Agnes Keeping, a young widow of very modest means, has moved to a small village to live with her elder sister. They have been invited to a harvest ball at Middlebury Park, the grand home of Viscount Darleigh and his wife, who is Agnes's friend. They have just arrived and passed along the receiving line and stepped into the ballroom...
It was not difficult to pick out the strangers in the ballroom. One result of living in the country, even when one had been here for only a few months, was that one tended to see the same people wherever one went. And the strangers had brought high fashion with them and quite cast Agnes's best green gown into the shade, as she had fully expected. They outshone everyone else too, except one another.
Mrs. Hunt, the viscount's mother, kindly undertook to take Dora and Agnes about to introduce them, first to Sir Clarence and Lady March and Miss March, all of whom were looking very distinguished indeed, even if the height of Lady March's hair plumes was rather startling. They nodded with stiff condescension—the plumes too—and Agnes followed Dora's lead and curtsied. Then there were Sir Terrence Fry and Mr. Sebastian Maycock, his stepson, both of whom were smartly but not ostentatiously clad. The former bowed politely to them and remarked upon the prettiness of the village. The latter, a tall, handsome, personable-looking young gentleman, flashed his teeth at them and pronounced himself to be delighted. He hoped to engage them in some dancing later in the evening though he did not make any definite appointment with either of them.
A charmer, Agnes decided, but more enamored of his own charms than other people's. And she really ought not to indulge in such unkind snap judgments when she had almost nothing upon which to base them.
And then Mrs. Hunt presented them to Viscount Ponsonby, whose immaculately formal evening clothes, all black except for the pristine white of his linen and intricately-tied neckcloth and the silver of his waistcoat, set every other man present into the shade except perhaps Viscount Darleigh himself. He was tall and well-formed, a blond god of a man, though his hair was not the white-blond or the yellow-blond that never looked quite right on a man, in Agnes's opinion. His features were classically perfect, his eyes decidedly green. There was a certain world-weariness to those eyes and the suggestion of mockery in the set of his lips. One long-fingered hand held a silver-handled quizzing glass.
Agnes felt annoyingly aware of her own ordinariness. And though he did not raise his glass to his eye when Mrs. Hunt introduced them—he was, she sensed, far too well-mannered to do any such thing—she felt nevertheless that she had been thoroughly inspected and dismissed, despite the fact that he bowed to both Dora and herself and asked them how they did and even paid attention to their less than scintillating answers.
He was the sort of man who always made Agnes uncomfortable, though she had not met many such, it was true. For such stunningly handsome and attractive men made her feel dull and plodding as well as very ordinary, and she always ended up despising herself. How did she want to appear to such men? As an empty-headed eyelid-flutterer? Or as sophisticated and witty, perhaps? What utter nonsense. She could not get away from him fast enough in order to feel like herself again as she spoke with Mr. and Mrs. Latchley and commiserated with the former, who had fallen off the roof of his barn only the week before and broken his leg. He could not sufficiently praise Lord and Lady Darleigh, who had paid him a personal visit and insisted upon sending their own carriage to bring him and his wife to the ball and had even coaxed them into staying the night before being conveyed back home on the morrow. Agnes looked around with great enjoyment as they talked. The wooden floor had been polished to a high gloss. There were large pots of autumn-hued flowers everywhere. Three large chandeliers hung from a ceiling painted with scenes from mythology, all the candles alight. They glinted off the gilded frieze above the wood paneling of the walls and reflected in the many long mirrors, which made the already spacious room look many times larger, and many times fuller of flowers and guests. The members of the orchestra—yes, there was actually an eight-piece orchestra come all the way from Gloucester—had taken their places on the dais at one end of the room and were tuning their instruments.
