Across the Ballroom
This short story reintroduces us to some characters we have met before: Lady Claire Jellicoe, the sister of Will Jellicoe (the hero of A BREATH OF SCANDAL, and our Christmas story from last year, “An Unrequited Fire”), and the Duke of Fenmore (who was the boy, Tanner Evans, the last time we saw him in THE DANGER OF DESIRE).
Downpark House, Hampshire
Claire Jellicoe had waited what felt like forever to attend her first New Year’s Eve ball. Even though most other girls were only let out upon society at the ripe old age of sixteen, she had charmed her cautious parents into waiting only until the impressionable and vivacious age of ten and four, before she might try her luck under a sprig of mistletoe.
The New Year’s Eve Ball was an annual county tradition. Hosted by her family to usher in the New Year in their rural neighborhood in Hampshire, this ball felt different—magical even. It was set at home, at comfortable, familiar Downpark, in the lovely, long, glass-paned orangerie that extended like a bright jewel box from one of Downpark’s long wings. The guests were neighboring families she had known all her young life, and now hoped to impress with her grown-up self. But there was always the possibility of someone new—a handsome stranger come amongst them, drawn to the warmth of their fire and Downpark’s opulent hospitality.
For the first time, Claire had been allowed to assist in planning the event, arranging things just as she liked. Everything was perfect, from the potted hot-house gardenias and orange tress perfuming the air, to the chilled egg-nog set out in shining silver punch bowls. Claire had never felt happier—she was filled with all the heady hopefulness and joyful anticipation the yuletide season could bring.
She loved the whole of the Yuletide season, from Christmas through Twelfth Night. She loved her lovely new white satin gown with the delicately embroidered hem. She loved to dance, and she loved to smile. And she would smile at the men who danced with her. During those few hours of the ball, nothing would matter but that she be young and lively and free.
And so she did. Even if it meant standing up upon the dance floor with her brother, Will, instead of a handsome stranger. But it was no hardship to dance with Will—he was always one of her favorite partners when he made one of his infrequent trips home from the Royal Navy, because he could always be counted upon to say the very thing that would make her laugh and smile and enjoy herself all the more.
And standing up for two country dances with Will made her feel…safe. Which was strange. She was always safe. Always accompanied by her mother or father, or her brothers, or her maid, Stevens, or a footman or two. She was never alone. Never lonely, or vulnerable.
But even though she was with Will, she did feel almost alone, because this evening, there was a particular tall, dark-haired stranger standing against the wall, who seemed to be watching her, and her alone. Constantly. Instead of making her feel hopeful, his dark gaze sent a blustery chill of skating down her spine like an errant snowdrop.
He made her feel alone and vulnerable. Because he looked alone and vulnerable, and almost…expectant. As if he thought she should know him.
She had no idea who he was, let alone what she might have done to engender his attention. But she could feel the push of his dark gaze like the steady wind off the downs.
“Will?” she asked her brother when they came together at the top of the set. “Who is that man?”
She merely nodded in the stranger’s direction, but her tone of voice must have conveyed her unsettled feelings, because her bother was instantly bristling with hostility. “The devil take anyone who upsets you. Which man?”
Her brother’s brash protectiveness soothed her. “The tall, lean fellow in the black coat.” She chanced another glance at the severe-looking stranger. “The one with the cheekbones that look as if they would whet a razor.”
Will waited until the dance brought him around again to look in the stranger’s direction. “Well, damn my eyes.”
Claire didn’t bat an eye at Will’s curse—she was well used to her brother’s salty naval language. But the low suspicion in his voice gave her pause.
“What did he say to you?” Will demanded.
“Nothing.” She felt a bit silly admitting it. “We haven’t been introduced, or ever met since I’m not really‘out.’. I just wondered if he might be a friend of yours.”
“You do mean that tall, disobliging fellow propping up the wall?” Will tipped his head ever so subtly at the man, who now appeared to be looking straight ahead, into the air over the dancers’ heads, and not at Claire.
“Yes.” Claire tried another surreptitious peek at the stranger from around her brother’s wide shoulders. This time, the disobliging man had turned his gaze to her left, toward a group of matrons collected near the chaises set up for their comfort. “Is he disobliging simply because he’s propping up the wall—which I will remind you, you do yourself at most social engagements when you’re home—or for some other reason?”
Will evaded her question with a question of his own. “Why do you want to know?”
