It’s Sample Sunday again and this week it’s time for the last “Groom”, Sir Wallace, to find his bride: Edwina Banks in Her Imperfect Groom.
For this one, I thought the best place to start was the beginning when they first meet…
Edwina Banks was certain she would have fallen to the floor in a boneless heap if not for the strong arm half wrapped around her midsection. She was barely aware of the movements of her own body as her feet moved to the steps of a waltz on their own accord. And they must be doing exactly that. Her brain was far too distracted by the handsome image in front of her to function well enough to command her body to move.
There, no more than six inches from her face, was the most handsome face she’d ever set eyes on. And there wasn’t even a particle of a chance her dry, stinging eyes were going to blink and cheat her from the feast they were drinking in for as much as a fraction of a second.
Normally, Edwina dismissed physical appearances altogether, but not tonight. Tonight she was held captive by a chiseled face that had a square jaw, high cheekbones, pale red lips, a slim nose, arching brows, and long, black lashes that surrounded a pair of the most beautiful gold-flecked, brown eyes she’d ever seen.
The musicians’ instruments grew louder, indicating the climax of the waltz. Edwina’s heart sank. This was it, the final seconds of the most glorious waltz she’d ever danced.
“It was a pleasure,” Sir Wallace Benedict, her dancing partner, said as soon as the last note of the waltz ended.
“The pleasure was mine,” Edwina said. The pleasure was mine? What was she saying? Since when had she taken after her brother Alex who said the first thing that came into his head, no matter how ridiculous it sounded? She chanced a glance at Sir Wallace, and breathed a sigh of relief. At least he wasn’t looking at her as if she were a simpleton.
He offered her his arm. “Shall I return you to Lord Sinclair?”
“Lord Sinclair?” Why would he take her back to Marcus? And why did it look as if his handsome face really had just turned to stone?
“Lord Sinclair, your brother.”
Edwina’s eyes widened. If it were anyone else suggesting she was Marcus’ sister, she’d be insulted. Olivia, Marcus’ younger sister, was the vilest creature she’d ever had the misfortune to meet. “Lord Sinclair is not my brother.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. When he introduced us, I thought he said something about a sister.”
“He did,” Edwina confirmed, taking his proffered arm. She honestly didn’t care where he led her—to the refreshment table, the little row of chairs along the back wall, or even Gretna Green—she was game to go anywhere with him at that moment.
“Is he your guardian, then?” Sir Wallace asked.
“No.” Why was he so concerned about her relationship with Marcus?
Sir Wallace stopped walking and frowned. “Then why am I taking you to him?”
“I don’t know, but when you decide, perhaps you can inform me,” Edwina said with a smile.
He returned her grin with the most beautiful smile she’d ever seen. “Then where shall I take you?”
“Where do you want to take me?” She blushed as soon as the words were out. What had come over her? She never played the swooning debutante. So why was she doing so now?
Sir Wallace reached his arm across his chest and covered her hand with his, then squeezed—for some show of affection or just reassurance, she didn’t know, nor did she care. “As long as it’s not back to Lord Sinclair, I’ll take you wherever you wish.”
“Do you not like Lord Sinclair?”
“No. I don’t dislike him. He dislikes me.”
Edwina stopped her steps. “Pardon? I may not be overly familiar with him, but I’m well acquainted with his cousin, Caroline. She speaks quite highly of him.”
“I’m sure she does.”
“Then why on Earth would she invite you both here if she knew her cousin disliked you?”
“She didn’t what?”
He glanced in Caroline’s direction. “Lady Watson didn’t invite me. Drake did.”
Edwina blinked. “Lord Drakely invited you?”
“Exactly. Drake wanted me to serve as a distraction for Lord Sinclair while Drake stole his wife away and begged her forgiveness for his many faults,” he said with a rueful shake of his head.
Edwina’s brows knit. “And he knew you’d serve as a distraction to Lord Sinclair because he knows Lord Sinclair doesn’t like you?”
