No one attended Lady Granby's balls unless they wished to be noticed. It was one of the smallest ballrooms in London. Too small for much dancing, actually, and unbearably hot. And Lady Granby was known to be a determined matchmaker. If you accepted an invitation from Lady Granby, you desired to be seen.
Emma Prichard hoped to go unnoticed. She wasn't arrayed in colorful finery. She hadn't even dressed her hair, except to collect her dark brown waves into a neat chignon. One must always look acceptable, even if unremarkable. It was the Prichard way. And truly she did not wish to be invisible, merely unremarkable. Notice might draw questions, even pity, or, worst of all, an attempt at matchmaking. She had been brought up too well to be rude, so she simply met few eyes and nodded politely at those she did acknowledge.
When you were an old maid, going unnoticed wasn't really difficult at all.
As a frequent chaperone to her younger cousin, Emma's usual ballroom experience consisted of conversation and refreshment while seated in an uncomfortable chair along the far side of the room. She and a few of her fellow wallflowers had taken to calling their line of painfully straight-backed chairs Wallflower Row. Courteously, the wallflowers each gave the others a turn at walking the perimeter of the ballroom, retiring for a sip of lemonade, or catching a breath of fresh air on an obliging balcony. Emma had elected to take the first turn of the evening and spent much of it smiling reassuringly at Abigail as she whirled around the ballroom in the arms of the second gentleman on her dance card. Her cousin was a lovely girl but a painfully shy debutante.
If all went well during her first season, Abigail would marry. The notion brought a bittersweet satisfaction to Emma. Fingering the locket at her throat, a familiar, hollow ache started in her chest as regret pushed its way into her thoughts. James. Her regret had a name. Shaking her head and dropping the metal onto the warm skin of her throat, she forced her thoughts back to the happier prospect of Abigail's future.
Taking the final steps toward Wallflower Row, the sound of her name rang out with surprising clarity across the din of music and gaiety.
"Emma Prichard? Oh no, she never did marry. Two failed seasons and then she gave up the hunt."
The voice was one Emma knew well. Constance Banbury was the mother of four daughters and, as the matriarch of so many marriageable ladies, she made it her duty to know the competition well. Those who frequented the races at Epsom Downs did not know their horses as well as Mrs. Banbury knew which gentlemen were eligible and by how much. Emma slowed her pace. A perverse curiosity made her want to hear what Mrs. Banbury and her companion might say.
"Oh no, my dear. 'Twas never a question of money. Her family has heaps. It does make one wonder. There is some scandal there, Elspeth, mark my words. It may be well hidden by all that Prichard propriety, but there is scandal nonetheless."
Biting back a rueful grin, Emma took the final steps toward the row and resumed her seat next to Penelope Rutledge, a good friend and fellow wallflower. Pen's dark, simple gown nearly matched Emma's, but her playful blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair set her apart from the plain brown of Emma's coloring. At least plain is how Emma always thought of her brown eyes and hair. James had said her hair was the color of chocolate and her eyes the shade of an amber jewel... But those sentiments no longer signified.
"Just in time!" Penelope chimed. "Frederick Jennings has been leering at me for the last few moments. If you had not returned, I think he might have actually summoned the courage to ask me to dance."
"Heaven forfend." Emma shot her friend a look of feigned disgust.
"You may jest, but I have danced with him, and I assure you it is not an experience I wish to repeat." Penelope huffed and straightened her gown fussily across her knees. Suspicion crept into her tone when she spied Emma's grin. "What is it? You look bemused."
Emma leaned toward Penelope to whisper conspiratorially. "I am a scandalous woman."
"Really?" Pen pulled back in offense. "Since when and why was I not the first to know?"
"Only according to Mrs. Banbury."
Pen settled back in her chair. She knew the barbed tongue of the Banbury matriarch well. "I am surprised you're smiling. Her comments usually cut to the quick. No matter how ridiculous they may be."
"You don't wish to hear it, then?" The question was hardly worth asking.
"Well, yes. Of course, I do," Penelope blurted. Her outburst drew the eyes of a few ladies nearby. She added, in a quieter, more demure voice,"But only if you wish to share it."
