Authors: Sara Bennett
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Fiction
ina felt as if she were at the center of a growing storm. Charles knew about their financial circumstances, Horace thought she was eager to be his mistress, and Richard Eversham was coming to her room tonight to talk to her.
She bit her lip on a hysterical giggle, hastily composing herself as she came under Maria’s suspicious gaze. Her maid knew there was something happening, but Tina had made certain she didn’t have a chance to question her by keeping her busy, or chattering nonsense whenever there was a silence.
She didn’t want to discuss any of it. In fact she didn’t even want to think about it.
Her evening dress was laid out. Rose silk, the color of freshly opened petals, with short sleeves ending in a flounce and a matching flounce on the bottom of the skirt. The décolletage was scooped quite low but made respectable by a smidgeon of white French lace. Maria fastened her corset and enveloped her in petticoats and then eased on the ball gown. Despite her day outdoors, Tina’s complexion was flawless, and her pale skin emphasized her green eyes and dark lashes. Once again, she wore the garnets about her throat and the matching earrings.
She felt buffeted by circumstance, no longer certain in which direction to turn. Which direction to run. Her husband-hunting plan with Horace had gone horribly wrong, and now she’d broken her parents’ confidence and told Charles the secret family shame, and he was so upset . . . Her breath caught, but she disguised her sudden emotion by reaching for her long evening gloves and drawing them smoothly on. Maria buttoned the tiny seed-pearl buttons and clipped a pearl bracelet about Tina’s wrist.
She glanced in the mirror again, feeling the cool air coming through the inch of open window, the scent of the garden and the river, the sounds of bird life settling down to sleep.
“Have you heard any more about Sir Henry?” she asked her maid. “It seems wrong to be going to a ball when he is in his bed and perhaps very ill.”
“Only that Lady Isabelle insists everything go ahead as planned and that Sir Henry would want it that way.”
Tina wondered if she would be that stoic if her husband were at death’s door. She couldn’t imagine it. But then she couldn’t imagine herself married, not now that Horace had proved to be such a disappointment.
“You look beautiful, Miss Tina.”
Maria was smiling at her from the candlelit shadows.
“Thank you, Maria.”
A moment later, she was descending the stairs to join the other guests. The ballroom was a vision, and she paused to take it in.
Flowers were displayed in huge vases along the walls; an abundance of roses, lavender and lilies perfumed the air with their fragrance. There were chairs around the sides of the room and several musicians on a platform at the far end. It was very elegant, not a hint that the master of the house lay upstairs, unconscious, perhaps dying, although perhaps it was that fact that gave the whole occasion a sense of frenetic energy.
Tina strongly felt as if she must seize her happiness with both hands and not let it slip away, that life was finite, and she might never have this chance again.
nce more Richard found himself standing in a crowded room, waiting for Tina. He nodded as Will detailed to him the security measures he had taken for Sir Henry, and he listened carefully and smiled as other guests spoke to him, but his mind was elsewhere. He was restless, looking up every few moments, incomplete.
Until she entered the room.
As if on cue the music started.
Richard moved toward her, determined to have the first dance, only to be thwarted by Lady Isabelle, who placed a large middle-aged man in Tina’s path. As he watched, there was some conversation, Tina smiled, and the two of them were off in a whirl of other couples.
He stood feeling ridiculously wretched.
Lady Isabelle observed the couple, a little smile playing about her mouth, and as she turned away, she noticed him.
“Richard,” she said, and he had no option but to bow over her hand and ask how Sir Henry did.
Her smile dimmed. “He is sitting up and eating broth,” she murmured, “but that is not what you want me to say, is it? He is meant to be unconscious, close to death.” Her eyes searched his.
“Yes, that is what you must say,” he agreed quietly. “He is well guarded in his room. If anyone tries again, we’ll catch him.”
“He can’t stay there indefinitely.”
“No. I think he will wake tomorrow,” Richard said thoughtfully.
“This is all so awful,” she began, but caught herself and gave a little shake of her head. “Never mind. You must enjoy yourself, Richard. I have gone to a great deal of trouble to make this ball a success and so it must be. There are people from all over the county, and Mr. Freer, who is dancing with Miss Smythe, is from America!”
