Victoria had not drunk much champagne. She had taken several glasses of water. The tight corset and water eventually made it necessary for her to seek out the powder room. As was customary, all the ladies suddenly decided they needed to go too.
Though a great deal of effort had been put into making the marquee a grand venue for the ball, the powder-room facilities were, to say the least, basic and a good hundred yards’ walk. Victoria’s case was the most pressing so she waited afterwards outside for the others. The atmosphere inside offended her nostrils. She had come a long way since her days of using the privy at the orphanage.
The facilities for the gentlemen were no better, and separated from the ladies’ by a box hedge. At first, the voices on the far side of the divide were of no interest to Victoria but then she recognised one. Lord de Mornay; and then the person he was talking to, Harry Ratcliffe.
‘So, Harry, you’ve given up on Victoria then?’
‘She’s obviously not interested in me.’
‘Call yourself an officer, a beau, a man of means, a rake? Have some backbone! Ask her for a dance again. Woo her. I’ve heard she’s a lively little filly between the sheets.’
‘Really? I thought she was a proper young lady.’
‘Listen, I know what I’m talking about. She’s just playing a game with you to make you think she’s hard to get. She ain’t. She’s been through most of the farmhands in her schoolroom, over the desk I understand. Ask her to dance and by the end of the evening, you’ll have her drawers down. I guarantee it!’
‘This is hardly the place. I mean, where?’
‘The barn over there. Tell her you’d like to show her a sheep or a lamb from a rare breed and she’ll be with you. One more thing, she likes it rough. She pretends not to want it, but she expects the man to be forceful and take her while she puts up a token resistance.’
‘Well in that case. Yes. She does have something about her that suggests locked up passion. I’ll give her a good tupping over in the hay bales. What ho!’
‘That’s right, my boy. Get in there. Fill your boots!’
Victoria contained her anger. Instead of going off like a rocket, she just stood in quiet fury. The other ladies made their way out of the powder room and together they strolled back to their table. Victoria’s demeanour, quiet as a mouse, went unnoticed by her companions.
Victoria sipped a glass of champagne and watched as Harry Ratcliffe walked between the tables towards her. Her fury she still kept contained, but her knuckles turned white as she gripped the champagne flute.
‘Miss Victoria, may I have the pleasure of this dance.’ Harry Ratcliffe offered his hand.
Victoria stood up. Suddenly her pent up fury exploded. It shot down her right arm into her fist. She smashed Ratcliffe on the nose with a blow that would have felled a heavyweight champion; well, at least, a bantamweight like Ratcliffe.
He fell backwards, clutching his face to stop the blood pouring, without success. Jumping to his feet, he raised his fist. ‘You bitch!’
Smack! He went down again with a blow, this time from Richard.
‘I do not know what the hell is going on but do not dare raise a fist at a woman in my company,’ said Richard, standing over the prone Ratcliffe.
‘You’ll regret this de Mornay,’ whimpered Ratcliffe. ‘My father will see to it. You won’t get away with this. You’re welcome to your trollop!’
He grabbed Ratcliffe by the front of his scarlet tunic and propelled him out of the marquee, where he threw him to the ground again. Ratcliffe did not make to retaliate.
The rest of the company at the table sat dumbfounded. Richard strode back to his table. Everyone at the other tables watched his progress. The squire signalled to the quartet to play something, quickly.
Richard sat down, took a deep breath and raised an eyebrow at Victoria.
‘I overheard him discussing me with your father. Apparently I am of easy virtue and Ratcliffe was advised to . . . Well, you can imagine.’
‘Dear God! What are the young people coming to these days?’ said Lady Adele.
‘That’s a hell of a punch you pack, young lady,’ said Lord Peter.
‘I’m not sure that was part of your training, Victoria,’ said Bonnie with a frown.
‘Well I think he jolly well deserved it,’ said Penelope.
The rest of the guests in the marquee returned to their own conversations now the excitement was over.
Victoria wondered if she had ruined her standing. All her training and she had behaved like a guttersnipe. There was no way that Richard would want anything to do with her now, she thought. Her mind drifted off. She was far away when suddenly she heard, ‘May I have the pleasure of this dance?’ Richard’s voice. Oh my!
Victoria’s heart skipped a beat. She looked up at Richard. He held Penelope’s chair and helped her to her feet. Her hopes crashed, but then she saw him hand Penelope to a young man of whom she had not been aware while her mind contemplated her social gaffe.
Richard then took hold of the back of Victoria’s chair, raised one eyebrow at her and smiled.
He held her tightly as they moved gracefully around the dance floor. Each time he moved his hand on her back it sent a tingle down her spine and legs. His lips were so close. She longed to kiss them.
Victoria looked into his eyes and he looked back at her. There was no mistaking the signals they were sending. She could hardly believe it. He wanted her.
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