Why did I have to attend a ball when I did not feel like dancing or speaking with strangers at all?
“Lizzy, make haste! You shall be the death of me. I want all of you at the Assembly nice and early.” Mama waved a handkerchief to fan her face, and hurried Nancy to help style Jane’s hair. “Oh, my nerves! Such a nice officer, Colonel Forster, to host a masquerade ball for single men and women.”
Jane nodded, seeming to agree with what Mama said.
“He even invited a clergyman to marry couples who fall in love.” Lydia rushed into our room and thrust her chest in front of the mirror. “Does my décolleté look daring enough?”
“What are you saying? Where did you hear about such a thing?” Mama whirled around to look at Lydia. Jane looked alarm. I shook my head. Lydia was fast becoming like Aunt Philips, as one of the silliest girls in the country. Remembering Papa’s words nearly brought a tear to my eyes. It was fortunate that my little sister was eager to share the intelligence.
“Denny told me. He said Colonel Forster said it was all for the good of England.” She pinched her cheeks and bit her lips to make them red. “He says that Boney has killed too many of our men and we need to make more babies, now and fast.”
“Lydia!” Both Jane and I chastised her.
“Oh, my nerves!” Mama cried. “Bless Colonel Forster! This has been the first good news since we moved to Broadstairs. I hope all of you find some rich men to marry tonight.”
“Mama, this is the silliest scheme I have ever heard. Colonel Forster seems a sensible person. I am certain Lydia misunderstood Captain Denny.” I was tired of mother complaining about her nerves. I had no interest in getting married, certainly not to a stranger with whom I would only have been acquainted for a few hours.
“What would you know about the Colonel’s business?” Mother scowled at me. “Do you not remember your Aunt Philips’s letter? The militia in Meryton hosted a ball and invited many young men from London. But she is such a poor correspondence. She did not say if it was a masquerade ball or whether there was a clergyman in attendance to marry people. If only we were still in Longbourn…” She sat down on the bed and started sobbing, as she usually did when she talked about our previous home.
“La, Mama, I think Denny said this singular idea was solely Colonel Forster’s. The ball at Meryton Assembly would have no such thing,” Lydia said, leaning forward to look through Jane’s jewellery box.
Why did she have to continue on this stupid topic?
“Is that so? Oh, I am now most happy that the Colonel and his regiment are assigned here, rather than Meryton.”
Not for the first time, I wondered how Mama could turn from sobbing to cheerfulness within a moment.
“I did not mind you renting Longbourn to that boring Mr. Collins. After all, what is Hertfordshire to Broadstairs of Kent?” Lydia commented.
“I agree,” Kitty said, and then added, “I saw a few handsome gentlemen sea-bathing, this morning.”
Kitty might be older than Lydia by four years, but she was often led by our younger sister. I was certain that she would agree with Lydia on almost anything.
“They looked rich but they are old!” Lydia said.
“Perhaps for you,” Kitty retorted. “But not for me. I caught a glimpse of the shorter gentleman – the one with fair hair – without his shirt.”
“Kitty, you should not stare at a gentleman when he is not properly attired,” Jane scolded.
“Oh, hang propriety! See where it takes you? Eight-and-twenty, and still unmarried,” Mama said. “And you, too, Miss Lizzy! I do not blame Mary, for she is most plain. But Jane was such a pretty girl when she was younger, five times prettier than any of you. And now? I demand that you two old spinsters find a man tonight and get married. And remember, they must be rich and with a townhouse in London. My brother has been most neglectful. He has not invited any of you to stay in London for ever so long. Now, Kitty, tell me more about these rich and handsome gentlemen you saw. Did you give them a smile or a wink?”
I wished that Mama would just be silent and leave us alone. Could she not see that her words hurt Jane’s feelings? It was not as if my dear elder sister did not try. Meryton was a very confined and unvaried society. And our circumstances had changed so much in the past six years that we could not afford to go to London any more. Where did Mama think that Jane could find a suitable gentleman to marry?
“The tall one has dark wavy hair. He is more handsome than the blond one but he looked quite fierce, as if Lydia and I should not have been walking past the beach. But I think the blond one smiled at me.”
