About the book
She’s at the mercy of his lips…
London falls into despair when an unknown sickness starts claiming lives.
Lady Jane Curtis realizes she's made the biggest mistake of her life when she convinces her mother to accompany her into town. With her reputation almost in tatters, her fate rests on the shoulders of one very handsome, but very troubled Duke.
Arthur Harris, Duke of Dalwater, has been living in the shadows of his injury ever since he can remember. After suffering from such pain, love seems like a sick joke to him. That is until he comes across Jane and her blissful touch.
When rumors about Jane having the disease start circulating, she is immediately shunned. With her mother already bedridden, an anonymous letter confirms her greatest fear. Arthur has fallen deathly sick with the incurable illness. And it's all her own fault.
Jane stretched luxuriantly in her feather bed, a wide smile on her face, reveling in the warmth of the sun’s rays on her face. She’d been confined in the house for days and was tired of it. She wanted to go outside even if it was for a short time.
Even though the season was well on its way, a large number of events had been canceled due to low turnout. Too many people were afraid that a new contagion might be taking over the city. Jane wasn’t one of those people. She didn’t know a single person who was ill.
Luckily for me, Mother isn’t afraid either.
She thought she might be able to convince her mother to take the air with her. Just for extra protection, they could visit the gypsy market on the outskirts of town. No doubt it was safe there for sure. She jumped out of bed, rushing over to the window and leaning out of it.
The city was just waking up and from her window she could see the grooms at the mews, returning from their morning exercise. She smiled happily and waved at the horses before scooping her robe from behind the door. Venturing out in her slippers, she went to see if she might catch her mother before breakfast and infect her with her enthusiasm for a walk.
If she got her mother on her side it would be easy to make her father let them go. Of the three of them, he was the most anxious about this illness apparently spreading through the south of London at a dizzying pace. But all their servants lived within their home and so Jane did not see what there was to worry about.
She skipped down the stairs, calling good morning to the footmen stationed at the foot of the stairs as she passed. Her long chestnut hair flew behind her like a cape as she hurried to the dining hall.
“Good morning!” she called as she burst in and her parents looked up at her with smiles on their faces. She went up to her mother and bused her cheek before taking her place to the left of her father. Her mother sat to his right and he occupied the head of the table.
Jane looked from her mother to her father, her face still lit up. “It’s a lovely day, is it not?”
The Viscount grunted his amiable agreement while Lady Wairene lifted a curious eyebrow. “Any particular reason why you’re so happy this morning?”
“I suppose I got up on the right side of the bed.” Jane winked as she picked up her spoon to dig into the bowl of porridge that was placed in front of her.
Lady Wairene laughed. “Come on, Darling, out with it! I know that look.”
Jane paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth, looking from her mother to her father. “Well, since you asked—”
“Oh dear,” her father interjected teasingly, an eyebrow quirked in her direction.
“I wanted to go out today. I thought we might take a walk—”
“Absolutely not,” her father interrupted, his face closed. Jane’s heart sank.
Jane leaned forward earnestly. “But—”
“No!” her father’s voice rose, startling both she and her mother. There was a loud silence at the table before her father gave a sigh.
“I’m sorry, I did not mean to shout at you. It’s just that we have been dealing with the repercussions of this illness all day in parliament. There are so many debates and one hears the most horrifying stories—”
Jane reached out to squeeze the Viscount’s hand, her eyes soft with compassion. “Oh Father, we’ll be careful. We won’t go anywhere near South London.”
“I know you won’t. I know that the outskirts are relatively unaffected. I just fear for you both. You’re all I have you know.”
Lady Wairene put down her spoon and took her husband’s hand in hers. They exchanged a loving glance as Jane watched, her heart melting at the obvious love between them.
“We won’t go if it worries you so, Father,” she said softly.
He exchanged one more loaded glance with her mother which seemed to contain an entire conversation, before turning to Jane in resignation. “No. You’re right. I cannot keep you locked up forever. You may leave as long as you only go there and straight back. No stops, and you take two footmen with you for protection.”
Jane’s face lit up. “Thank you, Father, that’s kind of you. And yes, we promise.”
Lady Wairene patted his hand, smiling at him. “I’ll watch her,” she said softly, “We’ll be all right.”
The Viscount squeezed her hand. “I know you will.”
