Instead, eager to please, Waring offered to take her directly to Ella and Vivi, who had somehow escaped their suitors and were deep in conversation on the sidelines of the ballroom. From there, he insisted, he would fetch her lemonade—and anything else she required—for fear she would find herself too parched from the walk all the way to the refreshments. Recognizing a boon when she saw one, Alex swallowed her snide response to his theory that an additional ten feet of walking would put her out of commission for the evening. Graciously accepting Lord Waring’s offer, Alex refocused her attention on her friends and the man with whom they were conversing.
It was the same man she had noticed through the potted fern. He still had his back to her, but she was getting to know that side of him quite well. His shoulders were broader still than they had seemed when she was spying on him. They were certainly a defining characteristic, and she noted with appreciation the way his tailor had fitted his black jacket to them like a second skin. Taking in the cut of the garment drew her attention back to his hair, which she realized was a more golden shade of blond than she had first thought.
She mentally shook herself, growing irritated with her own idiocy. She’d spent most of her life around men and, from the looks of him, this one was no different from her brothers in age or station. Why was she being so silly? Who was he, anyway? How did he know Vivi and Ella?
As Alex and Waring drew closer, Vivi saw them and turned a brilliant smile in their direction. Taking his cue from Vivi’s distraction, the man turned and Alex skipped a step in surprise. She lost her grip on Waring’s sleeve and, in an attempt to save herself from a devastatingly embarrassing moment of clumsiness, instead caught herself on the arm of the golden-haired, broad-shouldered object of her interest. Looking up through her lashes, she met his gaze—eyes she knew as well as her own—which just happened to be laughing down at her.
“Blackmoor.” The name came out on a shocked whoosh of breath. Blackmoor? Truly? Blackmoor was the man she’d been noticing? Surely that couldn’t be right. Could it? Looking up into his grey eyes, Alex could feel heat flooding her face. She pressed a cool, gloved hand to her face, willing the blush away. She never blushed. What had gotten into her? She pasted a smile on her face and looked at the others in the group. Vivi was attempting to manage a serene smile despite her clear desire to laugh, and Ella was looking at Alex with an odd expression, as though she were some creature to be studied in a laboratory.
Attempting to regain her composure, she looked up at Blackmoor and spoke, her voice sounding foreign even to her. “Lord Blackmoor. Good evening.”
“Lady Alexandra, as always, the evening is made more entertaining by your arrival.” He made certain that she was upright and stable before removing his arm. “Waring.” He nodded in greeting to his old acquaintance.
“Good evening, Blackmoor, Lady Vivian, Lady Eleanor. You’ll have to excuse me. If Lady Alexandra is well enough for me to leave, I have promised to fetch her some lemonade. May I bring some for you as well?”
Vivi responded, “In fact, Lord Waring, Lady Eleanor and I were about to take a turn about the room. We shall join you as far as the refreshment rooms, that is, if you can suffer our company.”
Ever impressed with her friend’s grace and tact, Alex watched, a trifle dumbfounded, as Vivi wove her tale for Lord Waring—ensuring that he could not refuse to walk with her and Ella without appearing the most boorish type of man. Of course, presented with Vivi in all her gentle graciousness, Alex would wager that Waring would forget her within moments of departing with his new charges. Vivi’s skill at reshaping men’s desires was uncanny, but Alex was too grateful for her friend’s intervention with Waring to question it more than in passing. Instead, she simply offered a silent prayer of thanks for Lady Vivian Markwell and her unwavering talent.
So caught up in her friend’s deftness, Alex forgot that she had been unceremoniously left with Blackmoor. Almost forgot, that is. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him take a breath; he was about to speak. She steeled herself for what she was certain would be a teasing remark about her clumsiness and attempted a look of polite disinterest in preparation for his comment.
“Would you care to dance, Alex?”
Polite interest switched to confusion. That was not what she had been expecting. Before she could find words to respond, Blackmoor had led her onto the dance floor and wrapped her up in his arms for her first waltz of the evening. Her first waltz ever with a man who was not her brother. They were twirling across the room when she finally found her tongue.
