Excerpt from An Improper Situation

     
     "Is that Charlotte Sanborn?" said a loud voice in her ear, followed by a tug on her arm. It was Jessie Hollander, the waitress from Fuller's restaurant. "Girl, you're all slicked up something fine."
     "Why, don't that beat the Dutch? Ruth, come over here and take a gander at Charlotte Sanborn."
     "Charlotte, here?" came an equally loud voice. By this time, other people had started to form around her, and she felt as if she were the latest display at a traveling show.
     "How... how nice to see you all," she managed. Then, pushing through the crowd straight toward her was Eliza Prentice, dressed in a cool blue color that matched her eyes and set off her blond hair.
     "Where did you get that dress?" the girl practically hissed, right in front of everyone.
     "Why, in town, of course. But yours is a homespun delight." Charlotte saw that barb reach home as Eliza's eyes widened and her nostrils flared.
     But the pretty blond collected herself. "Wait until you all meet the magnificent man I met in town," she said conspiratorially to the other ladies. "I invited him here myself," she added with a simper.
     Charlotte opened her mouth to explain about Reed Malloy, but before she could, she saw Eliza's gaze shoot past her. She knew who Eliza saw, as the young woman's hand immediately raised up to pat her hair.
     It was too late. Reed chose that moment to appear, holding the pie plates stacked one on top of the other.
     "There you are," he said, and Eliza turned a brilliant smile on him. It died as he went directly to Charlotte's side. "I could barely see you through your throng of friends. Good evening, ladies, and Miss Prentice, isn't it?" Reed nodded his head to each one in turn.
     "Now, Miss Sanborn, where's our punch? And the children?" Reed handed her the pear crisps and propelled her away from the awe struck, momentarily silent group, a firm hand on her back.
     "That was wicked," she told him with a smile, placing their offering on the end of the table with the other cakes and sweetmeats. "But I'm grateful."
     "I love to rescue a lady in distress," he told her handing her a cup of punch, "especially one as beautiful as you."
     She smiled at him and sipped at the fruity drink. "This has to be one of the most exciting nights of my life. And to think, I never would have had the opportunity if not for you."
     He smiled down at her. "Then let's make the most of it. Shall we dance?"
     She set her cup down. "Believe it or not, that's one thing I can do. My mother insisted I learn, bless her, though it has been a while."
     Reed led her onto the clean-swept floor as a new tune started up; it was slow and sweet, and Charlotte was relaxing into Reed's strong arms as they danced.
     Surely, this was a little bit of heaven, far away from editorial deadlines and her cluttered study. The pressure of his hands, one resting on her waist and the other holding her hand securely, made her feel like a full-fledged woman. She slanted her head to look at him, their eyes meeting.
     "Your mother taught you well," he told her, gently squeezing her hand.
     "And where did you learn to dance, Mr. Malloy?"
     "I picked it up, here and there. And it's time to be Reed and Charlotte now, don't you think?"
     She nodded. The intimacy of first names in public sent another shiver down her spine. What would Eliza think of that?
     "Tomorrow," he added, looking around them at the other dancers, "we need to talk."
     "Tomorrow," she repeated, and his blue eyes met hers. But tonight, she thought, there was no need for words. The next tune picked up the tempo, and Charlotte was soon whirling around the dance floor.
     "Everyone is so fine-looking," she observed as he drew her in close, "like freshly picked flowers, don't you think?"
     Reed shook his head.
     "You have no idea that you're the most radiant woman here."
     She stopped still for a moment, looking up at his handsome face, now grown dear to her. He tightened his hold on her hand and led her off the dance floor, stopping at a quiet spot, next to one of the empty stalls.
     "There's something so vibrant about you, Charlotte, so different from anyone I've ever known. I can't help but wonder what it would be like to keep company with you at home. In Boston, I mean."
     He cocked his head at her, and daringly, she rested her palm on his chest, feeling his heart beating fast from the dancing. "Would you become just the same as all the women I've known in the endless drawing rooms of Boston?"
     She shrugged, unwilling to break his lighthearted musings and at a loss as to how those other women behaved.
     He continued, "I doubt that any environment could change the honest reactions of one Charlotte Sanborn. You could never be other than a head full of strong opinions, with the intelligence to garner respect, and the beauty that encourages men's admiration and women's envy."
     "Oh, my," she laughed. "I sound like a paragon, indeed." If he was trying to persuade her, he was nearly succeeding. She was just about ready to pack her trunks.
     "Not too much of a paragon, I hope," he said softly, changing the mood. His gaze dropped to her full lips for a moment, then to her own hungry glance, making her want desperately to be kissed.
     "What are you thinking?" he asked her, leaning his head even closer. She didn't care that they were only against the rough wooden wall in Drake's—with every person she'd ever known only feet away. She didn't care that he'd put his hand on her waist in public or that his leg was close amongst her skirts. She wanted desperately for him to kiss her right then.
     "I'm only imagining how it would be—"
     She was interrupted by Lily and Thomas and three other children whom Charlotte recognized from town. They were all chattering at the same time as she and Reed moved quickly apart. Reed was able to speak before she was.
     "Silence, please." His voice was not stern or loud, just commanding, and they obeyed him instantly.
     "All right then, what's this all about? One at a time," he ordered as they all opened their mouths again. "Lily?"
     "The late train has come in from the east, and they say," she gestured toward a group of gossiping women, including Eliza, "that there were people on it from home."
     "From home?" Reed and Charlotte said at once.
     "From Bos'n," Thomas added.
     Charlotte felt a clenching in her stomach. Could it be the children's grandmother coming to get them?
     Alarmed at the surge of protectiveness and possessiveness that welled up, she determined that she didn't want to let the children go, and that the feeling was unrelated to Reed.
     She fervently hoped these strangers had nothing to do with the children or their lawyer. Things were going smoothly, and all she wanted was a little more time.
 
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