‘Max, I am so sorry.’ There were no words, but perhaps touch could soothe, just a little. She lifted her hand to stroke it down his cheek, saw her gloves and, without thinking, stripped them off. She needed to touch him, feel him.
He turned his face into her palm, pressed his lips into it, and with a little sob, she curled her other arm around his neck as he stood, bringing her with him. Something caught, tore, but she hardly heeded it.
The need to comfort had become something else, something entirely new, a sensation close to the ecstasy of making music when everything was right and it flowed from her fingers and possessed her utterly.
She could hear music now, swelling, building—
Someone screamed, a sharp, indignant screech. Max swung round, putting her behind him as he had that other evening in the conservatory, but there was no pool of water to conceal her now.
‘Lord Burnham—and Miss Marsh. It is true after all! Girls, go out this minute.’
It was Lady Moss, Lucy saw through the fronds of the palm that Max had almost pushed her into. It was not, she realised, very effective cover, judging by the expression on the faces of Lady Moss, her daughter, Miss Thomas—all the young ladies, in fact, plying fans, their cheeks flushed. They had come through from the ballroom to cool themselves, which is why the music had suddenly become louder.
The young ladies ignored the instruction and stood in a little gaggle like nervous, nosy chickens.
‘Max, what are you doing?’ That was Sophia. ‘Oh…’
And then Lucy realised that, despite being hot with embarrassment and kisses, there was cool air on her shoulders. What she had felt catch and tear was the little train that fell from the back edge of her neckline. It had ripped away, taking one puffed sleeve and a section of bodice with it, exposing much of her right breast and her stays. She scrabbled to pull it together, her fingers clumsy on the fine fabric, and her gloves fell to the floor.
‘Burnham, I had thought better of you and as for you, Miss Marsh, ripping off your clothing in the conservatory! To think that I allowed you to associate with my daughter. Hussy!’
‘Miss Marsh is my betrothed and cannot be blamed for my own lack of self-control.’ Max finally managed to get a word in edgeways.
‘No, I am not.’ There was silence except for the jolly strains of a lively country dance being played, presumably to a near-empty ballroom, given that everybody seemed to be in here, staring at her. ‘Lord Burnham is being gallant. We are not betrothed.’
There was another door, the one she and Max had escaped through that first evening. Lucy turned and walked towards it. She felt Max take her arm and brushed him away.
The door banged behind her and she saw it had a latch which she flicked over. That should stop anyone following her. She ran upstairs, found her bedchamber and tumbled in, turning the key in the lock.
Amy was perched on the end of the bed.
‘Pack, at once. We are leaving.’