Do not, yawn, Katherine; do not give in to the temptation!
With the thought, Katherine clamped her teeth together, desperately trying to fend off the yawn. She told herself it was because she was tired, but in truth, she wasn’t. The Earl of Gibbs’ conversation was hardly sparkling, and she yearned to yawn from boredom more than tiredness.
“Fascinating, My Lord.” Eager not to seem ungrateful for his attention, Katherine smiled sweetly. “How often do you oversee these investments?”
“Nearly every day. I am keen to take care of my business affairs.” He nodded with the words, clearly possessing some passion for his work.
See? He is a good businessman! That is the sort of a husband I should be looking for.
Katherine kept her focus on Lord Gibbs, trying to find something to be attracted to in his countenance. He was an average looking man with fair-looking eyes, thin eyebrows, and blond hair that seemed to be greying before its time. He wasn’t quite as tall as Katherine, but he was not far off. As her eyes wandered over his physique, though, there was no response in her, no spark, nothing.
Katherine knew that if they were to marry, she would have to find something to be attracted to, or she would never wish to share the marriage bed. She so hoped for children someday.
“What of you, Lady Katherine? How do you like to spend your day?” he asked, urging her on with a wave of his champagne glass.
“I am a fond of reading, My Lord. In particular, I have a fascination for science and the discoveries of the ancient world. Have you heard of Mary Anning and her finds of the fossils at Lyme Regis?” Katherine asked excitedly. Here was a topic she could discuss with enthusiasm, but Lord Gibbs merely shook his head, none the wiser to the subject. “I am also fond of music, and dancing. You will often find me practicing them.”
He nodded, but still, he did not urge her on.
Their conversation fell flat, and they both just stood there for a minute with neither of them saying anything. Katherine supposed that Lord Gibbs might have found it a companionable silence, but she did not. She was here to talk, dance, and to have fun. At the moment, none of those things were being achieved.
Katherine looked away and sipped her champagne, looking for her brother. She could have sworn she caught a glimpse of him near the dance floor, but then he was gone, and there was someone else staring straight at her.
The Duke of Burton!
That stare was unrelenting across the room, and then, he smiled, joyously as if tempted to laugh. Katherine inwardly cursed, fearing what he thought. Did he feel as if he had won by seeing that she was bored in conversation with Lord Gibbs? Determined not to give him the satisfaction, she faced Lord Gibbs again with a full smile.
“Well, I could talk to you for hours, My Lord, but what do you say to a dance?”
“A dance? Yes, of course.” He placed down their glasses for them and offered her his hand, escorting her to the floor.
The whole walk to the middle of the ballroom, Katherine could feel eyes upon her. Once or twice, she stole a glance toward the Duke, only to find that smile was still there.
Insufferable, that is what he is. Oh! How am I to ignore him if he keeps staring at me in such a fashion?
When the music struck up, Katherine was thrilled to find it a rather upbeat cotillion. She curtsied with eagerness to Lord Gibbs and began to dance, bobbing on her toes at the right moments and committing her body to the movements.
She didn’t try to talk to Lord Gibbs in the dance, for she was too lost in the movements, thinking of the music. When they reached a natural break in the song, where she and Lord Gibbs came to face each other, hand in hand, taking small galloping steps to one side and then the other, she caught sight of someone standing at the side of the dance floor.
Good Lord, does he intend to stare at me all night?
The Duke smiled when he caught her eye. She refused to return that smile and flicked her head away again.
As she danced, Lord Gibbs went wrong. He stood on her toe and then moved quite the wrong way. The poor man blushed, but Katherine gripped his hand tightly, showing him which way to go.
“My apologies, My Lady,” he said in a rush. “I am afraid dancing is not quite my skill.” His words reminded her of what David had said, comparing Lord Gibbs’ dancing to the efforts of a statue. She bit her lip to prevent any temptation to smile.
“It not the skill that matters, My Lord. When it comes to dancing, we should enjoy ourselves. That is all that matters to me.” Her words seemed to comfort Lord Gibbs, who continued, only he went wrong again.
Rather than continuing with the dance and picking up where he left off, he quite abandoned dancing and just stood there in the middle of the floor. For a second, Katherine danced around him, feeling her disappointment begin to grow. In the end, she took his hand and drew him back into the dance.
“My apologies,” he whispered again.
“Please, do not apologize, My Lord,” she begged of him. “Simply enjoy yourself.” Lord Gibbs did not seem to be having fun at all. He looked to the edges of the room as if longing for an escape as she turned under his arm.
Reluctantly, Katherine felt her eyes also looking to the side of the room as she turned though she looked to a very specific place. Her gaze was drawn to the very spot where the Duke stood. To see he was there, covering his lips to stop himself from laughing, Katherine felt a darkening of her spirit.
