"However," Ian continued, "I would be delighted to take your hand and let you practise your steps around me. It might make you more confident when the dancing master requires that."
"Will he?" Annie asked in horror.
For some reason she had supposed the master would simply walk her through the dance, standing beside her as Elizabeth had done. The thought of actually having to dance with the man was disconcerting.
"I believe that is how it is usually accomplished," Ian said, his eyes smiling again, although his mouth was once more controlled. "But a little practice will surely make perfect. Not, of course, in my case."
This might very well be the only chance she would ever have to dance with him. And she wanted to. She wanted to very much. His hazel eyes were considering her face, one brow raised enquiringly, so she attempted to keep her excitement from showing.
"I should be very grateful if you would," she said primly.
Ian limped across the ballroom and held out his hand. "Then I should be delighted to be your somewhat immobile partner."
It was certainly not how she had envisaged this moment. However, they were quite alone, with nothing to distract her from enjoying his presence, so it might be even better than what she had been imagining. Smiling, she put her fingers into those of her guardian, and took her place at his side.
"I must warn you that I really am very bad," she said, it seemed only fair to prepare him.
"Then we should match quite nicely," he said, unperturbed by her confession.
Taking a deep breath, Annie began to move through the sequence of steps Elizabeth had painstakingly taught her, trying to concentrate on them, rather than on the considerable distraction provided by being so near her guardian.
"Perhaps if I hum it will go better," Ian suggested after a moment. "The melody almost tells you what to do."
Her eyes lifted to his, a blush once more staining her cheeks. His fingers tightened encouragingly around her hand, and then he began to hum in a very pleasant baritone. Obediently, Annie tried to think only about the music. After all, Elizabeth had told her the same thing—to concentrate on the rhythm and flow of it, rather than worrying about what her feet were doing.
She reminded herself that she had better enjoy this because the opportunity to dance with Ian might never come again. Of course, she admitted, he wasn't really dancing. He was simply holding her hand as she moved through the formal pattern of the cotillion. He, himself, was moving as little as possible, standing in place and simply turning as she circled around him.
However, given all the hectic preparations and lessons in deportment and the shopping expeditions, Annie hadn't been alone with her guardian in a very long time. And she didn't believe she had been this close to him since the night they had knelt together in the snow, her arms wrapped tightly around his shivering body.
Suddenly she was aware of the same subtle aromas that had surrounded him then. The scents of good soap and fine leather. Of freshly ironed linen. Of clean skin and hair. She breathed deeply of them, knowing those fragrances would always be associated in her mind with the night he had defended her. And now they would forever be associated with this moment as well.
"Much better," he said, turning with her so that she could begin the next section.
Had they really been on the dance floor, he would have handed her off to her new partner. As it was, he simply allowed her circle away from him and then caught her hand again as she turned back.
Despite the fact that he wasn't attempting to follow the steps, Ian's confidence in leading her through them showed that he must have been an excellent dancer. Or at least a very experienced one.
"You like to dance," she said, surprised into that observation. He did seem to be enjoying himself, even in this necessarily truncated version of the masculine role.
"I was a member of Wellington's staff," he said. "Like it or not, we all danced. It's a skill that, once learned, is never forgotten."
For the first time she thought about how much his life had changed as a result of his injuries. He had never indicated that he missed the things he could no longer do, but surely he must. Dancing, for an example. And she knew that he no longer rode. There were probably a dozen other activities Ian Sinclair had once enjoyed which were now denied to him.."You were frequently called upon to dance with lovely Spanish noblewoman, I suppose," she teased.
"Of course. And as frequently with their moustached grandmothers."
She laughed. "As you may possibly have noticed, I have a tendency to romanticize."
"A common failing of youth. It will pass soon enough, believe me."
"At my first ball," she suggested.
"You'll be a great success. How can you not under Elizabeth's tutelage? And mine, of course."
He turned her again, and then stepped across, pretending to become her next partner. As she completed the circle, she glanced up to find him waiting for her. His hand was held out in invitation, and he was smiling at her again.
Her fingers touched his and something happened in her stomach. Something quite remarkable. To be perfectly honest, she realized, she would have to admit that it had not occurred exactly in her stomach, but rather...
As a result of that realization, she missed the beat, failing to begin the new series of steps at the right time.
Totally confused, both by the disrupted pattern and by her reaction to the mere touch of her guardian's hand, she stopped. Surprised, Ian turned his head to look into her face.
"I seem to have forgotten what comes next," she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
"The first rule for becoming a success in society," he said, his eyes smiling, despite his admonishing tone, "is never to admit you are at fault."
"I was at fault."
"Of course not. You have an awkward partner."
"Indeed, I do not," she said, laughing. "I have clumsy feet."
Although they were no longer moving through the motions of the dance, he had not released her hand. Not that she wanted him to. She realized she would be quite content to stand here all day, her fingers resting in his.
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