My True love Gave To Me
…three French hens…
“Hello, Lady Charlotte. Perhaps you have an opening on that little dance card for me ?”
Lady Lottie Swann gazed upwards, ready to accept the offer, then went numb, but only briefly. Standing before her was the rogue who’d broken her heart but two years prior.
It took a moment to catch a breath. But she did and answered coldly. “Lord Leighton. I regret to inform you my dance card is completely and irrevocably filled already. Perhaps you should have called again after our last encounter.” And before she could stop herself, hissed, “You will need to find some other innocent bird to waste time with this night.”
Relief flooded her when Lady Grace Hawthorn, best friend since childhood, grabbed her arm. Grace was seemingly oblivious to the tall man standing there, and dragged Lottie away. Knees quaking, she fled from sight of the handsome rogue who had filled every dream for months.
“I can’t believe you received an invitation to Pemberton Hall this year, too, Lottie. It’s so exciting to spend the evening with you. We see one another so rarely these days.”
Lottie kept one eye on the dance floor as they made their way to the ballroom. . “I feel the same, Grace. I miss you since you spend so much time at your father’s country estate of late..”
They headed towards Lady Cecile, sister of the Duke of Alford, where she stood with Lady Surrey. Mere yards from the friends, Lottie slowed as Lady Surrey accepted the hand of a tall dark-haired gentleman and curtsied. The couple twirled past, and Lottie’s breath caught. She ducked behind a greenery-covered pillar.
“It cannot be!” How did he get here first? With a sharp glance around she noticed Lord Weatherby close by, but he seemed only to have eyes for Lady Surrey and didn’t notice Lottie hidden in the alcove, thank goodness.
“Heaven’s be, Lottie. Whatever has you in such a flutter?” Grace stared at her.
“Don’t look at me! Has he moved yet?”
“Who? Has who moved?” Her friend turned, studying all the dancers before turning back.
“ Lord Leighton, that’s who. The Dowager Duchess Rowling’s roguish grandson. He just escorted Lady Surrey to the floor.” Lottie ducked behind Grace in an attempt to spot his location, thereby ensuring the safety of escape.
While strolling in the gardens earlier in the week she’d heard the young widow, Lady Powell ask the Dowager Duchess Rowling if Lord Leighton had returned. Unfortunately, she hadn’t learned the response. And she certainly hadn’t expected to see him at the Pemberton’s annual Christmas Ball. Yet, there he stood, arms clasped about Lady Surrey’s waist, dancing as free as you please.
She shook her head. “Once a rakehell…”
Edie--no, that was Georgie, floating past in the arms of the handsome Mister Granby. Lottie envied her older sister. A glance at the other dancers convinced her that all seemed oblivious to her inconspicuous presence at the edge of the floor.
“He’s a fine catch, for sure. I heard Gran tittering about the surplus of available men who were attending. She’s hoping I’ll make a suitable match this season.” Grace laughed and grabbed onto Lottie’s arm. “I’m in need of refreshment. Has your dance card been filled? I heard…”
Grace rambled on as Lottie concentrated on staying out of Lord Leighton’s sights. How could she escape without notice? Why should she even care?
They’d shared a kiss at her coming out—a kiss that branded her for every long, lonely night to follow, so she lay in bed twisting about the sheets thinking of him. Lady Hampstead had only to look away for a moment when Lottie slipped from the retiring room and he waited for her in the corner. It had been fairly easy to have Grace occupy the chaperone for those brief moments. But the risk had seemed worth it at the time. He had touched her as no man ever had before. Whispered things there in the dark corner of the garden, speaking of things men and women shared, coaxing her to give him more. Now she was much older and wiser and he wouldn’t get a second chance to ruin her.
Lottie had been ready to give up everything to spend the one night in his arms but for the voices that interrupted their near tryst. They’d danced and shared supper. She’d been certain he planned to ask Father for her hand. But he’d disappeared the next morning. Gone off to God knew where. Leaving without a word, but her with a broken heart.
Oh, yes, she had fallen in love with Lord Leighton. That night. His gentle caring. If only he knew…
Kisses and the residual humiliation of his abandonment stiffened her resolve. She pressed stiff lips together. She’d make it through to this night. It was a shame his past attentions prevented interest in any of the respectable gentlemen who called upon her since. But Lord Leighton was present again and she confused. Did she dare attempt to gain his true attention when his gaze seemed to linger on every other woman in the room? Hide in the retiring room all evening? He seemed to have forgetten her easily enough. Even as he twirled Lady Surrey around the floor, his eyes surely itched to search for the next conquest.
