Julia stood at the top of the stairs of her very first Ton ball, took a deep breath and followed her Aunt Meriweather into the ballroom like the little lamb she was. She was wearing white silk with a white sash, which gave credence to her innocence. Fortunately, the colorless gown served to highlight her wavy brunette hair and brown eyes. Her eyes sparkled with excitement and there were roses in her cheeks. Her first ball!
"I do wish we had more funds for your gowns," her aunt fussed quietly as she pulled a gawking Julia in line. "But a vicar with seven children cannot be expected to have much..."
It was a song Julia had heard all her life - from any number of people, from her mother down to a pair of spinster sisters in the village - but the refrain had been playing a lot recently, ever since they had come to London. Aunt Meriweather, who was fairly well off, had decided that Bath was too limited for her beautiful niece, and the money she had allotted for her come-out was not going to be enough. However, Julia was more likely to meet a baronet, or even a viscount, in London and everyone's hopes were riding on her making a good marriage. For her aunt, that meant a title. For Julia, it meant someone she could be comfortable with and perhaps love just a little.
She continued to look around the ballroom with wide eyes and a slightly open mouth, taking in the colors, the jewels and feathers, the music and the lights, but all the faces were a blur. She dutifully took a seat next to her aunt, finally, after being introduced to a large number of people. Next to a bank of potted palms, she sat slightly forward to continue her perusal of the people, her feet tapping to the rhythm of the dance already in progress. Her face was eager as she waited for a chance to join the fun.
"Rand! I don't believe it!" Lady Forrester pounced on her cousin as he entered the ballroom. "You never come to my parties!" she exclaimed. She linked her arm with his and propelled him through the crowd, as if she were afraid he would escape otherwise.
Mr. Randolph Allen, a confirmed bachelor of thirty, only grimaced. "Your mother has informed her sister that I am a jaded cynic."
"Which must be avoided at all costs," Lady Forrester said dryly.
"I agree. But Mama and Aunt Allen will never think so, not as long as they draw breath." The two looked at each other with complete understanding of their parents, and laughed. It was a long-standing joke.
"So here I am, because I am compelled to give a personal report to both tomorrow at tea. Will you come to lend me support and confirm that what I tell them is the truth?"
"Will you promise not to keep Forrester at your club after Parliament for a week?"
"A man needs to relax before heading home to this hen house," he said mildly, making a cant reference to a house where the woman rules.
"Rand! What a wicked thing to say! Forrester loves being home with me and the children!"
Mr. Allen shrugged. "So he claims, and yet he sits at White's night after night..."
"Because you insist he provide you with companionship. If I had known you two would become so close, I would have let him marry you!"
"I shall never marry," he declared.
"I would not be too sure about that," his cousin said.
"Why do you say that?" he asked sharply.
"Because one of these days a young lady is going to cross your path who will make you forget you ever uttered such words," she smugly replied. "It happens to the best of men. Like Forrester."
"Like Forrester," he muttered, envious of the other man's happiness, but unwilling to offer for just any female, and none of his acquaintance. If there was a woman out there for him, he doubted she existed in his cousin's ballroom.
Julia had danced twice. Once with the younger son of an earl, whom she found to be rather young and gangly, and once with a Sir Elliot Hammerton, whom she thought stared more at her décolletage than her face. Now she was back on her gilt chair, leaning forward to watch the parade of fine furbelows as it passed her by.
"Sit up straight, child," her aunt admonished. "Before you fall-"
Julia pitched forward, could not keep her balance and fell flat on her face at the foot of her hostess, Lady Forrester, and a gentleman. Mrs. Meriweather groaned. Her niece had embarrassed herself in front of Mr. Allen, and it could not have been worse if it had been Beau Brummel himself! The man was known for his biting sarcasm, especially to young girls.
"I beg your pardon," Julia apologized at once, picking herself up without a blush. "I was so busy watching the people strolling by and dancing, I fell."
