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End of June 1816the Tyne Valley, Northumberland
A stifled noise, halfway between a giggle and an excited gasp, caused the Honourable Harriet Wilkinson to halt in her march back to the ballroom. Her entire being tensed. She knew what that sound signalledin Summerfield's small card room, someone flirted with ruin.
'None of your business, Hattie Wilkinson,' she muttered. When had she become a censorious busybody poking her nose into other people's lives, rather than someone who understood a ball held the possibility of romance? Today was no time to start, and particularly not at a ball to celebrate the first anniversary of Waterloo.
Another trill of laughter sounded. 'That is highly amusing. Why should I ever feel in danger with you?'
Hattie sighed. Turning her back on an unknown couple was one thing. Turning her back on her high-spirited niece during her first foray into polite society was quite another. Far too much was at stake. Livvy with her clear blonde looks, graceful manner and more than adequate dowry had the potential to be a huge success in the London marriage market. .if she was allowed to make it that far.
Hattie leant forwards and rattled the door handle.
'I wonder,' Hattie declared in a voice loud enough to wake the dead, 'where on earth have my gloves gone? I suspect I left them in the card room earlier. I had better check.'
She placed her lace gloves in her reticule, counted to ten slowly and flung open the door. The snug room with its artfully arranged tables, high-backed sofa and small fire in the marble fireplace was the sort of room that could offer privacy, especially as there was an unseasonable chill in the June air. In the centre of the room, her sixteen-year-old niece stood closer than strictly proper to a gentleman in evening dress.
Hattie pointedly cleared her throat. 'Excuse me, but I have mislaid my gloves.'
The couple sprang apart. Hattie noted Livvy's bright pink cheeks and mussed lace. Silently she thanked her guardian angel that it was she who had happened on the couple rather than one of the old cats who prowled the corridors searching for the latest tittle-tattle.
'This is Mr Hook, Aunt Harriet. He and I ' Livvy flushed scarlet. 'That ishe's a visitor to Northumberland and '
'I'm looking for my gloves. Have you seen them, Livvy dear?' she asked brightly, ignoring the way Livvy quickly attempted to straighten her bodice and how young but dangerous Mr Hook appeared with his London-cut frock-coat and tousled Corinthian-styled hair. The time for a lecture on propriety, the necessity of maintaining one's spotless reputation and not settling for the first man who pays you a bit of attention was due later after Hattie had extracted Livvy from this tangle.
'You must know the ones I mean, Olivia,' she continued. 'The lace ones which your dear mama gave me for my birthday.'
'Your gloves, Aunt Harriet?' Livvy did an impression of a trout, repeatedly opening and closing her mouth.
'I think they might be in here. I was ' Hattie paused, trying to think up a reason why she might have been in the card room earlier. Her mind refused to yield the excuse. She opted for a brilliant smile. 'Olivia dear, would you mind helping me to search?'
Livvy behaved like any sixteen-year-old and rolled her eyes. 'If I must, Aunt Harriet, but honestly '
'I positively insist. I am all sixes and sevens. Balls and me well, the least said about my nerves the better.' Hattie waved a vague hand, well aware that Livvy had no idea about her normal behaviour at balls and quite probably considered a twenty-seven-year-old aunt bordered on senility in the general course of events.
A crease formed between Olivia's brows and Hattie could see the desire to appear older warring with her natural inclination to stay with her new swain. 'Yes, you are always like this at balls. When did you last have them? Think carefully now.'
Hattie's shoulders relaxed. Livvy had taken the bait, even down to spouting the exact words she always used with her nieces. The next stage of operation commenced nowgently guiding Livvy back to the ballroom with no moonlit detours.
'And you will do the usual and help me to look.
Your sharp eyes are so much better at finding things than my ageing ones.'
Hattie waited for Livvy's agreement. Slowly and steadily she would prise Mr Hook from Livvy's life before he did any lasting damage. Unlike Livvy, she knew precisely the pitfalls of London gentlemen who made extravagant promises. Whilst she had avoided ruin seven years ago, she had been unable to avoid the heartbreak that goes with discovering one's beloved had, in fact, been another woman's beloved at the same time. Livvy would not suffer that fate. None of her nieces would. Silently Hattie renewed her determination.
'Perhaps your aunt left them in the garden,' Mr Hook said in a falsely concerned voice. 'We could investigate, Miss Parteger.'
'What a splendid idea.' Hattie clapped her hands and fixed Livvy's would-be seducer with a stern eye. 'You may search the garden, Mr Hook, while dear Olivia and I search the library, drawing room and the card room. Make sure you leave no stone unturned in your quest to find my gloves.'
Mr Hook gulped twice and scampered out of the card room faster than a fox with the sound of a hunting horn ringing in his ears.
The sound of slow clapping filled the room.
