Authors: Johanna Lindsey
Captive of My Desires
Marriage Most Scandalous
A Loving Scoundrel
A Man to Call My Own
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2007 by Johanna Lindsey
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T WAS QUITE A DISTINCTION
to be the most beautiful and desirable debutante to join the marriage mart in a century, and also be the most hated woman in England. Oddly enough, Ophelia Reid had strived for that distinction, on both counts. It was her bane to be so beautiful that people behaved like utter fools around her.
The people gathered at Summers Glade, the Marquis of Birmingdale’s country estate, were no different. Ophelia stopped at the top of the grand staircase. She’d hoped the foyer would be empty, but no such luck. It appeared that many of the people who had come for her wedding to the marquis’s heir were gathered below, some who were, apparently, already aware that the wedding had been called off and were preparing to leave. Others appeared confused and were talking excitedly. But the moment she appeared, all eyes turned to her, and as usual the whispering began.
It might appear to the people below that she was making a grand entrance. She was rather fond of doing so and was quite practiced at it. But not this time. A grand exit was more like it, though not by her choice. She had
to leave unnoticed.
“When are you going to tell me what happened?” asked her maid, Sadie O’Donald, who was beside her.
“I’m not,” Ophelia said stiffly.
“But you were supposed to get married today.”
As if Ophelia could have overlooked that appalling fact. But now wasn’t the time to discuss it. “Hush, we have an audience if you hadn’t noticed.”
Sadie said no more as she followed Ophelia down the stairs. The whispering grew louder. Ophelia even caught a few bits and pieces of conversations.
“First they’re engaged, then they’re not, then they are again, and now they’ve changed their minds yet again. She’s too fickle, if you ask me.”
“The groom said it was a mutual decision to cancel the wedding.”
“I doubt it, she’s just hard to please, but I would be too if I looked like her.”
“I agree. It’s a sin to be that beautiful.”
“Careful, dear, your jealousy is showing.”
“—spoiled rotten if you ask me.”
“Shh, she’ll hear you. She has a viper’s tongue, you know. You don’t want her turning it on you.”
“Good God, she’s beautiful. An angel, a—”
“—back on the marriage block. Don’t mind saying how delighted I am. Gives me a second chance.”
“I thought she turned you down before the Season even began.”
“Me and countless others, but we didn’t know she was already engaged to MacTavish.”
“Don’t waste your time. Your title isn’t grand enough for her. She could have a king if she set her cap for one.”
“Surprised her parents didn’t aspire to that. They’re appalling social climbers, you know.”
“And she isn’t?”
“She just turned down the marquis’s heir, what does that tell you?”
“That her parents are going to be furious with her, as they were when—”
“Now Locke there might stand a chance as the next Duke of Norford. Surprised to see him back in England.”
“He’s not interested in getting married, or did you never hear that he left England just to get away from all those marriage-minded—”
Ophelia pretended that she hadn’t heard any of those whispers, but the mention of Raphael Locke, Viscount Lynnfield, made her look at him. She’d known he was there in the foyer bidding some of his acquaintances good-bye, or possibly leaving as well. He was the first person she’d noticed when she reached the stairs. But then a man as handsome as the Norford heir had drawn her notice from the moment she’d first glanced at him.
She’d even considered him briefly for a husband, before she’d gotten reengaged to Duncan MacTavish. But Locke had obviously gone over to the enemy camp, the camp that thought the worst of her. What had he called her? A “spiteful rumormonger.” He’d even threatened to ruin her if she told anyone she thought that he’d been bedding Sabrina Lambert.
thought it was true. Why else was he paying so much attention to that little wren Sabrina? But he could have just told her she was mistaken, instead of insulting her. And she wished it had been
but him who’d caught her crying upstairs.
“How are we getting home?” Sadie whispered when they reached the bottom of the stairs.
“In my coach, of course,” Ophelia replied.
“Your coach doesn’t have a driver. The blasted man hasn’t returned yet.”
Ophelia had forgotten about that. Her father’s man hadn’t wanted to bring her back to Yorkshire in the first place, and once they’d arrived here after much persuasion on her part, he had insisted he’d lose his job if he didn’t return to London posthaste to let her parents know where she had run off to. As if she hadn’t intended to send off a note to them herself. In due time. When she stopped being so furious about that slap her father had given her after Duncan had broken their first engagement and they’d all been ousted from Summers Glade.
“We’ll just have to borrow one of the marquis’s footmen, I suppose. That fellow bringing down my trunks will do. You can inform him while I wait in the parlor.”
She would have preferred to wait outside, away from the marquis’s remaining guests, but while she’d already donned her traveling coat, it was designed to flatter her figure, not to provide warmth, and in the heart of winter it was simply too cold to stand outside for any length of time. But since it appeared that most of the guests were in the foyer waiting for their own coaches to be brought around, she hoped the parlor would be empty.
