It’s Monday. The kids are feeling better. The weather is gorgeous. And it is only a little more than three weeks until The Bride Price will be thrust out onto the world.
So allow me to rush right through all the jibber-jabber you probably don’t care about and get to the meat of this post, which is the entire first chapter of The Bride Price, here for you to read. I hope you enjoy it!
Lord Winthrop, Viscount Marbley.
Emily Collicott whispered the name under her breath, her own voice added to the susurration of sound that rippled from one end of the ballroom to the other. From where she stood, she could not see him. There were too many other heads in the way, heads bedecked in various arrangements of ribbons and pearls and feathers. The feathers were the most dreadful of them all, flopping and tickling and occasionally smacking her across the face when she failed to keep a wary eye.
Miss Fauntley had called on them this morning for the sole purpose of relating the news that Marbley had returned to town, after a nearly year-long sojourn in Paris. But he was back in London, the obnoxious Miss Fauntley had tittered between bites of marzipan and candied fruit. He was back, and his reappearance had succeeded in setting every drawing room abuzz.
To tell the truth, Emily had found herself a bit underwhelmed by the news. This was her first season in London, and what was this Lord Marbley fellow to her but a tedious portion of gossip bandied about like a borrowed novel? But she was soon swept along by the bubbling, frothing tide of London society, and now that he’d arrived in Lady Halloran’s ballroom, she craned her neck as much as every other young woman in order to gain a glimpse of his reputed beauty.
He was tall, the women around her had whispered. He was broad-shouldered, another group had said. His hair was black as ebony, his eyes like amber pools, his nose a perfectly formed proboscis that would have sent the Romans into fits of envy. His smile was reputed to have caused no less than eight—eight!—young ladies to faint, leaving them as unresponsive heaps of silk and lace in his wake. He was witty. He was graceful. He was all that was kindness and benevolence.
And he was here, Emily thought. Not more than half a ballroom’s length away from her.
She stood on the balls of her feet, her balance wavering as she was pushed and shoved from all sides—the result of several dozen women surging forward as the news of Marbley’s arrival spread through their ranks. Emily struggled to catch her breath before another bundle of feathers walloped her in the face and she was suddenly extricated from the press of bodies.
“Did you see him?” Josephine’s lilting voice tumbled out in a rush.
Emily looked down and only then noticed the other young woman’s hand on her arm, the same hand that had rescued her from the crush that was still shifting and moving in time with Marbley’s circuitous path along the outskirts of the room.
“Thank you,” Emily said. “And no, I did not.” She looked up at her friend with an expectant air.
“Oh, I’ve seen him before,” Josephine crowed, and opened her fan with a practiced snap. “I even danced with him, once. It was my first season, and I was silly enough to believe that a scant few minutes of attention from the likes of him would be enough to secure my prospects.”
Emily blinked rapidly and lowered her gaze to the floor. It was an easy matter to forget that Miss Barrowe was seven years her senior and currently celebrating her ninth season in town, a season the redoubtable Miss Josephine Barrowe claimed would be her last.
“You’ll do better than I.” Josephine’s mouth crooked in a smile while her eyes gleamed. “You’ve a look about you that sets you apart. They can say what they like about this complexion being in fashion or that particular shade of hair, but toss out the fripperies and men want nothing more than a pretty, healthy girl who can smile at a party and produce a viable heir or two.”
Emily tugged nervously at her gloves as the crowd continued to buzz with excitement around her. “You’re forgetting a fortune. A few thousand pounds tacked onto that smile and most men could forgive a woman having a wooden leg and a moustache.”
“Would that all of us arrived in town with a fortune in tow,” Josephine sighed. “I’d have been a married woman these last nine years if I had more than three shillings to call my own.”
“But if you were married, then you might not be in a position to aid me during the trials and travails of my first season,” Emily countered as she linked arms with her friend. “You would no doubt be off at your country estate, lobbing a few chastisements at one of your strapping young sons for leaving a trail of muddy footprints through the house.”
“Your fantasies are too kind,” Josephine said, barely controlling her laughter. “I would have daughters instead of sons, and I would spend all of my time tearing out my rapidly graying hair as I struggled to find tolerable husbands for the lot of them.”
As the two women laughed, the crowd shifted again, the bulk of it moving backwards until they found themselves pressed against the doors that opened onto the lamplit terrace.
“Chin up!” Josephine warned, a moment before she nudged Emily in the ribcage with the point of her elbow. “Here comes Mamma!”
Emily glanced up long enough to see Lady Barrowe emerge from the line of assembled guests, her dark eyebrows raised and her thin mouth set in a disapproving line. Emily would have felt a greater inclination towards fear if this hadn’t been the only expression she had ever seen on Lady Barrowe’s face.
“Of all the things!” Lady Barrowe chided as she approached. The heavy silk of her gown swished and rustled as if it, too, shared in the older woman’s obvious irritation. “The Viscount Marbley finally deigns to make an appearance, and here I find the two of you giggling in the back of the room like a couple of misbehaving schoolgirls!”
