Love is Blind
London, England, 1818
“ ‘Love is a fever… in my blood.’”
Clarissa Crambray winced as those words trembled in the air. Truly, this had to be the worst ofthe poems Lord Prudhomme had recited since arriving at her father’s town house an hour ago.
Had it been only an hour? In truth it felt more like several days had passed since the elderlyman arrived. He’d entered brandishing a book, announcing with triumph that, rather than go fortheir usual walk, he thought perhaps today she’d enjoy his reading to her. And Clarissa wouldhave, had he chosen to read some-thing other than this poppycock. She also would haveappreciated it more were he not acting as though he were doing her a favor.
For all his words, Clarissa was not fooled. She knew the reason for the sudden change in
plans. The man was hoping to avoid calamity by restricting her to sitting decorously on thesettee while he read aloud from his book of poems. It would appear that even the aged andsympathetic Prudhomme was growing tired of her continued accidents.
She couldn’t really blame him; he’d been terribly forbearing up until now. Almost a saint, tobe honest. Certainly he’d shown more understanding and fortitude than her other suitors. He’dappeared to accept and forgive all the times she’d mistaken his fat little legs for a tableand set her tea on them, had given a pained smile through her tendency to dance on his feet,and had even put up with her stumbling and tripping as he led her on walks through the park. Orso it had seemed. But today he’d found a way to save himself from all that. Unfortunately, hischoice of reading material left much to be desired. Clarissa would rather be making a fool ofherself in the park and stumbling face-first into the cake table than suffering this drivel.
“‘It gives me wings like those of a dove.’” Lord Prudhomme’s voice quavered with passion…or possibly just old age; Clarissa wasn’t sure which. Truly, the man was old enough to be hergrandfather. Unfortunately, that didn’t matter to her stepmother, Lydia. The woman hadpromised to John Crambray that she’d see his daughter well married if it killed them both.Lord Prudhomme was the last of the few suitors still bothering with her. At this point, itlooked like they were safe from dying. However, Clarissa was in imminent danger of findingherself married to the elderly gentleman kneeling on the floor before her and waving his armswildly as he professed undying love.
“ ‘I shall vow my’… er… ‘my’—Lady Clarissa,” Lord Prudhomme interrupted himself.“Pray, move the candle closer if you please. I am having trouble deciphering this word.”
Clarissa blinked away her ennui and squinted toward her suitor. Prudhomme was a dark blob inher vision with a round, pink blur of a face topped by a silvery cloud of hair.
“The candle, girl,” he said impatiently, all signs of the charming suitor momentarilyreplaced with irritation.
Clarissa squinted at the candle on the table beside her, picked it up, and leaned dutifullyforward.
“Much better,” Prudhomme said with satisfaction. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. ‘I shall vowmy undying…’” He paused again and his nose twitched. “Do you smell something burning?”
Clarissa sniffed delicately at the air. She opened her mouth to say yes, actually she did, butbefore the words left her mouth Prudhomme released a shriek. Pulling back with surprise at thesound, she watched in amazement as the man suddenly leaped to his feet and began to hop madlyabout, his blurry arms flying and appearing to thrash at his head. Clarissa didn’t understandwhat was happening until the white blur that was his wig was suddenly removed and beatfuriously against his leg. She blinked at the pink blob that was his head, then at his actions,and realized she must have held the candle too close—she’d set his wig aflame.
“Oh, dear.” Clarissa set the candle down, not releasing it until she knew it was safely onthe table surface. Her vision blurred and her sense of distance beggared, she nearly knocked
the little man over as she leaped up to help him.
“Get away from me!” Prudhomme yelled, shoving her backward.
Clarissa fell back in her chair and stared at him in blind amazement, then glanced sharplytoward the door as a rustling announced the arrival of someone.
Several someones, she amended, squinting at the array of colors and shapes standing justinside the door. It looked as if every servant in the house had heard Prudhomme’s shrieks andcome running. No doubt her stepmother was there as well, Clarissa thought, and heaved a smallsigh at the subsequent shocked silence. She couldn’t see well enough to know if those by thedoor were staring at her with pity or accusation, but she didn’t need eyesight to guess atPrudhomme’s expression. His rage was a living thing. It reached out to her across the few feetseparating them, and then he exploded with verbal vitriol.