The Viscount of Wairene watched his wife and daughter ride away, a pit in his stomach he could not quite get rid of.
“Now remember, be careful and steer away from the rabble.” He’d said to them as they arranged themselves prettily in the carriage, a footman on hand to ride on the step outside their closed doors.
Jane had frowned at him, admonished him for his language, and then laughed when he apologized with grave exaggeration. He loved his child dearly, she brought joy and laughter to their lives. But she was just a tad too reckless for his peace of mind. His wife indulged her whims because she could not bear to see her frown and the Viscount knew he was not much better.
Still, he was not comfortable with this decision and prayed that God watch over them. He hurried back indoors, not wanting to give the man ambling toward him a chance to approach.
“This way lady! Come see my wares. Have lovely gold jewelry from India!” a minuscule black-haired hag with dirty nails beckoned to them. She was even shorter than Jane and her wares did indeed look very attractive. Jane pulled her mother toward her, the two footmen in step behind them.
“Yes, yes, come and see. Very good, high quality.” She picked up a gold chain and held it out. The footman snatched at it before her hand could touch Jane’s and then handed it over. Jane looked it over critically, but her eyes were drawn to a number of bangles tied together with a string. She looked at her freckle-covered wrist and imagined how they would look on it.
“Let me see those bangles,” she handed back the chain and her footman picked up the bangles.
I was right, they look absolutely lovely. She played with the bangles at her wrist, admiring the bright contrast they made on her tanned skin.
“I want these, Mother,” she declared, looking up to see her mother examining a strange-looking piece of gold jewelry.
She peered curiously at it. “What is that?”
“'Tis called a maang tikka,” the gypsy plucked it from her mother’s hands and lifted it to her own head to show how it was worn. “It goes on yer hair you see, and this part hangs on your forehead.”
Jane blinked, admiring how the gold looked against the gypsy’s dark hair. She turned immediately to her mother with excitement. “Oh, Mother, can we get it? It would look ever so pretty with my gowns. I should be the envy of every ball.”
“Well…are you sure? It’s quite foreign-looking.”
She turned the piece in her hand, examining it closely. “Oh Mother, you say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“Don’t misunderstand me, I do remember how much you enjoyed your Uncle’s stories of foreign places especially India and all things therein but where will you wear such a piece?”
She looked to her mother and then back to the head piece. “Well, I’m sure I’ll find somewhere to wear with it that won’t invite too much comment. Come on, Mother, it is oh so pretty. Look.” She draped it on her forehead and turned to face her mother.
Lady Wairene cocked her head to the side and conceded defeat. “Yes, it’s very becoming on you.”
“Well then? May I have them, Mother? Please?” Jane jumped up and down a bit with excitement and agitation.
“All right,” Lady Wairene gestured to the footman holding her purse to pay for the jewelry and then collected the package from the gypsy. Jane waved gaily to her. “Thank you!” she called, turning away.
She skipped ahead in happiness as they headed back to the carriage. She could see her mother trying to catch up to her and slowed her pace slightly realizing that there was a significant gap between them. The gypsy was still counting out change for the second footman while the first was just ahead of Jane, ready to open the carriage door.
Her mother was all alone in the crowd.
Jane began to turn back, to go to her and take her hand when she saw a filthy looking man on a collision course with her. The way he was bobbing and weaving showed he did not have sufficient command of his person. Jane opened her mouth to warn her mother but didn’t know what to say.
Careful, there’s a drunk man headed toward you?
Instead she began to hurry, trying to intercept the man before he could barrel into her mother. She was still a few steps away when her mother caught sight of the man, coming upon her from her periphery. She stepped to the side and one foot slipped from the sidewalk onto the road, destabilizing her somewhat.
As if it was all happening in slow motion, Jane saw the man reach out and grasp her mother’s hand. She heard her mother gasp and then the man turned to her, his face inches from the Viscountess’. He opened his mouth as if to say something and Lady Wairene recoiled.
Instead of speaking, he coughed, a disgusting mound of green phlegm just missing her mother and falling on the ground between them. Her mother uttered a sound of disgust and recoiled even as Jane screamed, to summon the footman.
He was there in a moment, hustling the drunk man away as Jane leapt to catch hold of her mother.
“Are you all right?” she asked anxiously, brushing non-existent dirt from her mother’s gown.
