Gregory clapped Dorian on the shoulder. “Dorian Finley, meet Eleanor Brice. Eleanor, my dearest friend, Dorian Finley.”
She curtsied, and he took the three steps down to her level. She still had to look up at him. “I’m so glad I’m finally meeting you, Dorian. I’ve heard so much about you.”
He bowed. “And I you, Mistress Brice. Rumors of your beauty reached me even in the Lake District. I’m sorry I could not be here sooner, but I had family obligations.”
“If you had been here you might have stolen her away,” Gregory said. “A great one for the ladies is my friend Dorian.”
“You know I leave the new girls to you, Your Highness,” said Dorian. “I like a bit of a challenge, and you need to catch them young and naïve.”
His disrespect shocked Eleanor, but it bothered no one else. Everyone, including Gregory himself, laughed. The unfamiliar women were particularly amused. They covered their mouths and giggled, and one tapped Dorian’s arm with her fan.
Eleanor’s temper flared. “Better to be young and naïve than old, arrogant and jaded, Mister Finley,” she said.
Dorian turned to her and raised one dark brow. “Peace, Mistress Brice,” he said. “How heartless of you to think my carriage over the hill at age twenty-four. I’ll forgive the insult if you honor me with a dance.”
She started to decline but to her irritation Gregory answered for her. “Fabulous idea,” he said.
Before she knew it she was on Dorian Finley’s arm, heading for the dance floor. She hoped for a reel so they wouldn’t have to talk, but it was another waltz. As they took a few wordless turns around the room Eleanor could tell he was a flawless dancer. She noted the prominent veins lacing his forearms. His hands were rougher than Gregory’s, with big, square knuckles. She shook off the blush that once again threatened to creep up her chest. She tried to focus on being angry with him.
“I am sorry,” he said in the slow, drawling accent of the east. “I must’ve sounded like an ass. I forget not everyone appreciates my jests.”
His frank apology surprised her. Her defensiveness abruptly drained away. “Accepted. It was a bad start, but I suppose it would be difficult if I hated you, being that you are my future husband’s best friend.”
“That would be inconvenient,” he said, with a gravelly laugh. “I’ve heard more of your story since I returned. I would love to speak with you about it sometime. Amazing, really.”
“Not so much,” she said. “It was not idyllic, but I had a roof over my head, and my parrot, and a great friend who stood by me.”
“You mean the witch who educated you.”
“Yes. I like to think as bad as my situation was, if I’d had a more conventional upbringing my studies would have stopped years ago. I’d be a better dancer, but I’d rather have other talents.”
His smiled again. “Well, first, you are a fine dancer. And I think it’s wonderful you kept studying through your difficulties. I wish more women did the same. It would certainly improve the dinner conversation at Eclatant. I’d hoped my sister would continue, but my brother thought it a waste of money.”
His response pleased her. “I’d say you are a rarity, Dorian, most men are of the mindset of your brother.”
“Gregory did choose me, after all, so he can’t be completely opposed to educated women,” she said, treading lightly.
His tawny eyes held hers, and a few beats of the music passed with no words. “I suppose he isn’t. And he has chosen well.”
This time she couldn’t stop the rising color. He changed the subject. “How do you find court?”
“Exhausting,” she blurted out.
“I know what you mean.”
“Do you? It’s just… a bit odd for me. I’ve been alone most of my life. I feel like everyone talks and says nothing, but then they are silent and speak volumes. I admire those who are at ease. I hope I don’t sound ungrateful, believe me, sir, I’m not…Sometimes I can’t believe my good fortune…maybe I’m still in shock,” she finished with a laugh.
“I know, don’t explain yourself. There’s many a night I’d rather be reading by the fire. Most at court think I’m dreadfully unfriendly, but I’ve learned not to care. I keep my allegiances few. Everyone here wants something from you, and the closer you are to the prince the worse it is. Be careful, Eleanor.”
She paused for a moment in search of a response.
Dorian cleared his throat, and she thought she saw a hint of color in his own cheeks. “Listen to me,” he said. “We should be talking about the weather and here I am going on.”
“On the contrary, I appreciate your honesty. It’s a rare thing in this place.”
“And I yours. As Gregory’s wife, you can count on my loyalty. I think you will make a fine princess.”
The song ended but Dorian did not release her immediately. Her own hand did not leave his hard shoulder. She stepped away and he let go with a soft apology. She took his arm and he led her to her waiting fiancé. The world had seemed so right tonight, and now something about her dance with Dorian Finley wobbled it again.
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