Seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Tarryton is having the time of her life being the talk –and maybe the scandal—of her first Season, and she has no intention of ending the fun any time soon by marrying. Tommy Halifax, who’s a few years older, is the brother of Eliza’s beloved guardian, Will, Viscount Grandville.
Tommy Halifax had the perfect solution to the little problem of Miss Lizzie Tarryton’s adorable outrageousness: he was going to marry her.
The idea still made him a bit light-headed, because he hadn’t thought to marry for years. He was not yet twenty-two, and if asked even the year before whether he might marry soon, he would have roared with laughter. But then he’d met Lizzie.
A twinge of conscience prodded him; he should probably have discussed his plans with Will first. But that was a conversation he didn’t want to have yet. And they were brothers—there was nothing but respect and affection between them, so Will had no reason to object to Tommy’s suitability.
The dance was over, and Andrew was leading Lizzie to where Will and Anna were talking. Before Lizzie could go off with anyone else, Tommy made his way to her, pleased that her face lit up when she saw him.
“There you are!” she said, coming close to give him a quick embrace. She smelled of that soft rose scent that was uniquely hers.
Andrew clapped Tommy on the back jovially, Anna embraced him, and Will asked after Longmount. After all the pleasantries had been tended to, Tommy, his heart beginning to race, looked toward the open terrace doors, where few people seemed to have gone despite the warmth of the summer night. He held out an arm to Lizzie.
“Let’s go outside and cool off. You can tell me about everything I missed.”
She agreed and chattered happily as they walked, telling him about what had happened while he was away. When they stepped through the doors and onto the terrace, she looked up at the dark summer sky and sighed. Her capacity to be nearly always joyous was one of the things he loved best about her.
“Isn’t it the most splendid night?” she asked.
As Tommy watched the starlight mingle with the gold lights in her hair, he was pierced by her beauty. He murmured his assent as he led her away from the manor and into the quiet, deserted space of the garden, which was lit with torches.
“It is a splendid night,” he said to the side of her face as she gazed at the stars. He took a deep breath. “But do you know what makes it truly splendid for me? Being here with you.”
There was a longish pause, then she turned to look at him. He’d never said something so personal to her, and he was dying inside waiting to know how she would take it.
“You must be in the mood to flirt tonight,” she said lightly.
“I’m not flirting. I’m serious.”
She frowned. “I’m not good at being serious, Tommy.”
“Nonsense,” he said. “You can be serious when you choose.”
“Er…thank you,” she said, sounding puzzled.
He’d never once kissed her, though he’d wanted to desperately, countless times. But now that he had such serious intentions toward her, and considering how well they knew each other—surely it wouldn’t be inappropriate now?
“Lizzie,” he said, huskiness creeping into his voice, “I want to kiss you. May I?”
She seemed surprised by his request, as though all the days and nights they’d spent talking and flirting hadn’t been leading in any particular direction. But there was a bond between them, built of affection and friendship. And attraction—he felt as certain of it as of his own breathing. They were meant to be together.
“Erhm.” And then she smiled. “Yes. I’d like that.” The words, breathy wisps that hinted at awakening emotions, inflamed him.
She tipped her head up and his heart thundered. When his lips finally—finally!—met hers, he felt it: she was going to be the love of his life.
Her mouth opened to him, and her tongue gently sought his, which gave him the unwelcome awareness that he wasn’t the first man she’d kissed. How many of the gentlemen of the ton had tasted her? he wondered with a surge of jealousy.
He pushed the thought away. It didn’t matter, because he meant to be the last.
A little whimper escaped her, and she hugged him closer as though she needed him. The awareness touched him in the most welcome way. She needed him, just as he needed her. He forced himself to break the kiss.
“Lizzie,” he murmured, “we can’t go on like this.”
“Like what?” She sounded adorably dazed.
He smiled a little. “Stealing kisses in the garden.”
“Who would know if we did?”
“Trust me, we can’t. I won’t survive the experience.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, dearest Lizzie, that you make my head spin.”
“Do I?” She laughed. “Will said the same thing yesterday when I told him I loved champagne.”
“You make my head spin in a different way.”
An inscrutable emotion flitted across her face. “Er…” She mumbled something that sounded like, “Me too.” But it might also have been something that ended in “you.”
Then she smiled brightly, as if they’d been talking about any old thing, and said, “Do you know, I should quite like a lemonade.”
And before he could say a word, she’d stepped away from him toward the ballroom.
He stood blinking for a moment at her abrupt departure. That kiss…it had been amazing, but it hadn’t been amazing just for him. He’d felt the thrill pulsing between them, heard the wonder in her voice.
He moved to the doorway. She’d found her way to Will and Anna, who were standing with the rest of his cousins near the edge of the ballroom. It occurred to Tommy that this was perfect: most of the people they loved best were right here. What better moment could there be to declare their love for each other?
Lizzie swept into the ballroom wondering if she had a silly smile on her face. But Tommy had just kissed her! And it had been a little wonderful.
He was a much better kisser than Lord Hewett, who’d stolen a kiss in an alcove at a house party last month, or young Mr. Fletcher, who’d quickly pressed his lips to hers under the mistletoe at a Christmas party. She wasn’t even going to count the lieutenant she’d kissed in the garden at the Rosewood School the year before, because that had really been about something besides kissing.
