Excerpt: The Perfect Waltz
Book 2: The Merridew Sisters
Hope Merridew dreamed of dancing the perfect waltz with the perfect man — and he’s not the tough, dark stranger who has come to London to court another woman. Only how can she resist him?
Sebastian has his own demons: a dark past to come to terms with and two desperately needy little sisters to care for. For their sake he must resist Miss Hope Merridew — but can he?
“But she’s got no bosoms! You can’t marry a woman with no bosoms!”
Sebastian Reyne shrugged. “She is by far the most appropriate for my requirements, according to Morton Black’s report. Besides, of course Lady Elinore Whitelaw has bosoms. She’s a woman, isn’t she?”
“She might not be,” his friend, Giles Bemerton declared darkly. “Swathed as she invariably is, in seventeen acres of gray cloth, who could possibly be sure?”
“You are talking nonsense,” Sebastian said firmly. The two men were seated in a small, snug room which was part of Giles’s bachelor lodgings in London. It was late at night and a fire was burning merrily in the grate.
“And she is older than you by ten years at least. ”
“Only six.” Sebastian sipped his brandy. “In any case, a man looks for maturity in a bride.”
Giles gave him a look of disbelief. “She has eschewed marriage all this time, and yet she must have had offers— despite her lack of looks— for her father would have left her well provided for, even though he was estranged from the mother. Why would she change her mind now?”
“She has no choice. Her mother died last year leaving her little to live on. Her father’s fortune comes to her only after she has been married for three years.”
Giles pursed his lips. “I see. But you don’t need a fortune, so why shackle yourself to a cold little fish like Lady Elinore? D’you know, I danced with her once. She made it abundantly clear she found me repugnant! Me!” Giles glanced indignantly down at his well formed person.
Sebastian suppressed a grin. With Giles’s golden good looks few women would find him repugnant. He said with dry amusement, “Another point in her favor. She shows great discrimination.”
“Bah! She is a complete eccentric! Her only passion is for good works—churches and destitute brats and charitable causes.” Giles shuddered eloquently. “It is madness, I tell you. Why would anyone choose to take a repressed little stick like Lady Elinore Whitelaw to wife, when there are plenty of prettier and more cheerful girls available on the marriage mart?”
Sebastian had engineered a meeting with Lady Elinore the previous week and found her small, quiet and unremarkable. They’d discussed her charitable works and Lady Elinore’s responses had confirmed his choice. She had devoted much of her life to working with orphan girls. She would do nicely. “Stubble it, Giles. My mind is made up. Prettier, more cheerful girls do not have the… the fortitude and experience a woman will need to deal with my sisters.”
Giles made one last effort. “But you’ll have nothing in common with her, ‘Bastian. She’s plain as a pikestaff! One of those earnest, bespectacled bluestockings.”
“I don’t care. I’m not looking for beauty in a wife. My sisters need stability and a sense of family. I cannot give it to them because they cannot trust me, therefore I must take a wife and Lady Elinore is the kind of—”
“What do you mean, they cannot trust you? You’re the most trustworthy fellow I’ve ever—”
Sebastian cut him off quietly. “Thank you, but trust is not a reasoned emotion. Their… experiences have made them unable to trust me.”
“I’m sorry ‘Bastian. I know how much you care about those girls.”
Sebastian shrugged awkwardly. Nobody would ever know how much his little sister’s lack of trust hurt him. It did no good to repine. “The damage was done before I recovered them. But I won’t give up on them. Lady Elinore is a woman of sense who places a high value on duty, and her experience with destitute children means that she will be less easily shocked than most.” He sighed. “I have it on the authority of no fewer than seven governesses that Cassie is particularly shocking. “
“Sense and duty!” Giles snorted. “What about love?”
“Love is a lie told to children.”
“No, it’s a game, a delightful game.”
Sebastian snorted cynically.
“And you used to be such a romantic.” Giles clenched his fist. “I wish to God you’d never met the damned Iretons. That witch and her father—”
Sebastian cut him off, saying mildly, but with a thread of steel. “When speaking of my late father-in-law and my late wife, do so with respect, if you please. If not for them I would still be living in poverty, my sisters would be lost forever and none of this would be possible. One must take the rough with the smooth.”
“I know, but still, what they did to you—.”
“Yes, and I am such a delicate flower. Now drop it Giles.”
Giles gave him a frustrated look. “Lord, but you’re stubborn.”
