13. Ballroom Battle

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My aunt emerged from behind a potted plant like a vulture from behind a lone desert rock and stalked towards me. I could almost see the sword of just punishment in her right and the scales in her left hand.

"Err... hello, Aunt," I said. "This is a nice evening. Wonderful ball, don't you think?"

But apparently, my aunt did not want to change the subject right now. "I heard from Colonel Remington that you refused to dance with him."

"Um... only from him?"

"Yes, he... Wait, what do you mean, only from him? Do you mean to say there are others with whom you refused to dance?"

I could have slapped myself for not keeping my big mouth shut. I wasn't usually timid, but in the face of the huge fire breathing dragon that was my aunt, I cowered on my chair, my eyes downcast.

"Err... maybe?"

"Either you did or you didn't. Well?"

"Did."

"How many? Two? Three?"

"Err... more something like... thirteen? Maybe fourteen?"

Watching my aunt's expression, I truly believe that had we been at home, my eardrums would have been in some danger of being shattered by her reaction. However, at this very moment a gentleman stepped up to the refreshment tables and took a piece of chocolate off the plates, reminding my aunt that we were in company, and that ladies did not scream like furies when they were in company.

Slowly, she stepped towards me until only inches separated us and bent down towards my ear.

"If you should be so lucky as to have another deluded gentleman apply for your hand," she hissed into my ear, "you will accept it or I will lock you in your room and throw the key away, understood?"

I paled. My aunt, misinterpreting my look, nodded satisfied. "That's it. No lounging about in the park or in the garden, no going to the library, and above all no meeting with those friends of yours."

All I could manage in answer was a shaky nod. My aunt didn't know the real force of her threat. I had obligations now. I couldn't simply be locked in my room like a spoiled child. If I wasn't punctually at work tomorrow, Mr Ambrose would dismiss me for sure.

For a fleeting moment the idea of leaving home entered my mind – but no. I wasn't even of age yet. My aunt could bring me back and forcibly lock me in my room if she wished. Though if she heard I had left her house to work for a living, she would probably lock me in an insane asylum instead.

I swallowed, hard. There was nothing for it.

I had to dance.

Dance with a man.

*~*~**~*~*

Six or seven minutes later, a young officer approached me and bowed. Colonel Malcolm. I remembered him from Sir Philip's flood of introductions. Somewhere behind him I could see a few others, among them Lieutenant Ellingham, laughing quietly. "Miss Linton? May I have the honour of the next dance?"

The officer braced himself for the rebuff.

"Yes."

He stared at me, evidently taken aback.

"Really?"

I pulled a face. "Yes, really. I said yes, didn't I?"

"Umm... yes, you did. It's just..."

I rolled my eyes at him.

"Let's just get this over with, shall we?"

The music began to play. Getting to my feet, I grabbed the surprised officer by the hand and hauled him onto the dance floor, while his friends watched in awed amazement.

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