"It's all right, my dear," Lady Forrester said soothingly. "This is your first ball, is it not?" Mrs. Meriweather was a friend of her mother's and it was she who had asked for cards to be sent to the lady and her niece, newly come to town for the first time. "I'm honored that you found my ball so interesting. May I introduce my cousin, Mr. Allen?"
Julia, who had been staring at the gentleman with undisguised interest, felt let down, not realizing her face reflected her thoughts. He was only a mister, which was a pity, because she found him rather fascinating to look at.
He was tall, but then a lot of men were, especially when compared to her petite stature. He had hair as dark as her own, and it was faintly frosted at the temples, like a tentative brush of autumn, but his eyes were blue. Celestial blue, like a summer sky. She liked them now, when they crinkled with amusement, but she was certain they could turn as silvery as his temples if he were provoked.
"Mrs. Meriweather, you know, of course," Lady Forrester continued, watching the young lady's face fall. "And this is her niece, Miss Lamb."
Mrs. Meriweather pinched Julia, who yelped and recalled her manners, giving the gentleman a polite curtsy. Only a mister...
"It is a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Meriweather," he said with a bow, and then turned to Julia. "I hope you came to no harm when you fell. May I make it up to you on the dance floor?"
Julia looked up sharply from where she had been examining her fan. "Oh, yes, please!"
The two headed to the dance floor and Lady Forrester, deep in thought, plunked herself down next to the older woman and asked about some mutual friends.
"So this is your first ball." They were not waltzing, but had stood up together for a country dance. Julia had been presented at court the week before, but had to make the acquaintance of the patronesses of Almack's, whose permission she must obtain for that still-scandalous dance.
"Yes, sir," Julia replied with enthusiasm. No one had told her to keep the excitement from her voice or to adopt a languid pose. And never having had to do such things, she probably would not know how even if she tried.
"You dance very well."
"Thank you! My older brother taught me back home in Dorset, and my next youngest sister, Arabella, played the pianoforte for us. She plays beautifully!"
"You have several siblings?" he prompted, surprised that he wished to even know such a thing. It was not a question he had ever asked a young lady before.
"Oh, yes! The vicarage fairly overflows with Lambs! Robin is the eldest - he's the one who taught me to dance, and then there is myself and Arabella, who is sixteen and so eager to be in my shoes. She is the beauty of the family, all golden curls and blue eyes, like Mama's china shepherdess..."
Miss Lamb was not quite fusby-faced herself, he thought, listening to her rattle on, a walking advertisement for this Arabella.
"...And then there is Sylvester. He's fourteen and ever so studious and hopes to become a vicar just like Papa. Evelyn and Kit are ten - they are full of mischief! And Venetia is six," she said with a sigh. "She is a very sweet little girl."
"You must miss your family," he said softly when they came together in the set.
"I do. But Mama and Aunt Meriweather say this is the best place for me, so here I am!"
He chuckled, amused in spite of himself. "You must be a big help around the vicarage."
"Oh, yes! Mama is so busy with the children, and Papa truly needs someone to look after him, and Arabella..." She was about to say that Arabella was too full of herself to help others, but that would not be loyal to her sister, especially in front of a stranger, so she closed her mouth. She didn't realize Mr. Allen had her sister's character figured out already.
"Arabella probably does not have time in between playing the pianoforte and looking beautiful," he said kindly. With anyone else he probably would have sneered, but this child's enthusiasm was vastly entertaining.
Julia looked at him gratefully, and with something akin to awe. "That's right," she said happily. "It takes time to be beautiful."
"I doubt you spend all that much time on your toilette, Miss Lamb, and yet you are quite beautiful." Now where the hell had that come from? He was relieved when the set ended and he could return this lovely little innocent back to her aunt. She interested him far too much for his own peace of mind.
"Ask Rand about the ball, Mama!" Lady Forrester urged her parent the next afternoon at tea.
"You went?" Both older ladies, who were twin sisters and had the habit of either answering in unison or finishing each others' sentences, were agog at the prospect of his setting foot in a Mayfair ballroom.
