Read Dancing at Midnight Online

Authors: Julia Quinn

Dancing at Midnight

Dancing At Midnight

Julia Quinn

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For my father, who never forgets to tell me how proud he is of me.

I'm proud of you, too!

And for Paul, even though he seemed to think

the story could be improved by

moving the whole thing to the rain forest.

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*Chapter 1

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/Oxfordshire,

England, 1816

/

/

/

/If, one by one, you weeded all the world /—

Arabella Blydon blinked. That couldn't be right. There weren't any

gardeners in /The Winter's Tale. /She held the book farther

from her face. Even worse. She pulled the book closer. The type on the

page slowly focused. /

/

/If, one by one, you /wedded /all the world —/

Belle sighed and leaned back against a tree trunk. That made a lot more

sense. She blinked a couple of times, willing her

bright blue eyes to focus on the words that lay before her on the page.

They refused to obey, but she wasn't about to read

with her face pressed into the book, so she squinted and plodded on.

A chilly wind passed across her, and she glanced up at the overcast sky.

It was going to rain, no doubt about that, but if she

were lucky she'd have another hour until the first drops fell. That was

all the time she'd need to finish /The Winter's Tale. /

And that would mark the end of her Grand Shakespearean Quest, the

semi-academic endeavor that had occupied her spare

time for nearly six months. She'd started with /All's Well that Ends

Well /and proceeded alphabetically, wending her way through /Hamlet,

/all the /Henrys, Romeo and Juliet, /and a host of other plays she

hadn't even heard of before. She wasn't exactly sure why she'd done it,

other than the simple fact that she liked to read, but now that the end

was in sight she was damned if she was going to let a few raindrops get

in her way.

Belle gulped and looked this way and that, as if afraid that someone had

heard her cursing in her thoughts. She glanced back

up at the sky. A beam of sunshine burst through a tiny hole in the

clouds. Belle took that as a sign for optimism and plucked a chicken

sandwich out of her picnic lunch. She bit into it daintily and picked up

her book again. The words seemed just as

unwilling to focus as before, so she moved the volume closer to her

face, which she contorted in a number of different ways

until she found a squint that worked.

"There you go, Arabella," she muttered. "If you can just hold this

exceedingly uncomfortable pose for another forty-five minutes, you

should have no problem with the rest of your book."

"Of course your facial muscles will probably be quite sore by that

point," drawled a voice from behind her.

Belle dropped her book and whirled her head around. Standing a few yards

away was a gentleman in casual, yet elegant, attire. His hair was a rich

chocolate brown and his eyes were the exact same color. He was looking

down at her and her solitary picnic with an amused expression, and his

lazy pose indicated that he'd been watching her for some time. Belle

glared at him, unable to think of anything to say but hoping that her

scornful gaze would put him in his place.

It didn't seem to do the trick. In fact, he looked even more amused by

her. "You need spectacles," he said simply.

"And /you /are trespassing," she retorted.

"Am I? I rather thought you were trespassing."

"I most certainly am not. This land belongs to the Duke of Ashbourne. My

cousin," she added for emphasis.

The stranger pointed to the west. /"That /land belongs to the Duke of

Ashbourne. The boundary is that ridge over there.

And thus you are trespassing."

Belle narrowed her eyes and pushed a lock of her wavy blond hair behind

her ear. "Are you certain?"

"Absolutely. I realize that Ashbourne's land holdings are vast, but they

are not infinite."

She shifted uncomfortably. "Oh. Well, in that case, I am very sorry for

disturbing you," she said in a haughty voice.

"I'll just see to my horse and be off."

"Don't be silly," he said quickly. "I hope I am not so ill-tempered that

I cannot allow a lady to read under one of my trees.

By all means, stay as long as you like."

Belle considered leaving anyway, but comfort won out over pride. "Thank

you. I've been here for several hours and am quite ensconced."

"So I see." He smiled, but it was a small one, and Belle got the

impression that he was not a man who smiled often.

"Perhaps," he said, "since you will be spending the rest of the day on

my land, you might introduce yourself."

Belle hesitated, unable to discern whether he was being condescending or

polite. "I'm sorry. I am Lady Arabella Blydon."

"Pleased to meet you, my lady. And I am John, Lord Blackwood."

"How do you do?"

"Very well, but you still need spectacles."

Belle felt her spine stiffen. Emma and Alex had been urging her to get

her eyes examined for the last month, but they were,

after all, family. This John Blackwood was a perfect stranger and

certainly had no right to offer her such a suggestion.

"You can be sure I will take your advice under consideration," she

muttered, somewhat ungraciously.

John inclined his head, a wry smile touching his lips. "What are you

reading?"

/"The Winter's Tale." /Belle sat back and waited for the usual

condescending comments about women and reading.

"An excellent play, but not, I think, Shakespeare's finest," John

commented. "I myself am partial to /Coriolanus. /It's not very

well-known, but I quite liked it. You might read that sometime."

Belle forgot to be pleased that she had met a man who was actually

encouraging her to read and said, "Thank you for the suggestion, but

I've read it already."

"I'm impressed," John said. "Have you read /Oth//ello?"/

She nodded.

"The /Tempest?"/

"Yes."

John searched his brain for the most obscure Shakespearean work he could

recall. "What about The Passionate Pilgrim/?"/

"Not my favorite, but I plodded through it." Belle tried but couldn't

stop the smile that was creeping across her face.

