To Dance until Dawn – Emma V. Leech

“I take it this week has so far not produced the results we had hoped for?” Jasper asked as they walked back from his workshop. Jasper was a craftsman of considerable skill, though few but his closest friends knew it. Max shrugged and gave a rueful smile. “What’s wrong with me, Jasper? I know all the young women here are amiable and kind, or you’d not have invited them for me. I thought all I wanted was that: someone to be a friend to me.” Jasper laughed and shook his head. “Good God, man! You might be a widower, but you’re not in your dotage yet. Do you really not think to fall in love?” “I am not averse to the idea,” Max replied, frowning. “I’m just a realist. It’s never happened to me before, so why should it now? Perhaps I am not suited to such emotions?” “What rot,” Jasper said in disgust. “You were trapped in a miserable marriage at far too young an age, then you were in mourning. When exactly have you given yourself the chance for such a thing?” Max snorted. “I’ve been back in society for some time now, Jasper, and I’ve not been shy about my intentions.” “No, there’s a veritable hornet’s nest of interest buzzing about who will be the next Lady Ellisborough and, from what I hear, there’s plenty of offers for the position of mistress, too. You’re a popular chap.

” “Hmmm,” Max replied, deciding not to answer that. “Father!” Jasper looked up as his son, Cassius, ran pell mell towards them. “Phoebe is here!” the boy exclaimed, his excitement palpable. “Oh, she made it. Your mama will be pleased.” “And you should see her, Papa,” Cassius added, his eyes wide and grave. “She’s in prime twig.” Jasper cleared his throat as his son ran off again. “A chip off the old block, eh?” Max murmured, laughing. “My son has an eye for beautiful things,” Jasper replied with a quirk of his lips.

“It will be good to see Lucian again. It’s been an age since I was last at Dern.” “Indeed,” Jasper said with a nod, a slight smile flickering at his lips. “You’ve not seen Phoebe for a while, then?” “No, it must be over a year. Longer, even. Not that I saw much of her when I visited. I never knew girl less able to sit still for five minutes together,” Max said with a laugh, remembering the vivacious young woman. She must be nineteen by now. “Well, come along, then. If Phoebe is here, the house is bound to be in chaos.

” Jasper’s words were well-founded. By the time they had returned to the house, Lady Helena was playing the piano and an impromptu dance had begun. A few of the ladies invited to meet Max were exchanging rather scandalised glances at such an event in the middle of the afternoon, but the children were delighted and crowing with laughter as Phoebe took her turn dancing with them. Apparently, she was teaching them a new dance that was all the rage this year, and she was laughing as uproariously as the children while she did so. Max smiled to see it, even though it did all seem rather outrageous for a grey Monday afternoon. “Phoebe, dear,” Jasper’s wife, Harriet, called. “Do be careful! The floor is awfully slip—” Before she had finished the sentence, Phoebe gave a shriek and landed hard on her bottom with a flurry of skirts and petticoats, giving the room a good look at her ankles. There was a stunned silence before the dreadful girl burst out laughing. Max hurried towards her, only too aware of the outraged expressions from some of the ladies turning to disapproving ones, though Lady Helena was spluttering with laughter too. “Are you hurt?” he asked in concern.

He did his best not to notice her pretty ankles as he reached down to help her to her feet. Goodness, when had she turned into such a beautiful young woman? Surely it hadn’t been that long since he’d seen her last? “No, only my pride,” she said, her eyes alight with merriment as she looked up and realised who her rescuer was. “Oh, Max. How lovely to see you.” She beamed at him, such a joyous, carefree smile that Max’s breath caught, an odd sensation lancing through him and making his chest feel tight. How bright she was, how very alive. Had he ever been alive like she was? Had he ever been that free? She hesitated, and Max realised he was staring at her. He cleared his throat and forced a smile, though his nerves were all standing on end with alarm. “Would you like to dance, Max?” she asked, perhaps just out of politeness as there was a doubtful glint in her eyes. “No,” he said, faintly, shaking his head.

