About the book
“I love you not in spite of your imperfections, but because of them.”
The Bolton family has a tradition, kept for generations: they make dashing children, and they marry for love. Lady Emily, however, fears she will be the first to break both of these traditions. Very insecure in her appearance, and with the only man she is interested in not looking to get married, this season might prove to be nothing short of disastrous..
Lord Aaron’s idea of family and love shattered completely the day his betrothed chose his own brother over him. He is certain he will never love again. Until he crosses paths with an insecure wallflower, and finds himself drawn to her. Too bad that their newfound happiness is hanging by a thread, and sabotage is just a breath away…
“They will not find me here.” Emily closed the door on the library and picked up her book, scurrying toward the far corner of the room and pressing herself into the gaps between the bookshelves. As she pulled open the cover of her book, she checked back and forth around the room, ensuring all the doors closed before she returned to the world enclosed within the pages of her book. “On the ship that day, the sun was hot, making Elizabeth’s skin burn from the heat. When the Captain approached, she felt that heat increase…”
“Emily? Are you in here?”
“Oh, god have mercy,” Emily muttered, looking up from the book she had been reading. She tried to press her body closer into the gap between the mahogany shelves then cursed herself and looked down. “I am hardly going to disappear, am I?” She flattened the dress that showed off the curves of her figure, so wide in her opinion that few could be in doubt that she carried more weight than she ought to.
“She will not be in there.”
“Would you like a wager on that? Ha! I know my sister well. Trust me. She will be in here.”
“Damn you, Grace,” Emily mumbled, listening to the two voices chatter as she stepped out from her failed hiding place. She turned around in the room, just debating hiding behind an armchair when the door burst open. “Ah…never mind.” Emily hid the book behind her back as Grace stepped in, followed by their sister-in-law, Julia.
“There you are! I told you she would be here,” Grace said with a laugh as she advanced across the room toward Emily.
“How did you find me?” Emily asked, doing her best to put down the book on a nearby table without her family seeing what book it was.
“You think I do not know you by now?” Grace said good naturedly. “I love you, dear sister, but you would often have a conversation with a character in a book than us, would you not?”
“Ha! You do know me well,” Emily laughed too.
“Now, come. There is no time to waste!” Grace took her hand and pulled, dragging her across the room.
“I beg to differ. Time was exactly what I was trying to waste.”
“Do not be witty at a time like this,” Grace said with an artful smile as she continued to pull on her hand.
“Witty? It is the only virtue I have. Forgive me if I hold onto it.” Emily’s words made Julia laugh as she bustled on behind her.
“Emily, we must prepare you for your debut. There is no time for reading.” Julia shook her head and took Emily’s other arm, dragging her out of the room.
The happiness Emily felt in her family’s company began to fade at the mention of her debut. As they towed her out of the room and toward the stairs, she looked down at the floor, trying to swallow past her nerves, but it was no good. They remained there, fluttering like moths in her stomach.
“Are you not excited?” Julia asked, her own excitement clearly so palpable that her rosy cheeks were blushing a deeper pink. “I was so thrilled for my debut that I tripped up stepping into the ballroom.”
“Knowing me, I will fall flat on my face when I step into the ballroom,” Emily’s words made both women laugh beside her.
“You will do no such thing, I am sure,” Grace brushed off the idea. “Come on, let us prepare you for the evening!”
They hurried Emily up the stairs and into her chamber, where not only her maid, Helena, was preparing her gown for the night, but her mother was there too, Charity, picking out silver jewelry and laying them across the vanity table for Emily to wear.
“Oh my,” Charity said, waving a hand in front of her face as if to quell tears. “How emotional this moment is. My younger child making her debut. You are all so grown up now. I remember when you were all running round in your morning dresses, playing games on the lawn, and crying when you scraped your knees. Beautiful trivial things you all were. Soon, you will have children of your own! No doubt they will be just as beautiful.”
Emily felt herself being pushed into the chair in front of the vanity table, but her mother’s words made her cast her eyes downward, unwilling to meet her own reflection. Charity was right, in many ways. The Earl of Dowding’s family had a long tradition of producing beautiful children going back generations, and Emily’s siblings were no exception.
Grace was the perfect picture of elegance, with a slender form, a tall stature, a small nose, and bold blue eyes, with long chestnut hair that always stayed in its updo. Barely a pair of eyes was not turned in her direction when she walked into a room.
Arthur, their brother, was as handsome as their father had been when he was young. He bore auburn hair, which was copperish in places, curling around his temple, with deep brown eyes that ladies seemed fond of staring into. Many ladies did, for he had once been one of the most eligible bachelors in London, until he met Julia. Married for love, with his handsome countenance and Julia’s beauty of pale blonde hair and green eyes, Emily did not doubt they would continue the tradition of beautiful children.