Someone is here! Livvy mouthed, turning redder than a beetroot. A cold shudder snaked down Hattie's back. She'd once been a carefree girl like Livvy. But after succumbing to the advances of a dashing soldier, she had been hustled into a quick marriage, a marriage she had considered romantic beyond her wildest dreams until she had discovered the sordid truth after his death. Even now the humiliation of her discovery caused the bile to rise in her throat. Livvy deserved better.
'Bravo! Bravo!' a rich masculine voice called out. 'A truly stunning performance.'
'What are you doing here, sirrah?' Hattie demanded, brandishing her reticule like a sword towards the sofa. 'Listening into others' private conversations? Show yourself.'
The man rose from the sofa with a book in his hand. Hattie swallowed hard. He was the sort of man to make the pulse beat fastercrisp black hair with brooding dark grey eyes combined with broad shoulders and a lean frame. His face was saved from utter perfection by the presence of a nose which had obviously been broken several times in the past. 'One could hardly help overhearing. You are the one who should be apologising for interrupting my reading and sending my godson on a pointless game of Hunt the Gloves, but I shall forgive you if you beg prettily.'
'Aunt Hattie?' Olivia tugged at Hattie's hand as she started to back out of the room. 'It's Sir Christopher Foxton.'
Christopher Foxton. The name thudded through Hattie. The entire village had been gossiping about him for weeks, ever since it became known that he'd finally decided to visit Southview Lodge. About how he'd beat a man near to death over a game of cards and while the man lay recuperating had stolen his mistress and his fortune. How he was unbeaten in the ring, daring to fight bare-knuckled with the best of them. But mostly how because of his breeding, good looks and personal charm, every door in London was open to him and how various mamas predicted that they would capture him for this or that daughter, even though his mistresses were reputed to be some of the most sought-after courtesans in London.
The amount of sighing and speculation over him had reached such epidemic proportions that it seemed all anyone in the village could speak about was Sir Christopher and his exploits.
Hattie raised her chin a notch and met his intense gaze head-on. He had another think coming if he expected her to beg his forgiveness, prettily or not. She was immune from such men and their superficial charm.
'Where are my gloves, then, if I have sent your godson on a pointless game?' Hattie cried, exasperated. Confessing her rescue mission was out of the question. She'd rather face a gaggle of gossips dressed only in her chemise and petticoat than reveal her true purpose to this this rake!
'Your gloves are in your reticule.' Sir Christopher held out an uncompromising hand. 'Allow me to demonstrate, my dear lady.'
'There is no need. And you will call me Mrs Wilkinson. I am not your dear or anyone else's dear or any other endearment you care to mention.' Hattie clutched the reticule to her chest. Panic clawed at her stomach. The gloves! How could he know? How would he twist the discovery?
'There is every need, Mrs Wilkinson' Sir Christopher's tone hardened to well-tempered steel. 'Your reticule.'
Silently Hattie passed the beaded reticule over to him. Their fingers brushed and a single tremor of warmth ran up her arm. Ruthlessly, she suppressed it. A delayed reaction to all the gossip about his private life, that was all.
He weighed the reticule in his well-manicured hand as if trying to decide what to do. She prayed for a miracle and that he might suddenly reveal a handkerchief. He opened it and withdrew a pair of lace gloves with mulberry bows tacked to the cuffs.
'Very pretty they are, too. Or perhaps you have another pair and keep these for emergencies.'
'They are mine,' Hattie ground out, silently wishing him, his dark brooding eyes and his infuriatingly superior expression to the devil. 'I obviously forgot where I had placed them. I thank you for your assistance.'
'Always happy to oblige a lady.' He made an ironic bow. 'But you owe me a forfeit for finding them.'
'The next dance.' Kit Foxton concentrated on Mrs Wilkinson. The woman with her carefully coiffured crown of blonde braids and severe dress needed to learn a light romance at a ball was something to be desired rather than condemned.
'Olivia, close your mouth,' the overbearing Mrs Wilkinson declared. Her skirts swirled as she turned, revealing surprisingly shapely ankles. 'Sir Christopher found my gloves. We shall be returning to the ballroom. Behave as if nothing has happened. Say nothing about this incident. Ever.'
'Such a simple stratagem, but I found your gloves.' Kit clenched and unclenched his fists. Mrs Wilkinson appeared to believe that she had the right to pass judgement on others' behaviour and to fashion the world how she wanted. He looked forward to proving her wrong. 'You may have them back once the forfeit is properly paid.'
Mrs Wilkinson gave a pointed cough. 'Olivia, the ballroom! Now!'
'What are you afraid of, Mrs Wilkinson? Why are you running when it is you who started this game?' he called out. 'Your reputation being ruined? It takes more than a few moments of pleasant conversation to sully a reputation as you must know.'
She froze, slipper dangling in mid-air. 'My reputation has never been in danger. Ever.'
'I'm pleased to hear it.'
