WHAT A LADY MOST DESIRES
The Duchess of Richmond's Ball, Brussels, June 15, 1815
He was the only man in the world who had the power to stop her breath just by walking into a room.
Even now, when she hadn't set eyes on him for over a year, the familiar dizzy sensation stopped her in her tracks on the grand staircase that led down to the duchess's ballroom.
It wasn't that he was the handsomest man here. There were many officers present, from five different armies, all equally resplendent in their dress tunics. At least half of them had fair hair that shone just as brightly as his did under the light of the inestimable number of candles that lit the room. Many were as tall, or taller, and had shoulders that were just as broad as his.
It wasn't high rank or exalted title that marked him out, or that he was both a diplomat and a cavalry officer. Rather it was his quiet confidence that compelled people to look at him, to take note of Major Lord Stephen Ives, and mark him as unusual, as if his good opinion mattered, carried weight. To look in the gray depths of his eyes and be found lacking was a harsh blow indeed, as Lady Delphine St. James well knew.
She had met the major in London at another ball, more than a year ago, and she'd spent just a few minutes in his company, but it had been enough. What she had read in his eyes that night had changed her forever. From that moment, he was the one she measured all other gentlemen against, and she found every one of them wanting by comparison.
Even now, after all the months that had passed, Stephen Ives had the power to make her breath catch in her throat, weaken her knees, and make her heart race. He had made it clear that he did not feel the same, and she desired above all things to know why. If she could choose one dance partner tonight, one man to escort her to supper, it would be ...
"You," she whispered to the air, her eyes fixed on his back.
He turned as if she'd shouted the word. He looked up to where she was standing on the stairs, and she felt a thrill run through her body as their eyes met. She read surprise, then a moment of dismay before he smoothed his features to a flat expression and nodded a brief acknowledgement. The thrill in her breast fizzled and died. Nothing had changed, then. He liked her no better now.
Still, she smiled sweetly at him, though he did not smile back, or show any sign of moving from where he stood. The crowd took up every inch of space between her place on the staircase and his position on the edge of the dance floor. It would be quite impossible to cut through the crush to reach his side.
Impossible was not a word Lady Delphine St. James endured.
"Excuse me," she said, pushing past a Dutch officer exchanging pleasantries with a lady in blue silk. "Your pardon," she murmured, squeezing by a red-coated lieutenant, keeping her eyes on Stephen Ives all the while. He was watching her, his expression unreadable, probably hoping she was heading somewhere else.
She made a quick curtsy to the Duchess of Richmond, her hostess, at the bottom of the steps. "Good evening, Your Grace," she said breathlessly. The duchess merely nodded. If she found Delphine's haste unseemly, she did not remark on it. There were other, more important guests to see to. Delphine glanced up to see if Stephen had moved. He hadn't. That was a good sign, wasn't it? She picked up her skirt and hurried on.
Someone stepped into her path, forcing her to stop.
"Why Lady Delphine—what an unexpected pleasure."
She almost cursed aloud. The gentleman bowed, and she gazed at Stephen over his bent shoulder before he rose again and blocked her view of her quarry.
Her withering glare turned to surprise. "Oh, it's you, Captain Lord Rothdale." He was a friend of her brother's, or rather a compatriot in Sebastian's debauchery.
"Captain Lord Rothdale? Is that any way to greet an old and dear friend?" He preened, showing off his Royal Dragoons uniform, making the gold braid glitter in the candlelight. "You promised to call me Peter when we met at your father's home in London. Don't let the uniform scare you away. I may be one of the heroes, but I am still as tame as a house cat, I assure you." He smiled at his own joke and picked up her hand, though she hadn't offered it, and brought it to his lips. For a moment she wondered if he intended to lick it, cat like. The intensity of his eyes on her bodice reminded her of an animal far more dangerous than a mere tabby. "How may I be of service this evening, Darling Dilly? You appear to lack a dancing partner."
Her jaw tightened at the sound of her family nickname on his lips, and she tried to withdraw her hand from his. He refused to let go. Instead he tightened his grip, leaned closer still, and she could smell rum on his breath. The glitter in his eyes had more to do with the amount of the spirit he'd consumed than the pleasure of her company. He had arrived foxed, then, since the duchess was serving champagne, not rum, which made his condition all the more shocking.
She tried again to free her hand, but he gave her a teasing smile and held on. She felt her cheeks heat, and a scathing insult came to mind, but this was hardly the place. Rothdale stepped closer still.
