Miss Grace Halton crossed her goose-pimpled arms over her ruched bodice, mindless of the thick moulding digging into the small of her back or the clumps of wax sticking to her silk slippers. Her gaze darted about the ballroom. Elegant couples began a lively country-dance. Grace hugged herself tighter. She had never felt less like dancing.
Not that she’d been asked.
Her jaw clenched. She hadn’t any idea how to accomplish any of her goals. Without her grandparents’ money, she couldn’t return to her homeland. Without a husband, she couldn’t get her grandparents’ money. Without a noble birth and a British accent, she couldn’t attract a man interested in something other than her dowry or her virginity.
Back home in Pennsylvania, she’d had friends of both sexes, who loved her for herself and not for something they might take from her. Back home in Pennsylvania, they would’ve had a right belly laugh to see Gracie Halton trussed up in finery and mincing about a suffocating ballroom. Back home in Pennsylvania, her mother— her mother—
Grace’s breath caught and her eyes blurred. Oh, who knew what was going on back home in Pennsylvania? She’d written her mother and her neighbors every day since she’d stepped off the boat, and had yet to receive a single word of response. Fear gripped her. Was her mother still in the threadbare bed Grace had last seen her in? Was she even still alive? Was there still time? Or had Grace flung herself headlong into a fool’s mission that only ensured she would not be present in her mother’s last hours, when she needed her daughter most?
Blindly, Grace pushed away from the velvet-lined wall . . .
Right into the path of a giant as tall and as hard as an oak.
A firm hand caught her about the waist as strong fingers captured her wrists. She blinked the sting of unshed tears from her eyes to find herself entangled not with an oak, but with a man possessed of dark brown hair and dangerous golden brown eyes. A wry smile curved his lips as the orchestra began the opening strains of a waltz.
The hot muscles beneath her palms were hard and firm—no need for a tailor’s touch to improve this sculpted body. He was impossibly tall and uncomfortably close. But unlike the other trussed turkeys sweltering inside the breezeless room, his clothes didn’t reek of day-old perfume. His eyes weren’t bloodshot or blasé, but rather clear and warm and drinking her in as if he were two seconds away from yanking her close enough to claim her mouth. Her heart thundered.
Everything about him was raw heat and restrained power. The exact opposite of what she was looking for. If a man like this took a wife, he would never let her slip away.
She forced her starving lungs to breathe. She was making a cake of herself. She’d almost mown down this exquisite hulk of a man, like the unsophisticated American they all believed her to be. He was simply protecting the herd by putting himself in the path of the rampaging bull.
Heat flooded her cheeks as she broke eye contact. She’d never felt so foolish and uncultured in her life.
Her breath hitched, but she forced herself to meet his eyes. A warm, honey brown. Someone this gorgeous definitely had somewhere better to be. She tugged at her wrists, signaling he was free to go. Only a fool would try to keep him.
He dropped one of his hands, but did not immediately hurry away, as she had anticipated. He seemed even larger than before.
His free hand tightened at her waist. “Shall we dance?”
Just like that, her legs could barely hold her steady. She tilted into his touch, conscious that he must be able to feel her body tremble beneath his fingers. Why would he wish to dance with her? He was too young to be a roué, too gentlemanly to be a rake, too well-heeled to be desperate for money, too smolderingly attractive to be in want of female companionship.
But it couldn’t hurt to make certain.
She narrowed her eyes and forced her mind back on her mission. She needed a husband with money. “Are your pockets to let?”
He blinked at her in confusion. “What? No!”
“Are you in the market for a wife?”
“Hell no!” His sculpted cheekbones flushed a subtle pink as he belatedly recalled he was speaking to a lady. “That is to say, at some point, it is my duty to take a wife.”
“Close enough.” Grace slid her wrist from his fingers and placed her hand in his. “This dance is yours.”