“He smiled at me, not you!”
“I disagree. He smiled at me!” Kitty retorted.
“Oh, do not yell right to my face, Kitty!” Mother cried. “Lydia, how do you know they are rich?”
“We were walking with Denny and Chamberlayne. They were carrying boxes of wine to the camp when we came upon the two men sea-bathing,” Lydia said, “Chamberlayne said Colonel Forster had invited many single gentlemen and ladies from all over Kent, and that he had seen the two gentlemen the day before, apparently staying at Kingsgrove Castle. He said they must be friends of Lord Martin.”
“Oh dear!” Mother said, and laughed in delight. “Friends of a Lord? Ooh, I must find more jewellery for all of you. Nancy, put a few more flowers in all of their hair.” She then left the room in a whirlwind.
“Mama, I want the pink stone you wore…” Lydia followed, with Kitty hot on her heels.
“Nancy, let me do Jane’s hair.” I dismissed the girl and spoke to Jane. “I am sorry for Mama.”
“I am fine, Lizzy,” Jane said calmly. “She only speaks the truth. I am eight-and-twenty, and I have passed the bloom of my youth.”
“Nonsense. You are still just two years older than I, and you still look five times prettier than any of us.”
“That is only because you get older with me, at the same time.” She smiled as she spoke, but the sparkle in her eyes dimmed in the next moment. “We are a pair of hopeless spinsters, with no fortune or connections. I do not know what we shall do by next year, when Papa…”
“We shall find him. Do not fear, my dear.” I bit my lip, hoping that Jane would not notice my own fearful concerns.
“It has been almost six years now. I think we have to prepare for the worse. Perhaps, as the eldest, I should look for employment to support the family. That is, if I cannot find a rich man to marry tonight.” She gave me a sad smile.
“Lydia and her nonsense! We should not lose hope. Uncle has not. He still has his men following leads. And I have written to him. I have been saving money and have asked him to allow me to invest, and to work in his bathing machine business.”
“You did not!” Jane turned to look at me, her eyes wide.
“Whyever not?” I tilted my chin. “I can manage it for him, which will save him the cost of hiring Upton. I have been learning every aspect of the trade, over the past six months since we moved here.”
“But we are gentlewomen.”
“Gentlewomen can be landlords, hiring lands out to tenants. Why can I not hire out some bathing machines to rich men and women?”
“I am certain Papa would not approve, if he knew.”
“Well then, we shall find him and let him have his say. In the meantime, however, I shall follow my plan to increase our family’s fortunes. So do not think about marrying just any man tonight, and do not think about becoming a governess.”
“But I can still hope to meet a handsome man tonight, can I not?”
“Indeed, but he must be rich, too. Remember what Mama said?” Jane and I giggled together, and it was good to forget our worries, even for a minute. “At any rate, I think that Lydia has got it all wrong. How can Colonel Forster make people fall in love so easily? Marriage is for a lifetime. Who would want to marry someone without becoming better acquainted with them than that? I am certain Lydia is wrong.”
“I agree, it cannot be possible,” Jane said, and nodded.
“Hmm, unless… If you remember, Lydia said that the officers were carrying boxes of wine. I hope the Colonel is not planning to get us all drunk and then pair us up whatever way he wishes. But no, that is nonsense. I shall concentrate on learning more about Uncle’s business and on finding Papa.”
“Our circumstances are bleak. I shall do my best to do as Mama directs.”
“You are sounding more like Charlotte, now.”
“I should have done more, earlier. But when Papa first disappeared, I did not have the heart to attend balls, or the time to court the attention of any gentleman.”
“Not that there were many chances. We were all rendered wretched by the incident. Uncle and Aunt Gardiner were frantic to help in the search. You were managing the household, while Mama worried about whether our cousin would appear. Luckily, the heir to Longbourn could not be located, either. I hope he is forever lost, as well. Then the entail can be broken.”
“Has Uncle had any news recently?”
“Aunt sent me a letter via Upton, yesterday. You know she does not want to send it here, for fear of upsetting Mama. I have not had a chance to share it with you yet.”
“Is there good news?”
