Tabitha

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.VI.

We do not have to wait long for the ceremonial portion of the evening to commence. It goes surprisingly quickly. The centre of the dance floor clears and a long royal blue carpet is laid down the length of the Ballroom with the King and Queen taking up their thrones on the landing below their balcony, surrounded by a clutch of their closest friends, officials and advisors. Then, as their name and new title is called, each Noble new to their position is beckoned forward to present themselves before the King to affirm their loyalty to the crown and receive the crown’s blessing. I must admit, my husband strikes a rather dashing figure in his navy jacket and pale blue trim as he strides toward the King, bending in an elegant bow before him. I cannot help but smile proudly. Then, to my delight, as he returns to my side and once again takes my hand, he presses a kiss to my knuckles. I preen at the attention, not in the least bit bashful at the devotion paid me by the gesture.

Then, as the orchestra strikes up with a merry traditional tune, King Aldric leads Queen Yolande in the first dance, and the Ball itself has officially begun.

If it was a beautiful sight with only a handful of dancers, it is truly breathtaking when the floor is filled with them, the complicated choreography of so many dancers simply astounding. I long to join them, my feet practically dancing already beneath my voluminous burgundy skirts.

But it would seem the feeling of hope I’d had as we’d driven up the carriageway splutters as song after song strikes up and then concludes without a single turn about the dance floor, and I can feel my optimism slowly fading away to nothing as the evening wears on. Not once has Josef asked if I would dance. Others have, but my husband has not, and it is not proper for a Lady to accept another gentleman’s offer until she has danced at least once with her husband. My husband is off somewhere, having excused himself from my side as the Royal couple completed the first dance of the evening, now no doubt talking and laughing with his sporting friends. I have only caught glimpses of him across the crowded room since he left me. I have long since given up trying to get near him, much less spend time with him.

Instead, after what felt like an eternity of waiting, I decide obstinately to flout convention—not quite such an easy decision—and I smile and allow the others who have asked me for the pleasure of a dance to guide me around the grand dance floor. It is exquisitely patterned yellow and pale blue marble, quite unlike anything I have ever seen.

I am growing tired. It hasn’t been all that long since Cecily was born, and I haven’t quite regained my former energy yet. Not that anyone would know from looking at me; something I’m rather proud of. I can see Mother eyeing me suspiciously, as if waiting for my control to slip. But I will not let it. I stand straight, light on my feet; I don’t let my eyes droop, as they are wont to, but keep them up and as engaged as I can. I always have the faint, secret smile I have schooled myself to perfect since my wedding, periodically allowing myself a wider, brighter smile. I am well aware that I am entrancing.

I know I will never be considered pretty. But I will own I am content with that. In my experience, ‘pretty’ is fleeting, vapid, without real substance. No; my features are too striking for pretty; not soft and delicate enough. I am beautiful. I am also vain. I will not deny it. I will not apologize for it. And any man would be lucky to have me on their arm.

I look surreptitiously around as I am dancing, looking for my husband, wondering if he sees that I am the most beautiful woman on the dance floor, wondering if he will perhaps think that he is the luckiest man here. I catch a glimpse of him once, during a particularly quick-paced dance that has my cheeks flushed and my lips smiling. He barely even glances at me. It is nearly enough to drive the smile from my face.

I am lively, but not too bubbly; that would be inappropriate and insipid. No matter that my husband will barely look at me tonight, I am in top form.

My conversation is engaging and I make those gathering around me laugh with my cleverness. Mother ought to be proud. I am soon the Lady of the Ball, the centre of attention to rival all others. She should be pleased to have raised such an accomplished and flourishing young Noblewoman.

I quickly find I know more people than I had anticipated, and I had realistically anticipated knowing a great many people. It seems Lady Reinhart wasn’t exaggerating at my last dinner party when she said visits to first our Hunting Manor and later Amherst Manor were quite the talk of the Court. Many of my past guests are here tonight and all great me warmly, reiterating praises of the last dinner of mine they attended or recounting a particularly memorable moment that has stuck with them since.

