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Emily Smithfield and Lord Wesleigh are dancing together at a local assembly. Emily does not know Lord Wesleigh's true identity, but believes him to be Alexander Williams, an impoverished curate. Alexander notices that Lady Cynthia, an acquaintance of his, has just entered the assembly rooms and he fears she may reveal the truth if she sees him.
Emily attempted to resume conversation with Mr. Williams, but noticed that he appeared distracted all of a sudden, and was barely managing intelligent replies to her attempts at conversation. She followed his gaze and was disappointed to see he was staring at Lady Abernathy's party, which had just arrived. His attention appeared to be riveted on a particular blond lady, who, even from this distance, looked to be outstandingly beautiful and fashionable. "Lady Cynthia, I presume."
"What?" Her partner replied, finally shaken out of his reverie.
"I presume that is Lady Cynthia you are craning your neck to get a glimpse of."
"I would not know, never having met the lady. However, I can assure you that I was not craning my neck to get a glimpse of her, as you so delicately termed my behavior. I have a far more stunning lady quite nearby, whose, ahem, charms are perfectly visible without requiring any neck-craning on my part."
Emily could tell from the direction of his gaze what particular charms he was referring to, and felt a blush forming in that general vicinity. However, she would not be taken in by his silver tongue. "What gammon. I bet you could tell me how many golden strands she had on her well-formed head."
"Ah, that is where you are wrong. Even if I was admiring the lady, I would not have been admiring her hair, as I have always preferred brunettes over blondes."
Before Emily could think of a response to that outrageous statement, the music ended, and she was being steered to the French doors that led to the terrace.
"Mr. Williams! Where are we going?"
"You look flushed. I thought you could use some fresh air."
Giving her no chance to respond, he propelled her outdoors. "Now, isn't this nice?" he asked Emily. Once again, though, he was not looking at her but was looking over her head into the assembly rooms. Emily tried to turn her head to see who or what had caught his attention and was pulled out of the light into the darker part of the gardens.
"Mr. Williams, what are you" Before Emily could finish the sentence she had been pulled abruptly into Mr. Williams's arms, and he had covered her mouth with his own.
Emily's first thought was to struggle, which she did, putting her hands against his chest in an attempt to push him off. But his mouth on hers was gentle, unthreatening, and his hands on her waist were warm. She felt if she were being protected rather than assaulted, and she rather liked the feeling, so the hand she had raised to push him off curled around his neck and somehow ended up pulling him tighter.
Alexander had felt her first attempt at resistance and was wondering what he would have done if she had pulled away and slapped him across the face. There would have been no avoiding Lady Cynthia in that case, who had followed them to the French doors and had peered out into the gardens, looking for him. But Emily's initial resistance had turned into enthusiastic cooperation, and, after assuring himself that Lady Cynthia had returned to the assembly rooms without spotting them, he entered wholeheartedly into the embrace. Emily, who had just a moment earlier felt protected in his embrace, now felt that she was in the greatest danger of her life, as his lips, which had been gentle and tender, increased the pressure, and his hands, which had been resting casually at her waist, were somehow stroking her bare back and shoulders. Just as she was thinking she really needed to end the embrace, and yet how much she really did not want to, Alexander lifted his head.
"I really should apologize for my ungentlemanly behavior, but I cannot honestly say I am sorry." As Emily did not reply, but merely continued to stare at him, wide-eyed, Alexander laughed softly and kissed her on the tip of the nose. "I am afraid I must take my leave of you, Emily, but I am sure we will be meeting again shortly."
Emily gathered her scattered wits about her. "But where are you going? What about the rest of the assembly?"
"The rest of the evening would seem unbearably flat in comparison with this experience, I assure you." So saying, he kissed the top of her head and disappeared into the gardens. Emily, after staring into the darkness a few minutes, slowly returned to the assembly rooms. All the excitement had faded from the evening. "He is right," she muttered to herself as she walked inside the doors and surveyed the scene before her. "The rest of the evening does seem unbearably flat."
She returned to her mother's side, to find her in conversation with Lady Abernathy. "I thought the poor dear would have wanted to rest after her experience, but she assured me she was fine, and did not want to cast a pall over the rest of the party," Lady Abernathy was telling her mother. "She even condescended to come to this assembly, although I'm sure after the fetes and balls of London this seems a sad comedown."
