As Jeremy left the dancefloor, he felt the lady on his arm clutch a little too tightly.
Oh no, it is happening again.
“Thank you, Lady Finch.” He lifted her hand from his arm and kissed the back. He ensured it was a formal touch. His lips did not linger on her glove, even when he noticed her breath escape her lips suddenly, as if breathless at such a simple touch. “It was a pleasant dance.”
“Pleasant?” She giggled with the word as a blush lit up her cheeks. “It was not quite the word you used when I kept you company the other night.”
Her boldness made him step away as he looked around the room. Talking of such things near other dancers that were retreating from the floor was a great risk, and not something he was willing to indulge in.
“That was for one night only. If you would excuse me, Lady Finch.” Jeremy bowed, attempting to make his escape, but he did not get far. Lady Finch was in front of him once again.
“May we not share another dance, Your Grace?” she said, her excitement so apparent that her lips twitched. “I would like the opportunity to know you better.”
Jeremy fought the smirk that tempted his lips.
I feel I know you very well by now, Lady Finch.
He had shared her bed the other night, but that was as far as he knew any lady these days. He never got close, he did not ask after their interests, their passions, or their pursuits. Neither did he ask what was in their hearts. Deep down, he knew it was cold, but it was a way to live.
It is the safest way to live if the past is not to be repeated.
“Forgive me, Lady Finch, I thought you understood our arrangement.” He hated this part, seeing the disappointed look on a lady’s face. “I enjoyed your company the other night, but…” He didn’t need to say anymore. She stepped back and her eyes cast downward.
“I understand. Goodbye, Your Grace.” She made a hasty retreat and backed away from him, turning her head to hide her blush.
As she went, Jeremy lifted a hand and pinched the brow of his nose in frustration. Most of the time the ladies he shared his bed with knew his rule. They understood it was about fleeting excitement, enjoying that moment for what it was worth, nothing more. Yet every now and then a lady came along who thought she could change him and his rule.
I cannot be changed.
“Well, there’s another one that goes scurrying away like a mouse.” The deep voice made Jeremy jump and turn round, to see his good friend had approached offering a glass of brandy forward. “Here, you look like you need this.”
“Thank you, Stephen.” Jeremy took the glass and nearly downed it in one.
“Slow down, Jeremy,” Stephen said with a laugh. “They’ll be out if you continue at this rate. Was the lovely Lady Finch not enough to hold your charms for a second night?”
“You know my rule.” Jeremy levelled his gaze at Stephen who still chuckled.
“I do, even if I do not understand it. Come, this way, people can overhear us here.” Stephen led Jeremy across the ballroom.
As they walked, many ladies looked their way. Jeremy was no fool and he was also not blind. He saw the way ladies looked at the two of them. Either they were drawn to Jeremy’s dark chestnut hair and striking blue eyes, or they preferred Stephen’s fair hair, and rather unusual dark eyes. Together the two could command the attention of a room.
When they reached the edge of the assembly rooms, the two of them sat down in chairs as Stephen reached for a brandy carafe and topped up their glasses for them.
“Tell me again…” Stephen whispered.
“Tell you what?”
“Why you keep to this rule of yours.”
Jeremy didn’t answer but had another swallow of brandy. They’d had this conversation often enough for him to realize that Stephen was trying to change his mind on his own rule.
“Come on, do not look at me like that.” Stephen laughed with the words. “You puzzle me, that is all.”
“You are hardly a pillar of virtue yourself, Stephen.”
“Far from it.” Stephen acknowledged with a nod before he leaned forward, whispering to Jeremy so no one else could overhear them. “Yet I think I would have also spent a second night with Lady Finch.”
Jeremy wrinkled his nose and looked down into his glass.
Lady Finch deserves better.
That thought came through starkly before he lifted his gaze once again, only to find Stephen’s gaze was no longer on Lady Finch at all, but on another lady in the room.
“Who are you looking at? The lady you hope to spend your night with?” Jeremy asked, eager to change the conversation.
“Far from it. I think this lady would prefer you to I.”
Stephen lifted his hand and used his brandy glass to point across the room. He was gesturing to a lady Jeremy knew well, and who was currently taking to the dancefloor on the arm of Sir Arnold.
Jeremy sighed as he looked at her. It was the same every time that he saw her. The same attraction, the same stiffening, the same want lingering beneath the surface, and then there was the refusal. He looked away, trying to forget she was there at all.
“What? You are pretending she does not exist now?” Stephen scoffed at the idea, shaking his head. “Jeremy, you have told me again and again that you only spend nights with women you do not know.”
“Just so. It is the way to avoid any personal attachment to the lady.”
“Yes, but are you not tempted to bend your rule for the lovely Lady Elkins?” Stephen gestured to her once again. “Is she not a beauty?”
