Authors: To Tempt a Bride
For Valiant Stan,
the newest member of our clan.
With thanks to the good people
at Stray from the Heart,
who delivered him safely to Susie and Ed.
It was the hottest spot in London on the coldest…
Camille hoped they’d think it was the cold wind making…
There was nothing to do but wait and worry. Camille…
Morning sunlight edged in silver the margins of the draperies…
The first thing Camille saw was that illness became Eric.
Belle found Camille in her room two mornings later, sitting…
The summons came at dinner.
Eric’s guests were amazed when he opened the doors to…
“So what do you think of your newfound cousin?” Camille…
Eric paced in the parlor. He’d arrived too early, and…
“Another engagement!” Miles groaned.
After last night’s talk with Nell, Camille couldn’t look at…
“What’s the matter, Cammie?” Eric asked with such gentle concern…
Camille didn’t know how she could keep her feelings to…
Dana’s expression changed so drastically Camille became alarmed. His eyes…
Eric woke at dawn. He remembered the tingling and numbness…
She came awake all at once but lay still, because…
“She’s here in London somewhere. I know she lives, I…
The man was dressed like a gent and looked like…
He’d been riding up the twisting road fast as he…
She never wanted to get out of the bathtub. It…
“Wretch and witch and utter delight,” Eric said as he…
The old church was cold, but there were so many…
The letter arrived at their London house on an autumn…
t was the hottest spot in London on the coldest night of the year. The humidity was so high that water dripped down the inside of the closed windows as the outside iced over. The dancers’ armpits would have shown damp spots if there’d been room for them to lift their arms, but there was hardly room to move their feet. Still, they kept smiling. Because although it felt like a jungle, they were in a ballroom in the best part of London town, and for all their sweat and panting, they were happy to be there.
But one of the guests felt a chill and knew it was time to go home.
The problem was that he couldn’t leave right away any more than he could stay. Eric Ford
looked around the crowded room and decided he had a choice: he could remain and embarrass himself or leave and embarrass himself. He shuddered again. That made up his mind. He recognized the signs. He’d hoped it was over and done with, but realized with sinking heart that it was not, and so he had no choice. He’d have to be quick with a glib excuse and leave as soon as he could, because he began to think that this time, however hurt, feelings would mend faster than he would.
Eric scanned the room, seeing more than most men would, if only because he was the tallest there. The woman he was looking for was wearing gold, he remembered.
. She was with a young officer, romping in a country reel.
Eric knew the tune, heard it winding to a close, and knew the dance would soon be over. No matter whose name she had on her dance card, he’d talk her into letting him have the next one. He had to, for he wasn’t sure he could linger longer.
When the music stopped, she raised a flushed face to her partner, and the two of them began to leave the floor. Eric’s head began to throb, but he pasted on a smile and went to intercept them.
And the musicians struck up again, this time a waltz.
Eric frowned. She had permission to waltz, but if he tried to whirl around the room now, he was sure his head would go whirling off his shoulders. Soon it would feel as if it had anyway. But he couldn’t
disappoint her. As he stood wondering what to do, he saw her being approached by another man. Eric grimaced and moved forward. This time, he’d have to be ready when the music ended. He’d given her his word.
“Two dances?” she had cried excitedly when he’d agreed to her teasing suggestion. She’d slewed around in her saddle. “Really? Oh, Eric! That would be wonderful! Won’t that open their eyes! To see me, a great gawk of a girl from the country, snaring
for two dances! I’ll have a partner for every dance for the rest of the Season, much less the night!” She’d whooped with laughter before he could make a comment to take the sting from her words.
“What a bag of moonshine!” He’d laughed in return, angling his horse closer. “You’ve been a success since you appeared on the scene. I wonder how many likely lads I’ll have the threaten in order to even get my two dances.”
“They’ll have to deal with me if they try to interfere with you,” she’d said immediately and then laughed again, a little shamefacedly, when he grinned at the thought of her having to help him.
Because while Camille was a fine figure of a girl, he was almost a giant, with enough muscles to give his tailor fits. Current fashion wasn’t happy with gentlemen built along the lines of Hercules, but Camille obviously was. Still, she was young, and he was her brother’s friend, and she adored her brother, so that probably accounted for it. But she
was also bright, so Eric was sure that sooner than later she’d see that was the extent of her interest in him and go on to fascinate more suitable beaux. That would be especially true now that she was in London at last. Still, the least he could do was to make her feel comfortable in her new setting, and if two dances would do it, he was happy to oblige.
