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Interlude

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"Charles, I am disappointed in you," said Sophy. Charles paused in pinning up her gown and looked up at her with a scowl. It was difficult to look exasperated with pins in one's mouth, but Charles managed. "I would have thought you'd be a master at pinning up a damsel's torn flounces." He grunted and added another pin, shuffling round to get at the last part of the tear.

He fixed the last inch and tugged critically at the hem of her gown.

"Funnily enough," he said, "most of my dance partners do not wear gowns with such inordinately lavish flouncing, or whatever you call this frippery."

"No, Charles? You're not saying I am vain, I hope? Or overdressed?"

"Definitely not the last one," he said. He slid one hand under her skirt and petticoat and grasped her ankle. "I've hardly had a glimpse all night."

"That's only proper and modest," Sophy said. "Now that we're engaged, it's only right that I behave decorously." He looked up at her, disbelief written plainly on his face, and she repressed her urge to smile. "I must remind you, dear Charles, that to be on your knees in front of me, with your hand under my skirt, is neither proper or modest."

"No?" said Charles. He slid his hand up further, curling around just under her garter.

"No," she said, keeping her voice firm, even though the warmth of his fingers through the silk of her stockings was making her breath come a little faster. If they'd been truly alone, she would have continued teasing him, seeing how far he would go, eager to touch and be touched by him. She knew, though, it would be a matter of moments only till someone came to look for them. How frustrating to have to be the voice of caution!

She looked down and saw, from the saturnine smile on Charles's face, that he recognised her frustration, and probably found it amusing. She banished all thoughts of being found. It was more important to teach him a lesson. She leaned down, took a handful of his hair to keep him still, and kissed him firmly.

Hand tightening on her leg, Charles gasped and Sophy took advantage of the moment to kiss him harder, daring him to respond. After a second, he did, mouth opening under hers, letting her tongue swirl into his mouth. She tightened her grip on his hair, pulling it hard as he tried to take control of the kiss. He was on his knees for her, and it was only right that she directed the action. He yielded and she took advantage, biting his lower lip and enjoying the faint moan he made.

The door handle rattled a warning and Sophy let go of Charles and he pinched her calf as he took his hand out from under her skirt. She gasped in indignation as the door opened and his mother bustled in.

"There you go," he said. "Let it be a lesson to you not to wear such ridiculously ruffled trim."

Sophy was impressed by how he managed to keep his voice from shaking. He looked tousled, though, and his bottom lip was wet and red, with the fading imprint of her teeth in it.

"And deprive you of the chance to worship at my feet?" she asked. "I know you eagerly seize every opportunity." Charles's look clearly promised retribution as he licked over his lip and settled his hair.

"There you are!" announced Lady Ombersley. Sophy was glad that she seemed to barely glance at them. "Come, it doesn't take that long to pin up a flounce. If you would both insist on coming to Eugenia's engagement party, the least you could do is stay decently in the ballroom."

"If the Honourable Alfred could refrain from stepping on ladies' gowns, Mama, I would not have had to quit the ballroom," Charles said, getting to his feet.

"It was most rude of you to forestall him, too, and insist that you alone would pin up Sophy's dress," Lady Ombersley continued, preceding them out the door and back to the noise - muted, of course - of the ballroom.

Behind her back, Sophy and Charles exchanged a glance, one set of eyes fulminating, one mirthful.

"I thought it was most romantic of Charles to announce his rights so forcefully," said Sophy, sighing and pressing a hand to her bosom in affected swooning. "I declare, I would not deny him anything when he behaves so masterfully."

"Now, that is an outrageous lie," said Charles. They entered the ballroom, nine doleful couples lined up for a lacklustre country dance. "You love to deny me all the more, the more masterful I am."

"How unhandsome of you," said Sophy. "Could we not wait at least till the honeymoon before all the scales fall from your eyes?"

Charles laughed, the sound seeming too loud in the very proper room, even with the music playing. Sophy didn't care. She loved to hear him laugh out loud. As she walked away in obedience to a signal from Lady Ombersley, she glanced back over her shoulder and smiled saucily, temptingly, satisfied as she saw the promise in his eyes.