“Unfortunately, no. After so many years and so many leads, they have all led back to the carriage stop at Chepping Wycombe. Papa was last seen there, heading to Uncle’s place.” I breathed out a sigh of frustration.
“But he never boarded the carriage. We have known that piece of information for quite a long time.”
“Yes, but Aunt says that a new piece of evidence has now emerged. There seems to have been a very handsome carriage at the stop, as well, arriving slightly before Papa disappeared. It is said to have belonged to a gentleman from the North.”
“Why was this not mentioned before?”
“There were many carriages at the stop, that day. The staff’s memory was not precise or they were not willing to say, and their record-keeping seemed shockingly lacking. If they could have been more helpful at the time that Uncle’s men first questioned them, we might not have wasted so much time.”
Jane patted my hand and said calmly, “At least it is good news. Did Aunt say anything more about the carriage or this gentleman from the North?”
“The carriage did not have a livery, but there were two jolly young gentlemen onboard. They seemed to be heading to a race of some sort. The most frustrating thing is that the staff at the posting stop could not recall any substantial information about the gentlemen or their groomsmen, except that they may have hailed from Scarborough.”
“A carriage without livery, possibly from Scarborough? That does not help much.” Jane sighed. “And even if we find the young gentlemen, it is not certain that they saw or heard anything regarding Papa.”
“We can only hope for the best.” Seeing her sad countenance, I turned the conversation in another direction. “Do you like your mask? I found the Colonel officious in that respect, by providing the mask. Fortunately, he did not feel it necessary to provide our gowns, too.”
“The Colonel must be very anxious to hide our identities. These masks cover nearly the whole of our faces.”
I put on my green one and looked at the mirror. “Yes, it feels strange to have only my eyes, mouth and jaw seen. It is not very comfortable but I can breathe quite well. Do you think you will you be able to recognise me at the ball?” I curtseyed to her and said, “Delighted to make your acquaintance, Madam.”
“Lizzy!” she exclaimed, and laughed. I was glad that I had finally managed to cheer her up. “I know your hair style and dress. Of course, I will recognise you. Promise me that you shall stay close to me. What if they try to marry me off to a rake?”
I promised Jane. Then, remembering who I was supposed to be, I hissed. “Come along,” I said, and held out my hand to her. We left the room together and rejoined our sisters.
True to Mother’s words, we were among the first guests to arrive at the Assembly. When we showed our cards to the officer at the entrance, the good man stifled a laugh and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Gold Bee, the Green Serpent, the Grey Bunting, the White Sparrow and the Scarlet Ibis.”
“It is so unfair,” Lydia pouted. “We are just birds but Lizzy is different.”
“Remember, you chose your mask first. You said you did not want to be a snake!” I reminded her.
She stuck out her tongue, reminding me that she was just fifteen years of age. On seeing a tall, well-dressed man passing by, she curtseyed immediately and introduced herself.
“Scarlet Ibis here, delighted to meet you, Sir, on such a nice evening,” she said, speaking softly.
The man grinned, his ego apparently flattered by Lydia’s flirtation. He bowed and replied, “Black Crow here, at your service. May I have the honour of the first set, fair Ibis?”
Lydia laughed at the name, but she was clearly delighted to be the first to secure a dance. I had a bad feeling about the night, and hoped she was not right. I also hoped Colonel Forster would not engage in some outrageous scheme, for she would be the first one off to the altar, agreeing to marry any man she fancied.
As the Crow and the Ibis flew off to find some refreshment, Kitty followed with an unhappy frown. Mary said she would keep an eye on them, and walked slowly behind the three.
I stayed with Jane at the corner for half an hour, but more and more guests arrived. When the dances began, I lost track of her. After an hour, I declared I had not seen so many people at an Assembly in my life.
I moved farther and farther away from the crowd, trying to find a quiet spot. It was fortunate that there were fewer gentlemen, sparing me the agony of dancing with anyone. At least, nothing seemed to be out of place. It looked just like any ball I had attended before.
At that precise moment, the dance finished and the music stopped completely. The Colonel stood up and spoke. “Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for attending the Broadstairs Assembly. Please take a glass of wine. I wish to propose a toast.”
