By: Kate Rothwell
The Campbells’ dance promised to be an odd affair. The meal held before the big event seemed shockingly informal and noisy to Fell, who was used to London ways. Everyone simply sat to eat—there was no parade to the table and no assignment of seats. Still, he wasn’t a rude guest and smiled politely at the very young lady who’d slipped into the seat to his left after the soup course had ended.
She was out of breath and smelled of fresh air, as if she’d run into the dining room from the outdoors. Her display of curls might have been blown by the wind as well. She began to eat her fish with a hearty appetite.
“I’m Miss Mary,” the provincial girl told him. He waited for a last name, but she seemed to think he knew it. A talkative sort, she told him she was not even out yet and had only been invited to this grand neighborhood event because her mother and Mrs. Campbell were close
“You’re looking forward to your debut to society?” he asked, amused
“No, I am not interested in a season.”
She nodded. “I have been to London, you see, and found what I want to do there.”
She presented an odd contrast of flighty—literally, if one looked at her hair—and solemn.
He appreciated her round, young body and those dark curls and large eyes, but in general he preferred someone with a little more sophistication and levity. Despite her merry appearance and chatty manner, she was sober as a nun and talked about the deserving poor, and, rather interestingly, the not-as-deserving poor. The girl apparently knew about the plight of fallen women and the unfortunate outcome of their couplings.
“You really ought not talk about such things as those unfortunate babies ,” he said gently. “It won’t do
She stared at him for a moment . Annoyed by the disdain he saw on her pretty face, he said, “I tell you this for your own sake, you know.” Fell knew he sounded like a prig, so he attempted a hearty laugh. “I wish more people had told me what would or wouldn’t do before I entered society.” A lie, of course. He’d been prepared for his role from the day he was born. Now just out of university, he had no surprises waiting for him.
“But I’ve already told you. Is han’t enter society,” she said before she turned to speak to the man on her other side. Fell, of course, conversed with the squire’s wife on his other side. After a few minutes of speaking of the weather and crops with his other neighbor, he was glad to turn back to the intriguing, peculiar girl and discuss something less commonplace.
“You are what age, sixteen?”
“Almost seventeen,” she said
“That seems rather young to make such momentous decision. You’d withdraw from society, from life, before you even taste it.
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She wrinkled her nose, even sniffed. “No one would complain if I accepted an offer of marriage, and that is just as momentous a step. In fact, everyone is determined I do just that.”
He decided he didn’t want to argue with her and sought for a way to change the subject. Rather than mentioning the weather, the way he ought, he asked, “Why were you late for the meal ?”
The way she pressed her lips tight reminded him of a school teacher. In a low voice, she said, “I was having an argument with a gentleman. He will not accept my no to his proposal .”
She glanced in the direction of a brooding man of about thirty who stared down the table in their direction. The suitor, no doubt, and older than Campbell’s friends, so Fell hadn’t met him.
“No need to look so put out by a proposal ,” he said.
“Even when I’ve said no at least a half dozen times ? What is worse is he’s encouraged by my family. He and my mother have decided we will suit.”
“He looks to be a respectable, pleasant sort. Why don’t you want to marry him?
“I have something else planned for my life,” she told him with exaggerated patience.
“So you said.” The trip to London and her determination to make a difference in the world. Quaint . “You are a reformer.”
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The girl nodded and reached for her wine. Shocking that a girl not even out would be served alcohol, but this gathering was entirely strange. At least, thanks to her, it wasn’t dull. She drank thirstily. “I will think of something. I need to go, you understand.” Not so sober after all, he thought as he watched her gulp the wine. That must explain her strange penchant to talk about ladies of the night.
His attention was drawn by the musicians he heard tuning up in the next room. The girl was speaking, and to his horror, he realized she’d just asked him if he’d meet her outside, in a secluded part of the garden, after dinner.
“Good God, no.” Fell didn’t raise his voice, but he pushed back into his chair with horror.
“Oh, I’m not interested in dalliance.” She carefully put down her wineglass. “It just occurred to me that if Mr. Richardson, er, Mr. R saw me with another man, perhaps he would understand I was not suitable. ”
Fell held tight to his temper. “I beg your pardon, I don’t know you.” Come to think of it, he still didn’t know her last name. She hadn’t asked his, which was an ominous fact. She must know his identity. He lowered his voice. “I am certainly not interested in any sort of trap you might set. Too ridiculous.”
Miss Mary looked him up and down. Fell recalled he’d become slightly disheveled when he and his friends played an impromptu game of catch in the upstairs corridor before dinner.
She frowned. “Why on earth would I want to trap you? I told you. I don’t wish to be married.” She put down her napkin. “A walk might not be enough. You could pretend to kiss me.
She must be more canny than she appeared. Lord Fellington knew he was a good catch. Though he hadn’t witnessed the speculative looks from females and their mothers he usually drew, he expected Campbell’s family and friends knew about his fortune as well.
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“If we go for a walk in the garden,” she continued thoughtfully, as if proposing an entirely reasonable plan, “it will be too dark for him to see your face, and you can flee into the woods. He’ll have a disgust of me at last and you won’t be entrapped.”
“But so will your family. So will everyone in the neighborhood.”
“I have made up my mind about my life, and they simply refuse to listen. I must act, you understand.”
“Why with me?