“I’m fine, it’s all right. He didn’t hurt me.” Her mother was breathing quite fast and despite her assurances, seemed quite rattled by the encounter.
“Let’s go home, shall we?” Jane pulled her solicitously toward the carriage while the footman walked on the other side, making sure no one else came close.
“Yes.” Lady Wairene pasted on a smile, “I think that’s quite enough excitement for today.”
Jane took her mother’s wrist as they sat in the carriage, seeing where it was reddened from the man’s tight grasp. “Was he trying to rob you, Mother?” she furrowed her brow in concern.
Lady Wairene shook her head. “I don’t think so. He seemed to be asking for help.”
“He seemed to have dipped rather deep to me.”
Her mother wrinkled her nose. “He smelled as if he was rotting. It was quite awful. I think he was just befogged.”
Jane made a humming sound, not wanting to disagree. “In any case, as long as you are all right, then I suppose there’s no harm done.”
“I’m fine. Don’t worry, Dear.” She touched Jane’s wrist before returning her hand to her bruised wrist, rubbing at it seemingly compulsively. Jane watched her worriedly. “We don’t have to mention this to your Father when we get home, all right? He’ll just worry for nothing.”
Jane nodded, “Of course, Mother.”
They finished the journey in silence and once they arrived back home, Lady Wairene hurried off to her chambers while Jane went to order some piping hot water for her. On her way back to her own chambers, she ran into her father. “How was the market?”
Jane smiled. “Well, we got quite a haul of lovely jewelry.”
“Oh, that’s nice. And where is your Mother?”
“Oh, uh, she went to her chambers. She wanted to change her clothes.”
The Viscount nodded. “I see. Well, I expect you want to do the same so I will let you take your leave.”
“Thank you, Father.” She smiled and hurried to her room, feeling a sliver of guilt at lying to him.
Mother asked me to.
She closed the door of her room and found that Ava was there, arranging her vanity. While she was dressed in the standard maid’s uniform, her wispy blonde hair was wrapped gaily with a bunch of flowers.
Which she probably pilfered from the many vases that dotted the manor house. “Oh, Ava! Thank Heaven you’re here. I’ve just done a bad thing and I need to tell someone.”
Her lady’s maid whirled around, hand on hip and smiled. “It’s barely noon, Jane. Don’t tell me you’ve been making trouble already.”
“I have not. But…well, you know that Father didn’t want us going out this morning and I convinced Mother to go. Now some dirty beggar fell on her and she forbade me from telling him. Nothing bad will happen, do you think?”
Ava blinked at her word fell, frozen in place, in her hand a brush that she’d been transferring from the table to the basket. “What do you think will happen? Was the man sick?”
“Heaven forbid! No, he was just dirty and jug-bitten. He also hurt Mother on her wrist.” Jane pointed to the same place on her own wrist where her mother was bruised.
“Well, I expect that if something bad were to happen, your Mother would know before you. So you need not feel responsible.”
Jane heaved a sigh of relief. “That’s good to hear.” She moved away from the door and came to stand by Ava. “Help me with my hooks, please. I want to get out of this gown and into something lighter. Lady Casper and her daughter might drop by for a visit and I cannot wait to hear if they have news.”
“News?” Ava asked, her lips pursed as she focused on undoing the long line of hooks on the bodice which ran from the nape of her neck down to her waist.
“Yes. I expect they know more about whether this contagion is real or not.”
“Oh, I can tell you that, Jane. The contagion is most certainly real. Why, Francis lost an uncle and a cousin just the other day.”
“Who is Francis?”
Ava clucked her tongue, furrowing her brow at Jane. “He’s one of the footmen.”
“Oh. I hadn’t heard.”
Ava pursed her lips even as her hand worked busily to complete her task. “Yes, well, it’s not as if he can go and pay his last respects. The bodies were burned right away.”
“You don’t say!” Jane felt a jolt of anxiety spark through her. If the contagion was real, had they put themselves in danger by going out?
The Lady Patronesses at Almack’s will absolutely lose their minds when they see me.
Jane examined herself in the looking glass, a huge smile on her face. The maang tika hung over her forehead, glowing golden bright in the candlelight and causing her chestnut hair to gleam with strange highlights. She had parted her hair in the middle before tying it at the nape of her neck so that the tail cascaded down her back as a pony’s did. The maang tika was placed in the center parting so that the rounded spiral of gold patterns surrounding a ruby in the center fell right in the middle of her forehead.