He smiled and raised his glass, while his officers distributed glasses to the dancers who had just finished and to anyone sitting or strolling around.
I accepted one and waited.
“I would like to thank the Viscount Martin for his generous patronage, which has made tonight’s sumptuous event possible. The sparkling French wine is but one example. Therefore, I would like to offer a toast to His Lordship who unfortunately was unable to attend tonight due to some urgent and unexpected business in London.”
“To Lord Martin!” Everyone cheered and drank from their glass. I raised my glass but took just a tiny sip of the wine. It was very fragrant. I had not met the Lord before, but he seemed well liked by the people here.
Officers distributed more wine as the Colonel continued.
“Now I would like to toast our defeat of the enemy. The passage to the continent is once again safe.”
“To England!” To that, I was happy to drink. I had a few more sips of wine while I listened to his speech.
“As you know, many of our men were lost in the battles of the past years. I am happy to report that the militia is endeavouring to help rebuild the country. And I came up with this marvellous idea of hosting a ball for single men and women. What better way to rebuild our nation than to encourage all of you to get married, procreate and replace the men lost?”
Loud whispers and murmuring voices sprang up all around me.
“Is he drunk?”
“See, I told you!”
Colonel Forster raised his hands, and the musicians played a loud note to quiet down the crowd.
“With the blessing of Lord Martin, I hope you enjoy tonight’s ball. We have two rooms dedicated to games that you will not find at any other Assembly dance. And if you find that special woman or man with whom you wish to procreate babies for our nation, we have an army clergyman available in the antechamber, ready to conduct the wedding ceremony for you.”
“That is scandalous!”
“I shall report back to London.”
“No one will use the altar.”
“What was Lord Martin thinking, backing such an outrageous idea?”
“And,” the Colonel continued, “unlike the ton, we did not lock the doors to ban latecomers. Instead, we have locked the doors of the Assembly to ensure that you all stay for the course of the evening. Happy dancing, all for the greater glory of England!”
Oh, what a mess! I thought. I must find Jane. But although I wanted to move back into the crowd quickly, my feet felt a bit heavy. My movements were slow and I felt unbearably hot in my head.
I had not moved more than ten feet when my path was blocked by two men who were debating heatedly.
“I told you that I did not want to attend. This was a bad idea from the start,” the tall man said in a deep, serious tone.
“What are you afraid of?” The man of shorter stature laughed. “That Caroline will drag you to the altar?”
“Do not remind me of your sister! Did you not hear him talk about games?” the serious man said. “The ball will become unruly. I want to leave now.”
“Lighten up, Darcy!” the cheerful man said. “You heard what he said. The doors are locked. Upon my honour, I have never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening. And several of them seem uncommonly pretty.”
“I am astonished, Bingley,” Mr. Darcy said. “How can you tell that they are pretty? Their faces are hidden by the masks.”
“I can still see their eyes and lips,” Mr. Bingley replied. “See? There is a handsome one over there, with sweet lips.”
Was this Mr. Bingley referring to me? As I took a deep breath and continued to walk, Mr. Darcy turned and stared at me for a moment. He was very tall. His mask was dark green. His eyes were the deepest shade of black that I had ever seen. His mien gave him the air of a nobleman.
I felt light-headed over being the object of attention to such a man. But the words he next uttered were like cold water cascading over my head. “Those lips do look sultry, and beg to be kissed. But, for all I know, she could be a penniless country miss as ancient as my Aunt. I am in no humour to give consequence to strangers at a dissolute ball. I shall leave now.”
He walked off, leaving Mr. Bingley behind to give me an apologetic smile. Anger gathered in my bosom. Who did he think he was, berating others in such a loud voice? Did he not know that I could hear him? How could he dare to insult me and hurt my feelings in such a disdainful insensitive way? That Mr. Darcy was no gentleman!
Jane’s voice brought me back from a fit of anger.
“Jane.” I turned my head and saw her walking unsteadily toward me. “Are you not well?” I walked towards her slowly.
“I feel very hot,” she said, and when she walked past Mr. Bingley, she swayed into him accidentally.
He steadied her immediately, his hands settling at her arm and waist.
“I am terribly sorry,” Jane said.
