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"May I have this dance?"
Aurelia wasn't hiding exactly. She just needed to get out of the crush of the ballroom—away from the people staring at h...
"May I have this dance?"
Aurelia wasn't hiding exactly. She just needed to get out of the crush of the ballroom—away from the people staring at her scar, pitying her limp. She was still quite enjoying the music from the conservatory. And then a complete stranger—dashing, debonair, kind—asked her to waltz. In the strength of his arms, she felt she could do anything. But both would be leaving London soon…
When they meet again a year later, everything has changed. She's no longer a timid mouse. And he's now a titled gentleman—with a fiancée. Is the magic of one stolen moment, one undeniable connection enough to overcome a scandal that would set Society ablaze and tear their families apart?
She was a Phantom of delight,
When first she gleamed upon my sight…
A dancing shape, an image gay
To haunt, to startle, and waylay.
She was a Phantom of delight,
When first she gleamed upon my sight…
A dancing shape, an image gay
To haunt, to startle, and waylay.
“She Was a Phantom of Delight”
London, May 1890
If social success was measured by the number of guests the hostess could cram into a limited amount of space, then Lady Talbot’s ball honoring her daughter’s betrothal to Viscount Maitland’s heir was an unqualified triumph. James Trelawney wished he could be properly appreciative of such an achievement, instead of counting the minutes until he could make his escape. Another half hour or so before the break for supper—perhaps he could slip away then.
“I see you made it after all,” a familiar voice remarked at his shoulder.
“Thomas.” Despite the crowd hemming them in, James managed to turn his head to smile at his closest friend. “Well, Jess is my cousin, and my aunt can be very persuasive.”
“So she can. Pity the army doesn’t recruit women. Lady Talbot would make a formidable general. Here.” Thomas Sheridan held out a brimming champagne flute. “This should help.”
“Do I look that uncomfortable?” James took a sip of the excellent wine.
“Like the proverbial fish out of water. Wishing yourself back in Cornwall?”
“When am I not?” James sipped his champagne again, thinking longingly of the open spaces and crisp, salty air of his home county. “I only come up to London when I must. Frankly, I don’t know how you stand it, Thomas. You’re an artist, for God’s sake!”
His friend’s eyes glinted. “There’s beauty and grace to be found even here, James. Or perhaps I should say especially here.”
He meant women, of course—being something of a connoisseur. Amused, James surveyed the ladies gracing the ballroom. Most were attractive, he supposed, but there were lovely women to be found in Cornwall too. He was just about to point that out to Thomas when the musicians struck up a waltz. The couples assembled on the floor began to move, the ladies’ jewels glittering beneath the radiance of the gas-lit chandelier, their pastel skirts belling out behind them with each whirling turn. He glimpsed his cousin Jessica, all in white, floating rapturously in the arms of her betrothed.
A flash of vivid blue among the preponderance of white and pink caught his eye. Idly, his gaze followed the motion of that swirling gown, traveled upward to the wearer’s face…
He ceased to breathe, as if a fist had driven the air from his lungs. Beauty. Grace. Oh, yes.
Eyes as blue as her gown, the color of sunlit summer skies; a creamy complexion blushed with rose; smiling lips of a deeper rose hue; and a glory of spun-gold hair, bright as any coronet.
“Thomas.” His voice sounded husky, even far away. “Thomas, who’s that—in blue?”
His friend followed the line of his gaze, stilled abruptly. “Ah. La Belle Américaine.”
An odd note in that cool, cultured voice, like the faintest crack in a bell. James glanced at his friend but saw only Thomas’s habitual expression of ironic detachment.
“Miss Amelia Newbold,” Sheridan continued. “Amy, to her closest friends. The latest heiress to cross the Atlantic and lay siege to our damp, foggy island.”
“An heiress. From America?” That might explain her vivacity; English misses tended to carry themselves more demurely, with downcast eyes and half-smiles reminiscent of La Giaconda. Miss Newbold looked as though she was on the verge of laughter—enchantingly so.
“New York, to be precise. The father’s in shipping, I understand. Miss Newbold arrived in London with her mother and sister about two months ago and proceeded to cut a swathe through our susceptible young—and not so young—aristocrats. I’ve heard she’ll accept nothing less than a peer. They don’t lack for ambition, these Americans! And as you see,” Thomas nodded toward the waltzing couples, “she already has Kelmswood in her toils.”
James glanced at Miss Newbold’s partner, noticing him for the first time: a tall, athletically built young man whose dark good looks seemed the perfect foil for the American girl’s golden beauty. The thought gave him no pleasure whatsoever. “An earl, isn’t he? I suppose they’re as good as betrothed, then.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that.” Thomas’s mouth crooked. “Glyndon’s entered the lists as well.”
James’s brows rose. “Good God, really?” Viscount Glyndon, Thomas’s cousin, was heir to the Duke of Harford. “How do their graces feel about that?”
“My uncle and aunt are maintaining a well-bred silence on the subject. However, I doubt their plans for my cousin’s future include an American bride.”