"Dance with me, Dilly. Or better yet, come out to the terrace, and I'll whisper lavish compliments in your ear. Rumor has it we'll be off to battle come sunup. Don't you want to give me a proper send-off?"
She did indeed, but not the kind he hoped for. She felt a flare of anger. "Please excuse me, Captain," she said in her tartest tone, emphasizing his military title to remind him where he was, and who he was. She swept a cold glance over the uniform he was dishonoring by such boorish behavior, but he didn't move. He laughed.
"Now don't be like that. I'd like to know you better. I had no opportunity to enjoy your company in London. You were always out when I called." He had the audacity to run his fingertip down the exposed length of her bare arm, from the edge of her short puffed sleeve to the top of her lace glove.
Delphine enjoyed flirting as much as the next lady—in fact, she was a renowned charmer, but not like this, not here. She tried again to pluck her hand free, but still he would not let go. She drew a breath, stiffened her spine. She was going to have to make a scene after all. She clenched her free hand around her fan, ready to deal him a crushing blow with it even as she opened her mouth to rebuke him for his boorish behavior.
"Lady Delphine, I believe this is our dance."
Stephen Ives was standing next to her, and her breath stopped yet again. She shut her mouth with an audible snap.
He bowed and held out his hand, waiting for her to take it. Rothdale released her fingers as if they were on fire, obviously surprised to see the major. His handsome face reddened with displeasure.
Delphine clasped Stephen's hand like a lifeline and let him lead her away.
The music began—a waltz. Stephen set his hand on her waist and swept her onto the floor. She should thank him, but he was staring over her shoulder at Rothdale as the captain disappeared into the crowd.
"Do you know Captain Lord Rothdale? He's a friend of my brother's. He is not—that is, he and I are not—" She realized she was babbling.
His eyes remained on Rothdale. "We are in the same regiment."
Oh. Delphine felt like a ninny. He didn't add to his terse comment, or offer any pleasantries. He had rescued her from a boor at a ball, but it appeared it was now entirely up to her to change the subject, to charm him if she could, to make him like her.
She had the advantage of being at a summer party in a room filled with flowers and candles, and she was in his arms, waltzing. She wasn't about to waste such an opportunity talking about anyone else. The room was warm, but the glow she felt had much more to do with being held in Stephen's arms. She could smell his shaving soap, the wool of his tunic, the heady fragrance of flowers as they whirled past the open windows.
"Goodness you dance well," she tried again.
"I spent six months in Vienna. They invented the waltz."
She felt her cheeks heat. Where was her famous charm and glib tongue now when she needed them most? "Ah, yes. You were at the peace conference, part of the embassy. I have heard stories, of course, about all the glittering parties with the kings and queens of Europe, the Tsar of Russia, the Emperor of Austria ..." He looked slightly bored. She swallowed. He was a diplomat, and most unlikely to want to gossip or repeat salacious stories about crowned heads or anyone else. "Was the congress successful?" she asked.
His hand tensed momentarily on hers. "Unfortunately not, or we would not be here awaiting yet another battle with Napoleon."
"Will it come soon?"
He met her eyes at last, as if assessing the seriousness of her question. There were many in Brussels who doubted the battle would come at all, but she was the sister-in-law of a colonel and knew better. She kept her eyes on his.
"Within hours, I hear. The French crossed the Belgian frontier this morning," he said at last.
She stumbled slightly, and he caught her against his body and guided her expertly into the next step. Her breath stopped again as her breasts momentarily pressed against the hard muscles of his chest. It was thrilling, like flying.
He set her down, utterly unaffected, and changed the subject. "How is it you are here in Brussels, my lady, especially now, with the London Season in full bloom at home?" She did not miss the slight edge of disdain in his tone. He was making it clear that he thought her the same vain and silly creature he'd known in London, a woman who lived for pleasure and flattery, all sharp wit and flirtation, and no substance. Her face flamed.
"I came to Brussels with my sister, Eleanor, and her husband, Colonel Lord Fairlie. Meg Temberlay is with us as well. We are lodging at a villa on the outskirts of the city. It is to be a hospital, if necessary. We know that the battle is coming, of course—there are hundreds of men camped in our orchard, and even in the rose garden—but within hours?"