Sebastian smiled. “I know. And you are very good to put up with me. Now, may I rely on you to assist me through the shoals of the ton?”
Giles laughed. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world!”
“Thank you. I wonder why that doesn’t fill me with confidence.” Sebastian set down the empty glass and stretched. “I must go. I have an early engagement in the morning.” He pulled a wry face. “Dancing lessons. Some finicky old French fellow. Wears rouge!”
Giles gave a shout of laughter. “I’ve a good mind to come around and watch!”
Sebastian gave him a dry look. “Do so at your peril, Bemerton.”
From the very beginning of her first season, Hope had refused to fill the last waltz on her dance card, leaving her choice open until the very last moment. She didn’t know who he might be or what he might look like, but the dark and dashing figure of her imagination wouldn’t tamely sign her dance card and wait his turn. So she kept the last waltz of the evening free because one day he would come and in the waltzing, she would know him. It would be the perfect waltz.
The practice was widely known—if not the reason—with the result that a small crowd of gentlemen approached her at the end of each evening and hovered, waiting to be chosen. She never chose the same man twice.
A light, pleasant voice at her elbow said, “Miss Merridew, may I present a friend of mine as a desirable partner for the waltz?”
“Perhaps—” she began flirtatiously, then broke off in surprise. It was Giles Bemerton with his big, fierce-looking friend looming silently at his elbow. A hollow pit opened up in her stomach and for a moment she could not breathe. His gaze devoured her. She stared back, mesmerized.
“Giles, how very delightful to see you.” Mrs. Jenner bustled up, her wide smile belied by the militant chaperonial gleam in her eye. “How is your dear mother? And you wish to dance with Miss Merridew. Of course, dear boy.” She grabbed Hope’s hand and thrust it into Mr. Bemerton’s with genteel force.
But Giles Bemerton, well brought up though he may have been, was more than a match for any chaperone. He instantly transferred Hope’s hand to the black clad arm of the big silent man standing beside him. “It is my friend, Mr. Reyne who wishes to dance with Miss Merridew, but it is so delightful to see you again, Mrs. Jenner. Let us catch up on old times while we dance, shall we?” And without waiting for her response, he swept the flustered chaperone out onto the dance floor, leaving Hope standing alone with the dark and somber Sebastian Reyne.
Up close he looked bigger and more intimidating than ever. His eyes were gray, dark lashed and intense. Hope drew back.
“So, Miss Merridew.” His voice was soft and deep and seemed to resonate through to her very bones. “Will you grant me the honor of this waltz?” He held out his hand to her.
Hope hesitated, eyeing his big, scarred hand and powerful frame doubtfully. His potent physical presence was disconcerting, yet something about him intrigued and drew her. The gentlemen surrounding them saw her hesitation and pressed forward to make their own claims for the coveted last waltz and in that instant Hope decided. “Yes, Mr. Reyne, I will.”
Someone should have warned him, Sebastian thought. Someone—the French caper-merchant or Giles—should have warned him that twirling around an empty room with a small elderly Frenchman in his arms was totally different to dancing with Miss Merridew.
Unspeakably, impossibly different.
Once he touched her, all notion of rhythm flew from his head. She’d extended her right hand and it was simply the most beautiful arm in the world. He’d stared at it, entranced, for several seconds before he recalled himself. He took it in a firm grasp, and felt her small soft hand swallowed up in his great ugly fist. He felt like an ogre, crushing a fairy. And then he’d placed his other hand on the curve of her waist, feeling the warm resilience of her flesh beneath the delicate silken fabric of her gown. And was lost. The music swelled all around them. Sebastian stood like a rock, holding her, trying to master himself.
How could he possibly dance? He was supposed to take her in his grasp and yet not allowed to hold her in his arms. He was supposed to twirl her lightly around the room, making witty conversation, when all he wanted was to draw her close and wrap her hard against him.
Fearing he would forget himself, he held her rigidly at the correct distance and stepped out, as if stepping off a cliff. Not looking down. Sweat trickled down his brow.
He was intensely aware of her. Her touch, even lightly, even through her gloves, set off a reaction deep within him, rippling from the point of contact to the deepest recesses of his being, arousing his most primitive instincts. Instincts he had kept at bay his whole life.
Sebastian Reyne did not act on instinct. Logic and common sense was what he had always depended on.
He wanted her.
