You May Kiss the Bride(10)

By: Lisa Berne

“By no means. And you weren’t the only one absent. Dear Cecily, I fear, has developed—you will forgive my candid speech, but we are, after all, such good friends!—that is to say, Cecily has suddenly developed a spot on her cheek. It’s unfortunate, but naturally she must remain in seclusion until the treatments have succeeded in eliminating it. And the ball only the day after tomorrow! But have no fear. Your grandmother was gracious enough to mention a superior protocol involving the cooked yolk of duck eggs and just a dab of aged lard. My own maid is preparing it as we speak. I’m certain it will be most efficacious.”

An expression of complete seriousness had settled onto her ladyship’s heavy features and earnestly she leaned forward. “I assure you, Mr. Penhallow, that Cecily only rarely breaks out in spots. You mustn’t think she’s one of those young ladies who are constantly disfigured by them. And you will be glad to know that she cleans her teeth regularly. I inspect them every day.”

Well, this was a great deal of information he would just as soon not know. All Gabriel could think to do was to bow again, and resign himself to waiting until Miss Orr was released.

But, apparently, lard and duck eggs weren’t all that effective, or perhaps they worked at cross purposes with whatever other treatments were deployed (he didn’t care to learn what they were), and it was not until two days later, at the dinner preceding the ball, that he saw Miss Orr—now spot-free—again. He had no opportunity to speak privately with her then, but balls were another thing entirely.

There was always the chance to slip away.

Livia sat wrapped in a shawl while Uncle Charles, sprawled across from her, sipped steadily from his flask. As the old ill-sprung carriage bumped its way along the moonlit road, neither of them spoke. Livia was too used to this kind of leaden silence to expect anything different, and besides, she was feeling just a little uneasy and would have found conversation arduous. How was this evening going to unfold, anyway?

She had no idea.

Energizing anger had propelled her forward since meeting that dreadful man in the woods, and she had sewed boldly and ceaselessly. But now, she was . . .

A little uneasy?

Actually, she was very uneasy.

Lady Glanville had suggested she find herself a little corner from which to enjoy the sights, and now she was almost tempted to do exactly that. And she hoped she didn’t run into that arrogant coin-tossing man again. Oh, she’d hate that.

They turned off the road and the carriage rolled slowly toward the lofty portico of the Glanville home, one of many vehicles crowding the wide lane. Every window of its enormous facade, it seemed, was illuminated, and Livia fancied she could already hear the music of the orchestra. Her hands were shaking a little. You can do this, she told herself firmly. It’s only a silly ball.

However, twenty minutes later, as she inched her way behind Uncle Charles toward the receiving line, she didn’t feel so brave. She had left her shawl in the cloakroom and now she felt terribly exposed. Why had she created a gown cut so low? Would the long panels of delicate white crepe—carefully stitched into the back of the original ivory silk dress, to allow for her more rounded form—seem stupid? As for the pale gold satin slip underneath, it had seemed like such a clever idea when she’d first thought of it, but perhaps it was simply, painfully, wrong. And what about the gold ribbon she had woven through her upswept hair: did she appear garish? People were staring, and whispering—she was sure of it.

Now at last she came up to Lady Glanville, who took one look at her and stiffened. “Why, Livia,” she said in a freezing tone. “Here you are. In quite the ensemble.”

Her expression was so forbidding, her entire attitude so disapproving, that all at once Livia was consumed by a childish, gleeful, and wholly inappropriate desire to laugh. Her courage came roaring back. She lifted her chin and looked her ladyship in the eye.

“Yes, ma’am. Here I am.”

Cecily’s pretty blue eyes widened rather comically as she took in Livia’s appearance. With an artificial smile pasted on her face, she hissed: “Where on earth did you get that gown?”

Livia smiled back, just as falsely. “It’s yours.”

Tom, the Glanville heir, only goggled at her, and tried to hold on to her hand for too long. Livia grinned at him, showing all her teeth, and pulled her fingers away.

And then she had passed through the receiving line.

Now what?

Uncle Charles had vanished. Off to find that Spanish port, no doubt. Feeling all too conspicuous, Livia smoothed a nonexistent crease from her gown. Aside from the Orrs and her uncle, she didn’t know a soul here. Keep moving, she thought. One foot in front of the other. And when I see some of those expensive potted palms, maybe I’ll kick one over. She set her jaw, and walked on.

Leaving Grandmama established on an ornate gold chair (embellished with dubious hieroglyphics) in the massive, gaudily decorated ballroom, surrounded by a bevy of elderly ladies who sycophantically agreed with every word she let fall from her lips, Gabriel walked away with relief. How could she endure those toadies? Also, he was more than a little annoyed with her. Just before they’d gone down to dinner, she had summoned him to her rooms to triumphantly show him the large stack of letters she’d written—no, that Miss Cott had written—announcing his engagement. She was, she said, looking forward to hearing the announcement at the interval.