Nicholas Beauregard sprawled lazily in a corner of the Covington ballroom, watching the swirling interplay of bodies through the dizzying gyrations of the newest waltz. He caught his right foot tapping to the one-two-three rhythm and firmly tucked it behind his left ankle, preferring to have his game leg on view than be caught in such a public display of his inability to prance about like the other dancers.
He would much rather join than watch alone. Having learned every step, turn, and gyration, his appreciation of the aesthetics of dance pricked him each time his inability to partake reared its ugly head.
Nicholas looked down at the offending limb. He’d pondered his infirmity countless times, wondering why. Once, when he was very young, he’d asked the parish priest why God had decided to punish him, since he’d only just been born. The cleric’s response, that his parents or his grandparents must have sinned, had not left a favorable impression with his father.
Nor with him, for all that he’d just turned six years old.
Years of wearing that damnable shoe had resulted in nothing but his leg and hip twisting in addition to his turned foot. Now, watching the dancers, he couldn’t help but wish the shoe had functioned as promised.
Nicholas sighed, and turned his thoughts away from that well-worn path. Wishing did nothing but reveal his own fears—never a productive thing. He looked back to the swirling crowd, determined to find some bit of pleasure in the activity.
He spied Aria Covington and Major William Haverly among the spinning couples and stared for a long moment in unabashed appreciation at the betrothed pair. They made a striking couple, though he far preferred the elegant lines of the major. Not to mention the firm roundness of his buttocks and long legs. Or those fine shoulders, which, though lean, looked to be capable of delivering a superb whipping to an errant lackey.
“I’ve told you before, Nick, Will Haverly is off-limits for your pleasure. Viewing or otherwise.” The mild reprimand carried a fair amount of humor and very little censure.
“There is no fault to find in admiring a handsome couple waltzing about the room, Theo,” Nicholas retorted, unashamed to be caught staring. “Sit down, damn you, before you fall over.”
His cousin complied, though his attempt to sit proved to be more a dignified drop into the cushioned chair. “Although I say that, we are birds of a feather, cousin. Though I’ve recently discovered there are more fish in the sea than my old friend.”
Nicholas smiled. He had noticed and envied that very fact earlier tonight. “Quite the specimen to add to your stable, Theo. Prime blood?”
“No.” The single word came out clipped, and Theo gave him a quelling glance. Nicholas shivered a bit from the command inherent in that look and tone and averted his eyes promptly. He could see every ounce of the former cavalry captain in that glare. A shame Theo was his cousin. He’d thoroughly mastered the skill of command, and Nicholas would have willingly surrendered to him, though he had not been willing to do so with any other man.
Well, to put the point on it, he’d have trusted no other man with such a thing, no matter the temptation. Theo he had known since they were both in leading strings. They were practically brothers, with a shared taste in men.
In fact, it was with Theo that Nicholas had discovered that bizarre side of himself he chose to keep hidden. It had been quite by accident, of course, but though they didn’t allow the memory to bring up any untoward awkwardness, they most certainly didn’t speak of it.
On the other hand, Theo knew when and how to use Nicholas’s weakness when he wished—a fact that rankled. Theo would only push matters to a point and not beyond, everything right and proper, despite them both knowing Nicholas would accept and enjoy more. Not that Nicholas would truly wish such a relationship with Theo, but still, there were so
few men about who were willing for a romp, much less worthy and trustable enough to descend into deeper decadence.
“Don’t pout, Nick,” Theo chided. “Your air of congeniality is quite spoiled by it, and I’ll be damned by everyone here if the ‘Gentleman Jester’ cannot gad about humoring everyone with his raillery.” When Nicholas gave him no answer, Theo nudged Nicholas in the ribs and held out a small, cream envelope with a scarlet seal. “Here, for you. A prize plum plucked for you by the estimable Arabella.”
Arabella? Curiosity nudged Nicholas back into a better humor. Arabella’s missives were a true delight; she’d an uncanny wit and no shame at all, much to her mother’s mortification and her brothers’ delight. He unfolded the paper, and his astonishment increased a hundredfold.
To Mr. Nicholas Beauregard,
I most cordially invite you to accept this invitation to attend my annual celebration marking the end of the holidays. My Twelfth Night revel is dedicated to the enjoyment of the most extravagant and salacious of costumes and revelry. Utter decadence by one and by all is assumed and greatly desired. Licentiousness is, of course, both permitted and, if I may be so bold, expected.
I have been urged upon this invitation by the assurance that you are a man of both appropriate proclivities and uncommon wit. Do grace us with both, if you choose to join us. No formal reply is required.
If, however, your wishes for the end-of-year celebrations are otherwise, I rely on the equal assurance of your circumspection to burn this invitation forthwith.
Yours in utmost anticipation,
Viscount Sebastian Colvin
Nicholas felt his face flame and, for a moment, words failed him. “How…how…” He stopped, taking a deep breath to halt his stammering. “How in the bloody hell did Arabella
come by such an invitation?”
Theo laughed aloud. “More matches abound this Christmastide than Haverly’s, cos. The Earl of Colvin is to marry Arabella in a fortnight, though only a fortnight past, she was supposed to marry the viscount instead. It seems our Arabella has a rather unique approach to managing her new household.”
Staring at the letter, and trying hard to suppress the—licentious
—thoughts that sprang up just thinking about the notorious revel, Nicholas couldn’t help but agree.