Emily’s spine straightened under Lady Barrowe’s narrowed gaze. The woman shared a nearly identical build with her daughter, the both of them tall and lean, their matching dark heads each shot with a liberal amount of auburn highlights. But while Josephine’s eyes were often creased with laughter, her color heightened from the amusement of a shared joke, her mother preferred to look down on everything with a cool, criticizing eye.
“Shoulders back,” Lady Barrowe said to her daughter. “Just because you’re tall does not give you leave to slouch. And you,” she turned her sharp gaze to Emily. “You’ve gone white as a sheet! Should any man look at you, he’d think you wouldn’t survive the winter.”
“Ow!” Emily bit back a shriek as Lady Barrowe proceeded to pinch both her cheeks.
“There!” Lady Barrowe declared triumphantly. “That’s put some life back into your face. Now, eyes up, and don’t let me see you sniggering behind your fans when the Viscount comes this way.”
With a forceful prodding from behind, they were pushed back into the crush. Emily nearly stumbled as someone stepped on the hem of her gown, and then a hand touched her arm, holding her up as she regained some measure of her equilibrium.
“Thank you.” She expected to look up and see that Josephine had once again come to her aid. But it wasn’t a woman’s hand that gripped her forearm with a mingling of strength and delicacy. “Oh,” she managed to say, when she found herself looking up into no other face than that of Lord Winthrop, Viscount Marbley himself.
Of course, she hadn’t been introduced to him yet. This was the first she had laid eyes on him, but there was no mistaking that this was the man who had single-handedly set London society on its ear.
Not one of the descriptions had done him a whit of justice. He was tall, yes. And dark-haired, and broad-shouldered, and impeccably dressed, and his eyes…
They were more gold than she had originally imagined. Not that she had spent a great deal of her day musing over the particular shade of hazel that his eyes would prove to be, but their brilliance startled her, and she found that she could not look away.
“Are you all right, Miss…?”
She blinked. His hand was still on her arm. He should have released her some moments before, but his fingers were wrapped around her, his thumb stroking a portion of skin an inch above her elbow. It was scandalous, that touch. At least, it felt as if it was. And Emily couldn’t believe that every other person in the room hadn’t sent up a cry in outrage at the liberties he was daring to take in front of so many.
“Yes, I…” She swallowed, an action that sounded so loud to her own ears that she imagined it could be heard all the way down to the kitchens below.
And then there was a flurry of movement at her side as Lady Barrowe pushed forward, the maelstrom of silks and feathers and turbans beginning again as everyone adjusted to make room at the front of the line.
Emily heard the perfunctory introductions, the words seeming to fly over her head. Here was Miss Emily Collicott, lately arrived from Cornwall; eldest daughter of Sir Richard Collicott…
… sent to London in hope of making a good marriage, her own thoughts continued. With two more sisters at home, the both of them relying on her success in society to raise their own fortunes. And her mother gone for two years, leaving her in the hands of Lady Barrowe, who treated the search for a marriageable man with all of the finesse and romance of a military campaign.
Her gaze slid to the floor, to the tips of her own slippers peeking out from beneath the hem of her ballgown. A wave of inferiority washed over her, that one of these finely dressed ladies or gentlemen would suddenly notice the small stain on her gloves, or how her figure was bare of the usual jewels that so many of the other women wore. Her pale hair was simply styled, her gown bore none of the more fashionable decorations that would have cost more money than her father had entrusted to Lady Barrowe’s keeping. She was small, and plain, and unadorned. And her entire family was dependant on her not making a single mistake during her stay in town.
“Say yes, child!” Lady Barrowe hissed in Emily’s ear.
Emily raised her eyes, her breath stuttering through parted lips as she found herself once again staring into Marbley’s beautiful face. “I’m sorry?”
There was a glimmer of amusement in his eyes, and the corner of his mouth twitched with the promise of a smile.
A beautiful mouth, Emily thought, and forced herself to exhale.
“A dance, Miss Collicott,” Marbley said, his voice carried by the impossibility that a single person around him was not dangling on his every word. “That is, if you are not otherwise engaged for the remainder of the evening.”
Engaged? She had not been approached by a single gentleman since her arrival two hours before, for all that Miss Barrowe insisted her appearance would set her apart. “N-no,” she stammered, as the warmth of a blush flooded her cheeks. “That is… I mean, yes. I would be honored.”
His hand was still on her arm, she realized, as his fingers slid down to her wrist, the heat of his touch soaking through her glove like water. Behind her, the sounds of the musicians preparing to play filled the air, as if they had been waiting for Marbley’s permission to continue. He led her out onto the floor, the other couples following suit as the renewed murmur of conversation rose to a heated pitch behind them.
The music began, a sprightly melody that sent a thrill of fear through Emily’s frame. Despite her diminutive size, she had never believed herself to be particularly light on her feet, and she wondered what her marital prospects would be if she accidentally trod on Marbley’s toes before the end of the evening.
