Authors: Sherrill Bodine
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Historical Romance, #Holidays, #Military, #FICTION/Romance/Regency
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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Copyright © 1991 by Elaine Sima and Sherrill Bodine
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First Diversion Books edition December 2013
To the super-support group for the friendship, advice, prodding, and courage.
London Season, 1813
ord Matthew Blackwood stood in the wide, rectangular doorway leading into Lady Charlesworth’s ballroom and took one cursory glance at the
at play. Only Kendall’s insistence they obey Her Grace’s dictate to stop by before going on to White’s had induced him to waste even a few hours of leave enduring the grueling tedium of such a sad crush. On the passage from the Peninsula, Kendall had prosed on and on about the activities they must throw themselves into while at home—boxing at Gentleman Jackson’s, races at Newmarket, cockfights in the country. Dancing attendance at
balls was not Matt’s idea of a desirous diversion to take his mind from the battlefield. The petticoat line was Kendall’s, perhaps even his brother Longford’s, world, certainly not his. He knew exactly what he was looking for; the trouble was, he was beginning to think she didn’t exist.
Bored already, he half turned toward Kendall and his gaze fell on a vision. Her ebony hair fell from a topknot in loose ringlets about her perfect oval face. Her wide blue eyes dominated her tiny nose and sweet cherry lips. Her demure white crepe gown fell gently over just-hinted-at delectable curves. She was the embodiment of soft, innocent sweetness he’d dreamed of for years.
“My God, Kendall! She’s here!” Matt breathed, unable to contain his excitement, to quite believe she actually existed as flesh and blood. “I’ve been seeking her and here she is!”
“What are you raving about, Matt?” Lord William Kendall, dressed in the identical rifle green of their brigade, had also been idly glancing about the room, but now straightened to attention.
“There!” Impatiently he directed Kendall’s wandering eye. “The raven-haired angel next to Lady Charlesworth. She must be her niece, Miss Serena Fitzwater.”
“Yes, a pretty little thing.” Kendall shrugged. “But this season, fair hair is the rage, I’m told. We’ve six weeks of leave, at best, before it’s back to old Picton’s tyranny, so might as well dally with nothing but diamonds of the first water.”
“Old friend, you don’t understand.” Clasping Kendall’s shoulder, Matt flashed him a brilliant smile. “Before I return to the Peninsula, I plan to make that angel my bride.”
“Matt, are you mad!”
His friend’s astonished face proved no deterrent. Matt always knew exactly what he wanted, and once his mind was made up, he allowed nothing to distract him. The powers of concentration that made him an excellent soldier would stand him in good stead for the coming battle of hearts.
Making his way across the packed ballroom floor, he barely noticed the interested looks that marked his direction. Nor did he pay much heed to the whispered admiration that followed him. He blocked out the dozens of flickering candles in tall silver sticks, the crystal chandeliers blazing overhead, the strains of the waltz played by musicians hidden in the balcony, and the scent of flowers perfuming the air.
All was as nothing beside the perfect vision of Miss Serena Fitzwater. Even her name conjured up delights he’d only dreamed about.
Boldly he stepped before her. Her dark, feathery eyelashes fluttered upward, and at once he was caught in the pure blueness of her sweet gaze. Before, his mind had been captured by seeing his vision brought to life; now his heart gave one single stroke to forge his fate.
Sensing someone pause before her, Serena looked up instinctively to find herself gazing into a young, handsome face—the face of her dreams.
Her fingers trembled so, she clasped them more securely around the silver stem of the nosegay Aunt Lavinia had presented her with, to bolster her courage, and perforce to give her something to occupy her hands this evening. He smiled and the trembling bolted to her middle, making it a trifle difficult to breathe. His smile transformed the handsome face into a startling male beauty never before seen in Serena’s small world.
The candlelight haloed patterns of gold in his rich chocolate hair, and his eyes, an even deeper brown, gazed at her with such intensity, she felt rather light-headed. For the first time in her life, she could relate to the fainting heroines she’d read about, who swooned at the slightest provocation.
This would definitely not do for Reverend Bartholomew Fitzwater’s daughter from Market Weighton, East Riding, York! Parsons’ offspring were supposed to be made of sterner stuff!
It was with breathless gratitude that Serena heard her aunt’s booming voice through the blood pounding in her ears.
“Lord Blackwood, isn’t it? What a pleasure to have you home from the wars, and to find you here at our little gathering.” Aunt Lavinia gushed as only she could, her chubby face wreathed in a smile.