Having met the duke and duchess, James was inclined to agree with his friend. Not that it mattered—could matter—to him; the likes of Amelia Newbold were out of his humble star. He made himself look away from her and her handsome, eligible partner. “I think I’ll go and get some air. If you’ll excuse me?”
Thomas relieved him of his now-empty flute. “Of course, old fellow.”
James threaded his way through the crowd toward the French windows, standing open to the warm spring night. Just as he was about to step onto the terrace, a raucous male laugh assailed his ears. A raucous, all-too-familiar male laugh.
Damn, and damn again. Gritting his teeth, James ventured a glance onto the terrace and saw several men leaning against the balustrade in a haze of cigar smoke. In their midst he spotted a familiar blond head, a heavy profile: his cousin Gerald, Viscount Alston.
He ought to have expected this; Aunt Judith was the family peacemaker. If she’d invited one of her nephews to attend Jessica’s betrothal ball, she would certainly invite the other, despite knowing that he and Gerald met as seldom as possible. They both preferred it that way.
Memories stirred, a dark tide with a deadly undertow. James forced them away, turned from the doors. The conservatory—he’d go there instead. Even if other guests had sought refuge in the same place, they could hardly be less congenial company than Gerald and his cronies.
But at first glance, the conservatory appeared to be deserted. Moonlight poured in through the glass-paneled walls, bathing the plants and stone benches in an otherworldly glow. Loosening his collar, James inhaled the warm, jasmine-scented air and felt himself relax for the first time that evening.
Hands clasped behind him, he strolled along the nearest walkway. Feathery ferns, sinuous vines, potted palms…he could not identify more than a few of the more exotic species, but it scarcely mattered. Here, at last, were peace and tranquility. Then he rounded a corner, came to a halt at the sight of the figure standing in the middle of the conservatory, the moonlight frosting her golden hair and casting a silvery sheen upon the skirts of her blue ball gown. Her eyes were closed, her slim form swaying gently in time to the waltz music drifting in from the ballroom.
James wondered if he’d lost his mind. Hadn’t he just seen her mere moments ago, dancing in the arms of an earl? Then, looking more closely, he saw that the shade of her gown was closer to turquoise than azure, her hair dressed a touch less elaborately—subtle differences but telling nonetheless. What had Thomas said? “She and her mother and her sister…”
He must have made some sound, some movement, because the girl suddenly froze like a deer scenting a hunter, apprehension radiating from every inch of her.
James spoke quickly, seeking to reassure her. “Pardon me, Miss Newbold. It is Miss Newbold, is it not?”
Aurelia fought down a rush of panic and an irrational urge to flee—for all the good it would do her. The stranger’s voice was deep and pleasant, with a faint burr she could not place. She wondered if he was as attractive as he sounded; the thought made her even more reluctant to turn around.
But it would be rude not to acknowledge his presence. Keeping her face averted, she nodded. “I am Aurelia Newbold.”
“Miss Aurelia,” he amended. “My name’s Trelawney. Again, I ask your pardon. I could not help but stare—no one told me that you and your sister were identical twins.”
Aurelia swallowed, knowing she could no longer delay the inevitable. Best to get it over with, as quickly as possible. “We are twins, sir. But—no longer identical.”
She turned around, letting him see the whole of her face now—thinner and paler than Amy’s, despite their maid’s skilled application of cosmetics. But no amount of paint or powder could disguise the scar that ran along the left side of her hairline before curving sharply across her cheekbone like a reversed letter J. She forced herself to meet Mr. Trelawney’s eyes, even as her stomach knotted in dread over what she would see.
And there it was—that flash of pity in his eyes; dark eyes, in a strongly handsome face that recalled portraits of dashing adventurers and soldiers of fortune. At least they held no distaste or revulsion: a small mercy. Or perhaps he was simply better at hiding them.
“A riding accident,” she said tersely, anticipating the question he was trying not to ask. “Three years ago. It’s left me with a limp as well.”
“I am sorry.” His voice was kind. “That must be difficult to bear. Do you need to sit down? I could escort you back to the ballroom, find you a chair.”
Aurelia shook her head. “That won’t be necessary, sir. I just—came to admire the conservatory.” And to escape all the stares, whether curious or pitying. She’d have preferred to stay behind in their suite at Claridge’s tonight, but Amy had refused to attend this ball without her. Beautiful Amy, who looked the way she had used to look.
“I see.” And as his dark eyes continued to study her, Aurelia had the uncomfortable feeling that Mr. Trelawney did indeed see.
“They fade, you know,” he said, almost abruptly. “Scars. When I was a boy, I knew a man who’d served in the Crimea and had a saber cut down one side of his face. Many saw it as a badge of honor. In later years, some even thought it made him look distinguished.”
“Scars on a man may be distinguished, Mr. Trelawney,” Aurelia said, more sharply than she intended. “On a woman, they’re merely ugly. And there was nothing—honorable or heroic about the way I acquired mine.” Merely stupid.
His brows drew together. “Surely you need not be defined by your scars, Miss Newbold.”
She felt her lips twist in a brittle smile. “It’s hard not to be, when they’re the first things about me that people notice.”
“But you are under no obligation to accept their valuation of you. And would you judge another solely on the basis of injury or illness?”
