Annalise stood by the pillar in her parents’ ballroom. She felt hot and suffocated. First, because the house was filled with half the ton. Considering the warm weather outside, the crowded room felt like a hothouse. Second, she was completely out of her element. She’d spent all night socializing with dozens of people, making boring small talk, frightened out of her wits to commit faux pas and embarrass not only herself, but her family.
She knew she should be happy, ecstatic even. It was her come-out ball, after all. The night her entire life had been leading to. The night she was finally deemed eligible to choose a husband and move on to her greater destiny. A destiny of begetting an heir and running her husband’s estates.
Annalise put on a tight smile. A prospect didn’t seem appealing to her, but what was the alternative? Spend her life as a spinster? A nuisance, no, a bother to her family? It was bad enough she had the audacity to be born a female, as her father would say. But if that wasn’t her fault, not being able to make a splendid match would be.
Annalise sighed and continued fanning herself vigorously. Her parents would not forgive her if she didn’t make an acceptable match in her first season. They poured tremendous amounts of money into this season, bought her a trousseau, organized an exquisite come-out ball mere days after her eighteenth birthday. Now it was her time to return the favor and secure a marriage proposal before the end of the season. Thankfully, she still had several weeks to meet the expectations of her parents and form a beneficial alliance.
Too bad Annalise had no idea how she was supposed to choose a husband among the flurry of young men asking for an introduction, a dance or a promenade around the room. She couldn’t even remember most of their names and was mortified to ask them to repeat it. The conversation hereafter was awkward, and she found herself wishing she was home, playing a pianoforte or in a theater, listening to music and watching plays. Perhaps that would come later, when the courting began. Surely she wouldn’t have to spend her entire season cooped up in a stuffy ballroom. The trick was to get to the courting part of the season.
She suddenly wished her friend, Lavignia, was with her. Annalise and Lavignia grew up on neighboring estates and knew each other their entire lives. It would be so much more fun to have an ally during the ball. Only Lavignia was one year younger and yet to make a come-out. She was left behind in Hampshire, looking forward to hearing stories from Annalise. Stories, Annalise feared, would consist of her standing by the pillar and analyzing her abysmal success.
Annalise absently flipped her fan in her hand. She had danced three dances one after the other and as the couples assembled in the middle of the dancefloor she realized with a sigh of relief that her next dance was free. She could go have a breath of fresh air away from the suffocating heat. Annalise looked around the ballroom. Nobody was paying her any heed. Her parents were too busy flirting with every guest at the ball, forgetting the duty of chaperoning their daughter. A blessing, Annalise decided. She took advantage of her solitude, walked through the crowded ballroom and slipped onto the patio.
She took a deep breath. Alone at last.
“Not the smartest thing for a debutante to do, to be found alone, unchaperoned on the patio,” came a gravelly smooth masculine voice from behind her.
“I am not alone.” Annalise turned to face the stranger. “You are here, aren’t you?”
The gentleman laughed, the deep rumbling sound that held her mesmerized. “I am far from a chaperone, believe me. With me around, you need at least two.”
“Are you a rake then?” She tilted her head, studying the man in front of her. He was tall, slim and elegant. He was wearing a deep green coat and a waistcoat, embroidered with golden thread and matching breeches. His clothing was tailored to precisely fit his build. His skin was snow white, his facial features almost too handsome to be masculine, his white powdered wig collected in a ponytail. He stepped closer, looming over her, and then sketched a perfect bow.
“Lord Moore, at your service.” He looked at her, his dark eyes roaming over her form in a fashion that made her want to squirm under his perusal.
“Lady Annalise Ardee.” She curtsied and ducked her head, hiding her gaze from him.
“Annalise. What a beautiful name,” he said in a low voice. The sound of her Christian name on his lips sent butterflies fluttering low in her belly.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “And what is your Christian name?” She was surprised by her own boldness in asking that of a complete stranger.
He gave her a queer look for a moment before answering, “Blake.”
He stepped even closer to her, all the while studying her face. Annalise fisted her hands in her skirts to hide their shaking. Her palms were perspiring and his closeness sent a strange quiver through her body. She took a deep breath, trying to calm her rioting nerves, only to inhale the scent of his spicy, masculine cologne.
Blake reached out slowly, carefully, as if not to spook her, and disengaged her hand from her skirts. He then brought it up to his lips and kissed her knuckles with slow deliberation. Annalise’s knees buckled, and she wondered how she managed to remain upright and had not turned into a quivering puddle right then and there.