“Will. Why wouldn’t I be interested in knowing all the guests at a ball in our home?” For some reason she could not clearly articulate, Claire was reluctant to tell her brother that it was because she thought the young gentleman—and he was clearly a gentleman, with his high aristocratic cheekbones and his elegant tailoring—was staring at her. It would sound childish. And vain. And she might be wrong. Perhaps it only seemed as if the tall stranger’s dark, narrow gaze had been following her. Perhaps he was only fascinated by the tremulous sway of Lady Barrington’s outrageously plumed turban. “I will have my first real season soon, and I merely wish to be a polite hostess, as mama would want me to be.”
“Claire.” Her brother’s tone was patient, but not amused. “Don’t try to hand me a bouncer like that. Why do you want to know?”
“Because he looks different. And uncomfortable. And interesting.” He looked interesting in a sad, strange, nearly unbearable way. He made her a little uneasy—not only because he had been looking at her, but because he himself looked so uneasy doing so.
“God’s balls,” Will swore under his breath. “What is it with young women? Moths to bloody flames. You would insist on being interested in the dangerous ones.” Her brother drew in a deep, forbearing breath, but he did not lighten his tone. “I’ll grant you that—he is interesting. He is his grace, the Duke of Fenmore.”
“Oh, goodness.” No wonder the man looked so uneasy. He was that most elusive of all men—the honest-to-goodness handsome, young duke. Though her own father was an influential earl, Claire had always assumed young, attractive dukes were the stuff of fairy tales and over-wrought novels. But this duke’s off-putting air was sure to warn away even the most avid of the match-making mamas on her mother’s guest list.
“Yes, oh, goodness indeed,” Will agreed with grim amusement. “Although, ‘Oh, badness,” might be more appropriate.”
Claire looked at Will’s face to try and gauge his level of sarcasm. “Is he really bad?”
“I don’t know.” Will turned his mouth down in wry contemplation. “Although he was rumored to have been very bad indeed, once upon a time.”
It wasn’t at all like Will to repeat rumor or gossip. “Really? What did he do that was so terribly bad?”
The look her dear elder brother gave her as an answer could only be called protective—all narrowed eyes and furrowed brow. “Why do you want to know?”
They had come round again to the question to which Claire could find no satisfactory answer. “I don’t know. I suppose it’s because he looks so alone.”
“Does he?” Will stretched his head around for another glimpse before he shrugged. “If he is so, it must be by his own choice. He’s the bloody Duke of Fenmore. He can do anything he likes.”
And evidently, he liked looking off-putting. Certainly, a hot aloofness emanated from the duke, like the hairs standing up on the back of a wary dog. “Why do you suppose that is?”
“I don’t know, Claire.” Her brother led her around in a figure so she could no longer see the duke’s face. “But I do know that if you know what’s good for you, you won’t have anything to do with him.”
To this question her dear, talkative, easy-going brother was silent. His only answer was the pointed stare.
But Claire was immune. “Don’t give me your sea captain look, Will. I know you too well for it to work on me.”
“Well, damn my eyes. And here I was hoping to pass myself off as a fashionably stoic Corinthian.”
Claire returned her brother’s smile, but persisted. “Why ought I to stay away from him?”
Her normally nonchalant brother drew her away from the other dancers, to the side of the floor. “He’s just not entirely…accepted. Claire, please listen to me. Or if you’re not prepared to listen to me, take your clue from the rest of your family. Papa may have invited him—he’s a duke for pity’s sake—but you may also note that your doting Papa has not introduced the duke to you.”
Will’s argument gave Claire pause. “Perhaps Papa simply hasn’t had the chance?”
“Don’t play the dozy debutante with me, Claire. You’re sharper than that.”
Claire turned away so Will wouldn’t be able to see the flush of heat that undoubtedly stained her cheeks. She felt strangely inadequate to the task of informing her brother that simply because of the fact that she was growing up things had changed. Once she came out, it wouldn’t do for her to be showing her sharp mind and wicked wit in public anymore.
Growing up meant changing. She was meant to be charming and sympathetic now, not sharp. And so she kept her true thoughts and pert opinions firmly and quietly to herself this time. Afterward, she could quietly arrange things as she liked. “I take your point, Will. I understand.”
“Good. The last thing I want to have to start worrying about is you being taken advantage of by some fortune hunting vulture, or careless swell.”
“Oh, are there careless swells here as well?” Claire made her tone teasing and light. The last thing she wanted was to worry a brother when he was home from the horrible war that kept him constantly in harm’s way. “How very interesting. And how thoughtful of mama to have invited some careless swells. So, do be a dear brother, and point them all out.”
