Debut (vignette)

There was a rustle of crinoline as she swept away on his arm, laughing throatily at something he said. I pushed my chair further back so that I was sitting against the wall. I longed to be absorbed into it, to become a true wallflower so that I did not have to watch my cousin make a fool of herself.

Ball after ball it was the same. I had to pretend not to listen when I heard the other women begin to whisper behind raised fans, whisper about her:

“Such a pretty little thing, Isabelle Montgomery -“

“This season is her debut and already she’s well known -“

“And no wonder! Such an easy little thing. I heard Mr. de Grave stole a kiss in the gardens a fortnight ago.”

Women could be so cruel. I slapped my fan shut remembering how my stomach had curdled the first time I heard those words. I wish I could tell my cousin, warn her somehow.

But she would never listen. She was madly in love with Vincent de Grave, the man with whom she was dancing now. The man who was singlehandedly ruining her reputation.

Usually I was able to ignore the heated gossip of these women, but tonight I was distracted and letting it get to me. The sound of my name suddenly caught my attention. This was new; they didn’t normally talk about me.

”’Tis a pity the cousin, what’s-her-name…”

“Samantha Delacourt?”

“Yes, that’s it. As I was saying, ‘tis a pity she doesn’t share her cousin’s looks. I mean, she is handsome, albeit in a rather feline way, with those strange slanted eyes of hers.”

I was holding my fan so tightly that the sticks snapped in my hand. I hid it under a fold of my skirt and tried to compose my frayed nerves. Suddenly I felt someone standing over me. Looking up, I found myself staring into a pair of pitch-black eyes.

“Would you care to dance, miss?”

I blinked and resisted the temptation to look around and make sure he was really asking me, and not somebody else.

“Oh no – no thank you. I don’t dance.”

To my surprise, he heaved a sigh of relief and pulled up a chair. “Oh, thank goodness. I don’t either.”

I looked down at my lap, wondering what on earth this man was doing sitting down next to me. Men normally took no notice of me, as most people normally behaved around me. This was decidedly abnormal behavior. I wasn’t quite sure how to react.

He sat tapping his toe in beat with the music, watching the dancing. I stole a glance and noticed he had pleasant features, though his nose was a bit prominent. But his strong brow and deep-set eyes more than made up for that. There was something foreign about him. He didn’t look like most of the men in Devonshire. All of a sudden he swiveled his eyes towards me, a questioning look writ upon his face. I blushed furiously and looked away again.

“I couldn’t help noticing that your fan needs repair,” he said and I realized that I’d moved the fan back into my hands, forgetting I’d snapped the sticks just moments before.

I laughed nervously. “These things are so dreadfully delicate. They break so easily.”

He took it from my hands and examined it. “I think I can fix this.”

We bent our heads over my fan, discussing the best way to go about fixing it. Unaware of our surroundings. The abrupt sound of de Grave clearing his throat burst the bubble. I realized to my chagrin that I had moved my chair closer to the man, so that our legs were almost touching, and then there was the more embarrassing realization that I didn’t even know this man’s name. How would I introduce him to Isabelle and de Grave now?!

As luck would have it, de Grave was already acquainted with him.

“Geof, old boy! How long has it been? What – four, five years? I haven’t seen you since Oxford!”

There was much hand-shaking and back-slapping. Isabelle raised her perfectly groomed eyebrows over this exchange and smiled at me. I smiled back, relieved that I didn’t have to reveal my lack of social skills.

Finally, the men turned back to face us. De Grave said, “Geoffrey, allow me to introduce Miss Isabelle Montgomery and her cousin Miss Samantha Delacourt. Ladies, may I present the Honorable Lord Geoffrey Windham.”

I stood on unsteady legs, marveling that this rather nondescript man was not a mere mister but a lord, and an honorable one at that. My curtsy left much to be desired, whereas Isabelle’s was graceful and elegant, as always. I saw Lord Windham’s eyes light up with interest as he regarded my cousin. I had become a wallflower again.

I had every reason to be jealous of Isabelle. She was everything I was not – she had the flaxen curls, porcelain skin and blue eyes that were all the rage at the moment. Her waist was tiny and hardly had any need of a corset. Her posture was perfect, her dancing divine.

While my complexion had no fault, it was darker than Isabelle’s, almost approaching olive. My hair was pin-straight and black, refusing to stay in the crown of curls that was the current fashion. Then there were my “feline” eyes, which were a rather pretty color, almost emerald. They might not be fashionable but I quite liked them anyways. Lastly, my posture (not to mention my dancing) needed improvement.

Yes, I had every reason to be jealous of my cousin, this “Fair Rose,” as one of her previous suitors had dubbed her. But I could never be jealous of Isabelle. Because this rose came without thorns, without even one malicious thought in her head.

I watched as she gazed up at de Grave, her blue eyes soft with affection. How ironic, that what I most admired in her – her unflagging ability to see the best in everyone, and not rely on others’ judgment – was what was leading to her downfall.

“Why aren’t you two out dancing? Why are you seated like a pair of hens?” de Grave asked Lord Windham and me, his dark eyes scornful as he surveyed the row of matrons seated against the wall. They bristled as they met his stare. De Grave just laughed that strange, hollow laugh of his before turning back to us.

“Miss Delacourt and I were just figuring out how best to fix her fan,” Lord Windham said, smiling at me in a way that made my stomach hurt.

“Oh, Sam, you broke another fan!” Isabelle cried with dismay. I sighed.

Then Lord Windham did something quite surprising.

“Oh, no, don’t go blaming poor Miss Delacourt for something I did. You see, it broke when I was examining the stitching. Just ask Vincent – I’ve always been a bit clumsy.”

“Yes, he possesses the dubious power of breaking things just by looking at them.”

While the four of us were laughing, I stole a glance at Lord Windham and found him already looking my way. He winked. I smiled at him gratefully.

Just then they began calling the guests in for dinner. De Grave offered Isabelle his arm and then went to give me his other arm, as he normally did. This was the part I hated the most in every ball, because it was obvious de Grave would rather sit alone with Isabelle. He was just doing this to please my cousin.

As I was walking towards de Grave and Isabelle, I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder.

“That’s just like you, Vincent, to be escorted by two lovely ladies while I have to dine alone. Please be kind to a lonely bachelor, Miss Delacourt, and sit with me.”

~

Lord Gavinson made for a very merry host, and his wife, Lady Marguerite, was the consummate hostess, stopping by every table to greet each guest personally.

When she reached the table where Isabelle, de Grave, Windham, and I were seated, she checked suddenly, the smile on her face faltering ever so slightly. I noticed her face pale as she caught sight of de Grave. For the first time, I saw de Grave look disconcerted, his usually cool demeanor shaken. He suddenly became concerned with the contents of his wine glass.

Isabelle took no notice of this and asked Lady Marguerite where she had purchased her beautiful gown. This was enough to restore her good humor and she began to speak with Isabelle quite animatedly about a “darling little shop in Paris.”

