Always Proper, Suddenly Scandalous(4)

By: Christi Caldwell

As if being mocked by the gods, Lady Beatrice Dennington’s brother, the Marquess of Westfield, walked up to the young woman, a glass of ratafia in his hands. He held it out to the unfamiliar young lady, and whispered something close to her ear. Even from across the ballroom, the husky quality of her full laugh reached Geoffrey’s ears. Nearby lords and ladies looked on, their lips pulled back in a sneer at her unladylike expression of mirth.

And god help him, for the first time in nearly five years, he wanted to send propriety to the devil with a bow and a parting wave, and forever hear that fulsome sound.

The lady must possess delicate sensibilities, a polite laugh, and not be given to great displays of emotion.

Westfield’s presence, combined with the words Geoffrey had dashed upon his list served as a taunting reminder of his intentions for Lady Beatrice.

“Geoffrey,” his mother murmured, giving him a sharp look. “Are you well?”

“Oh-uh, yes, very well.” Geoffrey stroked his palms along the front of his waistcoat and awaited their introduction.

“The Viscount Redbrooke and the Viscountess Redbrooke,” the servant called.

From his vantage point, Geoffrey sought the tall beauty who’d so captivated him. He frowned. Gone. She’d disappeared from her spot alongside the pillar like an apparition he’d only conjured in his great imaginings.

His chest tightened with inexplicable disappointment.

“I see Lady Tisdale,” his mother said, calling him back to the moment.

Geoffrey managed a faint nod as his mother took her leave, and he returned his search for the temptress. For four years, he’d managed to convince himself that he craved a placid, calm, poised young lady for a wife. Great beauties roused grand passions and wrought all manner of heartache. In the span of a heartbeat, the winsome creature in the crowd made mockery of his efforts at atonement.

Christ, what in hell is wrong with me?

The sole purpose of his being at Lord and Lady Hughes's ball was to partner Lady Beatrice in two sets; a waltz and a quadrille, and indicate his interest in the young lady. It would not do to be observed standing like a foppish gent just out of university with his mouth agape over an altogether different young lady.

Except…his mind was filled with images of too red lips, and a tall, lean frame, and…he gave his head a shake. Standing here, lusting after some unknown lady would not help him accomplish his goal of marriage to Lady Beatrice.

In desperate need of a drink, Geoffrey took a step toward a liveried servant bearing a tray full of champagne when his black Hessian boot suddenly snagged the hem of a young lady’s skirt.

The tear of fabric ripping blended with the din of conversation around them.

The lady gasped, and pitched forward. Even as the glass of ratafia in her hand fell to the floor, her hip collided with the passing servant who teetered on his feet. The young man’s serving tray tilted precariously, and for an infinitesimal moment Geoffrey believed the servant had steadied his burden.

But the servant’s tray slipped from his fingers. Champagne flutes careened to the floor, and sprayed the bubbling liquid onto the gown of several matrons standing nearby, who cried out in shock and scurried off.

“Pardon me,” Geoffrey murmured to the servant, and then returned his attention to the woman he’d inadvertently sent reeling. A mere five or so inches smaller than his six foot frame, she stood taller than most of the ladies present. “Forgive me. Are you all…?”

She smiled up at him.

His question died upon his lips as he gazed down at the woman who’d unwittingly beckoned from across the ballroom mere moments ago. His eyes traveled the high planes of her cheekbones, the gray irises of her eyes, her full, red lips.

…and then her slipper met the moisture upon the marble floor. Like one of the skaters at the Frost Fair on the River Thames, she slid forward, into a nearby pillar. “Ouch.”

Geoffrey’s arm shot out and he sought to steady her.

“Thank you,” she said. She shook out her sea foam green skirts and unlike the horror that wreathed the faces of the surrounding ladies, wry amusement fairly glittered in her gray-blue eyes. “I am uninjured,” she assured him.

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