“No, no, you are unwell,” Mr. Bingley said. “May I escort you to a place where you can sit down?”
Jane nodded, gazing at the gentleman with a smile. I was alarmed that she did not chastise him for breaching propriety by touching her body.
“Mr. Bingley, I can help my sister to rest,” I said, and tried to walk near the couple.
But Jane turned her smile to me and said, “Lizzy, it is fine. Mr. Bingley’s arms are stronger than yours.”
“Jane!” I hissed the word out, but my voice was drowned by the gentleman’s laughter.
“Miss Jane?” He bowed his head lightly. “Charles Bingley of Netherfield Park. I am very pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Miss Bennet to you, sir,” I said, and scowled at him as I corrected his over-familiar greeting to Jane.
“Oh, you are that Mr. Bingley? We were from Longbourn estate.” Jane’s eyes lit up.
“Oh! You are the Bennet sisters who moved out of Longbourn recently?” he said.
I wondered if the world had gone mad! They were chatting with each other as if they were long-lost friends, totally ignoring my presence. He seemed not to be affected by the heat which bedevilled Jane and me. He began to walk hurriedly away with her towards the crowd, faster than I could follow them.
All too soon, I lost the couple from my sight. I stomped my foot in frustration, then decided to go to the refreshment table to get some water to drink. I felt terribly thirsty, in addition to being too hot.
The music had started again, and people seemed to be dancing awkwardly. They all seemed heavy on their feet, unable to move straight. Many of them were out of time with the music, and bumped into each other often. But they were all very jolly about the whole thing. Laughter and excuses filled the air.
I enjoyed watching the folly of the dancers. While I hummed to the music and smiled at the clumsy couples, I lost track of where I was heading, and bumped into a man.
“I am so sorry,” I apologised. But my voice died away upon seeing that it was that ungentlemanly Mr. Darcy. “You! I thought you said you were leaving this dissolute ball.”
“Ah, sultry lips.” He stared at me for a moment and murmured, “You overheard what I said.” His hands were holding my arms, trying to steady me.
“It was hard not to, Mr. Darcy.” I glared at him, silently demanding that he release me. “You were like a town crier, telling the world that I might well be ancient and penniless.”
“How did you know my name?” he asked, and frowned, moving closer to me because of the crowd.
“Mr. Bingley spoke it.”
He sighed and offered me a shallow bow. “Mr. Darcy of Pemberley. And you, madam?”
“The Green Serpent.”
He stiffened. “I beg your pardon?”
“This is a masquerade ball. We are supposed to stay unknown to each other.”
“But you know my name.”
“Ah, but I did not want to know your name. You and your friend forced it on me.”
“Nevertheless, now that you know it, out of courtesy should you not honour me with your name?”
“You were not very civil, a few moments ago.”
“Perhaps I spoke too close to the truth and hurt your pride.”
“It is not a sin to have neither wealth nor youth. But berating others without knowing their characters is sinful indeed.”
I saw his lips tighten, then curl up slightly.
“Very well, I admit it – I was in the wrong, Miss Green Serpent. I declare myself delighted to make your acquaintance. May I have the honour of this dance?”
I looked around. The dance floor was packed. Most of the people dancing were still doing so very clumsily.
“Thank you, but I do not want to dance....”
He seemed unhappy with my answer and cut me off before I could finish the sentence. “Because you do not know how to dance?”
I boiled with anger upon hearing his remark. “No, because I have no time for men who do not have the patience to listen to women.” I swirled around, intending to leave this exasperating man. But the movement was too rapid, and it left me feeling light-headed.
Mr. Darcy wrapped his arms around my waist to steady me.
“You prefer another kind of activity?” he whispered close to my ear, his gaze fixing on some couples by the windows who were kissing rather passionately.
“My lord, the unruly behaviour has started!”
“Yes indeed.” He blew a gentle breath into my ear. “Let us find a quiet corner, too.”
I gasped in surprise. “I shall do no such thing!” But my body was not under my command, for it let him guide me forward. “Unhand me this instant!” I hissed.
He stared down at me intently. “I just want to have some intelligent conversation, seeing that I cannot leave the ball.”
“You have tried?”
