Sixty-Eight: Ballroom Blaze

In the last chapter of The Stable Master’s Daughter, Miles discovered his credit and good name had been damaged by forgery. Reginald confessed knowledge of the scheme, but insisted he had no part in targeting Miles. Reginald promised to name the forger. He also told Miles of a rumor—over which of them would win Miss Fairchild. Miles went in search of Marjorie, knowing he could withstand slander and false accusations, and yet the simple gossip could injure her reputation beyond repair. During his time with Marjorie, she suffered from an asthma attack, and he took swift action.


Miles resisted the urge to tug his cravat as added guests overflowed the ballroom. Dread knotted his stomach. Reginald had revealed the forger’s name. They had plans in place to arrest Webb, but he had made himself scarce of late. His valet had prepared Webb for the ball, so the arrest would take place tonight. Reginald would lead Webb near the servants’ staircase, where he would be arrested. A simple enough plan, but Webb had yet to show.

How long would this take? Miles’ insides twisted in worry and longing, and he wanted this done with before Marjorie arrived. Mrs. Jones had assured him she was recovered from her lung seizure, but he needed to see for himself. Dr. Hill had given Marjorie permission to attend the ball and she was due to arrive in a quarter of an hour. Miles hefted his pocket watch, confirming the time. He ground his teeth. Confound it, where was Webb? His neck and back muscles tightened. Nothing was going according to plan.

“Stop pacing.” Reginald sat hunched in one of the Queen Anne-style chairs, dragging his palms over his trousers, a sheen to his pale face. “He must show up. Webb may not look it, but he’s desperate. Don’t be surprised if he puts up a fight.”

Miles nodded. Reginald was key to catching Webb, and his cooperation would help clear his name. He had also identified several members of the forgery scandal, which reached from London to as far as Dartmoor Prison in Princeton.

Guests entered the ballroom through the hall at ground level and from the first floor balcony. Miles scanned those descending the stairs, then darted a glance to find each man standing ready. Once they found Webb, Reginald would take charge. Miles hoped his brother was up to the task.

“Lord Lieutenant Halstead is here,” Reginald said. “The constable has arrived.”

Though the last time Miles checked, the constable’s men had yet to take their places near the servants’ staircase.

Reginald rubbed his eyes and Miles paced.

Miles wanted this business over so he could attend to Marjorie as soon as she entered. Her lips had been tinged with blue by the time the doctor arrived yesterday. As hard as she struggled to breath, she was still able to drink the coffee laced with devil’s snare. By the time the episode passed, his heart had been wrung out. He wanted to stay and watch her breathe, to assure himself she was well, but propriety obliged him to leave her bedchamber and let others care for her. His chest pinched remembering it and he rubbed at the spot.

“Lord Beauchamp, what is the meaning of this vexing press gang in my ballroom?” Lady Du’Brevan bore down on him.

He pursed his lips, seeing the oversight in not including her in their plans. She missed nothing and they had not accounted for her interference. “My lady, the constable intends to apprehend someone and we are lending a hand. No one will witness it or be the wiser.”

Her wrinkled mouth puckered. “Stop immediately. You may not run pell-mell and cause a scene.”

“If we wait we will miss our chance and he will be gone.” If he had not already left. “I assure you it will be handled discreetly.”

“Bah!” She gripped her fan like a weapon.

He cast about for a solution, but none was forthcoming.

A flash of red caught his eye. Marjorie entered the ballroom from the upper level, her red hair swept up in a new style, her white gown shimmering. His pulse sped. He stepped towards her, but Lady Du’Brevan drew her fan like a sword to block his escape.

Lord Lieutenant Halstead drew close. “How can I be of service, Lady Du’Brevan?”

“Your ill-contrived plans have the makings of a disaster.” The Countess began her diatribe.

Miles’ thoughts stayed centered on Marjorie as her aunt introduced her to a gentleman and she curtseyed. Marjorie descended the stairs, her skin radiant and smooth, and a light blush to her cheeks. She looked healthy and lovely. Relief filled him.

He glanced between Lord Lieutenant Halstead and the Countess, then to Reginald who held his head in his hands. Fiend take it, Miles was not free to pursue Marjorie. He had given his word as a gentleman he would assist in taking Webb, who was still unaccounted for. The Countess looked angry enough to combust and the men in position were edging forward as if wondering what had gone wrong.

A hush came over the crowd before a widespread whispering began, as deafening as a water-powered cotton mill. Miles looked about expecting to see Webb. He followed the gazes trained on . . . Marjorie. They were whispering about the wager. His fisted his hands and his heart clenched. Halfway down the stairs, Marjorie paused. Her face flushed pink and she swallowed, but she lifted her chin as regal as a queen. How he adored this woman.