He stood a head above her friend, his broad shoulders expansive. A surge of envy passed through her when his dark head bent over Lady Surrey. buff breeches encased his long legs, his black coat fitting his torso perfectly. She bit back a sigh at how those arms had felt as they danced so long ago.
“You’re taken with the lord!” Grace’s auburn locks swiveled between Lottie and the lord in question, clapping her hands as if she were a child gifted with a new doll. “Don’t deny it. Tell all,” her friend demanded. Grace snatched the tiny dance card affixed to her right wrist and skimmed a gaze over the few names listed. “He’s not asked you for a dance.”
Lottie sniffed delicately. But he had. She held back a sigh watching him. “And likely, he will not. Most rogues look for the next innocent maiden to adorn their fine arm. Poor fools have no idea how their hearts will be left in pieces by him at the end of this ball.” The bitterness twisted her heart.
“Tell me everything.”
“There’s nothing to tell, Grace. We danced, dined and spent an entire night as he filled my head with sweet nothings. I was certain he would ask Papa for my hand. But then he left without another word.” She latched onto a sudden fury. “Now he’s back with his pick of simpering debutantes to charm.” With each word of the lesser version, her heart cracked more. To face Grace was near impossible as tears burned the backs of her eyelids.
She continued a slow perusal of Lord Leighton through the watery haze, then realized his golden gaze was fixed upon her. Her breath caught in tightened lungs and her heart skipped a beat, maybe two, but she held his regard briefly before raising the lace fan to hide from those penetrating eyes. The walls suddenly closed in.
Evan enjoyed dancing with Lady Surrey. However, she was not the lady responsible for his presence tonight. He’d already assured himself Lord Cockswood, was in attendance along with his flock of daughters. Had even spoken to the one who held his heart just before Lady Grace Hawthorn swept in and away with Lady Charlotte, as he preferred to call her. That one Swann would not escape so easily again.
After two years he would not spend another moment without her. Had it not been for his superiors ordering him to service the day after that beguiling night with the lady, she’d be wearing his ring by now. Damn the war. If only he’d been allowed to tell her.
Lottie, as friends and family refer to her, was lovely with that mahogany hair, and eyes so pale green as to appear silver in the right light. A vision, to be sure.
If he could only find the chit and claim the rest of her dances this night. No. Not dances, he intended to claim her. The music drew to a close and he thanked Lady Surrey before turning to survey the room yet again.
“Any luck old man?” Lord Edward Stanton, Earl of Applebridge, slapped his shoulder.
“Not yet. I’ve already seen the other six sisters swimming through this sea of dancers. I barely managed a word before Lady Grace Hawthorn dragged her off, but she’s in green and I shall find her.” He grimaced at his best friend before waving a footman carrying a laden tray of drinks over.
“Not many of those to sort through.” Edward laughed as dresses of various shades swirled by, plenty of green in the mix. “Well, I shall keep my eyes open as I make my way to fill in a certain lady’s dance card, myself.”
As Edward moved off, Evan snagged a glass of champagne from the passing server. Where are you my little swan? Before the thought was complete he caught sight of dark hair and the pale green skirt she wore slipping behind a pillar wrapped. A moment later the dress came into full view and Evan sucked a breath at her beauty. “Charlotte.”
He had found his reason for the season. For a life’s breath.
In long strides he pushed through the crowd towards her, and when his little swan spotted him, she hid. But he would watch for Lady Hawthorn, twice removed cousin to the Duke of Pemberton. She’d been an acquaintance long ago. Perhaps, if the need arose, he could enlist her assistance, consensual or not… He was certain where he found one, so would he find the other.
Caught unawares studying the lord, it took a moment to realize the dance had ended and Lord Weatherby had replaced Lord Leighton. The latter of who was headed straight for her. Determination tightened his mouth as dread settled in her middle.