Wants were temporary, he told himself. They passed, as this dance would pass.
They twirled and she bent and flowed gracefully in his arms, following the unspoken commands of his body.
“It is the usual custom to chat as we dance,” a soft voice said from somewhere below his chin.
Chat? Sebastian blinked. Chat? He could not think of a single thing to say. Even if he had the words, he wasn’t sure his voice would produce them. His mouth was dry, his tongue was thick and every part of his body was reacting to her. He fought to conceal it.
“Ah. Indeed. Quite. Go ahead, then,” he managed. Brilliant.
A soft chuckle floated upwards, and it was just like water in a fountain, like raindrops on diamonds.
His whole body tightened in response, demanding he act now. Hold her. Claim her. Crush her to him and kiss her until they were both senseless.
He was in the middle of a ballroom. One, two-three. One, two-three.
“I haven’t seen you at these events before. Are you new in London, sir?” Her voice was soft and musical.
“I am. Yes,” he managed. Her skin was like rose petals. Her skirt swished and rustled with every move, its delicate fabric brushing against his legs. Every one of his instincts clamored to draw her closer, to pull her close against him, to tuck her softness against his hardness—even now, he could feel his body pulling her insidiously closer. His grip on her tightened as he locked his right elbow, forcing his traitorous body to keep her stiffly at a proper distance.
“And do you intend to make a long visit?”
“Not long.” As long as it took to marry Lady Elinore.
“Oh, what a shame. There is much to enjoy here in London.”
There was much to enjoy in his arms right now. Sebastian tried to concentrate. One, two-three. One, two-three. Her delicate scent wafted to him in drifts, the scent of woman with a hint of… roses? Vanilla? The ballroom was crammed with people, thick with overheated bodies and a hundred different perfumes. How then could he possibly smell her? But he could. He could smell her hair, the delicate fragrance of rich golden curls. He longed to bury his face in them. He twirled her around in a reverse instead.
She leaned back into the support of his hand, giving herself wholly to his leadership, responding to his every movement with feather-soft delicacy. Her lips were parted and her eyes half-closed. She sighed rapturously. “The waltz is such a divine dance. Don’t you just love to waltz, Mr. Reyne?”
“No. I do not.” Sebastian grated, unable to take his eyes off her parted lips. So close… and yet so far. The punishment of Tantalus.
Her eyes opened wide in surprise and then warmed with amusement. She laughed. “You intrigue me, sir. If you do not enjoy waltzing, then why did you invite me to dance?”
A couple twirled dangerously close, romping rather than dancing. The man, a heavy-set fellow dressed in purple knee breeches and a spangled coat, was clearly drunk and even as Sebastian warned him off with a cold stare, the fellow overbalanced. His partner, a raddled woman shrieking with laughter, tried to straighten him, but his reeling weight was too much for her so she stepped back and left him to his own devices. Collision was inevitable.
Sebastian pulled Miss Merridew against his chest and turned in a protective half-circle, keeping her safe within the embrace of one arm as he took the full brunt of the man’s toppling weight against the other.
The man lurched and clung precariously. With his free arm, Sebastian dragged him upright by the scruff of his coat, then thrust him firmly away. The man was noisily apologetic. “So sorry, dear fellow. Slipped, y’know. Demmed housemaids too free with the wax, y’see.”
“Demmed guest too free with the brandy, more like,” growled Sebastian and danced on, Miss Merridew still clamped to his side. He regained her other hand and frowned at her in concern. “Are you all right, Miss Merridew? That clumsy cods head didn’t bump you, did he?”
“No, not at all, thank you.” She was flushed, but made no move to put a proper distance between them. She looked up at him with wide blue eyes. “You sheltered me from any danger of being bumped. Are you hurt at all? Lord Streatfield crashed into your arm quite heavily and he isn’t exactly a small man.”
He stared at her in astonishment. “Me? Of course not. ‘Twould take more than a drunken bump to hurt me.” He twirled her around in a small circle.
She frowned, as if unconvinced and her concern warmed him. Wishing to reassure her, Sebastian flexed his arm a couple of times. “See, no damage at all.” She just stared at him, a small thoughtful smile on her face, her body warm against his chest as she danced on.
His body clamored awareness. Hold her closer, it demanded. Sebastian fought the urge.
