Despite the lateness of her return home from the ball, Cealia was up at her usual time the next morning to accompany Erial on her daily walk. The air was brisk and chill, though it promised fair for later in the day.
"Exercise does feel good," she said as they approached the house on their return. " I feel remarkably fit despite growing ungainliness, and I am quite sure it is the walking and fresh air that does it, despite his anxieties."
Marriage suited Erial, Cealia reflected. She had wed for the first time just seven months before. Pregnancy suited her too. There was a new glow about her.
The footman who opened the door to their knock bowed deferentially as he stood aside to allow them in. " A bouquet has been delivered for Miss Cealia, your grace." He said. " It is in the salon."
"For me?" Cealia asked in some astonishment.
But Erial was laughing as she took Cealia's arm and turned her in the direction of the salon, which led off the hall. "A bouquet the morning after a ball?" she said. "Goodness me, Cealia, you have a beau."
"Nonsense!" Cealia winced. "I daresay it is from Lord Orophin, of Lothlorien. He danced with me twice last evening and led me in to supper. But I did try not to encourage him. How very embarassing."
"A gentleman's admiration need never embarrass you Cealia." Erial said. " Even if you cannot return it."
Cealia bit her lip when she entered the salon and saw the handsome bouquet of at least two dozen rosebuds amid lavish sprays of fern, already arranged in a crystal vase. She crossed the room and picked up the card that was propped against the vase. She hoped fervently he had not made a cake of himself with extravagant sentiments.
"They are quite lovely," Erial said from behind her. " Roses must have been difficult to find this early in the year. And exorbitantly expensive, I daresay. Poor Lord Orophin. He is so very earnest and worthy." But there was a tremor of laughter in her voice.
"Alas," the writing on the card said, " I could find no violets to do justice to your eyes." The signature was scrawled in a bold, careless hand. 'Greenleaf'
His laughing blue eyes, his devil-may-care smile, his slender grace, his male vitality, the indefinable air of danger that clung about him – Cealia had seen them all behind her closed eyelids as she had tried to fall asleep after the ball. And she had pictured the same man half-naked in his skin-tight breeches, uttering shocking profanities. And holding a young woman in his arms and kissed her with obvious enthusiasm.
"The flowers are not from Lord Orophin," she said. "They are from Prince Greenleaf. I waltzed with him last evening."
Lady Erial looked over her shoulder at the card. "Oh, goodness," she said gaily, " he is smitten indeed Cealia. He has complimented your eyes. Who is he? The name is not so very familiar."
"He told me," Cealia said, replacing the card against the vase, "that he sought an introduction to me to discover if my gown matched my eyes in color. Have you ever heard anything more absurd?"
" He does not sound like the sort of gentleman that the family would present to you. " Erial's voice still shook with amusement.
The door opened, the ducal butler bowed with such stiff hauteur that the uninitiated might have mistaken him for the lord of the home himself, and Legolas tossed his card onto the silver salver the man held.
"Prince Greenleaf to call upon Miss Cealia," he said and stepped boldly into the hall.
It was to be easier than he had expected. Perhaps so few visitors were turned away on these at-home days that it did not even occur to the butler to carry the card upstairs first to ascertain that the lady was willing to receive him. Or perhaps the butler recognized his name as the sender of roses this morning and assumed his visit in person would be welcome. Or perhaps it had not occurred to the lord of the manor to leave instructions that he was to be denied admittance if he called.
" Follow me, if you please, my Lord," the butler said with another bow before leading the way to the staircase.
The sound of voices engaged in polite conversation wafted from from the drawing room as soon as a footman opened the doors at their approach. The butler stepped into the doorway.
"Prince Greenleaf for Miss Cealia, your grace," he announced.
An unnatural silence fell as Legolas strode into the room. He recognized a few faces in one swift glance about the room. And he saw too that Cealia, seated in the middle of a group close to the window, was rising to her feet, a look of astonishment on her face. A handsome lady of regal bearing—despite the visible evidence that she was breeding—was hurrying toward him, her right hand outstretched, a smile of polite welcome on her face. Legolas bowed to her.
"Your grace," he said and took her offered hand in his.