She slowly turned to face him with her hands balled on her hips, blue-green eyes flashing with barely suppressed fury. 'It never will be. I would thank you to remember that.'
'You want to dance with my aunt? But she is a widow of seven years!' Miss Parteger clapped her hands together.
'Dancing is not forbidden to widows,' Kit said. A widow. Why did the knowledge not surprise him? The only shock was that she must have once experienced romance.
Kit frowned as Mrs Wilkinson turned her head to glare at her niece and he saw her long swanlike neck. The curious dead part of his soul that had been part of his existence for a year stirred and moved. Mrs Wilkinson had possibilities.
'We appear to be in a bit of a tangle here,' Mrs Wilkinson said, putting her hand on her hip. 'You will cease your funning this instant, Sir Christopher, and return my gloves.'
'They are safe in my care until the forfeit is paid. To the victor, the spoils.'
'Just wait until Mama hears about this,' Miss Parte-ger said, clapping her hands together. 'She will be at sixes and sevens with excitement. Aunt Harriet has a beau. Finally.'
'I would suggest, young lady, that you hold your tongue about this adventure.' Kit gave a cold nod. Mrs Wilkinson had lost. He knew it and, more importantly, she knew it. She would yield to his suggestion.
Miss Parteger blinked rapidly. 'Why?'
'Because if you don't, it will reveal you were somewhere where you shouldn't have been and your trip to London might become a distant dream,' Mrs Wilkinson replied without missing a beat. The colour drained from her niece's face. 'And, yes, Sir Christopher, I will dance with you, but it must be the next dance. I want this fanciful forfeit finished and this entire episode an unwelcome memory as soon as possible.'
Kit resisted the temptation to crow. There was no point in grinding one's opponent into the floor like his father used to. Kit didn't require abject humiliation, just total surrender.
Kit held out his arm and smiled at the overly confident Mrs Wilkinson. A waltz in this backwater would be too much to hope for. A simple quadrille which would allow him to put his hands on her waist was all he desired. Mrs Wilkinson needed this. She would thank him for it later. 'Our dance awaits.'
As Hattie set foot in the ballroom, flanked by Livvy and Sir Christopher, the music ceased and the mass of humanity seethed around the dance floor as people exchanged greetings and partners.
Hattie breathed deeply and released Sir Christopher's arm. Tonight's adventure was finished. A solitary quadrille with Sir Christopher to prove her point, and she'd be finished. The dance would prove useful if Livvy was unable to resist confiding her adventure. She would merely claim that Sir Christopher had requested a dance and she'd agreed. No one needed to know the precise circumstances.
'Shall we?' She gestured with her fan towards the middle of the dance floor, well away from the chandelier and its dripping wax.
'This dance? Don't you want to know which one it is?'
'Why wait? Or are you a coward?' she called out. 'I wish to get this forfeit over.'
She was halfway across the dance floor when the master of ceremonies announced that the next dance would a German waltz. Hattie halted. A waltz? The next dance couldn't be a waltz. They never waltzed at Summerfield. A waltz would mean being in Sir Christopher's arms, looking up into his dark grey eyes. Impossible!
'It would appear I was wrong. It isn't a quadrille, but a waltz.' Hattie shrugged a shoulder and attempted to ignore the ice-cold pit opening in her stomach. 'Fancy that.'
'Is a waltz problematic?' he asked, lifting a quizzical brow, but his eyes gleamed with hidden lights.
'Such a shame. We agreed to a quadrille.' Hattie gave a falsely contrite smile. Escape. All she needed to do was to escape. He wouldn't come after her. He wouldn't create a scene. 'It has been a pleasure, Sir Christopher.'
She dropped a quick curtsy and prepared to move towards where Stephanie sat, surrounded by the other matrons, surveying the dance floor.
Sir Christopher reached out and grasped her elbow, pulling her close to his hard frame. 'Not so fast. We have an altogether different agreement.'
She tugged slightly, but he failed to release her.
'Have you gone mad? What in the name of everything holy are you doing?' she said in a furious undertone. 'All I wanted to do was to rescue Livvy from your godson. Nothing more.'
'You promised me the next dance, Mrs Wilkinson. A German waltz is the next dance.' He tightened his grip, sliding it down her arm until her hand was captured. He raised it to his lips. 'I hope you are the sort of woman who keeps her promises.'
Hattie hated the way his velvet voice slid over her skin, tempting her to flirt with him. Her traitorous body wanted to be held in his arms. But that would lead to heartbreak. She'd sworn off such men for ever. She concentrated on all the gossip about himthe women, the duels and the gamingbut her body stubbornly remained aware of him and the way his fingers held her wrist.
'I implied, rather than specifically promised. There is a difference,' she said, looking him directly in the eyes. 'You of all people should know the difference.'
'An implied promise remains a promise.' His full lips turned upwards. 'Consider what might have been, Mrs Wilkinson, before you reject me entirely.'