Richard looked over at the couple, who appeared to be enjoying each other’s company. He found himself wishing they were miserable.
“Really, America?” he repeated, as she’d meant him to.
“In confidence, Richard, he is here to find an English wife. He is rather taken with the English and says only an English wife will do. So I am on the lookout. I wondered whether Tina might be the one for him. Though she is very beautiful, and I’m sure she has many admirers. A middle-aged American might not be what she wants, despite his being obscenely rich.”
“Has she many admirers?” he said idly, as if the idea were new to him and of no real interest.
But something must have given him away because Isabelle’s gaze sharpened, and her tone grew tart. “Why Richard! Are you jealous? I always thought your heart was made of stone.”
He bowed again. “And so it is,” he assured her. “Granite, in fact.”
Her laughter followed him as he went to seek a partner from among the other women. He was wearing his heart on his sleeve indeed if Lady Isabelle had noticed; he must be more careful. Sir Henry was upstairs as bait, and Richard must have his wits about him tonight, just in case another attempt was made on his commander’s life.
ina had hoped Richard might dance with her, but so far he seemed to have made it his mission to partner all the wallflowers. It was very gentlemanly of him, of course, but she wished he’d come and ask her. Not that she’d lacked for partners, and most of them very pleasant.
Apart from one.
She hadn’t wanted to dance with Horace, but there he was, and after so much had passed between them she felt she could not refuse him without causing a scene.
“It has been quite an exciting weekend in the country, Tina, don’t you think?”
“That depends on what you find exciting, Horace.”
He smiled, but it was not a nice smile. Suddenly, Horace did not seem like a very nice person.
“I noticed you beside the river after luncheon. You were running, Tina. Is that a new fashion for ladies?”
Startled, Tina met his eyes. She felt her heart begin to thud uncomfortably. “Running?”
“And I’m sure I saw Mr. Eversham running after you. It was very odd, but perhaps I was mistaken.”
“Perhaps you were.”
But his skeptical expression told her he knew he wasn’t and that he wasn’t happy with what he’d seen, and he could make mischief for her if he wished. “You know,” he said, suddenly serious as the final strains of their dance were played, “you can always come to me if you need help, Tina. We have known each other a very long time, haven’t we?”
“We have, Horace. I’ll bear it in mind.”
Tina was very glad to leave him behind and walk away. She must tell Richard. He might be able to do something to stop Horace from spreading rumors. But then she remembered that this was all her fault, she’d caused this mess, and it wasn’t really fair to ask Richard to fix it.
“Ah, Tina!” It was Lady Isabelle again, bright-eyed, cheeks flushed. She caught Tina’s arm and led her out of the crush. “I have been remiss. There is someone here you
Although Tina put a bright smile on her face, she went with her hostess reluctantly. Who now? She’d been so looking forward to the ball, to dancing with Richard, and it was all going awry.
“Tina? Here he is.”
She looked up and found herself face-to-face with Richard, who seemed as surprised as she. “Richard,” Lady Isabelle exclaimed, like a conjurer who has performed a magic trick, and then bending close to murmur in his ear, she said “My gift to you, for protecting Henry. I really am grateful, you know.”
Richard took Tina’s hand in his as if it was something utterly priceless. Isabelle was speaking again, something about Mr. Freer being rather smitten with Margaret Allsop, but her voice seemed to fade into the far distance, and next thing Richard had led her onto the floor, and they were swirling around in a haze of candlelight and color.
“You are the most beautiful woman in the room.” It was no polite compliment; he meant it, she could tell, and her heart fluttered.
When he held her close, Tina felt like the most beautiful woman in the room—in the world. She flowed into his arms. She felt overpowered by emotion and longing; surely, everyone here could see how she felt? And yet she didn’t care, she wanted to stay like this forever, encircled by his arms, their bodies together and moving with the music.
Tina had danced with many men tonight but not like this. This one felt right. This was perfection.
