He matched her smile with one of his own, equally bland. “Just that I am indeed lucky.”
Her brows rose. “How odd that I might have missed a sentence of such length.”
He gave her a sideways look.
Which she returned with a secret smile.
He felt something settle within himself. All was right with the world again. Or at least all was right with this moment. The world was a bloody mess, but right here, right now, Billie was smiling secretly…
And he was content.
“May I claim a dance, Miss Bridgerton?” Sir John asked Billie.
“And me as well,” Freddie immediately put in.
“Of course,” she said, again so prettily that George wanted to gag. She didn’t sound like herself.
“She has already promised her first to me,” he cut in. “And the supper set.”
Billie regarded him with some surprise, since she had not promised him the supper set, but she did not contradict.
“Nevertheless,” Freddie said with smooth amusement, “there are more than two dances at a ball.”
“I should be delighted to dance with both of you,” Billie said. She looked about the room as if in search of something. “I don’t believe there are dance cards this evening…”
“We can survive well enough without them,” Freddie said. “All we must remember is that when you are done with Kennard here, you will dance with me.”
Billie gave a friendly smile and a regal nod.
“And then you’re on to Sir John,” Freddie noted. “But I’ll warn you, he’s an atrocious dancer. You’ll want to watch your toes.”
Billie laughed at that, full and throaty, and once again she became so incandescently beautiful that George was half-tempted to throw a blanket over her, just to stop anyone else from wanting her.
He should not begrudge her this moment in the sun. He knew that. She deserved to be adored and fêted, to have her much-deserved moment as the belle of the ball. But by God, when she smiled at Sir John or Freddie, it looked as if she actually meant it.
Who smiled like that without actually meaning it? Did she have any idea what a smile like that could lead to? The two gentlemen were going to think she was interested. George had a sudden vision of bouquets filling the front hall of Manston House, of young gentlemen queuing up for the privilege of kissing her hand.
“Is something wrong?” Billie asked quietly. Sir John and Freddie had been distracted by another acquaintance and had turned slightly away, so her words were for George alone.
“Of course not,” he said, but his voice was somewhat more clipped than usual.
Her brow pleated with concern. “Are you certain? You —”
“I’m fine,” he snapped.
Her brows rose. “Clearly.”
“If you don’t want to dance with me…” she began.
“That’s what you think this is?”
“So there is something!” Her expression was so triumphant; she really ought to have had a Pall Mall mallet in her hand to complete the look.
“For the love of God, Billie,” he muttered, “it’s not a competition.”
“I don’t even know what it is.”
“You shouldn’t be smiling like that at other gentlemen,” he said in a hushed voice.
“What?” She drew back, and he wasn’t sure if it was out of disbelief or outrage.
“It will give them the wrong impression.”
“I thought the whole purpose was for me to attract gentlemen,” she practically hissed.
Outrage, then. And quite a lot of it.
George had just enough presence of mind not to blurt out the spectacularly inane, “Yes, but not too much attention.” Instead he warned, “Do not be surprised if they come calling tomorrow.”
“Again, isn’t that the point?”
George had no answer, because there was no answer. He was being an idiot, that much was clear to both of them.
Good God, how had the conversation deteriorated to this?
“Billie, look,” he said, “I simply —”
He frowned. Arbuthnot was making his way over.
“You simply…” Billie prompted.
He shook his head, and she was smart enough to know that the motion had nothing to do with her. She followed his gaze over toward Arbuthnot, but the older gentleman had stopped to talk with someone else.
“Who are you looking at?” she asked.
He turned back and fixed his full attention on her. “No one.”
She rolled her eyes at the obvious lie.
“Kennard,” Freddie Coventry said, returning to their sides as Sir John wandered off, “I do believe the orchestra is retaking their positions. You had best lead Miss Bridgerton to the dance floor or I shall have to accuse you of shady dealings.” He leaned toward Billie and said with faux confidentiality, “It will not do for him to claim your first dance and then keep you here among the wallflowers.”
She laughed, but only a little, and to George’s ears it did not sound quite true. “He would never do that,” she said, “if for no other reason than his mother would have his head.”
“Oh-ho!” Freddie chortled. “So that’s how it is.”
George smiled tightly. He wanted to throttle Billie for emasculating him so efficiently in front of his friends, but he was still very much aware of Arbuthnot, just a few feet away, presumably angling for a moment alone.
Freddie’s voice dropped to a murmuring tease. “I don’t think he’s going to dance with you.”
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