Martin played the first reel through a storm of conflicting emotions. The welcoming cheers from the crowd touched him. Memories overwhelmed him. It wasn’t until the beginning of the third tune that he dared to look out over the dance floor.
His gaze settled on Chelle as she moved neatly through the figures, flushed and smiling, her bright hair gathered in a soft knot on top of her head, exposing the graceful line of her neck. He hadn’t thought about her being here. It would surely make tongues wag, this soon after losing her mother.
Martin had a speaking acquaintance with her partner, who came from one of the farms on the other side of Carston. Lester Barrow was a decent lad, and Chelle seemed to be enjoying herself with him. When the tune ended, another Carston man took Lester’s place. By intermission time, Chelle had danced with eight or nine different partners and Martin’s nerves felt as stretched as the strings on his fiddle.
You’re daft, Martin. What’s the odds who she dances with? You’re not in the market, and she’s spoken for. But his jealousy wouldn’t down. It tangled with all the other feelings raised by being here, and it wouldn’t be rooted out.
He stepped off the platform and joined the line at the refreshment table. He’d just gotten his drink when he caught sight of Drew Markham lounging against the wall across the room, watching someone intently, with a hot light in his eyes. Martin followed his gaze to where Chelle stood with her cousin and his wife. His fists clenched, eager to make Drew’s teeth rattle.
Jealousy, protectiveness…Martin had no call to be feeling either, but they overwhelmed him. He returned to the platform, picked up his fiddle and held it out to Jason. “Break time’s over. Play a couple of tunes to start, will you?”
Jason quirked an eyebrow as he took the fiddle. “Easy, lad. You’re out of practice.”
Martin didn’t answer. He eased his way through the crowd, his pulse drumming in his ears like it had at eighteen when he asked a girl to dance.
The color on Chelle’s face deepened and spread to her throat when she saw him. Standing beside her, her cousin held out his hand. “Good to see you here, Martin. You haven’t lost your touch.”
“I’m not so sure of that, but thanks.” He shook Brian’s hand, then turned to Chelle. “Miss Rochelle, Jason’s going to start off the next set. Might I have the pleasure?”
Chelle smiled and mimicked his broad Yorkshire. “Aye sir, I’d be flattered.”
Jason began a jig. Martin took Chelle’s hand. The warmth of it spread through him instantly, and stayed with him as he guided her through the steps. She had on some kind of citrusy perfume that made him think of warm, exotic places. Some of her hair had worked loose to float in soft wisps around her face.
She could dance. She had rhythm, and she knew how to relax into the music. Caught up in her nearness, Martin felt like only seconds had passed when the tune ended.
Their eyes met. Chelle averted her gaze right away, but not before Martin saw her pupils dilate. Jason began a waltz. A squeeze of her hand brought Chelle easily into Martin’s arms.
Holding her, even lightly like this, was heaven and hell combined. No normal man could be impervious to the warm flush on her skin, the creamy shoulders and distracting hint of cleavage revealed by her dress, the feel of her under his hands.
Martin hadn’t bargained on the strength of the pull between them. It threw him. It had been a long time.
“I’d say you’ve done a lot of this.”
She looked up, her gaze casual and friendly again. She might be young, but she knew how to play the game.
“Yes. I’d say you have, too.”
“Aye, Eleanor and I used to go to most of the dances hereabouts.” How many evenings had they spent in this hall? So many that Eleanor’s presence lingered here, pulling at his heart while his senses focused on the girl in his arms.
“So I’ve heard. I was a little surprised to see you here tonight.”
Somehow, her voice helped to calm the turmoil inside him. “I’m surprised to be here. I wouldn’t be if the fellow who was supposed to play had been able to make it.”
Her hand shifted on his shoulder, a slight, unconscious comforting movement. “How does it feel?”
“It’s difficult.” Martin guided Chelle around a young couple in their teens, too wrapped up in each other to have any notion of where they were on the floor. Martin caught a look at the boy’s face and hoped to God he didn’t look just as thunderstruck. “But I’m glad I’m here.”
Chelle looked up at him. “I think Eleanor would be, too.”
Martin recalled that strange moment at the house. Could that have been Eleanor telling him it was time to move on? If so, why did he feel this wrenching sense of disloyalty? “Perhaps.”
Chelle looked away. They danced in silence until the waltz ended. They slowed, then stood in place for an embarrassing few seconds before Martin snapped back to the moment and led Chelle to her seat.
“Thank you, lass. I’d best get back to work.” A bit cool of him, perhaps, but he’d barely managed to find his voice at all. Back on the platform, Jason handed him his fiddle.
“You know how to pick ‘em, lad. Watch yourself. She could be trouble.”
Martin snorted as he rosined his bow. “Hold your horses, Jason. She’s engaged. She told me herself.”
Jason glanced across the floor at Chelle before picking up his flute. “She could be trouble if she were married.”
“Don’t be daft. She’s danced with half the lads here, why shouldn’t I take a turn?” Angry with himself for snapping, Martin drew his bow across the strings. “Come on, let’s keep the party goin’.”