She moved into that room. It wasn’t empty. The occupant was the one person she’d hoped never to see again, Mavis Newbolt, her onetime best friend, now her worst enemy. And it was too late to find a different place to wait. Mavis had noticed her.
“Running away with your tail between your legs?” Mavis smirked.
Oh, God, not again. Hadn’t her former friend said enough when she’d arrived to prevent what everyone involved considered a tragic marriage? Apparently not.
“Hardly,” Ophelia replied, her emotions well in hand now. Her old friend was
going to make her cry again. “How galling it must have been for you to do me that favor today, so I wouldn’t have to marry the Scotsman.”
“I told you I didn’t do it for you. You’re the last person I’d ever help.”
“Yes, yes, I know, you were playing the heroine just for Duncan’s sake. But you still saved me from having to marry him. I suppose I should thank you.”
“Don’t!” Mavis snarled, the curls on her head shaking. “No more pretenses, Pheli. We both hate each other—”
“Stop it!” Ophelia cut in sharply before the wound opened again. “You don’t have your audience now to revile me in front of, so the truth if you please. You were the only real friend I ever had and you know it. I loved you! If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have tried to protect you from Lawrence by showing you the truth about him. But you preferred to blame me for his perfidy. And, how did you put it? That the only reason you continued to abide my presence is you were waiting all this time to witness my downfall? And you called
“I told you I barely recognize myself anymore,” Mavis said defensively. “But that’s your fault. You made me so bitter that I don’t even like myself.”
“No, I didn’t,
did. Your precious Lawrence, who used you to get close to me. There, I’ve finally said it. I tried to spare you that too. He was begging me to marry him all the while he was courting you, but I’m done protecting you from the truth, Mavis.”
“You’re such a liar! And yet you branded me one in front of our friends.”
“Oh, so now they’re ‘friends’ again, those two leeches? When you pointed out today that Jane and Edith are no friends of mine? As if I don’t know that? And you provoked me that day I called you a liar. You know you did. How long did you think I’d continue to put up with your catty, snide remarks without retaliating? You know better than anyone how little patience I have. But I reserved it for you. I certainly have none left for Jane and Edith, who we both know only come around because it’s fashionable to be seen at my side. But you failed to mention that today, didn’t you, when you were reviling me for all my faults. You claimed I use them?” Ophelia snorted. “You know very well it’s just the opposite, that every one of my so-called friends use me and my popularity to further their own ends. Good God, you used to point that out yourself, when
were my friend.”
“I knew you’d come up with excuses,” Mavis said stiffly.
“The truth isn’t an excuse,” Ophelia countered. “I know all my own faults, and my temper is the worst of them. But who usually sets off my temper?”
“What has that to do with how spiteful you are?”
“You’re the one who brought it up, Mavis. You claimed that Jane and Edith spent all their time with me trying to soothe my ruffled feathers so I wouldn’t turn my spite on them. That was quite an allegation. Would you care to discuss it now that we don’t have an audience for you to impress with your vindictiveness?”
Mavis gasped. “I’m not the vindictive one, Pheli, you are. And it was the absolute truth. You’ve turned on them in the past, yet you had the gall to try to deny it today.”
“Because you were making more of it than it was. Of course I’ve lost my temper with them, many times, but you failed to mention I did so, because they’re sycophants. All of my so-called friends are. And it’s their toadying and insincere flattery that usually make me lose my temper in the first place.”
Mavis shook her head. “I don’t know why I bothered to point out how mean you are. You’ll never change. You’ll always be caught up in yourself, causing others misery.”
“Oh, come now, we both know exactly why you said everything you did today. You even admitted you only continued to pretend to be my friend so you’d be around to witness my downfall. Well, have I fallen down, my dear? I don’t think so. I’ll return to London and marry one of those idiots who profess to love me, but what about you? Are you happy, now that you’ve spilled all of your bitterness at my feet? Oh, wait, you didn’t exactly get the revenge you really wanted, did you? I’ve merely been saved from a disastrous marriage—by you. And thank you very much. I mean that sincerely.”
“Go to the devil!” Mavis snapped, and marched out of the room.
Ophelia closed her eyes, fighting back more tears. She should have just walked out of the room when she saw Mavis there. She shouldn’t have rehashed that horrible scene she’d had with her old friend earlier.
“Should I applaud? And here I’d thought you two had finished the performance earlier.”
. God, she couldn’t believe she’d cried on
shoulder today. But she’d overcome that appalling weakness and was in control now.
She turned around and raised a brow at him. “Hardly a performance when we
we were alone. Eavesdropping, Lord Locke? How shamefully boorish of you.”
He grinned unrepentantly. “Couldn’t help m’self, when your transformation is so fascinating. How fleeting was the damsel in distress. But I see the imperious ice queen is in true form again.”
“Go to the devil!” she shot back, borrowing Mavis’s parting line. And as her former friend had done, she marched out of the room as well.