An hour and a half later, Barbara, dressed in a red, one shoulder dress, slipped on gold, strappy, Manolo Blahnik shoes and left the room. As she made her descent down the stairs, she could hear conversation and laughter rising above the jazzy tones of the background music.
It seemed as though a few guests had already arrived. She spotted Prudence first. She looked amazing in a full-length camel hair gold silk dress. The jade and gold jewelry that Barbara had given her looked as though they had been created with the dress in mind. Barbara silently thanked God for inspiring her to have the gift made for her friend.
Prudence was conversing with a man who was backing Barbara. There was something familiar about him...his statureâ€¦his broad shouldersâ€¦his dark blond hairâ€¦no it couldnâ€™t be! Prudence spotted her as she descended and exclaimed, â€śWow, look at you!â€ť
Barbara almost lost her footing as Lord William Lamport III, Prudenceâ€™s cousin, turned and fixed his blue gaze on her.
She wanted to retreat to her room in that instant. She didnâ€™t. She closed the few steps between them and concentrated all of her acting ability to appear nonchalant.
William smiled at her. â€śHullo Barbara, how are you?â€ť
Prudence excused herself to greet another guest, effectively abandoning Barbara to the one man in the world who could turn her insides to mush.
â€śGreat, you?â€ť She forced a smile. She felt like kicking herself for being so foolish. How could she not have guessed that Prudence would have invited William? Sure, Prudence had said sheâ€™d only be inviting her closest friends but, of course, William would have been counted among that number. They were as close as brother and sister. Prudenceâ€™s mysterious comment now made sense.
A waiter silently appeared beside them with a tray of Cristal.
They each took a glass. Barbara took a sip of the cool liquid and observed William. Why did he have to be so devastatingly handsome? It would be so much easier to be composed if he was ordinary looking or even just your run-of-the-mill handsome man. Instead his looks were off the charts. They were set off by eyes so blue that staring into them was akin to falling into the deepest ocean. His dark blonde hair, cut in a short trendy style, looked like spun silk and his perfectly shaped mouth tempted her to remember each kiss they had shared. To top it off he possessed a natural sense of style, so that whether he was dressed in jeans or a tuxedo he always looked like he had just walked off the cover of a menâ€™s magazine.
On this occasion, for example, he was impeccably decked out in a charcoal suit worn with a white shirt and a grey and purple, diagonal stripe tie.
When her eyes met his she could see amusement twinkling in their depths. â€śDo you approve, then?â€ť
â€śApprove?â€ť she repeated stupidly, momentarily caught off guard.
â€śOf my appearance. I saw you giving me the once over.â€ť
She laughed, slightly embarrassed she hadnâ€™t been more discreet in her observation. â€śI donâ€™t think you need my approval but yes, I approve. You look veryâ€¦nice.â€ť Nice seemed like a safe enough word.
â€śThanks. You, on the other hand, look absolutely fabulous.â€ť He said the last two words slowly as his eyes ran over her form. His gaze returned to her face and his eyes fixed on hers as he took a slow sip of the champagne.
Barbara swallowed and looked away. It was almost a guarantee that he would have an overwhelming effect on her every time they met. â€śItâ€™s a little warm in here, donâ€™t you think?â€ť she asked.
He gestured towards the softly lit terrace with his glass. â€śWould you like to step outside and get a bit of fresh air? Itâ€™s a lovely night.â€ť
It was a lovely night â€“ a starlit night. As Barbara leaned against the railings of the terrace that led out into the garden, a light spring breeze rose and she caught a whiff of Williamâ€™s cologne - something spicy and manly. Barbara took a deep breath and prayed for strength.
William leaned back on a column and watched her with his piercing eyes as he sipped his champagne. A waitress approached them with a tray of canapĂ©s and Barbara declined, the butterflies dancing around in her stomach had stolen her appetite.
More guests arrived as William and Barbara chitchatted. They were often interrupted by people who knew either one or both of them.
After this happened for the fourth time, William leaned towards her and whispered in her ear, â€śLetâ€™s go for a stroll in the garden, shall we? Thereâ€™s something I want to discuss with you.â€ť
Barbara hesitated for a second. She had a sneaky suspicion about what he wanted to discuss with her and she wasnâ€™t sure she was prepared for it at that moment. Still, it was probably better to discuss it in private.
They left the terrace and made their way to the gardens. The full moon, assisted by thousands of twinkling lights strung through the branches of the trees, illuminated the gravel path. As they strolled through the garden, the party music and sounds of low talking, punctuated by occasional bursts of laughter, slowly receded into the background.
They came to a bench. â€śLetâ€™s sit here for a bit,â€ť William said.
Beside him on the bench Barbara started to rub her palms up and down her arms.
â€śYouâ€™re cold,â€ť he declared and took off his jacket.
â€śNo, itâ€™s okay,â€ť she protested. â€śI forgot my shawl, Iâ€™ll just go back to my room and get it.â€ť
He ignored her and placed his jacket over her shoulders.
â€śYouâ€™re not escaping from me that easily.â€ť His tone was low and teasing. She felt goose bumps break out on her skin and knew that they had nothing to do with the coolness of the night.