His eyes lit with interest at last. "Meg? Is Nicholas here?" he said, referring to Meg's husband, a mutual friend, Major Lord Nicholas Temberlay. Delphine felt a flare of annoyance as he scanned the crowds, looking for them, forgetting her, even though he didn't miss a step.
"Nicholas is not in the city, my lord, and we've had no real news of him, only that he is on reconnaissance. What exactly does that mean? Meg is beside herself with worry."
He swung his gaze back to her. Had he expected her to prattle about the heat of the evening, or the number of guests present, or some other banality? His look of surprise told her that was exactly what he expected from her. He brushed a glance over her gown, her face, the flowers in her hair before meeting her eyes and looking at her—really looking at her, gauging the depths of her interest, her intelligence. It was the way he'd looked at her once before, on that night long ago before—
"It could mean many things," he said in reply to her question.
"Is there reason to worry? Surely Wellington will crush the French ..." She stopped when his eyes darkened, her breath hitching for an entirely different reason now. She felt a shiver run up her spine. She tightened her grip on his hand for a brief instant.
"I do hope so, but the outcome of a battle is never certain," he said.
"Will you—will you fight?"
"Yes," he replied.
"Then you are not here in a diplomatic role?"
He scanned the ballroom again, his expression flat, whatever emotions he might be feeling closed to her. "I will ride with my regiment when the order comes."
Delphine understood a little better the terrible worry her friend Meg and her sister Eleanor felt, having men they loved in battle. Bitterness filled her mouth, and she lowered her gaze to his chest.
"The Royal Dragoons," she murmured, staring at his tunic. She bit her lip. What should a lady say to a man riding off to war? This moment might be the last chance she had to speak with him, to tell him—what? That she adored him, admired him, wished he would sweep her out into the June night and kiss her? She'd allow it. She'd kiss him back. Would she know then what she'd done wrong, all those months ago?
She looked up at him hopefully. "Major Lord Ives, I—" she began, but a soldier entered and crossed the room to Lord Wellington, his spurs and boot heels ringing above the music and the gay laughter of the ladies, and the tinkle of champagne glasses. Conversation stopped, dancers faltered, and everyone watched as the soldier bowed and handed the duke a note. Wellington rose to his feet at once, his expression carefully blank, and nodded to his adjutants. The Duke of Richmond led his esteemed guest to a private room and shut the door behind them. She felt Stephen tense as a buzz of speculation rose to hover over the ballroom like a black cloud.
"Is it bad?" she whispered.
"Possibly," he said through stiff lips. "May I return you to your sister, Lady Delphine?"
She felt panic well in her breast at the thought of losing him now, or tomorrow, in battle.
She forced a teasing smile. "But the music has not ended."
He colored slightly. "No, but—"
The door of the study opened again, and a grim-faced cavalry officer held up his hand for silence. The music faltered and died. "Gentlemen, finish your dances, take leave of your partners and return to your units at once." Dismayed cries rose from the ladies, and Stephen looked around, taking note of the officers in his own regiment. She saw the eager light in his eyes, knew he was already on duty, and she was all but forgotten. Still he kept his hand under her elbow protectively as he caught the arm of a passing adjutant. "What news?"
The young soldier glanced at her and bowed before replying. "Napoleon crossed the frontier at Charleroi. Wellington plans to engage him south of here."
Delphine put a hand to her throat. It was suddenly real and frightening—all the weeks of watching troops gather in preparation for a battle that seemed like it would never come, or at worst, would happen somewhere else, somewhere far away. Weeks of rolling bandages they were sure would never be needed, of flirting and dancing and picnicking with handsome officers, laughing at their bravado and the brave boasts of the daring adventures they'd have when Napoleon appeared at last. Now he was here, just south of the city. Delphine looked around her at the keen faces of the men, the tears in the ladies' eyes. Despair made her sway. Stephen took her arm more firmly, and tucked it under his own.
"Come, I'll escort you back to Lady Fairlie," he said gently.
She felt the hard muscles under his tunic, warm and alive. She wondered again just what to say when she may never see him again, and he might—she closed her eyes, leaned against him for a moment.
He squeezed her hand, and smiled faintly, offering courage. Yet the depths of his gray eyes remained cool, and there was a shadow of something else there, resignation, perhaps, or sorrow. That scared her most of all.
