R. C. Capasso
“Why can’t they just go away?” Catherine frowned.
Isabel, her hostess, was maddeningly patient. “It’s winter. The regiment always winters here. And I could not fail to invite them. Now smile.”
Catherine plastered a forced smile as she faced the ballroom. “Yes, but this is the first year that Ellie is old enough to go mad for a red coat. And there are so many of them.” Tall men, slim men, vigorous men with tantalizing whiskers and bright eyes. Straight backs that bowed so charmingly when introduced.
“You are not Ellie’s duenna.” Isabel stepped away, tossing over her shoulder as she disappeared in the crowd. “Enjoy the ball.”
“Enjoy!” Catherine snapped the fan at her wrist. No, at twenty-seven, she was not yet a duenna, even if only a few more seasons remained before she must join the mothers and chaperones along the wall. By rights she should be enjoying herself, but with Mama gone and Papa absorbed in his political discussions, who else could keep seventeen-year old Ellie from folly?
“Miss Hathaway.” Isabel reappeared at her side. “May I present Colonel John Ferris?”
Catherine’s eyes traveled up the tall figure bowing before her. Colonel Ferris. The man responsible for bringing all these tempting officers to her village. She barely had time to register broad shoulders under gleaming epaulets and a head of thick dark hair before the colonel straightened, leveling clear gray eyes upon her. Compelling eyes.
“Colonel.” She almost stammered. Her eyes frantically sought Isabel, but her elusive friend had left them alone.
“Miss Hathaway, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I have heard of your father’s excellent work as magistrate.”
She smiled and muttered something about the family’s pride in her father’s work. At least that was what she attempted to say. Her eyes took in the strong jaw, broad forehead, and high cheekbones lightly tanned from hours in the field. A distinguished officer. Her father had spoken of the colonel, newly appointed after decorated service abroad. If she’d only listened to what Papa had said. She’d been too busy trying to divert Ellie’s attention from the very idea of a military man.
“Would you do me the honor of a dance?” The colonel’s voice was low, but strong. Doubtless trained to move from instruction to command at a moment’s notice.
“I…” She froze as a high giggle crossed the room. Ellie was actually tapping her fan against the chest of a young officer. “I don’t know if I can.”
“If you can dance?” Something like amusement lit his eyes. “I am sure you are highly accomplished, Miss Hathaway.”
The heat of a blush crossed her cheeks. Was there any point in hiding her relationship to Ellie?
“It is just that I have spent the last fortnight lecturing my younger sister on the importance of avoiding military men.”
Ferris raised his eyebrows. “Well, in some cases that may be wise. But I assure you, I demand the highest standards from my men—on and off the battlefield.”
There seemed to be no air in the room. “I believe you, Colonel. And it is not your men I fear, but the fantasies of a seventeen-year old who likes a uniform. She can make a fool of herself, even without the help of a gentleman.”
The colonel followed her gaze. As he studied Ellie, Catherine’s heart pounded. The whole family could be disgraced by that impulsive child.
“A charming young lady.” The colonel’s piercing eyes met hers. “But I do not know that she possesses the power to conquer a man’s resolve. On the other hand…”
“She is a wonderful girl, of course.” Words tumbled out of Catherine’s lips. “I do not mean to speak ill of my own sister. But…” As the colonel tilted his head, her thoughts scattered. “But…” She straightened her shoulders. “She is too young to know her own heart.”
The colonel smiled and held out his hand. “Then surely her elder sister must set her an example. Dance with me, and show her that a lady can face an officer and leave the field victorious.”
There was no possible answer but to take the colonel’s hand and let him lead her to their place in the set. Ellie had better be watching, Catherine thought, holding her back straight as the pattern of the dance brought her close, then away from the colonel. Each time they met he had a smile. A witty observation. Then, as the dance required that he take her gloved hand, she changed her mind. Ellie should not see this. She would draw absolutely the correct conclusion.
It was going to be a complicated winter.