He chuckled. "My compliments, Lady Arabella. I don't think I've ever

even /seen /a copy of /The Pas//sionate Pilgrim."/

Belle grinned, graciously accepting the compliment as her previous

antagonism toward the man melted away. "Won't you join

me for a few minutes?" she asked him, waving toward the empty expanse of

blanket spread out beneath her. "I still have most

of my picnic lunch, and I would be happy to share it with you."

For a moment it looked as if he would accept. He opened his mouth to say

something, then let out a tiny sigh and closed it.

When he finally spoke, his voice was very stiff and formal and all he

said was "No, thank you." He took a couple of steps

away from her and turned his head so that he could stare out across the

fields.

Belle cocked her head and was about to say something further when she

noticed with surprise that he limped. She wondered

if he'd been injured in the peninsular war. An intriguing man, this

John. She wouldn't have half minded spending an hour or so

in his company. And, she had to admit, he was really quite handsome,

with strong, even features, and a body which was lean

and powerful in spite of his injured leg. His velvety brown eyes

displayed obvious intelligence, but they also seemed hooded

with pain and skepticism. Belle was starting to find him very

mysterious, indeed.

"Are you certain?" she asked.

"Certain of what?" He didn't turn around.

She bristled at his rudeness. "Certain that you don't want to join me

for lunch."

"Quite."

That got her attention. No one had ever before told her that he was

/quite /certain he could do without her company.

Belle sat uncomfortably on her blanket, her copy of /The Winter's Tale

/lying limply in her lap. There didn't seem to be

anything she could say with his back half to her. And it would have been

impolite to start reading again.

John suddenly turned around and cleared his throat.

"It was really too bad of you to tell me I need spectacles," she said

abruptly, mostly just to get something in before he could.

"I apologize. I've never been very good at polite conversation."

"Perhaps you should converse more," she retorted.

"Were you using a different tone of voice, my lady, one might suspect

that you were flirting with me."

She slammed /The Winter's Tale /shut and stood. "I can see that you were

not lying. You are not dreadful at merely polite conversation. You are

lacking at all forms of it."

He shrugged. "One of my many qualities."

Her mouth fell open.

"I can see that you do not subscribe to my particular brand of humor."

"I cannot imagine that many people do."

There was a pause, and then a strange, sad light appeared in his eyes.

It disappeared just as quickly, and the tone of his voice sharpened as

he said, "Don't come out here alone again."

Belle shoved her belongings into her satchel.

"Don't worry. I shan't trespass again."

"I didn't say you couldn't come on my property. Just don't do it alone."

She had no idea how to reply to that so she merely said, "I'm going home."

He glanced up at the sky. "Yes. You probably should. It's going to rain

soon. I've two or so miles to walk home myself.

I shall certainly be drenched."

She glanced around. "Didn't you bring a horse?"

"Sometimes, my lady, it is better to use one's feet." He inclined his

head. "It has been a pleasure."

"For you, perhaps," Belle muttered under her breath. She watched his

back as he walked away from her. His limp was quite pronounced, but he

moved much more quickly than she would have thought possible. She kept

her gaze fixed on him until he disappeared over the horizon. As she

mounted her mare, however, a compelling thought entered her head.

He limped. What kind of man was he that he preferred to walk?

*  *  *

John Blackwood listened to the hoofbeats of Lady Arabella's mare as she

cantered off. He sighed. He'd acted like an ass.

He sighed again, this time loud with sorrow and self-loathing and pure,

simple irritation. Damn. He never knew what to say

to women anymore.

*  *  *

Belle set off back to Westonbirt, the home of her relations. Her

American-born cousin Emma had married the Duke of

Ashbourne a few months earlier. The newlyweds preferred the privacy of

country life to London and had resided at

Westonbirt almost continuously since their wedding. Of course the season

was over, so no one was in London anyway.

Still, Belle had a feeling that Emma and her husband would probably

avoid much of London's social scene even when the

next season was underway.

Belle sighed. She'd no doubt be back in London for the next season. Back

at the marriage mart, looking for a husband. She

was getting heartily sick of the entire process. She'd been through two

seasons already and accumulated over a dozen proposals, but she'd

rejected every one. Some of the men had been completely unsuitable, but

most were decent sorts, well-connected and quite likeable. She just

couldn't seem to make herself accept a man she didn't care deeply about.

And now that she'd had a glimpse of how happy her cousin was, she knew

that it would be very difficult to settle for anything less than her

wildest dreams.

Belle spurred her horse into a canter as the rain began to thicken. It

was almost three o'clock, and she knew that Emma would have tea ready

for her when she returned. She'd been staying with Emma and her husband

Alex for three weeks. A few months after Emma's wedding, Belle's parents

had decided to take a holiday in Italy. Ned, their son, was back up at

Oxford for his final year so he didn't need any watching over, and Emma

was safely married. That left only Belle, and since Emma was now a

married lady she was a suitable chaperone, so Belle went off to stay

with her cousin.

Belle couldn't imagine a more pleasing arrangement. Emma was her best

friend, and after all the mischief they'd gotten into together, it was

quite amusing to have her as a chaperone.

Belle breathed a sigh of relief as she rode up a hill and Westonbirt

rose over the horizon. The massive building was really quite graceful,

with long, narrow columns of windows marching across the facade. Belle

was already starting to think of it as home.

She headed into the stables, handed her mare over to a groom, and made a

mad dash for the house, laughing as she tried to

dodge the raindrops which had started to fall at a furious rate. She

stumbled up the front steps but before she could push

open the heavy door, the butler opened it with a flourish.

"Thank you, Norwood," she said. "You must have been watching for me."

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