As they moved through the patterns of the dance, Emily strove to look everywhere but at her partner’s face. It would be too much, she thought, to have to struggle with the awkwardness of her steps while gazing into his shining eyes.
“Miss Collicott,” he whispered as their hands joined for a moment and they moved towards their next positions in the line. “I do believe you’re trembling.”
She looked up at him, startled at the sound of his voice so close to her ear.
“Are you afraid of me?” he asked. She was horrified that he would pose such a question, until she recognized the same twitch at the corner of his mouth, the spark of laughter in his golden eyes.
“No, I’m only a little nervous, my lord.”
He smiled at that, a small smile, revealing a brief glance of even, white teeth. “I take it this is your first season?”
“Yes,” she said, and returned his grin with one of her own. “In fact, this is my very first ball.”
“Really?” Dark eyebrows lifted a half an inch. “And what is your impression of our fine city?”
“It is overwhelming,” she admitted. “I have seen only small portions of it so far, and always from a carriage window or the same wide pathways in the park. But I feel that should I spend a lifetime here, and able to travel onto any of the streets of my choosing, I could not succeed in viewing everything it has to offer.”
“Very well said.” He nodded, before they were parted again by the figures of the dance.
Emily reminded herself to breathe while there was some distance between herself and Marbley. She had spoken about being overwhelmed by London, but she might as well have been describing her reaction to his presence.
There was something about him, something that went beyond his handsome face and well-tailored coat. Emily attempted to find the proper word, but the only thing she came up with before the pattern of the dance returned him to her side was simply… more.
“A pity,” he whispered as his fingers once again claimed her small, gloved hand. “A pity that we are being so closely watched by the vultures of London’s drawing rooms, that they would seek to prevent me from stealing your companionship for the remainder of the evening. I believe my heart will sink back into the doldrums when it comes time to return you to the care of your chaperone.”
She glanced up at him and saw a glint of his smile, and though she told herself his remarks were purely facetious, she thrilled that perhaps…
It was too soon that the music dwindled towards its conclusion. A small bow marking the end of the dance, a polite bit of applause, and Marbley offered his arm before they began the brief walk that would take them back to the outskirts of the room.
“It was an honor, Miss Collicott.” Marbley bowed once more, this time over her hand. Emily’s mouth opened, ready to reply, but when he turned and walked away, he seemed to take her breath along with him.
“Well,” Lady Barrowe began, and Emily heard the elation in her voice. “Wasn’t that a fine thing? A fine thing, indeed! You’ll have no shortage of suitors now, I’m sure. And maybe even Lord Marbley himself…”
Emily turned around and saw Lady Barrowe tugging at the lace on her sleeve, her brow creased in thought.
“I’m sure Lady Prescott will know of several invitations he’s accepted,” she continued. “And if we can continue to throw you into his path…”
“Refreshments!” Josephine announced suddenly. She snagged Emily’s elbow and pulled her towards the punch bowl before the elder Barrowe had an opportunity to protest.
“Keep a wary eye of my mother’s efforts to see you wed,” Josephine warned between sips of punch. “She can be a bit overzealous if left unchecked, and I would not wish to see you hauled out before every eligible gentlemen as if you were nothing more than a prime piece of horseflesh up for sale.”
Emily held her own cup between her hands, waiting for the trembling in her fingers to abate before she dared attempt to take a sip. “But is that not why we’re here? To secure a husband?” It was a fact she had reminded herself of on countless occasions, to the point that she now wondered if the words were permanently etched across every corner of her mind.
“Yes,” Josephine admitted, with obvious reluctance. “But I think my mother will never forgive me for turning down my one and only offer of marriage. She will believe herself to have failed some time-honored quest of motherhood if she doesn’t see at least one young lady assigned to her care sent down the aisle.” She took another sip, her mouth quirking above the rim of the cup. “And since she produced no results with me…”
“Someone made an offer to you?” Emily pounced on this tidbit of information. “Who was he?”
“Oh, I hardly remember,” Miss Barrowe waved away Emily’s questions as if they were nothing more than insects. “But he was old, and rheumy, and I would’ve been his fifth wife, if I’m not mistaken. Poor Mamma, I don’t believe she’s ever recovered.”
All of this was said with such a mischievous gleam in Miss Barrowe’s eye that Emily had to bite down on her lip to keep from snorting with laughter.
“Now,” Josephine said as she set down her empty cup. “Are you ready for another dance?”
Emily followed her friend’s line of sight. Two young men were making their way through the crowd toward their place near the punch bowl, their expressions leaving no doubt as to what had brought them across the entire length of the ballroom.
“I don’t believe they’re coming all the way over here for a mere glass of punch,” Josephine remarked.
Emily pushed her shoulders back and nodded slowly. “Neither do I,” she said, and put on her brightest smile for the approaching gentlemen.
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