Authors: Candace Camp
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #General
She was also grateful because the dance was both too active and too intricate to allow for conversation between her and her partner. Thea concentrated on executing the proper steps and tried to look at Morecombe as little as possible. Unlike her, he moved with ease through the steps, which Thea found irritating. What was even more annoying was that whenever she glanced over at him, she felt that same little flutter of excitement. And when they moved closer in their movements and their hands reached out to touch, palm to palm, it left her breathless, her heart pounding.
It was only the exertion of the dance, she told herself, that made her cheeks flush and her blood hammer in her veins. But, deep down, Thea was too honest to let herself believe such a lie. It was Gabriel Morecombe’s nearness that made her feel so strangely wobbly and fizzy, so hot and cold, all at once.
The dance ended, and they made their polite curtsy and bow to one another. Gabriel offered her his arm, his eyes sweeping over her flushed face, and as they walked off the floor, he guided her through the open French doors onto the stone walkway beyond. Startled, Thea could think of nothing to do except go with him. She glanced around and saw that a number of other couples were strolling out onto the terrace to escape the heat of the ballroom, so she supposed that it could not be a scandalous thing to do. Again tingling with that sense of unease and excitement that Gabriel seemed to call forth in her, Thea strolled with him along the terrace. The garden below was illuminated with lanterns placed strategically along the paths between the flowers. A few bold couples even walked there, at least as far as to the fountain.
“I—why are we out here?” Thea asked. It sounded graceless—again—but she could think of no other way to put it. Gabriel might have asked her to dance as a courtesy to his hostess, but she could see no reason why he would extend the experience by taking her for a stroll.
He glanced at her, the same expression of mingled surprise and amusement in his eyes that she had seen there several times since Lady Fenstone had introduced them. “It was warm in the ballroom. I thought the fresh air might be nice.” He stopped, half turning to her. “Would you rather return?”
Thea thought about going back to the chair beside her mother. “No.”
He smiled faintly. “Good. Neither would I.”
They continued past the steps down into the garden and stopped finally at the stone balustrade beyond. Thea looked out across the garden, very aware of Gabriel’s presence beside her. She played with her fan, not quite sure what to do with her hands. She was certain she should say something. Veronica would doubtless know what to say, but the only things that came to Thea’s mind were inane comments on the beauty of the garden or the refreshing quality of the evening breeze.
After a moment, she glanced over at Gabriel. He was leaning back against the balustrade, watching her. The muted light from inside the house slanted across his lower face, leaving his eyes in shadow, unreadable, and illuminating his chin and mouth. Her eyes flickered to the shallow dent in his chin, so curiously appealing, then moved up to the firm lips, which were, she had to admit, even more appealing. She should not be having such thoughts, she knew. She was not the sort, like Veronica, to daydream about husbands or wax rhapsodic over the handsome face of this man or the broad shoulders of that one. Veronica was a feminine girl, all ribbons and lace and smiles, like their mother. But Thea had always been more like their father, studious and well-read, a person who valued thought above emotion. A person’s brain was what interested her most, not the curve of a man’s lip.
She turned away, hoping the dim light hid the blush that she could feel flooding her cheeks. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? For what?” He straightened and moved a bit closer, sounding honestly puzzled.
“I am not much of a conversationalist, I’m afraid. I am not used to”—she made a vague gesture toward the rest of the terrace and house—”to any of this. You must find this terribly …”
“Terribly what?” he asked when she did not go on.
“Boring.” She faced him squarely then, for she refused to shy away from difficulties.
He let out a short bark of laughter. “Boring? My dear Miss Bainbridge, boring is definitely something you are not.”
“I don’t know how you can say that,” she retorted somewhat crossly. “There is really no need for you to be polite. I haven’t said any of the things I should. I have been blunt and no doubt impolite. I have never danced before with any man I haven’t known since I could toddle. And now I cannot even come up with the most commonplace remark.”
His chuckle was low and warm and made something curl deliciously deep within her abdomen. “It may surprise you to learn that I am happy
to hear the most commonplace remark.”
“Oh, you know what I mean.” Really, the man was maddening. “You shouldn’t laugh at someone who is admitting their grievous social ineptitude.”