And all too brief. Moments later the dance was over, and John Little claimed her, and she had no choice but to thank Richard and walk away from him as if she weren’t miserable about it.
She had seen less of Mr. Little this weekend than she’d expected, and on the occasions she had seen him, he’d appeared preoccupied. But now he was his usual quiet and polite self, a little too quiet perhaps, as if he were counting his dance steps.
“I’m sorry Sir Thomas and Lady Carol aren’t here, Miss Smythe.”
“No, they are otherwise engaged.”
Dealing with the bailiffs.
“So you said. I enjoyed their hospitality. I am not always shown such kindness.”
“But sir, surely no one is ever
kind to you?”
He smiled. “You are a sweet young lady, but you must know there is a great deal of unkindness in polite society. Particularly to someone of my standing.”
“Mr. Little, you are a gentleman.”
“I am, but I am also in trade, and the two are not considered compatible. And although I was born a gentleman, my circumstances have not always been as I might have wished.”
The music stopped and he looked so sad and Tina felt so sorry for him that instead of walking away she lingered.
They were near the doors leading to the garden. “Perhaps some fresh air, Miss Smythe?” he asked hopefully.
Tina allowed herself to be led outside.
“I didn’t mean to distress you with old grievances, Miss Smythe,” he said. “The past is just that. I have moved on.”
They walked along the terrace. An urn stood on the steps, and a fountain twinkled. Tina caught sight of a couple in the shadows, and noted Lady Isabelle’s bright hair. The next moment she heard her hostess’s voice, rising shrilly in the still evening air.
“No, Vincenzo, I cannot. You know I cannot.”
John Little had heard too and was looking in the same direction.
They could see Signor Veruda hovering over her, trying to hold her back, but the next moment Isabelle broke free and ran, blundering between them as if she didn’t even know they were there, her face a white and tear-stained blur. Behind her Signor Veruda stood staring after her, his expression one of terrible unhappiness, and then he seemed to collect himself. He gave a brief bow in their direction, before he turned and vanished into the shadows.
“Unfortunate,” John Little said. He had taken out a cigar and was making moves to light it. The scene had made Tina uncomfortable, and she decided it was time to go back inside. “I think we might return to the ballroom, Mr. Little.”
“Are you sure?” He sounded disappointed.
“I believe it’s almost time for supper.”
She was pleased to see her brother and Anne approaching and moved to join them.
“Nearly time for food, sis. I could eat a horse.”
“I do hope they won’t serve up the horses, Charles.”
He laughed. “No, probably not, but I
hungry. All that dancing.”
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, Charles,” Tina said meaningfully, slipping her arm through his.
He shrugged philosophically. “Fiddle while Rome burns. Time enough to be miserable when I get back to Mallory Street.”
If Mallory Street still belongs to us.
They exchanged a meaningful glance.
The supper was an enormous spread, as if once again Lady Isabelle had set out to impress. Tina and Charles and Anne sat together, enjoying the various treats before them. A waiter filled their glasses, and Tina allowed herself two glasses of champagne.
Charles is right. Fiddle while Rome burns indeed!
After this weekend she might have to take some dreadful post as a governess or a companion or work in a factory. She shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking of, but she would have to think of it. Not yet, though, not tonight.
Joseph Freer, she noticed, was proudly leading Margaret around the room as if they were already engaged. She pointed them out to Anne, who sat between her and Charles. “Just look at those two.”
“He seems quite taken with her, doesn’t he?”
“Besotted, I would say,” added Charles.
“Isn’t he a little old to be besotted?” Anne giggled.
“Never too old to be besotted.” Charles grinned.
“Well, I wish them both the best,” said Anne. “Although I did think it was Mr. Little Margaret had her eye on, I believe that is now quite finished.”
“Finished?” Tina asked curiously.
“Mr. Little is not to be relied upon, at least that is what she told me.”
“In what way isn’t he to be relied upon?”
Anne picked up her spoon and dug it into her dessert. “I think he offered to take her to the theater and then had to cancel at the last moment. And it wasn’t just the once. Margaret is very keen on keeping one’s word, you know.”