Intending to escape, an idea overtook her. She could still feel the intensity of his stare and edged Grace around the room towards the door leading to the garden portico. Even the mad fluttering of her fan did little to abate the flushing over her heated skinOnly one thing could dampen the fire threatening to engulf her. In slippered feet, Lottie urged Grace along. She ran for the safety of the ladies retiring room.
Peering at Grace, who only half resisted Lottie , the fine yellow satin of her gown rustled in their rush catching others attention. Grace was a beauty at near two and twenty. Dark red hair, dappled with stones and sequins was swept up in an intricate coif. If Lord Leighton caught up to them, Lottie was fairly certain she would not be the object of his attention as she stood beside the radiant Grace.
Grace, stopped and began flitting her fan madly with a glance from Lord Danbury. “I have the need to dance. I shall return.”
Lottie heaved a sigh and sank into the nearest chair as her gaze followed the other woman’s steps to the dance floor. A quick glance assured her Lord Leighton had lost sight of her for the moment. Pray it would last.
Her gaze found and steadied on Lady Powell across the large chamber, ensconced securely between Dowager Duchess Rowling, a sight to behold in a riotous ruby red satin gown, and the Dowager Duchess, Lady Pemberton, grandmother to the ball’s host. She hid her wide girth beneath swaths of deep gold. They sat chattering incessantly about everybody who walked or danced past. Vaguely, Lottie remembered Pippa and Thia referring to the trio as three French hens. All adorned in the latest fashions courtesy of their neighbors across the channel. A small sigh escaped. All the girls Lottie’s age envied them.
“Time is up, my lady.”
She swiveled with every intention of sending the pestering cad off empty-handed, but froze under the mesmerizing hazel gaze of Lord Leighton, his left hand outstretched. She swallowed. He would not take no for an answer, obviously determined to out wait her.
Words failed. Of its own accord—her own hand reached for his. In the next instant she was whirled about the floor, his broad shoulders blocking every other face from view. His hand set against her lower back burned through the thin material of the net-covered silk gown. All hope was lost now.
“It has not been easy to keep up with you, Lady Charlotte.”
“Why should you care to?”
He smiled and her heart melted. This was not a good sign.
“For this exact reason, of course. I’ve dreamed of the day I could hold you again.”
She met his gaze with disdain. “I’m supposed to believe you? You vanished quickly enough the last time you spoke such rubbish. I am not keen to believe anything you have to spew this night, my lord.” Lottie allowed her pain and anger to lead, rather than her injured heart.
“Ah, my Lottie. I did not want to leave you but the King’s service called. What was I to do? Go to the gallows? I would have, you know.” His hand tightened on hers and he guided them to the portico door as they whirled.
“What are you about, sir? I cannot leave Grace behind.” More importantly, fear consumed of what she might do without her friend to protect her.
“Lady Grace has plenty of company.” He slipped them past the hanging candles over the arch. Beyond public view in the gauzy shadows of the drapes hanging on either side of the entry they halted. “You and I have unfinished business.” The heat of his promise wilted Lottie’s resistance.
It was now or never. Evan had one chance to convince his lady she owned his heart. A fine Marchioness she’d make. He could not pass this opportunity to Fate. He shot a look upward.
“My lord, this is highly inappropriate,” she chastised. He could not stop the thrill at her less than husky whisper that offered enticement rather than rejection.
“No, my lady. This is perfect.”
Without another rational thought, he swooped down and claimed the sweet lips in a kiss that was sure to convince her of his feelings. She offered no resistance as he’d hoped. It warmed him through when slim arms inched around his neck like a vine forever tying them together. Her possessiveness urged his desire and he dragged her body close to his heart before common sense prevailed and he pulled away.
“My darling, Charlotte. You cannot know how I’ve longed for you these past two years. I was called to France the very day after that last evening. There was no chance to get word to you. My heart broke with thoughts of anyone else taking you to wed, and I knew I had to get back to you as soon as I could.” Would she believe? Could she give him another chance? “I beg your forgiveness, my love. I love you as you’ll never be loved by another. Will you make me a joyful man this Christmas night by saying you will marry me?”
Her face lit in the shadows and he held his breath. When her soft mouth touched his, Evan embraced her heart and soul. As she gazed up at him, the moon lit her eyes to liquid mercury and she smiled.
“Yes, Evan. For I have loved you since our first kiss.”
Tune in tomorrow for the next Chapter ~ Four Calling Birds!