But Lord Windham had noticed. He bent his head to speak with de Grave in a hushed whisper. I sipped my wine and tried very hard to appear deaf.

“Is she invited, Vincent?”

“I’m not sure.”

“When did you last see her?”

“Not since last year.”

“Hmm…”

Soon, Lady Marguerite bid us a good meal and left to speak with the guests at another table, but not without casting a dark look at de Grave. I noticed that though de Grave would not meet Lady Marguerite’s eyes, Lord Windham did, and he gave her a very haughty stare.

“I wonder what that was all about,” I thought to myself, biting my lower lip as I often did whenever I was pensive. “Who could that mysterious ‘her’ be? And why was Lady Marguerite staring at de Grave in that way…?”

“Well, you look the very figure of contemplation! In fact, if I were a skilled artist, I should wish to draw you in such a pose and I daresay I would title it, ‘Contemplation.’”

I came out of my reverie with a start, finding Lord Windham gazing at me with a twinkle lighting up his dark eyes.

“Oh, I’m just tired. We were at another ball last night, the Joffreys’, and I’m afraid I haven’t gotten much sleep.” I feigned what I hoped was a very realistic yawn. Lord Windham, however, didn’t seem very convinced.

~

“Miss Beatrice Hughley,” the servant announced in a sonorous tone. I looked up, as did many guests, curious to see who the late-comer was.

A young woman stood uncertainly on the threshold. She was so pale she was almost translucent, and her hair, a red so vivid it shone through the powder, was wound in intricate plaits upon her head. Amber eyes fringed with impossibly long lashes peered out into the room, searching the tables. As her eyes fell upon our table, a tremulous smile lit up her face and she began walking towards us, the voluminous skirts of her pale pink gown whispering as she moved.

Next to me, Lord Windham stood, a ready smile upon his lips. “Dearest Betty,” he said, holding out his hands. Miss Hughley took his hands and smiled up at him.

“Geoffrey, I haven’t seen you in ages. How is your sister?”

The other guests turned their attention back to their plates, bored again, and I attempted to do the same. When I turned back to face the table, I noticed that de Grave was no longer there.

Isabelle, however, was still in her seat, chatting amiably with the elderly lady seated on her left, and seemingly unperturbed by the empty seat on her right. Before I could catch my cousin’s attention, Lord Windham began speaking to me.

“Miss Delacourt, have you met Miss Hughley?”

I smiled at Miss Hughley and was rewarded with an engaging smile in return. “No, I haven’t. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Hughley. I’m Samantha Delacourt.”

Thankfully, I was able to essay a more or less decent curtsy this time. Miss Hughley exclaimed, “What beautiful eyes you have, Miss Delacourt! They’re like emeralds.”

“Thank you, and please, do call me Samantha.”

“Only if you will call me Betty.” Miss Hughley – Betty – stopped and regarded me with a candid stare, then said, “I have a feeling we are going to become very good friends, Samantha.”

Lord Windham chuckled. “And Betty’s feelings are never wrong, are they, Betty?”

Betty reverted her attention to him. “Geoffrey, I could’ve sworn I saw de Grave. Is he here?”

Lord Windham’s smile never wavered though I noticed his eyes narrow almost imperceptibly.

“He stepped out just before you arrived, most likely gone to partake of some snuff in the gardens as he’s wont to do after the first course. You know how devilish fond he is of that rubbish.”

Betty laughed, the sound of it like a tinkling bell. “Yes, that does sound like Vincent. Well, I suppose I’ll go and surprise him. No, don’t worry, Geoffrey, I can find my way. And besides, I should go apologize to Lady Maguerite for my late arrival. She’s been staring daggers at me since I entered the room. It was a pleasure to meet you, Samantha. I’ll be in touch.”

And as quickly as she had arrived, Betty was gone again, walking with a quick though graceful step to the table where Lady Marguerite sat chatting with a red-faced priest.

“Nice girl, isn’t she?” Lord Windham drawled, popping a grape into his mouth. “Known her since I was in the nursery. But let’s talk about you, Miss Delacourt. What brings you to London?”

I hesitated before answering. Why was he so curious? Surely, he couldn’t be interested in me. I’d seen the way he’d looked at Isabelle, that admiring glance that men couldn’t help but give her. His eyes were warm, certainly, as he looked at me, glinting with curiosity. But not with admiration. Of that much I was sure.

I decided to try and adopt a carefree manner. “I’m in London for the very same reason every other young girl is in London right now – it’s the beginning of a new season.”

“But this isn’t your debut, is it?”

I almost dropped the wine glass. How did he know?

He was looking down at the table, an inscrutable expression in his eyes. “I remember you from last year. You had an impenetrable shield wrapped around you that no man dared approach. Also, your chaperon, Lady Huxtable, was quite formidable. I confess I was surprised, happily so, to see you tonight. And also relieved to see that Lady Huxtable is not with your party.”

He looked up at me then and smiled. “You don’t remember me, do you?”

We stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I answered, “No, I’m sorry. I don’t remember you.”

I really didn’t remember him. In truth, he did not have unforgettable features, unlike de Grave, though he was attractive, in his own way. I was floored that he remembered me.

I felt I had to defend my chaperon, Lady Huxtable. “Lady Huxtable couldn’t attend tonight as she is home recovering from a bad cold. She is still my chaperon, mine and Izzie’s now, and she isn’t as bad as she seems. Lady Huxtable was good friends with my mother growing up, and after my parents died she became my guardian.”

He leaned in close just then, a mischievous glow in his eyes, and whispered, “Can you keep a secret?”

Curious, I found myself leaning towards him, too. “Yes…”

“All right, but you must promise not to breathe a word to anyone.”

“Go on! Tell me,” I hissed.

“Well, all right. We have a nickname for her, in the gentleman’s club. We call her the ‘Dragon.’”

Despite myself, I began giggling.

Just then the band resumed their places and began playing a quadrille. It was a lively dance, and I always enjoyed watching watching couples performing it.

Men and women, both young and old, began taking the floor.
“Are you sure you don’t dance, Miss Delacourt?” Lord Windham asked. “Your feet seem to be suggesting the opposite.”

It was true, I was tapping my feet in tune with the beat. But I couldn’t resist – the music was that infectious.

Before I knew what was happening, he was bending over me, his hand outstretched. “Come, let us cement our new friendship. Come dance with me.”

Just then Isabelle and de Grave were passing us, heading towards the dance floor. “Lord Windham, Samantha’s dance card is empty. And I happen to know that Samantha is a genius when it comes to the quadrille. She’s the one who taught me how to dance it!” I frowned at my traitorous cousin. She’d be regretting this later.

But Lord Windham took my hand firmly. “Alas, you’ve been discovered,” he said, as he helped me to my feet.

As we began dancing, I searched the room, looking for Betty. I hadn’t noticed when de Grave had come back. He looked as though he hadn’t a care in the world as he danced with Isabelle. I wondered what he and Betty had talked about in the garden, assuming that Betty had been able to track him down. I wondered where Betty had gone off to -

“Ouch!”