He spoke mildly, but she heard the faint rebuke in his voice, nonetheless. Flushing, she looked away, ashamed of her outburst. She’d thought herself resigned, if not reconciled, to her disfigurement; what was it about this man that unsettled her so? “I would hope not, especially now. Pardon me, sir, I let my—disappointment get the best of me. A graceless thing to do, and I’m sorry for it. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to the ballroom.” Still not looking at him, she turned toward the conservatory doors.
“Wait.” The urgency in his voice stopped her in her tracks. “Miss Newbold, may I have this dance?”
Aurelia whipped her head around, astonished. “Dance? Pray do not mock me, sir.”
Dark eyes gazed steadily into hers. “I have never been more serious in my life. You have a fine sense of rhythm—I noticed that when I first saw you. Are you fond of the waltz?”
“Well, yes,” she admitted, after a moment; there’d been a time when she loved nothing better than to whirl about the floor in her partner’s arms. “That is, I was before. But my limp—”
“A limp is surely no worse than two left feet—and the latter affliction has not prevented quite a number of people from dancing tonight.”
A breath of unwilling laughter escaped her. Mr. Trelawney’s eyes seemed to warm at the sound. He held out his hand. “I do not ask this out of mockery—or pity,” he added with a perception that surprised her. “Will you not indulge me? We need not return to the ballroom. We can have our dance here, unseen, among the flowers. Unless you find it too physically taxing?”
He’d just handed her the perfect excuse. All she had to do was plead fatigue or discomfort, and Mr. Trelawney, gentleman that he was, would surely let her retire and not importune her further. Instead, she stepped forward—and placed her hand in his.
He smiled at her and her knees wanted to buckle; she made herself stand fast and look him in the eye. She could feel the warmth of his hand through the evening gloves they both wore, and smell his cologne, an appealing blend of citrus and clove. Then he drew her to him, his hand resting lightly on the small of her back, and led her into their dance.
Her first steps were halting, hesitant, and she felt her face flaming anew, but Mr. Trelawney took her clumsiness in stride, adjusting his movements to hers. A few more bars and Aurelia found herself dancing more easily, as if some purely physical memory had taken over, leaving her mind free to concentrate on the beauty of the moonlit conservatory and the light pressure of Mr. Trelawney’s arms enfolding her as gently as if she were made of porcelain.
Together, they waltzed along the paved walkways, around benches and garden beds, beneath the light of the moon and stars. With each circling turn, Aurelia felt her spirits rise, a sensation that had become as alien to her as a man’s touch. Mr. Trelawney danced with an easy assurance that seemed in keeping with his forthright manner and confident air. No other man she’d waltzed with had ever made her feel this safe—not Papa, not Andrew…not even Charlie.
That last realization was so startling that she almost stumbled; Mr. Trelawney steadied her at once, concern in his eyes. Aurelia summoned a smile that surprised her as much as it did her partner, and they waltzed on, whirling back toward the center of the conservatory and the pool of moonlight on the tiled floor.
The music ended, the last chords quavering into silence, and Mr. Trelawney swirled them both to a stop. Aurelia stifled a pang of regret at how quickly the time had passed.
“Thank you,” she said, and meant it. She was slightly breathless, and her bad leg twinged after the unaccustomed exercise; it would be worse in the morning, but she felt not even a particle of regret.
He gave her that knee-weakening smile again. “The pleasure was mine, Miss Newbold.”
The sound of a throat being discreetly cleared drew their attention to the doorway, where a liveried footman now stood. “Mr. Trelawney?”
His brows rose inquiringly. “Yes?”
“Lady Talbot wishes to speak with you, sir. In the supper room.”
“Ah. Tell her I’ll be along straightaway.”
“Very good, sir.” The footman withdrew at once.
Mr. Trelawney turned back to Aurelia. “Pardon me, Miss Newbold, but I must wait upon my aunt. May I escort you back to the ballroom now?”
She shook her head. “No, thank you. I’d like to remain in the conservatory a while longer.” Solitude would give her the chance to recover her poise—and invisibility.
“As you wish.” But he lingered a moment longer. “Thank you for the waltz. Perhaps we might attempt it again sometime?”
Aurelia swallowed, deliberately not allowing herself to dwell on that possibility. “Perhaps we might, at that. Good evening, Mr. Trelawney.”
He raised her hand briefly to his lips. “And to you, Miss Newbold.”
He bowed and strode from the conservatory. Much to Aurelia’s vexation, her traitorous gaze followed him, long after he had disappeared into the crowded ballroom.
“Sherwood effortlessly evokes the world of Edith Wharton and Henry James, and her exquisite character development, memorable secondary characters, and impeccably researched historical se...
“Sherwood effortlessly evokes the world of Edith Wharton and Henry James, and her exquisite character development, memorable secondary characters, and impeccably researched historical setting infuse this elegantly written debut with a richness and depth worth savoring.” - Booklist
“Readers will be enchanted” - RT Book Reviews
“Sympathetic protagonists will keep readers engaged” - Publishers Weekly
Length: 6.875 in
Width: 4.1875 in
Weight: 7.76 oz
Page Count: 448 pages