I will not. The thought cut through her strongly.
“Helena, attend to her hair if you will,” Charity said, hurrying round Emily and helping her into her jewelry as Grace and Julia examined the gown she was to wear. “What a debut you will make! I am so excited for you, Emily.”
“Are you?” Emily asked. “I find myself lacking in excitement.”
“Whatever for?” Charity said and stopped by her side. Sweetly, her mother tapped her cheek in the doting way Emily had always loved. “You are simply nervous, love. Have no fear. We will be there with you.”
Emily tried to smile, but it did not last long. She knew the truth of the matter. Tonight, she would be a disappointment to her beautiful family.
Once more, she could not bring herself to lift her eyes and look in the mirror, for she knew what she would find there. The plump form, the dark auburn hair that was so mad with its curls, that rarely ever wanted to stay in any updo, and the big blue eyes. So large, that her eyes sat unnaturally in her face.
“Come, Emily. Let us get you into this gown.”
Not wanting to disappoint her family’s excitement, Emily stood to her feet again once her hair was scraped back into an updo and stepped into the dress. When all was done, she turned to her family, finding Charity in near tears once more, with Grace at her side practically jumping up and down, and Julia bestowing a wide smile on her.
“Oh, Mama,” Emily said with a smile and passed her a handkerchief. “If you cry much more, there will be no tears left in your body.”
“These are happy tears, love. How beautiful you look!”
Emily winced. Her mother had to say that, didn’t she? Mothers loved their children unconditionally.
“We will be late,” Julia cried with sudden panic. “Come on, we best prepare ourselves. People will be arriving any minute for the event.”
Emily nodded along with the others and followed them out of the room, still being careful not to look in a single mirror as she passed onto the landing. Julia and Grace looped arms and hurried off in front, descending the main staircase in the house quickly, whilst Charity hung back, taking Emily’s arm in her own.
“Do not be nervous, love. It is a time for celebration. Tonight, it is the mark of you taking on your own life. Is that not exciting?”
“Very exciting, Mama, but…” Emily chewed her lip nervously before lifting her eyes to her mother. “What if I do not marry as quickly as the rest of you did?”
What if I do not marry at all? What if no one wants me and I will be a spinster forever?
“Time does not matter.” Charity shook her head. “What matters is that you marry for love. Remember that.”
Emily let her mother lead her down the stairs, feeling her nerves take increased control of her body. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, Charity hurried off to help with the preparations for the ball, leaving Emily standing alone and staring at the floor.
You can do this, you fool. All it really takes is standing in a room full of people, which is it. Even if their eyes will be looking at you…
“I see shaking hands.” Arthur’s voice made Emily look up to see her brother approaching her. He at once took her hand in his, trying his best to stop her trembling fingers. “You would go back to your chamber and hide under the bed with an enjoyable book, wouldn’t you?”
“Do you think anyone would notice if I did?” she asked teasingly.
“Something tells me our mother may notice.”
“She will be too distracted with dancing herself once the ball starts.”
“Very true!” he said with a laugh. He looped her hand through his arm and escorted her toward the ballroom. “Do you wish to tell me why your hands are shaking so? I have a feeling it is more than just nerves.”
“Are you capable of reading my mind these days, Arthur?” she said tiredly. “Please do not. How am I to have any secrets left?”
“I know you well. That is all. So, come on, tell me what is in your heart tonight.” Arthur’s kind ways were impossible to escape. As they stepped into the ballroom, she turned her eyes away from the fine summer decorations, filled with roses and wisteria petals strewn across tables, and looked at her brother.
“What if I break the chain, Arthur?” she asked in a whisper.
“What do you mean?” he said softly.
“You were quite reputed in the ton. Do not bother denying it, for you know it is true. Whilst I will admire your modesty, it will not help what I am trying to say.”
“Very well, continue,” he said with a smile.
“Grace is talked much of too. Look out our own parents, they were quite the talk of the ton. Then…look at me.”
“Yes? What am I supposed to see?”
Emily gestured down at the ivory white gown she was wearing, thinking much of the curvy figure.
“I do not quite fit the pattern, do I?” she asked in a quiet whisper.
“You are merely humble, sister.”
“Do not tease me, Arthur. I am being serious.”
“Then allow me to be serious,” he said plainly. “Wait until you are a part of the ton before you fear their opinion. It may be higher than you think. Now, there is one thing you need if you are to enjoy tonight. No debut is complete without a glass of wine in your hand. Let me get one for you.”
“Thank you,” she said, trying to maintain her smile. The moment he left her side to head to the drinks’ table though, she felt her smile vanish. Despite what Arthur had said, she knew the truth of the matter.
