Authors: Karen Hawkins
Tags: #Romance, #Regency, #General, #Historical, #Fiction
“Good. Wave her over, will you? Huntley’s on his way to us now.”
Across the ballroom, Lady MacKenna squinted toward the door. “Pardon me, Miss Balfour, but it looks as if Lady Charlotte is signaling for you to join her.”
Lily instantly knew why. Her heart thudding sickly, she looked for the closest exit.
But, no. I can’t run. Think about Papa.
She collected herself as well as she could, made her excuses to Lady MacKenna, then walked toward Lady Charlotte and the duchess, refusing to look at the small group gathered there.
Just stay calm.
As she walked past a mirror, she swiftly glanced at her gown and hair. She’d made her gown, a deceptively simple affair of white lace over a deep blue silk undergown. The gown sported delicate cap sleeves and gathered beneath her breasts with a wide, white silk ribbon. The neckline was scooped and unadorned, and she wore only a simple pair of sapphire earrings that had once belonged to her mother.
She smoothed her skirt with one hand, her dance card swinging at the wrist of her elbow-length glove. The duchess let no detail go unnoticed, and the card was folded like a fan with a gold cord looped about one end.
Perhaps Huntley will ask me to dance. I’m sure the duchess would tell me that he is a superb dancer. She can find no fault in the man.
No man could be all of the things the duchess seemed to think him—handsome, wealthy, and pleasant. Still, if the earl were simply wealthy and pleasant, Lily would be be well pleased. She reached Lady Charlotte and dipped a curtsy. “Lady Charlotte, you wished to speak wi—”
“There you are!” Her grace tucked an arm though Lily’s and turned her toward a tall gentleman and a fashionably dressed woman. “Miss Balfour, this is Geoffrey MacKinton, the dashing Earl of Huntley.”
Lily curtsied. “How do you do?”
The duchess beamed. “Huntley, this is my goddaughter, the lovely Miss Lily Balfour.”
Lily’s hand was instantly enveloped in a warm clasp, and she found herself looking up into a pair of
sherry-brown eyes that gleamed with humor. He was nearly as tall as Wulf, but not nearly as broad shouldered. And his hair was neatly trimmed, unlike—
I must stop that.
Huntley was handsome in a lean, aristocratic way, and that would have to do.
The earl bowed over her hand. “Miss Balfour, we finally meet. I’ve heard so much about you.”
“And I, you.” She noted the marvelous fit of his coat, which whispered of a master tailor, and the sparkling ruby that twinkled in the depths of his cravat, as well as a matching one in a ring on his finger.
“Allow me to introduce you to a dear friend of mine.” He turned to the tall, elegant woman who’d been standing slightly behind him. “Miss Balfour, this is Miss Emma Gordon. I’ve known her for years and she is almost a sister to me.”
Lily curtsied. As she rose, she exchanged smiles with Miss Gordon. The earl’s friend had brown hair and fine brown eyes, and while not conventionally pretty, she possessed a humorous air that put Lily at ease.
“Miss Balfour, I hear you’re from the same area of the country as my grandfather, near Cromartie. It’s a lovely area.”
“It’s beautiful, but very cold in the winter. The ponds are ice for months on end.”
“Oh, Huntley, you must tell Miss Balfour about how you tried to rescue my poor cat, Tibby, from that iced-over pond.”
He laughed. “No, no. I refuse to embarrass myself.”
“Then I shall tell it for you.” Looking mischievous, Miss Gordon launched into a description of the earl’s many attempts to rescue her cat from an icy pond, only to end up stranded himself. Huntley contributed to the merriment by making droll observations on Miss Gordon’s propensity to exaggerate tales.
The duchess and Lady Charlotte stood back beaming and allowed the three to talk. Finally, the earl glanced at the orchestra. “Miss Balfour, I hate leaving you so abruptly, but I always dance at least one country dance with Emma. After that, however, I would very much enjoy a dance with you if you’ve any left open upon your dance card.”
Lily flushed. “Of course.” She slipped her dance card from her wrist and handed it to him.
He used the small pencil that dangled from the card and wrote upon it. “Thank you.” He returned the card to her. “I took the liberty to claim two dances. I hope you don’t mind.”
From the corner of her eye, Lily saw Lady Charlotte give a hop of joy even as the duchess clapped her hands together. Cheeks hot, Lily sank into a curtsy. “I am honored, my lord.”
