Inspired by my love of historical novels... my attempt at this subgenre.
"My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome Lady Marie Dawson to the Christmas Ball," Grace read the handwritten script on the invitation aloud.
“Ah, the ball is tonight!” Marie screamed in delight, and then looked in dismay at her swollen ankle.
“I forgot all about this! You must go in my place,” she implored her friend.
Grace shook her head delicately. “I have no place at a fancy ball.”
“Well, how am I to get all the gossip?” Marie pouted prettily, her blond curls bounced as she tossed her hair about. “Oliver won’t be of any use,” she sighed as she directed a dagger stare at her older brother as he entered the sitting room.
“I assure you I am good for many things,” he quipped lightly as he dropped into an armchair next to his sister. “How is the ankle, sister?”
“Never mind that, Ollie,” Marie shook her blond curls again. “You must take Grace with you.”
At Oliver’s blank stare, she elaborated. “To the Christmas ball.”
“Is that tonight?” he drawled casually.
“You know it is,” Marie laughed, swatting her brother’s arm playfully, “and you will escort my dearest friend.”
Grace nervously bit her bottom lip. She had been Marie’s country companion since they were children but she had always been shy around Lord Oliver. She had never dreamed of attending a fancy ball and she knew better than to start dreaming of it now.
“So it is settled,” Marie’s firm lilting voice broke through Grace’s thoughts. “Grace will attend the ball in my place. I know exactly what you shall wear.”
Grace’s head bobbed up with a wide-eyed startled expression on her face. “No, I do not look anything like you.”
“It is a masked ball; no one will suspect you are not me.”
Grace opened her mouth to protest but Marie interrupted her, firmly stating, “It is settled.” Grace knew better than to argue with her determined friend. She was going to the ball, she thought, as excitement bubbled within her. She stole a glance at Lord Oliver through her long eyelashes. He looked dashing as ever. Her heart skipped a beat.
Dressed in a gown of rich velvet the colour of evergreen trees, Grace swirled around as Marie clapped happily.
“You look perfect, my dear,” Marie exclaimed as she handed Grace a dramatic mask lined with sparkling stones.
Grace put the mask to her face and bowed graciously.
“May I present Lady Marie,” Marie boomed in her deepest voice.
Grace immediately dropped the mask and searched Marie’s face urgently. “I cannot do this,” she whispered fervently.
“But you want to,” Marie answered sagely. “Go, have a brilliant time.”
Grace retrieved the mask, concealing her face and her conflicted emotions. She straightened her spine and headed toward the stairs.
Lord Oliver was waiting at the bottom of the stairs. The last thing he wanted to endure this evening was another tiresome ball. But his wily baby sister was always able to bend him to her will. Spoiled and sheltered, Marie had been doted on her entire life. Today was not the day to stop spoiling her. As he took in the lovely vision floating down the stairs, he thought, maybe the ball would not be such a hardship, after all.
It was out of a storybook complete with a beautifully appointed carriage drawn by two majestic white horses; arrogantly snorting their impatience. Grace’s heeled slippers clicked on the cobblestoned path as Lord Oliver gently clasped her elbow. He genially helped her into the carriage and took his place across from her. She was too excited to make conversation; content to watch the countryside from the small window. She had the perfect view as the large estate came into a view; an imposing stone structure romantically surrounded in a misty fog.
The horses clomped up the front path and before long, Grace placed her small, gloved hand in Lord Oliver’s as he helped her down.
“Thank you, Lord Oliver,” she murmured.
“Just Oliver, for tonight, my lady,” he murmured back, his breath warm on her neck, sending shivers down her spine. “I am supposed to be your brother, after all.”
“Right,” Grace agreed, placing her mask over her face, concealing her from Oliver.
Oliver tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow as the footmen took care of the horses and led her to the front door. She could feel his sinewy muscles and the heat from his body absorbing into hers. The front doors swung open and they were swept into a brightly lit room where their cloaks were retrieved. The bright lights, gay decorations and lively orchestra drew them towards the grand ballroom.
The butler bowed gallantly before he announced loudly, “Welcome, Lady Marie and Lord Oliver” as the orchestra began a lively minuet.
Oliver gestured towards the dance floor and led Grace smoothly into the middle of the crush. Holding her aloof, he skilfully danced her through the crowd until she was breathless. After the dance concluded, Oliver escorted her toward the refreshments.
“Who is this, old chap?” A sharply dressed, dark-haired young man asked with a solid clap on Oliver’s back.
“You remember my sister, Lady Marie,” Oliver replied stiffly.
“My Lord,” Grace replied with a curtsy, keeping her mask firmly in place.