"Prince Legolas. How delightful." If she was shocked at his appearance in her drawing room or chagrined with her butler for allowing him up without question, she was too well bred to show it.
"I have come to pay my respects to Miss Cealia. She was gracious enough to dance with last evening." Legolas explained. The room, he was aware, was half filled with visitors. Most of them were still gaping at him rather as if the butler had just committed the faux pas of ushering the chimney sweep into their presence. This moment, he suspected would be discussed with some relish in a few more drawing rooms before the afternoon was out.
Miss Cealia came toward him herself, then, and the Lady Erial returned her attention to her other guests. Those same guests had recovered their manners and were resuming their interrupted conversations.
"How kind of you to call my lord," she said. "Thank you for the roses. They are exquisite."
If the roses were in front of her face at that particular moment, he thought, they would surely freeze upon their stems, her gaze was so cold.
"It was not merely the reflection of your gown, then," he said softly, dipping his head a little closer to hers. "Today you wear green, but your eyes are still unmistakably violet." She looked very bit as lovely as she had last evening even though her dark, glossy hair was dressed with a great deal more simplicity today.
She showed not the slightest pleasure in the implied compliment.
"Do have a seat, my lord," she said with gracious condescension – a stranger would surely have mistaken her for the Lady of the house. She turned and indicated an empty chair in the midst of the crowd of young people among whom she had been sitting. " I shall fetch you a cup of tea."
When she took her place again, he noticed that she sat very straight, her spine not quite touching the back of her chair. She launched into conversation about music, and a spirited discussion of various composers and the relative merits of different solo musical instruments followed.
Legolas did not attempt to participate but amused himself by observing the other members of the group. His appearance had obviously discomposed several of them. Miss Cealia seemed the only one who was serenely unaware of his very existence. Legolas sipped his tea.
"Miss Cealia," he said at last, taking advantage of a brief lull in the conversation, "would you allow me the honor of driving you to the park in my curricle later this afternoon?"
He was gazing directly at her and so was fully aware of the momentary widening of her lovely eyes and parting of her lips. The next moment she was looking coolly back at him, her expression politely bland. He was sure she was about to refuse him. Perhaps he had proceeded to precipitously. How would he win his wager if she said no?
" Oh, I say," the skeletal, still unidentified young man, said indignantly, " I came to ask the same favor, Miss Cealia, but thought to do the correct thing and wait until I could speak privately with you when I took my leave. I was here before the Prince." He added feebly.
Legolas raised his eyebrows. " I do beg your pardon, " he said. " Did I do the incorrect thing? Having spent so much of time as of late away from society, I must confess myself unsure of the finer points of etiquette." With his eyes he laughed at Miss Cealia.
"Oh, I say!" the anonymous gentleman sounded distinctly uncomfortable." I did not mean to imply—"
"I believe," one said smooth, " it might have been for this afternoon that you and I made our appointment to drive to the library together, Cealia. You will refresh my memory if I am wrong."
Legolas continued to smile into Miss Cealia's violet eyes, which had not wavered from his own. There was not the faintest suggestion of an answering smile there.
She looked away, " No you are wrong," she said. "It was not for today. Thank you, my lord. That would be very pleasant."
He had the other members of the group to thank, of course, Legolas realized as he rose to take his leave. He was quite certain she had been going to refuse him until the other had rushed in so gallantly to rescue her from the horror of being obliged to drive out with a notorious rakehell. She might be cold and imperturbably self-contained, his intended bride, but she was not immune to a challenge.
It was an intriguing thought.
"Until later, then, Miss Cealia," he said, bowing to her, nodding affably to the group at large, and then strolling across the room to take his leave.
He grinned as he ran down the steps outside the house a few minutes later and summoned his tiger, who was walking the horses about the square. Breaching the formidable defenses of Miss Cealia was going to be a challenge worthy of his best efforts. He must hope, perhaps, that all her relatives and friends would come to his assistance by persistently warning her against him and attempting to shield her from him – the idiots.
But for awhile later in the afternoon he would have her all to himself.
I am terribly sorry for how long it has taken me to update. It's been a hectic few weeks. I hope to make it up this week by updating, hopefully, atleast twice.
Thank you for the reviews!