“Oh, Lady Alexandra!” This, again, from Eliza.

“Hold.” Alex slashed a hand through the air, leveling a gaze at Eliza, then Vivi. “Don’t go off into some fantasy world. This is not as rose-colored as you seem to think,” she continued grumpily. “If you keep looking at me, we’re never going to be ready for the ball tonight.”

“Who can think about a ball at a time like this?” Vivi interjected, even as she turned to face the mirror again, offering Eliza her back. “You simply cannot expect that we wouldn’t be more interested in this conversation than in something as trivial as hair.” The maid nodded agreeably but lifted the hair iron nevertheless.

Ella spoke up, “Excellent attempt at evasion, Alex, but you failed to answer the question. There was a ‘last time’?”

“Not exactly,” Alex mumbled.

“How, exactly, then?”

“You’d make an excellent Bow Street Runner yourself, Ella,” Alex said grouchily, ignoring her friend’s nod of thanks. “All right. The evening of the Worthington House dinner, Gavin and I were on the balcony, talking, and I thought he might kiss me. But he didn’t. And then he summarily avoided me for a fortnight.”

“Ah…so that’s what put you in such a vicious mood for days later,” Ella pointed out.

“I was not in a vicious mood!” Alex looked over her shoulder for support from Vivi only to catch her and Eliza sharing a wry look in the dressing table mirror. “Traitors. All of you.”

Vivi smiled, careful not to move her head. “Go on.”

“There isn’t much more to say. The other night, after the robbery at Blackmoor House, we found ourselves alone in the library and…he kissed me.”

“Oh! Lady Alexandra!” Eliza exclaimed yet again, causing Alex to wonder if her maid had lost control of her linguistic faculties.

“How very excellent!” exclaimed Vivi.

“Well, I thought so, too…but now…I’m not so certain it was of any import whatsoever.”

“Nonsense. Kissing is most important. I repeat, how very excellent!”

“Your hopeless romanticism isn’t helping this situation, Vivi. I assure you this is nothing to be sighed over. This is real. And if we’d been caught, I’d have been ruined. Technically, I’m ruined anyway.”

“Nonsense,” said Ella, “everyone knows that you’re not truly ruined unless you get caught in the act. I defy you to show me one female who goes to the altar without kissing her betrothed.”

“Ruined! How exciting! How romantic!” Vivi waxed rhapsodic. Ella and Alex looked at her as though she’d grown a second head.

“NOT exciting, Vivi. Decidedly NOT romantic,” Alex protested. “Romantic is being kissed, then wooed. Or wooed, then kissed. I assure you there has been no wooing!”

Vivi continued starry-eyed and lost to the excitement. “He KISSED you! BLACKMOOR KISSED YOU!”

Ella interjected, “And the entire house shall know she’s ruined if you continue at that volume, Vivian. Not that you are, Alex.”

“Thank you,” Alex said.

Vivi lowered her voice. “I am sorry. I simply got carried away.”

“It is all right. I knew before I told you that you were likely to react like we were all caught up in some kind of gothic novel,” Alex offered with a sigh.

She continued, hearing the sadness in her own voice, “While I am certainly in no position to understand what should occur now, I feel certain that being ignored is not it!”

“To be fair, it doesn’t seem that he is ignoring you,” Ella pointed out, ever the pragmatist.

“You’ll understand if that doesn’t enhance my mood,” Alex said shortly, then exhaled in frustration. “This is exactly why I promised myself I would not husband hunt this season. I swore an oath to stay above the fray! The entire male species is unintelligible!”

“Indeed,” said Ella, speculating aloud, “this is an odd turn of events. And I thought he was courting Penelope.” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them.

“You did?” Alex looked up in surprise.

“Ella!” Vivi admonished. “That is most certainly not what Alex needs to hear at this particular moment.”

“Well, it is clearly an incorrect conclusion,” said Ella, defensively. “I mean, if he were, he wouldn’t have kissed Alex!”

“Why did you think he was courting Penelope?” Alex cut straight to the point.

