The scent of cinnamon swirled with the fresh aroma of evergreen and the dancers mingled in the bright glow of the Christmastide candles. Except for Lord Sudbury, everyone else blurred in her peripherals, blending with the greens and golds and pops of red.
Charlotte tugged on her white silk dress. Mama always dressed her in a boring shade of white, but this time, Charlotte had resewn the hem of the bodice so the dress would be more daring, more her style. So far, her mother had not noticed.
Lord Sudbury handed her another glass, a crystal clear vision of gentlemanly perfection. His clothes were cut of the finest fabric, his hair dashingly curled over his forehead and she so wanted to reach up and brush it over.
Charlotte giggled and sipped her champagne. He had green eyes, the color of Christmas. The color of her wishes coming true.
He smiled at her and her heart beat harder and warmer in her chest, her wish growing.
Would he? Was he going to do what she thought?
The next dance was a waltz, the dance that had flourished in ballrooms, but only for the ladies bold or old enough to dance it.
As a newly introduced debutante, she should not dance the waltz with anyone. She was not allowed.
For the waltz, he would hold her close, his hand on her back for the entire length of the dance while their feet and legs twirled together in time.
She glanced down at his gloved hand on her elbow. He was easily the most desirable man in the room and he was here. With her.
His voice rumbled, stirring something inside her she didn't understand. “I must dance the waltz with the most beautiful maiden here. I haven't been able to take my eyes off you all night.”
Mama had warned her that he was too young. To not bother with him because he wasn't out for marriage. Yet here he was, clearly interested in her. Maybe he wasn't too young. Maybe his heart genuinely fluttered just as hers did. Maybe he would whisk her away and they would live an extravagant life together, far from Mama's boring rules.
His dark lashes swept over his cheek when he blinked and she was caught in his eyes. He stroked her arm and begged, “Please dance with me.”
For a moment, her eyes glazed over and she decided she would dance to the end of the world in the pouring rain if that's where he led her.
He smiled a slow, sultry smile that was strong enough to stop her breath. A dangerous smile that promised fun.
She set down her drink.
He took her hand.
The beginnings of the triple time counted in her head. I will waltz, with the lord, of Sud-bury, he will sweep, me off my, slip-pered feet...
Unlike the men her mama wanted her to dance with, under his jacket, Lord Sudbury was taut and youthful. Romantic. Here in his arms, she could feel how scandalously close they were.
His eyes never left hers so hers never left his. Her skirts twirled around her feet, his lordship never missing a step as his warm hand around her waist guided her through the waltz.
Around her, everything faded to a dull mum, the conversations, murmurs, and clinks of cups fading until the silence of the room enveloped them in a fog.
Was this what it felt like to fall in love? How could she ever dance again with anyone else?
He had said she was the prettiest girl in the room. He had been watching her all night. Her!
Little Miss Moore, from the middle-of-nowhere. Out of all the beautiful ladies, he chose her. She knew she was pretty, she had known she could attract attention, but Lord Sudbury was a different breed. He was, he was...
The strings faded and they stopped in the middle of the dance floor, his arms still around her, his eyes still on hers, and his smile smirking down at her.
That smirk jabbed at her, poked at something and forced her mind to chew on it. It didn't feel right.
Why was he smirking?
She glanced around the room to see everyone staring at her. She, of all of them, had been the one to dance with his lordship.
He led her off the dance floor, the silence of the room beginning to swell in her ears, the ringing in her head making it difficult to put thoughts together.
Now the smirk reached his eyes, his lip curling in a way that drained his charm. What was going on?
Mama grabbed her arm and hissed, “How dare you?”
Mama never let go, tugging Charlotte behind her, through the staring attendees, some of them pointing and glaring from behind their fans.
In the hall, Papa was already waiting and Mama called for their coats. Then she turned and hissed again, “What were you thinking? A waltz? Here and now? Without permission?”
She had known her decision to dance was wrong and she had done it anyway. Lord Sudbury was so handsome, so grand, she had thought everyone would forgive her actions. She hadn't expected him to turn on her.
Like she was a joke.
Her mother wasn't done. “We are disgraced. Your father and I are outside of embarrassed and you cannot begin to comprehend how ashamed you should be.”
Oh, she was beginning to comprehend. That fluttering in her chest that had felt so warm and sparkling now faded to a gray lump. She pressed her lips together and reminded herself to keep breathing.
No, that was shuddering. Oh, really, was she going to cry?
Everyone thought she was a fool. Little Miss Moore was willing to dance scandalous waltzes with any handsome lord who glanced her way. She had felt their scornful eyes spearing her and they wouldn't want her around them.
She hugged her cloak around her, the shame creeping down her body like a sticky tar that would never wash off.
In the carriage, Mama said, “I will write your great-aunt and send you to her. You will spend at least the next year with her, but I expect that everyone will still be discussing this next year as well. Your five minutes of flirtation with a rake have cost you your home and family, Charlotte. This is the last straw and it is time you learned to obey the rules of the world you live in.”
In the dark of the frigid carriage, Charlotte was glad her parents couldn't see her. She resolved to never again trust a handsome devil. She had just been a joke to him but she would never, ever, let herself be fooled again.