Ladies in pastel gowns of pink, green, and blue skipped by as the orchestra played a lively tune. Then, forming a long row, the ladies danced in a circle across from their dashing male counterparts, also in a line. The men made the same circular motion followed by claps and hoots.
“Hey!” they shouted in unison in time with the music.
Moira Kingsley peeked around one of the enormous pillars in Uncle Tyrus’s ballroom and fought back the overwhelming feeling that she was terribly out of her league. Never had she been to such a festival—and she, the honored guest. What a relief that she could stand in the shadows where no one noticed her.
She stifled a yawn and supposed she ought to appear somewhat enthusiastic. After all, this was her engagement party.
Standing to her full height of five feet seven inches—gigantic by fashionable standards—she tried to remember the straight posture that Aunt Aggie taught her. But unless she hunched just a little, she could look down on most men, Uncle Tyrus included. Aunt Aggie said Moira’s stature caused men to feel uncomfortable and, therefore, she ought to be grateful that Major Joseph Nettles agreed to wed her.
Moira’s gaze slowly slid to the man to whom she’d recently become betrothed. Somehow it had occurred without her even being present. No long looks and courtship. No conversation and promises. Just the engagement.
A shudder ran through her. As an officer of His Majesty’s Royal Army, the major did make a formidable figure in his uniform of white breeches, tunic, and red coat with its impressive gold shoulder boards. However, he also made Moira’s skin crawl despite his reputation of having a way with the ladies. Even now he stood boasting while three eyelash-batting females hung on his every word. But Moira wasn’t envious. The sight only evoked apathy…and dread.
Truth to tell, she wasn’t fond of the man and had no delusions about their impending nuptials. Nettles would not be a loving, faithful husband. Very simply, he was marrying her for her inheritance, nothing more.
The dance ended and applause broke out for the orchestra. Couples dispersed. Men fetched cups of fruity punch for their partners as well as for themselves. Moira counted two people she knew fairly well in the room—her aunt and uncle. The rest were their neighbors and friends, and people she’d met only in passing.
If only Mum and Papa were here…
An ache in her chest began to grow, just as it did each time she recalled her parents and that horrible night in a Uganda village not even a year ago. Uncle Tyrus said her life as a missionary was dead and gone. Like Mum and Papa. Why, then, could she not let go of the past? Instead, in her mind’s eye, she saw flames reaching high into the starry sky. She heard the piercing screams of the tortured and dying. She recalled Papa’s last words to her, “Hide in the rushes by the riverbank.” He’d pulled the silver cross and chain from around his neck and pressed it into her palm. “Stay there. Not a peep…”
Moira fingered the treasure she now constantly wore, the cross resting close to her heart. She’d never forget. Never!
Startled from her muse, she lifted her gaze. Two men stared at her. One older fellow, familiar to her, wearing a curious expression, powdered wig, gold silk waistcoat, and black tailcoat. The younger man, whose piercing blue eyes seemed to hold her captive, looked like a fine figure to be sure, judging from the way his broad shoulders filled his tailcoat. His muscular upper arms seemed to stretch the fabric to its limits. His sandy-brown hair looked kissed by the sun and was combed neatly back and secured in a queue with a simple black ribbon.
Best of all, the man stood taller than she by at least four inches.
“Miss Moira Kingsley—” The rich tone of the older man’s voice pulled her from her thoughts. “I’d like to introduce one of my esteemed students. Mr. Samuel White.”
“Miss Kingsley…” The younger of the two gave her a polite bow.
“A pleasure, I’m sure.” She pushed out a smile, as her cheeks warmed. She’d been ogling the poor fellow. How utterly embarrassing!
By grace alone, Moira recalled the older man’s name. Sir Nathaniel Potter, a professor at the university and one of Uncle Tyrus’s good friends.
“My dear, are you well?” Sir Nathaniel’s furry gray brows met over the bridge of his bulbous nose. “You look a bit peaked.”
“I’m quite all right, Sir Nathaniel. Thank you. Perhaps it’s all the excitement.”
“Ah, of course.” The older gent puffed out his chest and smiled. “Your uncle found a fine catch for you.” He spoke as she if were a John Dory snagged by an expert fisherman.
Nausea wafted upward from the pit of her gut.
“Moira.” Her name sounded somewhat majestic, rolling off Mr. White’s tongue. “Your name means destiny or fate.”
“Does it now?” She tipped her head, feeling mildly intrigued. “I never knew that.”
“Yes, which means, of course, that I must ask the bride-to-be to dance.” Mr. White smiled and gave another bow.
“Dance? Me?” Finally for the first time tonight, someone chose to pay her a bit of attention. “Why?”
Mr. White grinned, revealing a set of strong, even teeth. He arched a charming brow. “I make a habit of dancing with only the prettiest ladies at the parties I attend.”
“I’m sure you do,” Moira retorted.