“Since you’re here and not out on the dancefloor, is it sensible of me to assume that the next dance is not spoken for?”
“Actually,” Annalise pushed out past her dry lips. She had to swallow before she could continue, for her throat seemed to have a boulder lodged in it. “All of my dances after this one are taken.”
“We’ll have to make the best of it then, won’t we?” he asked with a strange twinkle in his eyes. He took her by the hand and led her back to the ballroom and onto the dancefloor.
“What are you doing?” she hissed between her teeth, but he already joined the other couples and spun her into a dance.
A giggle left her lips as she followed the steps unconsciously. They were standing opposite each-other dancing the reel, surrounded by a large crowd of people, but all Annalise could see was Blake’s dark eyes, intensely focused upon her. She smiled, and he reciprocated, only his smile reminded her of a predatory grin. As if she were a prey he was about to claim.
The thought wasn’t as disturbing as it would have been. He spun her once more, and she laughed in joy. She was probably grinning like a simpleton, but she didn’t care how she looked to others. As long as Blake kept smiling back at her. Annalise felt the entire world disappearing and leaving just the two of them. Too more bars and the music faded, the dance concluded. Annalise felt disappointment settle in her as they took their bows. Would he seek her out again after this? With that hope she made to leave the floor, but Blake stopped her.
“We’ll dance again,” he said, a sparkle of mischief dancing in his eyes.
“But—” she looked helplessly around, “I’ve already promised this dance to Lord Hexley.”
Blake just raised his brow. “Then let him come and demand it.”
Annalise’s mouth dropped open. “You can’t do that, it will lead to a scandal.”
“Worry not,” he winked at her before looking past her shoulder. “Here comes your rescuer.”
True enough, Lord Hexley appeared at her elbow. “I believe this is my dance, My Lady,” he said with a bow.
Annalise was about to answer, but Blake interrupted her swiftly. “I am afraid young Lady Annalise feels indisposed at the moment. She has a terrible, erm, headache and I graciously offered to escort her to the refreshments room.”
At Hexley’s questioning look, Annalise smiled weakly. What is Blake doing?
“Naturally,” Lord Hexley grumbled. “Then I will take my leave.” He put his words into action and left the dance floor, muttering something under his breath.
“What did you do that for?” Annalise watched Lord Hexley leave in astonishment.
“I thought it quite clear,” Blake said. “I wish to have this dance for myself.”
“You can’t!” Annalise exclaimed in horror. “You said you were taking me to the refreshments room, so we better make haste.”
“All in good time, my dear,” he said, and as music started, he led her in another dance. A chuckle left Annalise’s lips, but she didn’t protest. She was being reckless, she knew. Dancing two dances in a row with the same gentleman was scandalous enough, but considering the way Blake had taken these dances there was bound to be gossip that could possibly—no probably—ruin her reputation. She was also afraid that Blake wouldn’t let her dance with her following partner either. She smiled inwardly at the thought. Perhaps it was two cups of ratafia she’d had earlier that made her this impetuous, or the intoxicating presence of the gentleman before her. Whatever the reason was, she never wanted this dance to end.
At that moment, Blake took her by the hand and tugged her aside. “Come with me,” he said as he retraced their earlier steps and led her back onto the patio.
Annalise giggled like a silly girl, which perhaps she was. She should have been alarmed by the behavior of this gentleman, but she wasn’t. It felt right following his lead, trusting him with their next course.
“What are we doing back here?” she asked, smiling widely.
“You look quite flushed. I was afraid you were getting hot,” he said and accompanied his words by taking her hand and slowly, sensuously tugging on the tips of her gloves. Annalise’s pulse fluttered madly as she stared into the stranger’s eyes, unable to look away, unable to pull her hand away, mesmerized by the heat in his gaze. “I thought perhaps, you needed to cool down.” By this time her glove was completely off and he brought her hand to his lips. He kissed each one of her fingers, then turned her hand palm up and placed a fervent kiss to her inner wrist, ending it on a slight lick. Annalise’s lips parted and her stomach clenched, sending hot waves through her entire body.
All too soon, he placed her glove back in her hand.
“Until we meet again,” he whispered in her ear and disappeared into the darkness, leaving Annalise flushed, breathless and confused.
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