She did not follow the pattern of beauty; she was the odd one out. like someone had left a plain nut in a box of nuts wrapped in chocolate. She did not fit.
“Oh god…” she whispered to herself as she looked around the ballroom, watching her family make the final preparations for their guests’ arrival. “What if I am to be the first spinster in our family? What if I will never marry?”
“Allow me to introduce my daughter to you all, Lady Emily Bolton.”
Emily wanted to wince and run away from her father’s words, but nothing was to be done. Archibald Bolton, the Earl of Dowding, had her hand tightly in his as they stood on a mezzanine level in the ballroom, standing over the musicians far below. As their guests clapped, Emily kept her chin level, despite her temptation to look down and hide.
I wish they would all stop looking at me.
She returned some of their stares, noting the way they all looked at her. Some ladies looked at her face, then their eyes cast downward, looking at the plump form beneath her dress. None of the gentlemen looked at her for awfully long, before they thankfully looked away.
“The pattern is now broken,” she muttered to herself. “I am sorry, Mama and Papa.” She spoke so quietly that it was impossible for Archibald to hear her at his side.
With the announcement done, musicians began to play, and everyone turned back to having their own conversations. Emily sighed, feeling with relief that the worst was over before Archibald turned her away and escorted her back down the steps from the mezzanine level toward the main part of the ballroom.
“Now, was that so bad?” Archibald asked, clearly struggling to contain his own humor. “Emily, you would think I had just introduced you to a pride of lions.”
“They might as well be,” Emily said quietly. “Have you seen the way they gnash their teeth when they talk? Quite like lions to me.” Her jest made her father laugh warmly. She was just debating a way to run off and hide at the side of the room when someone appeared at their side. It was Julia, who quickly took hold of Emily’s free hand, offering a comforting smile.
Emily returned the smile, thankful for her sister-in-law’s arrival. Since the day Arthur had invited his betrothed to their house, Emily had adored her. They had been the closest of friends since, and Julia always called Emily the sister she wished she had had from birth.
“Now, perhaps we could find a dancer partner for you,” Archibald said distractedly, looking around the room.
“Please, Papa, I do not wish to force any poor passing gentleman to dance with me. It is like setting a trap for any man that walks by.” She shuddered at the mere idea. “The bait is even poor indeed.”
“My Lord, leave it with me,” Julia said, somehow extracting Emily’s arm from his. “I have the perfect gentleman I wish to introduce Emily to.”
“How wonderful, I’ll leave you to it then.” Archibald released her, leaving Emily to try and grab her father’s arm another time.
“I do not like it, Papa. She is looking at me with craftiness in her. She clearly has a plan!” Emily said in a mock whisper, pulling a laugh from Julia at her jest.
“I quite agree with you,” Archibald pretended to whisper back, “but as I am curious to see just what plan she has up those dainty sleeves, I’ll place you in her care.”
“Treacherous father!” Emily called back to him as Julia towed her away.
“I love you too, sweetheart,” her father called back, laughing under his breath.
“Trust me,” Julia said, turning Emily away from her father completely and urging her to slip through gaps between the guests. “I have had this in mind for some time.”
“What in mind? You are truly beginning to scare me now, Julia.”
“Well, perhaps your father is right. Perhaps I do have something up my sleeve,” Julia said with a giggle.
“You have made me a part of some plot. What plot is this?” Emily asked, cowering away from some of the guests they passed.
There were so many ladies dressed opulently for the occasion that their clothes were amusing to Emily’s eyes. There were women with great feathers on their heads, looking like they had stolen birds from trees to wear in their hair, and even ladies wearing turbans. Emily suspected they suffered from her problem of unruly hair and were trying to hide it with strips of cloth.
“My plot is a great secret. Shh,” Julia whispered playfully as she led Emily to the other side of the room. “Trust me. There is a gentleman here whose company I think you will enjoy.”
“You did not say he would enjoy my company too.”
“That is what I meant.”
“Was it?” Emily asked with raised eyebrows, doubting the possibility. “Please, Julia, do not impose my company on some poor stranger. Any man will feel we are trying to catch him in marriage. That is not what I wish for!”
“I am simply playing a little matchmaking. What is so wrong with that?” Julia asked with a smile.
“Your innocence would be more convincing if you were not looking around this room the way a hawk hunts a mouse.”
“Ha! Stop making me laugh so. You are distracting me from my task.” Julia shook her head. “Ah! There he is. Look.”
“Who?” Emily looked around, gazing in the direction Julia was pointing. “All I see is the ice sculpture Mama ordered, that is currently melting and looking more like a goose than a swan.”
“Behind the sculpture. Take another look. The tall gentleman there, the one with the magnificent midnight blue waistcoat. That is the Marquess of Tattershall.”
