The problem with being the only girl, Willamina thought to herself, is that you’re always stuck in the carriage. Stephen, Rafe and Edmund would join her and Mother at Lord Carter’s; while they’d been required to pass inspection before they left the house, they would be allowed to arrive, and of course leave, by their own means and on their own schedule. Willamina, however, rode with her mother, guaranteeing she would be trapped for the entire length of the evening. She was facing five hours of a crowded ballroom, tiny bits of food, and Polite Conversation.
She did have to admit she liked the dress. It was a heavy silk taffeta dyed a dusty rose. As much as her mother’s ministrations irritated her, they did share a taste in clothing that tended towards the simple and elegant and away from the worst excesses of the day. As such, her gown had a fitted bodice, but a soft bustle draped gracefully down to a short train. There were ruffles, but only inasmuch as they enhanced the sway of her step.
She would have knifed anyone before admitting that she loved the way it rustled.
“Nervous?” her mother asked, noticing that her daughter was uncharacteristically quiet.
“Of course not,” she squeaked.
Rebecca smiled warmly. “You’ll do fine.”
This was not Willamina’s first ball. She had attended others, either with Charlotte and Edmund or to help fill out the floor at less attended events out of the city. But this winter had brought a definite change to the tenor of her engagements. Before she had been in the background, watching the swirl and parade. Now it felt like being nudged closer and closer to the end of the plank. In shark infested waters. For now, however, she was willing to let herself be heartened by her mother’s encouragement.
The Carter house was known for both its beauty and its ostentation. The effect began in the entryway: it overwhelmed with glass and gold leaf and polished ebony. A double staircase curved up both sides of the foyer, leading to the ballroom. Willamina was following her mother up these steps when she looked back, hoping to catch sight of one of her brothers.
She was so distracted, in fact, that she didn’t mark where she was going. At least, not until she ran smack into a wall of solid muscle. She gasped and stepped back, nearly falling backwards down the stairs before she was caught and set back on her feet. Once she regained her balance, she looked up at both the cause of her near mishap and her rescue from it.
And kept looking up until her neck craned uncomfortably. It was partially an effect of the stairs: the man before her had stepped back up quickly after she was steady on her feet again. But only partially. She could see that he was at least as tall as Edmund. It made him an imposing figure, an effect that was only magnified by the black cloak he currently wore. His pale hair was cut in a longer style than was fashionable, and his eyes were a piercing blue green that made her think, unexpectedly, of a pair of earrings Rafe had brought her from one of his trips to the East. Any impression she might have formed of his features, however, was ruined by his expression. Her first impulse was to laugh, both at herself and the ridiculous situation of the moment, but that instinct was quelled by what she read as the utter indifference on his face.
“Excuse me, I…” Her stammer turned to another intake of breath and a step backwards before she added, “Do you have a monkey? You mustn’t let Lady Carter see it. She has a horror of…” And then her words trailed off again as he raised an eyebrow and gave her an incredulous look. She looked at his right shoulder again where she had sworn she had seen something a moment before, and to her impossibly increasing mortification there was nothing there.
“Excuse me,” she said again, and ducked around him to make as reasonable a dash as she could to the top of the stairs.
There she met two of her friends, Veronica and Sophie. Both were giggling behind their hands, and, torn between their reaction and the tears pricking the backs of her eyes, she decided to make light of it.
“I see you’ve met the Duke,” Sophie said. They had both been leaning over the balcony, watching the incoming crowd.
“Duke?” Willamina asked.
“Yes. Lady Carter has been preening about it all night. Apparently he accepted the invitation at the last minute.”
“Duke of what?”
“I’m not sure – something in Denmark,” Sophie replied.
“Mama said he’s a complete barbarian,” Veronica added with great delight.
“What’s his name?” Willamina asked.
“His Christian name is something completely unpronounceable, but the family name is Mogen.”
Willamina squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Well,” she said, “I don’t think I like him one bit.”
It became a somewhat popular opinion within a few hours. While the hostess had lured several extra dancers (or, more accurately, had lured their mothers) to the party with the promise of a titled and unmarried guest, the duke might have passed for a piece of the furniture. He claimed, in halting English, that he did not dance, and his apparent lack of skill with the language similarly hindered his ability to carry on a conversation.
Rafe found the twist of fate hilarious. “I’d pay to see Lady Carter’s reaction when the guests are gone. She’ll be screaming at the parlor maids for a week.”
Edmund managed to smile at that. “Now now. I’m sure she’ll restrain herself to the scullery.”
“Ten pounds says Carter decides to go hunting until Christmas,” said Rafe.
“I don’t think ‘night flowers’ are in season,” Edmund said.
“Always in season,” said Rafe. “But oh Lord, Stephen has him cornered.”
Willamina, who had just run up, breathless, said, “They deserve each other. Neither of them will dance with me, and Charles Halton is headed this way.”
Edmund looked over her shoulder. “He is. What’s the problem?”
Her eyes widened in terror. “He’s fifty and has seven children. Rafe, you have to save me.”
“But you’d make a lovely stepmother,” said Rafe.
“Dance with me or I’m telling Mother what really happened to her favorite rug last summer.”
Rafe paled. “You’re ruthless.”
“I’m desperate. Polonaise. Now.”
Edmund laughed as Rafe was pulled back onto the dance floor. As they disappeared into the crush, he worked his way over to Stephen, curious how he had managed to keep the foreign guest’s attention for so long.
“Anyway, I want to focus on Tudor history and manuscripts, but my advisor is pushing me to work on papyri – “
“He would,” said the duke.
“How’s that?” Stephen asked, confused.
Mogen blinked twice before saying, “It is a popular subject now, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes,” Stephen said. “But I have several, ah, reasons for wanting to study the English Renaissance instead.”
“You might follow your advisor’s recommendation in this,” the duke said. “The English tradition has a number of pitfalls you’d do best to avoid.”
Stephen gave him a sharp look, and was about to speak again when Edmund interrupted. “Your English has rapidly improved, your grace.”
To his surprise, the duke reddened. “It may be a bit better than I let on, yes.”
Edmund frowned, and was prepared to utter a polite but properly cutting line on the importance of social discourse and British integrity, but he was interrupted by Rafe.
“We must take our leave,” said Rafe without prelude.
“Oh, good,” said Stephen.
“I’m not averse to the suggestion,” said Edmund, “but why is that?”
Rafe’s eyes darted from Edmund to Mogen and back again. “We’ve been summoned by our mutual friend.”
“Which one?” asked Stephen.
Edmund and Rafe glared at him. “Your friend,” said Rafe. When Stephen still looked baffled he added, “From the University?”
“Right,” said Stephen. “We have an, er, historical… difficulty to attend to.”
They all stared at each other for too long a moment before Rafe said, “Right. Off we go then?”
As they made their way outside, Rafe said, “Historical difficulty?”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time?” Stephen said.
Edmund glared at Rafe. “Listen to him, you’re contagious.”
“That’s a vicious rumor and I’ve got a doctor’s notice to prove it false,” said Rafe.
Edmund closed his eyes before shaking his head and saying, “Oh well. It isn’t as if he can accuse us of dishonesty.”
Casmin was waiting for them under the carriage awning. His hair was more disheveled than usual, and he was lighting a new cigarette from the old one.
“What news?” Edmund asked.
“Another body,” Casmin said. He took a long drag of smoke before he added, “It’s happened again.”