A waltz, however, was too much of a temptation to resist.
“Come and dance.” He caught her hand and drew her through the still-chattering guests.
Reaching the dance floor, he swung her into his arms, and into the swirling, twirling throng.
Penny frowned at him. “I was going to say I don’t want to waltz.”
“Why not? You’re passably good at it.”
“I spent four Seasons in London—of course, I can waltz.”
“So can I.”
“I’d noticed.” She could hardly help it; she felt as if her senses were whirling, twirling, around him.
He smiled, and drew her a fraction closer as they went through the turn, predictably didn’t ease his hold as they came out of it. “We’ve danced before.”
“But never a waltz—if you recall, before, it was considered too fast.” For good reason, it seemed. She’d never felt anything but elegantly graceful when waltzing with other men. Now she felt breathless, close to witless.
The waltz might have been designed as a display for Charles’s brand of masculine strength. With effortless grace, he whirled her down the room. Heads turned as they passed; others looked on in patent envy.
She had to relax in his arms, let her feet follow his lead without conscious thought, or she’d stumble—and he’d catch her, laugh, and set her right again. She was determined she wouldn’t let that happen, that for once, she’d match him on a physical plane.
And she did. Calmly, serenely.
Not, however, without paying a price.
It was impossible not to note how well they suited, he so tall, so large, she a slender reed in his arms, but tall enough, with legs long enough to match him. Impossible not to be aware of how easily he held her, how much in his physical control she was, albeit he wasn’t truly exercising that control; this time, in this exchange, she was a willing partner.
That exchange itself tightened her nerves, left her senses in a state of abraded alert. In the cocoon the revolutions of the waltz wove about them, it was impossible not to know, to feel, just how powerful was the attraction that, contrary to her expectations, still existed between them.
Impossible not to know that she still evoked the same sexual interest and intentness in him. Impossible not to acknowledge that she reacted to that, responded far more deeply, in a more fundamental way than was wise.
His hand spread low on her back, burning through her thin gown, his other hand engulfing hers, were not simple contacts but statements, his hard thigh pressing between hers as they whirled through the tight turns both a memory and a declaration.
Her senses quivered; the moment shook her, yet focused on him, on staying with him and not letting him sweep her wits away, she realized that however much she felt and knew and experienced, he did, too.
That last was apparent when the music ended, and he reluctantly slowed, halted, and released her. She heard the breath he drew in—as tight, as constricted, as her own. The knowledge buoyed her; if there was weakness here, it wasn’t hers alone.
“Nicholas,” Charles murmured. Nicholas was standing a short distance away, talking with Lord Trescowthick; he looked rather pale, his stance was stiff, and he shifted frequently. “He seems rather tense. Is he always like that?”
Penny studied him, eventually replied, “He wasn’t when he first came down last year, but over the past few months, yes. He doesn’t look like he’s sleeping all that well.”
“Indeed.” Charles took her arm. “There are at least five gentlemen present I can’t place.” She’d already filled him in on the marriages he’d missed over the years, and the deaths, and the changes they’d wrought in the local community. “Five is more than I would have expected at this time of year. Let’s see what we can learn about them.”
The guests had spread out, making it easy to drift from group to group. They approached Lady Essington, Millie and Julia’s formidable mother-in-law; a large, heavyset gentleman had remained by her side throughout.
He proved to be a Mr. Yarrow, a relative of Lady Essington, come to the milder Cornish coast to convalesce after a bout of pneumonia. A taciturn man in his late thirties, he had hard hazel eyes and seemed hale enough.
Lady Essington, an old gorgon, was not of a mind to let Penny leave on Charles’s arm; indeed, Charles wondered if she had designs on Penny with a view to Mr. Yarrow. The impasse was resolved without him having to resort to earlish arrogance by Mr. Robinson, a local gentleman who requested Penny’s hand for a country dance.
Charles let her go. Extracting himself from Lady Essington’s clutches, he retreated to the side of the room to wait, not patiently, for Penny to return.
Propping against the wall, he swiftly reviewed his dispositions. With respect to Penny’s safety, his pickets were in place, all the elements of his plan to protect her now she’d returned to the Hall successfully deployed. As for his investigation, that was proceeding as fast as was wise; there was nothing he could do beyond what he already had in train until he heard back from Dalziel.
In his personal pursuit of Penny, he was still reconnoitering the terrain. He was too wise to ride blithely in and end in a quagmire, as he somehow had all those years ago; this time, he was going in extrawarily. He’d learned her reason for not marrying all the gentlemen who’d wooed her; quite what that told him of what would convince her to say yes he hadn’t yet worked out.