He was so angry, most of what Prudhomme said ran together into one mostly incomprehensiblerant. Clarissa managed to decipher bits here and there—”clumsy idiot,” “bloody disaster,”and “danger to society” amongst them—but then, in the midst of his rant, she saw his darkarm rise and descend toward her. Clarissa froze, afraid he might be lashing out, but shewasn’t at all sure. It was so hard to tell without her spectacles.
By the time his fist got close enough that Clarissa could see that he was indeed attempting tostrike her, it was too late to avoid the blow. Fortunately, the others had apparently suspectedhe was winding up, and had moved closer while he spoke. Several of them descended on the manmid-swing, preventing the blow. There was a blurry blending and shifting of color before her asthey struggled. Clarissa heard Prudhomme’s curses and a grunt from one of the shapes, whom shesuspected was Ffoulkes, the butler. Then there was much cursing as the kaleidoscope blur ofbodies began to shift toward the door.
“Fie! Shame on you, Lord Prudhomme,” Clarissa’s stepmother cried, her voice clearlydistressed as her lilac blur followed the mass of other colors to the door, then she addedanxiously, “I hope once you calm down you shall see your way clear to forgiving Clarissa. I amsure she did not mean to set your wig on fire.”
Clarissa sank back in her chair with a sigh of disgust. She couldn’t believe that herstepmother would still hope to make a match with the man. She’d set his wig on fire, forheaven’s sake! And he’d tried to hit her! Though Clarissa should have known better than tothink that would put Lydia off making a match. What did her stepmother care if she ended upmarried to an abusive mate?
Sitting up abruptly, she turned to peer warily around as the lilac blur that was Lydiareentered the room and slammed the door behind her.
“How could you?”
“I did not do it on purpose, Lydia,” Clarissa said at once. “And it would never havehappened at all if you would just let me wear my spectacles. Surely being graceful, even withspectacles, will get me more suitors than—”
“Never!” Lydia snapped. “How many times have I to tell you that girls with spectacles simplydo not find husbands? I know of what I speak. It is better to be a little clumsy thanbespectacled.”
“I set his wig on fire!” Clarissa cried with disbelief. “That is more than a little clumsy,and really, this is beyond ridiculous now. ‘Tis becoming dangerous. He could have been badlyburned.”
“Yes. He could have. Thank the good Lord he was not,” Lydia said, sounding suddenly calm.Clarissa nearly moaned aloud. She had quickly come to learn that when her stepmother went calm,it did not bode well for her.
“Mowbray! Been a while since you bothered with the season. What brings you to town?”
Lord Adrian Montfort, Earl of Mowbray, shifted his gaze from the couples whirling past on thedance floor and to the man who approached: the tall, fair, eminently good-looking ReginaldGreville. He and Greville, his cousin, had once been the best of friends. However, time anddistance had weakened the bond—with a little help from the war with France, Adrian thoughtbitterly. Ignoring Reginald’s question, he offered a somewhat rusty smile in greeting, thenturned his gaze back to the men and women swinging elegantly about the dance floor. He repliedinstead, “Enjoying the season, Greville?”
“Certainly, certainly. Fresh blood. Fresh faces.”
“Fresh victims,” Mowbray said dryly, and Reginald laughed.
“That too.” Reginald was well-known for his success in seducing young innocents. Only histitle and money kept him from being forced out of town.
Shaking his head, Adrian gave that rusty smile again. “I wonder you never tire of the chase,Reg. They all look sadly similar to me. I would swear these were the very same young women whowere entering their first season the last time I attended… and the time before that, and thetime before that.”
His cousin smiled easily, but shook his head. “It has been ten years since you bothered tocome to town, Adrian. Those women are all married and bearing fruit, or well on their way tospinsterhood.”
“Different faces, same ladies,” Adrian said with a shrug.
“Such cynicism!” Reg chided. “You sound old, old man.”
“Older,” Adrian corrected. “Older and wiser.”
“No. Just old,” Reg insisted with a laugh, his own gaze turning to the mass of people movingbefore them. “Besides, there are a couple of real lovelies this year. That blonde, forinstance, or that brunette with Chalmsly.”
“Hmmm.” Adrian looked the two women over. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but my guess is thatthe brunette—lovely as she is—doesn’t have a thought in her head. Rather like that LadyPenelope you seduced when last I was here.”