Emily did not recognize the name, but she did not think long on the subject, for her mind became too busy in observing the man her sister-in-law was pointing out to her.
He was tall indeed, and clearly of an athletic build thanks to the tailcoat that was molded to his figure. What struck Emily the most was his face. His hair was as dark as a cloudy night sky, left to naturally bounce up a little at his temple, and the lines of his face were angular, creating an unusual handsomeness that she found quite breathtaking.
“Is he not handsome?” Julia asked in excitement.
“Yes, very handsome.” Emily had to admit it, struggling to find any witty remark.
“Would you like to meet him?”
“So that I can make a fool of myself? No. I do not think so.” Emily turned away at once. “Look, more wine, Julia. I suddenly find myself parched and in need of a glass.”
“Yes, I bet you do. Emily, come back!”
Yet Emily had hurried off before Julia could stop her.
“Why the hell am I here?” Aaron muttered to himself. He brushed his brow another time and looked around the room. Despite the busyness of the ballroom, he felt isolated, and lonelier than he did tucked away in his townhouse when he truly was all alone. “I should have stayed home.”
He turned to the table on which an ice sculpture was set and served himself a glass of punch, eagerly lifting it to his lips. If he were going to last the night at the ball, he felt he would need something to boost his courage.
“This was a foolish idea.” He could not stop muttering to himself, cursing every time he looked around. He had only come because his mother had pleaded with him, saying no happiness could be found staying home alone all the time. He knew she was right, well enough, but the prospect of having to come face to face with certain people tonight left him anxious to return home.
He circled the table, looking out to the hosts for the evening, the Earl and Countess of Dowding. They had greeted him warmly earlier that night, despite the fact he only knew them by name. His gaze landed on them for a minute as the Earl led his Countess toward the dancefloor. The smiles on their faces struck him a little. They were odd, in a way, clearly genuine and taking over their entire countenance.
Is it possible to be so happy?
The sound of increased chatter above the flute players told him that there were new arrivals to the ball. He turned toward the door, seeing his mother and father were the latest additions, along with Hugh, his brother.
“Hugh,” he mumbled the word with harshness. “Some brother.”
Breathing deeply and lifting his chin, Aaron decided this was no time to be cowed. He would prove to Hugh that what he had done did not affect Aaron, that he was not still hurting after all. He crossed the room toward his parents when someone else entered the room. The sight of her made him stop dead in his tracks.
Miss Jane Drew walked elegantly into the room where she took up her place beside Hugh, looping her arm through his. She smiled sweetly up at Hugh, making those pale blue eyes dazzle. Aaron had to snatch his gaze away, reluctantly remembering the time when she used to smile at him like that. It suddenly seemed so long ago now.
Any wish Aaron had had to go and greet his parents wavered. Did he have to make small talk when Hugh and Jane were standing there together, smiling at one another like they were the only thing that mattered in this world?
He recognized his name and turned round, grateful for the distraction from his own thoughts. Lady Julia Bolton was advancing toward him, pulling forward a young woman who was familiar to him. It took a moment to recognize her as the woman who had been announced by her father minutes ago, for this was her debut.
“Lady Bolton, how are you?” Aaron asked, bowing deeply to the first lady. He had known her since before she was wed and knew her to be a kindly sort, even if they had not had the chance to meet a lot in company.
“I am well indeed, though I am desirous to introduce my sister-in-law to good company.”
“And you chose me? I am flattered,” he said with a smile, turning his eyes on the young woman beside her.
“Do not be too flattered,” the lady said, looking toward Lady Bolton. “She has not yet said if I am good company myself.”
Aaron was startled by the wit, he found himself chuckling as he bowed to the lady before him.
“Lord Tattershall, may I introduce formally my husband’s sister, and my dear friend. Lady Emily Bolton.” Lady Bolton gestured to the young woman who hurried to curtsy.
To Aaron’s eyes Lady Emily seemed to be avoiding his gaze as she curtsied, but he thought nothing of it. He was busy thinking of what a striking presence she made. There were such large blue eyes in her face that it was almost impossible to look anywhere else, and the dark auburn hair tied in an updo was reluctant to stay in one position, with mad curls slipping down. She was quite beautiful, and when Aaron felt his eyes darting down to her curvaceous figure, he had to snap his gaze back to her face.
Be a gentleman, you fool. You should not ogle a lady so.
“It is a pleasure, Lady Emily,” he hurriedly said as he stood straight from his bow.
“Do not say that yet. I could be the worst company here.” Her playful tone made him laugh again.
Who exactly is this lady? She is quite different.
He glanced over his shoulder, watching where his family went. His parents circled the room with Jane and Hugh following on behind them. Aaron turned his eyes back to Lady Bolton and Lady Emily, deciding the greeting of his family could wait a little longer yet.
