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May I Have This Dance?
I elegantly poked at the strawberry atop my piece of cake. Oh how I wanted to taste its strawberry goodness along with the creamy filling, but I knew that Mother would dislike it if I took even one bite. After all, she was sitting right across from me at the long party table on a chair of rustic golden embroidery. She was an eagle perched like royalty with her feathers preened to perfection, watching everyone’s move, occasionally offering a thin smile to the one making conversation with her.
Sighing, I nudged the plate away from me and rose from my chair, skirts rustling as I stood. In my cranberry dress, complete with elegant frills at the hem, I moved like a swan around the outer edge of the dance. Men in their handsome suits swirled their glittering partners about the ball room.
But my eyes were only for the man with hair like spun gold that glinted in the light of the chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. He moved with majestic grace, his royal blue coat tailored to compliment his tight chest. My gaze held fast to him throughout the entire dance, never moving away from his angular face.
As the music began to slow, I slid around the perimeter of the dancers to the side where his dance would end. Perhaps I would catch his eye. Mother had not given me a new ball dress for nothing. It made my waist look thinner, chest rounder, stature higher. Mother had also said that men were naturally attracted to the color red. I could not fail Mother’s expectation.
The violin ended the song with a magnificent trill. His feet dressed in knee-length boots stopped only a few feet away from me. I swiftly turned my head away to pretend as though I had never been watching, but I could not stop the tiny shivers that ran up my arms when I saw out of the corner of my eye that he was advancing in my direction.
I lifted my black lace fan, slowly fluttering it in front of my heated face to add mysteriousness to my figure. A gasp escaped my lips as he breezed past me, his dance partner still draped elegantly on his muscled arm. I couldn’t stop myself from turning a bit too quickly to watch them go. My eyes watched him walk all the way to the far wall and slip past the glass doors onto the balcony.
My lips whispered the seconds that passed, until I reached twenty, and then I allowed myself to follow. With my fan, now closed, clenched in my right hand, I wove around couples and groups of old men talking of politics. I tried to look unobtrusive as I leaned against the marble pillar to the left of the glass doors.
I casually glanced to the right to look through the glass doors. In the dark of night I could see nothing but the railing of the balcony illuminated by the faint moonlight. I fanned at my neck, acting as though I was in need of fresh air. Counting to five, I looked at the glass doors as though I had just seen them and moved toward them.
Slowly, I turned the silver handle in my gloved hand and stepped out onto the balcony. I looked to the right- nothing. I looked to the left- my breath caught at what I saw. In the pale moonlight, two figures were pressed together. The lady’s arms were encircled about his neck, fingers woven into his golden hair. Their lips moved in sync like a beautiful dance and the man of my dreams was guiding her along.
For the first time that night I actually looked at his partner. My heart felt like it had been ripped out when I realized that it was my younger sister! Shocked, and not from the freezing temperature, I forced myself to look away. My hand gripped the ice cold handle, let my eyes drift to the scene on the far side of the balcony, and pulled the door open to let myself in. Shivering from cold and heart-brokenness, I bit down on my lower lip. I could feel tears pricking at the back of my eyes, but bit down harder to keep them in.
No longer brave enough to act, I strode to the stairway leading to the entryway door. I gripped fistfuls of my cranberry dress and lifted my skirts as I nearly sprinted up the stairs, tripping slightly at the top. I thanked the doormen for opening the door as I sped by, for the fact that I would not have been able to open the door myself with the tears blinding my eyes.
I sprinted as well as I could in a dress to the stable where I knew I would find my footmen and carriage. The cold stung my cheeks and froze the tears on my eyelashes. My lungs heaved from the sobs that came as I ran. Just as I reached the stable the toe of my shiny dress shoes caught. I tripped forward, seeing the blurry ground hurry to meet me. A sharp pain jolted my head. I winced at the shock running back and forth through my body. Flashes of the man with golden hair, his lips locked with my sister, spun before my eyes. My heart winced.