Perhaps she was shaken more than she wanted to admit. High born ladies were supposed to be extremely delicate. Miss Merridew was slender and dainty and looked fragile enough to break. No doubt she’d been wrapped in cotton wool all her life. The encounter with the drunken lord had probably overset her. That was why she was leaning against him, unaware of the impropriety. It could be the only reason. A girl like her would never encourage the advances of a man like him.
The primitive, dishonorable part of him wanted to take advantage of her distress, to keep her there, nestled against him as long as possible—preferably forever. The sensible part of him knew it was a foolish fantasy and reminded him that his duty was to protect her reputation, as well as her body. He eased back, saying gently, “You must be shaken. Shall I fetch you something—a drink perhaps? Or do you wish to sit the rest of the dance out?”
She laughed. “Oh, heavens no! I’m not such a feeble creature. And I wouldn’t dream of wasting a single moment of our first waltz.” She gave him a dazzling smile, and said, “I’m enjoying myself immensely, aren’t you?”
He stumbled and cursed silently. One, two-three. One, two-three.
She was enjoying it. Immensely. Our first waltz.
Not simply “our waltz”. Our first one. As if she envisaged a long line of future waltzes with him. As if this first dance meant something to her, the way it did to him. His first ever waltz. Perhaps his last. He had already resolved never to dance the waltz with another woman.
It took Sebastian several minutes to catch his rhythm again—her smile and her words quite robbed him of his concentration—but he prided himself on his self-control and soon he had them twirling efficiently around the ballroom. He darted a glance at her to see if he could somehow divine whether or not she had meant it about the first waltz, or whether it was just a meaningless politeness.
To his surprise she was watching him, an expression in her eyes he could not identify. She dimpled. He glanced around the dance floor, but could not see what had so amused her. He looked back at her and frowned an inquiry.
Her eyes were brim-full of merriment. “It’s all right. I don’t mind that you’ve gone all silent again. It is difficult to dance and talk at the same time. I perfectly understand and I promise I won’t bother you. When I danced at my first ball I was terrified I would tread on my partner’s toes.”
Her voice was warmly sympathetic but her words annoyed Sebastian. He was dancing quite efficiently. “It is not my first ball.”
“Your second, perhaps?” Her eyes twinkled at him, an impossible, glorious blue. His primitive instincts responded wildly. He grimly suppressed them.
It was true, of course, but he wasn’t going to admit it. She dimpled again and as he twirled her onward in a precise, textbook manner, she added chattily, “I only recently learned to dance, too, you know. Monsieur Lefarge almost despaired of me at first, I was so inept. I could not get the rhythm right. I am so clumsy.”
Clumsy? It was ludicrous to imagine this dainty, thistledown sprite as clumsy. Then her other words sank in and he frowned. Lefarge. That was the name of his Frenchman.
Unaware, she continued, “For the longest time I had to count under my breath like this—one, two-three, one, two-three.” Her blue, blue eyes were almost dreamy as she added, “It was such an irony, to find myself such a dreadfully clumsy dancer. I so desperately wanted to learn to waltz, you see. To come to London and dance it in the arms of a handsome man was the summit of all my dreams.” She glanced at him, then looked away, blushing rosily.
The effect on him was instantaneous. Arousal. Sebastian was horrified. He’d never had it happen in public like this—not since he was a young boy. He half closed his eyes to will it away.
To cover his confusion, he blurted out, “Which twin are you, Miss Faith or Miss Hope?” And then cursed himself silently for sounding—and feeling—like a gauche boy.
Never a good sleeper, Hope found herself wide awake after the ball, tucked up in bed but thinking about the enigmatic Mr. Reyne. In the other bed her twin slept peacefully, untroubled by thoughts or frustrated dreams.
Hope ached to be loved by someone other than a sister. By a man other than a great uncle. To be loved by the man of her dreams.
Sebastian Reyne was close in some ways to the shadowy man she’d dreamt of; dark, mysterious, brooding. He’d prowled the room with assurance, indifferent to society’s approval, secure in himself, watching her hungrily, as a dream man ought.
Hope sighed in disappointment. He was close, but not close enough. Dancing with him was nothing like dancing with anybody’s dream man. And she knew it had to be perfect for the dream to come true.
He was a terrible dancer, poor man. The moment he’d touched her, he’d become stiff, abrupt, awkwardly precise, holding her at bay as if she were a wild beast of some sort and steering her around the dance floor as if she was a delicate, fragile… wheelbarrow.
For some reason that made her want to hug him.