“Look at her dress!”
“Oh my word!”
“Is that-? No! It can’t be!”
The whispers and words swirled in one ear and straight out the other. I flashed a fake smile, the one Jeannie had been teaching me all week, as I swept into the ballroom and waited for the attendants to take my coat and purse.
Swirls of cold air blew around me as the soft wool coat was whisked from my bare shoulders and away to the confines of some stuffy closet. The unbearable heat was gone, now replaced with the emptiness of the room. Gasps were repeated as my audience took in the upper half of the dress and the simple, strapless neckline.
The weight of the royal ruby necklace was heavier than a thousand pound weight. I waited while the first dance partner was arranged, lifting my eyes to meet the fellow when he was guided forward.
His hands were cool, startlingly so. We danced the required minuet and then with a bow to my curtsy and matching smiles, we parted temporary company.
“Look at her necklace!”
“It can’t be real…but oh, it’s gorgeous.”
“I’d take the necklace over her any day, wouldn’t you Marge?”
“Shhh! She can hear you!”
Their voices were the backdrop, a soundtrack to the current event taking place in my solitary life. I was a princess, and it was necessary to acquire a prince before the formalities of my royalty could be properly accepted.
This classic Cinderella ball was a last resort, when other modernized plans had failed to tickle my fancy. I could not help it. Among hundreds of faces and millions of hearts, I had yet to find one suitable, or comparable to the fantasy image harbored within my mind.
I stood in the center of the floor, waiting until the next partner was permitted to step forward. His hands were cool, warming in mine. He was a smoother dancer than the one before. He offered his bow to my curtsy as we smiled politely and parted company.
“Count Drennan of Dunswick.” The majordomo announced.
My eyes were almost too tired to glance upwards in greeting. But I was too polite not to. He had a nice face and cold hands. I wondered if he had stuck them in an ice bucket. Not maliciously, but with a few exceptions, I’d yet to encounter the truly sweaty trademark hands of a nervous dancer, or the warm, gentle touch of a new lover.
Of course those thoughts were strictly confined to the fantasies in the back of my mind where I amused myself between trips to country capitals and mindless music my feet automatically danced to.
We were in mid-twirl, Count Drennan and I, when his cellphone rang. I wanted to smile at the ringtone, a lively country tune. It made him stiffen at once and when I twirled into his arms, it was like colliding with a fabric coated brick wall.
His entire body had gone rigid, his attention shifting to his assistant who nodded a few times, then frantically waved for his attention. A pained expression formed on his face and he pulled away with a blush. “Begging her ladyship’s royal pardon, but my father was in an accident this morning, this call…”
I let go of his hands at once, offering the curtsy to his hurried bow. “Of course. Thank you. I hope all is well.”
Count Drennan bobbed his head once, before streaking across the ballroom floor and to the precious cellphone. The rejection wasn’t really one at all, but it stung in a way I wasn’t prepared for.
I stood alone on the floor, waiting. The music continued to play and a soft voice whispered in my ear.
“My cousin has all the good intentions in the world.” There was laughter in the voice. “But, might I beg her royal highness’s consent in finishing this beautiful dance in his stead?”
I turned to gaze into a freckled face and earnest blue-green eyes. For lack of anything clever to say, I merely offered my hand, which he took at once.
“Matthew Hadrense.” He murmured, drawing me close and listening for the musical cue before stepping into the dance. “If I may be so bold as to introduce myself with no title to my name.”
My eyes half-squeezed shut, as my lips curved upwards. “You may.” I heard myself croak.
A dazzling smile lit his face.
And his hands were warm.
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