Unsure whether the Duke was laughing at her or Lord Gibbs, she found both possibilities equally worrisome. Her dancing soon lost energy, and any chance of a smile vanished.
The end could not come soon enough, and Katherine curtsied to Lord Gibbs swiftly when it was done.
“Well, that was…” Lord Gibbs struggled for words as he offered his arm to escort her from the floor.
“Eventful?” Katherine offered, teasing him. He didn’t seem to understand she was only jesting though, for he blushed all the more. “I do not mind you went wrong, My Lord,” she hurried to explain herself.
Before another word could be passed between them, the light from the chandeliers seemed to dim to Katherine’s mind. A second later, she realized why. A tall shadow had passed over them. Angling her head round, she found the Duke of Burton had approached them. Katherine held tighter onto Lord Gibbs’ arm.
“Excuse the interruption, My Lord, Lady Katherine.” The Duke bowed to them both. “If you permit it, My Lord, I wondered if I might ask your companion here to dance?” He gestured to Katherine.
Oh no. That is most certainly against my rules.
There was a time when Katherine had let her heart run away with her head. Shortly after her debut a few years ago, the connection between her and the Duke had seemed like something special. She had indulged in that fancy, that liking, but it had come to nothing as he had soon put distance there and stopped asking her to dance. With her heart crumbled to what could have been dust, Katherine’s decision to marry had become rather focused in her mind.
She had discarded the notion of love completely. She did not want the toxic and foul relationship her parents had, and in the meantime, she did not want to be tossed in and out of love by careless charmers like the Duke of Burton. She intended to marry a sensible man, like the Earl of Gibbs, so her heart would never be in danger of being injured again.
“A dance? Well, I –” Katherine began but didn’t get far.
“Yes, of course. I must rest after my attempt at dancing, and I certainly wouldn’t want to embarrass Lady Katherine with another attempt from myself,” Lord Gibbs said quickly.
“My Lord, you did not embarrass me,” Katherine pleaded with him to believe her, but he plainly didn’t as he released her hand.
“If you would excuse me.” With these words, he bowed and parted.
Katherine stood perfectly still, feeling her breath stutter at the surprising way he had parted so fast.
“Allow me to make you smile, My Lady,” the Duke of Burton pleaded and offered a hand.
“No charm.” Her words were firm. He’d been charming before, and it hadn’t ended well. She wasn’t sure what he meant by this banter and playfulness he so often adopted when they were around one another, but she’d had enough. “I beg you, no charm.”
“Then dance instead.” He waved his hand. It was so obvious that Katherine knew she could not turn him down now without it being seen as rude by the other dancers that were moving on and off the floor. Tentatively, she took his hand, her touch feather light.
His was not so light. His fingers curled around her own with a reassuring strength as he led her back to the middle of the floor. She kept her eyes downturned, up until the music began, and they bowed and curtsied to one another. The dulcet and deep tones of a rather moody and dramatic quadrille began.
Oh, we have danced this number before.
Their eyes met as they clearly made the same realization.
“I see you remember it, too,” the Duke whispered to her as he took her hand, and they circled one another, dancing in a four-time step.
“I have been trying to forget it,” she confessed though she made her voice light as if in jest. It was the first dance they had shared at her debut.
“Was I such a poor dancer that you’d forget my efforts so easily?” As he asked the question, he purposefully pulled her closer, performing an extra spin with her that wasn’t necessarily part of the choreography but was certainly impressive.
Long before, Katherine would have loved such an addition. The Duke was athletic, but despite his broad shoulders, he was spritely in his dancing and quite skilled.
“You do not need me to compliment your dancing to know the truth. Moreover, I will not give you a compliment just to gratify your ego,” she scoffed and parted from him in the dance. As they circled other couples, she looked back to see he was chuckling at her words.
When they returned to one another, one of his hands went to her waist, and the other took her hand. With Katherine’s free hand, she held onto her skirt, preventing herself from stepping on the hem.
“Shall I compliment your dancing instead?” he whispered. Katherine couldn’t stop thinking of his touch on her waist.
Oh no. It is exactly this sort of attraction I was hoping to avoid!
Her one look down at their connection was clearly noticed by him, for his smile widened.
“Ah, perhaps I should talk of something else instead? Should I lighten my touch?”
“Perhaps you should just be quiet instead,” she murmured, glaring at him. “Your flirtation will not work with me.”
“A great shame.”
What is he doing?
Katherine didn’t have chance to ask the question, for the energy in the dance increased. He directed her forward and back with firm and eager steps before turning her around to face another couple. Standing side by side, he looped one arm around her waist and took one of her hands in his, leading her in a pattern around the floor.
How close he came unsettled her. The proximity seemed to bring a heat to her skin as if there was a fire burning there, prompting all the hairs on her arms to stand on end.
