Dancing with the Duke (a novella)
Tagline: Sometimes love happens when you least expect it.
She’s loved him for years…
Charlotte Grant can’t remember a time when she didn’t love her best friend’s older brother.
He’s never noticed her…
The Duke of Clarington hadn’t spared a thought for his sister’s friend in years.
Their situations are about to be reversed…
It is the beginning of a new Season and Clarington intends to stay away from all the young ladies and eager mamas hoping to ensnare a duke. But that plan falls into tatters when his mother sponsors his sister’s friend and enlists him to dance with her at Almack’s. The beautiful vixen he meets that night bears little resemblance to the shy, gangly girl who used to follow him around. Now, instead of avoiding her, he finds himself frustrated when Charlotte seems to notice everyone but him.
Dancing with the Duke is a prequel novella to the Landing a Lord series. (Approximately 13,000 words.)
The Duke of Clarington cursed his luck at finding himself at the most hated of places during the most hated of times—Almack’s at the start the London Season. The ballroom was filled to capacity, and he could almost feel the weight of the assembled guests’ speculative glances pressing in on him, threatening to suffocate him. It took no small amount of effort to hold his ground.
He’d tried to convince two of his closest friends to accompany him that evening, but the Marquess of Overlea and the Earl of Kerrick had manufactured reasons to be elsewhere. He couldn’t blame them. If he could have managed the feat, he would have been anywhere else as well.
He distracted himself by listening in on the conversation of two young ladies who were only a few steps away. Their loud whispers, dissecting every man present, were impossible to ignore. When they paused, he glanced their way to see who was to be their next victim, and, as if on cue, they turned to look at him. As one, the pair lifted their fans to titter behind them.
He was going to kill Lucy for this. It was, after all, his sister’s fault he was there that evening. He’d always made it a point to stay well away from Almack’s, the hunting grounds of the single female of marriageable age. But at Lucy’s request, their mother had undertaken to sponsor her childhood friend’s introduction to society. At two and twenty, Charlotte would be older than most of the other girls taking their first steps into society, so his sister had argued that the full backing of the Clarington family was needed to make her debut a successful one.
From there, it took little effort for Lucy to convince their mother it was vital he be seen dancing with her friend. She’d reasoned that once others saw Alexander Thompson, the elusive Duke of Clarington, dancing with their charge, men would flock to her side, anxious to discover her charms.
He suppressed a shudder. Charlotte Grant had no charms. The last time he’d seen her she’d been a gangly, long-limbed adolescent of fifteen who’d taken to following him everywhere. She’d also had a terrible habit of blushing and stammering whenever he spoke to her. He had a suspicion that Lucy had taken it into her head to try to arrange a match between the two of them. She’d often voiced how Charlotte was just like a sister to her.
He had no intention of obliging her, however. He would invite Charlotte to dance, as he’d promised his mother, and then he would be free to depart. That moment could not come soon enough.
He took out his pocket watch and wondered, for what felt like the hundredth time, what was taking them so long. His mother and sister had left before him to fetch Charlotte and should have already been there. It was now twenty minutes past the time of their intended arrival, and his need to escape was growing with each passing minute.
Movement at the entrance to the ballroom caught his attention, and Alexander turned to see his mother and sister enter the room and wait to be announced. He frowned when he didn’t see Charlotte. With her flaming red hair and her great height, she would be hard to miss.
He saw her, then, as she moved into the doorway and had to stop himself from allowing his jaw to drop. Good God, surely this couldn’t be the same girl he’d known.
He was staring, but he couldn’t help it. She was even taller than when he’d last seen her seven years ago, just before he’d left for the continent on his tour, and her red hair had darkened. Not by much, but enough that the color now complemented her creamy complexion instead of warring with it. And instead of hiding the color of her hair, which he suspected had always made her feel self-conscious, she’d chosen to wear a green and gold gown that accentuated it.
He gave himself a mental shake and approached the group as they moved further into the room. The sooner he got this over with, the sooner he could leave.