“Good evening, Lady Charlesworth.” His deep voice vibrated with strength as Serena had known instinctively it would. Then he bowed, lifting her aunt’s beringed fingers ever so briefly to his firm lips. She was fascinated by his slightest movement, overwhelmed by his courtly courtesy and distinguished air. A hero of the Peninsula, here at her ball. It was almost too much.
“…Mother sends her warmest regards and regrets she could not be in attendance,” he was saying.
“Dear Regina! I shall send her a missive the instant she and the duke arrive in town. It is still shockingly light for the opening of the Season, but so many of our more eligible parties are away in those dreadful Peninsular Wars. So fortunate you are home, and I believe I saw another soldier come in with you. I was just saying to—”
Knowing Aunt Lavinia’s habit of rattling on at length, often leaving her listener slightly glassyeyed, Serena did the only thing a well-brought-up young woman could do. Very carefully easing her foot from beneath the deep ruffle of her white gown, she slid it under her aunt’s puce satin hem until she could very gently trod on Lavinia’s slippered toes.
Aunt Lavinia’s slightly bulgy eyes widened, her darkened lashes nearly touching her brows. “Ahhh … as I was saying, so happy you are here so I may introduce you to my niece, Miss Serena Fitzwater,” she continued with a smoothness that inspired admiration.
Serena received the full power of a smile made dazzling by deepening the dimple in his square chin and darkening his eyes to near ebony.
“Serena, dear, it is my pleasure to make known to you Lord Matthew Blackwood, son of my dear friends, the Duke and Duchess of Avalon. Lord Blackwood is on leave from the Peninsula, where he has distinguished himself.”
Lord Matthew Blackwood; at last a name to put to this man who seemed to have stepped right from her dreams. Instead of her usual shy curtsy, Serena extended her hand. She wasn’t surprised at Aunt Lavinia’s short, not quite suppressed, gasp of shock. She was never so bold. Whatever had come over her?
Her boldness was rewarded. Lord Blackwood raised her hand to his lips and she felt a delicious tingle all the way up her arm when he pressed a correct kiss upon her fingertips.
“Miss Fitzwater, may I have the pleasure of the next waltz?”
As if he had commanded it—and Serena never doubted he could do so, for he appeared so magnificent and all-powerful in his green uniform, whose epaulets emphasized his already broad shoulders—the soft strains of a waltz floated through the air.
For just an instant fear froze her to the spot. Never had she been held in any man’s arms but dear Papa’s, and that only when they had practiced dance steps in the small parlor of the rectory. But she had been well schooled by Lavinia and forced herself to put her timid hand on his proffered arm, allowing him to lead her into the waltz.
She was rigid with nerves for the entire first circle of the floor. But he seemed so confident, his arms so strong and his steps so sure, that after a few minutes her nervous flutters were calmed. Tentative steps became a familiar pattern, and when she ceased to concentrate, she found she was actually enjoying the whirl around the ballroom. She looked up into his face, expecting him to be glancing beyond her left ear, as Papa always had. Instead he was watching her intently. The oddest sensations assailed her. Sensations Reverend Fitzwater’s daughter should rightfully know nothing about; but since the squire’s niece had kept her supplied with quite shocking novels purchased on her last trip to London, Serena had discovered a vast streak of romance in her usually sedate nature.
Papa would be shocked to know that sometimes she spun daydreams during his more lengthy sermons. In her romantic fancies her hero would have fair curls or raven black locks, like the novels she’d read. Lord Blackwood’s rich brown waves put those to shame. And, sometimes, the eyes gazing down at her with such speaking emotion were blue like her own, or a delicate spring green. Lord Blackwood’s deep chocolate eyes eradicated all memory of her visions.
“Where have you been all my life, Miss Serena Fitzwater?” he whispered, causing that deep cleft to mark his chin. “I’ve been waiting for you, you know.”
If she could pinch herself, she would. Was she dreaming? Was she lying tucked in bed upstairs in the rectory, reading by candlelight, her Bible handy in case Papa peeked in and caught her? These were the romantic words of a hero from those deliciously daring novels. Unfortunately she couldn’t recall what she should reply. So she simply spoke the truth.
“I’ve been at the rectory in Market Weighton, Lord Blackwood.”
“Well, you are here now, my angel. And I swear I shall never let you go away from me now I’ve found you.”