He nodded. “All of the doors are locked. I am trapped, unless I take to jumping out of a window.”
We walked for a few moments, but it seemed every corner was occupied by people. I felt hotter and hotter upon seeing couples who were not just kissing but actually fondling each other, grasping their partner’s chest or bottom.
“Do you not feel strange?” I asked.
“Only slightly.” He shook his head. “Did you drink a lot of wine?”
“No, just a few sips during the second toast.”
“The wine had the smell of fennel and other herbs. I took only a sip or two before I recognised the strange taste. I think the Colonel put the herbs in to make us more amorous. I have heard of such cases happening. It would affect women more, if they are not used to strong wine.”
“In what way?”
“Hot, tipsy and…” His gaze travelled down my body.
I tilted my head and dared him to continue.
“And their bos…their bodies will feel an itch.”
Now that he mentioned it, my bosom did feel somewhat strange. Indeed, I was startled to feel a flush of heat generating from there and travelling up to my cheeks and down my legs.
“If you had not known my name, I would have offered to relieve your suffering.” He smiled.
My eyes widened, imagining his hands on my body. “Rake!” I shook my head and struggled to get away from him.
“Steady. You will be in great danger if I leave you now.”
“Other men will not behave in as gentlemanly a manner as I do.”
“You admit that you only do so because your identity is known.” I managed to shake away his hands, and leaned on the wall for support. “Just the sort of pretentious behaviour I would expect of a wealthy man.”
The smile was wiped from his face. He tightened his lips, drew in a deep breath and stepped towards me. “Disguise of every sort is my abhorrence. But if you want to sample some rakish behaviour, to fulfil your expectation, I am most willing to oblige.”
He raised his right hand, turned it around, and then used his knuckles to brush the skin near my neck.
His hand was hot and hard, the skin of it not as smooth as my own. His eyes gazed at that particular spot, seemingly concentrating on finding a sensitive nerve.
I gulped in a deep breath, unwittingly pushing my chest higher, causing it to strain against the neckline of the dress.
He found the vein and traced his knuckles down, following the curve of the décolleté. Slowly. Inch by inch. Second by second.
As his skin continued to graze mine, I began to perspire. A drop of sweat formed and slowly drifted down from the base of my throat into the valley of my cleavage.
The glittering liquid drew his attention. His hand detoured to the left, burning a hot trail on the upper slope of my chest.
When he reached the valley, he turned his hand once again and used the tip of his finger to push the droplet of sweat up again, in slow reverse, second by second, inch by inch, until he reached the base of my throat.
Then he brought his fingertip to his mouth and suckled it, closing his eyes as he savoured the taste.
I inhaled loudly. My eyes grew even wider, and my throat became extremely dry. How could he touch me and drink …?
My legs felt weak. I wanted to run but had no strength.
I could not have escaped, anyway. His strong frame stood only inches away from my soft curve. His body was not touching mine but the heat radiated from it was melting my bones.
Another drop of sweat formed. I panted heavily, speculating about what might happen next.
He opened his eyes and noticed the golden liquid. Wetting his lips, he lowered his head slowly, seeming to assess my reaction.
I felt mesmerised by his proximity, frozen in time.
Then I sensed the scorching tip of his tongue trace a line between my creamy mounds. I was attacked by the strong, refreshing smell of his hair, and my blood raced through my body. My whole body was ten times hotter than before, and my head felt as if it might burst at any second.
As his tongue slid over my chest, I could not help but moan out loud. My hands rose of their own accord on either side of his head, then sank into his thick hair.
My body was like a torch. His tongue was hard, soft, coarse, smooth, hot and wet. I had never experienced such sensations in my whole life. I could not help but moan out his name. “Oh, Mr. Darcy…”
He suddenly raised his head and drew in a sharp breath. “I should not be doing this.” He stepped back from me, panting rapidly. “I must have drunk more wine than I thought.”
I felt the loss of his solid body. Blinking my eyes, I fixed my gaze on his. He looked dazed; his lips were wet and his jaw tight. He diverted his glance, aiming it anywhere but at my face.
“We seem to have had no luck in finding a quiet corner. Perhaps we should try the doors again. Will you join me?” He extended his arm.
