Nora Kelly had not received a ball invitation for two years now. That had been her own doing, of course—she had ruined her own reputation in order to stop her family pressing her to marry. It was a pity, for she loved a good country dance, especially those with Irish origins like herself.
But she changed her own fortune by developing a flirtation with a young and wealthy couple, the Westons. They had been more than eager to invite Nora to their ball to celebrate the new century. Nay, they had insisted she attend, so here she was.
Her first partner, a gentleman she had met at one of Mrs Weston’s soirees, was causing her to reconsider this change in fortune. He had already stepped on her toes before he twirled her the wrong way. Before she could correct her course, she nearly collided with another woman.
She gasped at the familiar face. Blood rushed to her already rosy cheeks, and the heartbeat in her ears sounded louder than the swelling music. She could not believe her what she was seeing.
“Diana,” she said, almost choking on the name.
Wide-eyed, Diana Cole opened her mouth as if to speak. But Nora’s partner pulled her back into the dance, apologising for his mistake. Despite how she had felt when she had stared into Diana’s stunning brown eyes, the world around them had not stopped.
There were still ten minutes left in this set, and Nora was distracted for all of them. She had neither seen nor heard from Diana for over a decade, an agonising length of time to be apart after spending every day together as schoolgirls. Their parents had called them inseparable. But when the true nature of Nora and Diana’s passionate connexion had been discovered, their parents had succeeded in separating them.
At the end of the set, Nora curtseyed to her partner and slipped out of the ballroom. She needed some time alone with her thoughts, which whirled around inside her head at crazy speeds.
The library beckoned her. Both Mr and Mrs Weston had a fondness for books, and their collection was quite impressive. Not only that, but during a ball the library was certain to be empty.
Except as soon as the door closed behind her, it opened again. She reeled as Diana stepped inside. Her heart panged. Half a room lay between them.
Diana cleared her throat, arms dangling at her sides. “I followed you in here. Would you rather I left?”
“Please stay.” Nora’s voice was small, emotion constricting her vocal chords. She hugged herself, feeling the absence of her shawl in this cool, dim room.
With a deep sigh, Diana stepped forwards. “So much time has passed,” she said. “Yet you look the same. And you’ve kept your Irish accent.”
“You don’t look the same,” replied Nora, drinking in the sight of her former friend and lover. “Somehow you’re even more beautiful than when we were young.”
Diana smiled, though her eyes shone with unshed tears.
“I like your hair,” Nora added.
Diana had cut her blonde hair short, the way some adventurous women were doing these days. The style accentuated her natural curls.
It was Nora’s turn to step closer. “Words can’t describe how much I missed you.”
“Then why didn’t you respond to my letters? I must’ve written you hundreds. I didn’t know where you were, or if you were well.”
Nora couldn’t breathe. “I never received any letters,” she whispered, staring at Diana.
Diana covered her mouth with a gloved hand.
“Where did they send you?” asked Nora.
“The Continent. My brother is ill; my family has only recently permitted me to return to England.”
“You didn’t marry?” The question had been on Nora’s mind the second she had seen Diana’s face on the dancefloor.
Shaking her head, Diana closed the remaining distance between them and took Nora’s hands in her own. She gazed at her. One of the peculiarities of life is that a simple word or two can convey so much meaning. When Diana replied, “I couldn’t,” it meant everything.
Nora removed one of her gloves, then reached up and touched Diana’s cheek. The skin was warm under her bare hand. Diana closed her eyes.
“Neither could I,” whispered Nora.
Diana’s eyelids fluttered open. She looked at Nora’s lips, then into her eyes, asking. Nora gave her a slow blink, affirming. Diana surged forwards and kissed her.
They had been parted for more than ten years, and they said it with this kiss. Nora cupped Diana’s cheeks, caressing the skin with her thumbs as Diana opened her mouth to deepen the kiss.
When Nora had to breathe, she leant her forehead against Diana’s.
“I never stopped loving you,” murmured Diana. A peaceful expression adorned her face.
Nora drew a painful breath. It seemed impossible that their feelings could remain the same after so many years, but the heartbreaking passion was still there, like an unextinguished flame.
Diana circled Nora’s waist, making her gasp. Nora tilted her head and brought their lips together, enjoying the pleased reaction it got from Diana. Grabbing Diana’s hands, she moved them from her waist to her breasts. Diana pulled out of the kiss, staring at her.
“Are you sure?” Diana asked in a rough voice.
Nora pressed in to Diana’s hands. She needed more pressure if she were to feel anything underneath her stays. Stays were going out of fashion, but her bust required the support.
“I want you to touch me,” she said. “Please.”
Nodding, Diana caressed Nora’s breasts and kissed her again. They stumbled against one of the tall bookshelves, causing Nora to look up with apprehension. Seeing nothing in danger of falling, she relaxed and lifted her skirts to reveal her silk stockings, watching Diana’s face. Diana’s eyes sparkled, and she dropped to her knees before Nora, taking the hint.
Nora smiled as Diana kissed her way up her thighs. She had caused her own scandals before, including once with Diana, and this would be a major scandal if they were discovered. They had not even locked the library door behind them. But, as exciting as it would be to get caught, everyone was sure to still be dancing in the ballroom.
Noticing that Diana had stopped kissing her thighs, Nora glanced down, only to find Diana gazing up at her, a question in her eyes.
“Yes,” whispered Nora.
The suddenness of Diana’s mouth on her most intimate parts made Nora jolt. It had been many long years since they had last done this, but Diana’s tongue seemed to remember well. Nora searched behind her for a grip on the shelf, then held on for dear life, as though she were running off the edge of a cliff. Perhaps, in a way, she was. As Diana brought her to completion, she tried to stay quiet.
Afterwards, they stood against the shelf. Tears slipped down Nora’s cheeks, but Diana wiped them away with a tender thumb. Nora rested her head on Diana’s shoulder and put her arms around her. Diana returned the embrace, holding her close.
“We ought to return to the ballroom,” Diana pointed out with a sigh.
Nora agreed. “Where are you staying? I’ll call on you tomorrow morning.”
Diana gave the address. The visit would be the only thing Nora could think about all night. She would go as soon as she woke in the morning.
Diana pressed one last kiss to Nora’s lips before dragging herself away. Nora stayed in the library for another minute. She needed to compose herself; gloves did not put themselves back on.
When she did return, she passed Mrs Weston, who smiled and winked at her. Nora looked at her in alarm.
“Your secret is safe with me, Miss Kelly,” Mrs Weston assured her, tapping Nora’s arm with her fan.
Being well-acquainted with Mrs Weston—and her husband—Nora believed her. She exhaled, then joined the dancers. Knowing Diana was also there put a smile on her face and a gayness in her step. Everything was better now.