Something warm pressed against my cheek and I leaned into it, just wanting to drink in the warmth it offered. Sharp sparks pricked my skull as I felt myself being moved. For a moment I thought I was dead and floating towards heaven on a cloud of soft down, but constant pain in my head made it obvious that I was still in the unfair world.
The floating sensation stopped when I felt myself being lowered. I eased an eye open to peer through lashes beaded with frozen tears. Two eyes, the color of brown velvet, were but four inches away from mine. He didn’t even seem to notice that I was staring at him as he used the long cravat that had been tied about his neck to gently wipe at my numbed cheeks.
“Ple..Please,” I stuttered. “Please get the…get the carriage ready. We’ll be leaving shortly.”
I couldn’t tell if he had heard me or not, because he walked out of my visual range without responding. I sighed and snuggled deeper into the warmth of the coat draped over my shoulders. The heaviness of the coat increased and I opened my eyes to see him spreading horse blankets over me.
As he sat down on an overturned bucket a few feet away, I said with the bitterness that I felt, “Do as I ordered!”
He looked up from the apple he was carving with a dagger. His eyes penetrated mine with the same stare that I had seen so many times from my mother. But he surprised me when his eyes softened.
“As soon as you can walk correctly and talk without shivering, then I will fetch your mother and sister. Until then, I suggest you rest.” He continued to peel his apple, the red skin forming a curling ribbon.
I closed my eyes to stop the pain behind my eyes. Of course I couldn’t leave now. I must not have been thinking correctly. There was only one carriage and mother and sister had to get home too. Although I was sure my sister wouldn’t mind staying the night with the lord of the estate. The man with golden hair and eyes blue as crystal.
When the pain dulled, I reopened my eyes. I observed him as he cleaned his dagger with smooth strokes. “Why didn’t you take me back inside? It’s what I would expect anyone else to do.”
He glanced over at me, then held up his dagger for inspection, moonlight striking off its edge. “I don’t think you particularly wanted to be inside. You made that quite clear by the way you were sprinting across the courtyard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fine lady run so fast.” He caught my glare. “Forgive me, it was meant to be a compliment.” He lowered his dagger to turn towards me, “But there are only a few things that enter my mind that would make a lady run as fast as you did. Either someone was just murdered…” He grinned, “Or perhaps a lady was in labor and needed a doctor as fast as possible.” He was clearly having fun guessing, because he kept grinning and turning toward me when he thought of another hypothesis. “No, but that couldn’t be it,” he waved his dagger at me, “because you asked for the carriage for yourself so the dilemma had to involve you personally, especially since you had forgotten that your sister and mother also needed the carriage to get home.”
Tears pooled in my eyes. “You’re right.” The tears sped down my face. “My heart was and is broken by the man I love…” I pulled the blankets over my face so he couldn’t see me cry.
I heard him sigh deeply and I peeped over the blanket.
He put his dagger back in its sheath at his belt and drew the sword at his side. Twisting it back and forth so that the moonlight reflected off of it in a blue glare, he said, “And to think that I’m supposed to save ladies like you from danger. Yet I hurt you physically and emotionally.”
“My tripping wasn’t your fault.” I wiped the tears off of my cheeks and winced as I managed to sit up, pieces of hay poking me through my dress.
“No, it wasn’t,” he calmly stated as he drew the oil cloth over the sword, “but I could have prevented it.” His stroking stopped, yet he continued to stare at the sword. “When I saw you running across the courtyard with the moonlight in your hair and in your tears, I was stunned. I was right there when you tripped, but I…I didn’t move to catch you. I was frozen.”
I took in a breath as his eyes met mine boldly.
“Are you always so free with your thoughts?” I said.
He chuckled and maneuvered on his metal bucket. “I make it a priority not to lie.” His stroking started again.
After watching him in silence for a few minutes, I said, “I didn’t know footmen carried swords.” I hugged the blankets tighter around my shoulders to banish the cold. Plumes of steam dissipated in the air as I spoke.
