My True Love Gave To Me…
...Nine Ladies Dancing…
Smoothing the back of Lord Dominick Carrington’s coat of superfine for the third time, Fitzhugh, the gnarled valet he’d inherited from his father, stepped back to survey the newest Earl of Abernathy.
Nick indulged the man though he couldn’t restrain the tick in his jaw at the fussing. He wasn’t a trussed up goose, fattened for Christmas dinner, for heaven’s sake. “Why must I attend this affair?” he groused.
The valet took a deep, patient breath. “Your late father never missed the Pemberton’s Christmas ball and your brother...pardon me, my lord––” Stopping abruptly, he peered above his bushy brows.
“No, go on,” Nick encouraged the man, who bobbed his head in acquiescence. His brother’s death had sealed his fate. If you take the title, you must find a wife and make heirs. It wasn’t the making heirs part he detested, but the selection of a suitable wife. Somehow, that scared him worse than all the battles, military decisions and black, stormy seas he’d suffered through most of his adult life.
“Tradition, my lord. The ton will be expecting you.” Nick heard the imperious tone of his father through the valet and cringed. Duty. He’d cut off his right leg to have his brother back.
He was the younger brother, the one destined to find his own way in the world. He had. Quite favorably. The military life suited him.
Marriage. He’d not given it much thought over the years, as it was his brother’s duty to marry and produce an heir. Life threw unbearable punches sometimes.
Until he’d met the Scottish lass. She was ever in the back of his mind, especially her irresistible laugh, her ever-present gaiety and in hospital, her healing hands.
She had laughed when he said he thought he loved her. “Oh, sir, you’ll forget me the moment you return to your duties. The doctors say it is a quite common ailment to pine after your nurses or doctors.”
They were wrong. He’d never forget her brogue. That lovely voice played in his head. She was wrong. He’d not forgotten her. He saw her flaming hair every morning at sunrise. And the freckles. He loved that she had freckles. He imagined them covering her body. He’d wanted to search them out, see if she had them everywhere.
“You know very well my papa has me betrothed to the son of the Earl of Ross. I’ve told you that.” She clicked her tongue, yet she laughed at the same time. Her eyes sparkling with deviltry, she took his hand, whispered next to his ear as he lay on the cot, “Yet here, I’ll be your betrothed, if it hastens your healing.”
Flipping up the window shade of the coach, Nick gazed appreciatively at the wintery scene on his way to the ball. Snow crunching, lights bouncing off the pearly white carpet and the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves, stirred memories of his childhood. Staring in wonder at a shooting star, he wondered where she was. Were it not for her betrothal, he’d have swept the tempestuous vixen off her feet as soon as he’d convalesced and found a vicar. Wed her on the spot. He’d never forget her infectious laugh. Never. Nor her brilliant emerald eyes and scathing wit.
He sighed deeply. How was he to find such a woman to replace her?
A footman opened the door for him and more fussing ensued as he arrived at the front door. When the butler escorted him inside, warm scents of spices and evergreen boughs spiraled around him making him feel at home.
Immediately upon arrival, his oldest childhood friend, another second son, Lord Lewis Huntington, brother to the Duke of Hastings, threw him a salute before sauntering toward him.
“Thank God you’ve arrived,” Huntington said, clapping Nick hard upon a gamey shoulder. He flinched slightly, remembering his nights lying in hospital. No, that brought images of a fire-haired goddess whom he had no right quartering in his heart. He’d have to let her go, now that he was the Earl.
“What? To save you from dancing with the gaggle of young ladies? Shall we step into the gardens? I could use a cigar.” He flicked his eyes around the vast ballroom, sparkling with sconce lights and happy chatter. He chuckled as he noticed Lady Swann in the middle of a large entourage, several of her daughters in tow. “I see there are still plenty of Swanns to go around.”
“Quite right, old chap. All ready been to the gardens.” He grinned as their steps took them right to the edge of the dancing. “And you are late. Time to take your punishment.”
Suddenly he was encircled by women. He could hardly breathe from all the perfume and fans flapping. Bloody hell. He’d rather face an entire garrison of Napoleon's finest than face these simpering women hunting for titles. He could cry off by mentioning the ague had come back. No, too cowardly for a soldier, now an Earl. He moaned.
“Oh, did I step on your foot, my lord?” asked a gangly though buxom Lady Lilly Wrothringham, smiling coquettishly up at him. She jangled her dance card as close to his face as she could get.
“No,” he lied. It took all his restraint not to hop about the ballroom on one foot while his healing foot throbbed. How would he get away from them? He looked for Huntington who had been pulled away by the Lady Rossgrove.
The Duke of Pembroke’s youngest and fairest daughter, Lady Bridget Morningside, had Nick’s arm. Her gold-tipped, black fan flipped furiously. He smiled wanly into her huge brown eyes. She batted thick, black lashes provocatively.
When he found Huntington, he would kill him for leaving him as prey.