Everyone, it seemed, had arrived. Lord Darleigh and Sophia had turned into the room, and Sir Terrence Fry was making his way toward them with the obvious intention of leading his niece out for the first set of country dances. Agnes smiled. It was also amusing to watch the Marches maneuver themselves closer to Viscount Ponsonby. It was very clear that they intended he would partner Miss March for the first set. It was doubly amusing to watch him stroll unhurriedly away from them without even glancing in their direction. He was clearly a gentleman accustomed to avoiding unwelcome advances. Oh, she must share this with Sophia when she next saw her after tonight. Sophia was wickedly good at sketching caricatures.
Agnes was so busy observing the look of chagrin on the faces of all three Marches that she did not notice at first that Viscount Ponsonby was moving in the direction of the sofa along which Mr. Latchley's splinted leg was stretched. Except that he was not coming to commiserate or even to nod a greeting to the injured man. Instead he stopped and bowed to her.
"Mrs. Keeping," he said, his voice languid, even a trifle bored, "one is expected to d-dance, I believe, at such gatherings. At least, that is what my friend Darleigh informed me this afternoon. And although he is quite b-blind and one might assume he would not see if I did not dance, I know him well enough to feel quite c-certain that he would see even if no one told him. What is the point of having a blind friend, I sometimes ask myself, if one cannot deceive him in such matters?"
Oh, he stuttered slightly—surely his only physical imperfection. His eyelids partly drooped over his eyes as he spoke to give him his slightly sleepy look, though the eyes themselves did not look sleepy at all.
Agnes laughed. She did not know what else to do. Was he asking her to dance? But he had not said so, had he?
"Ah," he said, raising his quizzing glass almost but not quite to his eye. He had beautifully manicured nails, she saw, on a hand that was nevertheless quite unmistakably male. "Quite so. You s-sympathize with me, I see. But one must dance. Will you do me the honor, ma'am, of hoofing it about the floor with me?"
He was asking her to dance, and the opening set at that. She had been hoping quite fervently that someone would ask her. She was only twenty-six, after all, and not quite in her dotage. But—Viscount Ponsonby? She was tempted to run for the door and not stop running until she arrived home.
What on earth was the matter with her?
"Thank you, my lord," she said, sounding her usual restrained self, she was relieved to hear. "Though I shall try to dance with some grace."
"I would expect no l-less of you," he said. "I shall hoof it." And he offered his wrist for her hand, which she somehow held steady as she placed it there, and led her off to join the end of one of the lines. He bowed to her as she took her place in the line of ladies before joining the line of men opposite her.
Oh, goodness gracious, she thought, and for a moment that was all she could think. But her sense of humor, which she was always quite prepared to turn upon herself, came to her rescue and she smiled. What enormous fun she would have tomorrow with the memory of this half hour. The grandest triumph of her life. She would live upon it for a week. For a fortnight. She almost laughed aloud.
Opposite her, Viscount Ponsonby raised one satirical eyebrow as he looked directly back at her, ignoring all the bustle of activity around them. Oh, dear. He would wonder why she was smiling quite so merrily. He would imagine that she was delighted to be dancing with him—which she was, of course, though it would be gauche to grin with triumph for that reason.
The orchestra struck a chord and the music began.
He had, not surprisingly, completely misrepresented himself as a dancer. He performed the steps and the figures with elegant grace yet with no sacrifice of masculinity. He drew more than his fair share of glances, envious ones from the men, admiring ones from the women. Yet even though the intricacies of the dance did not allow for a great deal of conversation, his attention remained focused upon Agnes, so that she felt he danced with her and not just for the sake of being socially agreeable.
It was what being a true gentleman was all about, she told herself when the set was over and he led her to Dora's side and bowed politely to both of them before moving away. There was nothing particular in the attention he had paid her. Yet she was left with the unexpected conviction that she had never ever enjoyed any evening even half as well as she had enjoyed this.
Had enjoyed? As though it were already over.
"I am so pleased," Dora said, "that someone had the good taste to dance with you, Agnes. He is an extremely handsome gentleman, is he not? Though I must confess myself wary of that left eyebrow of his. It has a distinctly mocking quality."