“I’m a very temporary footman. In two months I’ll be going back into service for our country. I’m nearly done with my time required.”
“So you’ve fought before?” I could imagine him in silver armor, sunlight glinting in his eyes as he faced the foe with a ready sword.
“Many a time. I have proof.” He smoothed the chin-length chestnut hair away from his forehead. A thick scar marred his forehead. It cut diagonally from the center of his hair line to where it nicked the outer side of his left eyebrow.
I leaned forward to get a good look at it. “Impressive,” I breathed, but jerked back when the tips of our noses almost touched. My cheeks tingled with a blush. He laughed lightly, a sound that was music to my ears.
I moved away from the window facing the sunrise to walk to my vanity. My fingers brushed against the dead rose in the vase next to my mirror. The petals crumbled at my touch. But the memory of the rose was still intact.
*A finger tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to see who it could be.
Nathaniel cleared his throat as though he were about to perform and kneeled down on one knee in his footman’s uniform with the red rose offered to me like a sword to a Queen.
“Please accept this humble man’s honor, my fair lady; it is all but I can give.”
I delicately picked up the rose between its sharp thorns. “Its thorns mar its beauty, why did you keep them?” I acted as though I were greatly disappointed with my lips pinched together.
“Ah,” he pressed a hand dramatically across his chest, “it but represents myself in my true form— thorns and all. Every beauty has its faults, but I believe that the faults do nothing but add to beauty. Do you not agree, my fair lady?”
I passed a hand in front of my smiling lips to silence a giggle. “Young warrior you have more than honor and roses, you have a true poetic tongue,” I teased him, “I suppose it would be wrong of me not to knight you. After all, our cavalry is in need of romantic men like you.”
He grinned as I tapped him softly on each shoulder with the head of the rose. “I now appoint you Knight of Rosings. You may rise.” I stood like royalty with my head lifted and back arched.
“While I am still down here, may I ask a request of the lady?” His face went grave and I couldn’t tell if he was acting or not.
“You ask for requests after I have just knighted you? Now I am not sure if I was wise in doing so. I’m afraid you ask too much of me, Knight of Rosings.”
“But, Anne,” he hurried to say. I stopped my acting when he said my name. He pushed off his knee to stand before me. “Anne,” he took hold of my shoulders in a soft grip, “I leave early tomorrow morning. Might I have a kiss before I go? I won’t be able to see you for the rest of today.”
I was thankful for his hands on my shoulders, for I nearly fell. I had completely forgotten. A maid behind me called my name…*
I snapped out of my flashback when I realized the maid calling me was in the present. I turned to face the maid.
“Ma’am, your Mother asks for your presence at the breakfast table.”
“I’ll be right down, thank you.” My gaze turned to the window, through which I could see budding trees. It had been three months since he had left and winter had gone with him. Sighing, I turned to go.
“Annabelle,” I heard as I bit into my breakfast roll.
I waited till I had swallowed to say, “Yes, Mother?”
“I have some very important news to tell you.” My sister, sitting across from me, leaned forward in her chair, her satin curls spilling over her shoulder. “I think you’ll be delighted to hear that Lord Alexander has asked for your hand in marriage.” I nearly choked on my roll. The man with the golden hair. The man that I had a crush on for two years. The man that had kissed my sister. My mother must have seen my disgusted face, because she said in a stern tone, “You realize that these requests are few, don’t you? I was very disappointed in your last refusal and I will be horrified if you turn this request down also.” I wiped my lips to stop myself from talking back. “I do not have the same talents as your father did in running this estate. With this marriage many opportunities open up. Lord Alexander has even offered to start housing you sister a month after the wedding so that she will be closer to the city and young men.”
I was thankful I had not put something else in my mouth, because I would have spit it out, right into my sister’s face. This whole conversation was making my head reel. My eyes flew to Marissa’s face, but no emotion was portrayed and she looked as innocent as a sheep.