“Lord Devon,” he stated, placing a lingering kiss on her gloved hand. “May I have the pleasure of this dance?”
Grace opened her mouth to agree as Oliver insisted, “My sister requires refreshment first.”
“I would be delighted to quench your thirst, my Lady.”
Grace shot an inquiring look at Oliver whose stoic expression gave nothing away.
“I will take good care of your sister,” Devon said with a wink as he tucked Grace’s hand possessively under his arm.
Oliver stared unbelieving as Devon led Grace away. A feeling akin to jealousy had formed in the pit of his belly and his mouth had curled into an unfriendly scowl.
“Surely that lovely creature was not your sister?” Oliver looked up to see his friend Andrew grinning at him. “A little brotherly worry over an eager young lord, hmm?”
Oliver scowled, “What do you think?”
“I think a brandy is in order. She is in safekeeping with Devon.” Oliver scanned the floor and saw an animated Grace floating across the dance floor with an unknown masked partner. His heart thudded painfully in his chest.
“Who is that now?”
Andrew squinted into the crowd. “Hadley? Harris?”
Oliver groaned. “Yes, a brandy is in order.”
After delightfully sousing himself in brandy and winning a few shillings at cards, Oliver stumbled back into the ballroom. The twinkling lights were blinding to his sensitive eyes and he blinked unsuccessfully until the object of his focus came into view. Grace, looking like a vision in the dark green gown, was floating across the dance floor like an ethereal angel; complete with a halo atop her golden curls. He could shrewdly see his were not the only eyes following her dance. When she got within distance, he grabbed her by the arm.
“You are acting the tart,” he hissed in her ear as he nodded apologetically to her dance partner.
Grace looked at him in shock as if he had slapped her in the face as he unceremoniously hurried her off the floor and towards the terrace.
When they were safely out of earshot, Grace glowered, “What in blazes were you thinking!”
“I was thinking my sister was acting the tart!” Oliver defended as he cornered Grace into the shadows against the stone terrace wall.
“Umf,” Grace huffed. “Tart, you say.” She pressed her palms firmly on his chest to push him away. But his solid chest gave little leeway to her delicate strength. And his hands tightened their grip on her arms until she whimpered.
“By God, Grace, I did not mean to hurt you,” Oliver slurred, stepping slightly back without relinquishing his hold.
“You are soused!” Grace declared.
“Not a bit, ma’am,” Oliver denied fervently until a hiccup escaped him. “Maybe a bit.”
Grace laughed and rested her head against his solid shoulder.
Oliver rested his chin on the top of her head and breathed in the light flowery scent of her hair. She nestled into his embrace as if she had always belonged there. He did not know how long they stood in the shadows of the terrace but it seemed like this moment, under the diamond night sky, was enchanted and he berated himself for his fanciful thoughts, he was getting daft in his dotage.
“Grace,” he whispered into her hair, “we should return to the ball.”
She looked up at him with such utter trust in her eyes and he couldn’t resist tilting her chin upward and capturing her gaze.
Closing her eyes expectantly, she pursed her lips. And held her breath; waiting for his kiss.
Against his better judgement, he met her lips with his. Drawing her closer, moulding her soft body against his muscled one. She tasted like summer, like forbidden fruit, like innocence. And shocked at his behaviour, he stiffened and drew back. “I should not have taken advantage.”
“Nonsense,” Grace murmured, her gaze downcast.
“But that does not mean I regret it, love,” he said cheekily, cupping her face in his hands.
She met his gaze boldly now, curiosity unguarded.
“We should return to the ball now, before the gossip turns to us.”
Grace’s eyes widened in astonishment.
“Do not fear; I will safeguard your reputation.”
Tucking her hand into his, she replied trustingly, “I have no such fear, my Lord” as he led her back into the ballroom. The blinding lights of the room were overwhelming as was the immense crush of people.
The orchestra had begun a lively contradanse and the dance floor was crowded with young couples wanting to participate in the informal country dance. Grace watched with curiosity as the dancers became more familiar and affectionate with one another. The air was heavy with anticipation.
“Would you care to take our leave?” Oliver asked.
Grace nodded in relief.
Once outside, Oliver summoned a footman to ready the carriage. Grace shivered in the night air and Oliver chivalrously wrapped her cloak tighter around her slight body. Leaning into his embrace, Grace felt protected. “I had a lovely evening,” she murmured before he assisted her into the carriage. From the window she watched the lights of the estate grow dimmer and more distant and fervently hoped that it was not symbolic of her future with Oliver.
As the carriage neared the Dawson estate, Grace turned her inquisitive gaze toward Oliver. He clasped her small hands within his larger ones and looked at her with promise. And she wished with all her heart that this promise was only the beginning.