“I am sure there is much worse company,” Aaron said with a smile. “This must be your debut then, Lady Emily, how do you find it?” he asked, thankful for the distraction. She chewed her lip for a minute, making his eyes turn down to the pink lips.
What has gotten into me?
He snapped his eyes back to hers again.
“I believe it is proper to comment on the elegance of the event, perhaps say what a wonderful evening it is,” she said, though she smiled with the words, thinking something quite different.
“I sense a ‘but’ coming, and I am intrigued to know what it is.” His statement encouraged her, for she smiled even more.
“But I am so nervous I have already dropped one wine glass. Julia thankfully caught it before it smashed.” She gestured to her sister-in-law at her side.
“I was trying to tell her that we are all messes at our own debuts. No doubt we all have the same fears, the same nerves,” Lady Bolton continued on. “Wouldn’t you say?”
Aaron was distracted again. Out of the corner of his eye, Jane had moved into view. She had a habit of this, always staying within Aaron’s sight somewhere. Her dark blonde hair was coiffed perfectly tonight, styled in such a way that it emphasized her elegant beauty.
“Yes,” Aaron said, shifting his focus back to the two ladies in front of him. “You should have seen me my first night with the ton, Lady Emily. I believe in two of my dances I stepped on a lady’s toes, and the night was capped off with feeling ill thanks to a little too much of this.” He lifted the punch glass in his hands, gesturing down to it.
“Well, that does not sound so bad,” Lady Emily shook her head with her words. “I am still afraid of tripping in my dances and falling flat on my face. I would be a ugly sight, I’m sure.” Her wit made him smile again, startled by the freedom with which she spoke. It was different to other ladies, even to the lady stood beside her. Most were reserved, hardly forward at all, even those that were not, did not have such a good humor.
“Well, if you fall, I promise to be there to help pick you up.” His words brought a new smile to her face.
“Do not promise that yet. When it happens, it may be such an embarrassment that you may want to run as far as possible from the scene.”
He laughed warmly at the way she whispered, as if it would be a great horror to behold.
“Dancing, what a wonderful idea!” Lady Bolton declared at Lady Emily’s side. “We have yet to dance this evening, do we not?”
“Julia, please.” Lady Emily lost her smile entirely. She seemed to have turned a warning glare upon her sister-in-law.
“Please what?” Lady Bolton pretended innocence. “I was just thinking I would be glad to dance with my husband, which was all.”
“Sure, you were,” Lady Emily said, narrowing her eyes. “You were not thinking of making anyone else dance, were you?”
“Oh dear.” Lady Emily winced and turned back to Aaron. “Run now, my Lord, before my sister-in-law ensnares you in her trap.”
He laughed around the punch he was sipping, almost choking on the liquid.
“I see what she is doing,” he assured her with a nod. “Have no fear, for I have not ran away yet.”
“You really may want to. You may end up being the one dancing with me when I fall.” Lady Emily widened her eyes, emphasizing the horror.
“Then it will be easier for me to be the one to pick you up again.” He held her gaze for a minute.
What is this feeling?
It took him a moment to recognize what it was. It held a spark, a kind of wit and excitement.
“I am pleased to hear it,” Lady Bolton said, retrieving the dance card from Lady Emily’s wrist. “You will see my sister-in-law’s dance card is quite empty.”
“Julia.” Lady Emily tried to snatch it back. She failed at first as Lady Bolton took it out of her reach, but on her second attempt she managed to retrieve it and hid it behind her back.
“As you can see,” Lady Bolton said with humor. “She is not an eager dancer. No wonder gentlemen cannot write down their names when she hides the card so.”
“So I see.” He chuckled and turned his eyes back on Lady Emily. She really was incredibly beautiful, but now he could see a blush taking over her cheeks, quite delightful in color. Despite the quiet confidence and the humor that she held; it was clear the nerves were real. She was embarrassed by her sister-in-law trying to secure a dance for her.
Aaron felt eager to abate that blush. Lady Emily was clearly very pleasant company, and this was her debut. Without a doubt did she deserve a dance this evening.
Nearby, Aaron could hear laughter, a sound he recognized all too easily. The dulcet tones and melodic giggle were something that used to happen when he made jests. He turned his head to the side to see Jane was laughing at something Hugh had said to her. It made something in Aaron’s gut tense, as if his insides were being squashed by some unseen force.
Then Hugh looked his way. That was too much to bear.
I will not let him see what he has done to me. This angst has gone on long enough between us.
Aaron snatched his gaze away and looked to Lady Emily as Lady Bolton tried to take hold of her dance card again. What better way to show Hugh and Jane that he was no longer hurt by their betrothal than to dance this evening? If he could be happy, joyous, carefree, they would think he was unharmed, and Hugh would not send those victorious glances his way.