"I did," Mr. Allen said placidly, taking a few biscuits and a slice of cake with his tea and settling back for the onslaught of questions. "Just as you ordered."
"We didn't order!" Mrs. Allen protested.
"We merely suggested," Mrs. Wright finished.
"He met a girl," Lady Forrester interjected. "A very pretty one."
"She's too young," he said. "And rather silly. She rattled on about her family the entire dance."
"You danced?" his mother and aunt asked together.
"Once. With the silly rattle," Lady Forrester said slyly. "And I think he rather enjoyed himself."
"Didn't you? You never danced with anyone else and you left early."
"How lovely!" Mrs. Allen exclaimed.
"Just like in a novel!" Mrs. Wright said with a sigh.
"Thank you very much," he said sarcastically to Lady Forrester. "See what you have started?"
Lucy shrugged. "Just trying to be cousinly."
He didn't like the smirk on her face. "You may stop any time."
"Who is this paragon?" the other ladies asked.
"Mrs. Meriweather's niece," Lucy replied, settling back with another smirk. "Miss Julia Lamb. It was quite romantic, really. The young lady, having never been to a ball before, was most eager to see everything and everyone, and quite literally fell at Rand's feet." Her mother and aunt sighed as one.
"She should have acted with a bit more decorum," Mr. Allen muttered.
"Like you, perhaps? Well, after she picked herself up (I would have helped her, had I been Rand...), I introduced them and he asked her to dance. She accepted and then, I suppose, rattled on about her family."
"And a vicarage in Dorset," he said, knowing he was not going to be let off the hook easily. "She is the second eldest of seven children and she thinks her sister is much more beautiful than herself."
"Is she pretty?" his mother asked.
"What does she look like?" his aunt wondered.
"Like an angel," he replied without thinking.
All three ladies snickered and innocently sipped their tea. It appeared as if Rand had gone and done it now. They could not wait for his comeuppance after hearing him expound forever on the topics of love, marriage and family. He did not believe in the first, avoided the second and accepted the third, but only those members who were already in existence.
If Mr. Allen felt guilty speaking of Miss Lamb so freely, he should have realized he was also a topic of discussion over a different set of teacups. At least, Mrs. Meriweather was doing the talking. Julia, who had been bid to bring in her aunt's morning tray, was only required to listen.
"A most satisfactory first foray into society, my love," the older lady said around a mouthful of toast.
Julia was not quite sure what her aunt defined as a success, so she kept her mouth closed, except to sip her tea.
"The younger sons are out of the question, of course, but that baron has potential, and Sir Elliot Hammerton was most enamored..." Mrs. Meriweather rattled on, but the only gentlemen mentioned all had titles.
"What about Mr. Allen?" Julia finally blurted. Her aunt, about to take a drink, lowered her cup slowly.
"What about him? Granted, he is wealthy and handsome, but I'm certain he was only saving you from social embarrassment. Besides..."
Julia was certain her aunt was going to mention the gentleman's lack of a title. After all, that was all she ever talked about. Her aunt surprised her.
"He's so old!"
"Oh!" Julia almost dropped her cup. "He is?"
"He's all of thirty, my dear, and while one might consider him in his prime -- I certainly do -- he is much too old for you, my pet. Certainly the lack of a title in that family has nothing to do with pedigree or prestige..." she mused. "Although he did show some very pretty manners towards you, which is not his usual style. But what were you thinking, falling at his feet like that?"
"Never mind. He did not cut you or treat you to one of his biting remarks, so you should have nothing to fear from that quarter. Please do not do it again, my love. The next time would most likely be at the feet of Mrs. Drummond-Burrell!" They both shuddered at the thought.
Her curiosity piqued, Julia hoped to see Mr. Allen again soon, but she was to be disappointed for an entire week. In the meantime, she was pleasantly surprised to be taken under Lady Forrester's wing, but that lady never mentioned her cousin and Julia was too timid to introduce him into the conversation.