He bowed. “Until our dance, then.”
With that, he made his farewells to the duchess and Lady Charlotte and escorted Miss Emma to the dance floor.
The second he was gone, Lady Charlotte sighed. “Isn’t he lovely?”
“More than lovely,” the duchess declared. “Well, Lily? What do you think?”
Lily didn’t know what she thought. “He seems very nice, just as you said.”
“And?” Lady Charlotte urged.
“Oh, ah. He’s very handsome, too.”
“Yes?” Lady Charlotte waited.
The duchess looked disappointed. “Nice? Handsome? That’s all you have to say?”
“He’s—he’s also very tall.”
,” the duchess said.
In all fairness, Lily had to nod. “He seems so, yes.”
Chortling, Lady Charlotte tucked Lily’s arm in hers. “There, we all agree!”
The duchess beamed, finally happy. “Charlotte, while Lily is waiting to dance with the earl, why don’t you introduce her to some other guests, and see to it that her dance card is filled? She’s far too pretty to be a wallflower.”
“A capital idea! Nothing spurs a gentleman’s interest more than a well-pursued woman.” Lady Charlotte tugged Lily toward the refreshment table. “Ah, there’s Lord Spencer now.”
An hour later, Lily finished dancing with a young viscount who’d talked nonstop about a horse he’d just purchased. He escorted her to the refreshment table to procure her a glass of orgeat, and she escaped him by claiming that she needed to find a retiring room to pin a torn flounce.
As the viscount wandered off, Lily peeked at her dance card, glad to see that the next dance was Huntley’s.
Where is he?
She stood on tiptoe and thought she saw him on the other side of the dance floor in conversation with a portly man in a striped waistcoat. She could tell from his expression that Huntley was not happy to be so entrapped.
I shall rescue him.
She was halfway to the dance floor when a large hand encircled her wrist. Instantly, her skin heated as if she’d been immersed head to toe in warm water, and a deep shiver traced through her.
“Ah, Miss Lily Balfour.” His husky voice seemed to caress her name. “I look for you and there you are.”
She took a shivery breath, far more pleased to see him than she should be. “Prince Wulfinski, I didn’t expect—”
“Dance with me.” His voice was as deep as the ocean.
“I would, but—”
He turned and walked into the swirling dancers, pulling her ruthlessly behind him.
Lily could either follow him or plant her feet and be yanked onto her face.
Scowling, she scrambled to keep up. “Lord Wulf—your majesty or—Lud, whatever you name is, please slow down! I cannot keep up—”
He came to an abrupt halt and looked down at her. “You cannot keep up, eh? Then I walk slower.” His gaze dropped to her slippers where they peeked from beneath her skirts, a look of distaste on his face. “You
cannot walk because of those shoes. Silk is for sheets, not shoes.”
She blinked. “Sheets?” She couldn’t imagine silk sheets.
Why, that would cost a fortune.
You need leather shoes to protect your feet.”
“These shoes are for dancing.”
. The women in my country, they would never wear such frivolous footwear.”
“That is their loss. I’ll wear leather shoes while walking in the woods, thank you. But these”—she extended one so that the jeweled buckle sparkled in the candlelight—“are
He sent them a dismissive glance. “I do not like them so much, but if you do . . .” He shrugged and then said in a gracious tone, “As you wish.”
Fuming, Lily tugged her wrist free. For one second, she’d been glad to see him, her body welcoming him before she had. But now . . . now she just wanted to find Huntley and claim their dance.
This is good; the last person I need to be attracted to is a man with no fortune.
“Prince Wulfinski, I did not come to this ball to be dragged about the room and have my shoes insulted.”
Surprise crossed his face. “You are upset.”
“Yes, I’m upset. These shoes are
His lips twitched, but he managed to say in a grave voice, “There are many gems glittering upon them, yes.”
Well, paste gems, but no one knew that but Lily. “I love these shoes.”
“Hm. My mother’s shoes are more—” He clipped off the word as if unwilling to finish.
His mother’s shoes what? Were more useful? More utilitarian? More—
Wulf had told her that he was the poorest of the many princes in Oxenburg.
Perhaps that’s all she can afford.
Feeling as small as an ant, Lily tucked her foot back under her skirt. “I’m sure your mother’s shoes are lovely, too, however they look.”
