do hope you have someone in mind.”
Sophie watched in openmouthed shock as her mother swept out of the room, a vision of efficient determination. For a moment she couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even think. Had she really led her mother down this absurd path with one ill-considered remark? She couldn’t possibly be expected to woo a man in a fortnight. She wasn’t beautiful, or alluring, or the least bit captivating. Though she normally talked entirely too much, she hadn’t even been able to say two words to the man she’d—
She sat bolt upright, her heart nearly leaping from her chest. To the man she’d secretly admired for the past two years. Actually, admired was much too tame a word. Desired was more apt. A tendre to end all tendres.
She pressed her icy fingers to her mouth, her pulse pounding wildly in her ears. He was here in Somerset to attend the summer festival. Coward that she was, she’d yet to speak to him. It was simply too intimidating, especially after how she’d gotten tongue-tied the last time she’d talked to him in London.
Drawing in a long, deep breath, she dropped her hands to her belly. Desperate times called for desperate measures. Her mother would be forcing her hand over the next few weeks, so . . .
It was time to woo the earl.
“Julia! What on earth are you doing here?” John Fairfax, Earl of Evansleigh—otherwise known as Evan to all but his mother—gaped in surprise at the road-dusted apparition of his sister standing in the doorway of the townhouse’s study. “Is something the matter with Mother? The estate?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” she said, her tone casual in a way that belied the fact that she had traveled more than sixty miles from Ledbury to Bath without so much as a hint of her intent for doing so. Smiling breezily, she tugged off her gloves, sending motes of dust into the shaft of early-afternoon sunlight streaming through the window. “It simply occurred to me that the festival wasn’t any kind of bloated London event, filled with the sorts of people I’m meant to avoid. This is a music festival, and is therefore perfectly suited to my interests and tastes.”
She said it as one states one’s mild preference for a particular fruit. Evan blinked a few times, then ran a hand over his hair. “Perfectly suited . . . Julia, are you mad? You can’t go traipsing across the country alone without a single word as to your intentions.”
As heads of families went, he was hardly strict or censorious when it came to his sister, but this little stunt showed unbelievably poor judgment. She lived a fairly sheltered life, but she was ignorant of neither propriety nor common sense when it came to safety. Or so he had thought.
“What, are we afraid of highwaymen and scurrilous knaves who may or may not accost a lady’s carriage?” Her lighthearted laughter brought a scowl to his face.
“That, or worse.”
She waved her hand, the dangling gloves swinging with the movement. “Oh, Evan, don’t be so dramatic. And I wasn’t alone—I had my maid, a footman, the coachmen, and a groom along to keep me safe. I daresay I was better protected than you on your own journey.” One burnished-gold eyebrow rose in challenge.
“That’s different and you know it. You’re a single female—”
“Who is five-and-twenty and quite capable of taking care of herself, thank you.”
It was Evan’s turn to raise a brow. “That remains to be seen,” he said, though without much heat to his tone. Where had this boldness come from? For years his sister had always been one to follow her own drum, but never before had that drum led her so far from home. Something must have happened for her to leave the haven of their estate and travel here without preamble.
He blew out a breath and regarded her for a moment, his fists resting on his hips. There was no use arguing at the moment. Might as well wait until she’d settled in and cleaned up. “Well, you are here now. Why don’t you tidy up and join me in the drawing room in half an hour?”
“Perfect,” she said, her smile wholly angelic. She thought she’d gotten her way, but he wasn’t through with her yet.
She turned, revealing a lurking Higgins in the corridor behind her. “See? I told you he wouldn’t mind the interruption. Now, do be so kind as to show me to my room.”
The servant shot Evan a look, half indignant, half in search of his approval. Poor man. Here was his chance to prove himself a proper butler and Julia had bullied her way past him like a stampeding steer. “The suite adjacent to mine is fine, Higgins. And arrange for refreshments to be sent to the drawing room in half an hour, if you will.”
“As you wish, my lord.” He bowed and started to back out of the room.
“Oh, and Higgins?”
The man paused, his dense black eyebrows raised in question. “My lord?”
“When it comes to my sister, you needn’t ever worry that I’ll be bothered. Julia is and always shall be my first priority.”
No matter how grown-up she got, his protectiveness toward her would never waver. It’d been the two of them against the world since their father’s death a dozen years ago. Yes, their mother was alive, but she’d been distant their whole lives, even before the old earl had met an early grave.
Higgins’s expression relaxed. “Very good, my lord.”
Precisely twenty-eight minutes later, Julia glided into the salon, as fresh as a spring daisy. Her dark honey-colored hair was brushed and neatly coiled at the base of her neck, her face and hands scrubbed clean, and a crisp white gown draped her slender frame. “Oh, good. I was hoping you’d have biscuits.” She immediately lifted one from t...
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