"My lord, what—" she began, but they had reached Eleanor's side, and he turned his attention to her. Her sister was white-faced, her lips drawn into a thin line. It did nothing to soothe Delphine to see an experienced officer's wife like Eleanor, a woman who had been through many battles before, looking so grim.
"Ellie." She took her sister's hand. It was ice cold inside her glove.
Eleanor's grip was like iron. "Fairlie has gone to muster his men. He says we must go at once. We're to return to the villa, keep the horses harnessed, and go north to Antwerp and home to England if it goes badly." She looked at Stephen. Though her eyes were dry, they were huge, filled with worry. "Will it go badly do you think, my lord?"
"We have an excellent commander, Lady Fairlie, and excellent officers under him, Colonel Fairlie among them," he said. "We can hope for the best outcome, I think."
"And yet, Napoleon's officers are every bit as fine as ours. I've heard Fairlie say so," Eleanor said.
Stephen didn't reply to that. "If I may, I think Colonel Fairlie's advice was sound. You must leave at once if things go badly." He turned to Delphine and met her eyes, as if he expected she would be the brave one, the one who would get her sister to safety, instead of the other way around. "Come, ladies, I'll see you to your carriage. The streets will be filled with troops moving up, and it may take you some time to reach home, so it's best to leave now." He took Eleanor's arm, and Delphine walked next to her sister as Stephen pressed through the crowds, seeing them safely through the crush.
Outside, the yard was in chaos. Torches lit the faces of panicked horses, their eyes rolling white as yelling coachmen tried to force their way to the door to pick up their passengers. Stephen stayed close to them, protecting them from the mayhem as they waited for Colonel Fairlie's coach to arrive.
And who would keep him safe, Delphine wondered? He was still wearing dancing pumps. He could not fight in dancing pumps. He'd need to find his boots. She felt hysterical laughter bubble up in her throat. The other officers nearby also wore their formal footwear. No, they could not fight like that, so they must stay. But they were leaving, going to war. Fear formed a hard knot in her throat, and she tried to swallow, couldn't. She watched a grinning officer mount his horse, stilling the beast's panic as it capered anxiously in the crush. He reached down and hauled a lady up to perch on his stirrup, held her close, the satin of her gown shimmering. Her arms went around his neck, and their lips met in a long, passionate kiss.
Such behavior would have been unacceptable at any other ball, on any other night, but in this moment, with battle looming, it was right. Delphine wondered how many of the men here would die tomorrow. She looked at Stephen, so alive, strong and vital. The torchlight shone on his fair hair, lit his eyes, flared over his shoulders, made his scarlet tunic glow. He looked back at her as if he expected her to speak. Her lips parted, and she stepped closer, but the coach pulled up, and he turned to help Eleanor into it before taking Delphine's hand. "Good night, my lady, and thank you for the dance," he said with cool politeness. "Remember, if things go awry tomorrow—"
She didn't want to think about that. She threw herself into his arms to stop the words, and kissed him. He caught her, and for a moment he was stiff, his posture indignant, but she stood on her toes and pressed her lips to his, praying he would come back alive.
Then his arms wrapped around her and he kissed her back.
She felt the sudden desperation in him, the need. He deepened the kiss, and she opened to his urging, let his tongue sweep in. He tasted of champagne, smelled of fine wool and leather—like a soldier on his way to battle. She pressed closer still, and he kissed her with all the passion she had dreamed of.
"Delphine St. James!" her sister cried. "What are you doing? Get into this coach immediately!"
Stephen released her at once, his gaze hot and surprised for an instant. He bowed stiffly, the proper diplomat once more, the officer, the gentleman. "Good-bye, my lady," he said, and took her hand in his, and squeezed it, a thank-you, perhaps—or forgiveness for her forward behavior. Her heart throbbed in her chest, and she was on the verge of tears.
"You will come back," she whispered, making it a command.
His eyes swept over her. "English daisies," he murmured, looking at the flowers in her hair. "I used to pick them when I was a boy, carry them to my mother, my sister, even the cook."
She plucked one loose and held it out to him. "Take this one for luck."
He stared at the small pink blossom for a moment before he closed his hand over it. "Thank you."
He helped her into the coach before she could say another word, his eyes on hers as the vehicle lurched forward.
She fought with the latch, lowered the window, and leaned out so she could watch him walk away. "I will see you again," she said softly. "You will be safe." The shadows swallowed him.
Suddenly it hardly mattered if he admired her or not. She only wanted him to live.
© Lecia Cornwall
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