“Oh, I do beg your pardon, Miss Delacourt. But you have been warned of my clumsiness. I trust your foot is, ah, undamaged?”

“Quite,” I responded in a stiff tone that was belied by my smile.

Despite Lord Windham’s avowed clumsiness, he was a skilled dancer, moving with assurance and grace. I found myself disappointed when the dance was over. But then Lord Windham stayed standing in front of me. “I know I’m being dreadfully selfish, but will you dance with me again? That is, if your card doesn’t mind.”

“No, my dance card doesn’t – I mean, I don’t mind, Lord Windham.”

After that dance was over, not one but three men were waiting to ask for the next dance.

“Miss Delacourt, you seem to have become the belle of the ball. I shan’t keep your admirers at bay any longer, for fear that I’ll be engaged in a duel. May I have your dance card?”

“Whatever for?”

“My dear Miss Delacourt, I do believe you are funning with me. Surely you know the function of dance cards. If I don’t pen my name down for another dance now, I probably won’t get the chance again tonight.”

I laughed nervously as I handed him my card. I honestly didn’t know how dance cards worked. Lady Huxtable always made me carry one, but this was the first time I’d ever danced at a ball, let alone had to use my card.

After scratching his name down for ten o’clock, he essayed a deep bow and left me with alone with three unfamiliar men.

“Er, now who was first?” I smiled, unsure of what to do next. I needn’t have worried. They quickly took care of matters, filling out my card, one of them arguing with the other two when he insisted on claiming two dances in a row.

I found myself looking forward to ten o’clock.

~

I was a poor dancing companion for my so-called “admirers.”

“Your name is Miss Delacourt, is it not?”

“Hmm…? Oh, yes, it is.”

As soon as Lord Windham had left my side, he was quickly snatched up by Betty. He looked all too happy to lead her in the next dance, a waltz. I kept sneaking glances at them. They made a handsome couple, but they never smiled. In fact, they looked strangely serious, their eyes never leaving the other’s face.

I scarcely paid attention to the men with whom I danced. I just kept nodding or smiling in the appropriate places, trying to imitate Isabelle’s charm (and probably failing miserably in the attempt).

Isabelle kept flashing meaningful looks my way, but I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to tell me.

Lord Windham never once looked at me. He was too preoccupied with Betty.

When the dance ended, he bowed deeply before her and then quickly left the room.

Ten o’clock came and went but he never returned to claim his dance with me. I tried not to look too disappointed.

Isabelle chattered happily in the carriage all the way back home from the ball.

“Oh, Sam, I was trying to catch your attention when you were dancing with Viscount Dubois, but I guess you were too distracted by his stunning good looks to notice me!”

“Er, who?”

“Don’t tell me you don’t remember that tall gentleman with the sparkling green eyes? He was wearing so many medals, I thought he would surely be knocked down by the weight of them! He looked quite taken with you, Sam.”

“Oh, yes…him.”

Isabelle waved a hand before my face, and I blinked her into focus.

“What is it?” I said, a bit more crossly than I would have liked.

“What is wrong with you, Sam? I’ve never seen you like this.”

I sighed. “I’m sorry, Izzie. I’ve got a dreadful headache. Maybe I’m catching Lady Huxtable’s cold.”

Back at Lady Huxtable’s apartment, I allowed Isabelle to fret over me, even letting her make me some hot tea.

But I slept poorly that night. And when I finally did fall asleep, it was only to dream of Lord Windham.

I woke up at half past ten. The housekeeper Candace was just coming in with my morning chocolate when I opened my eyes. A maid carrying a vase full of flowers entered with her.

“Oh, you’re finally up, Miss Sam! You’re looking a fine mess this morning, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

Candace was a plump woman in her fifties who spoke with a thick Scottish accent. She had a short temper and a big heart, and she’d been working for Lady Huxtable for twenty years. She’d always felt like family to me.

“Good morning, Candace. Is everyone up already?”

“Aye, even Lady Huxtable is up and about, and feeling much better, so she says.”

I sat up slowly, feeling an unaccustomed pounding in my temples. I groaned and sank down into my pillows. Candace laid the tray on my bedside table and came to place a cold hand on my forehead.

“Bless your poor heart, Sammie, you’ve got a fever! Let me ring for the doctor. You just stay put, dearie.”

“Who are those flowers from, Candace?”

“Hmm? Oh, these are from a Lord Windham.”

I waited until Candace and the maid had left the room and then pushed back the covers and ran to the table. I had to hold the table with both hands to steady my legs, I felt that dizzy, but it soon passed.

I found a small envelope hidden in the flowers – the fattest, reddest roses I’d ever seen – and tore it open, taking out the card with trembling fingers.

It read:

Miss Delacourt,

Please forgive me for leaving the ball so early last night. I pray you will allow me to call on you today at 4 o’clock to apologise in person. Until then, please accept these roses as a token of our new friendship.
If the weather is fine and Lady H. permits, we may even go driving in my phaeton.
Until then, I am ever…

Your friend,
Geoffrey Windham

I had barely finished reading it before I heard Candace’s unmistakable step in the hall, so I dashed back to bed with the card, tucking it under my pillow.

Soon the doctor arrived and announced that I had a head cold. He prescribed no less than seven days of bed rest.

After I got over the initial disappointment, I asked Candace to fetch Isabelle to me as soon as possible.

“Oh, Miss Sam, didn’t she tell you? Izzie went to the library with Lady Huxtable and Mr. de Grave.”

I had wanted to see if Isabelle could send a note over to Lord Windham so that he would know not to come. I didn’t want one of the nosy maids taking the note – they would surely relay the information back to my guardian. I wasn’t quite sure how Lady Huxtable would feel about Lord Windham coming to call on me.

Lady Huxtable was not as strict with my cousin, Isabelle, as she was with me. Perhaps it was because Isabelle wasn’t her ward and was staying with us just for the season.

She would probably be impressed with Lord Windham’s title, but I knew from prior experience that she frowned upon my being seen in public with another man without a chaperon (i.e., Lady Huxtable) present. Better to wait until she returned before I set up any future meetings with Lord Windham.

In the meantime it looked like one of the maids would have to relay the message to Lord Windham after all. I’d deal with the consequences later.

I got out of bed again, this time to fetch some stationary and my quill. I felt too weak to sit at my desk, so I brought everything back to bed with me and wrote the message there.

Dear Mr. Windham,

Thank you for the beautiful flowers. Unfortunately I am currently unable to receive any callers as I seem to have contracted my guardian’s cold and was prescribed bed rest for a week.
I look forward to our next meeting and will be in touch again soon.