“No reason, really, except that at most gatherings we’ve all attended, Penelope has been…in rather close proximity to him.” Seeing the disappointment on Alex’s face, she added quickly, “But it’s probably me imagining things. I do that, remember?”

Vivi jumped in quickly to agree, “Yes. You do. It is far more likely that Penelope has been close to him because she’s like a creeping ivy—lovely, but damaging. Blackmoor kissed you, Alex, which clearly means that you’re the person in whom he is interested. He wouldn’t have done it if he were angling for Penelope Grayson. I’m certain he’s of better stock than that.”

“With the exception of his recent behavior toward you,” Ella added.

“Ella!” Vivi’s tone was amazed. “It would do you well to stop speaking until you have something helpful to say. There are times when your inability to distinguish between what is appropriate and inappropriate astounds me.”

“Well, that would make his ignoring the whole event more understandable,” Alex said with more calm than she felt. “After all, he had a particularly difficult evening and was most certainly on edge. He’s always felt comfortable with me, so perhaps the kiss just…happened.”

“Alex”—Vivi was matter-of-fact—“kisses don’t just happen.”

“We don’t know that. We’ve never been kissed.”

“I think that’s exactly her point, Alex,” Ella offered.

Alex shook her head. “But how could we even speculate on this? We’ve only been out for two months!”

“We can speculate on this because we know that if we were caught kissing, we’d be forced into marriage,” Ella replied, “and, since most people we know have not been forced into marriage, we can assume they don’t go around kissing everyone in the vicinity.” She offered Vivi a smug look. “You see? I can be helpful.”

“Oh, please,” Alex pressed on. “I’ve been kissed once and almost kissed once in the span of three weeks, and I haven’t been caught. It can’t be that out of the ordinary. Maybe he’s kissing Penelope, too.”

“Ugh.” Ella could not hide her disgust at this idea. “I do not want that picture in my head.”

“You’re the one who sent her down this path!” Vivi stood, Eliza having finished arranging her hair in long, gorgeous dark curls. “You deserve to be disgusted. I have no sympathy for you.” Turning to Alex as Ella slid onto the bench in front of the dressing table for her turn, Vivi said earnestly, “I don’t know much about kissing or about courting, Alex, but I do know that Blackmoor has always adored you. Always.”

“Then why is he ignoring me? Why hasn’t he mentioned it? Why hasn’t he tried to kiss me again?” She gasped, covering her mouth. “What if I was terrible at it?”

“You weren’t,” Vivi said.

“Certainly not,” Ella agreed.

“Oh, how do you know?” Alex said, now enveloped in self-doubt. “Maybe I did it all wrong!”

“This might be a good time to discuss the kiss in question,” Ella offered. “What was it like?”

“I thought it was wonderful! I wanted to do it again, immediately! But what if it was awful and I just didn’t know it?!”

“That simply cannot be the case!” Vivi shook her head in earnest.

“Indeed,” Eliza broke her silence, “if it made you want to do it again, and soon, ’twas a good kiss.”

“For me…but what about for him?”

“He had to have enjoyed it, Alex,” Ella said.

Alex’s frantic frustration bubbled over. “Then why isn’t he interested in me? Why doesn’t he want to do it again? Maybe he does want Penelope!” Her voice became small. “Why doesn’t he want me?”

“Alex,” Ella asked curiously, “are you saying…Do you want him?”

Alex thought carefully about Ella’s question. Did she want Gavin? “Well…the kiss was quite lovely.”

“Of course, it was,” Vivi said, “but…what about the man himself? Could you love him?”

Love? Gavin? She looked at the other three girls, each staring back at her as though she were about to reveal some history-altering secret. It was too much to think about, really. “I…I don’t know. I’ve always thought of him as a brother. But recently…everything has changed. He kissed me and I wanted him to and it…everything feels different. But I don’t know what to think. Maybe nothing is different to him. Maybe it didn’t mean anything to him.”