Her smile slipped a little as she thought of what Tommy had said afterward. He had made her head spin a little, but she didn’t want to talk about it. Talking made things too fixed, like they were all decided, when really she just wanted everything to be possible.
She hoped the kiss wasn’t going to make it impossible to go back to the way they’d always been, because she needed Tommy to be her friend.
She hoped… No, surely it wasn’t necessary to hope anything. Surely Tommy wasn’t going to be like the other gentlemen who’d wanted to be serious. This was Tommy, with whom she always laughed and teased with no consequences. Surely it had only been a kiss, even if it had been a little amazing. But she decided right then that they mustn’t do it again.
“And what have you been up to, Lizzie?” asked Will’s cousin, Louie Halifax, who only months before, on the shocking death of both his uncle and his cousin, had become the Earl of Gildenhall.
Lizzie thought “Gildenhall” was the perfect title for him, since, with his dark blond hair and extremely handsome looks, he seemed gilded. And since he’d been a commoner his entire life, he was not at all stuffy—which wasn’t to say that he didn’t have quite a bit of presence. He was certainly considered the catch of the season by all the mamas of the ton, even if despite being over thirty, he seemed in no hurry to be caught.
“Oh, nothing,” Lizzie said. “Are there any cakes left?” She strained to see beyond Louie’s shoulders.
He chuckled. “There were three left last I saw, unless Andrew ate them.”
His brother rolled his eyes. “Why would I do such an uncouth thing?”
Emerald, their younger sister, cocked her head. “Have you ever noticed how we say people are uncouth, but we never say they are ‘couth’?”
Emerald was the same age as Lizzie, and, with eyes as purely green as Tommy’s, perfectly named. Thanks to the dramatic reversal in her family’s fortunes, Emerald and her older sister Ruby were enjoying the kind of lavish season they could never have had with the burden of debt that had once pressed on them all.
“Or ‘ept,’” Ruby pointed out. “People are inept, but never ‘ept.’ Maybe we should make it a word. This could go down in history as the ‘ept’ season.”
“You can’t just sprinkle your conversation with made-up words and think everyone will start using them,” Andrew said.
“Can’t I?” Ruby said with the light of challenge in her eyes. Ruby Halifax might look haughty, but she had a competitive streak when it came to her brothers, and Lizzie found their squabbles entertaining.
From the moment she’d met them, Louie and his brothers and sisters had treated Lizzie like one of the family, and getting to know them had been one of the best parts of becoming Will’s ward.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She turned, and there was Tommy. He looked funny, but not in a humorous way. Something fizzed unpleasantly inside her.
“You left so suddenly, Lizzie. I had an important question to ask you.”
She’d heard that kind of thing before, and it wasn’t good. Oh no. Oh no, no, no, no. He wasn’t going to do the very thing she desperately didn’t want him of all men to do–he mustn’t.
She had to lighten the tone immediately and keep him from speaking serious words he would regret. But before she could speak, Will said, “What’s going on, Tommy?”
Oh please, she thought desperately, don’t let this be what it sounds like.
Tommy’s green eyes pinned her. He had black hair with a rogue blade of white slashing through at his forehead, and she’d seen more than one young lady swoon over his striking good looks. But to Lizzie he was simply Tommy. And he wasn’t supposed to say momentous things to her.
“I’m sure Tommy doesn’t have anything to say to me that can’t be said in front of all of you,” she said, giving him a smile meant to encourage him to keep things light.
But his face was serious.
“You’re right, Lizzie. The words I have to say, while especially for you, will mean something for all of the family. Because what I want to ask, dearest Lizzie,” he said, taking her hand and dropping fluidly to one knee as his eyes held hers and her stomach plummeted, “is if you will do me the very great honor of becoming my wife.”
All the breath rushed out of her. She could feel that Will had gone still next to her, and she heard Anna’s quick intake of breath and knew that the others were watching as well. Behind them, people were glancing curiously their way, doubtless drawn by the sight of Tommy Halifax on bended knee.
Panic rushed through her, making her light-headed and off-balance. She felt startled and also a little angry that he was ruining the friendship they’d shared. No—he was ruining everything, because how would his family ever look on her the same way again, now that he’d chosen her? Already excitement was beginning to brighten the beloved faces around her. She felt as if the parson’s noose were already slipping over her neck—and everything within her revolted against it.
Which was how, unable to stop herself in that terrible, awkward, panicking moment, she did the one thing she should never have done.
In the stunned moment that followed, she heard Ruby gasp and saw a terrible dark look come over Tommy’s face, changing it so she felt suddenly that she hardly knew him. He was still holding her hand as though frozen. She struggled to find something to say, but she couldn’t say yes, and she couldn’t disappoint him, so she said nothing.
His eyes turned into shards of sharp green glass that cut her, like a knife paring a rotten part from an apple. He dropped her hand and stood up, but now he would no longer look at her, and she understood with a terrible finality that nothing would ever be the same.
Without a word to her or anyone else, he turned and left the ball.
She wrote him two different letters that night and tore them both up before crawling into bed, desperately unhappy and confused and wishing she’d never even gone to the ball.
The failed proposal was the talk of Town, but Lizzie supposed Tommy didn’t care or, more accurately, didn’t notice, because three days later he boarded a ship for India.