“I would, indeed, care to dance, Lord Blackmoor,” she said wryly. “How kind of you to ask. Would you like to see my dance card?”
Ignoring her sarcasm, he deftly avoided another couple and spun her out of their way. “You can’t have expected me to let your first ball go by without dancing with you, Alex. Considering your obvious attempt to escape Waring, it seemed there was no time like the present. Don’t you think?”
“I fail to see that I had much of a choice, frankly,” she said with a smile. “But I suppose it could have been much worse.”
“You could have stepped on my gown—Waring did it twice.”
He gazed down at her attire, letting a few moments go by before he spoke, his voice quieter, more thoughtful than usual. “Criminal. ‘Tis a stunning gown.”
Even Alex couldn’t ignore the way his appreciative comment made her feel. Tempering the urge to preen, she smiled up at him. “Why, thank you, my lord. I’m rather fond of it myself.”
He cleared his throat almost inaudibly and said, “You look beautiful, Alex. All grown up.” Blackmoor’s grey eyes darkened, narrowing on the garment in question, then rising to meet her gaze. The look in his eyes was one she’d never seen before, and it sent a tremor of excitement through her as she felt heat rising in her cheeks again.
He looked away, then back again, and the emotion she had seen there was gone, so quickly that she couldn’t be certain it was ever there to begin with. She forced a smile, attempting to bring the conversation back to the realm of the comfortable. “Thank you, my lord.”
“If I may speak frankly?”
“I know you want to try out all your lessons, but take care with whom you test your skills. I noticed how Stanhope was looking at you earlier.”
“Lord Stanhope was a charming partner.” Alex met Blackmoor’s eyes, daring him to disagree. “I’m certain I don’t know to what you are referring.”
“I think you know all too well to what I’m referring. Any man would have to be blind not to notice you. This dress is designed to lure a lion. I assure you that particular lion will bite.”
“What are you saying?”
“Simply that I would prefer not to have to play protector tonight. I merely caution you to think twice before getting wrapped up with Stanhope, or any like him.”
Alex’s spine stiffened in response. Her tone turned frosty. “As usual, my lord, your caution—or shall I say interference?—is unnecessary. Need I remind you that I’ve been managing Freddie Stanhope since he was in short pants?”
His chuckle held no humor. “Take my advice, Alex. Your ‘Freddie’ is no longer in the schoolroom. And you’re out of your league if you think you can, as you say, ‘manage’ him. Just because you wear a gown that marks you as all grown up doesn’t mean you are prepared to take him on.”
Alex’s temper flared. “I require neither your advice, nor your opinion, my lord. I would thank you to remember that, besides the fact that you’re not that much older than I am, I already have a father—and three brothers. I hardly need another overbearing male telling me what to do and with whom to do it.”
“More like what not to do. And with whom not to do it.”
She inhaled in a sharp intake of air, eyes narrowing, and made a move to leave him mid-waltz. To an outside observer, nothing changed about their movements—but Alex felt Blackmoor’s arms turn to stone around her. He held her fast, and tight, and his voice lowered. “You will finish this waltz with me, Alexandra. I will not allow you the pleasure of giving me a set-down at your first ball.”
Recognizing how damaging leaving him on the dance floor would have been to his reputation, not to mention her own, Alex remained in his arms, thoughts reeling. Why was she responding to him so strangely tonight? Ordinarily, she would have laughed off his concern. Clearly something was amiss. After all, hadn’t she noticed the cut of his waistcoat, the width of his shoulders? In seventeen years, she had never noticed anything special about Gavin. And yet, even now, through her irritation and her anger, she was acutely aware of his hand on the small of her back, the heat of his gloved palm through the silk of her gown, the feel of his fingers resting against hers. What was wrong with her?