Will laughed just as she hoped he would, and at the end of the set shortly thereafter, he returned her to mama’s side, and excused himself to go prop up his own walls. Mama was engaged in talking to the wife of the rector of Saint Michael’s church about the need for a fund to re-lead the roof, and Claire was left for a moment to her own devices. And left to her own unsettled, but decidedly curious, thoughts.
Left to decide if the wicked, dangerous Duke of Fenmore really was looking at her instead of Lady Barrington’s hideous, bejeweled turban.
Claire might have conquered the habit of speaking her mind, but she had not yet learned to subdue her curiosity. And where curiosity led, Claire still followed. Straight to the Duke of Fenmore, still alone and off-putting, propping up the orangerie’s thick stone walls.
So Claire gathered the inherited Jellicoe family pride around her as if it were an invisible cloak, and purposefully wandered away from the matrons and their turbans. She smiled and nodded to friends and neighbors, stopping here and there to say a few polite, charming words before moving on. On she walked, taking a slow circuit of the glittering ballroom, all the while taking surreptitious measure of his grace. Who, from his stance against the wall, was just as keenly measuring her.
He was most certainly staring, tracking her progress the way a hunter stalked a doe. Though his head never moved, his black eyes followed her like those in the disapproving portraits of her ancestors that lined the gallery walls—so very angry and severe. As if she had done something wrong. As if she had said or done something wrong to him.
It made her more than uncomfortable and uneasy. It made her intolerably curious.
Claire almost turned back, to look for her brother. But she was fourteen now, and certainly old enough to deal with a rude duke staring at her. This was her house, her home. He was on her ground now.
But if she really were not meant to become acquainted with his grace of Fenmore, she would have to manage a surreptitiously accidental meeting—somewhere away from both her parents’ and brother’s overly protective eyes.
She needed somewhere to go—somewhere the duke, if he were watching, would follow her. Somewhere like the torch-lit terrace beyond the dark glass of the orangerie’s windows. Yes. The wide terrace would be perfect, apart enough from everyone else for private conversation, but not so private as to be truly alone, or make herself vulnerable to this man she had been warned against.
Her brother’s words echoed in her head, but she tried to ignore them even though her hands were shaking with some strange amalgamation of excitement and fright by the time she reached the door, and turned to look directly at the duke. And met his challenging, relentless gaze.
Oh, he was watching all right. The force of his dark gaze pushed her hand up to her throat, where her pulse narrowed down to a taut thread. Claire held her sham composure long enough to pass through the tall glass doors at the far end of the orangerie, and into the temporary sanctuary of the terrace, where the night air was cold and damp against her flaming skin.
But her elegant satin dress offered little protection against the chill winter wind that blew in off the downs. Claire hugged her arms around her waist to warm and steady herself as she faced the glass paned door. From outside the orangerie, she could see through the tall windows, into the well-lit interior. She could see the Duke of Fenmore push away from the wall and follow directly in her path.
Her hands clenched into fists—indeed everything within her clenched into a taut knot—but she would not allow herself to demur. Claire willed her knees not to knock, and waited openly for him to approach. Just as openly as she would ask him to explain his extraordinary behavior to her.
She had done nothing wrong. She had no reason to hide.
Goodness, but she almost did turn tail and run the moment the duke stepped through the door and onto the terrace, and his eyes—those dark, relentless, accusing eyes—met hers.
But she wouldn’t run. She was a Jellicoe. She was the daughter of an earl. She was sure to be proclaimed a diamond of the first water during her season. And she could be the farthest thing from a dozy debutant when she chose.
Claire tipped her chin up another fraction, and willed herself to meet his eyes. Willed herself to put a glint of challenge into her own. Good evening your grace. Pray explain why you have been watching me all evening, like a dog guarding a manger. Claire rehearsed the worldly words in her head, and swallowed over her suddenly dry throat, breathing deep to calm her jangling nerves. For goodness sake, he was only a commonplace duke—she had met loftier personages before in her father the earl’s house. Good evening, your grace.
“Good evening, your grace.” But the voice was not her own.
His grace, the Duke of Fenmore, immediately arrested his progress toward Claire, and turned his head toward the greeting, which had not come from Claire’s mouth, but from Will.
Her brother—who may or may not have known Claire was there—stepped out of the house from a different door, and came purposefully toward the duke, as if he, and not Claire, had been expecting his grace.
