Secrets and Suitors – Joanna Barker

IT WAS NOT THE BEST hiding spot I had ever found, but it was, thankfully, proving quite effective. I peeked through the leaves of an impressively large fern that shielded me from the ballroom, watching the twirl and flow of the dancers. No one had seen me as I’d slipped away to this secluded corner, desperate for a few minutes of peace. I was not particularly fond of balls. I’d already danced for hours, and my legs ached from the effort. So wearied were my cheeks from the forced smile I’d worn all evening that when I prompted my lips to turn upward, my cheeks refused entirely. My wandering eyes found Mother across the room, standing amongst a group of older matrons. She nodded along with something being said, but her gaze darted away every few seconds, narrowed in focus. My absence had not gone unnoticed. I leaned back, close to the wall. I did not wish to be discovered at present, not even by my mother. I may have inherited her blue eyes and soft curls, but I unfortunately had not received her graceful movements or effortless skills at conversation. She never suffered the paralyzing nerves that were my constant companions at such events, and it was an exhausting business. Perhaps in another twenty minutes, I might recover enough to join the party. Perhaps.

Another familiar figure moved across my limited view of the ballroom. Father. He strolled slowly, stopping to greet those he considered friends, ignoring those he thought beneath him. The Baron Denford wore no smile, though that was hardly unusual. Father liked country balls even less than I did; his attendance tonight was almost as rare as a smile would have been. “There you are, Nora.” My head jolted as Mother appeared beside me, scrutinizing me from behind her fluttering fan. “How long did you imagine you might go unseen?” She fixed me with a stern look, though her cheek twitched in an effort to conceal a smile. “It is a potted plant, my dear, not a wall.” I sighed.

She always found me. “The veranda was unavailable.” “I should say.” She snapped her fan closed. “You would have frozen in a minute.” Winter still held a firm grasp upon the hills of Hampshire. Though I could not help but think a minute of solitude would have been quite worth the January cold, I did not voice my opinion. “I think you’ve had plenty of recuperation,” she said briskly. “Mr. Weston has been looking for you.

” “Mr. Weston?” I paused in the midst of tugging up my gloves. “He cannot be wanting another set, can he? I’ve already danced two with him.” “Of course not.” Mother frowned. “He would never risk your reputation.” “No, he would not.” Mr. Weston would never do anything to upset the careful propriety that ruled our worlds. In fact, he never did anything I would categorize as risky or uncertain.

“I’m sure he simply wishes to talk, Nora,” she said. “Now come, let us take a turn about the room.” She did not realize talking with Mr. Weston was nearly as wearying as dancing with him. But I forced a nod, and she slipped her arm into mine as she led me from my safe haven. Then again, how could I blame Mr. Weston for his reserved nature? Was I not the one hiding away in the corner? Perhaps that was the problem: entering into a conversation in which both participants were reticent. Someone was needed to guide the conversation, ask questions, and incite interest in a topic. Someone like James. I swallowed, turning my head from Mother.

If only James were here. He would not have dragged me from my corner. He would have joined me, laughing quietly as we made whispered observations about the amount of frills on Miss Densley’s dress or the vivid color of Mr. Samson’s waistcoat. I took a steadying breath. I could not think about James now. Memories of him only brought an aching pain to my chest. He was not here because he did notwant to be. He had made that perfectly clear six months ago. Now he was an ocean away, far beyond the reach of my wistful thoughts.

Missing him would not help anything, especially when I still had hours of socializing to endure tonight. We moved about the outskirts of the room, watching the lines of dancers. As we neared the orchestra, a group of young ladies caught my attention. They were smiling and chattering amongst themselves as they cast flirtatious glances at passing young men. They were all near my own age of one and twenty, but that was likely the only commonality we shared. One of the ladies—Miss Blythe —turned as we moved behind them. Her eyes glinted at the sight of me, not unlike a cat stalking a mouse. “Oh, good evening, Miss Hamilton,” she said in her high, breathy voice. “Do come join us.” If I was trying to avoid Mr.

Weston, then joining his cousin was likely the worst choice I could make. I was already inventing an excuse when Mother spoke. “Of course. Go and be with your friends, Nora.” She knew very well I did not have any friends. Well, any friends here. I withheld a sigh and instead managed a nod. Mother gave my hand a pat as she left. It was not reassuring. I faced the group of young ladies, all watching me with careful calculation.