Sir Nathaniel snorted a laugh and clapped Mr. White between the shoulder blades.
Moira found Mr. White amusing as well. “You may ask me then, sir.” Whether a gentleman or knave, she’d make him work for the honor.
“Miss Kingsley,” he began with an earnest expression, “will you dance with me?”
His features lit up and he offered his gloved hand.
Moira took it and he led her to where the other dancers were getting into place.
“The bride-to-be must call the dance!” Mr. White shouted above the din.
All eyes shifted to Moira. Her lips moved, but her mind went blank. She didn’t dare disgrace her aunt and uncle by blurting out something inappropriate.
Mr. White bent his head as if listening to words which never quite formed on her tongue. “The lady calls for a French waltz.”
Moira froze in utter horror while gasps and whispers filled the room. No other dance could be more controversial. In fact, many people deemed the waltz quite scandalous.
“A French waltz it is.” The lead musician appeared quite gleeful about it.
Several couples walked away in a huff while others quickly took their places on the dance floor.
A young lady beside Moira clapped her gloved hands with excitement. “An excellent choice, Miss Kingsley.”
“I’m glad you think so.” The muscles in Moira’s shoulders began to unwind as she glimpsed other happy expressions from the younger crowd. It seemed a suitable dance after all.
The music began to play and Mr. White opened his arms.
She watched the lady beside her, then copied the move and found herself in Mr. White’s embrace. “I shall admit, sir, that I am not well practiced with this new dance.”
“Not to worry, Miss Kingsley. Simply follow my lead.”
Something about the way he spoke sounded foreign on Moira’s ears. She back stepped and Mr. White directed her in a slow pirouette.
“Are you an American?”
His blue eyes twinkled. “Will you give me away if I say that I am?”
“Surely not.” In his arms once more, she added, “I care nothing about this war with the colonies.”
“But your fiancé could be killed.”
Dared she hope? “His Maker’s choice, not mine.”
Mr. White gracefully swept her across the polished wooden floor, keeping time with the other couples.
Moira caught the scowl on Uncle Tyrus’s face as she whirled passed him. Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea…
She took in Mr. White’s uplifted features, his charming smile, and, oddly, Uncle Tyrus’s deep frown vanished from her thoughts.
She then caught sight of Major Nettles holding in his arms one of the women with whom he’d been conversing earlier. He held her much closer to himself than society dictated—even for a French waltz. Could that have been the reason for Uncle’s displeasure?
Most likely yes.
The last of Moira’s misgivings dissipated and she gave her full attention to her partner. She smiled as he led her in a broad circle while twirling around the room. She heard “oohs” and “ahhs” from onlookers and it added to her growing pleasure.
Mr. White gave her an unexpected spin and Moira giggled. Stepping in close to him again, she heard the rumble of laughter in his chest.
“Are you having fun, Miss Kingsley?”
“The time of my life, Mr. White.”
He spun her around again, taking her by surprise once more. Moira felt lighter than air and hardly the gargantuan Aunt Aggie made her out to be.
“So charm is not your only attribute.” She felt slightly breathless. “You’re an expert dance partner too.”
“You flatter me, Miss Kingsley.”
Moira knew of his ilk, a man quite accustomed to female compliments and companionship. Still, she enjoyed his attention.
They made another round of the room, the ornately plastered walls a pleasurable blur. When they neared the opened portico doors again, Mr. White stopped and politely led her outside.
“A breath of air?”
“Yes, I quite need it. Thank you.” Her face flamed from unaccustomed exertion. While living in the Uganda village with her parents, she had been physically active all day. She and Mum taught children at school and frequently Moira played with them. She’d imagine all sorts of games, and the children adored her because she made them smile and laugh. But here in Periwick, she’d been rendered virtually useless and did far too much sitting, both indoors and out.
Oh, how she missed the life she’d lived with Mum and Papa…
“Miss Kingsley? Did you hear what I asked?”
She snapped from her reverie and heaved a sigh laden with guilt. “Nay, I’m afraid my mind wandered.” She focused on the handsome Mr. White. “Forgive me. What did you say?”
“A stroll in the gardens?”
She smiled. “I’d like that. Thank you.”
Moira took his arm and they headed for Auntie’s pride and joy—her blooms. As they walked deeper into the darkness, the music and laughter from the house grew distant. Moira realized her folly and stopped short. She knew nothing of this man. To go farther might mean her screams would not be heard, should he try to take advantage of her.
And yet, she felt safe enough.
“May I be frank, Miss Kingsley?”
Mr. White cleared his throat. “I daresay I have never seen a more unhappy bride-to-be.”
“Is it that obvious?” Moira gazed upward at the sparkling stars. “I should be more grateful, I suppose.”
“Of course. Joseph Nettles is an officer and an upstanding man…or so I hear.” Moira shifted uncomfortably and stared into Mr. White’s shadowed face. She had never strolled in the gardens with Major Nettles. The man largely ignored her when he visited Uncle Tyrus, although discussions of war machines and battles seemed to animate him.