“You have kind eyes.” She toyed with the fringe on her shawl, then squarely met his gaze. Her dark eyes didn’t waver as she stared back, although her cheeks might have grown rosier. “But never mind that,” she said briskly. “I’ve never seen you before and will never see you again, which makes this plan entirely perfect. Heavens. I don’t even know your name. Mr. Campbell referred to you as Phil. But. Well. I suspect he had too much to drink.”
That’s Fell. He calls me Fell, Fellington almost said. But instead he got a wicked notion. He only shook his head and attempted a mysterious smile. “No, no. You shouldn’t know my name if we’re to be secret lovers.”
“Pretend secret lovers.” She grinned, revealing a surprisingly lovely smile, then waited as if she thought he must give his name. After an awkward silence passed, she shrugged. “If you insist on anonymity.”
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “We’ll meet outside after the first set of dance.’
“What we shall do is a game, isn’t it,” she said. “So many gentlemen lose and gain a great deal of money at play, or so I hear. This is no worse, is it?
Did she refer to her strange plans for her future or the one she’d hatched using Fell?
He didn’t answer. She gave a strong nod and one of her bright smiles. “Very well. I shall gamble on this to work.”
During the first set of dances, he watched her but she didn’t so much as glance in his direction. She danced prettily enough, though she rarely spoke. She seemed to be paying close attention to her steps. Perhaps she’d never danced in public before.
No one was nearby as they slipped away and walked through the garden to the lake. The dark-haired girl seemed exotic now. Her pale lavender gown glowed in the moonlight. For some reason, she’d stripped off her long gloves. He wondered how much wine she’d had. He suspected he’d had far too much himself.
“Are you the worse for drink ?” he asked, ready to escort her back at once.
“No. I am better for it. I drank to bolster my bravery. Something has to be done, and I’d rather not embarrass poor Mr. R. Only myself.”
He moved close enough to touch the cool silk skin of her upper arm. He breathed in the scent of her, flowery but not over-sweet, and was suddenly aroused—and annoyed by the arousal . “You’re foolish, you know,” he told her. “What if I was the sort of man who’d drag you into the bushes and finish the job ?”
“Heavens.” Her teeth gleamed in the darkness. “I told Sam, um, Mr. R, I was walking to the pergola. Someone would come if I screamed for help. But the Campbells would never have a rapist as a guest.”
She was such an innocent, he had to laugh. “I wonder if you’d be safe walking to the village alone. You’re determined to go to the worst part of London and become a missionary?
“I didn’t say that.” She was indignant. “I have no religious calling… Ah!” Something rustled in the night, and she threw herself at his chest. She put her hands at the back of his neck and whispered, “You don’t want to be recognized. We’ll turn so your face is out of the moonlight.”
She pulled him down to her, putting her mouth next to his. Their faces brushed close. Cheek to cheek. He could feel her wine-scented breath on his skin, but this pose they struck was a sham. She’d said she wanted a kiss—he’d give her one.
Fell cupped her face and held her as he touched her lips with his. A soft brush, then he settled in to explore. Her lips moved under his mouth, no doubt she protested, but he ignored it and kissed her. Warm. Soft. Thoroughly delicious.
He thought himself a worldly man at twenty-one, having bedded a woman, but this kiss felt wonderful. Extraordinary.
She twisted away , gasping. “You needn’t be so realistic,” she whispered. “And anyway, it was only some sort of animal —” but he’d bent his mouth to hers again and lightly rubbed his mouth over hers, then pressed in. More demanding now.
She didn’t pull away this time. Her hands on his nape explored his skin above his collar, tentatively threading into his hair. Fell groaned and ran the tip of his tongue along her lips, needing to taste her. She twisted her head to the side. And……oh, thank you, God. Her mouth opened. The kiss deepened.
To his dismay, just as he’d begun to explore her, she drew back. “Yes, good. I am glad to have tried that,” she whispered. “I do understand the appeal.”
He managed to speak a single word. “More.”
She hesitated and touched her upper lip with two fingers. Her voice quivered. “Only until Mr. R—”
“Yes . Of course.” He needed that mouth, and he moved his hands too, down the sweep of her shoulders, over her back to the top of her bustle and up again to her bare shoulders. He felt her breath coming fast. No. Don’t touch her breasts. No. he warned himself. But he had to press his body to hers and feel the shape of her suddenly overpoweringly attractive curves. He’d just kiss her mouth. And then her cheeks and temple. And neck and down her throat.
From behind him, something crunched on the gravel just outside the pergola. A footstep, then a man’s hoarse voice. “Mary!
She gasped and shoved Fell away from her, hard, pushing him toward the shadowy back side of the pergola. “Go. Go!” she whispered.
He retreated toward the shadows, feeling like an utter cad. “But if he responds badly, you might require my support,” he whispered. He was the one who’d behaved badly.
“Go!” she said.
“I don’t wish to abandon—”
She made a noise like a hissing siphon and ran away from him, down the steps to the approaching gentleman.
As she trotted down the stairs , she shouted, “Sam. I wanted you to see what I was about.” She spoke dramatically as if on stage in a music hall. “Now do you understand why I cannot say yes to you?
God. This was farcical.
Fell turned and walked into the shadow of the trees. But he didn’t go far in case Richardson got violent.
“Who was that man?” Richardson said. “Was he one of those upper-class asses Campbell invited for the weekend?”
“I will not say. But it is a most unsuitable…” She broke off and gave an unconvincing imitation of a sob.
“Good God, Mary. Is he married?” The other man sounded concerned, not angry.
“Alas, I can’t say.”
Fell had heard enough. He walked back to the house and asked the first girl he saw to dance. He didn’t see Mary again.