She wore a red silk gown that fell low on her shoulders, exposing the freckled, tanned skin of her neck as well as her neckline. She smiled demurely at her reflection, happy with the picture she made. The single mole above her right breast peeked tantalizingly from the neckline of her gown. She fluttered her lashes, practicing her coy expression, her slate-gray eyes wide and innocent looking.
“You’re lovely and you know it. Do stop making eyes at yourself.” Ava said with a laugh as she folded linen on the bed.
Jane whirled to face her. “You truly think so?” she ran a hand down her freckled arms, “Don’t think I don’t know that people make fun of me. They mock my darkened skin, accuse me of being careless when I go out, not bothering with a hat. But I cannot help it that my skin darkens so easily,” she looked at Ava sadly.
Ava snorted derisively. “You’re beautiful and your sun-darkened skin makes your eyes shine brighter and gives your hair such pretty auburn highlights. They mock you because you’re a natural beauty without bothering to conform to their confining standards.”
Jane inclined her head to the side, dimples winking in and out as she smiled. “You absolutely promise?”
Ava gestured dramatically to the mirror. “If you don’t believe me, the looking glass is right there.”
Jane turned back, to give herself one last look. “You’re right. I am lovely. And this Indian jewelry is just what I need to show that I choose beauty on my own terms.”
“The Patronesses will love it.” Ava concurred although she seemed distracted, her attention on straightening the bedspread so Jane could not be sure how sincerely she meant it.
“Yes, they will.” She agreed nevertheless.
“The Patronesses will never let you in dressed like that,” the words burst from the Viscount’s mouth without thought. He’d been struck with awe as he saw his daughter descend the stairs, looking like a vision in red. However, his eyes had caught on the strange headdress on her head. Not a tiara, nor was it a necklace or earbobs.
“Oh come now, Papa! I can see that you like it.”
“It’s not me who has the wherewithal to have you removed from Almack’s.”
Jane just grinned. “It’ll be fine. They will be impressed with my creativity. Trust me, Father.”
He simply humphed, unable to argue with that. In any case, he was distracted by his bride descending the stairs. She was walking slower than normal and indeed listed a bit to the side. His brow furrowed with concern. “Are you all right, My Dear?”
She smiled a trifle wanly. “I’m fine ,Wairene, don’t fuss. It was simply a long day and I think I spent too long out in the sun.”
“We do not have to go if you’re not feeling up to it.”
“Papa!” Jane gave him an admonishing glance as if to ask how he dare suggest such a thing.
“It’s quite all right, I can manage.”
Jane dashed eagerly up the stairs and took her mother’s arm. “I will help you.”
While her solicitousness was undoubtedly real, Hildebrand could not help the cynical thought that their daughter really wanted to attend tonight’s ball. He could not blame her, they were all feeling the effects of having been confined indoors for a while. It would be nice to be out and about among people again. To greet them and hear how they were doing. They all needed it.
He suspected that was why his wife made no demur although she clearly looked very tired. He sent one of the footmen off to fetch her a glass of wine.
“Drink this before we go. It will fortify you on the journey. And we shan't stay very long,” he said warningly, mostly to his daughter.
She nodded her agreement and he smiled.
Always such an agreeable child. Who can begrudge her a little pleasure now and then?
He offered his wife one arm and his daughter the other as they walked out of their manor house. The carriage was waiting just outside to whisk them all off to Almack’s. The clock was just striking ten as they arrived; not too early, but not too late. Hildebrand planned to stay until midnight before taking his family home.
Normally they might have called upon other families who might also be holding a soiree or ball but with the reduced activities engendered by the illness sweeping London, no one else was holding any get togethers this night.
Of course, being a Monday night, that was not too out of the ordinary. Still, Hildebrand thought he might send the carriage home with his wife and daughter and make his way to the club after Almack’s, perhaps catch up on a game of Whist. He knew many of his peers tended to avoid the balls unless they were seeking a new wife. Not many of them enjoyed spending time with their own wives once they’d acquired them.
Hildebrand smiled smugly, looking to his lovely lady, in her purple-velvet gown that made her look like a veritable queen.
I am the luckiest man alive.
Lady Wairene caught his eye and smiled as if she could hear his thoughts. He reached out for her hand and squeezed it affectionately.