That next Sunday afternoon, after church and a light tea, Mrs. Meriweather declared her niece was looking peaked and insisted she go for a walk about the square.
"Nancy shall accompany you," she was told. "I'm going to take a nap."
Julia and Nancy, the girl who had come with her from Dorset, would have loved naps after so many late nights, but Mrs. Meriweather's maid had already taken the liberty of fetching their cloaks and bonnets and they were quickly ushered on their way.
Once outside, Julia's spirits lifted and she began to enjoy the sunshine that had been absent for a few days. She also appreciated the spring flowers that were beginning to bloom everywhere. Even Nancy, a country girl who had grown up in the vicarage, was smiling by time they reached halfway around the square.
Then they saw a ragged creature in a corner by an alley, weeping over a bundle in her arms.
She thought at first that the girl held an infant, but on closer inspection Julia heard a faint mewling. As she watched, a member of the watch began to fuss at the two little scraps and as a true clergyman's daughter, she ran over and threw herself between the two.
"'Ere now, miss, you jus' run along and let me deal with this female in me own good time," he insisted.
Julia stood her ground. "Do you have a home?" she asked the girl softly, and tears welled in her eyes when she heard how the girl had been a scullery maid, but had been turned out when it discovered she was keeping a cat.
"But it is such a wee little thing!" Julia said. "And turned out on the Sabbath, too!" Shocking! "You must see, sir, that this poor girl needs to find a new position, and to do that, she cannot just ‘run along' as you have told me to do!" As she argued with the watch at length, her righteous indignation drew a crowd.
"Won't anyone give this poor girl and her kitten a home?" she beseeched them. A few people muttered and turned away, but Mr. Allen, who had stopped to see what had drawn a crowd a mere two doors from his house, stepped forward.
"I shall. I believe my housekeeper said something about needing a new scullery maid just the other day." She had said no such thing, but Mr. Allen did not have time to analyze why he so blatantly lied. He was too worried about putting that sunny smile back on Miss Lamb's pretty face.
"Truly, Mr. Allen?" Julia rewarded him with a wide smile. "Kitten and all?"
Julia's face fell.
"Kitten and all."
"Oh, thank you!" she said fervently. "You won't be sorry. I'm sure -- what is your name?" she asked the girl.
"I'm sure Becky's kitten will earn its keep."
"I'm sure," he dryly agreed. "Come here, girl," he gently called to Becky. "Take my card and go around to the back of Number 24. Can you read numbers? No? Go down this alley, turn that way and knock at the second door. Can you do that? Good. Ask for Mrs. Fiske. I'll be along shortly to explain things."
Becky didn't need to be told twice. She gathered her bundles and ran off down the alley, turning in the correct direction.
"Thank you, sir, for your assistance," Mr. Allen told the watch, who had observed everything with skeptical expression and who was now obviously dismissed.
Once alone, Julia and Nancy were watching the gentleman with something akin to adoration.
Mr. Allen became rather nervous, confronted as he was with so much admiration. He mumbled something about needing to speak to his housekeeper and practically ran from their presence.
He could not, however, get Miss Lamb out of his mind, not even after he had a quick consultation with his bewildered housekeeper and then headed off to tea with his mother and aunt. Lucy, much to his chagrin, was there, as well.
"You're late," she said when he was finally announced.
"Don't you have a husband and children?" he replied.
"We were just about..." his mother said.
"...To start without you," his aunt finished. She poured her nephew a cup of tea.
"You know there is no need to wait on me," he insisted, giving them both kisses before accepting his cup and settling down next to his mother.
"Have you see Miss Lamb lately?" Lucy wondered, ignoring his earlier question.
"Why do you ask?" If he had been even five years younger, he would have blushed, because the chit never seemed to be far from his mind. As it was, he looked everywhere but at his cousin.
"You have seen her!"
"Today, in fact." He tried to keep his voice smooth, and he even leaned back and crossed one ankle over his other leg to show how little bothered he was by this fact, but his cousin knew him too well.
