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Joanna and Mrs Fulgrave passed on into the ballroom, its pillared, mirrored walls already reverberating with the hum of conversation, the laughter of nervous debutantes and the faint sounds of the orchestra playing light airs before the dancing began.
As she always did, Joanna began to scan the room, her heart almost stopping at the sight of each red coat before passing on. She must not let her anxiety show, she knew. An officer’s wife must be calm and not reveal her feelings whatever the circumstances. A small knot of officers was surveyed and dismissed and then, suddenly, half a head above those surrounding him, was a man with hair the colour of dark honey. A man whose scarlet coat sat across broad shoulders strapped with muscle and whose crimson sash crossed a chest decorated with medal ribbons on the left breast.
‘Giles!’ Joanna had no idea she spoke aloud, and indeed her voice was only a whisper. It was he, and three years of waiting, of loving, of hard work and passionate belief were at an end.
He was making his way slowly up the opposite side of the dance floor, stopping to talk to friends here and there, bowing to young ladies and now and again, she could see, asking for a dance. Joanna’s hand closed hard over her unfilled dance card which dangled from her wrist on its satin ribbon. As it did so a voice beside her said, ‘Miss Fulgrave! May I beg the honour of the first waltz?’
It was a round faced young man with red hair. Joanna smiled but shook her head. ‘I am so sorry, Lord Sutton, I will not be waltzing this evening. Would you excuse me? I have to speak to someone at the other end of the room.’
She began to move slowly but purposefully through the crowd, her eyes on Giles’s head, trying to catch a glimpse of his face. Why was he in London? She had seen no mention of it in the Gazette. Anxiously she studied the tall figure. Her heart was pounding frantically and she did not know that all the colour had ebbed from her face. She felt no doubts: this was her destiny. This was Giles’s destiny.
He had almost reached the head of the room now. Joanna fended off three more requests for dances. Her entire card had to be free for whenever Giles’s wanted to dance. Or would they just sit and talk? Would he recognise her immediately or would she have to contrive an introduction?
She was almost there. She calmed her breathing. It was essential that his first impression was entirely favourable. She could see his face clearly now. He was very tanned, white lines showing round his eyes where laughter had creased the skin. He looked harder, fitter, even more exciting than she remembered him. Ten more steps…
Giles Gregory turned his head as though someone had spoken to him, hesitated and stepped back. Joanna saw him push aside the curtain which was partly draped over an archway and enter the room beyond.
The crowd was thick at that end of the room where circulating guests from both directions met and spoke before moving on their way. Held up by the crush it took her perhaps three minutes to reach the same archway.
When she finally lifted the curtain she found herself alone in a little lobby and looked around, confused for a moment. Then she heard his voice, unmistakeably Giles’s voice. Deep, lazily amused, caressing her senses like warm honey over a spoon. She stepped forward and saw into the next room where Giles was standing…
…Where Giles was standing smiling down into the upturned face of the exquisite young lady clasped in his arms. ‘So you will talk to Papa, Giles darling? Promise?’ she was saying, her blue eyes wide on his face.
‘Yes, Suzy my angel, I promise I will talk to him tomorrow.’ Giles’s voice was indulgent, warm, loving. Joanna’s hand grasped the curtain without her realising it; her eyes, her every sense, were fixed on the couple in the candlelit chamber.
‘Oh Giles, I do love you.’ The young lady suddenly laughed up at him and Joanna’s numbed mind realised who she was. Lady Suzanne Hall was the loveliest, the most eligible, the wealthiest debutante of that Season. Niece of Her Grace the Duchess of Bridlington, eldest and most indulged daughter of the Marquis of Olney, blonde, petite, spirited and the most outrageous flirt, she had a fortune which turned heads, but even penniless, she would have drawn men after her like iron filings to a magnet.
Why does she want Giles? Joanna screamed inwardly. He is mine!
‘Oh it is such an age since I have seen you! Do you truly love me, Giles my darling?’ Suzanne said, her arms entwined round his neck, his hands linked behind her tiny waist.
‘You know I do, Suzy,’ he replied, smiling down at her. ‘You are my first, my only, my special love.’ And then he bent his head and kissed her.
The world went black, yet Joanna found she was still on her feet, clutching the curtain. Vision closed in until all she could see was a tiny image of the entwined lovers as though spied down the wrong end of a telescope. Blindly she turned and walked out. By some miracle she was still on her feet although she could see nothing now: it was as though she had fainted, yet retained every sense but sight.
Outside the archway she remembered there had been chairs, fragile affairs of gilt wood. Joanna put out a hand and found one, thankfully unoccupied. She sat, clasped her hands in her lap and managed to smile brightly. Would anyone notice?
Gradually sight returned, although her head spun. No-one was sitting next to her, no-one had noticed. She tried to make sense of what had happened. Giles was here, and Giles was in love with Lady Suzanne.
She had read, for she read everything that she could find on military matters, that it was possible to receive a mortal wound and yet feel no pain, to continue for some time until suddenly one dropped dead of it. Shock, the doctors called it, a far more serious and deadly thing than the everyday shocks of ordinary life. Perhaps that was what she was feeling: shock.
Joanna was conscious of a swirl of bluebell skirts by her shoulder and Lady Suzanne appeared, hesitated for a moment and plunged into the throng. Her voice came back clearly. ‘Freddie! I would love to waltz with you, but I have not got a single dance on my card left. No, I am not teasing you, look…’
Joanna found she could not manage to keep the smile on her lips. Her hands began to tremble and she clasped them together in her lap. Any minute now someone was going to notice her and start to fuss. She had to get herself under control
‘Madam, are you unwell?’ The deep voice came from close beside her. Joanna started violently, dropping her fan, and instantly Colonel Gregory was on one knee before her. ‘Here, I do not think it is damaged.’
She began to stammer a word of thanks, then their eyes met and he exclaimed, ‘But it is Miss Joanna Fulgrave is it not?’ Joanna nodded mutely, taking the fan from his outstretched fingers, using exaggerated care not to touch him. ‘May I sit down?’ Taking her silence for assent he took the chair next to her, his big frame absurdly out of place on the fragile looking object.
‘Thank you, Colonel.’ She had managed a coherent sentence but it was not enough to convince him that all was well with her. Joanna fixed her gaze on her clasped hands, yet she utterly aware of him beside her, his body turned to her, his eyes on her face.
‘You are not well, Miss Fulgrave. May I fetch someone to you? Is your mother here perhaps?’
‘I need no-one, I thank you,’ she managed to whisper. ‘I am quite well, Colonel.’
‘I beg leave to differ, Miss Fulgrave. You are as white as a sheet.’
‘I…I have had an unexpected and unwelcome encounter, that is all.’ Her voice sounded a little stronger, and emboldened she added, ‘It was a shock: I will be better presently, Colonel.’ Please leave me, she prayed, please go before I break down and turn sobbing into your arms in front of all these people.