"Emily," Lady Smithfield addressed her daughter, "poor Lady Cynthia Sommers, Lady Abernathy's niece, was attacked by a highwayman en route from London this morning."
"How awful," Emily replied. "She was not hurt, I trust."
"No, no, although I fear the dreadful man may have tried to take liberties with her." Lady Abernathy lowered her voice. "I believe he attempted to embrace her."
"No!" Lady Smithfield said, in shocked accents. "How disgusting. Why, I do not know how I would react if a brigand treated one of my girls in such a shocking manner."
Emily wondered what her reaction would be if she knew that Emily had just been in a similar situation with a curate. Probably the same as if she had been embraced by a highwayman. Lady Smithfield viewed highwaymen and impoverished curates as being on about the same rung of the social ladder.
"Yes, poor Cynthia. Thankfully she has a great deal of fortitude. Ah, it appears she is coming this way now. Let me introduce you both to my niece, Lady Cynthia Sommers."
The introductions were duly made, and Lady Abernathy and Lady Smithfield continued in conversation, leaving Emily and Lady Cynthia to converse. Emily did not have much of a desire to converse with Lady Cynthia, as she appeared even more haughty and disdainful up close than she did from afar. However, it appeared that Lady Cynthia did wish to talk with Emily.
"Miss Smithfield, I happened to notice the gentleman you were dancing the last set with, and he reminded me quite forcibly of an acquaintance of mine, but he seems to have disappeared. The last I saw of him he appeared to have entered the gardens."
Emily tried with all her might not to do anything or say anything that might appear guilty or suspicious, because from the accusatory look Lady Cynthia was giving her, even if she did not observe Emily's behavior on the terrace, she appeared to suspect her of misbehavior all the same.
"Oh, do you know Mr. Williams? He specifically mentioned that he had not made your acquaintance. I am surprised you would number a country curate among your acquaintances, Lady Cynthia. But then again, he is rather distinguished-looking, even for a curate, is he not?"
"A curate, you say? No, I suppose I have not made his acquaintance after all. Although he did look suspiciously like . . . Oh, well. I guess it's as you mentioned. He does present a distinguished appearance, even for a curate."
One of Lady Abernathy's party came to request Lady Cynthia's hand for a dance shortly after this exchange, and Emily danced most of the evening as well. However, the conversation she'd had with Lady Cynthia continued to haunt her for a long time afterward. Mr. Williams had been paying close attention to Lady Cynthia, even though he claimed not to know her, and he had been observing someone even after he and Emily had left the assembly rooms. Lady Cynthia, by her own admission, had seen them go out onto the terrace. Had Williams been attempting to avoid Lady Cynthia? Is that why he pulled her into the shadows and embraced her? Was it just a ploy, to avoid discovery by Lady Cynthia?
The more Emily thought about it, the more she was sure that Williams had been avoiding Lady Cynthia. He had become distracted the minute her party arrived, and he had ushered Emily out onto the terrace without a word of explanation, yanked her into the shadows, and kissed her, and then disappeared into the gardens without even a good-bye to his friend Sedgewick. She found herself growing more and more infuriated by the minute. Her first kiss, which had seemed so sweet and passionate, was nothing more than a prop in his scene with Lady Cynthia. She had meant nothing more to him than a hedge that he could hide behind.
"That cad! That disgusting libertine!" Emily said under her breath, startling a gentleman who had approached her to ask her for the next dance. He looked bewildered and turned to Lydia instead, so Emily was free to pursue her own thoughts. She would never speak to Williams again. If he tried to approach her, she would give him the cut direct. She amused herself for a few minutes picturing the bewildered, hurt expression on his face as she proudly refused to recognize him, before realizing that that was a sorry revenge indeed. If she cut him, and never spoke to him again, how would she ever find out what secret he was hiding? Her best revenge would be to reveal his masquerade to the world and watch him reap his just deserts. Yes, that was it. She would solve the mystery of Alexander Williams, for she was sure that whatever it was he was playing at, he was up to no good.