"Tell us! Miss Lamb is a sweet girl," she told her mother and aunt. "I have spent time with her on several occasions this past week and she is just darling."
"We must invite Miss Lamb," Mrs. Allen said.
"And Mrs. Meriweather to tea." They nodded at each other, satisfied with that decision.
"Now tell us what happened today," Lucy said. "I have a feeling it will be quite a story. Nothing is ever simple with Miss Lamb, even though she is a simple creature herself."
"Do want to hear this or not?" Mr. Allen grumbled.
"Yes!" the sisters said in unison.
He told them how he was leaving his house to come for tea when he saw a crowd around the alley opening and there was Miss Lamb, arguing with the watch over the fate of a small scullery maid and an even smaller kitten.
"I'm not surprised there is a baby animal in this story," Lucy said with a smile. "But I can tell where this is all headed." She gave her cousin a fond glance. He was almost transparent when it came to Miss Lamb.
"Oh? Then you finish it," he challenged.
"Certainly. Miss Lamb wanted someone to hire the maid, you agreed, although where you will be able to fit in another scullery, I have no idea..."
"Not to mention a kitten..." he added almost under his breath.
"Oh, I won't forget the kitten," she said with a smirk. "And now Miss Lamb worships the ground you walk on. Am I right?"
"Almost. Miss Lamb and her maid think I am a deity. It's quite unnerving."
Lucy went off into peals of laughter and the other ladies quickly followed suit.
Mr. Allen spent the better part of the next two weeks watching certain gentlemen dance attendance on Miss Lamb and wondering what to do about this rather unhealthy preoccupation he had with the lady. After all, he was an older man and a leader of society, if one believed his mother and aunt. They had, fortunately, let the subject of Miss Lamb drop for the moment, although Lucy had reported that tea with Mrs. Meriweather and her niece had met with success.
Lucy not only continued to take Miss Lamb under her wing, but had begun to introduce the chit to other gentlemen!
"You don't want her," Lucy retorted when confronted with the fact in her own drawing room, "so why shouldn't I?"
"I never said I didn't want her. I just think I'm too old for her. And too... Let's just say I have a different outlook on life. She would either have to adopt my way of thinking too quickly and lose that wonderful optimism for us to be compatible, or else she will grow tired of my jaded views on life."
"Did you ever think the one to change their outlook might be you?" Lucy asked softly.
"So you say. Look at Forrester. He was much like yourself only a few years ago, and yet now he's different than he used to be. I, of course," she teased, bringing a smile to his face, "have not changed one jot."
"No, you have not. But you and Forrester are closer in age," he reminded her.
"I think it's time you made a trip to Dorset." Lucy knew many things about Julia's family that Rand was not aware of, things he needed to see for himself.
She named a village near Bournemouth. "Ask for the vicarage and the Rev. Mr. Lamb when you get there. Everyone knows him..."
"But, Lucy, who will keep an eye on Miss Lamb while I am gone?"
"I will, naturally. Someone has to keep wolves like Hammerton at bay. Especially now that Mrs. Meriweather has placed him at the top of her list of eligibles."
"The devil you say!"
"It's true. I know, however, that he is too lazy to go to Dorset to ask for her hand, and someone with proper parental permission would carry more weight with the young lady in question. I think you should go on horseback..."
"Yes, yes, I will."
Lucy leaned over and hugged her cousin. "You won't regret this, Rand. I know you won't. Now run along and take care of business. I'll watch over our lamb while you are gone."
It took him a couple of days to reach his destination. The time it took to travel the distance was compounded by his horse throwing a shoe along the way, and it was mid-afternoon when Mr. Allen finally rode into the village square. As Lucy predicted, everyone knew the vicar, and he was directed to a large, rambling house on the edge of town.
An auburn-haired lad of ten or so ran out to take his horse, an exact replica of himself hot on his heels. They offered to take Ramses into the barn for water and a rubdown, followed by a leisurely nuncheon of oats.