"It does," Agnes agreed, cooling her cheeks with her fan while they both laughed.
But she did not feel mocked by either his eyebrow or his person. Instead, she felt smug and delicious. And she knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she would indeed dream of this ball and the opening set and her dancing partner for days, perhaps weeks to come. Even years. She would be perfectly happy to return home now, though it was quite impossible to do so this early in the evening. Alas, all was going to seem anticlimactic for the rest of it.
It was not so, however.
Everyone had put aside daily cares in order to enjoy the opulent splendor of a harvest ball at Middlebury Park. And everyone had come to celebrate the happy, soon-to-be fruitful marriage of the young viscount they had so pitied when he came here three and a half years ago, blind and reclusive, suffocated by the protective care of his mother and grandmother and sisters. Everyone had come to celebrate his marriage to the little slip of an elfin creature whose warm charm and boundless energy had won their hearts more and more completely during the seven months she had been here.
How could Agnes not enjoy herself and celebrate with them? She did just those things, in fact. She danced every set and was delighted that Dora danced a number of times too. She was led in to supper by Mr. Pendleton, one of the viscount's brothers-in-law, an affable gentlemen who engaged her in conversation from one side for much of the meal while Mrs. Pearl, the viscount's maternal grandmother, spoke to her from the other side.
There were toasts and speeches and a wedding cake. It was just like a real and lavish wedding reception, in fact.
Oh, no, there was nothing whatsoever anticlimactic about the ball after the first set. And the dancing was to resume after supper—with a waltz. It was the first of the evening and probably the last too and occasioned a certain interest among the guests, for though it had been danced in London and other more fashionable centers for a number of years now, it was still considered somewhat risqué in the country and was rarely included in the program at the local assemblies. Agnes knew the steps. She had practiced them with Dora, who taught dancing to some of her music pupils, Sophia among them. It had been planned, Dora had confided to Agnes, that the viscountess would waltz with her uncle.
It was not with her uncle Sophia intended to waltz, however, as Agnes saw when she turned her head to discover the source of a heightened buzz of raised voices mingled with laughter. Someone began to clap slowly, and others were joining in.
"Waltz with her," someone said—it was Mr. Harrison, Lord Darleigh's particular friend.
Sophia was on the dance floor, Agnes could see, her arm stretched out, Viscount Darleigh's hand clasped in hers. There was laughter in her flushed face. Oh, goodness, she was trying to persuade him to dance with her. And by now half the guests in the ballroom were clapping rhythmically. Agnes joined them.
And everyone was repeating what Mr. Harrison had said and making a chant out of it.
"Waltz with her. Waltz with her."
The viscount took a few steps out onto the empty floor with Sophia.
"If I make a thorough spectacle of myself," he said as the chant and the clapping died away, "would everyone be kind enough to pretend they have not noticed?"
There was general laughter.
The orchestra did not wait for anyone else to take to the floor with them.
Agnes clasped her hands to her bosom and watched with everyone else, anxious that the viscount not make a spectacle of himself. He waltzed clumsily at first, though he did so with laughter in his face and such obvious enjoyment that Agnes found herself blinking back tears. And then somehow he found the rhythm of the dance, and Sophia looked at him with such radiant adoration that even furious blinking would not stop one tear from trickling down Agnes's cheek. She wiped it away with one fingertip and glanced furtively about to assure herself that no one had noticed. No one had, but she noticed several other people with unnaturally bright eyes.
After a few minutes there was a break in the music, and other couples joined the viscount and viscountess on the floor. Agnes sighed with contentment and perhaps a bit of longing. Oh, how lovely it would be...
She turned to Dora beside her. "You taught Sophia well," she said.
But Dora's eyes were focused beyond her sister's shoulder.
"I do believe," she murmured, "you are about to be singled out for particular attention for the second time this evening. There will be no living with you for the next week."
Agnes had no chance either to reply or to whip her head about to see what—or whom—Dora was looking at.
