Calcutta, November 1810
Julian Ritchie entered the ballroom with his usual self-confident swagger. This night was going to be different, he told himself.
He didn’t know what it was that made him think so. Indeed, he had entered many a ballroom before thinking the very same thing, only to be severely disappointed.
But tonight there was something in the air—something magical. It was going to be a good night.
He stopped for a moment just inside the door and took in the ballroom. The brilliant colors of the ladies’ dresses and the officers’ uniforms warred with the vibrant colors of the flowers which were everywhere overflowing from sconces on the walls and in vases on every surface. The smell filled the room. It made for a very nice change from the street smell of spices and animals that always seemed to hang in the air.
And then there were the people themselves. All of Calcutta’s English society was here. Everyone who was anyone had been invited to Miss Renwick’s coming-out ball. He could even see a few prominent, wealthy Indian gentlemen present.
Julian had been a little surprised that he had been invited, but then, everyone in his office had been on the list of invitees. It would have been too obvious a cut if he alone had been left out.
Besides, he believed his employer, Sir Lionel Renwick, rather liked him, despite the fact that his wife loathed the sight of him. He suspected Sir Lionel had insisted on Julian receiving an invitation. Lady Renwick certainly would not have issued one otherwise.
Julian took a deep breath and headed for the first group of people who were standing and chatting nearest the door.
“How do you do, Mrs. Hurst, Miss Hurst,” Julian said, bowing to the two ladies.
Adelaide Hurst turned around, gave an imperious sniff and then turned her back on him once again. Her daughter, Anne, did little better, managing a small nod in his direction before turning back to her conversation.
Julian did not let their reactions bother him. He moved on, slowly strolling about the room and nodding to people who deigned to notice his existence.
He stopped outside a few different groups of people whom he knew, but they always closed their ranks against him just as he approached.
He found Sir Lionel in conversation with the Governor-General, Lord Minto.
“Good evening, sirs,” Julian said, bowing to them.
“Ah, Ritchie,” Sir Lionel said, nodding to him, “I am happy to see you could make it.”
“Good evening, Ritchie.” Lord Minto gave him a very brief smile and then turned back to his conversation with Sir Lionel.
Well, it was the warmest welcome he had received all evening, Julian reasoned.
He turned toward the dance floor. The dancers hopped and skipped about as they executed the complicated steps of an English country dance.
But his gaze was held captive by the young woman at the head of the line. She was dressed in white and staring directly at him.
Julian couldn’t help himself. He stared right back.
She was beautiful.
There was an odd sensation in his stomach. As if a fire had been lit somewhere inside of him. Heat began to rush through him as he watched her.
She was like a porcelain doll. Her creamy complexion set off by just a little flush of color on her cheeks from the exertion of the dance. Her eyes were the color of the sky and her hair the color of the sun.
If her mouth was a little too wide, or her nose a little too small, he could not say. To him, she was perfect.
But why was she looking at him, of all people?
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