Jane watched her parents exchange heated glances with something like envy.
I want that when I get married. She smiled, watching them speak to each other with just hands and eyes, and itched with impatience to find a man with whom she could do the same. She had come out last year and although she had received a few indications of interest, none had resulted in an offer. Jane knew that she was perceived as rather spoiled because of her happy-go-lucky nature and indulgent parents but that was not true at all. She loved life in all its infinite glory but she did know that it was not all sunshine and roses.
She looked out the window as they drew up at Almack’s, unconsciously straightening her spine and thrusting out her chest. The carriage came to a stop and a footman was there to open the door and assist her down the steps. She had to wait on her parents so they all could be announced together. They glided up the stairs together, her father having offered them both his arms again.
Curiously, Jane’s heart pounded harder the closer they got to the end of the line. She had a feeling that it was going to be a significant night in her young life, and her hands shook with anxiety.
Her father turned to peer at her as the family in front of them was announced. “Are you all right, My Dear?”
She gave him a strained smile and nodded. Then they were stepping in front of the steward.
“Hildebrand Curtis, Viscount Wairene with his wife, Lady Catherine Curtis and their daughter, Miss Jane Curtis.”
They walked into the assembly room which was fairly full despite the early hour. Jane suspected that she was not the only one sorely tired of being confined indoors. They went to greet the Patronesses before her father disappeared in search of the game room and her mother settled down nearby, as if happy to get off her feet. Jane took a walk around the room, in search of her friend Ester.
They had exchanged notes just yesterday, promising to meet each other here. Ester, knowing her love of all things India, had promised to introduce her to a young man who had traveled there. Jane could hardly wait. She had so many questions.
She did one more circuit around the room before spotting Ester in a gaggle of ladies, talking animatedly to them. She glided over, a ready smile on her face, and tapped Ester on the arm with her fan.
Ester turned to her, a word of admonishment already forming on her lips before she saw that it was Jane. Her face lit up, and she squealed. “Jane! I was beginning to think you would not make it. I know how protective your parents are, keeping you locked away like a batch of precious jewels, poor thing. How are you?”
“Oh, I am very well, thank you.”
Ester’s eyes flicked upwards to her maang tika and cocked an eyebrow. “Did the Patronesses allow you in here with that barbaric monstrosity on your head?”
Jane reached up and touched it, suddenly feeling self-conscious.
“Nonsense. Nothing barbaric about it. It is a beautiful piece of jewelry that features in sacred texts and sketches. They can also be seen in paintings and artifacts in India. It’s a hair embellishment used to adorn Indian hair for important occasions such as weddings.”
Jane turned in surprise to see a rather disheveled looking man with the reddest hair and beard she’d ever seen and twinkling blue eyes regarding them with amusement as he gave his impromptu lecture.
“It’s not just a piece of jewelry, however. It holds tantric significance and is said to lie on the sixth chakra of the brow.”
“What is a chakra?” Jane asked fascinated although she knew she absolutely should not be speaking to a man to whom she had not been introduced.
“Oh, forgive me!” Ester cut in, “Jane, this is my friend, His Grace, Arthur Harris, Duke of Dalwater.”
She gave Jane a glance as if Ester expected her to curtsy. Jane obliged, impatient to dispense with formalities,so she could speak more to the man. Ester continued, “Your Grace, this is my friend Miss Jane Curtis.”
The duke waved a hand. “Please, let us dispense with that tiresome title. You may call me Dalwater.”
“Thank you, Dalwater,” Jane said feeling quite bold, “where did you learn so much about Indian lore?”
“I have spent some time on the sub-continent. Among other things, their belief systems were fascinating to me. The chakra, for example, being a circular vortex of energy which is supposed to be responsible for spreading vitality within the body. How interesting that is. We have nothing equivalent in our culture.” She was fascinated by the animation of his features as he spoke.
“You see!” Ester cut in, startling her quite a bit because she’d forgotten her friend was there. “Barbaric!”
The Duke threw back his head and laughed. “Indeed, I suppose it is.”
Jane took a step closer to him. “So what is the sixth chakra?”
His smile widened and he seemed pleased with her interest. He reached out slowly and touched her forehead briefly, just to the right of the piece of jewelry. She jerked in surprise and he withdrew his hand. What surprised her was that he used his left hand. That was until she noticed that his right sleeve was empty from about his elbow.