But if Papa were here things would be different. Papa would dislike Nettles for his narrow view of humanity. Of that Moira felt certain. The major would rather kill his enemy than show him God’s love.
She bent to inhale the delicate fragrance of Auntie’s roses.
“Major Nettles is fortunate to be marrying such a lovely young lady as yourself. Why, you rival these blossoms.”
“Ah, but you have not seen them in daylight.” Moira smiled. “Nonetheless, I thank you for the compliment. However, I know what I am. I’m as plain and ordinary as that patch of daisies there.” She pointed behind the fore-flowers. “I’m filler. Nothing special.”
“You are speaking of the feverfew, otherwise known as the daisies to which you referred.” He inclined his head. “The American natives consider feverfew quite valuable. It’s lovely, hearty, and has strong medicinal properties.”
“Do they now?”
She narrowed her gaze. “You’re teasing me?”
Moira put her gloved fingers against her lips and swallowed a laugh. In truth, she enjoyed needling him, scholar that he was said to be. “Tell me more of American natives.”
“Well, I must confess, I’m mostly familiar with the Catawba of South Carolina.” Beneath the stream of moonlight, Moira admired his strong profile and proud set of his jaw. “They’re a brave people who fought with Americans during the Revolutionary War and now the Second War of Independence from England.” He leaned toward her rather conspiratorially. “Not good news for your Major Nettles, I’m afraid.”
“He does not belong to me. Alas, I doubt he ever will.” Not that she harbored such a hope. “He belongs to the battlefield, I’m afraid.”
“Moira!” The object of her statement hailed her from the edge of the garden. Within moments he reached them. The brass buttons of his red coat glimmered beneath the moonlight. “What are you doing out here? And without a shawl!”
“I needed a breath of air, ’tis all, and it’s a balmy night; I’m warm enough.” She indicated her escort. “Please meet Mr. Samuel White. Mr. White, allow me to present Major Joseph Nettles.”
“Yes, yes, we’ve met.” Nettles impatiently waved off the introduction. To Mr. White, he said, “I’m headed to Baron Kingsley’s study for a smoke. Care to join me? You’ll meet others in His Majesty’s Royal Army. Perhaps you’ll even join our endeavors to crush the Americans.” He fisted the air as if such a conquest lay within his grasp.
Moira didn’t breathe.
“Thank you. I’ll be along shortly.” Mr. White’s voice sounded assured despite the threat of a crushing. He was an American, after all.
But perhaps the man sided with the British. Many did…
Nettles hesitated and glanced between Mr. White and Moira.
She looked away, toward Auntie’s flower garden, although she’d done nothing of which to be ashamed. Still she felt a strain—as though something wasn’t quite right.
“I’ll see Miss Kingsley back to the house.”
“She knows the way,” Nettles grumbled.
Moira faced Mr. White while inexplicable hurt spiraled down inside of her. Perhaps she’d delighted in this man’s attention a few moments too long. Perhaps she wished she was marrying a man who cared about her—who loved her.
“Major Nettles is correct. I need no escorting.”
“See? Now, come on, man.” Nettles attempted to propel Mr. White by the upper arm.
He pulled free and didn’t budge. “I said, I’ll be along shortly.” His voice beheld an edge sharper than any saber.
A moment of tension passed between the two men and Moira noticed that Mr. White stood a good two inches taller than the major. Indeed, from her vantage point Nettles appeared dwarfed in Mr. White’s shadow.
At last Nettles gave a shrug. “As you wish.”
Moira watched her intended’s retreating back as he marched, rather than walked, back to the house. She suddenly envisioned a home run like a military academy, children marching in a row, sitting, eating, reading, writing, all at the commander’s will. And what would become of her? Would she be transformed into a wooden-headed doll, poised in every manner which her possessor wished, as though she had no mind of her own?
“Oh, that I had wings like a dove!” Moira closed her eyes, praying it might be so. “For then would I fly away, and be at rest.”
“Ah, you quote the Psalms.” Mr. White’s tone returned to its honeyed charm. “Quite comforting in turbulent times, are they not?”
“They are.” Moira pressed her lips together. She oughtn’t to have spoken the passage aloud. “Please forgive me. I hear many brides-to-be struggle with anxiety. That’s all this is. Prenuptial nerves.” She rubbed her bare arms. “And why I am speaking to you of this, I don’t know.”
Mr. White shrugged out of his frockcoat and placed it around Moira’s shoulders. It smelled of him, a leathery, woodsy spicy scent that she found not at all unpleasant.
“Never fear, Miss Kingsley.” He offered his arm. “I’m a superb secret-keeper.”
“What a relief, for I am the luckiest young lady in all of England.”
The words already felt mechanical. It was with much trepidation that she allowed herself to be escorted back to her uncle’s house.