“Please excuse me, Mother, I cannot respond without thinking first.” I got up without waiting for her ascent and starting running once I was out of the dining room. I ran past the kitchen into the foyer, out the front doors, heading for the stable. I slowed once I had reached the horse stalls and then it hit me. Nathaniel wasn’t here anymore. He couldn’t ride horses with me, he couldn’t unintentionally insult me, and he couldn’t offer me roses. I couldn’t tell him what was happening.
I collapsed onto a hay bale, tears pricking my eyes again. I needed to process everything again. Lord Alexander wanted to marry me. But why? We had only met a few times and never had a deep conversation. He had kissed my sister. Why did he suggest having her live with us after the wedding?
Then it hit me. He wanted Marissa, not me. What was he planning? To murder me in our marriage bed and then marry Marissa? After all, Marissa couldn’t marry until after I was wed. Or perhaps he would commit adultery with my sister behind my back for years and I would never find out about it.
In desperate grief, I dropped my head into my hands. What was I to do?
An overpowering sense of dread washed over me as I stepped into the ball room. I glanced at the ornate clock just inside the door and took a deep breath. It was seven o’clock. Only one hour left.
My mother nudged me forward and I did her the justice of gracefully floating down the stairs. She was expecting a lot from me tonight. When the clock donged eight she would have an engaged daughter.
I found a seat in the farthest corner of the ballroom. With shaking hands, I smoothed my black gown. Mother said that black complimented my skin tone, but that wasn’t the reason I had worn the color.
Lord Alexander. I sought his tall figure among the dancing couples. There he was, in a golden coat with the coat tail reaching to his knees. His hair was of the same hue as his coat. He looked as handsome as ever and if it had been five months ago I would’ve squealed at the sight of him. Now, five months later I only felt disgust.
A soft chiming sound drew me out of my hateful glaring. Sitting beside me, a clock’s hands pointed to forty-five minutes past seven. Fifteen minutes and Lord Alexander would find me and ask me to dance, and after the dance he would ask for my hand in marriage. Once I responded with my reluctant “yes” he would proclaim our marriage to all those in the ballroom. I shuddered.
The clock ticked in time with my heart beat. Second by second; minute by minute.
Dong! Dong! I bit down on my tongue. There he was; he was looking for me. His elegant head turned, and his blue eyes penetrated the shadows hiding me. His long stride brought him towards me.
My heart had left the orderly ticking of the clock behind and raced on ahead, ten beats per tick. I looked down at my black skirts, not wanting to see him coming closer.
Two polished black boots entered my vision. He was here.
“Lady Annabelle?” His voice was warm, but I wanted it to be cold and harsh so that I had more of a reason to dislike him.
“Yes?” I raised my head politely to meet his gaze. His eyes, clear as blue glass, looked down at me. “Would you like to dance the next waltz with me?”
I bit back a tart remark. Like to dance with him? That was the wrong question to ask. I didn’t reply, but placed my hand in his. The black lace glove did nothing to ward off the heat of his hand. He led me on, through the crowd to the center of the ballroom.
He released my hand for a moment as other couples gathered around us. Then he offered his hand, just as the introductory music began. I stared at it, the softness of his hand astounding me as I compared it to Nathaniel’s callused and scarred one. Hesitantly, I blinked once and reached out to take it, but I couldn’t. All of a sudden, a sword hilt was slapped into the hand that I was about to put my own in. I blinked twice. I heard a deep voice say, “Would you mind holding this for me Lord Alexander? Thank you.” I raised my eyes, a cry escaping my lips.
“May I have this dance, my fair lady?” There he was, standing right in front of me with his hand stretched out. His chestnut hair hung messily in front of…one eye, his other covered by a leather eye patch. I grabbed his hand with both of mine and pulled him into me, planting my lips on his, giving him the kiss that I had refused to give him the day before he had left. Letting go of his hand, I put my arms around his neck and drew him closer and closer to me. When our lips parted, I said with feeling, “Yes.”