Dancing with Phoebe seemed a dreadfully dangerous idea, and one he would do well to avoid. She gave him a faintly pitying look and patted his arm. “No, of course not.” With that she turned and ran back to find another dance partner—Cassius, this time—who was staring at her with an expression of rapt fascination. Max watched as she instructed all the children, showing them the steps and laughing wildly with them. She lavished praise of them when they got it right, and was patient and kind when they made a mistake. Max could not take his eyes from her, could not stop this strange and daunting feeling from taking a hold. Something had bloomed in his chest, taken root in his heart, and he did not know if he wanted to allow it to grow. Phoebe was not the kind of woman he was looking for. She was too young, too outrageous, too… everything.

Except he knew, knew as he watched her, watched her bring life and vibrancy and laughter to all of those around her… he didn’t have a choice. Chapter 1 Lucian, We should be delighted to come and celebrate Phoebe’s twentieth birthday. Ellisborough is with us. I will assume you’re happy to include him in the invitation as I hear he practically lives at Dern of late anyway. I have the unsettling suspicion Cassius is plotting something diabolical with Philip and Thomas, so heaven help us. No doubt Phoebe will adore it, whatever it is. ―Excerpt of a letter to The Most Honourable Lucian Barrington, Marquess of Montagu, from The Right Hon’ble Jasper Cadogan, Earl of St Clair. 7 th February1827. Dern, Sevenoaks, Kent. “Well?” Phoebe asked as she turned this way and that, a critical pucker of concentration between her blonde brows.

“You look breathtaking, darling,” Matilda said, smiling at her adopted daughter. “Papa will be so proud of you.” Phoebe span around with a rustle of skirts and closed the gap between them, hugging Matilda tightly. “Thank you, Mama, and not just for the gown or for today, though today has been marvellous. Everything has been splendid.” “You have had quite a successful start to the season,” Matilda agreed dryly. “Six proposals of marriage and a duel. In your first season, you only had three by now. Oh, and a bout of fisticuffs.” Phoebe snorted and pulled a face, such unladylike gestures that did not seem to harm her popularity a whit.

She was outspoken, reckless, defied every convention wherever possible, and would give her poor Papa a nervous collapse in the very near future. Unlike the rest of the world, who found the marquess’ icy gaze a terrifying prospect, she could wrap her papa about her pretty thumb, and did. In reality, Lucian was her uncle, not her father, but Phoebe had longed for the parents she’d lost as a small child, and so they had adopted her. Phoebe was as much Matilda and Lucian’s child as their two rambunctious boys, Philip and Thomas, though Phoebe enjoyed to rough and tumble just as much as their sons did… possibly more. No amount of scolding by her governess had ever stopped her climbing trees or hiking her skirts up to paddle in a stream. Matilda knew what protected her from much of the criticism for her often appalling behaviour. Even though the world now knew her to be the illegitimate daughter of Montagu’s younger brother—despite some gossipy souls still insisting she was truly Lucian’s daughter—there were few who could resist her particular brand of vivacious charm. The fact she was a wealthy heiress did not much damage her marriage prospects, either, and her behaviour only deterred those of the highest birth… and not all of them at that. Yet few dared incur the wrath of her powerful papa. Where other girls would have been censured, Phoebe was called an original, and deemed full of life.

Mostly. Lucian could not protect her from everything. There were those who were cruel about her origins, not that Phoebe seemed to take the slights to heart, retribution being far more her style. It was becoming apparent she had inherited not only her looks from the Montagu line. She had given them both some heart-stopping moments over her first season and the beginnings of this, her second. “Did none of the young men who offered appeal to you at all, darling?” Matilda asked, a little curious. “Not that there is any rush, of course, but Lord Grant seems a charming fellow.” Phoebe laughed as she tugged on her gloves, shaking her head. “Oh, he is. Charlie is a lamb, and a particularly good friend, but I could never marry him.

What a ghastly idea. He should drive me to distraction. Do you know, I don’t believe he’s ever read a book in his life?” Matilda nodded, amused, and a little regretful for poor Lord Grant, who was doomed to failure. He wasn’t the only one. “Ellisborough is here,” she said lightly. “Is he?” Phoebe said, frowning as she searched for her other glove. “That’s good. At least Papa won’t be bored. Oh, drat the thing where has it gone?” “Here, love.” Matilda retrieved the glove from the floor where it had been dropped and handed it to her.