My reputation as a hostess of worth started out small. Though out of the way and virtually out of sight from the Court, the Hunting Manor was well situated in the part of the Kingdom known for its rich hunting and sport. As an avid sportsman himself, Josef would often invite his friends to stay with us so they could partake of their amusements in comfort. Taught to strive for perfection as I am, I made the best of efforts to give exceptional picnic luncheons while out on hunts, good dinners when not and diverting evening entertainment for my husband’s guests; it is my responsibility as a wife and admittedly a great source of pride for me.

But then it began to grow. As I perfected my hostess skills on my husband’s friends—many of whom my skills were frankly lost upon—time passed and his bachelor friends married. Before long their wives, on hearing of my efforts, decided it would be worthwhile to visit themselves, given my new attentions to making a visit to our Hunting Manor about more than just sporting. It would seem I impressed many of these nobly-born and well educated ladies, for word began to spread that I hosted noteworthy and rather elegant events and dinners despite our somewhat provincial Manor. My reputation has begun to spread farther than I anticipated, and in recent months, more and more distinguished guests have begun inviting themselves along with acquaintances and friends that Josef or I had invited for visits. Our little Manor had earned the reputation as a wonderful retreat of some consequence and the compliments to my position as its Lady have not stopped yet this evening even though we have not resided there in months.

And now that Josef and I have taken up the position of Viscount and Viscountess of the Amherst Estate, I now have the resources and use of the grander Amherst Manor nearer to the Palace and the heart of the Kingdom. Needless to say, my little events and dinners have begun to grow into great parties and banquets that are the talk of the Court.

I can’t help but preen, hard-pressed to keep the delighted grin from my face when I think on how far I have risen.

More than that, members of the Court who say they have heard wonderful things about my events are approaching me and even hint that they would not be upset to receive an invitation in the future.

I cannot restrain myself from glancing, triumphant, at my Mother as I am speaking with Lord Heeren, an Earl and friend to the King. Something she doesn’t notice—or ignores, a little part of me jabs—instead focusing all her attention on Herbert, my half-brother; she is hard at work trying to scope out a good match for him, it seems.

I resist fiddling with my rings in annoyance, instead returning my attention to the Earl, who is intent on reliving an amusing card game he won at my last dinner. I take some comfort that I am far more popular and prominent than my Mother.

At least I have that small consolation.

With a magnanimous smile and small curtsey I am finally able to turn away from Earl Heeren—no easy task, that is certain—and I nearly run right into Richard.

At first I am unable to do anything but stare at him. How he has changed! He was only sixteen the last time I saw him, and I was fourteen, both of us barely more than children. He is taller now, taller than I am though not quite as tall as Josef. His chestnut hair is longer, and tied back at the nape of his neck with a simple black ribbon. He is handsome, I notice with a jolt; he had always been a good-looking boy. Now he was a truly handsome man with good, strong features that have not been coarsened by hardship. But there is still a trace of the boy I befriended in his twinkling eyes and easy smile. I cannot help but smile back, belatedly realizing that, as he now outranks me—a Count standing over a Viscountess—I really should be curtseying. As I begin to drop into such a curtsey, the hem of my skirts pooling around my feet, his hand darts out, brushing against my elbow. The familiarity of the gesture causes me to pause, which was just as he intended, I imagine.

“No need for that,” he says cheerfully. I fight the long dormant urge to quirk a sceptical eyebrow before correcting him the way I used to when we were children. Despite the years, it feels like nothing has changed...but also like everything has. I ignore the way my skin seems to tingle where his fingertips brushed against my elbow despite the fabric of my high black gloves.

“No?” I query lightly back, “But you are a Count now, and I am only a Viscountess.” He shrugs lightly, the corners of his eyes crinkling as he holds back a chuckle.

“As far as I see it, you are Tabitha and I am Richard,” he counters with ease, his eyes turning serious for a moment, “nothing more nor less than that.” My cheeks warm inexplicably. It is wildly inappropriate. Surprisingly, doesn’t bring out the annoyed reaction such lapses in others usually provoke in me. I look away, gazing out at the dancers. I can feel myself shifting with the music but I don’t bother to stop myself.

“Is it just as you imagined?” My startled gaze jumps back to Richard as he speaks, and I see the knowing look in his eye; I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, that he remembered. He was always good at that. I told him on that fateful day at the funeral of my Papa’s stories, and I vaguely remember imagining aloud what a Ball at the Palace must be like.