"She supposes I never accepted an offer of marriage because I am mired in scandal." Emma spoke the words with a smile on her lips, still amused at Mrs. Banbury's ridiculous assumptions. "According to Mrs. Banbury, I never married because of some great and horrible secret."
Penelope looked at Emma, her bright blue eyes softening. Her voice had fallen to a whisper. "Is that better than the truth?"
It stung Emma to acknowledge Mrs. Banbury amusement at learning there was no scandal attached to her spinsterhood, just foolishness and a stubborn determination not to marry any man if she could not marry the one she loved. Unfortunately, the man she loved was equally stubborn and their last words had been spoken in anger. Stubborn pride. With James North so firmly in her heart, Emma had not even considered marrying another man in the three years since since their parting.
"She would probably laugh to hear it was nothing as interesting as scandal." Emma had no need to hide the details from Penelope. In their common status as young women on the shelf, they had grown closer than sisters and Emma knew Pen's story was not so different from her own.
"There is no shame in a constant heart." Penelope said the words emphatically and Emma knew she spoke for both of them. Pen had waited these past three years since her coming out for her brother's closest friend, Lucas Sharpe, to see her as more than a sisterly family friend.
"She would laugh because I have turned spinster for a man I will likely never see again."
"I would not wager on it."
Emma turned to her friend in astonishment. "You don't think she would laugh?"
"Not that. I think you will most definitely see him again."
"Ah, Pen. I do love your optimism." Emma gave her friend's fingers a light, reassuring squeeze, but Penelope clasped Emma's hand firmly and turned toward her with anxiety etched in her features.
"Emma, you do know he is here. Tonight."
The hollow ache in Emma's chest dropped into her stomach and she felt dizzy. Dizzy and yet restless with an uncontrollable energy. She stood, though Pen still held her hand.
"Em, do you think it's wise?" Emma glanced down at her friend, reading the concern on her face. Concern and understanding. Pen released her hand. "Yes, of course. You must go. Go and find him."
~ * ~
One inquiry to the kind and discreet Mr. Wimpole led Emma to a room Lady Granby had designated as the men's gaming room. Thick with cigar smoke and crowded with men chatting in clusters and gathered around card tables, the room still felt less crowded than the stifling ballroom.
It was not difficult to find him in the gathering of men. He was tall and stood a head above most around him. He seemed even taller now, more imposing a figure than Emma remembered. His hair was still the same onyx black, though long now and somewhat unkempt. It shone blue in the wall sconces lining the overcrowded room. His back was to her.
Removed from those around him, Emma watched as he turned his head this way and that as if looking for someone. He would have a clear view above the heads of a roomful of shorter men. Suddenly, he turned and glanced toward Emma, as if he'd sensed her eyes on him. The crystal snifter he had raised to his lips fell with a soft thud to the thick aubusson carpet under his feet.
Shock was clear in his features, his dismissal of the spilled drink at his feet. But was there more? Was his heart hammering in his chest too? Did he feel the invisible pull, like a magnet, between them?
Emma swayed toward him, unable to deny the magnetism. But before she could take a step, he approached in two long strides. A delicious scent, the bay soap he'd always used, swept over her and she bit back a moan at the exquisite pleasure of finally being near him again. He looked down at her, his dark blue eyes unreadable. Studying her, his gaze touched her hair, her lips, her neck before settling back on her eyes. Then he turned and moved past her. Emma thought for a moment he meant to walk away from her. Again. Then she felt his long fingers tugging at her own.
~ * ~
"James. Where are you? I can't see you." Her voice sent a trickle of pleasure down his spine. His name on her lips. He had waited three years to hear it and was stunned at the lack of anger in her tone. Where was the resentment he so richly deserved?
He had spirited her away like a marauding pirate and had no idea where they'd ended up, except it was an empty room. Empty and dark. A sliver of moonlight through a partially open drape was the only illumination. He could just make out the shape of her. Pale skin, dark hair. Her hand reached out for him, and he grasped it like a drowning man reaching for a life line.
Pulling Emma toward him, James kissed her palm and heard her gasp. A polite man would have been deterred, but his hunger for her didn't allow for delicacy. Snaking his arm around her waist, he tugged, fitting her curves against him. Then he dipped his head to taste her skin.