Sir Wallace twisted his lips just a bit and gave a slight nod. “I’d say that’s accurate.”
The opening strains of another waltz filled the air. Shamelessly, Edwina used her eyes to beg Sir Wallace to dance with her again.
“It’s not proper, you know,” he whispered.
“I know,” she whispered back. She licked her lips. The only other people there aside from her brother and sister-in-law, and Lord and Lady Sinclair, were her cousins, Lord and Lady Townson, the Duke and Duchess of Gateway, and Mr. and Mrs. Paul Grimes. Lord and Lady Drakely had already made a scandalous escape—hand in hand—just a few minutes before. Of the five remaining couples, she highly doubted any of them would notice or care if she danced twice with the only unattached gentleman in attendance. “Do you always do what’s proper?”
“I try to, yes.” He pointed them in the direction of a little cluster of chairs. “How about if we sit this one out?”
“Here, you sit, and I’ll be right back with some of Lady Watson’s punch.”
Edwina sat in an empty chair and waited for him to come back with her drink. “Thank you.”
“It’s the least I can do to make amends for refusing to dance with you.”
She flushed. Was her disappointment that obvious? “Yes, well, bringing me punch is only the beginning, Sir Wallace.”
His eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
“I think for your refusal to dance with me when clearly there is no one else from which I have to choose—” she gestured to four of the other five couples in attendance as they danced with their respective spouses— “you should tell me just why you think Lord Sinclair doesn’t like you.”
A strange, groaning noise came from Sir Wallace’s direction. “I’d rather not.”
“And why not?”
He rolled his eyes. “While it’s quickly becoming apparent you’re one of those sorts who has no inhibitions and doesn’t embarrass easily, I feel it is my duty to inform you not everyone is that way and I shouldn’t like to bring any undue embarrassment on anyone if I can help it.”
Edwina frowned. “Who was embarrassed?”
“I’d say everyone involved was.”
She made a rolling hand gesture. “Mmmmhmmm?”
“Rather inquisitive, aren’t you?”
“I’m training for when they allow women to join the Watch.”
“You think that’s humorous? I’d be willing to bet every pence in my dowry that if a lady were conducting those investigations, half the crimes would be solved within an hour of being reported.”
Sir Wallace threw his hands into the air. “I forfeit,” he exclaimed, a sparkle in his eye.
“Good. Now, tell me what happened between you and Marcus that made him dislike you.”
“It’s another skill I’m honing for my investigative work.”
“Could you find someone else to practice on?”
She shook her head. “No, you’re the only one here. Perhaps next time you’ll just dance with me.”
He snorted again. “For some reason I have a hard time believing that if I had asked you for another dance that I could have avoided this conversation.”
“You’re likely right,” she agreed. “Now, just tell me what I want to know, and I’ll leave you alone for the rest of the night.” That was a brazen lie. She couldn’t explain exactly what it was, but there was something about this man that fascinated her to no end and she honestly didn’t think anything short of an act of parliament could separate her from him for the rest of the night.
“All right,” he said with a sigh. “What is it you want to know again?”
She shook her head at the teasing grin on his lips. “You should already know. I’ve asked at least twice already.”
“Actually, you’ve asked three times.”
“You were counting?” she asked with a tiny, embarrassed giggle.
His face flushed, and he bobbed his head twice in a jerky nod.
She cleared her throat delicately. “Goodness. I didn’t realize I was being so annoying.”
“You’re not being annoying, I rather like—” He broke off and mumbled something under his breath. “Right. Well, I may have been exaggerating a bit when I said Lord Sinclair doesn’t like me. It’s not that he dislikes me exactly, but he doesn’t like me, either. Does that answer your question?”
“No. You either like someone or don’t. I don’t think there’s a lot of middle ground there.”
His cheeks puffed up as if he’d tried to stick a whole plum into his mouth at once; then he blew out a long breath. “I almost married his wife.”