Yours truly,
Samantha Delacourt

I realized I needed Lord Windham’s address, which was probably on the envelope that came with his card. I saw where it lay, on the floor under the table, where it had most likely fallen when I had torn it open to read the card. However, I decided to rest my eyes for just a minute before standing up again. I was still feeling dizzy and the warmth of my bed felt so delicious…

I woke up with a start when I heard voices in the hall. I blinked at the seemingly sudden darkness in my room. Glancing at my clock, I realized it was a quarter past four…

I suddenly heard Candace’s raised voice and another voice in concert with it, a somehow familiar voice…

“Now, did you say her room was the second or the third?”

“I said nothing of the sort! Sir, you cannot go in there! Lady Huxtable is not present at the moment and she does not allow Miss Delacourt to receive gentlemen callers without a suitable chaperon present! Furthermore, that is Miss Delacourt’s bedroom!

“You seem a suitable enough chaperon to me, Madam.”

The door opened and a tall man in riding boots stood there. It was Lord Windham.

I saw a strange glitter in his eyes as he stood there looking down at me, and I suddenly realized I was lying in bed with the covers thrown off, plus my night-shift had hitched up while I was sleeping and my legs were currently quite bare.

With a shriek, I yanked the covers over my head.

~

I didn’t move. I didn’t breathe. I just lay huddled under the covers, willing the earth to open up and swallow me. My cheeks were blazing hot, and not just because of my fever. I wanted, truly, to die, and be relieved of this misery.

But then I heard something that quite washed away my embarrassment, something that was enough to make me resurface again.

Lord Windham was laughing at me. If there was one thing I could not tolerate, it being laughed at.

I pushed the covers off again (though keeping them modestly tucked under my chin) and chided him, “How dare you laugh at me! First you have the nerve to – to break into my house -“

“Actually, miss, I did open the door -” Candace tried to interject, but I went on as if I didn’t heed her.

“-And then you have the unsufferable gall to come into my bedroom and laugh at me whilst I lay in my sick bed? For shame, Lord Windham!”

This was enough to still his torrent of laughter, though I could still see the mirth reflected in his eyes.

Suddenly, all trace of laughter was erased from his chiseled features (I hadn’t noticed last night what fine cheekbones he had) and he essayed a decorous bow.

“I apologize, Miss Delacourt. It’s just I wanted to give you this in person. I’m quite sure you’ll understand and perhaps even forgive my … intrusion when you see it.” He drew a long, flat box out from beneath his riding cloak. The box was light blue in color and trimmed with gilt.

“What is it?” I asked, curiosity getting the better of me. I held out my hands and he placed the box gently on my waiting palms. It felt light. I was almost tempted to shake it.

“Something you left behind last night. Something every fashionable lady requires for her season.”

I carefully eased open the lid and pushed it aside. Inside the box lay my fan, the fan I’d carelessly broken last night. I suddenly remembered leaving it on the table next to my reticule as I danced. But I didn’t remember it being there when I came back for my reticule at the end of the night…

I lifted the fan out of the box carefully, realizing the sticks which I’d broken last night were somehow mended now.

“You fixed my fan!”

Lord Windham smiled then, a true, genuine smile that lit up his entire face. Then he said with a wink, “Of course. I broke it, didn’t I, Miss Delacourt?”

I gaped at him. “I didn’t notice you taking it.”

Lord Windham’s eyes glittered with what almost looked like ill humor. “No, but how could you? You were too wrapped up in Viscount Dubois to notice me. Consequently, those are some beautiful flowers he sent you, Miss Delacourt. Quite puts mine to shame, actually.” He nodded derisively at the red roses on the table.

I looked at Candace, who still stood by my bed, a look of complete and utter bemusement writ upon her countenance.

“Candace, did Viscount Dubois send me flowers?”

“Aye – I mean – yes, miss. The loveliest arrangement of lilies. Unfortunately, it was too large to fit in your room, so we had to place it in the foyer. Let me go and fetch you the card.”

Candace swept out of the room, leaving the door wide open and casting Lord Windham a stern look before exiting.

I squirmed under the sheets, well aware of what a quiz I must look, with my hair unbrushed and falling over my forehead. As if reading my thoughts, Lord Windham gazed at my hair, a smile tugging at the corner of his lower lip. Defensively, I reached up to brush the hair out of my eyes.

“You know, your hair is the exact same shade as my sister’s. Such a pretty shade of brown.”

“Thank you.” I straightened my shoulders and tried to look cool and collected, which is not an easy thing to do when one has one’s bedclothes bunched up under one’s chin. I cleared my throat. “Now I really do think you must be leaving, Lord Windham. Candace is right, you shouldn’t be here when my guardian is not present. Thank you for the roses and most especially for my fan. That was most kind of you.”

Lord Windham smiled, looking like a sphinx as he did so. Then he sat down at my desk and made himself quite comfortable.

For what seemed like the hundredth time in less than ten minutes, I fumed at Lord Windham, feeling my normally composed temper begin to rage. Then I heard the most awful sound in the world: the front door opening followed by the clattering step of my cousin on the stair. Lady Huxtable’s more decorous step was heard soon after.

“What are you doing? Get up from there! You must leave. Lady Huxtable has come home and she is going to murder you when she finds you in my chamber!” I pushed back the covers, forgetting all sense of propriety in my haste, and attempted to propel him out of the room.

But Lord Windham wouldn’t budge. He seemed suddenly made of granite. “I’m not afraid of a dragon, Miss Delacourt. It’s going to take a lot more than that to shake me, I’m afraid.” His eyes were doing strange things to my stomach.

I threw up my hands. “Oh, suit yourself! But I won’t cry at your funeral after Lady Huxtable -“

“Did somebody say my name?”

An icy trickle rushed down my spine. I slowly turned around.

~

Just then Candace walked back into the room with the card and blanched when she saw Lady Huxtable.

“Madam! Er, you’ve come home earlier than expected.”

“Yes, amazing that my early arrival is surprising to you, given that we have an unexpected guest here, in Miss Delacourt’s chamber, no less.”

Candace began turning alternate shades of white and red and I sincerely wished that Lord Windham would just disappear. He looked in little danger of disappearing, however, as he watched the interplay between my guardian and Candace, the same irritable tugging at the bottom of his lower lip distracting me.

As if he could read my thoughts, Lord Windham suddenly turned towards me. His eyes were deep and dark and strangely serious. There was something rather like … was it apology I saw swimming in the endless depths of his eyes?

My guardian’s voice jolted me out of my thoughts. “Samantha? I’ve been speaking to you for at least a minute, child! Perhaps you should get back in bed. You’re looking rather peaked.”

“Had I known you were sick, Isabelle and I never would have left you alone. When you slept in, Samantha, I thought it was simply the result of coming in so late last night…” Lady Huxtable’s voice trailed off and then she turned to Candace. “Have you sent for the doctor?”

“Aye, Madam. He prescribed bed rest for a week. Said he’d be back in the morning to check up on Miss Samantha.”

“Very well,” my guardian sniffed and then gave me one of her rare apologetic looks. “I’m so sorry that you caught my cold. We’ll let you get some rest now.” And then she very firmly took Lord Windham by the elbow and escorted him out of my chamber before he or I could say another word.

The door shut behind them with a resounding click.

