Midnight Pleasures with a Scoundrel(Scoundrels of St. James,Book 4)(28) by Lorraine Heath
“She has no interest in any of the other gents.”
Swindler released a scornful scoff. “How can she not? She may be at the lower end of it, but this is her world. She’s danced with a duke, two marquesses, four earls, and so damned many second sons that I’ve lost count.”
“I didn’t think you knew that many in the nobility.”
“I was standing near when they were lining up like paupers hoping for a bowl of gruel. Worst of all, she danced with Dodger, no doubt the wealthiest man in all of London.”
“He’s also very happily married.”
“God, those are words I never thought I’d hear strung together when talking about him.”
He wanted another gulp of scotch, whiskey, rum, gin. It didn’t matter as long as it had the ability to burn away this powerful torment that had wrapped itself around him.
“And why hasn’t she danced with you?”
Swindler held his tongue. Claybourne elbowed him in the ribs. “Because you haven’t asked?”
“I wanted tonight to be special for her. Her sister had the opportunity to come to London and Eleanor didn’t. I wanted to give this to her.”
“She’s not enjoying dancing with the other men, you know. Have you not noticed the way her gaze never stays on them long? Or how it darts around the room as though she’s searching for someone? Her smile is so frozen that her jaws must be aching. Ask her for a dance.”
“Her dance card is probably filled.”
“Wouldn’t stop me if I wanted to dance with Catherine.”
Normally it wouldn’t have stopped Swindler either. What the devil was wrong with him?
he wondered. Guilt over his deception. He should tell her the truth, but even as he thought the words, he knew everything between them would change as soon as they were uttered. Her affection for him would turn to loathing. Her interest in him would wither away like a rose plucked from the vine and left too long without water.
The final strains of a violin echoed into silence. Eleanor didn’t even have to leave the dance floor as her next eager partner replaced the previous one. Swindler handed the tumbler back to Claybourne and, without another word, strode through the crowd to the area where the dancers were just beginning to step in time to the music. He patted Lord Milner on the shoulder. The man looked as startled as he did when he was playing cards at Dodger’s and was dealt a good hand. “Sorry, m’lord, but this one’s mine.”
If he’d been a larger man, Lord Milner might have challenged Swindler. Instead, he excused himself. Before the next beat of music sounded, Swindler had Eleanor in his arms and was sweeping her across the dance floor.
She’d waited the whole night for this moment. “What took you so long?”
He gave her a wry grin. “I wasn’t certain you’d want to give up a dance with a lord for a man who has little to offer except two clumsy feet.”
“You sell yourself short, James. You are quite the accomplished dancer.”
“As are you, Eleanor.”
They circled the dance floor as though no one else was upon it. It occurred to her that they were closer than was proper, but she didn’t care.
Earlier one of her partners had mentioned that she reminded him of a lady he’d danced with last Season. He couldn’t remember her name. Was it her? he’d asked. Sadness had swamped her because her sister had been in London and no one remembered her clearly. Just as she was certain no one would remember her tonight.
She was part of these people’s lives for only a fleeting moment in time. Tomorrow night there would be other dance partners for them, while she would hold close the precious memories. And the one that was being created now with James would be the most precious of all—or at least of all the ones from the ball.
They hardly spoke. It was as though no words were needed between them. They conversed with a look, a squeeze of a hand, the brush of a thigh.
When the dance ended, he removed her dance card from her wrist, slipped it into his pocket, and claimed the next dance as his own. She didn’t protest. It was what she wanted more than she wanted to breathe.
During their third dance he asked, “Will you save the last dance for me?”
“I’m perfectly fine with this being the last dance of the night.”
“Are you ready to go home?” he asked.
“No,” she said, wondering where the sultriness in her voice had come from. “But I am ready to leave with you.”
When the music ended, they said good-night to their host and hostess. Outside the air was cool. While he draped her pelisse over her shoulders, it was his nearness more than the cloth that warmed her.
As they settled into the carriage, he said, feigning surprise, “Well I wonder where my sister has gone off to. Whatever will happen between us without a chaperone?”
She cradled his face with her gloved hands. “It is my hope, James, that we’ll kiss.”
As the carriage rolled away, she found her hope being realized as he crushed his mouth against hers, and she parted her lips to receive what he offered. Once again she was amazed by his taste, but tonight it was different. No meat pie. Rather, it was rich and smooth and decidedly dark. Not champagne. He’d had something else to drink, something strong, something that would appeal to a man. Whatever it was, she liked it—enjoyed the flavor on his tongue as it stroked hers.
His arms stole around her back and hips, and she found herself being pulled onto his lap. Almost immediately the angle of the kiss shifted and deepened, as though he was intent on touching her heart. How was she to tell him that he already had, in so many small ways, like a ball made up of scraps of yarn that came together to create an intriguing whole? The loan of the pearls, the fireworks, the drives through London. Conversations and waltzes. An invitation to a ball. She’d come to London with a goal, and he’d slowly worked his way into her life until she had a difficult time remembering what her plans had been.
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