“Lady Emily.” Aaron placed down his punch glass on the nearest table and turned his hand toward her, gesturing for her dance card. “Hide the card all you like, but it will not change my question. Would you care to dance with me?”
Emily blinked a few times; certain she had heard the Marquess wrong. Had she not just encouraged him that dancing with her would have been a dreadful idea? Yet it seemed to have made no difference. He was staring at her with a smile that lit up those angular features, offering his hand toward her.
A firm nudge in Emily’s side from Julia startled her into action. She proffered her dance card toward Lord Tattershall, finding her mouth suddenly dry. His smile grew wider as he took it and signed his name for the next dance. Emily was about to part her lips to assure him that he did not need to feel compelled into dancing with her, simply because they had approached him, but there was no time.
The flute music changed, signifying the next dance was beginning.
“What good timing,” he said with humor, returning her dance card to her. She threaded it round her wrist once more on a small silver chain, before she took the hand that he offered toward her.
She was irked that there was her silk glove between them, for through that grasp she could feel how warm his touch was.
“Lady Bolton.” He bowed his head to Julia in parting and led Emily toward the floor. It gave Emily just enough time to glare back at Julia, letting her know what she thought of her interference. Julia did not seem to mind; she was busy trying to hide her laugh behind her gloved hand as Arthur approached her.
“I am sorry, my Lord,” Emily said the closer they moved to the dancefloor. He looked down at her, his brow angling into a frown.
“I feel like my sister-in-law cornered you into dancing with me. It reminds me of a fox hunt. Perhaps Julia and I are the hounds?” Her words made him laugh. She discovered a warm feeling attached to whenever he laughed at something she said. She suspected she could go out of her way to make this man laugh.
“Believe me, there was no cornering required, no hounds yapping at my feet. I asked you because I wanted to dance with you,” he assured her as he led her onto the dancefloor.
“You did?” she asked, baffled by the idea as she lined up with the other ladies, facing the Marquess. They had taken their places, ready to begin a cotillion. She had been so certain that no one would want to dance with her that she could barely understand the idea. Who would dance with her when they could dance with beautiful Grace?
“Is this nerves or modesty I wonder?” he asked.
She did not have time to answer, for the music grew louder and the bars of introduction ended, signifying it was time to begin the dance. The Marquess stepped forward, taking Emily’s hand in his as they circled one another, dancing together and keeping their eyes on one another.
The dance progressed, just as Emily was trying to ignore the tingling sensation she felt at the Marquess’ touch, they circled round each other, loosening their hands before circling the couples next to them. When they came together another time, they danced side by side for a moment, before returning to face one another, with Emily twisting under his arm.
She was finding it difficult to keep her nerves in check, but as fast as she thought she could not control the shaking of her hands, she realized where the Marquess was really looking. He was not looking at her at all. He was staring somewhere off the dancefloor, toward someone else. Somehow relieved the focus was not on her, Emily’s hands stopped shaking, just as they returned to the beginning of the dance.
Now, she was able to look out from the dancefloor and see just where Lord Tattershall was staring. He was looking at a young woman, a lady so beautiful that Emily felt quite out of place. She imagined if she stood beside this lady, she would feel like the woman’s shadow.
“Well, my Lord,” Emily found her confidence. “I am fond of conversation when dancing, so I will ask you, is that the young lady you wish to court?”
Lord Tattershall snapped his gaze toward her, so quick that she wondered he did not get a crick in his neck.
“Ow, did that hurt?” she asked with a small smile, nodding her head at his neck. “Take care, my Lord. It looks like I startled you.”
“That you did.” He shook his head as they turned and took each other’s hand, circling the other way once more. “Let us just say I was somewhat baffled by your perception of just where I was staring.”
“I imagine many gentlemen stare at such a lady as she.”
“You would not be wrong, I am sure.” He spoke with a sigh. There seemed to be disappointment in that tone. She was prevented from answering as they circled the other couples, but as they came together again, she hurried to speak.
“I have a plan, if you care to hear it?” she asked.
“Ah, is your sister-in-law not the only one fond of a little craftiness?” His humored smile made her laugh and shake her head.
“Yes, I do apologize for her, but I was thinking more of a way for you to capture the attention of the young lady you are staring so fondly at.”
“I was not exactly staring fondly at her.” He struggled to explain himself, speaking so quickly that the words jumbled together.
“Oh, yes.” Emily spoke with a little sarcasm. “And I was not nervous about my debut at all, my Lord.” He laughed at her words and nodded in approval.
“Very well, go on with your plan.”