Reg’s eyes widened in surprise at the observation.
“And the blonde…” Adrian continued, his gaze raking the woman in question and taking in hercalculating look. “Born of parents in trade, lots of money, and looking for a tide to go withit. Rather like Lily Ainsley. Another of your conquests.”
“Dead-on,” Reginald admitted, looking a bit incredulous. His gaze moved between the two womenand then he gave a harsh laugh. “Now you have quite ruined it for me. I was consideringfavoring one or both of them with my attentions. But now you have made them quite boring.” Hefrowned a moment and then perked up. “All, I know one woman you cannot size up so easily.”
Grabbing Adrian’s arm, he tugged him around the room, pausing only once they’d reached theopposite side.
“There!” he said with satisfaction. “The girl in the yellow muslin gown. Lady ClarissaCrambray. I defy you to find someone from the last season you were here to compare her to.”
Adrian looked over the girl in question. Tiny—delicate-looking, in fact—and lovely as a newlyblooming rose, she had dark chestnut hair, a heart-shaped face, large wide eyes, full lips…and appeared about as miserable as he’d ever seen a young woman, a state he suspected hadsomething to do with the older woman at her side. His gaze slid over the matron. Well-roundedwith dark hair, she was pretty despite the bloom of youth being gone—or she would be if sheweren’t wearing a pursed, dissatisfied expression as she surveyed the activity in theballroom. Adrian glanced back to the girl.
“First season?” he queried, his curiosity piqued.
“Yes.” Reg looked amused.
“Why is no one dancing with her?” A beauty such as this should have had a full card.
“No one dares ask her—and you will not either, if you value your feet.”
Adrian’s eyebrows rose, his gaze turning reluctantly from the young woman to the man at hisside.
“She is blind as a bat and dangerous to boot,” Reg announced, nodding when Adrian lookeddisbelieving. “Truly, she cannot dance a step without stomping on your toes and falling about.She cannot even walk without bumping into things.” He paused, cocking one eyebrow in responseto Adrian’s expression. “I know you do not believe it. I did not either… much to my ownfolly.”
Reginald turned to glare at the girl and continued: “I was warned, but ignored it and took herin to dinner…” He glanced back at Adrian. “I was wearing dark brown trousers that night,unfortunately. She mistook my lap for a table, and set her tea on me. Or rather, she tried to.It overset and…” Reg paused, shifting uncomfortably at the memory. “Damn me if she did notburn my piffle.”
Adrian stared at his cousin and then burst into laughter.
Reginald looked startled, then smiled wryly. “Yes, laugh. But if I never sire anotherchild—legitimate or not—I shall blame it solely on Lady Clarissa Crambray.”
Shaking his head, Adrian laughed even harder, and it felt so good. It had been many years sincehe’d found anything the least bit funny. But the image of the delicate little flower along thewall mistaking Reg’s lap for a table and oversetting a cup of tea on him was priceless.
“What did you do?” he got out at last.
Reg shook his head and raised his hands helplessly. “What could I do? I pretended it had nothappened, stayed where I was, and tried not to cry with the pain. ‘A gentleman never deigns tonotice, or draw attention in any way to, a lady’s public faux pas,’” he quoted dryly, thenglanced back at the girl with a sigh. “Truth to tell, I do not think she even realized whatshe’d done. Rumor has it she can see fine with spectacles, but she is too vain to wear them.”
Still smiling, Adrian followed Reg’s gaze to the girl. Carefully taking in her wretchedexpression, he shook his head.
“No. Not vain,” he announced, watching as the older woman beside Lady Clarissa murmuredsomething, stood, and moved away.
“Well,” Reg began, but paused when, ignoring him, Adrian moved toward the girl. Shaking hishead, he muttered, “I warned you.”
“Refrain from squinting, please.”
Despite the inclusion of the word please, it was not a request but an order, and one Clarissa
was heartily sick of hearing. If her stepmother would simply allow her to wear spectacles, shewould have no need to squint. She would also not be constantly bumping into things and people.But no, of course she must not wear her spectacles. That would put off suitors.