“He’s not come to entertain Papa, Phoebe.” “Hmmm?” Phoebe yanked up her full skirts so she could see to wriggle her feet into her slippers. “Why else, then? He’s Papa’s friend.” Matilda sighed. It was true, Maximillian Carmichael, Earl of Ellisborough, was Lucian’s friend, introduced to him by St Clair. He was not of their generation, however. It was likely the scattering of grey in his dark hair that gave him the impression of sophisticated elegance, added to the somewhat world weary air about him. An exceedingly handsome and eligible fellow, with broad shoulders and deep brown eyes, Max had seen life and it had not always been kind to him, yet in reality he was only eight and twenty. Phoebe, however, had given the poor fellow something close to benevolent uncle status, and refused to regard him any other way. “Ready!” she exclaimed with a squeal and then rushed from the room before Matilda could say another word.

“You might be,” Matilda said, laughing in the silence her vivacious daughter had left behind. “Somehow, I doubt the rest of us are.” *** Phoebe bit her lip and stared down at her empty bowl. The chocolate roulade had been delicious, and she very much wanted another serving. Her stays were already pinching, though. She frowned at her bowl a bit longer, considering, when a discreet cough made her look up. Denton was at her elbow. He gave her a surreptitious wink, slid another helping into her bowl, and retreated. Phoebe smothered her grin of appreciation and tucked in. The table was alive with animated conversation and many of her favourite people were here.

The Earl of St Clair and his wife, Harriet, and the earl’s brother Jerome, with Bonnie. Phoebe adored Bonnie, who was terribly droll and almost as good at getting into scrapes as Phoebe was herself. Helena and Gabe were here, too. Helena looked ravishing in a stunning gown of deep emerald silk, studded with black jet beads that twinkled when she moved. There were also a selection of eligible bachelors, and some of Phoebe’s friends. The children had all gone to bed now, which was rather a shame as Phoebe adored them. She hoped to have a big family when she finally married… if ever she could discover a man in whose company she could imagine being for a lifetime. She wanted a grand passion, the kind of love affair that her parents had experienced, though she knew it was unrealistic. Love stories of the kind they had lived did not come along very often, but Phoebe still longed for it. She wanted desire and excitement, a man who would make her breath come fast and her skin ache with longing.

The only kisses she had been given so far had been horribly disappointing. Oh, they’d been pleasant enough, but there had been no intensity of feeling, no thundering of her heart, no sense that she would die if she could not be in that man’s arms again the next day and the next, and every day after that. Not being a fool, she knew the kind of marriages she saw before her in her parents and their closest friends were not always possible, and were often hard won. So, meeting some nice young man in a ballroom and marrying him and living happily ever after did not seem to be the correct way to go about it. Surely there would be some cataclysmic event, some sign that he was the one? She needed someone who would fight dragons, not for her, but with her. Someone who would not lock her away in a gilded cage to protect her from the world, but face its challenges and dangers at her side. A man like her father was for her mother. What she had learned during her first season, was that such a man seemed to be about as realistic as the dragon itself. Having scraped her bowl clean for a second time, Phoebe let out a breath and leaned forward, trying to ease the pressure of her corset from squeezing her stomach too fiercely. Perhaps that second helping hadn’t been a good idea.

“It was worth it.” Phoebe looked to her left to find Ellisborough’s amused gaze upon her. “What was?” “The roulade. I believe it was worth the discomfort you’re in. I’ll bet that corset is laced too tightly to accommodate it, though.” Phoebe blushed. “Gentlemen do not refer to a lady’s undergarments,” she said, sounding uncharacteristically prim, but there was something about Max that always made her feel like a naughty child. He was effortlessly sophisticated, always said the right thing—except to her—and was universally adored. Characteristics guaranteed to make her appear like an absolute hoyden—which she was—but still. Even Papa liked and admired him.

It was nauseating, and she acknowledged the sensation of being out of sorts. Max made her cross and jittery, and she did not understand why that was. The earl chuckled beside her. “And ladies don’t hike up their skirts and climb into parties via a window, but….” “That was an accident,” she hissed, irritated with him for bringing the subject up again. “I just went out for a breath of fresh air and some fool locked the door behind me.”

.

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