She had flashed him a brilliant smile that day, nudged her horse forward, and they’d gone galloping down the riding trail, each too pleased with the fine afternoon and their plans to say another word.
When he’d seen her tonight, he’d actually stopped in his tracks, confused, as though he’d seen a familiar face in an unfamiliar setting and couldn’t quite place it. His jolly companion on horseback was now a vision, with her hair done up like a lady and the thin gold gown showing how much of a woman she’d become. He was used to seeing her romping with her dogs or riding her horses, always dressed in comfortable old clothes. He didn’t know if her new gown was comfortable, but it made him uncomfortable to see the young lady she had suddenly become.
She’d opened her arms to show him all her new splendor and then sank into a deep curtsey. When she rose, she grinned her old familiar grin at him. “I clean up nicely, don’t I?” she said with her usual cheeky good humor.
Her brother sighed, her sister-in-law rolled her eyes, and Eric laughed. “You certainly do,” he said, and led her into his first promised dance.
But tonight Eric realized his own personal David was in the room with him and he didn’t have long before he’d be felled as certainly as Goliath had been. He wondered if he could last until her waltz ended, and forced himself to stand up straight. He would endure because he had to. A soldier was trained to stand firm against his enemy, even if that enemy lived in his own head. The pain in his head began to throb in time to the music, and it seemed to him that the waltz would go on forever.
Finally, the music began to wind down. He stepped forward again, steadfastly ignoring the shivery feeling of icy fingers trailing down the considerable length of his spine. Now too, in the perverse spite of the malady he suffered from, he felt the heat. But he wasn’t sweating yet so judged he still had time.
The couples on the dance floor were glowing from exertion. When the music stopped, the ladies began fanning themselves vigorously, some discreetly lifting the sheer fabric of their gowns so the breeze could touch their flesh. The gentlemen, sealed in their fashionable high neckcloths and tight-fitted waistcoats and jackets, were redcheeked, some blowing hard as spent racehorses.
One of the dancers wore her exertion like a cosmetic. Eric smiled in spite of his pain, because although she was disheveled, Camille’s high spirits were irrepressible, and dishevelment suited her. Her curly cinnamon hair was coming down in tendrils all around her face, and her eyes were
sparkling. Her amazing gown pointed up the gold in those merry eyes. She looked wonderful, and obviously every man she’d danced with tonight thought so too. She hadn’t stopped dancing since he’d arrived.
No, she didn’t need his escort to give her the social boost she claimed she needed. But he’d promised, and he would deliver that second dance, then leave as soon as the music stopped. That should give him enough time to get safely home.
But as the dancers began to leave the floor, the music suddenly picked up again, as though it had never stopped. The couples turned to each other; shrugged, laughed, and stepped right back into the dance.
“Damn!” an aggrieved male voice complained close to Eric’s ear, “some curst fellow must have greased the fiddlers’ palms to keep them sawing so he wouldn’t have to let his lady go! I’ll bet it was that blasted Harcourt, so he wouldn’t have to give the fair Lucinda up to me now!”
“It ain’t him,” another male voice said. “Everyone knows he don’t have tuppence to spare. Look at Burke and how he’s smirking at Leigh over the top of the youngest Swanson girl’s head as he’s twirling her round the room. Ten to one he’s the one who slipped the musicians their gold.”
The music played on until the dancers began to look as though they were suffering. Then the host strode over and had a quick, harsh word with the musicians, and it came to an abrupt halt. The sud
den ending of the waltz was met with laughter and groans from the exhausted dancers.
Eric was waiting at the edge of the floor as Camille sauntered over with her partner. Her eyes lit up when she saw him.
“Drat!” she said as she noted his flushed face and glittering eyes. “You’ve been dancing with everyone else and now you’ll be too tired to collect your dance with me.”
He bowed. “I’m never too weary for that. Shall we?”
“But this is
dance,” a spotty young fellow whined from behind Eric’s shoulder. He stood on his toes and bobbed up and down, trying to see Camille, as he made his claim.
“It’s no one’s, I’m afraid,” she said with regret. “See, the musicians are resting, and the doors to the dining room are being opened. Midnight supper, gentlemen. We’ll have our dance afterward,” she assured the spotty youth. Putting a hand on Eric’s arm, she added, with a bright glance up at him, “but I’m already promised for supper.”
The younger man frowned, bowed, and left them. She looked up to see a look of pain on Eric’s face. She dropped her hand. “I didn’t mean to presume,” she said quickly. “You can dine with whomever you like. It’s just that I didn’t fancy taking my mutton with that fellow.”
