Authors: Jaclyn Reding
“You know that is not at all what I
meant when I—”
He held up his hand to silence her.
“There is to be a ball, Grace, at the Knighton town house. It is to
introduce Lord Knighton’s sister to society and is certain to be a crush. You
will attend this ball; I will escort you. Since you haven’t yet been introduced
to society, no one will know who you are. We will go, you will see the
marquess—you can even watch him for a while if you’d like—and then we will
leave. This is the best I can offer.”
Grace looked at her uncle, hearing again
the words of her grandmother.
I had only to dance with my own true love and
I knew I would spend the rest of my life loving him…
“But for one last thing, Uncle.”
“And that is?”
“I would share a dance with
Tedric shook his head.
“Why, sir? It is a single dance. You
have already said no one will know who I am, including Lord Knighton.”
Tedric fell silent in contemplation of her
a moment, he appeared to smile. “I think perhaps the marquess is in for a
bit of a surprise from his wife.”
drew a breath, wondering why her pulse had suddenly quickened, but decided that
a clandestine dance with one’s
future husband without his
knowing did have a measure of excitement
“Then you will do it?” she
asked. “You will arrange for me to share a dance with Lord Knighton?”
Tedric turned and headed for the door.
“I don’t quite know how I’ll accomplish it, but yes, Grace, I will find a
way for you to have your dance with the marquess.”
passed the next three days trying not to think about the Knighton ball. She forced
herself to concentrate on thoughts of the weekly menu or the furniture that
needed polishing even as she forged through her wardrobe for something suitable
to wear. By the time the morning of the ball dawned, she had thrice convinced
herself to abandon the venture, then even again as she was walking down the
front stairs with her uncle to leave.
When all was said and done, she did go and
their coach arrived at the Knighton town house shortly after ten. For the first
moment or two, Grace thought surely she must be dreaming, for as they came into
the ballroom, she could only think that it was like stepping through a magical
door into the legendary land of Cockaigne, where the rivers flowed wine, the
houses were made of cake, and the pavements were lined in honey-iced pastry.
Music and laughter rang out in this
enchanted setting that was indeed every bit a fairytale. The ballroom was
bathed in brilliant candlelight from chandeliers whose crystals winked like
diamonds. Flowers the likes of which she had never seen spilled from ornate
china and ormolu vases that were set about the room, filling the air with an
exotic mixture of their various perfumes. Liveried footmen stood off to one
side, awaiting any request, while numerous other servants wove their way among
the throng of guests bearing silver trays filled with every sort of delicacy
imaginable. Brightly colored chiffon festooned each window opening and doorway,
and one could have sworn that the tables set in the supper parlor were groaning
beneath the weight of their delights. Jewels glittered about necks, ears, and
fingers. Elegant satins glowed against the candlelight. Everywhere she looked
gaiety and opulence were evident. Everywhere except—
Grace glanced down, took one look at
herself, and blanched.
The pale blue-gray silk she had chosen was
one of her best gowns, but its modest design indelibly marked her a rustic from
the country. The styling or her hair—a simple topknot of curls that bounced
clumsily about her ears when she moved—made her lack of style even more
apparent. Uncle Tedric had arranged it so that they would arrive at the ball
deliberately late in order to make their entrance as inconspicuous as possible.
Grace was certainly thankful for that now.
These noble people had been born to the
life of privilege, had never known a day of choosing their own clothing or
dressing their own hair. Grace had been born the daughter of a marquess, yes,
but it was distinction made only in name, for she had been raised in the
country more like a milkmaid than a noblewoman. Nonny had believed that simple
living gave one character. How the ladies present this night would gasp were
they to learn Grace didn’t have her own ladies’ maid, but instead relied upon
her uncle’s housekeeper, Mrs. Bennett, to fasten the hooks at the back of her
gown when she couldn’t reach them. How could she even pretend to assume the
role of Marchioness Knighton, much less that of the future Duchess of Westover?
Just as Grace convinced herself to have
her uncle take her home and forget the entire affair, a young lady of perhaps
nineteen separated herself from the masses, coming forward. She smiled politely
at Grace before presenting her gloved hand to Uncle Tedric.
“I’m so happy you could come, Lord
Cholmeley. It is a pleasure to see you again.”