“Take care to dance with many ladies tonight. Be sure to ask lots and choose ladies more beautiful than me for the task. I may not know much about courting, but I know a few things about a lady’s heart. It makes a lady’s heart long all the more when the man she cares about is seen with others.”
“It does?” he asked in surprise.
“Dance with others and then dance with your lady last. Wait to see her smile when you ask her then.”
“I am not sure the lady would dance with me. Not now.” There was something in his words, something that suggested there was more to this story, but she did not have time to ask what it was for they moved down the floor in the dance, swapping places with another couple. Seeing a somewhat somber expression take hold of his face, Emily decided it was time to change the conversation.
“Tell me, my Lord. What do you think of our gathering here tonight?” she asked, gesturing at the ball. “My parents were indeed fussed about the arrangements, and my mother cared so much about the decorations that there were rose petals in her hair by the time she was done. I suspect people have drunk so much wine and punch that the decorations are nothing but a blur to them now.”
Emily watched in amazement as the Marquess laughed. It was so sudden and heartfelt that others in the dance turned their heads to look their way.
“I have tickled you greatly,” Emily said, pleased with herself, before she mocked her own skill. “Forgive me, making others laugh is just about the only skill I have.”
“I am sure you are wrong in that.” He shook his head, still trying to control his mirth as he took her hand again and circled round her. She noticed how he did not look away from the floor at all now. He only kept his eyes on her. “I am sure you have many skills, though I will admit, humor is a pleasant skill to have. Do not lose it, Lady Emily. Making another smile is a rarer thing than you think.”
“Rare? No! Nonsense, I am sure.” She spoke eagerly. “Trust me, my Lord. It is always possible to make someone smile, even in the darkest of times.”
“Really?” he asked, looking suspicious of the idea. “Tell me then. How would you make someone laugh when they are truly down on their luck?”
“That is difficult to answer without knowing the circumstances,” she said as they turned round each other the other way. This time, he took both of her hands, illustrating they were coming to the end of the dance. “Yet let us suggest a situation. Had you come to this ball tonight terribly sad, then there is a jest I could say to cheer your spirits.”
“Please do. You have me intrigued to hear it.”
She leaned toward him as they circled each other for the last time, whispering quietly beneath the music to ensure nobody else could hear them.
“How many poor birds had their feathers plucked out to dress the ladies’ hair for this event do you think? I reckon all the birds in London are bald by now.” Her jest worked perfectly. The Marquess laughed wholeheartedly as they came to a stop. He released her hands as he bowed and she curtsied, smiling with triumph.
As they stood straight, he was still struggling to control his laughter as he offered her his hand.
“Well, bravo, Lady Emily. You are quite right. How could anyone not laugh at that?” he asked, towing her away from the dancefloor. She was looking around, preparing herself for parting from his company and seeking out her family.
It had been a pleasant dance indeed, and she wondered at what this sensation was that made her tingle every time he took her hand in the dance, but it would not last. He would no doubt ask the blonde-haired beauty to dance now, and Emily would have to part from that enchanting smile on the Marquess’ face.
“Well, thank you, my Lord,” Emily said with genuine gratitude. “I was nervous of my first dance, as you could tell well enough, and your skill made it not only free of falls, but greatly enjoyable.”
“I am the one who should thank you. In truth, I did not think I would dance at all tonight, but now, I am glad I did.”
“Why did you not think you would dance?” she asked. Yet he appeared not to have heard her, or at least pretended not to, for he was looking around himself.
“How about a drink, Lady Emily?” he asked. “Maybe we could find something to eat too?” He maintained his hold on her arm and began to lead her toward the refreshments table.
“You do not wish to dance with others?” Her surprise was evident, for she stumbled in her effort to keep pace with him, then blushed when she tried to cover up her trip.
“Have no fear, I will not let you fall,” he whispered to her, the deepness of his voice as he spoke made her want to wriggle with delight.
What is wrong with me? He is just a man. Why am I being reduced to a creature not in control of my own body?
He seemed to avoid answering her last question as they reached the refreshments.
“Wine or punch?” he asked, serving for her.
“Wine please. After your story of having a little too much punch, I think it best.” At her words, he chuckled softly.
“I believe wine is just a great a danger, but I will make sure you do not have too much.” He passed her a wine glass and then urged a plate toward her. The two of them were beginning to pile food onto their plates when Emily grew aware of the Marquess’ body going rigid beside her.
“God’s wounds. Not now,” he muttered, to himself than speaking to her.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, looking up to him and earning his gaze.
“I apologize in advance for what you are about to witness,” he said hurriedly in a whisper to her, coming so close that it was an action the closest of friends would have done, than new acquaintances.
“Aaron?” a voice called to the Marquess. He grimaced, for Emily’s eyes only, before he pinned a false smile on his face and turned round, revealing two figures advancing toward them. “Brother, I do believe you are avoiding me.”