"Thank you." Then, mindful of Miss Lamb's description of her twin brothers, offered each five shillings if they would do exactly as they promised.
The twins exchanged glances, decided their loyalty was worth 10 shillings combined and nodded.
As he watched them trot off with his gelding, an odd thought entered his head. The Lambs, it seemed, produced twins, just as the Allens were wont to do. He didn't have time to fully ponder that further, because a little girl with golden hair was tugging at his coat.
"Can I help you, sir?" she asked politely.
"I'm looking for the Rev. Mr. Lamb. Are you a Lamb?" He did not recall too many of the names Miss Lamb had so easily rattled off to him.
"I can show you to the vicar," the girl said brightly, skipping up to the house by his side. "My name is Venetia. What is yours?"
"I am Mr. ... I am Rand," he replied with the beginnings of a smile as she led him into the house and down the hall to a broad oak door. Without knocking, she ran in and threw herself onto the lap of an older gentleman. He broke off what he was reading to give her a hug.
"And what are you up to today, poppet?" he asked in a gentle voice.
"I've brought someone to see you, Papa!"
"Oh?" The gentleman looked Mr. Allen slowly up and down. "Is he a beau of yours?" he asked his daughter. She giggled.
"No, Papa! He's here to see you!"
"Then run along, my sweet, and tell your Mama that we have company while I find out what this gentleman wants of me."
"Yes, sir!" she said smartly, kissed his cheek and hopped down. "Don't keep Papa from tea, now," she admonished Mr. Allen with a gesture that reminded him vaguely of Miss Lamb.
After the child closed the door behind her, the Rev. Mr. Lamb invited his unexpected guest to have a seat. "Have you come a long way, sir?"
"Ah. And how are my daughter and sister faring so far?" The question was asked with a shrewd look that belied the man's quiet, studious air.
"I left them in good health," Mr. Allen admitted.
"Very good. I wondered when I might receive a visit from an intrepid suitor willing to withstand the distance and the horrors of the vicarage."
"I beg your pardon?"
"You've come about Julia, no doubt. But perhaps you have some questions of your own, first? Obviously you are not in the first blush of youth, a callow lad who fancies himself in love with my daughter only to discover a week, a month or a year later that he wishes to move on to another. I could not allow my Julia to give herself to such a one."
"Obviously not!" Mr. Allen hotly agreed. "As for youth..."
"You aren't exactly in your dotage, now, are you?" The Rev. Mr. Lamb rose from his chair and tugged on a tapestry bell pull. A very pretty woman, somewhere between ten and fifteen years younger than the vicar, answered his summons. "Phoebe, dearest, won't you meet Mr... Lord..."
"Mr. Allen, ma'am," he said, rising at her entrance and bowing.
"Come from London," the vicar added significantly. "My wife, Mrs. Lamb. He informs me that Julia and your sister are fine."
Mr. Allen stood there, wordlessly, as Mrs. Lamb curtsied.
"Venetia said there was a gentleman come to call. You will stay the night, Mr. Allen? Despite all the children, we do have room for guests, as well."
"I ... er, yes, ma'am, I should be delighted." This must be one of Lucy's points -- that the vicar's wife, Miss Lamb's mother, was quite a bit younger than her husband. Was it a love match? He would have to find out.
"Very good. I'll leave you two gentlemen to your discussion, then, and send Mary in with the tea."
"Send Arabella in her stead, won't you?" the vicar called as his wife was leaving the room.
"Arabella? Of course, dear."
"The children tend to get boisterous this time of day, and we should have no chance to talk quietly if we joined the family. But you will be here for dinner, and it will give you a chance to meet everyone."
The door opened once more and a fairy-like creature in blue, all golden curls and pink pouty mouth, brought in the tea tray, followed by a maid with cakes and tarts.
"Arabella! Come meet a new friend. Mr. Allen, my second daughter, Miss Arabella Lamb."
Arabella immediately set the tray down, sloshing tea everywhere in her haste, and smoothed her gown and hair before approaching, holding out one hand. She pouted further when Mr. Allen only bowed over it, expecting a different reaction from such a handsome man. But if she thought to attract his attention, she would grow cold at such a game.
