Previously in The Unwanted Suitor: Sir James stole Miss Greystock away for an afternoon of freedom and frolic away from the eyes of the house party guests.
As soon as Cornelia had seen that Sir James held the Ace which would have won the game of whist, a sense of betrayal had nearly overwhelmed her. Did he not know the position he was putting her in to force her to waltz with him? She had been so sure that he understood the delicacy of her position after he had orchestrated their secret picnic the day before, but now it seemed he did not.
She rose from the table, fighting to maintain her composure, and called the servants to clear the room for dancing. Did not the very fact that it was her duty to do so show how very beneath his notice she now was? It was one thing for a mere companion to make up a fourth at whist in an effort to entertain her employer’s guests and quite another for her to dance a waltz with one of the most eligible gentlemen in the room. Already she could sense contemptuous eyes and whispered conjecture pointed her way.
As the first notes of the waltz played, she stood aside, hoping that he might recognize the injury this dance would inflict on her. But then he stepped towards her, holding out his hand and smiling at her with devilry in his eyes. “Time to pay your debt, Miss Greystock.”
She did not answer or return his smile but placed her hand in his and allowed him to lead her to the makeshift dancefloor. She writhed inwardly at the contrast between her modest grey satin gown she wore as was appropriate for a paid companion. Thank goodness the Countess had forbidden her to wear a cap, but the contrast between her appearance and that of the other ladies taking the floor made her acutely aware of her position.
However, when he placed his hand at her waist, it was not the light, detached touch of the instructor her father had once hired. It was insistent and possessive in a thrilling and evocative way. Sir James did not seem at all aware that she was like a crow among songbirds.
“It is a crime that I have never before waltzed with you,” he said, a note of pleasure in his voice. “You dance like an angel.”
Cornelia glared up at him. “The same cannot be said for your gallantry.”
Sir James tilted his head, his brows drawing together in confusion. “When was I ungallant? Pray enlighten me.”
“When you withheld your ace.”
“No action that brought you a moment’s pleasure could be considered ungallant.”
“Do you not realize the position I am now in? What must people be thinking of me? You know very well I ought not to be dancing.”
“Nonsense. They know very well it was none of your doing. And Lady Du’Breven’s acceptance of it was quite obvious to everyone.”
“But it doesn’t change the fact that I will be thought to be putting on airs or setting my cap at you.”
Sir James laughed. “No one will think so after seeing the scowl on your face.”
Cornelia gasped and forced her expression to relax.
“Much better. I know how much you enjoy dancing, and I am arrogant enough to believe you do not find my company as wretched as you did a few days ago. Indeed, yesterday, I believe you almost approved of me.”
Remembering the sensation of freedom and girlish frivolity with her toes deep in tender green grass and her bare hand clasping his, she could not restrain a small smile. If only he knew how very much more than agreeable she found him. It was so confusing, so troubling, to want the man who had hurt her so deeply, to think of him only as this warm, generous, and—yes, tempting man.
She lifted her face to his and confided in a soft tone, “I have been longing to dance. You know, I never have had the chance to do so outside of the few local balls in Buxton. I always dreamed of dancing at Almack’s or at a grand ball in London.”
As she spoke, she saw Sir James’ expression change to one of deep sympathy. “You shall yet do so. Never doubt it.”
“I will not, Sir James. As much as I may now regret the rashness of my course, I cannot undo it.”
The waltz ended then, and though Cornelia curtseyed to Sir James and applauded the pianist, she didn’t stay to give the gossips anything further to whisper about. With her eyes downcast, she hurried across the room to the Countess’ side. She sat down next to her, folding her hands in her lap and assuming the mien of a lowly companion. Sir James would not move her from her post again tonight.
But when Sir James did not come towards her or make any attempt to claim her attention, she clenched her teeth in frustration. How dare the man put her in such a position and then ignore her completely. Perhaps it was exactly what she wanted him to do, but she felt hurt and miserable and lonely without him. Clearly, she was completely deranged.
“Lady Du’Breven,” she said quietly to get her attention.
The Countess turned. “Yes, my dear?”
“I am afraid I have a headache. I do not wish to desert you, but—”
“My dear, of course you must go to bed at once. Do not waste another thought on me this evening. When I am ready to retire, I shall ring for Grimsby.”
“Thank you, my lady.” Cornelia curtsied and left the room, sure that no one would see her leave. She had only just reached the Pillared Hall when she heard footsteps behind her. Surely he wouldn’t dare…
Without wasting a moment in speculation, Cornelia turned and ran to her right, then hid behind one of the dozens of pillars that filled the room like a forest of trees. Listening carefully, she heard the footsteps pause. She realized then that if it was Sir James, he would know she had not gone upstairs or he would have seen her. Hopefully, he would think she had gone further down the hall.