She was everything a lady should
be—slender, perhaps an inch or two shorter than Grace, with her cocoa brown
hair caught up in a graceful sweep beneath an ornamented ostrich plume that
drifted softly as an angel’s wing when she moved. Her gown was made of white
embroidered net that
draped over pale rose-colored silk set with sparkling brilliants that winked in
the candlelight. It was quite the most elegant creation Grace had ever seen.
Tedric took the lady’s hand and bowed over
it. “The pleasure is all mine, I assure you, my lady.” He turned
toward Grace. “Lady Eleanor Wycliffe, allow me to introduce my niece, Lady
Grace bowed her head, wishing she had
something more ornate than the simple ribbon fillet laced through her curls.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, my lady,” she said
“Grace,” Uncle Tedric said,
“Lady Eleanor is Lord Knighton’s sister. This evening’s ball is being
given in her honor.”
“Yes, it is to be my coming-out. Such
a peculiar term, do you not think? Makes one think of a pillow that’s been
overstuffed!” Lady Eleanor linked her arm through Grace’s, whispering,
“Your uncle has informed me of your wish to share a dance with Christian.
I’m sure Lord Cholmeley wouldn’t mind letting me have you to myself for a bit
first to get better acquainted.” She squeezed Grace’s hand.
“Especially if we are to be sisters.”
When Grace had been a girl, she’d dreamed
of having a sister, someone she could talk to and share secrets with, or
discuss books over tea as she and Nonny had done. And now, suddenly, here was
this lovely young lady offering herself for the role and she hadn’t even
noticed that the shoes Grace had worn were too dark for her gown.
Grace smiled at Lady Eleanor, immediately
and utterly charmed. Tedric wisely took his cue to leave.
“I shall be in the gaming parlor
should you have need of me. Grace.” He bowed his head. “Lady
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Lord
Cholmeley,” Lady Eleanor said, stopping him short, “but there is to
be no gaming at the ball tonight.”
“No gaming?” Tedric looked
horrified, as if she had told him that his beloved tailors, Schweitzer and
Davidson, had just that morning closed shop.
“It was at my request, my lord. I
didn’t want anything tempting the gentlemen away from dancing with all the
Lady Eleanor smiled sweetly, leaving Tedric little choice but to quietly agree.
“Might a gentleman then find a glass
of port somewhere without fear of having it knocked against his
“Of course, my lord.” She
motioned through the door. “Down the hall there is a parlor where you will
find port and brandy being served.”
When he’d gone, Lady Eleanor directed
Grace away» from the doorway, taking her slowly about the periphery of the vast
ballroom. As they walked, she asked Grace about her childhood at Ledysthorpe,
how she liked living in London, and how she had come to live under her uncle’s
“My parents were lost in a boating
accident when I was a young child. I was raised by my grandmother and it was
with her that I lived at Ledysthorpe until she passed away late last
“I am so sorry. Our father died
unexpectedly too, although I am told his death was due to an illness. I was not
yet born, but Christian was very attached to our father and took the loss very
Lady Eleanor spoke her brother’s name with
such an obvious affection, it was evident that they were quite close. Before
Grace could think to question her more about him, his taste in reading, or odd
bits about their childhood, a trio of young ladies caught her attention. They
were staring at her from the corner of the room, whispering their disapproval
behind their jeweled fans.
“Pay them no mind, Grace. They do not
yet know it, but once you have become my brother’s wife, they will be falling
over themselves for the favor of your attention. They will mimic every detail
of your dress even if you wear a flour sack, and they will pray you won’t
remember their behavior toward you here tonight.”
“I hardly think I shall ever fit
in,” Grace said. “I have spent all my life in the country, where we
lived a very simple life. I’m afraid I am quite a fish out of water here in
“Do not be too distressed, my dear.
Any one of them would sell their grandmother’s jewels for a chance at catching
my brother’s eye. You should count yourself
fortunate that you are unschooled in the ways of the
I, on the other hand, have been surrounded by this hypocrisy since birth.
They lay claim to refinement while they shamelessly throw themselves at
Christian in hopes of inducing him to marry—as if he would even consider
wedding someone who would do such a thing.”
She glanced around the room. “Look
there, near the door. Do you see that group of ladies crowding together? Do you
know why they are all huddled there and are not out among the other gentlemen
present? They are watching the stairs for my brother.”