Candace, looking more flustered than I’d ever seen her look, busied herself tucking me back into bed and feeling my forehead for fever.

“Your cheeks look rather flushed but your fever seems to have abated. Hmm...”

As she was plumping my pillows, Isabelle opened the door and peeked around it.

“May I come in, Sam?”

Candace gave Isabelle a friendly look. She was particularly fond of my cousin as they both shared a weakness for astrology.

“Come in, dear. I was just putting Samantha to bed again, the poor thing. She seems to have contracted Lady Huxtable’s cold.”

Isabelle shut the door quietly behind her and rushed towards me, her skirts making a whispering sound against the floor as she moved. She carried a straw bonnet in her hands, pink ribbons trailing down from it.

“Oh, my poor coz! I didn’t know you were sick! I wouldn’t have gone with Vincent and Lady H. to the library if I would’ve known!”

“I’m fine, Izzie. Really.”

“I should have realized last night when you came home from the ball with that awful headache. But I thought you were just upset because Lord Windham never returned to claim his dance.”

I shot my cousin a dirty look but she just stared back at me with innocent eyes. It was very easy to forget sometimes that Isabelle’s pretty golden curls concealed such a quick thinking brain.

Candace cleared her throat, but it sounded more like she was trying to suppress a laugh.

“Speak of the devil, that same man came to call on Miss Samantha while you and Lady Huxtable were out with Mr. de Grave. Came right up into Miss Samantha’s chamber, if you can believe it! Refused to wait for Lady Huxtable to arrive. Of all the nerve.” Candace’s eyes narrowed to cat-like slits and Isabelle giggled.

“My, coz, but you do seem to have an effect on gentlemen. First Lord Windham and then Viscount Dubois. I wonder who’s next?”

I suddenly remembered the card. “That’s right – Candace, did you ever find the card that came with Viscount Dubois’s flowers?” I tried to ignore the fact that Isabelle’s eyes were positively ready to come out of their sockets, she looked that surprised.

“Oh yes, here it is, Miss Samantha.” Candace handed me a small envelope. I opened it and removed a small card. I wished I could remember Viscount Dubois, but I only had a vague impression of a tall man with bright medals on his coat.


I opened the card and began reading it aloud. “My Dear Miss Delacourt -“

“Ooh, he called you his dear Miss Delacourt!”

I glared at Isabelle over the card. “Do you want me to read this or not?”

“Sorry, sorry. I’ll be quiet as a mouse. Do continue.”

I cleared my throat and started over, trying to ignore the many squeaks and sighs of the “mouse” as I read. “My Dear Miss Delacourt, it was a distinct pleasure meeting you last night. Your beauty is equal only to your charm. I hope I have the pleasure of meeting you again soon. Yours Very Truly, Viscount Henry William Cardet Beauchamps Dubois.”

“How many names can one man have, dear God?” Candace exclaimed as I finished, and both Isabelle and I succumbed into fits of laughter.

This was the tableau that Lady Huxtable encountered when she reentered the room. She didn’t say a word – she didn’t have to. Her eyes said it all. Our laughter quickly died and both Isabelle and Candace scurried out of the room, leaving me alone with the “dragon.”

“Begin, Samantha.”

I gulped. “Begin what, Louisa?” Louisa was my guardian’s name, and I normally felt quite comfortable using it with her, but now I felt as though a stranger were standing in front of me, and saying her name seemed somehow strange, as if I was trespassing onto private property.

My guardian began pacing, which was really uncharacteristic of her. She said in an exasperated tone, “Begin at the beginning, child! Tell me why I had to come home to find a man in my ward’s own chamber! I thought I had raised you better, I thought for sure I was doing right by your mother and father. Where did I go wrong?”

She put her head into her hands, stray strands of black hair coming down from her chignon. I gaped at her. Were today’s strange events the hallucinatory product of my fever?

She looked up at me again, dark eyes fiery. I quailed against my pillows. “Please – tell – me – you – are – still – untouched.” Her words came out slowly but deliberately, like well-aimed arrows. I blinked, not understanding her meaning.

“Er, sorry?”

“Did he touch you, Samantha?”

I sighed, finally comprehending now. “Oh, no. No, Louisa. Lord Windham is many things, but he’s not a rake. He’s not like Mr. de Grave.” I really hadn’t meant to say that last sentence aloud. I clapped a hand over my mouth.

But my guardian just smiled a thin-lipped smile and then pursed her mouth. “Good. I’m glad he doesn’t share the same reputation as his friend. I’m well aware of de Grave’s reputation, Samantha. I may be old, and I might be an unmarried spinster, but I still have my wits intact and I can spot a rake when I see one.”

I leaned forward. “Then why do you allow Isabelle to be courted by Mr. de Grave? Aren’t you concerned for her reputation?”

Louisa sighed, looking tired. “Isabelle knows what she’s doing. This is just an innocent dalliance and she will ensure it is kept that way. Besides, de Grave will soon tire of her.”

But remembering how my cousin had looked at de Grave last night, I knew that she wouldn’t be tiring of him any time soon.

1 week later…

After my prescribed week of bed-rest, Louisa decided to whisk Isabelle and me away to Bath for two weeks. Candace and two of our maids would be accompanying us.

“The sea air will set you right again, dear,” Candace said as she picked up the vase on my table. She hummed as she took out the bouquet of withering red roses from inside the vase and threw it into the wastebasket in the corner. Somehow, the bright bunch of daisies now filling the vase didn’t cheer my spirits as it normally did. I reasoned it was because I was still feeling listless from my being sick.

“Will you be wanting the white valise or the pink, Miss Samantha?”

I turned away from the wastebasket, distracted. “Hmm? Oh, I think the white, Candace. Since we’ll be gone for two weeks I’ll need the larger of the two.”

“Wise choice, miss. I’ll go and fetch it now.”

As Candace exited the room, Isabelle entered in her wake. Her features were uncharacteristically arranged in a frown.

“Two whole weeks, Sam! How will we bear it?”

I absentmindedly took a withered rose out of the wastebasket and twirled it in my fingers.

“Oh, I don’t know. We can play Old Maid, as we used to when we were little girls. I don’t know about you, but I am quite looking forward to laying out in the sun. Doesn’t it ever stop raining in London?”

Isabelle sat down on the edge of my bed and crinkled her nose as she surveyed her arms. They were so white they looked as though they were made out of porcelain.

“Oh, coz, I don’t know about laying out in the sun. I go through so much trouble to keep my skin fair. You know how Mama gets if I so much as sprout one freckle on my nose.”

Isabelle’s mother, my aunt, Valentina, was a highly sensitive creature who believed a woman’s only role was to be a beautiful piece of property, maintained in perfect condition for her future owner – The Husband.

“Oh yes,” I began in a high-pitched voice, doing a fair imitation of my aunt. “We must keep ourselves pristine for The Husband.”

We both erupted in a gale of giggles.

Candace came back in with two valises, mine and Isabelle’s smart red valise. Hers was at least two sizes bigger than mine.