"Mrs. Keeping," the rather languid voice of Viscount Ponsonby said, "d-do tell me I have no rival for your hand for this particular s-set. I would be devastated. If I am to waltz, it really must be w-with a sensible companion."
Agnes plied her fan and turned toward him.
"Indeed, my lord?" she said. "And what makes you believe I am sensible?" And was that a compliment he had paid her? That she was sensible?
He moved his head back an inch and let his eyes rove over her face.
"There is a c-certain light in your eye and quirk to your lip," he said, "that proclaims you to be an observer of life as well as a d-doer. A sometimes amused observer, if I am not mistaken."
Goodness gracious. She regarded him in some surprise. She hoped no one else had noticed that. She was not even sure it was true. "But why would you wish for a sensible partner for the waltz more than for any other dance?" she asked him.
What would be sensible was to accept his offer without further ado since she could think of nothing more heavenly than to waltz at a real ball. And surely the music would begin again at any moment now even though the orchestra appeared to be waiting a little while for other couples to gather on the floor. And she had the chance to dance it with Viscount Ponsonby.
"One waltzes face to face with one's p-partner until the bitter end," he said. "One must hope at least f-for some interesting conversation."
"Ah," she said. "The weather is an ineligible topic, then?"
"As are one's state of health and that of all one's acquaintances to the third and f-fourth generation," he added. "W-will you waltz with me?"
"I fear it immensely," she said, "for now you have surely tied my tongue in knots. Have you left me with any topic upon which I may converse sensibly, or, indeed, at all?"
He offered his wrist without replying, and she placed her hand on it and felt her knees threaten to turn to jelly as he smiled at her—a lazy, heavy-lidded smile that seemed to suggest an intimacy quite at variance with the public nature of their surroundings. She was, she suspected, in the hands of an accomplished flirt.
"Watching Vincent waltz," he said as they took their places facing each other, "was enough to make one w-weep. Would you not agree, Mrs. Keeping?"
Oh, dear, had he seen that tear?
"Because he danced clumsily?" She raised her eyebrows.
"Because he is in l-l-love," he said, stumbling badly over the final word.
"You do not approve of romantic love, my lord?"
"In others it is really most affecting," he said. "But perhaps we ought to talk about the weather after all."
They did not do so, however, because the orchestra struck up a decisive chord at that moment. He slipped one hand behind her waist while she set hers on his shoulder. He clasped her other hand in his and moved her immediately into a sweeping twirl that robbed her of breath and at the same time assured her that she was in the hands, not just of a flirt, but of a master dancer too. Even if she had not known the steps it would not have mattered, she was convinced. It would have been quite impossible not to follow his lead.
Colors and light swirled about her. Music engulfed her as did the sounds of voices and laughter. There were the myriad scents of flowers and candles and colognes. There was the exhilaration of swirling movement, herself a part of it and at the very heart of it. And there was the man who twirled her about the floor and made no attempt to conduct any conversation, sensible or otherwise, but held her the correct distance from his body and gazed at her with those sleepy yet keen eyes of his while she gazed back without ever thinking that perhaps she ought to look away or modestly lower her gaze—or find something to say.
He was gloriously handsome and so overpoweringly attractive that she was unable to muster any defensive wall against his allure. There was character in his face and cynicism and intensity and so much mystery that surely a lifetime of knowing him would not completely unmask him. There was power in him and ruthlessness and wit and charm and pain.
But all the awareness she felt was neither conscious nor verbal. She was caught up in a moment so intense that it felt like an eternity—or like the blink of an eye.
There was no further break in the music. When it ended, the set too was over. And the mocking gleam was back in his eyes, and there was the hint of mockery again too about the curl of his lip.
"Not s-sensible after all, then," he said. "Only enchanting."
He returned her to Dora's side, bowed gracefully, and moved off without another word.
And Agnes was in love.
Foolishly, deeply, head over heels, gloriously in love.
With a cynical, practiced, possibly dangerous flirt.
© Mary Balogh