As he kissed her neck, he touched a spot behind her ear with his tongue and found the place she'd dabbed her violet water. The dainty scent, one he only associated with Emma, was maddeningly erotic. She tilted her head, giving him access, while her hands roamed over his chest. They slid inside his jacket, fingering the buttons of his waistcoat.
"Emma." He said it once, his voice a husky murmur, before his lips found hers. Starved for the taste of her, he could not give her a delicate dance of mouths. This was a plunder. She moaned and he pulled his mouth from hers, as breathless as she.
She placed both hands on his chest. He reached up to stroke them and she pushed away from him. She sidestepped out of his embrace and he immediately missed her warmth.
He spoke the words he knew he should. "Forgive me, Emma, for absconding with you just now." It wasn't true. He was not the least bit sorry for pulling her into the darkened room alone, though he knew for the sake of her reputation, he should be. He had other regrets. Three years worth of them. It was easy to add, "I am sorry."
He wished for more light. Her silence chilled him. But this is what he had expected, what he deserved.
Her breath was still coming quickly. Beyond the beat of his heart and his own labored breathing, it was the only sound in the dark room. The shape of her face, the glow of her skin, was visible in the dim light. He waited for the condemnation, the anger, but she didn't speak. He couldn't stop himself from breaking the quiet between them. "I never stopped loving you, wanting you."
"Then the last three years must have been as miserable for you as they were for me."
There was his Emma. He heard it all in those few words. A spark of spirit, the pain and regret that echoed his own, and even the resentment that must have built like a pyre, each year adding more tinder to the flame.
Yes. It echoed in his mind over and over, resonated from every part of him. He hadn't even realized he'd spoken the word aloud until she was in his arms again.
Then he said it again. "Yes." He breathed the word against her mouth and then pressed his lips to her forehead, her eyebrow, her cheek. Wet, salty. He drank in her tears with his kiss. He pulled away. He'd wounded her. There was so much more he needed to say.
But she held him fast. Pulling at his lapels, she reached up and nuzzled his neck, kissing the skin above his neck cloth. "I missed you, James." He heard the tears in her voice and something deep inside of him, the wall around his heart that he had spent so long erecting, began to crumble. He had spent the previous three years trying to make something of himself, earn his fortune and the right to be with Miss Emma Prichard. Were the years of separation worth it? They stretched before him like a gaping, empty chasm. All those years of effort meant nothing when he realized that they could have been spent like this. Day and after day with this beautiful, generous woman--the unbearably stubborn Emma Prichard--in his arms, pressed against his body.
"And I you, Emma."
She kissed him then, melting his regret, bringing him back from the chasm's brink. "Show me how much" Her voice was low, laced with need and desire. A siren's call. "Show me how much you missed me."
He pressed her against the wall, leaning in to kiss her again. For the first time since he'd sequestered them in the darkened room, he was gentle, tentative.
A muffled rap on the door startled them both. James leaned down, resting his forehead against Emma's, feeling the puffs of her rapid breath on his neck.
"Emma?" the muted words through the door were a woman's and she was frantic.
For a woman on the edge of ruin, Emma startled him by answering in a surprisingly steady voice.
"Yes, Pen. I am here." James released her, stepping away just enough to allow her to settle her dress and push disheveled strands of hair back into place.
The woman beyond the door continued to whisper. "You must come back to the ballroom. I am sorry, dear, but your brother is here. He is looking for you. And for Mr. North."
James heard the rustle of Emma's clothing and reached out a hand to steady her.
She did not spare him the worry in her voice. "We must go. Robert will be beside himself."
"Perfect. He's just the man I wish to see." Satisfied that Emma had righted herself, James reached up to straighten his necktie.
"Are you mad?"The tone of worry in her voice had turned to panic. "James, this isn't the time or the place to speak to my brother."
"Why?" He bit off the word and immediately regretted his tone. Reaching out, he sought her hand, and she grasped his firmly. "Haven't we waited long enough?"
He knew she would say yes. She must say yes.
He heard her intake of breath, as if she was about to speak. Her answer was his future. A searing ache, a familiar pain, started in the center of his chest. The wait of a few seconds felt interminable.
Light flooded the room and a thunderous bang echoed off the walls. Robert Prichard stood in the doorway, body tense, his face contorted in a mask of pure rage.