“Hush, girls. Lady Huxtable is coming this way and she is in a frightful mood.”

We both stopped laughing and Isabelle stood up and nervously straightened nonexistent wrinkles in her skirt.

“I was just with her and she seemed all right,” Isabelle said but before Candace could respond, my guardian swept into the room, her eyebrows perched high upon her forehead.

“Candace, I believe you’re needed in the foyer. Millie appears to have lost her broom and you know how that silly girl gets when she’s upset.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Candace curtsied and left the room. Louisa closed the door behind her. A bad sign. I exchanged a worried glance with Isabelle.

“Have a seat, girls.”

Isabelle and I sat on the bed. Louisa remained standing.

“We’ve received a proposal this afternoon. Our first, and the season is not even halfway through.”

My thoughts flew immediately to Lord Windham. I held my breath.

Louisa took a deep breath and looked at Isabelle. “De Grave came to see me this afternoon, Isabelle, to ask for your hand in marriage.”

Isabelle’s face blanched at the sudden news. She said in a stunned voice, “Can it be?”

Louisa went on, despite of or perhaps because of Isabelle’s response. “Naturally, I could not accept this request as I am sure your mother and father will want to be apprised of the matter, and it is ultimately their decision, not mine.”

Isabelle stood, her face alternately turning red and white. “Is he still here, Louisa? Oh, but I must look a fright, still in my gardening clothes!”

“Child, do be seated,” Louisa exclaimed, “Of course he is not here. I sent him home.”

Isabelle meekly sat back down.

“We need to speak of your comportment sometime, Isabelle. Your parents sent you here in the hopes that the season would give you that necessary polish that ladies need.”

“Don’t forget The Husband,” I muttered under my breath. Isabelle stifled a giggle. I smiled, but my heart wasn’t in it.

“Oh, Louisa, may I write him?” I couldn’t help but admire how lovely my cousin looked as she knelt at my guardian’s feet, a beseeching look in her crystalline irises. Even in her dirty gardening skirts she was beautiful. For the first time in the sixteen years I’d known Isabelle, I felt a twinge of jealousy.

Louisa’s eyes softened as she looked down at her. “There’s no need to be so dramatic, dear. No doubt he will be at the Chestertons’ ball tomorrow night. You may speak to him then. I must go and write a long letter to your mother now. I’d like to get in touch with her before we leave to Bath.”

My aunt left and Isabelle sprang to her feet. “Oh, I’d forgotten all about Bath! How am I ever going to get through those two weeks? A proposal, Sam! From Vincent! Oh, I do hope Mama and Papa will like him. Do you think they will like him? Well, I’d better go and pack my things.” And with that she grabbed her valise and flew out of the room.

I was left standing alone, a crushed and withered red rose in my fist.

The days passed quickly enough in Bath, filled as they were with strolls down the shore and card games with Louisa and Isabella. But the nights were unbearable. I found myself tossing and turning in bed, flirting with sleep. My mind would flash from one picture to the next, restless and untiring.

Only one picture remained fixed in my brain – it was of a dark-complexioned man, neither too attractive nor unattractive, but somehow compelling. His eyes glittering with humor, his mouth curling with amusement. Sometimes this man even starred in my more recent dreams.

My cousin was positively in raptures as she planned every detail of her future wedding. Much as I adored my dear cousin, I found I couldn’t stomach her constant prattling about the wedding. Even Louisa had taken to rolling her eyes whenever Isabella mentioned de Grave’s name. Which was often.

I hadn’t seen Lord Windham since the Chestertons’ ball. I wondered what was occupying his days lately, and if the thought of me had crossed his mind at all.

I hadn’t expected to see him at the Chestertons’ ball. At least, that’s what I had told myself.

If I wore my best gown, a pale blue with double-lined panniers and a lace-bordered d├ęcolletage, it was mere coincidence. My hair was powdered and strands of pearls were inserted amidst the twisted ringlets. But I didn’t tell the maid to go to any great lengths. I couldn’t help it if she felt like being creative.

Louisa said I looked very fine and Isabella muttered no doubt Lord Windham would agree. I resisted the urge to kick my darling cousin and thanked them both.

Isabella lent me her prized fan, one made entirely of lace which de Grave had specially made for her in Brussels. I promised her I would treat it with care and not resort to any violence against it. In any event, I would try my very best.

When the three of us made our entrance, my eyes seemed to develop a life of their own. They scanned the ballroom until they found a pair of dark eyes. Despite myself, a sigh escaped my lips.

De Grave was at Isabella’s side within moments of our arrival. Louisa accepted Izzie’s reticule with a fond smile and they swept away, joining in the throng of couples whirling across the ballroom floor.

“Shall we?” Louisa asked, inclining her head to the row of chairs against the far wall.

“Yes, let’s,” I said, trying in vain not to look in Lord Windham’s direction. To my consternation I found him looking my way. I quickly averted my gaze, feeling the tell-tale warmth of a blush creeping up my throat. My guardian looked at me curiously.

“Whatever is wrong with you, child, you’re turning beet red! I can have the carriage take you home if you’re still feeling unwell.”

“No!” I said a bit too forcefully. I cleared my throat and willed my face to appear composed. “That is to say, no, Louisa. I’ve been cooped up for a week, I couldn’t bear to go back home. I just felt very hot all of a sudden, is all.”

“Maybe the cool night air will restore you.”

I turned to find Lord Windham suddenly standing next to me.

“That sounds like a capital idea, Lord Windham. Don’t overexert yourself, my dear, remember you were ill.” And with a last stern look at Lord Windham, Lady Huxtable left to go join the row of matrons seated against the wall.

“The Dragon is in fine form tonight,” Lord Windham said sotto voce as he escorted me onto the terrace. He firmly but gently took my hand and tucked it under his arm.

“Yes, I’m surprised she let me come out here with you at all, given the circumstances under which we last met.”

I was referring to Lord Windham’s surprising (and extremely mortifying, at least to me) visit earlier that week. I still couldn’t believe he had been in my bedchamber.

Lord Windham regarded me beneath those strange hooded eyes of his, so like the sphinx he was.

“And have you had other visitors, Miss Delacourt? Such as our friend Viscount Dubois?”

I smiled despite myself. “No, though he did send the most charming card.”

I noticed through lowered lashes that his jaw had tensed ever so slightly at this.

Lord Windham’s suddenly grim look made me nervous. I decided to change the subject.

“Did you hear about de Grave and Isabella? They are to be married.”

Lord Windham’s eyebrows knit together. “Is that so? I wonder why the old boy didn’t bother to tell me.”

I tried very hard not to look surprised. I imagined that was something you would convey to your friend, but perhaps the two weren’t as close as I’d imagined. After all, when they greeted each other at the last ball they seemed like old friends who were catching up on lost time…

Lord Windham’s voice cut through my thoughts, “Well, what does the Dragon have to say about this union? I imagine she knows de Grave is one leopard who can’t change his spots.”