Her gaze found his, and something desperate and pleading flashed in her eyes. Finding a criminal didn’t rank nearly as high as standing beside Marjorie. His word as a gentleman to capture Webb did not compare to his duty as a gentleman to the woman before him. He couldn’t stop the gossip, but he could lay bare his intentions.

He turned to Reginald. “You are on your own.”

Reginald stood, pulling the bottom of his suit jacket into place, his eyes dazed but determined. “I can handle it. Go.”

***

The orchestra struck a sharp chord as Marjorie touched the last step. The noise, skirts swishing, and people glancing, overwhelmed her. Lord Beauchamp extended his hand, looking confident and grounded.

She placed her hand in his and he pulled her close. She could not stop thinking of him and their almost kiss. “You look stunning tonight, Miss Fairchild.” He kissed her hand. The words were all correct, but something about the way he delivered them and then seemed rattled by someone over her shoulder, seemed off.

Did he regret coming to her in front of so many people? Was he ashamed of her? Her stomach dropped and she tugged her hand free. “Thank you, my lord.”

Before she could move to a less conspicuous spot, one along the edge of the ballroom, Mr. Webb stepped in front of her. She stilled, a sense of unease clenching her stomach. She tried to see and hear everything at once, hypersensitive to danger in his presence. Lord Beauchamp’s shoulder brushed hers. A few men, including Reginald, stepped closer.

Mr. Webb bowed, his blond angelic appearance at odds with the flat glint in his eyes. He glanced at the men surrounding them. “Good evening, gentlemen. Miss Fairchild, might I claim the next dance?”

What could he possibly hope to gain by dancing with her? Manners dictated she accept, and she opened her mouth to reply, but shivered. “No, Mr. Webb. I must decline.” She offered no explanation.

“Miss Fairchild is engaged for the next two sets.” Lord Beauchamp took her hand and tucked it in his elbow. He inclined his head. “I believe Reginald would like a word with you.”

Mr. Webb smiled, dimples popping. “Since when do you and Reginald get along?” His voice carried as loud as an actor’s over a restless audience. “Reginald, old friend, it appears your brother has won the bet. I’ve heard the rumors.”

Marjorie flinched.

“You started the rumors,” Lord Beauchamp said in a low voice, pointblank.

Her pulse ratcheted up a level. Reginald pushed past a man holding a quizzing glass to watch them.

“Miss Fairchild is nothing more than a servant—your servant.” Mr. Webb’s nostril’s flared, his skin growing pink and blotchy. “Is that not true?”

His words flew like bullets aimed to lacerate. She was exposed, humiliated, and stunned. How had this house party come to the worst possible conclusion? Tension hung thick in the air. If someone struck a match, the blaze would erupt into a bonfire. The Countess fanned herself furiously.

Marjorie tried to pull her arm free, but Lord Beauchamp’s fingers pressed over hers, firm. She tugged out of his hold and he obliged her. She was desperate to keep him from getting injured, socially and possibly physically.

Lord Beauchamp’s voice carried over the hush, strong and sure. “I am not a betting man. The rumor is a lie. This is the truth: I respect and admire Miss Fairchild.” He glanced at her and her breath caught. “I have fallen irrevocably in love with her and intend to court her. I hope she will one day agree to be my wife.”

Marjorie’s hand flew to her heart and her mouth opened. “You . . . what?” She couldn’t help but try to clarify. Tears pricked her eyes and she stared in wonder. He meant to marry her.

Reginald placed a hand on Mr. Webb’s shoulder. “Away with it. Let’s go cool off and have a glass of brandy.”

Mr. Webb shrugged out of Reginald’s hold. “I know what you are about. You may have passable intellect, but you lack the courage to follow through.”

The constable and Lord Lieutenant Halstead flanked Mr. Webb, taking an arm on either side.

“Nice and easy now, you old lubber,” the constable said. “No more humbugging. Let’s take a walk and have a little chat. We’re making a right blunderbuss in this gathering.”

Mr. Webb lunged, breaking their hold. Marjorie snapped out of her trance. She stuck her foot out and tripped him. Mr. Webb fell with a growl, hitting on his shoulder. She jumped out of reach. Reginald landed on Mr. Webb and she edged away until her back pressed against the wall. Aunt Harriet took her hand. More men converged as Mr. Webb put up a fight, throwing punches.

As startling as the sight of fisticuffs were in a ballroom, Marjorie’s gaze sought out Lord Beauchamp. She was dazed. He wanted to marry her. He loved her. He had declared it in front of this elite gathering.

Lord Beauchamp hauled a disheveled Mr. Webb to his feet. Lord Lieutenant Halstead twisted Mr. Webb’s arms behind his back as Mr. Webb cursed. The constable tied his hands together.