~ * ~
Emma had dreamed of this moment. She'd dreamed of reuniting with James, yet the rage she read on her brother's face made it all more like a nightmare.
Robert was foxed. She could see it in his swaying stance and the glossy sheen of his eyes.
"You still can't have her, North. Can't you find some other woman to ruin?"
Pen spoke up. Emma hadn't even realized she'd come into the room too, and she jumped at the sound of Pen's usually soft voice, now firm and authoritative. "No one has been ruined, Robert. But we will all set tongues wagging if we don't return to the ball immediately." Pen placed a gentle hand on Emma's arm. "Abigail is with Dorcas Whitlock and her sisters." Pen spoke of another of the wallflowers with three younger sisters. "We should go to her."
"Yes." It would be such a relief to escape from Robert's drunken wrath, but one glance at James, and Emma found herself rooted in place. The notion of being parted from him again sent a sickening shiver of dread through her body. And she had questions for him. So many questions. But Penelope was insistent, and Emma turned to follow her back to the Granby ballroom.
"Wait." His voice, even a single word, calmed her. She closed her eyes and let the sense of comfort wash over her. "We must settle this matter now, Prichard. Emma and I have waited long enough."
"Emma." Her name echoed off the walls. Both Penelope and James had spoken it at once, each calling to separate parts of her nature. Penelope called to her sense of duty. What sort of a chaperone left her charge alone to abscond with a man into a darkened room? Abandoning duty was not the Prichard way.
Yet James called to her very soul. Her deepest desire was to send Pen and Robert away, forget about her duties, and hide away with the man who had never left her thoughts for three long years. But could she trust her heart to him? He had left her so easily and stayed away so long. Would he leave again?
It took all of her strength, every ounce of resolve to speak the words she knew she should. "James, this is not the proper time. I am here to chaperone my cousin and I have left her alone too long." The words struck her, echoing in her heart. "Alone too long." The phrase had nothing to do with Abigail and when she gazed at James, illuminated in the warm glow of hallway sconces, she knew he took her meaning.
He spoke directly to her, as if Robert and Pen weren't there and listening to every word. "You never have to be alone again, Emma. Tell me I won't be either."
"Good God, North. Have you no sense of propriety?" Robert slurred the words and tripped over his own feet as he moved toward Emma. His eyes widened, as if he was shocked at his own instability, and he grasped the edge of a well polished table to steady himself.
James finally turned his attention from Emma and glared at her brother. "Ah, the famous Prichard propriety. Will you tell Emma what your propriety has cost her? Cost us?"
"Does it really matter now?" Penelope stepped between the men, looking from one to the other. She sounded exasperated. Then she turned to Emma. "Tell him, dear. Tell Mr. North that he needn't be alone."
When Emma hesitated, Penelope continued. "She has been true to you, Mr. North. Constant and true. And you, sir? Have you been true to my friend? I do hope so, because she deserves it more than any woman I know."
James didn't say a word, but he approached Emma, gazing into eyes, a slight smile curving his lips. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words were sufficient. Apparently, Penelope didn't agree.
"Well, I shall take that as a yes, Mr. North. Now, will you do what is proper by my friend?"
"Shall I bend a knee here and now?" His words answered Penelope's question, but he never stopped looking at Emma. She couldn't stop gazing at him either. She studied every aspect of his beloved face, the familiar angles and the newer lines. How many times had she pictured him in her mind's eye? No imagining could ever compare to having him here, so close, so warm, and now, finally, hers.
"Yes, yes, of course you must do that. But not now. We're at a ball, Mr. North. Won't you ask her to dance?"
"Shall we, Emma? Or is your dance card full?"
A sensation tickled at Emma's middle, bubbling up into her throat, until a giggle burst from her. A giggle—as girlish and silly as anything she'd ever heard from Abigail. And she felt light. The ache in her chest was gone. She fingered the locket that James had given her so long ago, and it felt lighter too.
"Yes, my dance card is full, Mr. North." She stepped toward him, reaching out to take his offered hand. "And will be. From now until forever, I hope."
He lifted her hand to his lips, closed his eyes, and pressed his mouth to her skin. "Yes. Forever, Emma. Finally forever."