“Much more,” I breathe inadvertently. My cheeks are warming again. I cover with a nonchalant tilt of my head, continuing more purposefully: “I imagine they are rather a bore to you now; as an In-Law of the King I imagine you attend Balls here quite regularly.” He shrugs. Such a provincial response, my Mother’s voice echoes inside my head. I ignore it; I find the gesture charming on him. He smiles wistfully after a moment, leaning in closer to me so that he may speak quietly, his hand coming to rest lightly near my shoulder blade.

“They do get rather boring after awhile. But this,” he gestures absently to the brilliant swirl of gowns and weaving of the dancers, “never fails to take my breath away.” His eyes are still fixed firmly on me. As he dips close, his breath stirs the tendrils of hair curling about my neck. It feels like my heart is stuttering in my chest. I laugh weakly, and a shiver runs up my spine at the sensation. I’m not quite sure what he meant by that; he couldn’t have been referring to me, could he? That would be most inappropriate...and most exhilarating. The wise thing to do would be to ignore the comment or brush it aside. I don’t know if I can do that.

“Goodness, Richard! You are starting to sound like a courtier!” Oh, the effort to keep my voice light. His gaze doesn’t waver, though it does soften a little. That contagious grin returns. What is he doing to me? I can barely seem to breathe, and the flush in my cheeks deepens. It feels like his fingers are burning me through the bodice and corsets of my gown.

“Well, Yolande makes me spend enough time here; I suppose it must be rubbing off on me,” he jokes back. And the tension is gone, the familiarity of my childhood friend back in the body of the handsome man standing beside me. Beyond us the music slows, and the couples in the centre of the floor still, turning to applaud the orchestra. I fight back a sigh; I have danced so little this night. I can’t help but be wistful as I watch others preparing to step onto the dance floor.

“Would you care to dance, My Lady Viscountess,” Richard asks me suddenly with playful formality, his eyes sparkling with mirth as a smile tugs at his mouth. I feel my own smile rise to answer his yet again.

“It would be a pleasure, My Lord Count,” I say formally back, placing my hand in his. As his fingers close around mine and the first strains of music waft through the air, my breath catches; my Papa’s waltz. I catch Richard grinning mischievously. He knows what this piece means to me.

As the music strikes up he leads me out onto the dance floor, he lifts my hand in his and places his other at my waist. A slight shiver runs through me as the warmth of his hand again seeps through the layers of fabric enclosing my waist.

Though it really has been many years, I barely need to think to match my steps to his. Dancing with Richard brings back so many memories. We learned to dance together, under Lady’s Meyer’s tutelage. Dancing with him again feels like a matter of instinct. Every move he makes, every turn, every step, hold no hesitation. I can’t help but relax in his embrace, knowing as I do that there is no need for me to check my steps or surreptitiously guide my partner, knowing how well he knows to dance himself. I just let it happen.

I don’t even notice the floor clearing around us, or that Richard and my turns grow more sweeping. I can’t process that my gown is no longer brushing or catching on other skirts, nor that dozens, if not hundreds, of eyes are fixed solely on us, the sensation of being at the centre of attention melting away. I don’t think on how perfectly matched we seem, I just dance with him. It is effortless.

I always enjoy dancing, I always have. There’s something pleasing about matching my steps to the music, allowing the beat and the rhythm to sweep me away as I glides across the floor; I feel lighter than air. But dancing at dinners or parties, even dancing so far tonight has become a tempered amusement; few partners I’ve had are more than passingly skilled and fewer skilled have actual intent to enjoy it. I am rarely permitted to truly allow myself to enjoy dancing anymore.

But with Richard I am free to bask in every aspect. I can’t resist smiling at how wonderful truly being able to dance is. This time it’s his smile that answers mine and I withhold a gasp of pleasure as his hand on my waist tightens, pulling me almost imperceptibly closer. I perceive it, and I can feel my cheeks flushing at how intimate it feels, no matter that there is absolutely nothing indelicate or inappropriate for the onlookers and the rest of the court to titter about.

Nothing else exists except Richard, me and my Papa’s music guiding us across the floor.

It is a moment that seems to last forever.

It’s a moment where I nearly feel like I could, nearly, believe in magic.

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