“I am so glad you are here, Alex,” Lucy said when he reached them. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”
He was tempted to reply that she had left him with no choice after involving their mother in her schemes, but he had to be on his best behavior. He was almost out the door and then he could enjoy the feel of the fresh air after the stifling constraints of the filled-to-overflowing ballroom.
Alex dropped a kiss on his mother’s cheek. “I was beginning to think you had changed your minds and decided to leave me here, undefended, against the wolves.”
His mother laughed. “I’ll never understand you. Most men would love to have such attention showered on them. In fact,” she said, gazing about the room, “most of them seem to be engaged already and enjoying the dancing. The time would have passed more quickly if you had done the same yourself instead of standing in a corner, shooting daggers at anyone who looked your way.”
He shrugged. This was an argument they’d had often. “I am not one for dancing.” Bracing himself to face Charlotte’s blushes and stammers, he turned his attention to her. “You’re looking lovely, Charlotte,” he said, surprised to find that he meant it. “It has been a few years.”
Instead of blushing, however, she smiled. No, smiling was too tame a word to describe her radiance. She lit up the room.
“It has, indeed,” she said. “I am sorry that your family pressured you into this duty, but I do appreciate your sacrifice on my behalf.”
Somehow, he found that he was the one who now had to be careful not to stammer, but he managed to keep his voice smooth. “It would never be a sacrifice to dance with you.”
A set was just starting and he offered her his arm. It was a strange sensation escorting her to the dance floor. He’d never partnered with a woman as tall as her.
When the set began, he was surprised, yet again, when he discovered that the formerly clumsy adolescent he’d once known now moved with seemingly effortless grace. It appeared that Charlotte Grant had finally become comfortable in her own body. Now that he considered that body as they moved through the figures of the dance, it held another surprise. Charlotte was a late bloomer. Her breasts filled out her dress very nicely… something they hadn’t done when he’d last seen her seven years before. It was only with great effort that he kept his eyes from drifting down to examine the creamy expanse of skin exposed by the low cut of her gown.
The set was a lively one, and he was glad that he didn’t have to make polite small talk with Charlotte. Her emergence from gawky youth to the beautiful woman now facing him had set him off balance.
When the dance was over, he took her hand and bowed over it. She smiled up at him again and he noticed that she had dimples. He frowned at the errant thought.
“Is something the matter, Alex?”
It startled him that she would address him with such familiarity, but only for a moment. How could he forget that this beautiful woman was the same girl who’d been friends with his sister for most of their lives? He may not have seen her for several years, but Charlotte had always been considered an honorary member of the family.
He could hardly tell her what he was thinking, however, and blurted out the first innocuous thing that came to mind. “What happened to your freckles?”
He groaned inwardly as soon as the words passed his lips, remembering how she’d hated to be teased about her freckles. Instead of being offended, however, Charlotte laughed and leaned in close, so he could catch her low words.
“I’m hoping you won’t tell anyone about those. I’ve powdered them to make them less noticeable.”
Her face was very close to his, and at this distance, he had no difficulty seeing them. They were lighter than normal, but the fine spray of freckles over her nose and cheeks were still there. He had to resist the urge to brush a finger across the small brown flecks. He’d never noticed how becoming they were.
He wasn’t sure how long they stood like that, looking at each other, but all too soon Lucy swooped in to steal her friend away. He watched them walk away and realized he was waiting for Charlotte to look back and smile at him again.
After dismissing the errant thought, he started for the exit. His steps faltered, however, then stopped. When he turned to see where his sister had taken Charlotte, he was relieved to see that they were standing off to one side, talking to Mother. That relief was short lived. He saw first one, then another gentleman approach the small group. His mother capably performed the introductions, and before he knew it, Charlotte was being led out onto the dance floor by Haversham, a renowned rake.
Damn. He couldn’t possibly leave now and abandon Charlotte to Haversham and his like. He’d have to stay and make sure no one tried to take any liberties with her.
©2012 Suzanna Medeiros