I looked around, not sure if I should follow him. But I did not think it wise to stay there alone. What if he was right about other men being ungentlemanly? Not that he was behaving properly. My body felt boiling hot again, thinking about what happened just now. Perhaps I should get away from him, too. Rising on my tiptoes, I tried to search for Jane.
“Green Serpent, may I?” He bowed politely, with an air of haughtiness that I had not noticed before.
“I am looking for my sisters.” I swayed and had to put my hand on his arm to stay steady on the ground.
“Do you see them?”
I shook my head.
“What do they look like?”
“My elder sister, Jane, has fair hair and wears a gold mask. She was with Mr. Bingley when I lost sight…” I stopped in mid-sentence. “I should not be telling you this. I am supposed to stay anonymous.”
“Why would you want to do that?”
“You were uncivil and ungentlemanly.”
He opened his mouth, but appeared lost for words for a moment, before continuing, “And you were afraid…of what?”
“That you might bother me later. Tomorrow, perhaps.”
“With only six women in our family, I cannot be too careful.” As soon as I finished the sentence, I berated myself for having given him yet more information about myself.
His eyes sparkled. Still smiling, he asked, “You truly do not know who I am?”
“Of course I know who you are. Mr. Darcy of Pemberley.”
“And yet you do not seem to know that I have never had reason to bother a woman, not in my whole life.” He folded his arms across his chest and added, “And yet women bother me.”
I burst out laughing. “Now you have added ‘arrogant’ to your list of imperfections.”
He raised his hand and hooked a loosened curl behind my ear. “I never said that I was perfect. But most women are willing to overlook that.”
I traced my fingers along his lapels. The texture was smooth and fine. “For some, a gentleman’s handsomeness and perfection are measured by his pocket.”
“But not by you?”
“I consider more important things…” I said, then hesitated, remembering why I had not wanted to come to the ball tonight. Indeed, I would not have done so but for Colonel Forster’s not-so-subtle hint that our attendance was required. I knew that I should not be flirting with this man. He was probably too wealthy to give me a backward glance the next day. I should find a way to leave.
“I beg your pardon. You must excuse me.” I curtseyed and walked slowly along the wall, using a hand to steady my pace.
But he pursued me. “It is not safe for you to be alone,” he cautioned, and shadowed me along the way.
“I can take care of myself,” I said, but he shook his head, hands at his back, and continued to follow me.
I swirled around and stumbled against a door by accident, which swung open at my touch.
“Ah, young lady, you want to join in the game?” an officer said.
Before I could answer, another man pulled me into the room.
“Unhand her!” Mr. Darcy commanded, and grasped my arm.
The other man laughed and let go of me. “There now, no need for temper. The more the merrier.”
“You are welcome to join your lady friend, Sir,” the officer added, and closed the door behind us.
“I am not his lady friend.” I protested.
“In that case,” the officer said, “do you wish to partner with another gentleman here? Our games normally require two persons.”
I looked around the room. Most people were paired into couples. Some were caressing each other shockingly, while others were sitting on chair, looking half asleep. I decided that it would probably be safe for me to join the dull couples.
But Mr. Darcy had a different idea. He wrapped his hand around my waist and told the officer, “She stays with me.”
“As you wish,” the officer said, and shrugged.
I wanted to get away from Mr. Darcy’s burning body but I did not wish to cause a scene. I told him in a whisper, “I want to sit down.”
Scowling at men who grinned at me, he led me to an empty chair and sat by my side. Officers were passing refreshments around. The fruit and meat had a strong herbal smell, but I was too hungry to decline them. Mr. Darcy took small nibbles, as well, as he glared around the room absent-mindedly.
Soon the officer in charge drew our attention. “We will now play Wit. Since Colonel Forster encourages you to find a husband or wife, a game of Wit will help to ensure that you have more than a simpleton by your side. Let us start with you, young lady. How may I address you?” the officer asked me.
“I am the Green Serpent.”
“And your man?”
“He is…” Before I could say that Mr. Darcy was not my man, he replied, “I am the Dark Panther.”
I raised my hand to stroke his waistcoat and smile at him archly. “Panther, your skin is not very smooth.”