I snapped my fan shut and whirled around to face Lord Windham, pulling my arm out of his. “Whatever does that quaint metaphor mean, sir?”

“I mean, my dear Miss Delacourt, that de Grave has a reputation that precedes him. Surely you’ve heard the tongues wag about him.”

“Sorry, I don’t listen to gossip.”

Lord Windham regarded me with fierce eyes. I couldn’t help feeling pulled by them.

“But you do listen to common sense, I trust,” he hissed, “it is common knowledge that de Grave has oft played fast and loose with the ladies. He’s ruined the reputation of many an upstanding young woman before, leaving them no better than light-shirts in his wake. I can’t imagine Lady Huxtable would not have heard the rumours, or, for that matter, that you wouldn’t have, either.”

I had no words for this. I couldn’t truthfully say I hadn’t heard the rumours, too. But why was I suddenly feeling the need to defend de Grave? I knew, in my heart of hearts, that what Lord Windham was saying was true. I had argued as much to my own guardian. Yet, somehow, I felt a strong need to defend de Grave. For Izzie’s sake, I reasoned, as I opened my mouth to issue forth another rejoinder.

The words never left my mouth. Before I knew what was happening, Lord Windham’s mouth was on mine, stifling whatever argument I was about to make.

I had been kissed before. Once, to be precise, by the son of one of Lady Huxtable’s bridge partners. We had been thirteen at the time and at a picnic. That time, the kiss had taken me by surprise, too.

But this time was nothing like the last.

To begin with, this kiss lasted much longer. I lost track of time, space, setting, being. Everything save the kiss. His hands were gently cupping my face, exploring the curve of my jaw, his thumbs rough against my skin.

Another difference? The first time I didn’t kiss back.

Lord Windham was the first to break the spell. He pulled back and wiped his mouth. “I am so sorry. That was unforgivable of me. But you are to blame, Miss Delacourt. No woman has ever had the talent of driving me to distraction quite like you.”

He smiled ruefully into my eyes. As if begging me to forgive him. And to forget.

“Still friends?” he asked, offering a hand. I steeled myself and shook his hand with a steady grip.

“Friends,” I said, unable to unclench my teeth despite my best efforts.

Lord Windham walked me back into the ballroom, my hand back under his arm. I longed to twist it out of his grip, but I knew this would be bad manners and really very petty of me. So I left it where it was and pasted a vapid smile on my face so that nobody would know a storm was currently roiling inside me.

It seemed as though my self had split into two parts, and they vied with each other now for supremacy.

He kissed me! Oh, but that kiss was marvelous!

He kissed you all right, but then he apologized for it immediately after. He obviously didn’t think the kiss was marvelous if he was begging you to forgive him for it.

I tried ignoring both voices, but I could only get them to fade into the background and not fully disappear.

“Would you like some punch, Miss Delacourt?” Lord Windham asked as he led me to a seat next to my guardian.

I smiled up at him, “Yes, that would be lovely.”

My guardian waited until his back was turned and then murmured, “Lord Windham is certainly very attentive tonight, dear.”

I bent my head down to study the ornate beading on my fan. “Oh, no more attentive than usual, Louisa.”

“Hmm.”

I felt compelled to keep arguing my point, no doubt some residual frustration from my confrontation with Lord Windham.

“We have a lot in common. We – we can talk together very easily. So he’s become sort of like a friend.”

“If you say so, dear, but I’ve seen the way he looks at you. I’m no fool, you know.”

I looked up at her and saw the wisdom mingled with humor in her warm gray eyes. I realized then I could hide my feelings from everyone else here, maybe even from Lord Windham himself, but not my guardian. She knew me too well.

Just then Lord Windham returned with two glasses of punch, one of which he offered to Louisa. “Lady Huxtable, you look like a diamond of the first water this evening” he said with a smile tugging the corner of his mouth.

Louisa rapped his wrist with her closed fan. “Save your flirting for the younger generation.”

“Alas, I am not worthy of Miss Delacourt’s attention.”

I gaped at Lord Windham. Whatever was he about now? He winked at me. I frowned at him.

“Yes, it’s quite tragic for men of my ilk, but truly Miss Delacourt is more deserving of a duke, or, at the very least, a viscount.”

Some of the matrons seated near us trilled with laughter. “What a sense of humor! And quite handsome, too,” one of them said in an overly loud whisper. I could feel my hands shaking.

“Stop this nonsense right now. Have you been in the cups?” I hissed at him through my teeth.

He smiled beatifically down at me, “I’ll stop if you let me have your dance card.”

I fumbled through my reticule, nearly tipping the entire contents of my glass of punch into my lap. After much work, I was able to extricate the dance card.

“Fine, here it is.”

Lord Windham bent over the card and scratched something on it, then handed it back to me.

I stared at what he’d written. He’d put his name down for nine o’clock and ten o’clock.

I looked back up, a question already forming on my lips. But he was gone.

“What’s wrong, Sam? You look white as milk.” Izzie sat down on the chair de Grave had just pulled up next to mine and gazed at me with concern.

“Oh, just the insufferable Lord Windham, getting on my nerves. That man doesn’t rest until he gets his way.”

De Grave laughed at this. “Yes, I remember him from our school days. He was exactly the same. He could always charm the maids, or the teachers, for that matter, into his getting his way. He never had to resort to the more underhanded measures the rest of us were forced to use.”

I filed that last comment away for future reference. What underhanded measures could de Grave be referring to? Was he implying something there?

I finished my glass of punch and placed it on a nearby table. “Well, I’m going to the powder room. I feel as though my hair is coming undone. I fear the maid didn’t use enough pins.”

Izzie immediately stood up. “I’ll come, too, Sam.”

De Grave offered to bring us all back some punch and we thanked him and left to find the powder room.

In the powder room, I surveyed my hair in a mirror, surprised when it looked relatively the same as when I’d left the house. The patch on my cheek was threatening to come loose, however, no doubt as a result of Lord Windham’s unexpected …

I couldn’t bring myself even to think the word, for fear that another tidal wave of emotions might wash over me. The important thing now was to affect an undisturbed demeanor. I would be seeing him again at nine o’clock and ten o’clock, and it wouldn’t do to seem affected in any way.

After Isabella had pinched her cheeks to achieve the desired flush, she tottered over to where I stood and sank down into a nearby chair.

“Are you having a good time?” I asked her as I labored to reattach the stubborn patch on my cheek. It was in the shape of a new moon, one of the shapes currently in vogue.

“Yes, though it is rather vexing to hear the gossipmongers carry on about Vincent.”

This was the first time she’d ever addressed the issue of de Grave’s reputation in my presence.

I gave up on the patch, peeling it off with a sigh and sitting down on the divan opposite Isabella. We had the powder room to ourselves, for now. I might as well make the most of this opportunity.

I took my cousin’s hands in mine. “I hadn’t wished to discuss this before for fear of disturbing you, Izzie. But it would drive me mad to hear those women talk about de Grave in that way. How do you put up with it?”

