“In fact,” Catherine added in a glum tone, “she’s enchanting.”
Beatrix watched Leo and Miss Darvin with thoughtful blue eyes as they executed a perfect turn. “I wouldn’t say enchanting …”
“I can’t see one flaw.”
“I can. Her elbows are knobby.”
Squinting through her spectacles, Catherine thought that perhaps Beatrix was right. They were a bit knobby. “That’s true,” she said, feeling a tiny bit better. “And doesn’t her neck seem rather too long?”
“She’s a giraffe,” Beatrix said with an emphatic nod.
Catherine strained to see Leo’s expression, wondering if he had noticed the abnormal length of Miss Darvin’s neck. It didn’t appear that he had. “Your brother seems taken with her,” she muttered.
“I’m sure he’s merely being polite.”
“He’s never polite.”
“He is when he wants something,” Beatrix said.
But that only sent Catherine plummeting into deeper gloom. Because the question of what Leo might want from the dark-haired beauty had no palatable answer.
A young gentleman came to ask Beatrix to dance, and Catherine gave her permission. Sighing, she leaned back against the wall and let her thoughts wander.
The ball was an unqualified success. Everyone was having a lovely time, the music was delightful, the food delicious, the evening neither too warm nor too cool.
And Catherine was miserable.
However, she was hardly going to let herself crumble like a dry teacake. Forcing a pleasant expression to her face, she turned to make conversation with a pair of elderly woman standing next to her. They were involved in an animated debate over the comparative merits of a chain stitch or a split stitch in outlining crewel embroidery. Trying to listen attentively, Catherine stood with her gloved fingers laced together.
She turned to the familiar masculine voice.
Leo was there, breathtaking in the formal evening scheme of black and white, his blue eyes sparkling wickedly.
“Would you do me the honor?” he asked, gesturing to the whirl of waltzing couples. He was asking her to dance. As he had once promised.
Catherine blanched as she became aware of the multitude of gazes on them. It was one thing for the host of the evening to confer briefly with his sister’s companion. It was something else entirely for him to dance with her. He knew it, and he didn’t give a damn.
“Go away,” she said in a sharp whisper, her heart beating wildly.
A faint smile touched his lips. “I can’t. Everyone’s watching. Are you going to give me a public setdown?”
She could not embarrass him that way. It was a violation of etiquette to refuse a man’s invitation to dance if it could have been construed that she didn’t wish to dance with him personally. And yet to be the focus of attention … to set tongues wagging … it was contrary to every instinct for self-preservation. “Oh, why are you doing this?” she whispered again, desperate and furious … and yet somewhere in the midst of her inner tumult, there was a tingle of delight.
“Because I want to,” he said, his smile widening. “And so do you.”
He was unforgivably arrogant.
He also happened to be right.
Which made her an idiot. If she said yes, she deserved whatever happened to her afterward.
“Yes.” Biting her lip, she took his arm and let him lead her toward the center of the room.
“You could try smiling,” Leo suggested. “You look like a prisoner being led to the gallows.”
“It feels more like a beheading,” she said.
“It’s just one dance, Marks.”
“You should waltz with Miss Darvin again,” she said, wincing inwardly as she heard the sullen note in her own voice.
Leo laughed quietly. “Once was enough. I’ve no wish to repeat the experience.”
Catherine tried, without success, to smother the ripple of pleasure that went through her. “You didn’t get on?”
“Oh, we got on marvelously, as long as we didn’t stray from the topic of utmost interest.”
“I’m sure that with maturity, Miss Darvin will become less self-involved.”
“Perhaps. It’s of no importance to me.”
Leo took her into his arms, his hold firm and supportive, and inexplicably right. And an evening that had seemed so dreadful only moments before became so wonderful that Catherine was light-headed.
He held her, his right hand precisely against her shoulder blade, his left hand securing hers. Even through the layers of their gloves, she felt the thrill of contact.
The dance began.
In the waltz, the man was thoroughly in control of the timing, the pace, the sequence of steps. And Leo left Catherine no opportunity to falter. It was easy to follow him, every movement nonnegotiable. There were moments in which they seemed almost to hover before sweeping into another series of turns. The music was an audible ache of yearning. Catherine was silent, afraid to break the spell, focusing only on the blue eyes above hers. And for the first time in her life, she was wholly happy.
The dance lasted three minutes, perhaps four. Catherine tried to collect every second and commit it to memory, so that in the future she could close her eyes and bring it all back. As the waltz ended on a sweet, high note, she found herself holding her breath, wishing it would go on just a little longer.