As if my clumsiness does not, Clarissa thought wearily, and she grimaced inwardly over some ofthe accidents she’d had since arriving in London. Aside from upending tea trays and missingtables with her plates, she’d taken a terrible tumble down the stairs at a ball. Fortunately,she hadn’t hurt herself overmuch, suffering only bruises and stiffness but nothing broken.Then there’d been the little incident of falling out in front of a moving carriage, and ofcourse, recently, setting Lord Prudhomme’s wig on fire.
Another sigh slid from her lips as Clarissa recalled Lydia’s lecture after the last accident.Her stepmother had decided that—as she was so blind and clumsy without her spectacles—therewas only one way for Clarissa to go on. In the future, she was allowed only to sit quietly whenin the presence of others. She was not to touch candles, cups, plates, or, well, basically
anything. She was no longer to eat in company, but was to claim she was not hungry—whether shewas or not. Neither was she to drink. Even walking was out, unless she had her maid to leadher.
Clarissa had cut into this lecture several times with, “But if you would only allow me to wearmy spectacles—” But each time, Lydia had responded with a grim, “Never!” And then she hadcontinued on with all the other things Clarissa was to avoid.
By the time Lydia was finished, all Clarissa was supposed to do in the presence of others wassit looking serene… which supposedly meant no squinting.
Clarissa turned her gaze away from the shapes swinging past on the dance floor to stare wearilyat the pale pink blur of her hands in the yellow haze of her lap. She wished—not for die firsttime—that her father had accompanied them on this trip. Were Lord Crambray here, she’d haveher glasses and be able to properly enjoy the evening. Unfortunately, he’d had estate businessto attend. At least that was what he’d claimed, though her father had never much cared for thecity, and the claim of estate business might just have been an excuse. Clarissa didn’t know.All she knew was that he wasn’t here, and it was going to be another boring night.
“May I have this dance?”
Clarissa heard the request, but didn’t bother to look up. Why should she? It wasn’t as if shecould see anything anyway. Instead, she waited unhappily for her stepmother to speak, wonderingthe whole while who this stranger was that he had not heard of her. Anyone who had heard thetales of her clumsiness surely would not approach.
Realizing that Lydia hadn’t yet politely declined the request on her behalf by saying she wastoo tired, or whatever excuse she would choose, Clarissa glanced to her side with a frown. Shefound that the pink blur that was Lydia was no longer there. And when a black shape suddenlymoved into her stepmother’s seat, Clarissa sat back with a start.
A frown forming on her face, she turned, blindly searching the haze of colors around her forher stepmother’s bright pink shape.
“I believe the lady who was sitting here a moment ago went off in search of food.” The deepvoice was so close to her ear that Clarissa felt the man’s breath on her delicate lobe.Suppressing a shiver, she turned her attention quickly back to the gentleman at her side. Hehad lovely, deep, gravelly tones that she found pleasing, and his blurred form appeared quitelarge. For the millionth time, Clarissa wished she had her spectacles and could see.
“Did she not tell you where she was going?” he asked. “I thought I saw her speak to youbefore leaving.”
Clarissa blushed slightly, and quickly returned her gaze to the smear of movement that was thedance floor, admitting, “She may have. I fear I was distracted by my thoughts and not payingattention.”
While she had a vague recollection of Lydia murmuring something to her, Clarissa had been sunktoo deep in misery to pay much heed. It was humiliating to sit here catching bits ofconversation as people gossiped unkindly about her. Her clumsiness was apparently quite thejoke of the season. She’d earned the moniker Clumsy Clarissa, and everyone was wondering whatshe would do next to entertain them.
“They say you are as blind as a bat, and too vain to wear spectacles,” the voice beside herannounced.
Clarissa blinked in surprise. But if she was taken aback by his bluntness, she suspected shewas no more so than the speaker himself. She heard a small gasp of breath as he finished, as ifhe’d just realized what he’d said. A quick glance to the side showed that he’d raised hishand as if to cover his mouth.
“I am sorry; I have obviously been too long out of society. I should never have—”
“Oh, bother.” Clarissa waved his apology away and sank back in her seat with a dejected sigh.“ Tis all right. I do know what people are saying. They seem to think that I am deaf as well
as clumsy, for they do not worry about saying things in front of me—or at least behind theirfans—loudly enough for me to hear.” Making a face, she mimicked, “ ‘Oh look, there she is,poor thing—Clumsy Clarissa.’ “
sorry,” her companion said quietly.“I am
Clarissa waved his words away again, only this time noting the way he dodged as if to avoid ablow to die head. Frowning, she clasped her hands and settled them in her lap, repeating,“There is no need to apologize. At least you said it to my face.”