Arthur did not even know why he’d come for this ball. All he could say in his defense was that Miss Ester Thomas was extremely persuasive. They had grown up on neighboring estates in the English countryside, even shared a schoolroom. He didn’t know why she insisted on standing on ceremony with this ‘Your Grace’ nonsense. It was not as if he held audiences with the King or even attended parliament. He was just an ordinary rural Duke who, as his mother was French and a Catholic, was considered rather low brow.
Not that he was in the least bothered by that designation. He had his books and his dogs, plenty of land in which to stroll around, and several effective remedies for when the phantom pain hit. He had no worries.
Being in London at this time was not the smartest thing he’d ever done but he had a letter from Dr. Sanyi, newly returned from the Continent, with a new drug he said worked better than anything the physician had ever seen before.
Seeing as he’d spent four days last month rolling about on his bed in a delirium of agony, he’d been eager to try the new remedy. However, the physician had immediately been pulled into the crisis facing London and now Arthur had to wait until Dr. Sanyi found some time for him.
He turned to the absolutely ravishing creature before him. If he thought he even had a snowball’s chance in hell with her, he might have asked for a dance. For the moment, her interest was captured by his knowledge, but sooner or later, a handsome lord would come and sweep her off her feet and he would be left to watch from the shadows.
Better make the most of it then.
He turned to face her more fully, determined to answer all her questions.
“The sixth chakra lays on the forehead according to Indian folklore and it speaks to the third eye. I’m not sure what any of that means but it’s fascinating.”
Her gray eyes, as wide, clear, and silver as a lake in winter widened as if she might absorb all knowledge from him through them. He would gladly have dived deep into her icy depths if that was what it took to be close to her.
“The third eye, they say, controls feelings and how intense they fixate.”
She shook her head. “Third eyes, controlling feelings…such an awful lot of responsibility to attribute to a single piece of gold.”
He laughed in surprise, not having expected wit on top of beauty. Again he reached out, his hand hovering just inches from her forehead. He had seen her look away from his stump and had expected disgust in her eyes as she looked back at him. Had expected her to recoil. That her eyes remained clear, calm, and unbothered did more to loosen the knot of anxiety he always carried around with him than all the tobacco in the world.
He relaxed in her presence in a way he had not been able to do with anyone for a long time.
“It’s not the piece of gold that holds your intuition, your sense of purpose, or your direction in life. It’s simply supposed to help you focus.”
She quirked an elegant chestnut eyebrow at him. “That would explain my feeling as I arrived here this evening.”
He cocked his head curiously to the side, “What feeling was that?”
“That my life was about to change.”
She was staring at him as she said it as if he were to infer something deeper from her words than simple platitudes. He had to remind himself to breathe. Clearing his throat, he decided to take a chance.
“Would you do me the honor of this dance?” he asked.
Miss Thomas burst into peals of laughter beside him. “Oh Dalwater, since when do you dance?”
He hunched in on himself, his cheeks coloring. It was true that he preferred to avoid the dances as much as possible. But there was no need for Miss Thomas to try and embarrass him like this.
Miss Curtis stepped between them. “Hush your laughter, Miss Thomas. I am honored that Dalwater would go out of his way to honor me with a dance especially if he does not usually do it.” She held out a hand imperiously, “Shall we go?”
Arthur hastened to take the hand and tuck it awkwardly into his elbow. He led Miss Curtis to the dance floor, his chest full, a lump in his throat. He was a duke, just four-and-twenty years old, and as such, he didn’t have a shortage of ladies dangling after him – even if they did tend to be nearing or on the shelf, or else were apartments to let.
He simply was not used to having beautiful young ladies on his arm. He almost tripped over his feet, wistfully wishing he’d taken more time with his clothes. His valet was always admonishing him about taking better care of his appearance. But usually, Arthur could not be bothered.
Ever since he lost his arm in that hunting accident years ago, he had tried to come to terms with being less than perfect. His mother had showered him with kisses and let him cry when the other children in the schoolroom were cruel. Thanks to his mother, he was never expected to maintain a stiff upper lip. He had dealt with the ridicule by being ever more careless about his appearance. He let his hair grow out, and once he was of age, his beard too.
He found that in his troubles, the color of his hair commanded more attention than his missing arm. There were not too many gingers in the Far East or the Dark Continent. He had been subject to a lot of nicknames pertaining to fire as a result. It was amusing.