Miss Carissa Dewey’s bossom overfilled the square opening of her silver gown. She leaned close. Bile rose in his throat.
“Is the war really over, Lord Carrington?” She shook her bountiful flesh teasingly under his nose. Her ample charms were damned close to his hand that Lady Theresa Sangrias had immobilized by clutching possessively at his other arm.
What was a man to do? Seriously, did they expect him to dance with them all? He’d sooner walk into direct cannon fire. Over the heads of the young beauties, he spied the circle of mothers waiting to pounce once he’d selected one or another.
“Certainly my Claire would be his best choice for a wife,” the Lady Dumont asserted to the circle of mothers eyeing the gaggle of young women surrounding the newest quarry.
“Oh, you’ve got that all wrong. Lilly makes perfect sense. She’s younger, she’s accomplished at entertaining and that’s what he needs. A wife to give him many children and to entertain.”
“But,” Lady Swann opined “he has a wide choice with my girls.”
“Pish posh. You’re all out of line. He must select his own wife. Let the lad alone.”
“Select his own wife! Are you daft?”
All the women turned to look at the Duchess of Pemberton who had joined the chatter. Silence reigned.
Resignedly, they flipped out their fans and smiled brightly, not saying a word.
“Dancing,” the Lady Josephine Ralph said incredulously to her companion as she spotted the large group moving like a small wave away from them. Josie was a direct descendant of William the Conqueror’s chamberlain. Strong willed and well traveled, she’d no desire to marry. She asserted she would never marry, but her parents crossed their fingers she didn’t mean it, for she was their only daughter. “Nine ladies dancing attendance on that poor man who only just entered the ballroom. I saw him arrive. He was greeted by Lewis Huntington.”
The two young women walked shoulder to shoulder, congratulating themselves on having escaped the Duchess of Pemberton who was acting as their chaperone in the absence of their parents. Growing increasingly busy greeting her guests, they had no trouble wandering away.
“Let’s walk in the gardens!” Mackenna exclaimed impetuously. “I love the snow and you know how I loathe dancing.”
“Yes, yes, we can go to the gardens, of course. But first let’s see what the disturbance is,” Josie said.
Both stood on tip toe trying to see the event, but alas the crowd thwarted their view. So they strayed toward the long table set with drinks.
“Mackenna, you promised you’d tell me of your soldier.”
The Lady Mackenna Douglas, niece to the Duchess of Pembroke, daughter of Her Grace’s baby sister, blanched. Why had she uttered a word? There was no sense in speaking of it. The man was gone. Long gone. Her heart ached recalling memories of him.
“I didn’t understand what was happening when I nursed him, Josie.” She fingered the cool glass of the wine flute and sipped slowly. Her eyes filled with unshed tears that she blinked hard to squelch. “He exchanged banter such that I laughed until I cried. He stole my heart. What else is there to say?” She plucked at the yellow puffed sleeves of her gown. Bright ribbons circled the high waist. Fingering the ruby necklace her aunt had given her, she bit her lip. The ruby, resemblig the fiery shade of her hair, was a family heirloom, passed down for almost two hundred years.
“Aww, poor dear. I didn’t mean to make you sad.” She squeezed her friend’s hand. Trying to change the subject, she brightened, lifting a sugary delicacy to Mackenna’s lips. “You must try these.”
Makenna laughed. “Aunt had me sampling whatever she judged delectible earlier before anyone arrived.” Her hand went to her stomach. “I couldn’t eat another bite.”
Josie popped it into her mouth.
“I wish your mother could be here to see you.” Josie sighed, indelicately licking her fingers behind her fan. When she spied the dancers, she giggled unmercifully.
“What?” Mackenna turned. The only thing she could see was the top of the same man’s head––it had to be because at least nine if not more ladies’ heads bobbed animatedly around his light blond curls––heading toward the table. He appeared to be overwhelmed by girls. “Maybe we should rescue him?” Mackenna offered.
“How?” Josie snorted. Very unladylike. “Why ruin the fun? Besides, it’s one of the rakes, to be sure. One we don’t have to fight off.”
Mackenna’s infectious laugh filled the air. “Why indeed?” Truth be told, Mackenna would rather be practicing with her bow and arrows. She’d brought her falcon to her aunt’s mews so she could hunt on the morrow.
As if they had heard Josie, suddenly the Lords Farquharson, Hardcastle and Preston, rogues each and every one, joined the two women.
Lord Andrew Preston bowed over Makenna’s hand and held it tightly. “My lady, let’s dance.”
She rolled her eyes. Of all the men here, Lord Preston churned her stomach the least. Giving Josie a look of resignation, she defiantly let the man lead her onto the dance floor. He held her too tight. When she pushed back, he put his lips into her hair next to her ear. “Come outside with me. We can have more fun there.”
She pinched his under arm, hard, and he stepped back, eyes ablaze. “Maybe later, sir.”