“Yes, well…” The man seemed to relax in his seat now that her hands weren’t waving wildly.“Actually, it was more a question. I was wondering if you truly are?”
Clarissa smiled wryly. “Ah, well, I am not quite as blind as a bat. I can see with
spectacles. But my stepmother has taken them away.” She threw a dry smile in the generaldirection of his blurry shape and then shrugged. “Lydia seems to think that I will have moreluck setting a fire in some suitable man’s heart without them. The only thing as yet that Ihave set fire to is Lord Prudhomme’s wig.”
“Excuse me?” the stranger asked with amazement. “Prudhomme’s wig? “
“Hmm.” Clarissa leaned back in her chair and actually managed to chuckle at die memory.“Yes. Though if you ask me, ‘twas not wholly my fault. The man knew that I could not seewithout my spectacles. Why the deuce he asked me to move the candle closer is beyond me.”Clarissa paused to squint in her companion’s general direction. “He is bald as a cue ballwithout his wig, is he not?”
She thought the man nodded, though it was hard to say. He was emitting small choked sounds ittook her a moment to identify. He was fighting desperately not to laugh!
“Go ahead,” Clarissa said with a small smile. “Laugh. I did. Though not right away.”
The man relaxed somewhat. She could actually feel the muscles in the arm and leg pressedagainst her own expanding. But he only expelled a small chuckle.
Clarissa squinted again, trying to bring his face into focus. She wanted very much to see hisface. She liked the sound of his laugh, and his voice when he spoke was husky yet soft. It wasreally quite… attractive, she decided. And while Clarissa should have moved over rather thanallow the intimacy of his hip rubbing against hers with every move, she quite liked that too;so she pretended not to notice.
“How did Lord Prudhomme take this little accident?”
Clarissa gave up trying to see his face and smiled good-naturedly. “Not at all well. Hethought it was my fault. He called me quite a few nasty names. I think he would have hit me,too, but the servants wrestled him from the house,” she admitted with a small frown. Sighing,she added, “Of course, my stepmother—Lydia—lectured me ad nauseam afterward about everythingI must and must not do from now on.”
“Pretty much everything is off-limits,” Clarissa said cheerfully. “Let’s see, no eating inpublic, no drinking in public… In fact, I am not to touch anything in public: candles, flowervases, anything. I am not even supposed to walk without someone to guide me.”
“But did she say no dancing?”
“No. Not as such. But then, she did not have to.” Clarissa’s smile faded. She hesitated andthen tried to explain. “Everything is a blur, you see; so when I whirl about, all I see arestreaks of color and light flashing around. I lose my balance and…” She paused and shrugged,but felt a blush creeping over her face as she remembered the last brave soul who had asked herto dance. Clarissa had ended up tripping him, and they had both ended up on die floor. Veryembarrassing.
“Just keep your eyes shut.”
“What?” Clarissa glanced blankly at the dark blur beside her.
“Keep your eyes closed, and you will not lose your balance,” the man suggested, and she sawhis hand move closer to her. He was offering it so that she would rise.
Clarissa opened her mouth to refuse, then paused as his hand suddenly enclosed hers, sending ashock of sensation racing up her arm. It was such an odd feeling—excitement, wildexcitement—coursing across her flesh.
“I do not…” she began faintly with bewilderment, pausing when his hand lifted her chin andthe man bent to stare into her eyes. Close enough to kiss, she thought vaguely. Good God,Clarissa realized, close enough to see! For one brief second she stared into the most
beautiful set of clear brown eyes she’d ever seen; then he pulled back slightly, out of focus.
“Trust me.” It was not so much a request as an order. But Clarissa remembered those eyes, sodark, so kind—and she nodded. Then he was tugging her out of her seat, directing her throughthe crowd of dancers to the middle of the floor.
“Now…” His voice was calm and soothing as he turned her to face him. “Close your eyes,” heinstructed, lifting her free hand to his shoulder. “Relax.”
His voice was almost hypnotic, Clarissa thought vaguely.
“Follow me. I will not allow you to stumble.”