"Charming. As we were discussing earlier, sir..." he began rather rudely, to indicate to the miss that she was dismissed, and was rewarded with a flouncing of skirts and a loud hmpf as she stalked out of the room, the maid right behind her. "I beg your pardon, sir. I did not mean to be rude to your daughter..."
"Didn't you?" the vicar countered, but seemed rather satisfied with events as they stood.
They did not get much chance to discuss Julia that afternoon or evening, because children interrupted them at every turn. Mr. Allen, however, did not seem to mind. With the exception of Arabella, whom he treated markedly as a child, he gave the others his undivided attention.
Dinner was a noisy affair and was followed by parlor games, which the entire family seemed to delight in. Mr. Allen could not only picture Julia here among her cheerful family, but planning such activities for her own children. Several times, Mrs. Lamb admitted that she missed her daughter.
"Not only for the help she gives around here, of course, but for her sunny disposition. She is my happiest child. And she is undoubtedly the most excellent charades player in the house."
He left the next morning with a well-cared-for horse, the well-wishes of everyone but Miss Arabella, who was still pouting, and the approval of the Rev. Mr. Lamb to pay his addresses to Julia.
"On one condition," the older gentleman counseled. "That you let her enjoy her season first. Then, at the end of a couple of months, when it is time for her to return to us, and if you are not one of those callow youths, I wish you all the luck in the world."
Rand recalled all that on a beautiful, balmy night in June. Parliament would not end until August, but many were heading far north to cooler climes or just a ways south to Brighton, and Miss Lamb -- Julia -- was to return to Dorset in two days.
They were both back at Forrester House, but instead of inside the ballroom, they had stepped out onto the terrace for some fresh air.
"I long for home," Julia said quietly. This was the most pensive Mr. Allen had ever seen her.
"You are unhappy? I thought your season had been a great success. You have become a favorite among the young ladies, gentlemen fall all over themselves to propose and even your aunt has seen the folly of encouraging Hammerton..."
"I never did discover who warned my aunt away from him, but she has found fault with every single proposal I have received."
"But since you ask, I am unhappy. I have had a wonderful time these past few months and I am headed home to my family, and yet I feel I have not won the regard of someone who is very dear to me."
Julia looked at him expectantly. While not living in her pocket, Mr. Allen always appeared just when she needed him to, and he always asked for a dance. He was her partner at whist and had once volunteered to sing a duet with her at a musical soiree. And he had taken Becky and her kitten into his home, where the housekeeper was training her to become a chambermaid.
Very boldly, she picked up his hand and brought it to her cheek. "You have been paying rather marked attention to me these past two weeks, sir. I was sure you were going to ask for a third dance tonight, and that is something you never do." Perhaps it was the moonlight, or maybe she was tired of waiting for him. Either way, she was being rather forward, but she didn't care.
"Miss Lamb, would you partner me for the next dance?" His expression was serious. "Would you partner me for life? I discovered early on this season that I was helpless, hopefully in love with you, and I do not wish to spend the rest of my life without you by my side."
"Rand!" she whispered. "What about our ages? What about our different outlooks on life?"
"You've been listening to Lucy, minx! I realized recently that age has nothing to do with love, and neither does anything else. I promised your father a couple of months ago, when I went to Dorset, that I would let you have your season, and now you have. Will you go out in a blaze of glory with an engagement, as well, my little love?"
Julia, never loath to show affection, threw herself into his arms. "Oh, yes! I thought you would never ask!"
He kissed her, gently at first and then with growing ardor, and neither noticed Lucy standing at the terrace doors, refusing to let anyone out.
Lady Forrester's eyes filled with tears as the couple outside stayed locked in an embrace, and she let the heavy velvet of the draperies slide shut, blocking them from ballroom view, before her husband, waiting patiently by her side, led her silently away.
© 2005 Copyright held by the author.