Always Proper, Suddenly Scandalous(9)

By: Christi Caldwell

Lord Redbrooke stood alongside Beatrice and a trio of other unfamiliar individuals.

Even with the length of the ballroom between them, Abigail detected the pink blush on Beatrice’s cheeks.

They struck quite a pair; Lord Redbrooke’s tall, lean, muscle-hewn frame and olive coloring, next to Beatrice’s petite frame and flawless cream-white skin and golden ringlets.

Something the gentleman said raised a dimpled smile in Beatrice’s cheeks and Abigail would wager her father’s entire line of ships he’d said something perfectly gentlemanly, perfectly charming to her cousin.

“I do not see you as a burden, Abby.”

Abigail wrenched her gaze away from Lord Redbrooke and returned her attention to her cousin.

His brotherly concern warmed her through. With his more than six-foot-tall frame and fair coloring, he so reminded her of her elder brothers, Nathaniel and George. “I’m all right. Truly. I’m sure there is a game of cards somewhere you’d rather see to.”

His frown deepened. “Are you trying to be rid of me?”

She winked at him. “Yes.”

A chuckle rumbled up from his chest, and he shook his head. “If you’re certain…”

“I’m very certain.”

“I’ll return in a short while and partner you in a set.”

A little shudder wracked her frame. “Only if you’re determined to punish both me and your feet.” Her papa had always used to say Abigail could accomplish anything and everything…with the exception of dancing and embroidering. With Abigail’s lack of ladylike talents, Mother had despaired of Abigail ever making a match. In the end, Mother had been all too right.

Robert ran his eyes over her face, and must have seen something written there. “What is it?”

She waved her hand. “It is nothing.”

“Would you rather I stay and dance?”

Abigail laughed and swatted at his arm. “You’re insufferable.”

With a wink, he excused himself.

Abigail embraced the momentary solitude.

For the better part of the evening she’d battled tedium, which had lifted the moment Lord Redbrooke had shredded her hem with the heel of his boot. Something in his sea-green eyes had reflected the haunted look of one who knew pain and heartache.

Abigail knew. Because she, too, had known both those wrenching emotions.

Loud, yet muffled whispers interrupted her musings.

From the corner of her eye Abigail noted the nearby lords and ladies who eyed her, an American oddity in their glittering, perfectly ordered world. Her toes curled inside her ivory slippers and yet, she jutted her chin out, and boldly met the stares of the nobles around her with a frankness her mother would have deplored. It had the desired effect and the nosy peers directed their attention on some poor other unfortunate miss.

Abigail’s gaze collided with Lord Carmichael. Old and rotund, the gentleman had requested one of her later sets. The lecherous reprobate ogled her exposed décolletage a moment, and winked at her.

Shivers of distaste ran down her spine. She yanked her stare away from Lord Carmichael’s and instead directed her attention toward the crowd of shifting figures, who performed the intricate steps of a quadrille. A wistful smile played about Abigail’s lips at the sight of her cousin moving so gracefully, so elegantly, through the movements of the dance. Not like Abigail, who bumbled through every set and whose own dance tutors had deemed her unteachable.

Beatrice glanced up at her dance partner—Lord Redbrooke. The angular lines of his harshly beautiful face were set in a stoic mask. Every so often his thin, firm lips would move, and that pretty pink hue of Beatrice’s skin deepened.

Beatrice had been nothing but good and kind to Abigail…so this hideous envy that dug away at Abigail’s insides was petty and wrong. But God help her, how she longed for the restoration of her own innocence. Unlike Abigail, who had given away everything dear to a young lady, Beatrice remained unsullied, and pure, and therefore perfectly suitable for marriage to an honorable, worthy man.

The pain of past transgressions stabbed at Abigail with all the intensity of a dull knife being twisted inside her.

Suddenly, a longing for home filled her. At home she’d be outside on the cool, dew-kissed grass, inhaling the fragrant scent of sea air, gazing up at the constellations revealed in the stars.

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