Grace spotted the flock of young ladies
congregating near the foot of the stairs. Some appeared to be elbowing others
for a forward position, while others stole furtive glances up the stairwell.
“It is truly embarrassing. Once at a
musicale, a girl even blacked the eye of another fighting over an empty seat
beside him. Quite troublesome. It’s become the farce of the past several
seasons. Hostesses at any ball he is rumored to attend must be on constant
watch for these ridiculous annoyances. It has gotten so that he doesn’t go out
much socially at all. I cannot tell you the number of ladies who have claimed
to be my ‘dearest friend’ in effort to get close to him. I vow that once
everyone learns he has wed you, I shan’t have any acquaintance left in
Lady Eleanor chuckled, but Grace found
herself wondering why the marquess would consider wedding someone he had never
before seen, especially someone so unpolished, when he had the very creme of
London society from which to choose. She was also beginning to understand why
the old duke had insisted on such secrecy about their betrothal. If women were
blacking one another’s eyes for a chair beside him, what would they do to her
if they knew she might actually marry the man?
“Now, since my brother hasn’t yet
braved this crowd, I shall have to go and search him out so that you may have
your dance. I must admit, I think I shall enjoy watching him dance with the
lady he doesn’t yet know he’s about to marry, especially in front of all the
‘helpless hopefuls.’ ” She inclined her head toward the cluster of ladies
waiting at the foot of the stairs. “That is what I call them. Appropriate
name, do you not think? May I beg your leave for only a moment or two while I
go and find him?”
Grace wordlessly nodded, watching as Lady
Eleanor departed through the crowd. When she had requested the dance with the
marquess, Grace’s only thought had been the memory of her grandmother’s words
to her. It would be a romantic waltz that would tell her the moment her eyes
met his whether this man was indeed her “very parfit gentle knight,”
the one she was meant to share her life with. Grace hadn’t considered what else
this dance might entail, and had no idea that everyone’s attention would be
focused upon them.
What if Lord Knighton were dreadful? But
if he were, why would all these ladies be clamoring over one another for his
attention? No, he must be perfect, and if that were the case, then she
certainly was not the lady he should be wedding. He should have a wife of
refinement and polish, someone more like his sister, not some countrified mouse
who had never before set foot in a ballroom, and who had only just learned to
waltz. What if she did something absurd like step on his foot? Or worse, what
if she completely forgot the steps of a dance she’d never actually performed
with anyone save the Cholmeley footman Henry?
She only felt all the more inadequate when
she looked down and noticed that the seam on her glove had begun to come apart
even as she felt her hair slipping from its knot. In that moment, Grace knew
she could not go through with it. She would find Uncle Tedric and beg him to
delay the marriage. Better yet, he could simply thank the old duke for his
consideration, but decline the marriage offer and beg his pardon a thousand
times over. She, Grace from Ledysthorpe? A future duchess? It was too ludicrous
Grace turned, remembering that her uncle
had gone to the parlor, and started to skirt the room. It was no easy task. The
ballroom, it seemed, had grown doubly crowded since her arrival. The musicians
were preparing to play. The dancing was set to begin and the crowd thickened in
No matter how Grace tried to work her way
through, an unyielding wall of humanity prevented it. She was swept along with
the tide of the others and soon found herself on the opposite side of the
ballroom. She looked around, chewing her lip. There must be another way through
the house, and so she stood on her toes a bit to survey the various doorways
surrounding her. No doubt the best choice would be the one closest to her, so
she sidestepped two gentlemen involved in deep debate, smiling politely as she
headed for the door.
It didn’t lead to the parlor, but to a
narrow corridor used for getting servants from one side of the house to the
other without notice. It would indeed serve her purposes very well. She started
walking, hoping to find a doorway that would lead her to the parlor. Halfway
down the length of the hall, however, the door she had come through suddenly
closed behind her. What followed was the rather disquieting sound of the latch
being turned on it. Oh, dear, she thought, this wasn’t at all a good thing.
Grace stood a moment in the dark,
contemplating her next move. She had but two options. She could go back and
knock on the door in hopes of summoning someone, but then she’d be no closer to
finding her uncle than she had been when she’d started. Even worse, she would
look very foolish for having gotten herself locked into a servants’ corridor.
Her other option, of course, was to proceed a bit further down the passageway
to see where she might end up.