Pride truly does go before a fall. Pride—and a pair of satin slippers on a freshly polished salon floor.
Now Emma Bryson’s pride lay shattered amidst the crumpled satin and torn lace of her new gown. Her gaze no longer on the enraptured faces of Lady Heyer’s guests but on the painted ceiling of her Mayfair townhouse.
Had it only been an hour since she had stepped before those same guests and sang so beautifully they had stood and roared their adulation?
Only minutes since they had gasped at the sudden and unexpected sight of a lady splayed out like a rag doll?
Only seconds since the conviction that the promise she had made to her dying mother to sing for the Queen would remain unfulfilled settled like a stone in her heart?
The clip, clip, clip of boots snapped Emma out of her fit of mortification and she lifted her head. Everyone was racing towards her, bearing down on her, en masse, like dogs after a fox. She couldn’t face anyone. Not now. Not after . . ..
She must leave. Flee. Run. Emma shot upwards and a wave of dizziness crashed through her, and she collapsed.
Running was out of the question.
She needed a path. A straight unhindered path out of the salon. Emma clamped her eyes shut and prayed. God, I’ll forget all about You allowing me to fall, I trust You had your reasons, if you’ll clear a path for me.
“Clear a path, if you please, and give the lady some air.”
Emma gasped. Never before had she received such a direct answer from above. The request for air an inspired touch.
The voice spoke again, “Are you hurt?”
What does one say to the King of the Universe? “Oh, no, I’m quite alright, thank you.”
“Are you certain? No bruises? No broken bones?”
The interrogation about her health gave Emma the first hint she wasn’t conversing with the Almighty.
“It might be helpful, Miss Bryson, if you opened your eyes.”
His chuckle gave her the second. She’d always imagined a hearty belly laugh not this low rumbling emanating from the chest.
He crouched beside her and Emma’s heart plummeted. No escaping now.
Emma grasped her amber pendant, a habit in times of distress. She had not been this mortified since she had fled the altar, leaving a church full of wedding guests and a confused Hamish Macintosh behind. She had run straight to her bedchamber and hid for days. Nothing could entice her out. Not even marzipan. She had insisted her maid leave it by the door.
Oh, why hadn’t this gentleman let her escape? Why had he blocked her, trapped her, boxed her in so close she could hear the slow intake of his breaths? So close the heady, masculine scent of sandalwood intoxicated her? So close—just how close? Emma opened her eyes.
Dear heavens, that close. Closer than any gentleman had ever dared. Even Hamish.
She squirmed backwards discomposure at his nearness replaced by fascination at his attire. Fashionable and stylish. A study in masculine elegance. Smooth black leather shoes, sheer white silk stockings, black satin breeches, a dark kerseymere coat, a neckcloth. A starched, flawlessly tied, snow-white neckcloth. Blindingly white. She shaded her eyes.
“Is something amiss?” The gentleman’s amused voice startled Emma.
“What? No, I . . .” Oh, dear, he’d caught her staring. “I was just admiring your neckcloth.”
“It’s exquisite. And extraordinarily white.”
“The fields of Islington.”
“Fields outside London. My valet insists on drying them there to avoid the soot.”
His look of expectancy compelled a more extensive response.
“He must take his duties quite seriously.”
“You’re lucky to have him.”
“I am.” He settled more comfortably onto his haunches, causing a shock of dark hair to fall onto his forehead. “Now that we’ve established my good fortune in my valet, perhaps we can move on to a more immediate concern.”
“Your unfortunate fall, Miss Bryson.”
Heat crept up Emma’s neck. “Yes, well, I’m not sure how it happened.”
“Alas, some things must remain a mystery, though no reason for you to remain on a hard floor.” He smiled, showing a line of even white teeth. “Would you like to get up?”
Heavens yes, she wanted up. Her head pounded and her back ached and surely escape must be easier upright. Emma nodded and within moments he had her to her feet and settled in a chair.
Her composure somewhat restored, she glanced around the ballroom. The blue and white painted walls still charmed. Hundreds of wax candles still set the room ablaze. A plethora of vases overflowing with wisteria and roses, peonies and lilies, still reminded Emma of a lush garden.
A lush garden transformed into a cage by an encroaching mob. Emma bristled. Why must they stare so? Gape and gawk as if she were an exotic animal at a zoo?
“Don’t worry,” the gentleman said. “They’ll get bored soon enough.”
She kept a wary eye on them. “Do you think so?”
“Trust me. I know so.”
A hint of cynicism in his voice impelled Emma to study him closer. Upright and vertical, he was more handsome than she first thought. Tall and broad shouldered. The sharp planes of his face softened by a hint of silver at the temples. An unexpected dash of elegance that prompted a lingering nod of approval from Emma.
“Does your neck hurt?”
“No.” She smiled. “Why do you ask?”
“Your head keeps bobbing up and down.”
"Oh, no, I was just—” Oh, dear—caught again. She coughed and rubbed her neck. “You know, now that you mention it, I might’ve wrenched it a bit.”
“The doctor will know what to do. Amelia is sending for him now.”
“Of course.” Her hostess. Her patroness. The one lady in all of England willing to take a chance on an unknown singer. If only she would hurry. Emma twisted her pendant and the gold chain shimmered and caught the gentleman’s eye. He stared hard, and a frown formed on his brow surprising Emma. “Is something the matter?”
“No, nothing.” His frown vanished, replaced by an easy smile. “Nothing except my manners. How rude of me, not to introduce myself.” He impressed Emma with a graceful bow. “Lord Blackbourne, at your service.”
“Yes, yes, Blackbourne, thank you.” Lady Heyer’s soft agitated voice interrupted the introduction. “I see my brother has helped you, Miss Bryson, as I knew he would.”
Emma started. Her brother? Impossible. They looked nothing alike. He dark and imposing, like a block of granite, and she small and pale, and delicate as sea foam.
“I’ve sent for the doctor.” She clasped Emma’s hands. “I’m only sorry I had to.”
“Not as sorry as I, my lady.” Emma’s self-deprecation garnered a smile from Blackbourne, who said, “Don’t worry. It’ll all be forgotten by tomorrow. No one will remember a thing.”
“Oh, yes, no one has any reason to,” Lady Heyer said. “No one except . . .” She stopped and her blue eyes grew large and round and apologetic and Emma’s heart raced.
No one except who? Who, who, who?
“No one except Mr. Claimore.”
A cold dread filled Emma. Stanley Claimore. She had forgotten. Forgotten Lady Heyer had invited the well-known critic at Emma’s request. Forgotten he had promised to write a review on her debut. Forgotten it would be published in the morning broadsheets.
By morning all of London would know of her fall. She would be a laughing stock. A fool. A buffoon.
Panic swelled inside Emma like a wave and she blurted, “I must go” and sprung from the chair and barreled straight into the solid impeccably dressed form of Lord Blackbourne. She reared back but his arms swept around her and pulled her against his chest. Tight against his chest and Emma gasped. Now much closer to a gentleman than she had ever been.
“My dear Miss Bryson.” Blackbourne smiled, and pulled her, if possible, even closer. “I’m afraid I can’t allow you to go anywhere.”