Zinnette Warwick held tenaciously to the arm of the man she’d decided she wanted to marry. They had danced twice and now she had his sole attention after scaring the other girls away.
“My throat is parched, sir,” she cajoled.
“Wait here. I’ll bring drinks.”
When he returned, she steered him out of the ballroom. He limped slightly and she guessed he could use some rest. With her. In the library. Alone.
Allowing him to push the heavy, library door completely open, Zinnette thrilled to find it empty except for hundreds of books and a roaring fire. Spotting the settee, she sat and patted the seat next to her. He smiled, falling easily into her trap.
Laying a hand on his chest, Zinnette leaned in close, gazing seductively into his golden eyes. “I like you, Dominick Carrington. Thank you for the dances.” She hoped her eyes suggested more than she was saying. If he kissed her, she would take him to her mother and spring the ruse.
Just as she’d desired his lips descended and took hers softly, almost chastely. He deepened the kiss and she melted. She had him. She knew it.
“You must meet my mother, Nick,” Zinnette said breathlessly, when he broke the kiss.
He let her take his hand and lead them back to the festivities. The kiss had stirred nothing in him, but it hadn’t been unpleasant. He sighed resignedly. He supposed of all the sea of girls, Zinnette was the least obnoxious. Calling on her might be absorbing, might even hold some fascination if he could scare up some interest. Other women had to have admirable traits like his Scottish lass possessed. It would be a beginning.
To meet Zinnette’s mother, he pasted a smile on his face, a smile he was sure looked more like he was going to an execution. He barely heard the words exchanged. He nodded. He kissed the mother’s hand. He pretended to listen to Zinnette’s babbling to her mother, but his ears were tuned to the conversations around them.
He heard a laugh above the chatter. A jolt of shock waves sparked through his body like a man had just fired a rifle a foot from him.
His eyes darted about the room. Searching. No one else’s laugh sounded so inviting, so enticing. So provocative. He knew that laugh. He would never forget it. It haunted his very existence.
His heart lurched when she came into view. The woman in his dreams, who owned that laugh, followed Preston to the dance floor.
She was a glowing vision in yellow silk, her hair of fire piled high on her head. She floated across the floor like an angel, as she had in hospital. Formal attire accentuated her lovely form, but her spirit and that laugh pulled all his heart strings. Shredded them, in fact.
Before he knew it, Zinnette, who smiled boldly up into his eyes, had pulled him into the dance. Three dances were unprecedented. Unless––“Oh, I’m so glad we’re courting!” Zinnette gushed.
Courting? What? When had that silly notion come about?
Then they changed partners.
Suddenly he had her in his arms. Makenna. Time stopped. Tremors rumbled through them both.
Her breathing came fast, encouraging him. He reacted first and dragged her tight into his arms, pulled her in too close. But he only had her for so long.
“I never thought to see you again.”
“Nor I,” she murmured, their eyes locking. The top of her hair smelled like white jasmine. And heather. His Scottish lass. He breathed deep, hardly believing she was in his arms.
His heart lurched. “How do you happen to be here?” It took all his control to keep the incredulity out of his voice.
“My aunt is the Duchess,” she barely whispered over the music.
His heart sank. She was only here visiting relatives. Her husband must be close or on business.
He swung her in ever widening circles until they switched partners. The feel of her in his arms scalded his resolve. He still wanted her, husband or no. He would offer to set her up as his mistress. He had to see her. Feel her. Know her. Any way that he could.
When they came together again, he was determined not to let her go until he knew she was his. She spoke first. “I thought you would stay in the thick of things on the continent.”
“I did.” His gaze drank in the lightening, the flames, the woodlands––all the colors lighting her hair. He wanted to pull the clips holding it up, loosening it to cover her shoulders, her arms, her back.
Her breathing came in short hitches accentuating her freckled breasts threatening to spill out of her dress.
She blushed under his scrutiny. A pink to scarlet blush, sending expectations to his blood. He wanted to keep her. How was he to go about it though?
Her hands slipped around his neck, fingering the golden locks covering his cravat. “You appear to be well rested. No more regimental duties?”
He shook his head. “My brother died. I was called home.”
She drew in a quick breath. Oh, dear Lord. He was the Earl. All the women, the attention. It all made sense. He had to pick a wife. Had he picked a wife? Was she too late?
“I––I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I thought I’d never get through it. Then you appeared. Where is your husband, Lady Mackenna?”
She laughed her infectious laugh, filling his heart with joy. She leaned on tip toes trying to reach his ear, ignoring the whispers and the fact that they were standing still while others danced. “I told him I couldn’t marry him, because I’d fallen in love with someone else. And it just wasn’t fair to any of us.”
He hugged her tight and spun her round and round. She squealed delightedly. Then he kissed her, under the mistletoe. He would never forget how the crush of her soft breasts felt against his chest the moment he knew she was his. Forever.