The Chance by Edith Layton
ISBN: 0061014346 HarperCollins Publishers
A brave nobleman who'd successfully fought Napoleon's toughest soldiers, Raphael Dalton was no stranger to treachery and warfare. Yet nothing this modest hero has experienced can prepare him for the famous beauty Annabelle, the toast of the London ton.
With his unruly red hair and solid, honest face, Rafe doesn't think he has a chance with the flirtatious beauty who seems not to notice him. And when scandal threatens to ruin the reputation of a friend's sister, Brenna, Rafe's hopes may be dashed for good. To stop malicious tongue-wagging, Rafe offers to marry the exotic, raven-haired beauty. It isn't only honor, though, that sparks the proposal, for a smoldering attraction draws him to this spirited woman as well.
Little does Rafe know, however, that Annabelle still wants him for her own. While he's a master at outwitting opponents on the battlefield, the painfully shy soldier is defenseless when it comes tothe fairer sex -- and Annabelle will use every weapon she can, while Brenna hopes for his attention too.
Now Rafe has the chance to find true love -- but only if he doesn't lose his head...
Excerpted from Chapter One
Only one wedding guest was frowning. He stood, arms crossed on his chest, and watched the other guests celebrating. It was a perfect evening for it. A Iong soft midsummer's evening, mild and balmy, the kind made famous by Shakespeare--the land that England rarely got in reality.
The wedding party had moved from the church to the groom's nearby estate for the reception. It was a glorious one, lasting from daylight into dusk. Musicians sat in leafy arbors and played. Lanterns hung from the trees, twinkling in the boughs like trapped stars. Torches flamed on the lawns, echoing the candlefilled chandeliers inside the house. The guests danced in the ballroom, onto the terrace, and then out on the scythed lawns that rolled to the river's edge and on into the coming night.
The frown didn't suit Lord Raphael Dalton. He wasn't much past thirty, but had a hard-planed, angular face with strict features, their only saving grace the surprisingly dark lashes that offset his deep blue eyes. He had tried very hard to compensate for his unfortunate red hair, cropping it ruthlessly close in a modish Brutus cut. But even that couldn't make it remotely fashionable. He was spared the pale, freckled skin that often went with such hair, his complexion tan and clear. He was lean, with a wide rack of shoulders, and bore himself as the military man he'd once been. Rafe didn't have a mild appearance; the scowl made him appear harsher.
He wasn't looking at his newly wed host and hostess. Instead, he didn't take his gaze from a dark lady standing on the terrace nearby. He watched her as closely and jealously as a cat at a mousehole.
Or so at least hisfriend, the earl of Drummond, remarked softly to him.
Rafe's head turned fast. He pinned his friend with a blazing look. "And how'd you know if you hadn't been watching her that closely yourself?" he snapped.
"By watching you, of course. I didn't have to even glance at her. Your eyes were mirrors of her soul," the tall, thin, languid earl answered. He saw Rafe's expression. "And if you hit me here and now," he added softly, "you'll disrupt this lovely wedding party."
Rafe blinked; his shoulders drooped. "Too right," he said, rubbing the back of his neck, "You're right. Damme, don't you get sick of being right, Drum?"
His friend shrugged and hid a smile. "Perfection is wearisome, I agree. But, Rafe, I thought you were as happy as I to see our friends wed. If you keep frowning like that, people will wonder if you see some problem with their union."
"Problem?" Rafe asked, amazed. "Did you ever see Wycoff so content?" he asked, looking at the groom. "Takes years from his face. And look at his Lucy. It does the heart good."
"Exactly, so stop scowling."
Rafe's harsh expression eased into genuine puzzlement.
"You look murderous."
"Do I?" Rafe's head went up. His cheeks grew warm. "Sorry. My thoughts were far from them. Little could make me happier than to see those two married."
"Little could make you happy indeed," Drum murmured.
Rafe still gazed at his dark lady. Only, the lady Annabelle was not his, and might never be, he reminded himself. Apart from the fact that he was a man women didn't look at twice--nor did he blame them for it--she was still bound heart and soul to another man. A man as unobtainable for her as she was for himself, Rafe thought savagely. The man she still yearned for was a good man, but well matched and married to another good person, so why didn't she cut line and move on? For the same reason you don't stop wanting her, he told himself as he stood watching her, helpless to look away. He hadn't expected to see her here, hadn't known she was a distant connection of the groom. She was so well born, she was likely related to half the nobles in England. But not to him, and not likely ever to be, and that grieved him.
The lady Annabelle wore a filmy gown of blue. It seemed to match her mood as much as her magnificent eyes. She was lovely. Famously so. Sonnets had been written to her; she was justly considered an Incomparable. Midnight hair, all soft and shining sable curls, midsummer-sky blue eyes, a dainty little nose, alabaster skin. Slender, but with a ripe though petite shape-- if there were a list of features a lovely female should possess, a man needed only to consider her to see them all. The sonnet had said that too. And her laughter was like birdsong. Her infrequent laughter, Rafe thought, scowling again to see her sad smile as she greeted a friend.
Annabelle was of good birth, an earl's daughter with a tidy fortune. Intelligent and charming. Four and twenty and still unwed, which was shocking. She could have had any man she set her sights on. But the man she'd wanted had wanted another, and she couldn't get over it. Handsome young Damon Ryder had been her near neighbor all her life, she'd grown up wanting him, and whatever Annabelle wanted, she got. Only not this time. He had met another, fallen headlong into love, and never looked back. Everyone said Annabelle had been merry as a grig before the man she loved married elsewhere. Rafe hadn't known her then.
Sometimes he thought, with the pitiless honesty he was afflicted with, that if she were still merry and bright, he mightn't be as attracted to her. He might have admired her as another man would appreciate a treasure in a museum, and passed on by. It was her sorrow that called to him as much as anything. Her sadness made her accessible. He could do something for her. He might perhaps heal her. At least he knew how to protect a woman; he could make a sad lady a good mate. Now he wanted only to make her smile again.
From the Critics
Joan Hammond - Romantic Times
Ms. Layton is an author who really understands the modes and morals of the Regency period. THE CHANCE is a meticulously crafted, well-paced, and heartwarming read.
Ms. Layton is an author who really understands the modes and morals of the Regency period. The Chance is a meticulously crafted, well-paced, and heart-warming adventure.
Mary Jo Putney
Layton writes pure enchantment.
The Chance is a warm engrossing tale and a worthy addition to any romance lover's bookshelf.
© 2005 Edith Layton. All rights reserved.