The first ball Daphne held was a nightmare. It was not as though the whole night went badly. It actually went marvelously. But because of her inexperience and her desire to host a memorable, regal affair, she’d nearly driven herself mad trying to achieve perfection in even the smallest of details, and after the event ended, she’d stared at the ceiling in the night and wondered if the whole thing had been some terrible hallucination brought on by a fever that she hadn’t known she had.
The second ball went better. The third was better still. By the fourth, Daphne thought that she might have finally developed a talent for hosting grand occasions. But all those had been hosted in Summerhelm. The fifth ball would be in London, during the Season, no less.
“If you smooth out the wrinkles of your gown one more time, I fear there will be no fabric left to your gown,” Fergus said.
They were in his study, Fergus preparing another missive for Parliament, and although Daphne had, as always, offered her thoughts and corrections on his writing, her mind kept drifting to the coming nights.
“I fear you’ve bought poor quality fabric for me if that’s all it takes for me to work the silk into nothingness,” she said.
“As I recall, you chose that fabric.” He paused and looked at her from across his desk. “Because you found that lilac to be especially lovely, which it is.”
She smiled. “Have I ever worn anything which you didn’t find lovely?”
He laughed, glanced at a piece of paper, and handed it to her. “I am not fool enough to fall into a trap like that.”
Daphne glanced at the letter’s contents. It was from young Phillip, the Earl of Woodridge’s eldest son, asking if he might come to call and speak with Henrietta.
She stared at it for a second longer before meeting her husband’s eyes. “I’m beginning to feel quite old,” he said. “Can you believe she is sixteen? She has suitors! I have another here—from Lord Hartford.”
“I suppose she’ll be quite popular at tonight’s event,” Daphne replied. “Our dear Henrietta need not fear spending the whole night as a wallflower.”
“No, certainly not,” he said. “And mind you, I’m content to let my little sister choose her own suitors. I’d quite like for hers to be a love match. Still, I find myself caught unawares sometimes by how she’s grown.”
She delicately folded the letter and placed it on the right side of the desk, which was where her husband kept the unanswered correspondence. In this case, he’d ask Henrietta before sending any reply to the young Lord Phillip.
“That’s entirely thanks to you,” Daphne said softly. “You did very good for her and for Luke.”
“I think it’s due quite a bit to my Countess,” he replied, reaching across the desk. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”
His hand, warm and heavy, settled over hers. She smiled, savoring the feeling of his palm over hers. Over the years, she’d gotten to memorize the way that hand looked and felt. There was that one callous along his middle finger, where his pen always rested. And there were two tiny scars above his knuckles, from an accident in his youth. The underside of his palm was lined heavily and bore a tiny scar across his thumb, where he’d once cut himself with a knife.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it without you,” she countered. “And I am—in case you didn’t hear me the first several hundred times—quite pleased with the progress you’ve made towards education.”
His face brightened, and his eyes blazed with a brilliant sort of joy. One of their first undertakings as a married couple had been to rebuild the orphanages in Summerhelm, converting the drafty, dismal buildings into warm homes which offered good meals, education, and frequent inspections. It would be several years until they truly saw the extent of the good they’d done, but the wait would be well worth it.
“Well, we’ll see how Parliament thinks it is,” Fergus replied. “I’ve no doubt that Richard will agree to push for a larger education reform. But it’s a matter of convincing the others.”
“I’m sure you’ll do wonderful. You always do.”
He grinned. “Only because I have the support of my wife. Now, I believe it’s nearly time to greet out guests, isn’t it? They’ll laugh at us if we tarry much longer, walking into the beginning of our own ball.”
He stood and ever the gentleman, offered his arm. With a coy smile, Daphne curled her arm around his. “There are worse offenses which one may commit on the night of a ball. You showed them to me once, remember?”
He chuckled. “I certainly do.”
In truth, most of the balls Daphne had attended during her first year as the Countess of Summerhelm had been spent almost entirely attached to her husband’s side. It was only once she’d made the acquaintance of Lord Lasseter’s new wife that Daphne had begun to slowly feel as though she might truly be welcome among those ladies of the ton.
Lady Lasseter was a spirited individual, who knew more about mathematics than any man or woman that Daphne had ever met. And once they’d both realized they shared visions for education reform in Britain, they’d gotten along famously.
As she and Fergus descended the stairs, Daphne sent a quick glance in the direction of the chambers which had once belonged to the Dowager Countess. As Fergus had ordered, she remained in Scotland and didn’t bother them in the slightest.
“It seems so strange how time works,” Daphne reflected. “It feels a little like it was only yesterday that we all came to London together, but at the same time, it feels as though an eternity has passed.”
“An enjoyable one, though.”
