As they descended the center stairway of Worthington House, noticing clusters of guests turning to watch their entrance, Vivi turned to her friends with a brilliant smile and spoke through her teeth, “I simply do not understand the appeal of the turban. Lady Barrington looks as if a feather pillow has attached itself to her head.”
Unable to miss the headwear in question, Alex adopted the same method of conversation and replied, “Indeed. Although considering the enormous peacock feather protruding from the thing, it appears as though there may be some kind of exotic bird trapped under there.”
“Should we attempt a rescue?” Ella asked casually, sending all three girls into bright laughter.
As they reached the ground floor, Alex leaned toward Ella and spoke just loudly enough for her friend to hear, “Do try not to let your overactive imagination whisk you into the gardens tonight.”
Ella flashed a bright smile and replied teasingly, “Certainly not! Although I was thinking that the strange conversation I overheard the other night might well have had something to do with the excitement with Blackmoor.” She paused, then continued with a laugh, “Well…the earlier excitement with Blackmoor, at least.”
Alex laughed again. “No such thing as a coincidence in your mind, is there?”
“Never. Coincidence eliminates the entertainment of speculation!”
And, with that, they were caught up in the swirl of the evening. They entered the ballroom just minutes before the first dance, a minuet, began and they were enveloped by a crowd of young aristocrats all angling for a place on their dance cards. Alex found herself in the dance with Lord St. Marks, a sweet but small marquess whom she’d always quite liked. She was finding the dance quite enjoyable, until she noticed Blackmoor over the top of her partner’s head. He was having a wonderful time, smiling and laughing with the lady in his arms—who happened to be Penelope Grayson. Alex was overcome by a flash of jealousy. How could he be dancing with her after he kissed me?
“She’s got the nature of an asp,” Alex muttered to herself.
“I beg your pardon, my lady?”
She looked down at St. Marks with a smile and said, “Uh…I am reading Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, my lord, and I cannot seem to shake the horrid vision of the queen’s death. Death by asp. Quite dreadful, you know.”
From the look of obvious confusion on St. Marks’s face, she was certain he’d never had such an odd conversation during a ball before and, had she been in any other frame of mind, she would have found a great deal of humor in his drawn-out “Rather,” clearly the only response he could conjure.
They had turned in such a manner that Alex was no longer able to see Penelope and Blackmoor without craning her neck indelicately, so, instead, she simply counted steps until the dance was over. Two hundred and forty-three steps, to be exact. St. Marks promenaded her the customary halfway around the perimeter of the room and bowed his farewell—a farewell she rather thought he was looking forward to—and Alex went searching for someone to entertain her and distract her from her own preoccupations.
In less than a half a minute, she came face-to-face with Blackmoor himself, all crisp cravat and broad shoulders and bright smile, and Alex’s mood grew darker. How could he be enjoying himself to such an impressive degree?
“Lady Alexandra,” he said, offering her a devastating smile and a short bow.
“Lord Blackmoor,” she said, unable to keep a tinge of churlishness from her tone, “I thought you were with Penelope.”
“I was,” he answered amiably, “but she met up with some friends and I decided to make my rounds. Are your brothers here?” He looked out at the crowd, searching for the Stafford boys.
Irrationally, she wanted to stomp on his foot. Instead, she said sarcastically, “I’m certain they are, considering this is their ancestral home.”
“Ah, well, I expect they’ll turn up.” He lifted her gloved hand and took the ribboned pencil there in hand. Looking down at her dance card, a lock of blond hair fell across his forehead as he observed, “I see you have the next waltz free. May I?”
Distracted by his hair, her overwhelming desire to push it back from his forehead, and his clear, questioning gaze, she forgot to remain aloof. “Yes, of course.” She watched as he slashed Blackmoor across the card, noticing the strength of his script before shaking herself and silently admonishing her inner lunatic.
“Shall we?” He offered her an arm and escorted her to the center of the crowded ballroom just in time for the waltz to begin. When it did, she felt immediately and unexplainably disoriented, uncertain of whether the feeling sprang from the spinning steps of the dance or the fact that she was keenly aware of the heat of his palm even through the twin fabrics of their gloves. She couldn’t stop herself from focusing on that heat, on the weight of his other hand on the small of her back, on the way his hair curled over the edge of his formal jacket, on the space where the angle of his jaw met the sleek line of his neck. She wondered if that skin was as soft as it looked. Shaking her head in a desperate attempt to ignore the feelings she was having, she closed her eyes and let him guide her in swaying circles, willing herself to think of him not as the man who had kissed her a week ago, but as the man who had infuriated her more often than not of late. She inhaled deeply.
He smells simply wonderful.
She disgusted herself. Truly. Stop being such a ninny, Alexandra!
“Are you feeling all right, Alex?” His question was quiet, as to only be heard by her, and when she opened her eyes, she saw the concern in his grey gaze.
She spoke quickly, stringing her words together without pause, “Yes, I’m fine, I’m sorry, I just, I suppose I’m a little overexcited with the ball and the anticipation of the evening.”
“Oh?” The word was slow and accompanied by a raised eyebrow.
“Yes.” She scrambled for an explanation. “Ella and Vivi were here all afternoon and I think we drank too much tea.” She almost groaned aloud. I drank too much tea? The answer sounded inane even to her.
“Too much tea.” One side of his mouth twitched up.
She wanted an end to this conversation. “Indeed. I’m feeling rather peaked, actually. Perhaps we could just stay silent?”
“Certainly.” Was that humor in his voice?
It seemed like a millennium for Alex before the dance ended and she was able to step away from him, allowing him to walk her the expected distance. Only he didn’t stop halfway around the ballroom. On the contrary, he escorted her straight out of the room, toward the doors that had been left open onto the gardens that Worthington House shared with Blackmoor House.
