The Heart of Christmas

A Handful of Gold

Verity Ewing, alias Blanche Heyward, dancer, has accepted an invitation to dine tête-à-tête with Julian Dare, Viscount Folingsby after the opera one evening. She suspects that he wants her as his mistress, and she is considering accepting if he offers. She desperately needs the money for her ailing sister. But the prospect of sinking so low horrifies her. She is already hiding from her mother and sister the fact that she is a dancer. Julian for his part is intent upon persuading Blanche to spend Christmas with him at his friend's hunting box in the country. The evening is going well for him. But Verity is very uncomfortable and not at all sure she can go through with her plan. That is when she unwisely picks up a pear from the dish of fruit on the table.

"You came to London to seek your fortune?" he asked. "You have not danced anywhere else?"

She hesitated. But she did not want him to think her inexperienced, easy to manipulate. "Oh, of course," she said. "For several years, my lord." She smiled into his eyes as she reached for a pear from the dish of fruit. "But all roads lead eventually to London, you know."

She was startled by the look of naked desire that flared in his eyes for a moment as he followed the movement of her hand. But it was soon veiled behind his lazy eyelids and slightly mocking smile.

"Of course," he said softly. "And those of us who spend most of our time here are only too delighted to benefit from the experience in the various arts such persons as yourself have acquired elsewhere."

Verity kept her eyes on the pear she was peeling. It was unusually juicy, she was dismayed to find. Her hands were soon wet with juice. And her heart was thumping. Suddenly, and quite inexplicably, she felt as if she had waded into deep waters, indeed. The air fairly bristled between them. She licked her lips and could think of no reply to make.

His voice sounded amused when he spoke again. "Having peeled it, Miss Heyward," he said, "you are now obliged to eat it, you know. It would be a crime to waste good food."

She lifted one half of the pear to her mouth and bit into it. Juice cascaded to her plate below, and some of it trickled down her chin. She reached for her napkin in some embarrassment, knowing that he was watching her. But before she could pick it up, he had reached across the table and one long finger had scooped up the droplet of juice that was about to drip onto her gown. She raised her eyes, startled, to watch him carry the finger to his mouth and touch it to his tongue. His eyes remained on her all the while.

Verity felt a sharp stabbing of sensation down through her abdomen and between her thighs. She felt a rush of color to her cheeks. She felt as if she had been running for a mile uphill.

"Sweet," he murmured.

She jumped to her feet, pushing at her chair with the backs of her knees. Then she wished she had not done so. Her legs felt decidedly unsteady. She crossed to the fireplace again and reached out her hands as if to warm them, though she felt as if the fire might better be able to take warmth from her.

She drew a few steadying breaths in the silence that followed. And then she could see from the corner of one eye that he had come to stand at the other side of the hearth. He rested one arm along the high mantel. He was watching her. The time had come, she thought. She had precipitated it herself. Within moments the question would be asked and must be answered. She still did not know what that answer would be, or perhaps she did. Perhaps she was just fooling herself to believe that there was still a choice. She had made her decision back in the greenroom—no, even before that. This was a tavern, part of an inn. No doubt he had bespoken a bedchamber here, as well as a private dining room. Within minutes, then...

How would it feel? She did not even know exactly what she was to expect. The basic facts, of course...

"Miss Heyward," he asked her, making her jump again, "what are your plans for Christmas?"

© Mary Balogh