The ballroom was already crowded, and more guests were trickling in, late though it was becoming. Cleo knew almost everyone by sight. One did, of course, tend to see the same people over and over again during a Season and even from year to year. There was almost never anyone new except for the fresh crop of very young ladies fresh out of the schoolroom each spring and of very young gentlemen newly down from Oxford or Cambridge or newly up from their fathers' estates in the country.
Though there was someone now, just inside the ballroom doors.
He was a tall, powerfully built gentleman with very erect bearing. Cleo recognized it instinctively as military bearing though he was not wearing uniform. He was with the Earl and Countess of Waterton and was facing away from Cleo.
He was new.
And then he half turned and she saw his face.
Her hands clenched in her lap, her right closing hard about her fan, her left bunching the lace of her gown inside it. She felt as though she were looking down a long, dark tunnel to a distant point of light. The air felt cold in her nostrils. She forgot to breathe.
Major Gilchrist! Jack Gilchrist, though she had never called him by his given name.
She had not even known for certain that he was still alive. She had never asked anyone. It had seemed better not to know for certain. But she had feared the worst. She had not set eyes on him since her return from the Peninsula. And he had been horribly wounded when he was invalided home.
He was the only man, apart from her father and brother, ever to have kissed her. The only one. Including her husband.
His head kept turning as he looked about the ballroom. And then his eyes alit upon her—before she could recover herself and look down. Then she could not look away, for his eyes held hers, looking puzzled for a moment as though he felt he ought to recognize her but did not, and then lighting up with full recognition and...pleasure?
He turned back to the Earl of Waterton, who was, of course, his brother, presumably to say something to him, and then came striding toward her, looking only at her, glancing neither to left nor to right, smiling.
Cleo remembered to breathe again only because her survival depended upon it. She sucked in a deep, ragged breath.
Oh! He was actually happy to see her.
She rose to meet him. He held out both hands as he drew close, and she lifted her own and placed them in his. They were large, warm, capable. They closed tightly about hers.
"Mrs. Pritchard," he said.
"I cannot tell you," he said, "how intimidating it was walking in here tonight to a roomful of strangers. And then to see a familiar face. Particularly when it was yours."
It was one of the loveliest things anyone had ever said to her.
She was half aware that the orchestra had started playing and the dancing had begun.
"You did recover from your wounds, then?" she said. "I did not know, but I often wondered. I am so glad."
"Thank you," he said. "I believe my life hung in the balance for a while, but fortunately I was only half aware of the fact while it was happening, and here I am with all my body parts in good working order again. And you—how are you doing? Have you remarried? Did I call you by the right name?"
"I have remained a widow," she said. "I am always busy. Among other pursuits, I have nieces and nephews to entertain whenever they are in town. And this year my younger sister is making her come-out and I am helping our elder sister chaperon her at all the busiest entertainments. I am never idle."
She was being too defensive.
Their hands were still clasped between them. He seemed to realize it at the same moment she did. He squeezed hers once more and released them.
"I am delighted to hear it," he said. "I will call on you at home if I may. I really know no one, you know. I was in the army for seven years, and I have been living in the country for five. All this really is intimidating, is it not?" He indicated the room about them with one arm.
He looked as solidly built as he always had even though he was not wearing uniform now. He looked more handsome than ever. His face was perhaps a little leaner, but the leanness suited him. His dark eyes had always looked very directly into those of the person to whom he spoke—her in this case. It was something he had learned as a commander of men, she supposed, though it was very attractive. His hair was still thick and dark. He was one of the most handsome men she had known. Perhaps the most handsome, though she could, of course, be biased.
"One becomes accustomed to it," she said. "I have grown used to the crowds. I endure them for the sake of my family, though it does sometimes become a little tedious."
And now she was overdoing the ennui.
"You must dance with me," he said. Then he laughed softly. "You see how my manners have grown rusty over the years? Mrs. Pritchard, would you do me the honor of dancing a set with me? The next one?"
The next set was Alfred's—her brother's. The only one she had promised. The only one she would dance tonight. Perhaps Major Gilchrist would wait for the third if she explained. But the next set was to be a waltz. And Alfred was merely doing her a kindness. He would not mind if...
"It is to be a waltz," she said.
He grimaced and then grinned.
"I believe," he said, "I can manage it without putting your toes in any great peril. Will you dance it with me?"
"Yes," she said. "Thank you."
But instead of striding away, as she expected him to do until the end of this set, he indicated the chair from which she had risen, waited for her to seat herself, and then took the empty chair beside her.
"My brother will despair of me," he said.
She looked across the ballroom to where the Earl of Waterton was in conversation with a few other gentlemen.
"Will he?" she said, opening her fan to cool her hot cheeks. "Why?"
"I am supposed to be seeking introductions to eligible young ladies," he said. "I am supposed to be beginning an earnest search for a bride. The succession needs to be secured, and the countess has produced only daughters. It is why I have been hauled to London when I would have been perfectly happy to remain in my little cottage by the sea. Life can sometimes be tiresome, can it not? The campaign is supposed to begin tonight. But I would far prefer to sit here talking with you, and then dancing with you."
Happiness was a treacherous thing. Cleo had been feeling totally, mindlessly happy for...how long? Five minutes? Ten? And yet now she felt as wretched as she had been happy.
It was all illusion, of course. There had been nothing in seeing an old acquaintance again to cause her anything but a moment's mild pleasure, as it had caused him. There was nothing now to cause her despair. Nothing had changed. Her life was as it had been fifteen minutes ago, when she had felt neither happy nor wretched.
© Mary Balogh