Marjorie stood frozen in shock as they marched him out of the ballroom. She was astounded by the scuffle, and from the declaration of love wrenched from Lord Beauchamp’s private heart.

Lord Beauchamp strode to her and removed the hands she had pressed to her cheeks. “Come with me. We should find a safe place.”

Aunt Harriet kept her hand to her mouth but nodded her approval.

“I believe the danger has passed.” Marjorie clung to his warm hand as they weaved through the crowd.

“Not if the Countess finds me after that disaster.” He smiled, and with his cheek bleeding he looked like a pirate. Another sketch to add to her book.

She couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across her face as they walked down a darkened hallway, nor the laughter that followed. “That was the most ridiculous and brief ball I ever attended.”

Lord Beauchamp clutched her hand and laughed. “Our first ball together. I still intend to dance with you.”

They stopped before a floor-to-ceiling window, their laughter mingling as they caught their breath from their swift walk. Her eyes adjusted to the moonlight illuminating the grin on Lord Beauchamp’s face. His expression slowly changed as their eyes held. The shaft of light highlighted the hard angles of his frame, his broad shoulders, and his shadowed jaw. A blaze started in the pit of her stomach. His lip was swollen and she touched the bruise forming on his cheek.

“It is only a scratch.” He captured her hand.

“Did my touch hurt?” She breathed.

“Not at all.” He watched her intently, as if waiting for her to say something. The way he looked at her made her want to lean into him. He stepped closer and she placed a hand to his chest. He wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her close, and her eyelids slid closed. His lips met hers with a rush of warmth. All the images, hopes, and dreams in her sketchbook could not compare to the dream of this man enfolding her in his arms and kissing her.

He rested his forehead against hers, entwining their fingers and holding them over his heart. “I meant what I said, Marjorie. I love you and want to marry you.” The deep timbre of his voice hummed through her.

“You know everyone will talk. The ton has a long memory.”

“Let them. There is a difference between reputation and honor, and the latter is more important. We’ll weather it.”

“What about my lungs? You can’t possibly want a wife you constantly worry over.”

“I want to be the one who cares for you. We’ll hire the best doctors. We’ll have the cleanest home in all of England. We’ll throw out all the rugs.”

Her heart warmed. He preferred order and control and yet wanted her despite her weaknesses.

“Let me follow you to London to make everything proper by courting you. Though I do wish we could skip that part. I would prefer to court you for three weeks—while the banns are read. Will you marry me, Marjorie?”

She thrilled at his words. The moonlight washed all color from his face, but his eyes shone with intensity. His obvious lack of patience oddly only increased hers.

She grasped at a lingering concern. “What about my education?”

He cocked his head and frowned. “What about your education?”

She tried to stop the smile pulling at her mouth. “I don’t speak Italian or French. I will never impress—”

He growled. “I will take you to France and you can learn it there. I don’t care if you speak Mandarin Chinese. I’ve never been able to speak with someone as easily as I do with you.” His hands pressed into her back, coaxing her. “Will you marry me?”

Her heart tripped. How she loved this man. “Yes, Lord Beauchamp. Without a doubt.”

The joy in his smile prompted hers. “Miles.”

“Miles,” she said softly. That would take some getting used to, but she liked it.

He moved to kiss her again, but footsteps sounded, and they broke apart. Marjorie cast a look at Miles, terrified of yet another scandal. Light from a lantern shone, making her eyes water.

Lady Du’Brevan stood behind the glow, breathing heavily. “Lord Beauchamp, I would not count that arrest as going unnoticed,” Lady Du’Brevan heaved. “That man is a scoundrel.” She glanced from Marjorie to Miles, up and down, and peered closer.

A crafty smile settled on her face.

Marjorie dropped her gaze, her cheeks burning, and hoped the Countess did not guess they had been kissing.

“Under present circumstances . . . all is forgiven, Lord Beauchamp.” Lady Du’Brevan sounded smug. “Congratulations.” She turned to go, taking the light with her.

Marjorie bit her lip and glanced at Miles. His face seemed lit from within.

“I expect the two of you in my ballroom within ten minutes—to announce your engagement.” Her skirt swished as she walked away at a more sedate pace than before. “And fix your hair,” she called over her shoulder. Marjorie glanced at Miles, not remembering mussing his hair. “The both of you.”

 

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Sara Cardon

Sara craves happily-ever-afters. She has four kids, a dog, and a true-blue husband. He laughs at her hero-crush on George Washington. She and her family are putting down roots near Dallas where there's plenty of wide-open sky, cattle, and sunshine. You can find her at saracardonwrites.com and fb.me/authorsaracardon.

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