“A beauty? To be sure. I knew that the first night I saw her, and it is not something that has gone away.” Jeremy’s eyes settled on her as Lady Elkins took to the floor.
If anything, her beauty has only matured.
He could not put his finger exactly on what had changed, but since she had become a widow, Lady Elkins seemed a little different. She no longer turned her head to hide away, nor did she stay quiet. He had seen on more than one occasion of late that she would speak her mind and lift her chin in challenge. It made their bickering sessions all the more alluring to him.
“You are not tempted?” Stephen asked, elbowing Jeremy when he grew impatient for an answer. “Judging from the way she was looking at you just now as she introduced us to her friend, I do not think she would say no.”
“She would say no.” Jeremy was firm with the words as he sat forward. “Lady Elkins is not that kind of lady. She is proper, rigid in her formalities.”
“She doesn’t seem so proper to me right now,” Stephen said with a chuckle and gestured forward. Jeremy watched as Sir Arnold was bold with Lady Elkins in their dance together. His hand wandered further across her back, suggesting an intimacy between them.
It was an action that was hidden by the crowd of dancers, and would have gone unnoticed by most, yet Jeremy and Stephen had the perfect view between two couples that had parted.
“How dare he touch her like that?” Jeremy snapped and lowered his glass. “It is audacious.”
“Listen to you?” Stephen chuckled. “You sounded almost formal.”
“If Lady Elkins is considering lowering her standards of propriety, then it should not be for a man like him.” Jeremy motioned forward, feeling a sudden surge of anger overtake him. His eyes flitted between Lady Elkins and her dance partner once again.
Lady Elkins’ brown locks had a touch of amber to them in this light. Those curls that framed her face teased the curve of her neck, letting his eyes drop down to the curve of her bosom. There was a rosiness to her cheeks and chest too, prompting Jeremy to wonder of what ways he could make her blush more.
Keep your mind off such things, Jeremy.
He lifted his gaze then, observing her dark brown eyes, so deep it was easy to get lost in them. Those dark eyes were staring at Sir Arnold.
Why does she stare at him like that? He hardly warrants staring at!
When Sir Arnold bent down to whisper something in Lady Elkins’ ear as they danced together, Jeremy lost control. He downed what was left in his glass and stood to his feet.
“Where are you going?” Stephen asked, tipping his head back to watch Jeremy.
“I suddenly have an urge to dance.” Jeremy lowered his glass down to a table and took off in the direction of the dancefloor, only just catching Stephen’s words before he left.
“I wonder why,” he murmured.
Jeremy watched the dancers for a second, observing what sort of dance it was: a quadrille, where they frequently exchanged partners. Jeremy hardly cared that the dance had already started and even if it was a little unorthodox to join it now. He felt he had to be on that dancefloor.
Near the dancers, he found a young lady he knew hovering beside it. Lady Hayes was humming the tune of the music to herself as she watched.
“Your Grace!” She turned to him with a grand smile on her face. Jeremy was comfortable at once. He and Lady Hayes had spent a night together once, but it was a long time ago, and she had understood what it was. She knew it was fleeting and had never made the attempt to know him better.
“If you are not otherwise engaged, would you care to dance this number with me?” he asked, offering his hand to her. At once, she placed her hand in his, allowing him to lead her to the floor to join the others.
Once again, he let his eyes linger on Lady Elkins on the floor. As she parted from Sir Arnold’s arms to walk around him, as per the choreography of the routine, her eyes met Jeremy’s. He could have sworn her cheeks blushed further, before she snapped her gaze away.
It is as if that look burned her.
Jeremy found the very thought thrilled him.
He tried not to think of what he was doing as he and Lady Hayes took their place in the dance with the other couples. It was merely a dance after all, what did it matter if he was trying to get Lady Elkins’ attention?
Jeremy and Lady Hayes performed their first few figures, the dance so upbeat that Lady Hayes was lost in her enjoyment of it. When the time came to split from one another, and take a new partner in the dance, Jeremy was careful where he angled himself. He moved to his right and took up a place opposite Lady Elkins.
This time, when their eyes met, those dark eyes of hers widened.
He walked forward and offered his arms to her. As per the routine, she had to take his arms, so that they formed a circle, just the two of them, then they galloped sideways, up and down the floor with the other dancers.
“At last, we are dancing, Lady Elkins,” he whispered to her as they moved back and forth.
“Only by your trickery,” she said, with a narrowing of her eyes.
“I still feel as if I have won our little game.” He referred to the sheer number of times he had asked her to dance in the past over the years. After her first refusal, it had become this playful thing to him. He would keep asking until she said yes.
“You haven’t.” She lifted her chin with confidence and shot him a smile. That look had something stirring in his chest. “Because you are about to lose me.” She stepped out of his arms and returned to Sir Arnold.