Alex looked up at him, searching his gaze for a hint of what he was really thinking. He was usually so unflappable, so calm, and yet—he had been tight with anger at the thought that Stanhope might have been interested in her. Was it possible he was experiencing the same mix of bizarre feelings that she was tonight? Could it be that he, too, had felt the tremor of emotion pass between them? Now his grey eyes were unreadable behind a mask of civility.
“I don’t know what to say.” She spoke quietly. “The excitement of the evening seems to have addled my brain a bit.”
His gaze softened. “I shouldn’t have taken such liberties. You are, of course, right. I am neither your father nor your brother. Let’s not think of it again.”
There was something about his comment that left Alex feeling even more unsettled. They’d always been as close as siblings; was he pulling away? She shook herself mentally. This new world was already turning her into a cabbagehead, and she’d only been a part of it for an evening. “That,” she said, pushing her disquiet to the back of her mind, “sounds like an excellent idea.”
He smiled and took a deep breath. “I forget, sometimes, that you aren’t that little girl stuck up in a tree, Minx. It’s hard not to jump in to save you whenever I think I should.”
There was a pause before Alex could think of a retort. “Well, don’t go shirking your duties as savior altogether.” Her smile turned into a knowing grin. “After all…who else will save me from eager suitors with leaden feet?”
The couples around them turned to look as he laughed—entirely too loudly.
After the waltz, Blackmoor and Alex joined a waiting Vivi, Ella, and Will at the far end of the ballroom. The orchestra had paused in its performance, and Alex took a moment to drink in the sights and sounds of the ballroom—the experience of her first event of the season. The room was lit with thousands of candles placed in chandeliers high above the crowd of people. No one seemed bothered by the hot wax that dripped from the light fixtures; they were far too dazzled by the glorious satins and silks in every imaginable color that were illuminated around the room.
The roar of chatter was deafening—it made conversation nigh impossible if one wasn’t within inches of one’s partner—but over the crowd, Alex could pick out some unique sounds: Ella and Vivi’s laughing chatter with Blackmoor and Will, the rustle of skirts as a gaggle of other young women brushed past her, the deep rumbling voices of a nearby group of men talking about a foxhunt planned for the coming week’s end. Alex watched the hundreds of men and women making their way across the ballroom to the refreshment room and back again, stopping every few feet to speak to old acquaintances or to make new ones.
Tonight, London society was at its best: the women, dressed in gowns that could feed dozens of London’s less fortunate, ready for another four months of gossip and jockeying for position; the men eager for another season to begin, keeping the women entertained and out of their orbit for a time. Alex was acutely aware of the elaborate game that played out around her as she surveyed the scene. In London, it really was about whom you were seen speaking with, especially at Almack’s, and tonight offered a new set of chances to those with less title and less money to raise their own visibility by being spied in conversation with the most powerful members of the ton.
She shook her head, amazed at the arbitrary rules of the game as she watched the odious Duchess of Barrington, whose opinion—thanks to a very smart marriage match—mattered above most others in this world, regard a group of eager young hopefuls with devastating disinterest. With her searing ennui, the duchess was in stark relief to Alex’s own parents, just as powerful in this room, who she noticed were graciously accepting the acquaintance of a young woman who certainly hadn’t met a duke and duchess before tonight. The girl, Alex’s age, blushed prettily and fell into a deep curtsy as the Duchess of Worthington spoke, and Alex smiled with pride as her mother introduced the newcomer to Nick, who, ever the gentleman, responded to the introduction with elegant ease.
It just goes to show, she thought to herself, throwing an unnoticed glare in the direction of the Duchess of Barrington, a title guarantees neither grace nor charm.
Her reverie was cut short by the arrival of Penelope Grayson. Penelope’s father, the Marquess of Haverford, was an old acquaintance of the Duke of Worthington, and the girls had spent much of their youth together as victims of that timeless parental blunder—the theory that, if adults enjoyed one another’s company, their children must certainly do the same. And so she had been thrust into nurseries with Penelope for the duration of their joint childhood, forced to suffer her whining demands, her vapid dissertations on fashion and beauty, and her rather tiresome tendency toward bullying.