Heat scalded its way across Claire’s face, and she put her cold hands up to her cheeks to hide her mortification. Now she did want to hide. Quickly. Claire ducked behind a large, potted, privet bush that had been trimmed in the shape of a dense green pyramid.
“Lieutenant Jellicoe.” The duke’s voice was a deep, wary baritone. Even his boots scratched a low, dark note on the stone terrace when he turned. “Fenmore, at your service.”
Claire angled herself to peek carefully around the privet, so she could see her brother make a very correct bow. “Your grace. How do you do?”
“Fine.” His grace’s response was clipped and uncomfortable. “Thank you.”
Will rubbed his hands together, and moved toward her hiding place. Claire immediately abandoned her spot behind the planter, and backed deeper into the hedge below the balustrade. But she was still so close, she could hear the scratch of shoe leather against the wet stone terrace.
“Cold evening,” Will remarked. “Too cold for most people to venture out.”
From between the branches, Claire thought his grace’s gaze cut to her hiding place in the shrubbery, before he inclined his head to her brother.
“As you say.” The duke’s tone had become haughtier, almost as if he might well have said, ‘I am not most people.’ The words hung unsaid, like the heavy mist in the chill air, decidedly off-putting.
But Will was made of sterner stuff than even Fenmore must be used to. “Yes. I do say. But I came here to see if I could get you to say something, your grace. To see if you would say why you have been staring at my young sister all night.”
Within the shelter of the hedge, Claire’s mortified curiosity heated her skin so quickly she was afraid cold steam was rising from the bushes. Be careful what you wish for, her father always said. And here was the proof—she would get her answer, but not in the way she had sought to arrange.
Outside the hedge there was only the fraught silence. She could detect not even a hint of movement. Neither man so much as shifted his boots against the flagstone.
“My apologies,” the duke said at last. “I had not realized I was staring.”
“You were.” Will’s voice was all implacable sea captain—not in the least bit intimidated by a mere haughty duke.
“Apologies,” Fenmore said again. There was another short, chilly silence before he added, by way of explanation, “She is beautiful.”
Oh, but this she did want to hear. The man’s voice held just enough baffled wonder to overcome Claire’s resistance to what was normally an indifferent compliment.
But Will was not the least bit sympathetic to Claire’s aesthetic appeal. “She is my sister, sir. And she is not yet out.”
This implacable fact was also met with a short, chilled moment of silence before the duke answered. “Point taken, lieutenant.”
“Good. I thank you.” Boot bottoms scraped against the slate terrace, as if one of them were turning to go.
“I mean your sister no harm, lieutenant.”
The booted footfall ceased, and then sounded louder, as if one of them had turned back. “Then find another target for your rather militant gaze.” Will—still all bristling hostility.
“I? Militant?” There was more than frost in his grace’s voice—there was genuine astonishment.
Will did not seem to care if he gave offense. “Yes, you, sir.”
Claire’s skin was heating and chilling in such rapid turns that she couldn’t begin to understand how she felt, but she was more than curious to see Fenmore—to see how he felt. She tried to evade the cold clutch of the branches, and crowded to the right, so she might have a better sight line of the duke.
Fenmore was the one making a bow now. “Again, you have my apologies. Pray convey them to your sister, as well.”
“No.” Will’s tone was still careful and protective. “I don’t think I will so much as mention your name to her. I definitely won’t convey your apologies. I want her on her guard against you.”
This time the voice that broke the challenging silence was quiet, and low, all traces of haughtiness pared away. “Again, I can only say, I wish your sister no harm.”
“Then stay away from her. And most especially do not stare at her, as if you wish her to the devil, or someplace else entirely.”
His grace’s boot heels snapped together before he made another very slow bow, as if he were forcing his body to bend in obedience to his will. “You have my word, Lieutenant.”
Will took a half-step toward the duke. “And do I have your word that you will not approach her, or seek her out? Ever?”
The Duke of Fenmore’s head went back, as if he had been struck across the face. Even his voice was stunned. “If I must.”
“You most assuredly must, sir. Or we will find ourselves sometime in the near future, at swords.”
Claire could hear an attempt at lightness in Will’s careless tone, but she was very much afraid that he really meant every word that he said. And so too, evidently, did Fenmore.
“As much as I might enjoy the exercise”—now all the power of that icy chill had found its way back to his grace’s tone—“I will, for the young lady’s sake, decline, for I collect she would be grieved were I to kill her favorite brother. And so I will give you my word.” He paused again, as if he were gathering his disdain. “If you’ll have it.”