“What else should I do?” His teeth glinted in the darkness. “Let me assure you that I have danced with a great many girls whom I have not known since childhood. And I have heard a great many commonplace remarks. It is, quite frankly, a relief to enjoy the quiet and cool of the garden without hearing that the weather is quite nice this evening or that the breeze is most refreshing or that the party is so enjoyable.”
“I thought of saying all those things, but I could not bring myself to do it.”
“And for that, I thank you.” He leaned forward, surprising her by taking her chin between his thumb and fingers. “How old are you, Miss Bainbridge? I daresay you haven’t made your come-out yet.”
“No.” Thea could barely get out the word. His movement was startling and, at the same time, thrilling. She was certain that this was not the sort of thing she should be doing, but she was not about to pull away. “I am seventeen.”
He smiled. “I think the bachelors of London are in for a surprise.”
It occurred to her that his statement could be taken in a way that was less than complimentary, but then all thought flew from her head as he bent and kissed her.
His kiss was neither long nor deep, but it was the only kiss she had ever received from a man, and Thea felt it all through her. Her lips tingled, and her heart thumped against her ribs. His mouth was soft and warm; his scent filled her nostrils. Thea was shocked to feel a sudden, strong desire to throw her arms around his neck and press her body up against his.
Gabriel raised his head and stepped back. Sketching a bow, he offered Thea his arm to lead her back to her mother. Thea could do nothing but accept. She had not seen Gabriel Morecombe since.
Until tonight—when he had not remembered her.
Thea reached up and realized for the first time that tears had trickled down her cheeks. Annoyed, she dashed them away with gloved fingers. Really, she told herself, it was beyond enough to be mooning about here in the dark, feeling sorry for herself because some rake from London thought her beneath his notice. A saving anger began to rise in Thea, pushing back the hurt that dwelled like a rock in her chest. She was clearly guilty of the sin of pride in thinking that Lord Morecombe would remember her from their meeting so long ago. But Gabriel Morecombe had been rude and arrogant. It was not just that he had not remembered her or that he had not even bothered to call her by the correct name a few seconds after Mrs. Cliffe introduced her. It was that he obviously found the people here quite beneath his touch. The man’s eyes had been glazed with boredom, his expression etched in lines of condescension. Clearly he wished himself somewhere else—no doubt off at the tavern drinking! Simply because he was an aristocrat, he thought that he was superior to the good, honest people of Chesley. It was no wonder Lord Morecombe had forgotten her; he had probably considered her not worth his interest even when he met her.
Thea straightened in her chair and smoothed down the front of her skirt. She ought to return to the great hall. She was not the sort to hide in a dark room, licking her wounds. However, she could not bring herself to go back and watch Lord Morecombe dance with Damaris and the Cliffe girls. Worse, what if Mrs. Cliffe decided to press him into dancing with the wallflowers, such as Thea? Thea was not about to risk that embarrassment.
She found a candelabra and lit it, illuminating the room with a soft glow. She was pleased to find a bookshelf on the wall behind the door, and soon she was settled down in a comfortable chair out of sight of the open doorway, engrossed in a book. A few minutes later, there were steps in the hallway, and Thea looked up to see her brother peering cautiously around the door. His expression brightened.
“Ah, Thea! So you stole away, too? Too noisy by half in there, I thought.” Daniel came farther into the room. “You found a book?” She pointed toward the bookshelf, and he turned. “Ah, excellent.”
He examined the shelves and chose a tome, then sat down on the chair closest to Thea, the candelabra burning on the table between them. The two of them remained there through the rest of the ball, reading in companionable silence, as they so often did of an evening. Thea glanced over at her brother and smiled fondly. She had a good life, she reminded herself. It was foolish to grow downcast because one arrogant rake had not recognized her. Her life was orderly and unhurried and had purpose. She did not want for anything, and she had friends and family. She could do as she pleased—within the bounds of propriety, of course. There was no reason to be discontented or sad over the behavior of Gabriel Morecombe, whom she would probably never see again, anyway. She would simply forget about him.