Vivi walked over to Alex, then took her shoulders in hand and spoke with firm conviction, “I may not know much about this kissing business, Alex, but I do know that Gavin would never do anything to hurt you. Including kissing you if he didn’t mean it at least a little.”

Alex offered Vivi a half smile. “You’re right, but what if that’s the problem? What if he means it only a little?”

Vivi went quiet for a long time before her face brightened in a conspiratorial smile. “Well, then, we’ll just have to make sure he ends up meaning it a great deal.”


I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people in one room! My God! The entire ton must be here!” Vivi exclaimed, unable to tear her gaze from the sea of people below.

Vivi, Ella, and Alex stood on the upper level of Worthington House, looking down on the ballroom. They were shielded in an alcove on the second floor as they considered the mass of people who were here for the Worthington Ball. Each year, the duke and duchess hosted the grandest and most legendary ball of the season. No one who received an invitation missed the opportunity to attend.

Alex commented acerbically, “I think my mother may very well have invited the entire ton.”

She was watching the lady in question as she greeted the never-ending stream of guests pouring into the enormous ballroom. The room sat empty much of the year until mid-April, when its curtains were opened and the dustcloths were removed from its furniture for a thorough inspection in preparation for this night. Then, for weeks, servants shined the dozens of crystal chandeliers, polished the expansive oak and mahogany floor with beeswax, and washed the floor-to-ceiling windows to ensure that everything would be perfect for this evening.

And perfect it was. Thousands of candles were lit in the enormous candelabras hanging from the ceiling and standing around the room, giving the entire space a magical, golden glow. The orchestra was placed at the top of the room, farthest away from the entrance, obscured by shrubbery that had been brought into the room specifically to create the illusion of invisibility. Off the main chamber, directly underneath the girls, were multiple antechambers, each outfitted for a different purpose: a refreshment room complete with a spread of lemonade, wine, biscuits, and coffee; a supper room that would be opened midway through the ball; a card room for elderly guests to rest and play whist while keeping out a watchful eye for any juicy gossip; a men’s smoking room; and a ladies’ salon, offering a space to which ladies could escape in the case of damage to their elaborate gowns. Her mother had thought of everything, and that attention to detail was what set this event apart from the others of the season.

“It is quite a stunning sight,” Ella pointed out. “How many people do you think are here?”

Alex replied distractedly, “Between five and six hundred, I think.” She took a deep breath, as if preparing for battle, and turned to her friends. “Although there are three less than there should be, I venture to say. While I’d much rather stay up here and watch the whole event from afar, I have a feeling that someone will come looking for us if we don’t make an appearance soon.”

“Agreed.” Vivi looked at her friends and added, “And what a stunning appearance we shall make!”

She was right, of course. With the help of the remarkable Eliza, the three had dressed and applied their cosmetics to perfection. They were attired in gowns that had been made by Madame Fernaud for this particular event. Alex imagined they made a stunning trio. Vivi wore a gorgeous gold damask silk with a high Empire waist and fitted sleeves that accentuated her dark features and her already long, reedlike form. The color was certain to be the envy of every woman present, because it was such a difficult color to wear and yet it seemed as if it were created specifically for Vivian.

Ella, in contrast, was wearing a pale pink georgette with a wide, plunging neckline that both highlighted her lovely hourglass figure and underscored Madame Fernaud’s distinct nod to her own French heritage. The pink fabric, the color of the palest of seashells, moved like gossamer and perfectly complemented Ella’s fair coloring—which was already the envy of every female member of the peerage.

Alex’s gown rounded out the trio, an ice-blue satin shot through with silver thread that shimmered in the light as though it were made of droplets of water just on the verge of freezing. It was a dress to be marveled at—her mother had ensured as much, claiming that the Worthington Ball was precisely where she expected Alex to ensnare her future husband. At the time, Alex had been too deeply engrossed in her third reading of Pride and Prejudice to care at all about the dress, but now, as she was thinking about impressing Blackmoor, she wanted to kiss her mother for making such remarkable decisions regarding the construction of the beautiful garment.

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