Her hopes were dashed however when she heard the footsteps coming closer to her, though they were the soft, hesitant steps of someone who is not sure where they are going. Cornelia was sure her heartbeat would give her away since it pounded so loudly in her ears. She mentally rebuked herself for doing anything so silly as to hide from Sir James. Had she lost all sense of pride and decorum?
“Are you hiding from me, my dear delight?”
Sir James’ deep voice sounded from just over her shoulder. His warm breath stirred the hair at her neck, sending a thrill through her. She turned and faced him, determined to withstand his charm. “I am not your dear delight. You shouldn’t call me so.”
Sir James moved around to face her, trapping her against the pillar. He smiled tenderly. “Ah, but you are. Whether or not I should call you so is another matter. One I hope will be soon be resolved.”
Feeling her cheeks set fire, Cornelia refused to ponder the meaning of his words. “What do you want with me?”
He smiled and quirked an eyebrow. “For now? To dance with you again.”
“I cannot go back in there. Please don’t ask it of me.”
“I didn’t have any intention of doing so. I’d much prefer to keep you to myself. And we shall hope the statues watching on will keep our secret.”
Cornelia knew she should protest, but when Sir James slid his hand around her waist, she moved closer, pulled by force within her that she did not understand but had to obey. After the first few turns, Sir James lowered their clasped hands from their proper, outstretched position, and kissed her fingers before resting them against his chest. His eyes on hers were at once fierce and affectionate. Lost in the sensation of being held so close to him, it was a moment before she realized their steps had slowed. He wove them between the pillars, circling them as if they were other couples in this dream-like dance. But then he came to the far corner of the room, where the shadows were deep, and stopped altogether.
“Cornelia, look at me.” He voice was rough but so soft, she barely heard him. She tilted her head back and knew his intention with one look. He lowered his head to hers, but so slowly she might have easily drawn back or turned away. But she had always dreamed of what it would be like to be kissed by this man. Maybe this was madness. Maybe she’d regret it later—but she didn’t care. Heedlessly, recklessly, she rose up on her toes and met his lips with her own.
His kiss was soft and delicate, but with an edge to it as if he were holding back a torrent. It lasted for only a moment before he drew back.
“James…” she said in protest.
“Shh… do not speak just now. Neither will I. It is not yet time for words. You must go upstairs, and I must return to the drawing room before my absence is noted.”
Cornelia pressed her lips together. “I think this is the perfect time for speaking.”
“Well, I do not. I have no intention of pursuing this conversation until I am sure of your response. I will not be rejected again.”
This was too much for Cornelia. She spun away from him and ran through the hall, swerving around pillars, and up the stairs. Her head was in such a muddle that she did not see the footman until she nearly ran into him.
“I’m sorry, Damen, please excuse me.”
“Of course. You seem…discomposed.” Then Damen looked around as if trying to determine the cause of her vexation. Cornelia followed his gaze and saw Sir James standing at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at them.
“I begin to understand,” Damen said, his eyes alight with humor.
With her heart thundering, she knew she had to remain calm. “I don’t know what you mean. I have a headache so Lady Du’Breven wished me to retire.”
“Hmm. Sir James seems rather concerned about your condition. Quite the feat for a poor companion to have secured the affections of such a matrimonial prize.”
“I haven’t. Don’t be impertinent.” Cornelia saw James take a few steps up the stairs and held up a hand to stop him. She motioned with her eyes for him to leave, and though he looked hesitant, he did so. None of this was lost on Damen.
“You were saying, Miss Greystock?” Before Cornelia could protest, Damen smiled. “Don’t worry that I will hinder you in any way. In fact, you find me quite sympathetic.” On those words, Damen continued down the stairs.
Cornelia looked after him for a moment then turned and fled to her room. She needed quiet and peace, time to consider what had just happened.
Did Sir James really mean to court her? Everything he did, his looks, the caress in his voice, all seemed to point to such an intention. But he couldn’t! Not here. She would be so despised by the other ladies who were eligible for such attentions, and by their chaperones. So few of them knew of her social status and her previous connection to Sir James’ family.
But a gentleman should never kiss a lady and without proposing.
Why hadn’t he shown her such attention when he first proposed? Even as hurt as she’d been, she would have responded…eventually. How could she not have? Even when she had thought she was falling in love with his brother, it had taken no more than Sir James entering the room to make her heartbeat throb. Her eyes always followed him and she was ever aware of his presence. No amount of practical remonstrations with herself had ever cured her of it.
Now that he was focusing such determined courtship at her, for she could call it nothing else, how was she to resist him? If it weren’t for her position, what people would think… It was all too likely that people might think she was encouraging improper advances, because who would think Sir James had marriage in mind with her?
Her head spun with questions and conjecture. One thing was very clear. She must speak with Sir James, convince him to leave off pursuing her. For now. Until the house part was over. But her insides writhed at the awkwardness of such a discussion, because what if she was wrong?