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Rated: E · Short Story · Romance/Love · #1984337
What happens when a young lady turns down a duke's offer of dance at a ball?
Harland Green, Duke of Carlisle, surveyed the wallflowers over his glass of lukewarm punch.  Which one should he deign to dance with?  He had promised his mother that he would make an effort to find a wife in the coming Season, and even if she wasn’t attending this particular ball, the gossiping matrons would ensure she heard about every lady he danced with, spoke to, or smiled at.  He groaned, then quickly looked left and right to make sure no one had noticed.  He didn't dare dance with the Incomparables that currently floated around the dance floor in the arms of his fellow peers.  No sooner would the dance have concluded than his mother would have the banns called.  Not to mention the hopes it would raise in the young lady herself. 

No, far safer to dance with those who were less favoured.  If he danced with several of them, no one could raise questions about his intentions.  Not even his mother.  While he was at it, he could give some poor debutante a turn on the dance floor.

He took a sip of punch and grimaced at the watery lemon flavour. He turned and walked towards the young ladies sitting with the matrons and chaperones on the far side of the ballroom, placing his glass on a small table as he went. The crowd wasn't quite a crush, as it was still just the end of the Little Season and a number of the ton were yet to return to town, but the room was growing warm and people were starting to spill out on the terrace. It wasn't easy to make a straight line to the waiting ladies.  Many wanted to catch his attention and engage in small talk, simply because he was a duke, an eligible duke no less, but a few were friends he would be pleased to talk with later.

Harland caught sight of a young woman seated next to Lady Wiltshire, and knew it must be her daughter, Lady Charlotte Matheson.  The debutante was dressed in a lovely white dress, accented with blue ribbons.  This was the first he’d seen of the family since last Season, so he suspected Lord Wiltshire had recently returned to town in preparation for the next sitting of parliament.  Harland hadn't met Lady Charlotte, but he knew her mother would be delighted to formally introduce them, as would any mother with a daughter of marriageable age. 

He smiled at her mother, a large buxom lady with a fierce disposition who stood at his approach, and took her hand, bowing over it and kissing the air above her knuckles.  “Lady Wiltshire, your servant.” 

She bobbed a curtsy in deference to his higher rank, and placed her hand behind her daughter’s back, pressing her forward.  “Your Grace.  I trust your dear mother is well?"  Without waiting for a reply, she continued, "Allow me to introduce my daughter, Lady Charlotte.” 

“Lady Charlotte,” he smiled and bowed again, catching a faint floral scent that teased his senses as he lightly clasped her fingers.  “It is a pleasure to meet you.  Would you do me the honour of the next dance?”  He was quite surprised to see the timid smile fall off her face as she went pale. 

“Thank you, Your Grace, you are kind to ask, but I would prefer not to dance.” 

Harland wondered who looked more startled, Lady Wiltshire or himself. He was rarely turned down for a dance, he was a duke after all, but he recovered himself quickly.  “Cert-“
He was interrupted by a choked noise from the young lady in front of him.  Lady Charlotte winced, and he ran his gaze quickly down her figure and just caught sight of her mother’s heavy foot lifting off her dainty dancing slipper.  Surely her mother hadn’t....?

“Charlotte would be delighted to dance, Your Grace.”  The tone reminded him of his grandfather, the 3rd Duke of Carlisle.  He had been an exceedingly unpleasant man, who demanded instant obedience from everyone, and God help those who stood in his way. 

“I...I....I would....”  Lady Charlotte didn’t seem to be able to keep from stammering, and Harland wondered how a simple good deed had gone so wrong.

”Perhaps you would care to take some fresh air on the terrace instead, Lady Charlotte?  It is growing exceedingly warm in here.  It is well-lit and there are a number of others doing the same, so we shall be well chaperoned.” 

Lady Charlotte blushed, but her mother nodded in fierce approval. “Yes, Your Grace, I’m certain Charlotte would love to take some fresh air.”

Harland wondered whether Lady Charlotte would get a choice at all, but she at least seemed a little more open to the idea of a walk on the terrace rather than a dance.  As they started towards the doors, he offered his arm, and she placed her hand on it.  He was surprised at first to find her touch wasn’t as light as he expected.  Most ladies almost hovered above the sleeve of his jacket, but not Lady Charlotte.  By the time they were near the doors, he was taking some of her weight as she used his arm to support herself. 

“Are you well, Lady Charlotte?” he asked with concern.

“Please,” she whispered, “Wait until we are outside.  I shall explain.”  She flushed again.

He turned his head back to the doors, curiosity building inside him.  As they stepped out onto the terrace, he was certain she was starting to limp, and he looked around for a chair, but there were none to be found outside. 

“I am fine to stand, Your Grace, thank you,” she offered, holding on to the balustrade. 

He placed his arms behind his back and stepped aside, waiting for his explanation.

“I injured myself in a horse riding accident, Your Grace.  My mother...”  She sighed, and looked out into the darkened garden beyond the terrace.  “She is most displeased and thinks I have purposely damaged my chances this season.  I have assured her, of course, that it was entirely an accident, but she does not believe me.  I’m afraid she will be furious that I declined your offer to dance.” 

Her shoulders slumped and the misery in her eyes made him wish he could somehow make her smile.  “You must tell her that it was all part of your plan to lure me out here, away from the other debutantes.”  He grinned at her.

“Oh no, Your Grace, I promise it wasn’t,” she protested.

“Of course not, I was the one who suggested it.  I was just thinking that it might help you avoid your mother’s wrath,” he assured her.

She smiled sweetly at him.  “You are so kind, Your Grace.  I really appreciate it.”

He felt like he could be talked into fighting battles for her, if only to see her smile at him like that.  He shook his head slightly. He wasn’t the sort to go daft over a smile from an innocent. What was wrong with him? 

He returned her smile, and nearly groaned at his lack of self control.  Was this it?  Was he to be undone by a slip of a lass?  He heard himself speaking before even realising he was going to.  “Perhaps she would be appeased if I were to call for you tomorrow, and we were to take a ride in the park?”  His eyes widened with astonishment at his own words, but the look of pleasure on her face made him feel warm inside. 

“I would be honoured, Your Grace.  That sounds truly lovely.”

It did.  He wasn’t sure how that could be possible, as he’d always thought steering a curricle around Hyde Park at a pace slower than most people walked was the height of ridiculousness.  He would much rather have a good gallop atop his best hunter.  But she was right, it did sound lovely if she were to be seated beside him.  He smiled at her.  It was madness, but a sweet madness that just felt right.

1,342 words.  Written for the "Jane Austen Contest .  Won second place in Round 1.
Prompt: Write a story about first meeting of a man and a woman in the ballroom. In Pride & Prejudice, when Elizabeth first met Mr.Darcy, he was rude enough to refuse dancing with her. He even said that she is tolerable but not handsome enough to tempt him. Write your own story about refusal to dance. It can be woman's or even man's refusal to dance, whatever you want.
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