Despite having just met him, Clarissa believed him. He would not let her fall as he led herthrough die dance. And with her eyes closed, she had only her ears and his touch to guide her.
The music was loud and strong, drowning out all conversation. Her companion’s touch directedher; a squeeze of the hand, an urgent pressure at her waist. And the only other sensation wasthe air rushing past as he whirled her around and around, without once tripping or stumbling.For die first time in weeks—since her very arrival in London, in fact—Clarissa didn’t feellike a clumsy oaf. It was divine.
When the dance ended, he gave her hand a squeeze and then drew it through his arm to promenadeher through the room.
“You dance divinely, my lady,” he said quietly near her ear, gently leading her with his armand pressure on her hand past die gay colors of the other dancers. Clarissa flushed and smileda bit proudly, then sighed and shook her head.
“No, my lord,” she said demurely. “You give me too much credit. I fear you are the one whodances divinely. I know it is not I, for I have been able to do nothing but stumble and fallwhen dancing with others.”
“Then the fault lies with those others. You are as light and graceful as a feather on diedance floor with me.”
Clarissa considered briefly; then, with a sense of justice, nodded her head. “I believe youmay be right, my lord. After all, if it were me alone, even your obvious skill could not havemade it so easy. Perhaps my previous partners were a bit nervous and awkward.”
She could hear the smile in his voice, and so Clarissa raised her eyebrows in question. “Mylord?”
“Your honesty. I am pleased by your lack of false modesty. It is something that never reallybothered me before, yet now seems as fake and unpleasant as the airs everyone puts on when inthe city. I find your honesty most refreshing.”
Clarissa felt herself blush, and then the first strains of a new song hummed through the air.Her companion paused and turned her into his arms once more.
“Close your eyes,” he instructed, and began to move them around the room once more.
Clarissa closed her eyes and relaxed into his arms. She suspected the two of them shouldn’treally be dancing this close, but she feared that if she insisted they reduce the closeness,she might return to the clumsy stumbling she’d suffered before. Besides, she quite liked being
in tins man’s embrace. Between that and her closed eyes, she felt coddled and safe.
“Why do you not disobey this stepmother of yours?”
Clarissa blinked her eyes open, tried in vain to see the face dancing before her and then gaveup, closing her eyes again. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, why do you not simply wear your spectacles anyway?”
“Oh, I tried that the first day I was in London,” Clarissa admitted with irritation. “I camedownstairs dressed for Lord Findlay’s ball wearing them. Lydia was livid. She snatched themoff my face and broke them right in front of my eyes. Almost close enough that I could see whatshe was doing!”
“She broke them?” He was obviously shocked by the lengths to which her stepmother would go.
Clarissa gave a solemn nod. “Lydia does not care to be disobeyed.”
“But if she broke them, how do you see to get around at home?” he asked with dismay.
“I do not.” Clarissa grimaced and then admitted with some vexation, “I have to be led aroundby servants. It is quite tedious.”
“I imagine it would be,” he murmured.
“Hmm.” She briefly reflected upon the humiliation of it all, and then said, “But the worstof it is that I cannot do anything without my spectacles. I cannot embroider, or arrangeflowers… or anything. And it is impossible to read. Even if I move the book right up to myeyes, I cannot read long before the strain makes my head ache. ‘Tis quite boring. I havenothing to do but sit about, twiddling my thumbs.”
As he gazed down on her, Adrian murmured sympathetically, a slight smile tugging at his mouth.The pout on this young woman’s lips—unconscious though it was—was quite endearing. She wasquite lovely, though perhaps not in the traditional way. Her lips were too big for any memberof the season to think of her that way, but he himself found them quite seductive. And whileher nose was just a bit too pert for today’s standards, he thought it cute.
Adrian was so preoccupied with taking in her features, he hardly noticed when the musicchanged, heeding it only enough to swing her into a waltz as he continued to gaze down at herface. She went on to tell him the trials and tribulations of not having her spectacles. Therewas quite a long list. Dressing was difficult, and she had to depend entirely on the good humorof her lady’s maid. She never knew quite what her hair looked like, and there too had todepend on her maid. As Clarissa explained, she hardly seemed to hear his assurances that herhair was perfection and her gown lovely.