The insult in the duke’s scathing tone finally penetrated Will’s belligerent bluster. “I will. And I will advise you to stay here long enough to cool whatever ardor or maggot in your brain influenced your behavior, or take yourself away, if you cannot control yourself.”
“I assure you, lieutenant. I am all control. And I shall never trouble you, or your sister, again.”
A pang, as sharp and breathless as any heart breaking, lanced through Claire’s chest, spilling icy pain. Which was ridiculous. She wanted him to leave her alone. She wanted him to stop staring at her. She wanted him to stop being so expectant.
So why was heat closing down her throat, and piling up behind her eyes. If she did not know better, she might have thought her heart had been broken.
But that was impossible. How could something that had not happened—not meeting, and not speaking to the duke—break her heart? How could something that had not even occurred feel like such an insurmountable loss? It was inconceivable.
“Thank you.” This time it was Will’s boot heels that scraped together as he bowed. “I bid you good night.”
The duke made no response, but stood, aloof, alone and angry, upon the terrace, as her brother’s footfalls carried him away into the house. His grace stayed motionless for so long, the scorching heat of her mortification and strange damnable loss burned away, leaving Claire chilled, and damp, and decidedly uncomfortable in the cold, wet shrubbery. But she could not leave until he did, or risk giving away her position and all her Jellicoe pride.
And so she stayed as still as he, though both her fingers and her toes began to ache from the cold mist dripping from the evergreen leaves, soaking into her evening gown and thin slippers. She stayed quiet, even though she felt like weeping.
And just when she thought she could bear no more, his grace, the Duke of Fenmore, turned to face the shrubbery.
Claire instantly drew back, but it did not seem to matter. His gaze did not waver, as if he could see through the dark. As if he were looking right at her. As if he knew exactly where she stood, frozen and miserable in the brittle dark.
She braced herself for his scold, but he said nothing, and only reached his hand into the pocket of his waistcoat to withdraw something small and opalescent, which he held before him. A velvety soft sprig of mistletoe.
Only then did he speak, in a voice so low she had to strain forward to hear. “I mean the lady no harm. No harm at all.”
And then he raised the mistletoe up to his lips, bestowing upon it a kiss, before he set it carefully on the rim of the privet planter. And with another inclination of his head that might have been a bow, the Duke of Fenmore withdrew, and was gone, his boot heels echoing hollowly against the wet stone.
When she could hear him no more, Claire finally crept from her hiding place, too wet from the heavy mist clinging to the branches, and too dirty from the damp soil and leaf mold clinging to her muddy hems, to return to the ball in her present state.
But Claire doubted she would ever return to the ball. Because there, against the rim of the planter, the Duke of Fenmore had left her the tiny sprig of mistletoe, its white berries shining milk white with the heavy dew.
The sprig of mistletoe that had received what might have been her first kiss.
Claire reached for the sprig and without thinking, brought it to her own lips, where the cool wet slid from the berries and leaves into her mouth. The dew drop was a bittersweet substitute for the real thing—for his grace of Fenmore’s solemn regard.
And Lady Claire Jellicoe knew without a doubt, that something that had not happened had indeed broken her heart.
Because he had promised, hadn’t he? And he looked like the kind of man who always kept his word. Never to speak or look at her again. Never to stare at her across a ballroom. Never to bring her a sprig of mistletoe in the dark.
And all she could think was that his grace of Fenmore—the one man she could never have—had just ruined her for all other men.
Claire flung the sprig of mistletoe away, into the eager grasp of the yew branches, and let a single bitter tear sting her cheek, before she cast it, too, away into the dark.
She had gotten exactly what she had wished for—a kiss under the mistletoe from a handsome stranger. Only she hadn’t gotten it the way she wanted it at all. She hadn’t been able to arrange the Duke of Fenmore just the way she liked.
That was the trouble with all that heady hopefulness of the Christmas season, wasn’t it? One had to graciously accept the gifts one was given, whether one liked them or not. And one was obliged to keep them.
Claire pushed the last of her tears away with the back of her hand, and bent down to retrieve the sprig of mistletoe from the ground where she had tossed it. She tucked it into her ruined bodice. It would be her keepsake, a talisman and a reminder of the night she had finally learned what it was to grow up.
If you liked these characters, and want to find out if Lady Claire Jellicoe and the Duke of Fenmore ever try to find a happily ever after, look for AFTER THE SCANDAL, available now!