Home > The Worst Lord in London

The Worst Lord in London
Author: Anna Campbell

 

Prologue

 


Rushby Hall, Lincolnshire, November 1802

 

When she was sixteen, Kate Starr fell in love. Forever.

Which was a surprise. In her family, she was considered hardheaded and practical. The type of girl who would never tumble willy-nilly into a hopeless infatuation.

But it turned out that she was that type of girl after all.

Of course, the object of her affections was handsome. Dazzlingly so. Like an archangel come down to earth. Lucifer before the Fall. Until now, her references had always been to much more earthbound beings. She wasn’t at all imaginative or romantical.

Or she’d never before believed that she was.

She sat, to her relief ignored, on her spindly chair against the wall in Rushby Hall’s gilded ballroom and watched the young man in question whirl her older sister around the floor in a waltz.

Hungrily she drank in the chiseled features and the shining black hair and the way his face lit up when he smiled at something Sylvie said. The flash of straight white teeth in that stark, medieval crusader’s face made her untried heart clench in futile longing.

She’d never experienced a physical attraction before. Its power astonished her.

Kate wasn’t alone in watching the dashing young nobleman and his ethereal partner. And most of the attention wasn’t kind, she knew to her regret.

“What on earth is Lemaire doing, dancing with that fright?” a cutting voice asked from several chairs along. Miss Phelps must know that Kate was within earshot, but she wouldn’t care.

In this aristocratic milieu, Sylvie and Kate were lowborn outsiders. They’d been made to feel their inferiority from the moment that they joined the house party.

Sylvie was a school friend of Mary Rushby’s. When Mary had invited Sylvie and Kate to visit the family estate for a ball to mark the start of foxhunting season, Kate’s parents had been delighted to think that their daughters would have a taste of high society.

They’d have been less delighted to know that their daughters had been treated as pariahs from the first. A mill owner’s children from Bradbourne in Derbyshire didn’t belong among all these blue bloods.

“She’s worth a fortune apparently,” Miss Thwaites said in a bored tone.

“But Lemaire doesn’t need to marry for money. When he inherits the Shelburn earldom, he’ll be one of the richest men in England.”

“Perhaps he’s decided one can never have enough money. But I’m sure he won’t tarnish the family escutcheon by marrying into trade.”

“Well, why else would he waste time with that frump?”

Kate bit her lip and battled the urge to tell the two hoity-toity harpies to shut their spiteful traps. She wanted to tell them that her sister was lovely. Sweet and funny and clever. And she’d been so looking forward to this party. Kate didn’t much care that most of the guests despised her, but she cared that they were mean to Sylvie.

Sylvie, who had been well enough to attend this gathering, in a way that she hadn’t been well for the last two years. Sylvie, who did care that the other girls shunned her and the gentlemen snickered about her unfashionable appearance and provincial manners.

Sylvie, who had imagined that this ball would be glamorous and exciting and fun. Yet who had sat wilting with disappointment, as dance after dance went by with no young man offering to partner her.

Until Viscount Lemaire had crossed the room and asked her for the first waltz. Kate had heard enough gossip over the course of the visit to know that the young viscount was considered a catch and an arbiter of taste. His approval meant a great deal in this elevated society.

Now, thanks to his kindness, Sylvie was dancing with one of the most admired young men in England. Her thin face was alight with happiness.

Yes, Lord Lemaire was handsome enough to make a girl’s heart beat faster. But Kate was too sensible to fall in love with mere good looks.

What stole Kate’s heart away between one breath and the next was that Lord Lemaire had looked across at Sylvie sitting alone and ignored, and he’d taken the trouble to do something about that.

Kate could resist masculine appeal. But the man who made her sister smile, who was kind enough to take pity on Sylvie’s plight, that was a man worth loving.

 

 

Chapter 1

 


The Angel, Islington, London, May 1816

 

“My goodness me, what a to-do,” Cousin Hazel twittered, all aflutter as she minced out of the inn where they’d stayed last night before completing the final leg of their journey this morning. Around them, the yard was crammed with a heaving, vociferous crowd and an army of expensive carriages.

“It was busy last night,” Kate said, stepping sharply out of the way as a pair of urchins darted past, shrieking with excitement. She tightened her hold on her reticule. She’d been to London before, and she didn’t intend to lose another purse to pickpockets.

“Not like this.” Hazel flapped her hand in front of her face, as if to save herself from swooning. Kate ignored the movement. Hazel often acted as if she might faint. She never did.

“Where the devil is our coachman?” Alfred Mercer, Hazel’s husband, said in his grumpy fashion as he came up behind them. “I’d imagined a Sunday morning might be a little quieter. Especially at this hour. It’s not even eight. All these people should be in church.”

“Why?” Kate cast Alfred a disdainful glance. He wasn’t her favorite person in the world. “We’re not.”

As usual, Alfred ignored her. She wasn’t his favorite person either. He caught the arm of a passing tradesman. “My good sir, what’s going on here?”

The noise around them was cacophonous, and Kate saw the man take a moment to translate Alfred’s flat northern vowels into something that he could understand. “It’s a race. From here to Hatfield. To win the favors of Lady Verena Gerard.”

“What an appalling example to set for the lower orders.”

It was clear that the man wanted to get back into the thick of things, instead of dallying here with three provincial nobodies. “Just a bit of fun, guvnor.”

Alfred sniffed in disapproval. “Who is racing?”

But Kate’s sharp eyes had already worked out the astonishing answer to that question. The yard’s din receded, drowned under the blood pounding in her ears.

She found herself staring at a flashy red and black high-perch phaeton that contained someone who she hadn’t seen in fourteen years. Someone who, unlike that dour bore Alfred, topped her list of favorite people.

Shelburn…

She straightened, afraid that she might have spoken the word aloud.

Reminding herself that she was in public, she dragged herself back to the present. But to her relief, nobody paid her any attention at all.

So Kate took advantage of the moment to eat up the sight of Leighton Anstey, Earl of Shelburn. Stupid, stupid to be giddy with happiness. It was no more than an extraordinary coincidence that their paths crossed today of all days.

He was as handsome as ever, if no longer the angel-faced boy she remembered. How could he be? Fourteen years meant that he was now a man of thirty-two. Kate had changed over that time, too, thank heaven. At the very least, she was no longer plump and spotty and awkward.

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