They curtsied deeply to me, and I returned their movements before Miss Blythe stepped forward to claim my attention. She was something of the leader amongst the younger set here in Larkwood and had taken it upon herself to claim me, rather like one might collect a doll. As the eldest daughter of the Baron Denford, the only member of the peerage in the surrounding area, I was the crown jewel in her collection. “Are you enjoying the ball, Miss Hamilton?” Miss Blythe asked. I cleared my throat. “Very much.” “Your gown is lovely.” She eyed me from the ribbons in my hair to my lace-trimmed hem, no doubt calculating how much my father had paid for such an ensemble. I glanced down at my gown to avoid her scrutiny and slid my gloved hands over the pale silk. Though it was cut in the latest fashion, I disliked pink.

It clashed horridly with the red tones in my blonde hair, but Mother had insisted I looked lovely. “Thank you.” I knew I ought to return the compliment or make an observation about the dance. But my mouth refused to cooperate, and I kept my gaze on the tips of my dancing slippers. Miss Blythe watched me, though she did not press me. The conversation moved on, and I was grateful to take up the role of passive listener. I smiled and nodded, keeping my thoughts to myself. It had always been like this. I knew they likely thought me snobbish or aloof, but I simply did not know how to overcome my shyness. And in truth, I wasn’t particularly keen on having more “friends” like Miss Blythe.

It was easier to keep to myself. “Miss Hamilton.” I turned at the sound of my name and immediately wished I hadn’t. Mr. Weston had found me again. He watched me with that careful expression he always wore, as if worried someone would scold him for smiling. “I hoped I might have a word with you,” he said, extending his arm. There was little I could do, and yet I wished I could do it. I wished I could pretend I had not heard him. I wished I could say no, that I preferred not to.

I wished I could go back to my lovely quiet spot behind the fern. But I did not. I finally succeeded in coaxing a smile to my face and took his arm. “Of course, Mr. Weston.” He led me away as Miss Blythe sent me a knowing look I did not understand in the slightest. I already dreaded this conversation. Mr. Weston tended to speak with such dull, measured assurance, one would think he did not speak at all until his mind was thoroughly convinced his words could not possibly offend or cause outcry. That made for tedious conversation indeed.

Perhaps he simply wished to say goodbye since he departed for his home in Shropshire in two days’ time. The Blythes had thrown this ball as a farewell, no doubt to pry their way into his good graces. The man was to inherit a barony from his father, after all. It was certainly why Father liked him so much, though I could not claim a similar fondness. I had been counting down the days to his departure, wishing for a few weeks of normalcy before we left for the Season in London. We walked out into the hallway and down a ways, stopping before an alcove. A few other guests gossiped down the hall, but we were as alone as we possibly could be. An ice-frosted window displayed the lovely winter scene outside: the snow-covered lawn, the bare branches of trees twisting in the wind. Mr. Weston turned to face me.

“Miss Hamilton,” he began. “I cannot tell you how much I have enjoyed the last few weeks, especially since I have been fortunate enough to spend much of them in your company.” Far too much of them, in my opinion. He had accompanied his cousin whenever she paid a visit to me, and since Miss Blythe insisted in coming to Denford House at least weekly, I had seen quite a bit more of Mr. Weston than I should have liked. “We shall be sad to see you return to your home,” I said, hoping to lead him into his words of farewell. But then he stepped closer and my pulse quickened, and not in a particularly pleasant way. He took my hand and raised it between us, his thumb moving in an uncomfortable circle on the back of my hand. What on earth was he doing? “My dear Miss Hamilton,” he murmured, his gaze riveted to mine. “I know we have not known each other long, but I have come to regard you most highly.

” He had? I would not have guessed that in the least. But the way he was staring at me now made me realize how very blind I had been. Thoughts connected with astounding force inside my head: the hothouse flowers he had brought me last week, his constant stares from across whatever room we were in. Suddenly Miss Blythe’s knowing look and Father’s willingness to come to the ball tonight all made a frightful amount of sense. “Mr. We-Weston,” I said, choking on his name in my hurry. “I was unaware—” My voice cut out completely. What could I say? Father would be furious if I refused Mr. Weston, and yet every inch of me begged to do just that. Mr.

Weston peered at me. “You were unaware of what?” I stared at his cravat, perfectly starched and tied. Is that what my life would be like now, as stiff and lifeless as that length of fabric? But then a voice—his voice—spoke from behind me. “She was unaware that her closest friend had returned home.” I froze as his words sank in to me. His warm, comfortable, playful words. I spun and found him standing in the middle of the hallway with that familiar tilt of his head, his blue eyes bright with amusement. The air in the hall was much too thin. That was the only reason I could think of for my sudden lightheadedness. My hands pressed into my stomach, and I whispered his name, my voice shaking.

“James.”

.

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