He managed a smile. “Mustn’t say ‘taking my mutton.’ Your mother would skin you for it.”
“Yes,” she said smugly, “but she’s at home, and
I’m here, and besides, it’s only for your ears, and you know me.” She looked up at him with troubled eyes. “You’re frowning. Does it bother you too?”
“No. But my headache does,” he admitted, because he could no longer deny it. He looked down at her and tried to frame a crooked smile. “I’d have liked to take supper as well as dance with you, but I’m going to have to be a complete cad. I must leave now. I’m sorry.”
“Oh!” she said quickly. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Forgive me,” he said and, not trusting himself to say another word, turned and blindly walked away, leaving her standing, biting her lip as she looked after him.
He collected his greatcoat and hat and left the house. Once out on the front stair, he stopped and breathed in the icy air. It felt wonderful, like a dash of ice water on his flushed face. He felt his body and his worries cooling down. The blast of wintry cold was a relief; it calmed his nerves and cleared his head.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, he thought. After all, it hadn’t been so bad in over a year, and the doctors said that sometimes the intensity of the fever diminished the longer one was away from the source of contagion. Tonight the tropical heat of the ballroom had reminded him of the past. He decided that might have added to his symptoms, because he was a firm believer in the mind’s influence over the body. He’d had to be.
And too, this was London, not India. Men didn’t contract the malarial fever in London; this was where a fellow came to get away from it. At least, he had, and it had done him good. He’d had some small bouts of fever but hadn’t been really sick since he’d first come home to England a year ago.
“Your carriage, sir?” a footman asked, seeing the big gent paused on the front step. He raised his hand to signal for whichever carriage Eric requested.
“I don’t have one,” Eric said. He’d walked to the ball because he enjoyed the exercise. Taking a carriage would have been more prudent, because he never knew when the fever would strike, but a man couldn’t live in constant fear of disaster. At least, he refused to. And now he did feel better. He breathed a small sigh of relief. A fine thing if he collapsed on his host’s front step! He’d done that when he’d first returned to London from his tour abroad, and he never wanted to be that helpless again.
“Want me to call a hack for you then, sir?” the footman asked. “It’ll take a bit of time, since there ain’t room in front of the house for nothing but personal carriages. This is a real squeeze,” he said with pride at how successful the ball at his master’s house was. “But we got hired hacks at the ready a few streets down. I just have to send somebody running for one.”
The flaming torches in front of the house added to the glow of the new gaslights on the street, so
Eric could see down the long line of carriages waiting for their owners. One thing was certain: a coach that wasn’t already in that line didn’t stand a chance of getting near the house tonight. He’d have to walk a way to get into one even if it drew up closer. What was the difference between walking along one street or two?
“Don’t bother,” he told the footman, tossing him a coin for his trouble. “I’ll walk.”
Hoping his luck would hold, Eric took a deep breath of cold air and strode off into the frigid night.
Camille stood looking after Eric’s broad back as he disappeared from sight. She frowned. He hadn’t been himself. She ought to know. She always watched him closely, far more than he knew. It wasn’t only his abrupt departure. His smile had seemed forced, and worse, his usually tanned face had looked curiously sallow. Was he ill? Of course, she knew he’d been mortally sick when he’d first arrived home from India. Her brother had mentioned it often enough. Still, she’d discounted it. Anyone could get sick, and Eric had obviously fully recovered. But now the way he’d so abruptly deserted her made her remember the stories. They said he’d been sick unto death then.
Her heart began to race. She looked around the crowded room for her brother. She saw his lovely wife, Lady Annabelle, chatting with a clutch of ladies. Then she saw Belle look up, as though
someone had touched her on the shoulder, and gaze across the room. Camille narrowed her eyes, trying to see through the heated shimmer of candle glow. Belle stared and then exchanged a small secret smile with—
. Miles was talking with some of his friends but, as always, with his eyes on his wife, as hers were on him.
Camille quickly made her way through the crowd to him.
“Miles,” she said immediately. “Eric has just left very abruptly.”
“He probably felt all the joy went out of the night after he’d had his last dance with you,” he teased, with a grin at his friends.
“No,” she said. “That’s just the point. I thought he was going to dance with me next.”
“Oh. Well, maybe he had another important engagement,” he began to say evasively, but she cut him off.
“No need to sugarcoat things,” she snapped. “I don’t expect men to give up anything in order to dance with me, especially men like Eric. But Miles,” she went on anxiously, ignoring the other men as they began gallantly to contradict her, “he was green around the gills.”