Izzie’s eyes filled with tears, threatening to brim over. “If it were any other man, I wouldn’t put up with it. But Vincent is so splendid, such a wonderful, wonderful man. You don’t know how he suffers on my account! D’you know he almost decided not to propose?”

I privately wished de Grave had decided to hold to that choice, but outwardly tut-tutted in sympathy.

“He’s everything that is good and decent and beautiful about the world,” she continued, the tears in her eyes replaced with a fervent glow. “Yes, he’s had his missteps. What man hasn’t? The important thing is that he’s moved on from them.”

“But aren’t you concerned about your reputation, Izzie? Think about how Valentina would feel if she heard your name being bandied about by those vicious old matrons.”

Izzie stood up, fists clenched. “I don’t give a farthing about my reputation. I hate this stupid season, all of this!” She gestured to her fine dress, the dainty shoes poking underneath. “I do all this to make Mama happy, but I know in her heart of hearts, she would just want me to be happy. And my happiness is dependent on Vincent, not a clutch of bitter old crones.”

I stood up, too, smoothing my skirt. “A passionate defense. If I wasn’t already on your side, I daresay I would have switched by now.”

Izzie’s hands slowly unclenched and she laughed, the sound of it a watery gurgle. The tears sprang forth again, and the next thing I knew, she was crushing me in a smothering hug.

“Oh, Sam! I knew I could count on you! Will you speak to Louisa? Only you could convince her to see things our way. Then it will be easy to convince Mama, too.”

After we had repaired Isabella’s face so that no trace of tears was left, we squared our shoulders and walked back into the ballroom. As we passed a group of young bloods, I could hear one of them say quite loudly, “I do say, who is that exquisite creature in the blue gown?”

Isabella’s gown was a pale gold whereas mine was blue. And yet, I was so used to the attention being focused solely on Isabella, I couldn’t help turning my head to stare at the young man and make sure he was talking about me. He had a quizzing glass raised to his right eye and he was observing me through it, one enlarged blue eye blinking at me in a comic fashion.

“Don’t stare, Sam. He might get the wrong impression,” my cousin hissed and we giggled and began walking faster.

We were breathless when we arrived back where Louisa sat with de Grave.

“What brings such a twinkle to your eyes, ladies?” de Grave asked with a smile as he handed each of us a glass of punch.

Before I could answer him, I felt someone tap me on the shoulder.

I turned and saw a very tall gentleman standing there with sparkling green eyes that vied for attention with the shiny row of medals decorating his coat.

“Miss Delacourt, I am glad to see you are so obviously restored in health.”

I bowed low, not an easy feat to accomplish with a glass of punch in hand, and smiled up at Viscount Dubois. “Thank you, Viscount Dubois. The lilies you sent were most beautiful.”

“Did you get the card? I took special care to make sure they arrived with a card. I wrote it myself, you know.” He smiled proudly, reminding me of a male peacock I once saw in the zoo.

“Yes, that was a most, er, thoughtful gesture,” I said lamely, trying hard not to laugh. I could see Izzie trying to get my attention out of the corner of my eye, but I refused to look, knowing that to do so would prove my undoing. So I took a demure sip of my punch instead and looked expectantly up at the viscount.

“Did someone claim the dance for eight, Miss Delacourt?” he asked hopefully. I resisted the urge to groan.

“No, she’s claimed already for nine and ten, but eight is clear, right, Sam?” Izzie piped up. I turned to face her, hoping she could feel the daggers I was shooting her way.

“Will you hold my punch, darling cousin?”

“Delighted to help you in any way, dearest cousin,” she replied with a wink.

I followed Viscount Dubois onto the ballroom floor, wishing it was eleven already so the mindless dancing could cease and we could eat dinner and not have to dance anymore.

It was a minuet, quite an old-fashioned dance that normally wasn’t featured in balls today, but the Chestertons were a family renown for their love of esoteric dance styles.

The minuet was a dance composed of small, almost mincing steps and it required one’s constant attention. Much as I did not really appreciate the art of dance, I knew I wasn’t half bad. My poise was good, and my steps lively.

I found myself enjoying it despite myself. But perhaps this had something to do with the fact that the viscount didn’t speak once during the dance.

The hour slipped away from me. Suddenly it was nine o’clock and the minuet was ending. The viscount and I bowed to each other, and when I straightened back up, Lord Windham was standing behind the viscount.

Seeing the expression on my face, the viscount turned around and saw Lord Windham.

“Windham, old chap, how do you do?” The viscount clapped Lord Windham hard on the shoulder.

Lord Windham smiled at him, but his eyes were dangerously devoid of any light.

“Splendid, now that my dance with Miss Delacourt can begin.”

“Very well, very well. Miss Delacourt, will you do me the great pleasure of allowing me to escort you into dinner?”

Before I could think of a viable excuse, Lord Windham opened his mouth. “Actually, I’m afraid that great pleasure is already promised to me. Isn’t that right, Miss Delacourt?” He turned towards me and winked, his mouth tugging at the corner in that distracting way of his.

“Yes, it’s true,” I lied through my teeth.

The viscount had the good grace not to look too put out.

Lord Windham and I exchanged pleasantries as we waited for the band to strike up the next tune.

“Have you been enjoying yourself, Miss Delacourt? You appear much restored since I saw you last.”

How I longed to claw his eyes out after hearing that remark. ‘Tis a wonder I was able to restore myself after you mauled me, sir! I longed to cry. But I simply smiled and delivered a picture-perfect curtsy. The band began playing then, as if on cue.

It was a waltz. I’d never danced the waltz with anyone except my cousin, let alone a man.

I froze mid-curtsy. Lord Windham’s curious stare shook me out of my shock.

He took my hand in his, and his other hand came to rest at my waist. It felt as though it was burning clean through my gown, the heat spreading out towards my legs.

“You took so long to get back up from your curtsy, I thought your petticoats came loose. It happened to my sister, once,” he said coolly. But there was a twitch at his lips, as though he wanted to laugh.

I “accidentally” trod on his foot.

Lord Windham muttered a low oath and looked down at his boots. I endeavored to conceal the ear-to-ear grin on my face by coughing.

“Oh, I’m so dreadfully sorry. I must have lost my balance. Are you quite all right?”

I blinked a few times for good measure and hoped my face looked innocent. His face wasn’t quite so easy to read. I looked for the tell-tale twitch at his lips, but they were pulled tight in a grim line.

“Oh, I am perfectly fine. Just fine. Now, where were we?” He placed his hand on my waist again, and again I felt that disconcerting warmth spread through me. I braved a glance and saw that his mouth was still tight. I averted my eyes quickly, wondering if I’d upset him in some way. I hoped he couldn’t feel my hand trembling in his.

We continued dancing, but he didn’t speak again. I focused on the music, allowing my mind to drift.

He apologized for kissing me. But if he was truly sorry, then why did he tell the viscount he was going to sit with me at dinner? Why is he even here with me now?

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