No, the lady obviously wasn’t seeking compliments. Blushing furiously, she waved his wordsaway and continued to explain how she had to be led about the house by her maid, for fear oftumbling down stairs, or tripping over something she did not see. And apparently, mistakingpeople for one another was a problem, though she assured him she was getting quite good atrecognizing voices. There was also the irritating difficulty of obliviously spilling food downher front, albeit only when she was alone, since she was not allowed to take refreshments orfood in company. She had taken to wearing a bib to save her wardrobe!
Adrian was biting his lip at the image of her in a bib, and it only got worse as she went on tosay she’d nearly-set fire to the family town house several times while attempting to lightcandles. She’d tripped the butler and several of the servants numerous times, and she waspositive that they all had begun to hate her. She was sure they cringed whenever she was near,and she’d heard them begin to murmur that she was a walking disaster.
Lady Clarissa was dreadfully cheerful as she admitted all this. Adrian had great difficultystifling his amusement as she spoke, but managed to withhold his chuckles until she sensed hispolite efforts and gave him leave to laugh. The robust humor that escaped him then surprisedAdrian. It had been so long since he’d even smiled that laughter was a joy to partake of, andhe found his gaze softening on the woman who had brought it about. She was a wonder: adorable,
lovely, and so cheerful about the disasters that followed her. Clarissa made his soul feellight and his heart ache with longing.
“You have a nice voice, my lord. A nice laugh too,” she pronounced with a smile.
“Thank you, my lady,” he replied after clearing his throat of the laughter clogging it. “Itis kind of you to say so, but I show my bad manners in laughing at your misfortune. Pray,forgive me.”
“Oh, ta ra,” Clarissa said lightly. “In retrospect I suppose it is all rather funny—thoughI doubt that Lydia would agree.”
Adrian’s humor ended there, and he arched one eyebrow in displeasure, though she could not seeit. “Forgive me for saying so, my lady, but your stepmother sounds to be a rather nasty oldcow.”
“Oh!” Clarissa said, dismayed. “Oh, you must not say that. Ever.”
“Why not?” he asked with careless amusement. “I am not afraid of her.”
“No, but… She would be furious. And she would not like you were she to hear you say suchthings about her.”
“I could not care less if she likes me or not—,” Adrian began, but Clarissa cut him off.
“Oh, but you must care. If she does not like you, then she will not allow me to dance with youanymore, and… and… I do quite like it,” she finished with some embarrassment.
The look of scorn on Adrian’s face melted away at her confession, and his annoyance softenedslightly. “Well, then, I shall have to be sure to treat her with the utmost respect.” Hewatched her pink, embarrassed face for a moment, then added, “Because I quite like dancingwith you, too.”
Clarissa turned to him and beamed brightly.
Adrian smiled gently down at her, despite die fact that she could not see it, and then someinstinct made him peer over her shoulder. He slowed their dancing somewhat as he spotted thewoman who had been seated next to Clarissa when Reginald first pointed her out. It seemed herstepmother had returned from stuffing herself, and had found empty the seat where she had lefther charge. She was now frowning around the room in search of her errant ward. It did not takeher long to spot the chit.
As Adrian expected, the woman looked less than pleased to see Clarissa dancing with him. Infact, she looked horrified. When she immediately began to make a beeline toward them, hepretended not to see and began to dance Clarissa in the opposite direction, leading her awayfrom her guardian.
He expected the woman to stop and await her charge’s safe return when he moved away, but aglance over his shoulder showed her pursuing. He frowned. It appeared the stepmother was thepersistent sort. Adrian supposed he should have expected as much; she did rather resemble abulldog, he thought uncharitably. He then glanced down at the girl in his arms.
“Why is she so determined you should not wear your spectacles?” he asked.
“She wishes me to make a good match. Father will be annoyed should she not manage that, yousee.”
“Ah. Well… actually, no, I do not see,” Adrian muttered, changing direction abruptly when hesaw that they were in peril of being caught by the stepmother. He was silent for a moment as hemaneuvered Clarissa about the floor in avoidance, then glanced down to comment, “Surely youwould have a better chance at making a good match were you able to see.”
Clarissa gave a deep, heartfelt sigh and nodded. “I must confess, sir, that is my opinion aswell… However, Lydia does not see it so. She says that I look quite unattractive in myspectacles, and fears that they, on top of my ‘unfortunate past,’ would quite ruin any chanceI have with a respectable man of means.”