* * *
“There you are!” his mother said brightly, too damn brightly.
Robert glanced around the large ballroom, hoping to find his minx. True to her word she had left. Now he was left at this dreadful ball with memories of her. He could simply ask around about her, but then that would put them in an awkward position. People would want to know why he was interested and tongues would wag. Maybe if he continued to go with his mother out on the town for the next few weeks he would run into her. It was possible.
“Oh, Robert, Lord and Lady Norwood are waiting to see you. They’re so excited. They haven’t seen you since you were -”
“Fifteen,” he supplied on a bored sigh. That was when he finally put his foot down and refused to be anywhere near Elizabeth Stanton. That was also the year the little brat poured ink into his damn teacup in front of the beautiful Eleanor Tidsby, who screamed her bloody head off before she’d fainted dead away when she saw his black mouth. He’d almost killed the little brat then and there.
“That sounds about right. Come along,” she said, placing her hand on his sleeve. No one in this ballroom would suspect that she had his arm in a death grip that would no doubt leave a large bruise. Not that he minded. He would have other marks on his body from his minx. He barely stopped himself from grinning like an idiot. She truly was wonderful, he thought just before he spotted Lady Stanton standing next to a few young women, making his smile disappear instantly.
“She’s not waiting with her mother, is she?” he asked.
“Elizabeth Stanton,” he said tightly, in absolutely no mood for any of his mother’s games, not tonight.
She patted his arm. “No, my dear. She is somewhere around. It’s too bad. You’re both so much alike.”
“Take that that back or you will never have any grandchildren by me,” he threatened, insulted that his mother would say something so horrible about him.
She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Fine. I won’t mention her again. So touchy,” she said quietly as they reached Lord and Lady Norwood.
“Robert, my boy,” Lord Norwood said with a warm smile as he reached out and took Robert's hand firmly into his own. The man was graying, but still an impressive sight.
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, my Lord.”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lady Norwood whisper something into Heather’s ear. He couldn’t believe how huge the woman was. Maybe the little brat was too. If only, he thought with an inward sigh. Heather shot her mother an annoyed look before she curtsied and walked away, clearly displeased with whatever her mother said. His father and brother walked over and joined them a moment later.
One glance at his mother’s pleased expression and he knew that she was up to something. She kept looking around the large crowd expectantly and then back at James before she looked at his father, who nodded slightly as if to answer a silent question. Oh hell, poor James. Their parents, it seemed, were playing matchmaker. He knew that expression on his mother’s face and actually feared the day when it was focused on him, which was another reason why he was leaving.
“Robert my boy, your father was telling me about your new estate. Congratulations,” Lord Norwood said with a warm smile that was nothing like the fake smile his wife currently had plastered to her face.
“Thank you, my Lord,” he said, not bothering to mention that he no longer owned that estate.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Lord and Lady Norwood part. A second later a young woman was practically shoved between them. He saw James gasp and his eyes widen. His mother looked very pleased, as did his father. Robert turned around to see what they were looking at and smiled.
“James, Robert, you remember our youngest daughter, Elizabeth?” Lady Norwood said proudly.
Elizabeth ran her eyes over the man standing in front of her. She was not going to faint or scream, she decided as she tried to remain calm. She shoved her hand inside her reticule and pulled out the small piece of paper and opened it while keeping her eyes focused on the small group in front of her, smiling charmingly as she prayed that this was all a mistake. As discreetly as possible, she looked down at the piece of parchment in her hand. She groaned inwardly. On the paper clearly written was the name of Robert Bradford.
This could not be happening.......
Robert’s smile disappeared only to be replaced by a sharp scowl in her direction. She was about to say a few choice words to him when James stepped forward. Good lord, the man was still a sight to behold.
“Lady Elizabeth.” He took her hand and bowed over it. “You’ve grown into a lovely young woman.” She curtsied even as her eyes shot back to Robert. Her face burned with embarrassment just thinking about what they'd done. His scowl intensified when he noted her blush.
“They’re about to begin the supper waltz,” her mother said none-too-subtly, intensifying her mortification when she really hadn’t thought it was possible.
* * *
“Ah, Lady Elizabeth!”
Robert looked back and almost laughed. Lord Dumford was coming to claim her. Good. There wasn’t anyone who deserved it more than this woman . It surprised him how quickly she went from being his minx to this horrid woman in his mind. All those memories came flooding back to him. God, he hated her. It didn’t matter that he still wanted her. He hated her and that was all that mattered.
“May I have the pleasure of the supper waltz and then perhaps escort you to supper?” Lord Dumford asked with that damn pompous tone that grated in the worst way.
“I’m sorry, my Lord. I’ve already promised another gentleman to dance and dine with him tonight,” she said sweetly, very kindly actually.
“Who?” Lord Dumford asked rather rudely.
“Me,” James said firmly.
James held out his hand. “I believe this is our dance, Lady Elizabeth,” James said smoothly. Their parents were practically giddy. This was planned! They wanted James and Elizabeth together.
The hell that was going to happen!
He would not stand for it.
* * *
Elizabeth had no choice but to accept his offer. Although she wouldn’t mind fulfilling a childhood fantasy by dancing with James, she needed to speak with Robert and get their stories straight. Once that was done, she would happily beat him upside the head with her book, she thought with a smile.
“I believe you’re correct, my Lord,” she said as she took his offered arm, leaving Robert behind to glare after them.
They took their place among the other couples on the dance floor. James smiled down at her. “I must say, Elizabeth, you look nothing like the child I remember.”
“Fourteen years will do that, my Lord,” she said coolly, making him visibly wince.
“Ouch. I suppose I should now apologize for my absence. I did not do it to be cruel, my dear. I had to support my brother and all that.”
“I thought as much. You were always close to my family. I assumed your absence was in support of your brother.”
“Well, you couldn’t blame the boy. You were clearly driving him on the path to Bedlam,” he said with a grin.
She took pride in that. She really shouldn’t, but she did. “He wasn’t such an angel if I recall,” she pointed out just as the waltz began.