Henrietta met them at the foot of the stairs. She’d grown from a shy, little girl into a charming young woman. She was thin and slight with crystal blue eyes, and her smile was just like her brother’s. The young lady wore a pink gown with delicate beading for the occasion, and when Daphne looked at her, she couldn’t help but remember herself being young. Her heart filled with pride at what a lovely lady her husband’s little sister was becoming. She wondered if Elizabeth Collins had ever looked at her like that, and she suspected she probably had.
“Good evening,” Henrietta said. “Luke and I were beginning to wonder if you’d been waylaid.”
Her brother grinned. Despite having grown a great deal, Luke had yet to lose his mischievous streak, and Fergus had worried in the quiet of their bedroom that his brother might be turning into an incurable rake. But despite her husband’s fears, Daphne couldn’t see that ever happening. Luke might be mischievous and—sometimes—a little improper, but his moral strength was as strong as his brother’s.
“We were reading the mountain of letters from your suitors,” Fergus replied dryly.
His sister grinned. “I can’t help being the most charming of our family. It’s the curse that I must bear, my dear brother.”
Luke snorted. “Curse, huh?”
“Yes,” she replied.
Daphne clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “We’ll have guests soon. Be nice, please.”
“Yes, Daphne,” Luke replied, grinning.
He looked as though he’d already planned something for the evening, and Daphne was quite sure the boy’s mischief would materialize at some point during the ball.
Henrietta smoothed her curls once more, before striding past them and into the gardens for their moonlit ball. Because the townhouse had no ballroom, Daphne had suggested hosting the ball in the vast gardens behind it, an idea Fergus had been willing to indulge.
As they went outdoors, the spring wind whispered through the trees and the blooming flowers, filling the air with a sweet perfume. Daphne inhaled and felt as if the scent sank inside her, filling her with an incomparable calm.
“You know,” Fergus said, “I realize we’ve not begun properly yet, but I think I’d like to have the first dance.”
She didn’t answer, and she didn’t have to. Instead, she merely turned towards him, and her husband’s hands found the appropriate places. She drew closer to him and gazed up at him through her lashes, her eyes tracing his familiar jaw and his high cheekbones. No matter how often she looked at him, it was never enough.
“That night in Southwark,” she murmured. “This all came from that night. That meeting.”
“So it did,” he replied. “I’m not the sort of man who has ever held much stock in things like fate and destiny, those sorts of cosmological concepts.”
“No?” she asked.
It was strange and pleasant how she kept learning new things about him, even after all the time they’d been together.
“No,” he insisted. “But if I were to believe in them, I would think that night in Southwark would prove their existence.”
They swayed together, as their guests began to arrive. Daphne noted that Henrietta had already found Lord Phillip. It was quite apparent what answer his request would receive, considering how eager the girl was to accept his offer to dance. Luke had vanished, probably hiding behind one of the trees lining the gardens. In a few minutes, they’d hear either a lady’s indignant shout or the call of one of his friends.
“Would you want to go again tonight?” Daphne asked. “To Southwark?”
“Just the two of us?” Fergus asked.
She pursed her lips together and nodded. “Just us. We can disguise ourselves and give charity to the poor. We can even search for a few candidates who might be interested in joining the school Lady Lasseter and I are trying to build near her estate.”
“I’ll disguise myself as the young and dashing Earl of Summerhelm, but when I reveal myself, you must feign surprise.”
She laughed. “And I suppose I’ll disguise myself as a future governess.”
“To that same Earl,” he replied.
Daphne smiled, and her eyes crinkled at the corners. She only ever smiled that deeply and fondly at her husband, though she didn’t know it. He grinned in response. “Think about it,” he murmured. “I think it’s a wonderful idea. But you know, we’ll never be able to fix the world to your satisfaction or to mine.”
“I know,” she said, “But we’ll keep trying, won’t we?”
They ceased dancing, but still, they remained very close to one another. Daphne could hear the sound of her husband’s breaths and felt as though they reverberated and echoed through her own chest, as if the two of them existed together in the world as one being.
“Of course we will,” he said. “Because when people try to change the world, they do. Piece by piece, a little at a time. And the more you and I do, the better the world will be for the next couple to change.”
He cupped her cheek, and when he leaned down to kiss her, Daphne melted against him. She curled her fingers into his hair and pressed her lips against his. The roses and the night mingled together with the familiar smell of his cologne and his body, and Daphne felt as though she could’ve stood there all night and just breathed him in.
“I love you,” she whispered, as though she was saying some sacred and reverent thing.
“I love you, too,” he said, “More than I ever thought I could love anyone, if truth be told.”
A lady yelled, and Daphne knew that Luke had found his mark. Fergus cast his eyes upwards, as if seeking for patience from the divine, and she laughed. “Come, my dear husband,” she said. “Let’s see what damage your dear brother has caused tonight.”
And she took his hand, like she had so many nights before and would for so many more.
Ah, before you go...
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