Book Two of "The Macleods Of Skye Court"
(From Avon - January 2003)
"Dance with me."
Beside her, Lady Ornov huffed in shock, but Lily was so taken by the shape and beauty of the hand held out to her that she was barely aware of the effrontery of the request. He was not wearing evening gloves, this man who'd approached her from out of the crush of the crowded ballroom. It was an utterly masculine hand, but long and slender-fingered, made for elegant, graceful gestures, yet without concealing inherent strength. Her fanciful imagination told her that this was a hand that was as at ease holding a weapon as it was being held out in a gesture of request.
"Dance with me," he repeated.
As no one had ever asked Lily to dance before, the words seemed almost foreign to her, but the rich timbre of the stranger's voice sent a deep shockwave through her. She'd run through quite a gambit of emotions recently, among them grief, fear and helpless fury, but her reaction to the man's voice was certainly something new. And she liked it, strong and vivid though it was.
She couldn't help but smile. She couldn't help but look up into dark, dark eyes, and say, "Gladly."
Lily shifted her gaze quickly after that bit of boldness, but she didn't back out of the agreement to dance, though she knew the action might cost her. She thought Lady Ornov might actually grab her by the back of her ball gown to keep her from stepping away from the wall, for the lady took her position as chaperone very seriously. Whatever her chaperone might have done was quite swiftly moot, for the stranger whisked her onto the dance floor with a grace that masked the amazing speed of the movement. When they began to whirl in time with the music it was magical.
Well, it would have been more magical if the first thing she had not been to step on her partner's foot.
"You dance beautifully," her partner lied without even a wince.
"I hope I didn't hurt your toes too badly."
"A tiny thing like you? Doubt you even scuffed the leather, my dear." His fingers shifted subtly on her waist, to control her movements better, Lily supposed.
Though she was slender, she hardly thought of herself as little, for she was rather tall for a woman. Willowy, was the term her mother used, countering her father's contention that Lily's stature was regal. Her cousin Gregory called her a skinny roan colt, which she didn't mind hearing from him at all. She didn't want compliments from King Gregory of Bororavia.
"You look suddenly sad," her partner's concerned voice broke into her thoughts. "Are you worrying about my shoes? I beg you not to give them another thought."
"I was not thinking about your shoes," she answered, trying to adopt his teasing tone while cursing her inability to hide her emotions. She had thought she was quite good at schooling her features to keep her thoughts to herself until this moment. Perhaps her partner was more discerning than most, or his charm made her guard slip. She'd have to be more careful. "I'm not used to dancing so quickly," she answered as they twirled deeper into the swift moving crowd.
"You've never waltzed before?"
"Oh, yes. But never with anyone under sixty," she confessed.
"How do you know I'm under sixty if you won't look at me."
"I suppose I could be wrong in my estimation - but you don't feel - wrinkled."
He laughed, and the infectious sound drew Lily's gaze to his face for the first time. If she'd thought his hands, eyes and voice attractive, they paled in comparison to the entirety of the smiling countenance before her. How dark eyes could be so bright, she did not know, nor did she understand the thrill of excitement they communicated to her. The twinkle of roguish merriment lit up his whole face. It was a long face, with sharp, chiseled cheekbones and a wide, mobile mouth. His hair was a rich, dark brown with a hint of red in it, very thick and a bit too long for fashion. It was probably auburn in the sunlight.
His smile flashed bright white teeth, and he asked, "Whatever are you thinking, my dear?"
"That you do not look quite reputable," Lily answered, speaking her mind before she could stop herself.
"Quite correct," he replied before she could draw breath to apologize for such an outlandish statement. "Very discerning of you."
Lily wanted more than anything to laugh, but she managed to control the impulse. Still, she was a bit breathless when she said, "First I trod on you, now I've insulted you. You really don't have to put up with this."
His smile was mellow and warm, as was his voice when he answered. "Every action has a price, my pretty. I didn't expect to dance for free."
Lily did not at all know how to take this comment. Was this handsome stranger insulting her? Teasing her? She was a person used to plain talk and plain actions. That she now had to navigate her way through a world that was anything but plain and simple did not exactly confuse her, but she often found the necessity of always being on her guard quite irritating. Once one learned guile, how did one unlearn it?
She did agree that this dance came with a price for her, but a scolding from Lady Ornov was a fair enough punishment for this small act of rebellion. She felt as if she hadn't moved in weeks, but now she was being rushed along into a new world of warmth and color. She was used to plenty of fresh air and movement, but even a brisk walk on a cool, bright spring morning had never afforded anywhere near the stimulation she was receiving from a few minutes in her companion's arms. She felt as light as air, caught up in the music and her partner's smile, dazzled by candlelight and the rich colors worn by the other women dancing around them. She had never felt like this before, and never wanted it to end.
"I could dance with you forever," she said, her thoughts slipping away from any restraint once again. Where had all her newly found caution gone?