When he bent his head toward her, intending to whisper in her ear, Katherine knew she should lean away. Yet, she found her body betrayed her, and she did not move.
“I couldn’t resist asking you to dance.”
“You should have done,” she said sharply. “On that matter, why did you ask me? Judging from the way you laughed just now, I thought you found something rather comical in my display.”
“That was not the case.”
“Then do not tell me you were laughing at my dance partner.” She tilted her chin up, the better to catch his gaze. “You know I will think ill of you for it.”
“You misunderstand me.” Something in his whisper made his voice gentle. She had not heard this tone from him before.
They were forced to release one another, walking in a small circle away from each other before returning once again to dance opposite one another. This time, the figures they performed were done without a hand hold or a single touch between them. Katherine tried to ignore the longing she had to reach and touch the Duke.
“What do I misunderstand?” she asked, prompting him on. He seemed distracted too, his eyes wandering, but now, he snapped them back to her face.
“I was amused when I saw how hard you were trying to seem as if you were enjoying yourself, Lady Katherine. Few ladies bother to put on such a performance. It is both admirable and yes, amusing. It seems we all often wear facades in this world,” he said quietly. “I find you puzzle me, exceedingly.”
“Puzzle you? Why?” she asked, quirking her eyebrows together.
The Duke lifted a hand to her, offering as the other gentlemen did to their partners just one touch. She took it, aware this time that their touch was extremely light on both sides. It was as if he was as afraid to touch her as she was him.
“You know what spark is, Lady Katherine. You and I both know it.” His voice had deepened as he held her gaze. “Yet, you are pursuing a man who cannot give it to you.”
They parted, and Katherine abruptly threw down her hand, glad not to be touching him after he had uttered such words.
How dare he speak so openly of such a thing?
She joined the other ladies on the floor for a minute, dancing in a circle, trying to think of how to respond. By the time she had returned to the Duke, he took her hand and her waist eagerly. Katherine tried not to think about how keenly she returned those touches.
“Shall I pretend ignorance, I wonder?” she asked, her voice jesting. “You have a habit of thinking every lady is charmed by you.”
“I certainly don’t.” He spoke with surprising seriousness.
“There is no spark.” She matched his tone in sincerity. “What is more, there is a lack of liking here.”
“Now, I do not believe that to be the truth.”
“Why is that?” she asked.
“Because of this.” His words were deep as he released her hand. She scrambled to get his hand back, but it was gone. This was breaking the choreography, but it was more than that. Katherine wanted the feeling back. When he took her hand again, their touch was firm indeed. “See?”
“What that proves is only that I do not like it when someone does not fulfil the choreography of a dance.”
“You were not angry at Lord Gibbs for such a transgression, yet you are at me? Ha! No, My Lady, you and I know the truth.” He turned her under his arm. With each turn, her eyes flicked back toward his. “Spark is everything; it’s felt keenly. So, I wonder, why do you wish to court a man that cannot give it to you?”
She turned one last time to face him, unable to answer his question, for her mouth had gone dry.
The music ended. They bowed and curtsied to one another, and as the Duke led her from the floor, she was acutely aware of every point of where her gloved fingers touched his hand.
Spark. That’s what he called it. Oh my, why did he have to speak of it at all?
She couldn’t understand what he endeavored to do by speaking to her in such a way. Did he intend to mess with her mind? To part her from Lord Gibbs? Surely not. It was plain as day he had no intentions toward her. He had made that apparent long ago.
“Pray, Your Grace,” Katherine said, tilting her chin up and finding a strong voice as they came to a stop at the edge of the dance floor, “do not ask me to dance again.”
“Did you not enjoy it? I certainly did.” He smiled with the words, that full and genuine smile that softened his features so much and had Katherine’s heart pounding.
Reluctantly, she admitted to herself that she did enjoy it. He was a fine dancer, and his playful if somewhat blatant flirtation at times intrigued her, but this was not what she wanted.
I want a compatible man, someone safe. Not someone who will simply leave me hurt again.
“Whether I enjoyed the dance or not is beside the point,” she continued. “Please, do not ask me to dance again.” Yet he made her no such promise and just kept on smiling. That was until another figure joined them, staring between them with a stare so strong that Katherine nearly flinched under that look.
“Colin? May I speak with you.” David’s voice was surprisingly firm. What shocked Katherine even more was the grip he put on the Duke’s arm.
“What is going on?” Katherine asked.
“Nothing, Katherine,” David spoke quickly. “I simply need to speak to Colin about a rather urgent matter.”
With these words they were gone, disappearing through the crowd of ladies in fine dresses and gentlemen perspiring through tailcoats. Katherine watched them part, her curiosity burning to know what they had to speak to each other about in that moment.