A tingle of anticipation worked its way down her spine as she caught the eye of the man a few feet away from her. It took all of her courage to hold his gaze and not drop her eyes. She had nothing to fear from any man. She was no longer a debutante in her first season but a widow fresh out of mourning.
She had not come to this ball looking for someone to warm her bed. Not that it had ever been that warm anyway with Lord Chase.
The man disengaged himself from his companion, and headed in her direction.
Oh, My. Now what should I do? She let her eyes scan the ballroom. Was there any reasonable way to escape?
“Lady Penelope Chase.” The tall man with piercing green eyes bowed but his gaze never wavered. “Perchance you remember me?”
Penny dipped and nodded her head, daring herself to hold his gaze. “My Lord Hadley. Of course I remember you. I’m not in my dotage yet.” Her first crush. How could she ever forget?
“Far from it. May I say you look better than you did at your come-out ball five years ago. The years have been good to you.” A crooked smile appeared under the aquiline nose. His eyes bored into her as if ferreting out her secrets.
Penny tipped her head and looked away to the crowd. “La, I am immune to Spanish coin, my Lord.”
“I could never fool you, Penny.” He leaned closer and his breath tickled her ear, “but only a fool falls in love with a woman he cannot have.”
Penny refused to glance at him as he pulled away. Love? What did he know about love? For that matter, what did she know? She had lost in that game. She unfurled her fan and languidly moved it back and forth in front of her, refusing to show how much he had unsettled her. “Lord Hadley, I cannot imagine you being denied the object of your desire should you truly love someone.”
She glanced up at him and his eyes moved to scan the crowd, for once avoiding hers. A frown marred his handsome features. Auburn curls breached the border of his cravat at the back of his head and his sideburns almost hid the muscle working in his jaw that indicated his own tension. Her eyebrows rose as she awaited his reply. It was not long in coming.
“I never lied about my feelings for you Penelope. They remain as real now as they did the day I proposed and you refused me.” He glanced at her, pain and sorrow clouding his eyes, making them more mossy in color but no less compelling for that. He gave a curt nod and walked away disappearing into the crowd.
He still loved her? Her shoulders dropped and her fan stilled even as her heart increased its tempo. Follow him! Don’t let him get away! Without realizing it she was moving through the crowd but soon lost sight of her quarry. She found herself near the doors to the garden. Sweat trickled between her shoulder blades under the silk gown. Seeking the cooler air she stepped onto the stone balcony that overlooked paths beyond.
She ignored the lovers in the shadows and skipped down the steps into the flower lined trail. The moon was bright and the scent of roses and honeysuckle filled the air. Her feet carried her forward but she had no destination in mind. No plan. Had she just let her one chance at real happiness escape her?
She chuckled at her own dramatic thoughts. Your first ball of the season and you already feel like you’ve failed a game you never sought to play? What kind of folly is that? She shook her head and snapped her fan closed, letting it dangle from her wrist. Almost as much folly as marrying the charming wastrel at her father’s insistence only to find that he had a preference for the male persuasion, leaving her as pure as the day she was born.
She found a bench and collapsed onto it and closed her eyes. She inhaled and let the air out slowly. Vanilla assailed her nostrils. She opened her eyes and found him before her on one knee. He reached for her hand and while holding it slowly peeled off her glove. He turned her hand over and his lips met the pulse in her wrist and her heartbeat quickened. His lips traveled further up, to the inside of her elbow. Tremors of delight traveled throughout her body. She giggled.
He broke the kiss and looked up. “Please, Penny. I’ve waited so long. I have loved you and never stopped. Make me the happiest man here and say you will marry me.”
She swallowed as she looked into his eyes. She lifted her hand to stroke his hair and then the side of his face as he leaned into her naked palm. This was the only man who had ever stirred her, body and soul. She was forced to say no the first time. How could she say no again?
She leaned forward and her lips met his. The kiss that started out tentative but grew in hunger as her entire body caught flame at his touch. He broke it off and she gave a mewl of protest.
“Is that a yes, Penny?” That crooked smile she had always loved was back but uncertainty flickered in his eyes.
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, Nigel. I will wed you under one condition.”
An eyebrow lifted on his high forehead. “And that would be?”
“That we do so quickly. I have waited far too long to be yours.”
“With all due haste, my Lady. I will acquiesce to your demands.”
She leaned forward and held his face with both hands she leaned in for another kiss.