He looked thoroughly surprised at her words, as well he should be. But the hand on her waist moved to draw her closer. "Forever will last only a few more minutes," he told her, his voice low and compelling. "Alas."
A shiver went through her. He answer was a whispered, "Alas, indeed." Then Lily laughed, trying to make her declaration seem like a sophisticated joke. "This is my first proper waltz," she explained.
"I'm sure it will not be your last. Princesses are often called on to dance."
His tone made no pretense at this being a simple statement, but this time Lily's reply was as regal a nod as she could manage. If she spoke too much might spill out. He was, after all, a stranger. Just because he was handsome, broad-shouldered and a fine dancer was no reason to instantly trust him. She didn't even know why she wanted to. Perhaps it was the smile. "What is your name?" she asked. "I don't believe we've been properly introduced."
His dark eyes glinted with mischief. "Improper is ever so much more fun, isn't it?"
"I wouldn't know," she answered primly. "Princesses are not allowed to be improper."
Somehow, they were even closer together than they'd been before. "Then why are you dancing with a stranger?"
He had long legs, and Lily was more aware of the muscular thighs brushing against hers than anything else in the world. She tried to ignore the not unpleasant sensations stirring her blood and made herself concentrate. "Because you asked," she answered. "Why did you ask me to dance?"
"This is my favorite waltz," he replied. "And you were the only lady under fifty that seemed to be without a partner. It seemed a logical choice."
She accepted the prick of disappointment, and managed to nod again. "Yes. I can see that."
"Why were you without a partner?" he asked. "Were you waiting for the king?"
She couldn't stop the caustic burst of laughter. "Gregory? Oh, no. Gregory's off somewhere smoking cigars and plotting ways for Bororavia to conquer the world." He cocked a quizzical eyebrow at her, and she conceded, "All right. Not the entire world. I'm sure he doesn't have any ambitions to rule the British Empire."
"I'm happy to hear it."
"So am I. I'm quite used to Queen Victoria's silhouette on the coinage and postage stamps. I still don't know your name, you know." What she did know was that this man tempted her to commit all sorts of indiscretions. She should not have spoken of the king of Bororavian in public to a stranger, and certainly not shown her lack of respect. What if someone overheard, and reported her joking words?
She almost jumped, but his hands held her still and steady. "Don't what?" she asked in confusion.
"Know my name." His eyes crinkled and he tilted his head to one side. The effect was both charming and teasing.
"You aren't going to tell me, are you?"
"You speak English very well," he said. "With a delightful accent."
"I sound like I stepped off a Yorkshire sheep farm, you mean. I have a dreadful country accent and know it."
"Nonsense. You have a lovely grasp of the language."
"I should hope so. It's my Bororavian that's a bit rusty. Fortunately, I don't have to speak my father's native language here in London."
"Ah, London," he said. "My native soil, though I don't come here often. Of course, I find that after I spend a few days in London I tend to start dropping 'H's'. It's the company I keep in town, I'm afraid."
"One does meet the wrong sorts of people at embassy balls," she agreed. "Cutpurses and pick pockets-"
"Cardsharps and ruffians of all sorts," he added. "I can't imagine what a lady such as yourself is doing in such company."
"I had to come," she told him. "The ball's in my honor." She found herself leaning close to whisper in his ear. Her cheek brushed against his, and the effect was quite extraordinary. Her breathing was a bit ragged when she whispered. "I'm really quite old for it, but this is my coming out party. I was quite firmly on the shelf until tonight."
"And now here you are dancing with a rogue and ruffian."
She looked his face over carefully. "No visible scars, so at least you don't look like a ruffian."
"The scars don't have to be on the outside, my dear."
"How true," she agreed solemnly. Then she made herself abandon the sudden understanding seriousness that seemed to have taken hold of both of them. "What an odd conversation we're having. And what is your name?"
The teasing look took over his features again. "Does her highness command?"
Her highness would like to command that this dance go on for the rest of the evening. Her partner confused, amused and stimulated her. She had never been so drawn out of herself before. His bold touch was quite unlike anything she'd ever felt, it had led her toward an unexplored world. There was mystery here, and excitement. She wanted it to last.
"Her highness does not command," she finally answered, looking into his eyes. A smile tilted up his wide mouth, and she wondered what it would be like to experience her first kiss for from those lips. Wondering about the kiss that wasn't to be would be something to keep her company in the future. "Her highness thinks you should tell her your name - when next we meet." Even though a second meeting was unlikely, it would give her something to look forward too.
"When next we meet," he said, as the music stop. They came to a halt in the middle of the dancefloor. He took a moment to kiss the tips of her gloved fingers with the merest brush of his lips. "I promise you a name when next we meet."
Then he was gone -
And Lady Ornov was suddenly there, insisting that Lily return
to her place by the wall. Lily sighed, and obediently followed
her chaperone and stood rooted in place beside that formidable
lady being seen but not approached until the last guest was gone
from the ball. In all that time Lily did not catch a glimpse of
her mysterious dancing partner again.
Copyright © 2002 by Susan Sizemore