“Lord, what a bore!” Alan
Carmichael declared as he and Lord Morecombe entered the drawing room of the Priory, followed closely by Sir Myles. Gabriel went straight to the decanters of liquor on the sideboard, and Alan flung himself into one of the armchairs flanking the fireplace, letting out a dramatic groan. “I should have listened to you, Ian, and stayed here.”
Ian, Lord Wofford, who was stretched out in the other chair, his feet propped on the hassock and a snifter of brandy in one hand, merely lifted an elegant eyebrow. “Told you.”
“It wasn’t so bad.” Sir Myles propped his elbow on the mantel and grinned at the other men. His eyes, usually twinkling with merriment, and his close-cropped curls were almost the same golden-brown color. Though not as tall as Gabriel, he was powerfully built, with the wide chest and muscular arms that denoted his devotion to the gentlemanly art of pugilism. “There was dancing. Young ladies. And the Squire served a damned fine hot punch back in his smoking room.”
“Yes, but did you look at the ladies?” Alan countered. “All those Cliffe girls! There must have been ten of them.”
“Four, I believe,” Gabriel Morecombe offered as he poured healthy amounts of brandy into their glasses. “It only seemed like more because they were so uniformly alike in looks, dress, and general silliness.”
“I have to endure that sort of rural festivity whenever I am home,” Ian said. “I had no intention of subjecting myself to it here. I shall be eternally grateful that Father sold this place—though I cannot conceive why you agreed to buy it, Gabriel.”
“Come, now.” Gabriel made an expansive gesture, a smile lighting his handsome features. “Look around you.” He turned and handed their drinks to Alan and Myles. “Where else can I obtain such peace and solitude as I have here?”
“And such lack of civilization,” Ian drawled.
“Civilization is overvalued. I far prefer owning a house to which I can retreat without having to deal with tenants and my estate manager or worry about whether I offend my stepmother’s sensibilities.”
“Well, if you didn’t want obligations, why’d you go to the Squire’s Christmas ball?” Ian asked.
“A good question.” Gabriel grimaced. “One which I asked myself as Mrs. Cliffe dragged me across the room, introducing me to every single woman who lives in the area. In truth, I suspect she imported a few from another village. After the first five minutes, I could scarcely have told you
name, let alone any of theirs.”
Ian let out a crack of laughter. “I warned you! I knew every marriage-minded mama in the county would be there to introduce you to their eligible—and stultifyingly boring—daughters.”
“Since you are already married, Ian, that would have presented no problem for you,” Myles pointed out.
“True. Wouldn’t have kept me from perishing from ennui, however.”
“Well, I think you are all too harsh on the fair village of Chesley,” Myles said lightly. “I, for one, enjoyed the evening of dancing. And while the Cliffe sisters were trying on the ears, it was more than made up for by the treat to the eyes that is Mrs. Howard.”
a beauty,” Gabriel agreed.
“D’ you mean the black-haired lovely?” Alan asked. “She was a peacock among pigeons, wasn’t she?”
“Who?” Ian asked as he stood up and went to the sideboard to set down his glass. “A beauty here in Chesley? Sounds like a Banbury story to me. I would have remembered a raven-haired temptress.”
“She moved here only a few months ago, I believe,” Gabriel said.
“Good heavens. Why?”
Gabriel laughed. “Perhaps she was looking for peace and solitude, too.”
“She’ll get an ample amount of that,” Ian retorted sardonically, turning and leaning back against the sideboard. “Now, gentlemen … are we going to proceed to any actual entertainment this evening?”
“What did you have in mind?” Gabriel asked.
“Loo, whist, vingt-et-un—whatever suits your fancy. Your butler told me he found several bottles and casks in the cellars. Lord only knows when they date from. I thought I’d go down and see if there was anything we might want.”
Gabriel shrugged. “Be my guest.”
“I’ll go with you.” Alan took a candlestick from the sideboard and the two men left the room.
Gabriel poured another drink for himself and Myles, and they settled down in the chairs in front of the fire, stretching their legs out toward the warmth.
“Hope the evening wasn’t too much of a bore,” Gabriel offered. “I thought it would be good to meet the locals.”