He shrugged. “It matters not. She is not here for us to compare. Come. The music appeals to me.” He put his hands about Lily’s waist, lifted her easily, and set her down directly in front of him. Then, as if she were a marionette, he placed one of her hands upon his shoulder and grasped the other. “We dance, Moya.”
“Wulf, I don’t think—” But they were already moving as, with a sweeping step, he swung her into the twirling couples. To her surprise, he was sure-footed and graceful. It was easy to move with him, and he led with a deft touch that let her know what he wished her to do without her feeling manhandled.
A cacophony of feelings fluttered through her. He lacked Lord Huntley’s elegance, but he more than made up for it in graceful power. His coat might not fit as well, his breeches didn’t cling as was the fashion, but she found him irresistible. And judging by the glances other women kept sliding their way, she wasn’t the only one.
You’re doing it again. You must stop this.
She glanced up at Wulf to find him regarding her with a faint smile. “What?”
His brows rose. “We don’t have—how do you say it—the little talk?”
“Small talk. Would you like to discuss the weather?”
“With you, even that discussion would hold my interest.”
Her cheeks warmed. No one had ever paid her such extravagant compliments, and while they made her uncomfortable, they were rather nice to hear. “You are very gallant.”
His eyes gleamed. “I am dancing with the most beautiful woman in the room. How can I be anything but gallant?”
She didn’t know what to say to that. “I think we should find a safer topic to discuss, something other than me.”
“Name this topic and I shall discuss with you. Perhaps you’d like to talk about how beautiful you look wearing blue? You should always wear blue, Moya. It makes your gray eyes turn a pale blue, like the early-morning sky.”
“That isn’t a different topic. Wulf, we—”
“Pardon me.” Lord Huntley stood beside them. He locked gazes with Wulf. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“I am Prince Wulfinski.” The prince’s gaze narrowed. “You would not be an earl, would you?”
Huntley’s brows rose. “Why, yes.”
“Then you are Huntley.”
Huntley blinked, surprised.
Lily gave a weak laugh. “The duchess must have mentioned you to the prince.”
“How kind of her.” Huntley bowed. “I’m afraid I haven’t had the same advantage. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Highness, but I believe this dance with Miss Balfour is mine.”
Wulf slipped an arm about Lily’s waist and pulled her to his side. “This is
dance with Miss Balfour. I have claimed it.”
Aware of the shocked glances from some of the other guests, Lily stepped out of Wulf’s embrace. She could see from Huntley’s tight expression that he assumed that the prince was being deliberately provocative, though that was far from the case. The prince had no idea how to comport himself. A wave of protectiveness surprised her. “Prince Wulfinski, you don’t understand. Huntley claimed this dance earlier, before you arrived. He did so on here.” She held up her wrist where her dance card dangled, the small pencil tied to it.
“What is that?”
“A dance card. It’s a custom of our country for each woman to have one. When a man wishes to dance with her, he signs his name on the card beside that dance.”
“I wish to see this dance card.”
She slipped her hand from the loop and handed it to him. “It’s very simple, really. I’m sorry no one mentioned it to you before.”
Wulf looked at the card, distaste upon his face. “There are many names on this card.”
Lily fought back a smile. “Lady Charlotte introduced me to the other guests.”
Wulf looked at Huntley. “You are a friend of Lady Charlotte, too, then?”
Huntley bowed, looking less pleased than Wulf. “I am, and of Miss Balfour’s godmother, too. Now if you don’t mind, I must claim Miss Balfour soon or this dance will be over.”
Wulf grunted and his gaze returned to the dance card. “I suppose you may have her. But first . . .” He took the pencil and put a large ‘W’ on every dance she had left.
“Oh dear, you can’t—” Lily began.
“I claim you for these other dances,” Wulf said calmly.
“You can’t do that!”
“But you said it is done just so.”
“Yes, but a woman cannot dance more than twice with the same man in an evening.”
“Twice? Pah!” Wulf raked a hand through his hair, looking thoroughly perplexed. “You Scots and your damned rules! If you cannot dance with me more than twice, than we shall sit out the dances I have claimed and we will talk instead.”
“Talk? But I—” Words left her.
He lifted his brows. “But?”
Looking into his eyes, she couldn’t think of a “but” anything. His jaw was set and she suddenly knew how he felt—as if he were navigating a raging river of societal rules with nothing but a teaspoon as a rudder.
Social events often felt the same way to her. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to talk. I could perhaps explain some of the other rules.”