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To Tempt a Bride
It was the hottest spot in London on the coldest night of the year. The humidity was so high that water dripped down the inside of the closed windows as the outside iced over. The dancers' armpits would have shown damp spots if there'd been room for them to lift their arms, but there was hardly room to move their feet. Still, they kept smiling. Because although it felt like a jungle, they were in a ballroom in the best part of London town, and for all their sweat and panting, they were happy to be there.
But one of the guests felt a chill and knew it was time to go home.
The problem was that he couldn't leave right away any more than he could stay. Eric Ford looked around the crowded room and decided he had a choice: he could remain and embarrass himself or leave and embarrass himself. He shuddered again. That made up his mind. He recognized the signs. He'd hoped it was over and done with, but realized with sinking heart that it was not, and so he had no choice. He'd have to be quick with a glib excuse and leave as soon as he could, because he began to think that this time, however hurt, feelings would mend faster than he would.
Eric scanned the room, seeing more than most men would, if only because he was the tallest there. The woman he was looking for was wearing gold, he remembered.
There. She was with a young officer, romping in a country reel.
Eric knew the tune, heard it winding to a close, and knew the dance would soon be over. No matter whose name she had on her dance card, he'd talk her into letting him have the next one. He had to, for he wasn't sure he could linger longer.
When the music stopped, she raised a flushed face to her partner, and the two of them began to leave the floor. Eric's head began to throb, but he pasted on a smile and went to intercept them.
And the musicians struck up again, this time a waltz.
Eric frowned. She had permission to waltz, but if he tried to whirl around the room now, he was sure his head would go whirling off his shoulders. Soon it would feel as if it had anyway. But he couldn't disappoint her. As he stood wondering what to do, he saw her being approached by another man. Eric grimaced and moved forward. This time, he'd have to be ready when the music ended. He'd given her his word.
"Two dances?" she had cried excitedly when he'd agreed to her teasing suggestion. She'd slewed around in her saddle. "Really? Oh, Eric! That would be wonderful! Won't that open their eyes! To see me, a great gawk of a girl from the country, snaring you for two dances! I'll have a partner for every dance for the rest of the Season, much less the night!" She'd whooped with laughter before he could make a comment to take the sting from her words.
"What a bag of moonshine!" He'd laughed in return, angling his horse closer. "You've been a success since you appeared on the scene. I wonder how many likely lads I'll have the threaten in order to even get my two dances."
"They'll have to deal with me if they try to interfere with you," she'd said immediately and then laughed again, a little shamefacedly, when he grinned at the thought of her having to help him.
Because while Camille was a fine figure of a girl, he was almost a giant, with enough muscles to give his tailor fits. Current fashion wasn't happy with gentlemen built along the lines of Hercules, but Camille obviously was. Still, she was young, and he was her brother's friend, and she adored her brother, so that probably accounted for it. But she was also bright, so Eric was sure that sooner than later she'd see that was the extent of her interest in him and go on to fascinate more suitable beaux. That would be especially true now that she was in London at last. Still, the least he could do was to make her feel comfortable in her new setting, and if two dances would do it, he was happy to oblige.
She had flashed him a brilliant smile that day, nudged her horse forward, and they'd gone galloping down the riding trail, each too pleased with the fine afternoon and their plans to say another word.
When he'd seen her tonight, he'd actually stopped in his tracks, confused, as though he'd seen a familiar face in an unfamiliar setting and couldn't quite place it. His jolly companion on horseback was now a vision, with her hair done up like a lady and the thin gold gown showing how much of a woman she'd become. He was used to seeing her romping with her dogs or riding her horses, always dressed in comfortable old clothes. He didn't know if her new gown was comfortable, but it made him uncomfortable to see the young lady she had suddenly become.
She'd opened her arms to show him all her new splendor and then sank into a deep curtsey. When she rose, she grinned her old familiar grin at him. "I clean up nicely, don't I?" she said with her usual cheeky good humor.
Her brother sighed, her sister-in-law rolled her eyes, and Eric laughed. "You certainly do," he said, and led her into his first promised dance.
But tonight Eric realized his own personal David was in the room with him and he didn't have long before he'd be felled as certainly as Goliath had been ...To Tempt a Bride. Copyright © by Edith Layton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.