She tugged on her hand, attempting to remove it from his arm. He wouldn’t allow it. “Where are we going?”
“You were feeling peaked. I thought, perhaps, you might like some fresh air.”
“I find that I’m feeling much better. I wouldn’t like to catch a chill.”
“Oh, I don’t think there’s a chance of that.” She detected a hint of humor in his voice again.
They arrived on the balcony, which was deserted of others, and he released her. “Now, would you care to tell me what has you so distressed?”
“I told you—”
“Yes. You did. Tea.” He smiled. “You’re a terrible liar in a pinch, Minx.”
“It’s not a lie!”
“No?” He crossed his arms and leaned back against the marble banister edging the balcony.
“No!” she exclaimed. He looked at her. Waiting. “All right! Yes! It’s a lie. If you must know, I’m rather…nervous around you.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
She offered him a quelling look. “Stop looking so amused.”
To give him his due, he did stop. “Very well. Why are you nervous?”
She couldn’t help but look at him as though his brain were addled. “You honestly cannot imagine why?”
He did not respond, but waited for her to continue. She gripped the cool marble banister and looked out into the darkened garden. What should she say? In her mind it was not only obvious why she was nervous—but expected. Hadn’t their relationship undergone a tremendous shift over the past few days? Was she wrong to believe that there was something new and fresh and different and rather terrifying between them?
He clearly didn’t think so. And as much as she wanted to appear as calm and collected as he was, she couldn’t do it. She whispered, “You kissed me.”
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “I did.”
“And, that night, everything seemed that it was somehow going to be different. Only it wasn’t. It was all the same. In a good way…I suppose. But…I just…” She turned her large, clear emerald eyes on him and whispered again, “You kissed me. And you cannot erase that.”
“You’re right. I cannot take it back. I wouldn’t even attempt to erase it. Because it would be impossible.” He sighed, standing up straight. “But kissing you again would be one of the biggest mistakes I could make.”
He saw the flash of pain in her eyes but, before he could explain, Vivi burst through the doors. “Oh, thank goodness you’re here! Grabhands quite awkwardly cornered me on the way to the refreshment room. I had no choice but to escape—I saw you two on your way out here and made for you!” She offered a broad smile. “I hope I’m not interrupting, but I need a savior.”
Alex’s emerald eyes were glassy with unshed tears as she looked at Blackmoor. “Well, you’re in luck. Savior is a role in which Blackmoor feels more than comfortable.” Turning toward the ballroom, she continued, “If you’re all right, Vivi, I have to get back inside.”
And, with that, she fled.
Alex pushed back into the ball, desperate for a spot where she could be alone to nurse her wounded ego. Of course, with more than five hundred people in her home, that desire wasn’t the easiest to fulfill. She hadn’t spent her entire life sneaking around this house on nights just like this one for nothing, however.
Slipping through the ladies’ cloakroom to access the servants’ passage that would lead her to the unoccupied part of the house, she wondered if she could simply take to her bedchamber without attracting notice. The idea hadn’t even fully formed in her mind before she realized that she would never escape her mother’s wrath if she did anything close to that. By her calculations, she had less than a quarter of an hour to be by herself before she would have to return to the ball.
She exited the servants’ quarters into a darkened passageway, heading for the orangery, which had always been her favorite room in the house. The sounds of the orchestra faded into the distance as she moved quietly through the hallway, thanking her maker that the duchess had decided to keep these particular rooms free from visitors, only to be replaced with quiet murmurings coming from behind one of the closed doors of the corridor. Wondering who had snuck away from the ball and, more importantly, why they were behind closed doors deep in the inner recesses of the house, Alex paused outside the door, pressing her ear to the rich, dark wood, attempting to make out the voices inside, which appeared to be discussing politics.
“Napoleon gains strength. He’s garnering support across France. If the Crown is going to strike, it will do so soon. We don’t need informants to tell us that.” The voice, laced with disdain, sounded foreign, but Alex couldn’t identify it through the thick door.
“No, of course not. I wasn’t suggesting that you did. I was simply pointing out that I have many strong connections that could prove useful in your search for information. If a strike is planned, I can help you predict it. I think I’ve done more than prove my commitment to your cause.” Alex put a hand to her mouth in surprise, recognizing that she was eavesdropping on a particularly dark conversation. She stayed quiet, trying to hear over the pounding of her heart.
“Indeed. You have made your…commitment…more than clear.”
“I intend to do it again. I expect to, within days, have very specific information about Wellington’s movements.” Alex’s eyes widened as she realized that one of the men on the other side of the door was the worst kind of spy—one who traded secrets from British intelligence.
“I’m sure you think that’s true. But you’ll understand that we are unable to trust that you will make wise decisions any longer. We have come too far to risk losing ground. We simply cannot have you involved.” The voice was cold, calm, and dismissive; Alex could hear that even through two inches of oak. “You have acted rashly…and to no avail. You have been unable to discover anything about what is known of our plans. And the knowledge is directly under your nose. Your involvement is becoming messy. And we simply don’t have the time or the inclination to clean up after you anymore.”
“Clean up after me? I’m the one who has done the cleaning.” Alex started as the voice on the other side of the door shook with barely contained anger. “If it weren’t for me, this entire operation would have been uncovered. You, and everyone else, would have been found and hanged. If it weren’t for me, Blackmoor would still be alive.”
Alex’s mouth gaped in horror as she grasped the importance of what she was hearing. She knew she should run and fetch her father, Vivi’s father, and any number of others. But she couldn’t bring herself to move from her spot, waiting for the next revelation.
“And even with him dead, you cannot seem to retrieve the information he had. We’re lucky that, by now, the young earl hasn’t discovered everything and had us all strung up for treason. Between your botched robbery and your almost being discovered, this entire string of events has become far too risky.”