There was that air of command in his words which made her quite certain he would do exactly as he promised. That notion sent a shiver down her spine. Fortunately the waltz ended and she could step out of his arms before he felt her trembling.
He left her at her aunt’s side with a bow that promised his swift return. Her heart pounded in her throat, and although she knew it wasn’t proper, her eyes followed him across the ballroom where he fell into animated conversation with another gentleman in identical regimentals.
With a quelling look from beneath her delicately painted brows, and a soft “Harumph,” Aunt Lavinia brought Serena back to her senses. She had no time for more wild, romantic notions as her aunt, with booming gusto, presented the next guest.
Very properly, Serena relegated Lord Blackwood to the back of her mind as she went about the business of the ball. For weeks Aunt Lavinia had taught her the proper use of fan and eyelashes, the essentials lacking in a motherless upbringing. Serena had thought them all a trifle silly until she realized with a judicious flick of her fan she could locate Lord Blackwood among the dancers and watch him for a few moments without being detected.
During a country dance with Mr. Herring, Serena could think of nothing but Lord Blackwood’s wonderful eyes gazing at her with such warmth. And the set with Baron Shurwood was entirely taken up with her conjectures about Blackwood’s strange words … He wouldn’t let her go away from him … Whatever could he have meant?
She hadn’t long to wait before he presented himself for a second dance. This time she was much more at ease, going through the forms with lighter steps than usual, buoyed by a quite unfamiliar excitement.
“Miss Fitzwater of Market Weighton, what think you of London?” he whispered when they came together shoulder to shoulder in a form, making the dance floor seem as if it held only the two of them.
“It is quite different than home, Lord Blackwood.”
They separated, but a moment later, now face-to-face, he leaned toward her, studying her quite seriously, as if her answer was of vital import. “If you miss Market Weighton, what part of it would you wish with you in London to make you content?”
The slight whimsy in his voice and that dimple marking his chin mesmerized her so completely, all her aunt’s warnings vanished from her mind. “Besides Papa and Mrs. Buckle, our housekeeper, I miss our garden. But London is so magnificent, it is hard to be homesick! It is so large and there are so many wonderful sights. I don’t know how I shall ever see them all!”
Suddenly realizing she had done the forbidden, displayed unfettered excitement where Aunt Lavinia had dictated languid boredom, Serena bit her lower lip, an unfortunate childhood habit never quite overcome.
“I mean, of course, I am enjoying the Season even though it is all a sad crush, is it not?” she finished, trying to ape her aunt’s die-away air.
He flung back his head, his laughter rich and full, causing the forgotten flutters to reappear and settle firmly in her middle.
“Well done, Miss Fitzwater. Utterly charming, just as I knew you would be,” he whispered quite daringly into her ear, stirring the curls there, under cover of the crowd moving off the floor.
Back beside her aunt once again, he bowed. “Thank you, Lady Charlesworth, for a perfect evening.”
Then, without another word, he spun on his heels and was gone, leaving the ballroom strangely empty.
“Very interesting,” Aunt Lavinia commented, her owl eyes slitted in a most untypical speculation. “And very proper. Three dances would have drawn unwanted attention, but two were just the thing. Whoever would have thought you would draw the attention of a duke’s son? Even a second son!”
“Aunt Lavinia, what—” Serena wanted to ask what she meant, but was cut off precipitately.
“Sometimes, Serena, you amaze even me!” Aunt Lavinia’s huge blue orbs gazed at her fondly. “You’re usually so insipidly proper, just as one would expect from your father’s daughter, and then, tonight, you do something positively inspired like extending your hand to Blackwood. And trodding on my toes to lead me to the proper point. Your father was never so subtle as that when we were children. But those days are long gone and now he’s turned into a saint.” She sighed. “It’s difficult being a proper sister to your papa, Serena. If only I knew exactly what would please him most.”
“Papa only wishes me to be happy, Aunt Lavinia.” Serena spoke up quickly, hoping to get a word in. “May I ask why you find Lord Blackwood’s conduct so interesting?”
“Because, Serena, he is definitely catched! How interested is the question?” she mused, at once looking like an overstuffed owl, wreathed in a smile.
There was no question in Serena’s mind about her own interest. Yet during all her daydreams about this night, which had seemed nothing more than impossible a few months ago in Market Weighton, never could she have imagined it more perfect than Lord Matthew Blackwood had made it.