Edwina started. “You did?” Emma, Lady Sinclair, was one of Caroline’s closest friends and had spent a considerable amount of time visiting Caroline at Watson Estate since Alex and Caroline’s wedding over a year ago. Though Edwina wasn’t that close to Emma, she knew her well enough to know she and Marcus had a love match. So why did she almost marry Sir Wallace?
“I did,” he confirmed, bringing Edwina back to present. He ran his hands up and down his muscled thighs. “I’m surprised you haven’t heard about any of this.”
Now, it was Edwina’s turn to blush and grow uncomfortable. “I don’t typically read scandal sheets.” That was true enough.
He chuckled. “Did you know you are the oddest young lady I’ve ever met?”
“Good. I should hate to be considered ordinary.” She flashed him a quick smile. “Now, go on with your story.”
“That was the story. Last spring Lady Sinclair and I were betrothed, but never married.”
“You’ve really never heard any of this?”
She shook her head. “As I said, I don’t read scandal sheets.”
“Yes, but surely you’ve heard someone gossip about—” He waved one gloved hand through the air in an upward spiraling motion.
“No. I don’t believe I have.” Caroline and Emma weren’t gossips. Neither was their friend, Juliet, Lady Drakely. Other than those three, the only ladies she knew were the young ladies she attended school with. But none of them would gossip. At least not with her. She bit her lip. Hard. She flinched, then ran her tongue along her smarting lip. She had to stop biting her lip like that or one day she’d bite clear through it. “Go on.”
“And here I was hoping your silence meant you’d lost interest.” A teasing smile pulled his lips. “Actually, there’s nothing more to tell. We were engaged for a while, but in the end, she married the gentleman she truly loved.”
Instinctively, Edwina reached forward and placed her hand on his forearm. “I’m sorry.”
With another blush, Edwina removed her hand. Here she was attempting to console him or at least be sympathetic, and apparently he didn’t wish for any such gesture. “Oh.”
He brushed a piece of lint off his perfectly pleated black trousers. “With the exception of the scandal borne from that awkward day’s events, I’d say overall it worked out how it should have.”
“You mean you didn’t want to marry Emma?”
“No. Not especially.” He shifted his gaze to where Emma and Marcus were dancing. “I would have gone through with the wedding if she’d wanted to, mind you. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was just as relieved as Lord Sinclair was, if not more so, when she chose him instead of me.”
“Very much so.” He shifted in his seat. “Though she’s a very nice lady, our marriage would have been…er…shall we say, uncomfortable.”
“Because she loved another?”
“Did you—” She bit the inside of her lip to keep it from quivering as an odd, painful sensation built in her chest for no good reason. “Excuse me. Did you love her?”
“No.” His face held no hint of emotion.
A wave of relief flooded Edwina and she averted her eyes to where her hands were resting in her lap. She frowned. How had the front of her pink silken skirt become so wrinkled? It looked almost as if she’d been clutching the front of her skirt while waiting for his answer. She immediately pushed the thought from her head. That was just foolishness. She might find the gentleman intriguing, in an unusual sort of way. And he may even be handsome beyond comprehension. But she did not have genuine feelings for him, especially none of the jealous or romantic variety that would lead a young lady to ruin her gown in anticipation of his answer to such an inconsequential question.
She folded her hands. “So you were relieved, were you?”
“Indeed. I’m sure over time we would have become close friends, of sorts, but nothing more than that.”
“Because her affections lay elsewhere?”
“As did mine.”
Edwina’s heart constricted in the most painful way imaginable. “Oh,” she croaked. She coughed delicately, and forced a brittle smile. Truly, what was coming over her to make her react this way?
Sir Wallace removed his hat and idly fingered the brim. “I don’t imagine either of us would have grown to love the other. And if one of us had—” he twisted his lips and shrugged— “they would have found themselves in a worse torment than what they were already living.” He put his hat back on and exhaled. “A person doesn’t know true hurt and suffering until they’ve felt the pain of falling in love with someone whose affections lie elsewhere.”
Edwina didn’t doubt those words for a second. If the crippling pain in her chest was any indication, she’d say she was experiencing such a painful phenomenon this very instant.