He looked up to see Miss Curtis watching him, a slight smile on her face. “For a man who does not dance, you’re very graceful at it.”
He smiled as well, gratified by the compliment. “Ah well…when one’s body is a little lopsided, one does what one can to compensate. That includes working on your balance.”
She nodded in understanding. “That is indeed fascinating. You are a very interesting man, Your Grace.”
He was embarrassed at how much he could not hide the blush that stained his cheeks. “Call me Dalwater,” he mumbled into his chin.
She grinned, grabbing his arm as they swung around and continued the foxtrot. The dance came to an end and he bowed to her, gratefully. She grabbed at his hand and he looked around nervously, wondering what people would make of her boldness.
“Surely you don’t mean to melt away into the crowd and leave me unsatisfied?”
He cocked a very surprised eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”
“It’s just that we have yet to scratch the surface on so many topics, don’t you think? I want to know everything you can tell me.”
He willed his blush away, “Well then, let us find an appropriate group to stand at the edges of and I will regale you with everything you care to know.”
She laughed with delight and he could not help but smile at the sound. “You’re a strange man. I like you.”
He felt as if he was walking on air as they circled the group of wallflowers, coming to a stop at their very edge. In truth, it would have been good manners to ask one of them to dance but Arthur had the feeling they had no interest in dancing with the likes of him. He did not blame them. If he was a wallflower, he would not want to lower his social standing further by dancing with a one-armed, disheveled-looking ginger.
He turned to Miss Curtis who was happy to listen to him wax lyrical about obscure topics. “So what would you like to know?”
“Tell me about you. How have we not met before? You seem close with Miss Thomas.”
He gave her a big smile, enamored by her interest. “Well, yes we are schoolroom companions.” He held out his arm, “I do not usually attend the Season for obvious reason, which would explain why we have not met.”
“I see. Is that because you are already interested in someone?”
He quirked an eyebrow, “No...I—” he shrugged, unable to find the words, but she seemed to understand because her gaze slipped down to his arm. She touched it briefly with a finger. “Will you tell me what happened?”
She gazed at him, her wide gray eyes open and inquiring, her lips swollen and red where she’d bitten them as she thought. A jolt of want went through him and it was all he could do not to lean over and kiss her.
He tried to look elsewhere focus on something other than her luscious mouth and his eyes inadvertently lowered to her neckline. Twin peaks swelling against the low neckline of her gown, sprinkled with freckles, a mole just peeking above her right breast. It was almost too much to bear. He licked his lips, his eyes hooded as he tried to hide his arousal.
“A…a hunting accident. My father took me with him on my eighth birthday to my first hunting expedition. What do you know? One of the hunting dogs attacked me. Bit my arm. The physician gave us a choice, for it to wither away and possibly cause problems in the future or amputate it.”
She gasped softly. “That must have been difficult.”
He looked away, his cheeks flushing. He was not used to sympathy when he spoke of this; only horror and disgust.
“Not as difficult as living with it,” he said softly.
Her hand ran softly down his arm. “Well, if I may say so, I think you have done very well. At least if your dancing is anything to go by.”
She met his gaze, locking eyes with him unflinchingly and causing him to shiver with the want that swept through him like an avalanche of desire.
“You have the most hypnotizing eyes I have ever seen,” her words were soft, seemingly apropos of nothing.
“My…eyes?” he didn’t really even know what he was saying.
“Yes, your eyes. So blue…like the sky at midday on a hot cloudless summer’s day. It contrasts so beautifully with your alabaster skin, and your fiery hair. I feel as if you might be a magical creature from one of the stories my governess used to read to me.”
He couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him. “Me? Magical? You must be mistaken.”
She smiled enigmatically but said no more. They continued to stare unabashedly at each other, forgetting the world around them, the orchestra playing a merry jig, the Patronesses who noted everything that went on in their domain. The other guests, chattering about this and that and trying to forget their troubles for an evening, the other men, competing gallantly for the attention of the prettiest ladies.
Which is unfortunate for them because I have the most beautiful of them all paying attention to me.
Arthur almost smiled at the thought, his hand reaching out for hers.
His cheeks hurting from how much he was smiling, Arthur’s heart thudded heavily in his chest.
“I feel as if we should make some sort of declaration at this point,” Jane prompted.
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