Cursing under his breath, Jeremy returned to Lady Hayes. They danced together, back and forth, but Jeremy kept moving his eyes back to Lady Elkins.
She seemed bored with her partner now, for her eyes barely rested on Sir Arnold at all. On the contrary, she kept looking at Jeremy, then sharply looked away when he caught her staring.
When the time came to swap partners again, once more Jeremy found Lady Elkins and took her in his arms. The moment he touched her, he felt this burning sensation in his gut, as if this simple touch was not enough.
“Why are you dancing, Your Grace?” she asked as they galloped back and forth.
“I was struck by a merry mood.”
“Not out of a wish to dance with me then?”
“Well, maybe I thought you needed rescuing,” he said, teasing her.
“Rescuing?” She laughed at the idea, tipping her head back with the movement so that his eyes wandered down the curve of her neck to the top of her bosom, entranced. “I do not need rescuing by any man.”
“I thought you looked rather bored with your dance partner,” he whispered to her as they turned in a circle round one another, their only touch the press of their fingers together. “I thought it only right you should be offered some more exciting company.”
“How bold you are!” She laughed at him once again. “You think of yourself as exciting company, do you?”
“I can certainly try to be.” Before anymore could be said between them, they were forced to part and return to their dance partners.
Jeremy longed for the dance to not be over yet. He was not done with this conversation and wanted another chance to take Lady Elkins in his arms, yet the music was coming to an end. As he and Lady Hayes faced each other, bowing and curtsying, his eyes were already back on Lady Elkins.
What am I doing!? Am I pursuing her? No. Perhaps I am just distracting myself with her? Yes, that sounds about right.
His thoughts came fast in his confusion as he escorted Lady Hayes from the floor. After they had said goodbye to one another, he crossed the room, following where Sir Arnold had taken Lady Elkins.
The two crossed near the drinks table where Sir Arnold quickly departed, leaving Lady Elkins alone with her friend, the Marchioness of Rumpton. As Jeremy moved toward them, he could not hear their conversation, but he could see they must have been speaking of something illicit for they both blushed red and laughed deeply. Lady Elkins took a glass of sparkling wine proffered by her friend and tipped it back to her lips.
How many has she had?
When Lady Elkins wobbled on her feet, it seemed to answer his question. She’d had enough to make her lightheaded at least. She nearly lost her balance, just as Jeremy reached her side and brought up his hand to her back. He held her up, with her free hand reaching out and clinging to the crook of his arm.
A gasp escaped her lips, apparently only just realizing the way she was clinging to him as her dark eyes lifted to meet his.
“Your Grace,” she murmured as she retracted her hand from him.
“Please, hold onto me longer if you like,” he said softly, so only she and Lady Rumpton could hear him. From what he had heard of Lady Rumpton’s escapades, and could see now in her humored smile, she would hardly care if he spoke with flirtation. She was not one for propriety. “I would rather that than to see you fall, Lady Elkins.”
Lady Elkins kept her hand off him nevertheless and lifted her glass to her lips another time.
“A fine dancer you are, Your Grace,” Lady Rumpton said, capturing his attention. “The sight of you and my friend here dancing together was quite something.”
“Was it?” Lady Elkins said, twisting her head sharply to look at her friend before Jeremy could utter a word.
“Quite something indeed,” Lady Rumpton declared with a playful smile.
“Rachel…” Lady Elkins’ tone had become a warning as she stepped away from Jeremy’s hold. He inched to follow her, though he held himself back, worried she would totter on her feet once again.
“What did you think of Sophia’s dance partner, Your Grace?” Lady Rumpton said, still smiling up at Jeremy. From the way Lady Elkins was pulling on her friend’s arm, it was clear she thought the Marchioness was up to no good. “A fine gentleman, is he not?”
“Sir Arnold has a habit of making an impression wherever he goes. That impression is not always a good one.” Jeremy couldn’t resist the words. He and Sir Arnold would hardly ever be called the closest of friends but seeing him with his arms around someone like Lady Elkins made Jeremy’s blood boil.
She deserves someone better now she is free from her husband.
“You are worried for my friend in accepting his offer of a dance?” Lady Rumpton asked.
“Perhaps a little.” Jeremy kept his eyes on Lady Elkins, unsure what else to say. He hardly had the right to warn her off men like Sir Arnold.
“Well, as it happens, your timing is quite perfect, Your Grace.” Lady Rumpton appeared ready to walk away.
“It is?” Lady Elkins asked, her eyes wide.
“My friend has a favor to ask of you. Do ask him, Sophia.” As Lady Rumpton walked off, Jeremy returned his eyes to Lady Elkins, watching as she stood there dumbstruck, with her lips parted.
“What favor is it you wish to ask of me, My Lady?”