“You want me to what??”
He can’t help but grin; he’s heard that before!
“Learn to dance, love.”
“What on earth for?”
“The Christmas Ball.”
“You want me to – oh, for Christ’s sake, Lynley! I never agreed to this!”
“You married me!”
“I promised to love, honour and cherish, for ever and ever, amen! I never once heard dancing mentioned!”
Oh, he has her now. “I have it on very good authority, Barbara, that you dance quite – enthusiastically.”
She jerks, and then her eyes narrow. “Where did you – I am going to kill him. Painfully. With a dull knife.”
“Inventive as always, Barbara love, but not really pertinent to the issue at hand. Now. I am asking you to endure this mummery with me, because without your presence the event would be unendurable and because I have an illogical but quite normal desire to prove to all and sundry that whatever aspersions they may have cast on your character, they were wrong.
“I know you, Barbara. I know you are more than capable of this, as much as I know you don’t want to. But I am asking you, now, to help me leave several generations of bluebloods gobsmacked that I managed to find someone who is not only capable of covering my back in any fight and loving me for myself but who can put the vipers’ nest of Court ladies to shame and not even break a sweat doing it.”
She’s staring at him in gaping astonishment, but he’s hit her in the two places guaranteed to provoke her; he’s declared his absolute assertion that she’s better than any blue-blooded aristocrat and challenged her to prove a considerable number of upper-class twits wrong. And then her eyes narrow again.
“Very good, Lynley. Very, very good. I’m thoroughly impressed. Well played, sir. I’ll do it, not just for the challenge, but because I love you. But we are spending the next day doing absolutely nothing - and you’re doing all the case paperwork for a month.”
He grins. It’s a small price to pay, after all; he’d have been insulted, but he knows she’d have done it just for him, and she knows he knows. What’s a little carpal tunnel between partners?
“You, my love, have a deal.”
She grins a little cheekily at that, but her eyes quickly flash panic as he cues the stereo and Beethoven floats from the speakers.
“I’m not – I can’t...”
“Barbara.” His voice is firm, commanding. It’s a voice to be obeyed, and she can’t help it; she does, instinctively. “It goes like this.” Gently he draws her into his arms, guiding her through the one-two-three beat of the waltz. She clings tightly to him, her first steps uncertain and stumbling. “Trust me, Barbara. Close your eyes and let me lead.” He doesn’t have to see her face to know she’s panicked; as much as she trusts him, as much as she loves him, putting herself blindly into anyone else’s hands will never come easy for her. He leans forward, lowering his voice to a husky whisper. “Trust me, Barbara Lynne. Just follow my lead.”
Her breath shudders out, and suddenly her steps are smoother, more fluid. She glides across the floor, eyes shut, letting her body move with the dance.
The change is, quite simply, astounding.
He continues moving with her, hardly breathing, afraid to break the spell. When at last they come to a stop, she lifts her eyes to his, and the confidence brimming in them makes his breath catch in his throat.
“If you dance like that, Barbara Lynne, every eye in the room will be on you.”
She tosses her head and laughs. “Let them look. I’ll be dancing with the handsomest man there.”
On the night of, he is summarily banished from the top floor with a barked directive to “go ride that bloody horse of yours, and when you do come back, use the ground-floor guest suite!” Wise enough not to argue with his sister on a mission, he watches bemusedly as Barbara is spirited upstairs, then makes tracks for the stables. He puts in about half an hour with Barbara’s Firefly, a little chestnut Arabian mare; he’s too big to ride her, of course, but he puts her on the longe line and grins as she canters around him in a gorgeous circle, tail streaming behind her. Then he saddles Prospero and works them both into a lather; by the time he’s done the stallion’s sides are foamed with sweat and he’s covered in arena dust, turning his glossy black coat into a muddy brown.
After a quick glance at the clock, he swears a blue streak, bathes the Friesian down, and puts him away, then beats a hasty retreat to Howenstowe and a hot shower.
Meanwhile, upstairs, Judith is busy working her own brand of magic with pots and powders. By the time she’s done, Barbara’s eyes are glowing green under dramatic lashes. Her hair is a spill of strawberry-blonde curls piled on her head, with a few curly tendrils framing her face. It’s the dress, however, that really steals the show; similar in construction to her wedding dress, it’s a fantasy of violet silk with a corseted bodice, full skirts, scoop neck and lace sleeves. She’s sceptical of the lace at first; even her wedding dress hadn’t had any. But the corseted bodice and full skirts make the most of her curvy body, and by the time she has the thing on, she has to admit that it works.
Oh, boy, does it ever work.
He’s standing at the foot of the stairs, making polite chitchat with some stuffy Parliamentarian, when he catches sight of her, and the champagne flute in his hand falls unheeded to the floor.
She’ll tease him about that later.
He’s amazed to watch her during dinner; she makes nice, talks about the weather and England’s chances in The Ashes, and manages to restrict herself to one sarcastic remark – whispered under her breath, of course – every ten minutes. He’d be impressed with her restraint, but he’s well aware that she’ll be working overtime to make up for it once the party is over. Nevertheless, the fact she can manage it at all is a point or ten for her, and only he can see the strain around her eyes as the evening wears on.
He manages to ‘persuade’ Judith and her husband to open the dancing so he can crowd Barbara against the kitchen counter and do his best to ruin her lipstick, and then they both down some courage – in the form of a stout shot or two of whisky – before it’s their turn to hit the dance floor.
It’s Strauss, of course, this time “Roses from the South.” The triumphant, soaring melody suits his mood perfectly. “Lady Asherton, may I have the honour?”
She beams up at him, bright and sparkling, and places her hand in his. “You may.”
She rests her cheek against his for a brief moment, and then takes a deep breath and falls into the rhythm.
And then it’s magic.
They whirl around the floor, all but flying, Barbara twirling when it strikes her fancy; they’re moving in perfect sync, and more and more people are beginning to stare, and he can’t stop the slow smile spreading across his face.
When Barbara looks at him, her own face is alight with triumph. The music stops, and he can barely breathe he’s so proud of her. His partner – his lady - has shown them all.
They fall into bed somewhere around three in the morning. He’s long since escaped his tuxedo and slipped into plaid pyjama pants, and she’s abandoned her dress in the closet, replacing it with an enormous tee-shirt proclaiming “Policewomen do it with handcuffs.”
Once she’s scrubbed her face clean and freed her hair, she slips into bed beside him, resting her head on his chest and snuggling under the covers. He strokes her hair absently, then closes his book and wraps his arms around her. “Well, love, was it worth it?”
She pouts adorably. “You know it was. Were they appropriately astonished?”
“Love, I daresay there wasn’t a one of them not green with envy by the end of the evening. You were simply marvellous.”
A sleepy smile crosses her face for a moment before she yawns so widely her jaw cracks. “Yeah, well, don’t expect me to do it again anytime soon.”
He chuckles. “I wouldn’t dream of it. But Barbara?”
“Next year, I’m teaching you how to tango.”
Her grin, before he clicks off the light, is positively wicked.