“I am doing no such thing.” Lord Tattershall adopted a nonchalant tone that had Emily watching him closely, aware how near he stood beside her as they greeted the two newcomers. Beside the Marquess’ brother, she was startled to see the blonde beauty that Lord Tattershall had been staring at earlier as they danced. “I have simply been making new acquaintances,” Lord Tattershall said as he gestured to her. “Lady Emily, may I introduce my brother, Lord Hugh Forbes, and this is Miss Jane Drew. His betrothed.”
Emily was so shocked that she nearly choked on the morsel of pastry she had placed on her mouth. She coughed a couple of times before swallowing and hurrying to curtsy as she looked up at the couple.
The Marquess was gazing at his brother’s betrothed?
“A pleasure to meet you.” Lord Hugh bowed to her, and Miss Drew curtsied too.
“And you.” Emily stood straight, feeling her eyes dart between the three people as an awkwardness settled between them.
“How have you been, Aaron?” Lord Hugh asked.
This is not how a brother talks to a brother, is it?
“Well enough.” Lord Tattershall answered quickly before turning back to the refreshment table and busying himself with his plate of food.
“Our mother tells me you have spent much time in your townhouse. Have you lost interest in our country home?”
What is going on? The thought plagued Emily as she looked between them all. Her gaze settled on Miss Drew, wondering why the young woman had not said a word. The lady sensed the awkwardness at the same time, for she turned her focus on Emily, finding some topic of small talk to partake in.
“Lady Emily, your parents have held quite the event of the Season here tonight.” She was charming, with a voice so melodic that Emily expected she was a wonder to behold when she sang. Emily could not stop the envy building inside of her, for when she sang, she sounded like a donkey that had been struck on its rear, wailing at the sky. “Do pass on my admiration to them both. I cannot remember a finer night.”
“That is kind of you to say. I will tell them.” Emily assured her with a nod, before turning her eyes to the Marquess and his brother. The two were glaring at each other, without blinking.
“I have just met your siblings,” Miss Drew went on. “Lady Grace is really so beautiful. I fear what I would have been like growing up with her at my side. I feel I would have run round and hidden in the young lady’s shadow.”
“Yes, she is very beautiful.” Emily felt the truth of the words. She looked down at the glass, realizing things were being made audible that she had always known to be true.
I am the ugly soul in this family.
Yet as Miss Drew opened her lips to say more, Lord Tattershall talked over her, stopping it from happening.
“I am sure you two have many you wish to greet here tonight. They cannot all know of your betrothal yet.” He was eagerly trying to get them to part, that was plain to see.
“Have you not told them all yet?” Lord Hugh asked. “I would have thought you eager to disparage us both.”
Well, that was icy. Emily shifted on her feet, looking down at her plate of food for something to do.
“Hugh,” Miss Drew said in a warning tone.
“What? We cannot pretend like nothing has happened.” Lord Hugh shook his head.
Emily lifted her eyes to the Marquess, seeing the way he was staring at his brother, it was clear he was lost for words. She felt a discomforted pit in her stomach. Where she had created smiles, his own brother had left nothing but upset.
“This is not the time, Hugh.” Lord Tattershall warned.
“I see you are eager to avoid conversation at all. Very well, it is hardly as if you were ever a great delight in conversation, is it?” Lord Hugh belittled him.
This has to end. Now. Emily could not believe what she was witnessing, but she would not suffer it, and she was not going to let the man beside her suffer it either.
“Lord Tattershall, would you accompany me to a table so we can sit to eat our food?” She turned to him with her words, offering a small smile to show she was giving him a way out of this situation. “Even if others do not find your conversation delightful,” she paused, shooting a glance at Lord Hugh, “you must know others do.”
The Marquess’ eyebrows lifted on his forehead, clearly startled by her easy defense of him.
“Shall we?” she asked, gesturing to where there was a free table.
“I’d be glad to.” He picked up his own plate and followed her away from the couple. The further they moved, the more she could see his body began to relax. When they sat down in two free chairs at the table, she turned her body toward him.
“Forgive my words, for I do not truly know what I just witnessed, but I felt compelled to extricate you from the situation.” She hurried to explain herself, but he shook his head, as if trying to brush off her apology.
“I am grateful for it. In fact, I cannot tell you how much.” He looked away from her, across the room to where Lord Hugh and Miss Drew were talking quietly together, before he turned his gaze back toward Emily. “I do not really know how to say this, Lady Emily, but I suppose the best way is to be open about such things.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, picking up a bite of food as he focused on her.
“Miss Drew was the lady I thought I would marry someday.”
“I beg your pardon?” Emily asked, dropping the food back down to her plate.
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