He shivered, took my hand and drew circles on my palm. His gaze turned a shade darker, and it was my turn to tremble.
“And now I will give you two words,” the officer said, his voice drawing my attention from Mr. Darcy’s touch back to the room. “‘Pen’ and ‘bend’. Let me see if you two have any wit.”
“Dark Panther looks dangerous,” a woman with a great many feathers on her head called out. “I would not mind having his baby, even if he is witless.”
That remark caused a loud roar of laughter.
The woman’s partner pinched her arm and protested, “Do you not see him scowling? Green Serpent, you would be better off to have me. I am Wiggling Bee, and I am man enough to take both you and my dear Orange Peacock here.”
I surveyed Wiggling Bee. He was short and round, and his mouth did not seem able to stay closed. I rested my head on Mr. Darcy and replied, “I am certain my Dark Panther is quite intelligent.”
Mr. Darcy drew in a deep breath, and his arms embraced me tightly. The gesture made me feel hot and flustered. Mischievous thoughts arose in my mind, and I recalled the following phrase, which I had read before, about the act of a woman serving a man. “I love to mend a pen.”
“Come, come.” Laughing, Wiggling Bee stood up and stroked the front of his breeches. “I have a good pen here. You may mend it anytime.”
“Scandalous!” The Orange Peacock cried again. “This country chit has no shame!”
“Well, Dark Panther will win a kiss from Green Serpent if he comes up with a phrase using the word ‘bend’,” the officer said.
“I do not agree to such terms,” I protested, and wanted to stand up to leave the room, but Mr. Darcy kissed my hand and said loudly, “I love to bend a wench.”
Several men laughed out loud on hearing such a wicked reply. One woman walked over to an empty chair and draped herself over it, winked at Mr. Darcy and said, “Do you like how I bend, Gorgeous Panther? Come and give me a smack here!” She rubbed her hands over her bottom seductively.
My eyes flashed at such a vulgar display. I grabbed Mr. Darcy’s arm and turned him away from the woman.
“Marvellous!” The officer said. “It seems your man has his wit. Now you must reward him.”
“A kiss!” the men chanted. “A kiss!”
I gave Mr. Darcy a peck on the cheek.
“That was no kiss at all,” another man yelled. “On the mouth! On the mouth!”
“Do not be shy, Green Serpent,” the officer said. “Remember, you are doing it for the greater good of England.”
While I was still debating what to do, Mr. Darcy held my face and gave me a hot kiss on the lips. My chest had already tasted the magic of his mouth, and now it was my mouth’s turn to do so.
I felt his strong lips biting and nipping at my upper one. I had difficulty in breathing, and when he thrust his tongue into my mouth, I quivered and closed my eyes. Holding onto his arms, I could no long hear the cheers in the room. My heart beat so quickly and loudly that I was afraid it would jump out of my body.
When he ended the kiss, I opened my eyes and gasped for breath. His eyes did not leave my face. We gazed at each for quite some time, scarcely aware that the officer had gone on to other couples with the game.
“What was that for?” I asked.
“I just did as I was told,” Mr. Darcy replied.
“The officer was not asking you to kiss me. And you do not look like a man who takes orders from others.”
“Then perhaps it was because your lips are very tempting.” He smoothed his hands on my hips.
“Your attention, Green Serpent and Dark Panther!” The officer’s voice interrupted our discussion. “Your turn again. Your words are ‘gown’ and ‘split’.”
“I admire the split in your gown,” Mr. Darcy said, and gave me a wink.
“Where? I want to see it, too!” one of the men said, and walked awkwardly toward me. But before he reached us, someone stuck a foot out and caused him to tumble to the floor.
The room broke out laughing.
“Insufferable man,” I hissed.
“Him?” Mr. Darcy asked.
“I meant you.”
“Come on!” the officer called out. “No answer? What a pity. I am going to suggest …”
“I see a split in your crown.”
“Very good!” one man shouted.
“Green Serpent, come see my crown split, too,” another man yelled.
One of the men near us stood up and started undoing his breeches. My eyes grew wide at such behaviour. Several men urged him on, while some of the women cried out in indignation.
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