It was a temporary post, Miss Nora Winfield reminded herself as she glimpsed the end of the refreshment line. Eight weeks at most. She could do this. She had to. Her family was counting on her.
Besides, it wasn’t as if she was expected to know how to waltz. Or even supposed to speak to anyone besides Lady Roundtree.
All she had to do was keep the baroness happy and entertained until the splints came off her injured leg. The resulting salary could be enough to support her family for the rest of the year. With luck, she might save their farm.
She took a few steps forward with the rest of the queue. This was nothing like back home; she already boasted far more advantages than when she’d started. The pale pink silk swishing elegantly about her body had cost more than Nora had believed possible to spend on a single gown.
Yet Lady Roundtree had referred to the expense as a mere trifle. A half-dozen “serviceable units” of just-sufficient-enough quality for the baroness not to be embarrassed to be seen in public with her distant country cousin.
Fortunately for them both, the camouflage was working. For all the attention she garnered, Nora might as well blend into the wallpaper. Even in a crowd of this size, no one had so much as made eye contact with her.
Why would they? The beau monde preferred to associate with one another. Not only did their names fill the pages of Debrett’s Peerage, the aristocracy had a secret language all its own.
Since entering the ballroom, she had spent most of the past hour watching the debutantes flirt coyly with painted fans at dapper gentleman who responded thrillingly to silent messages Nora could not comprehend.
Everything was different here. Rousing instruments the likes of which she’d never heard, spiced biscuits and French tortes she’d never known existed, the strangely cloying sweetness of ratafia coating her tongue for the first time. And the candles! Aristocrats like the baroness and the earl lit more candles in a single chandelier than Nora’s family used in an entire month.
Nora’s cheeks heated. It was her turn. She’d been too busy gawking at all the brilliant jewels and fancy fixtures to notice she had reached the front of the line.
“I’m sorry.” With a shaking hand, she reached for the ladle in the crystal lemonade bowl.
With an almost comical expression of horror, a footman relinquished her grasp on the baroness’s soiled glass and gestured to a waiting pyramid of clean goblets. “Allow me.”
Nora’s cheeks flamed even hotter. Of course one would not be expected to serve one’s own beverage in a place as elegant as this. There were servants to do absolutely everything, including ladle scoops of lemonade into fresh goblets.
With trembling hands, she accepted the brimming glass. “Thank you.”
She was not at all certain if one was meant to thank the servants, but as Nora was now essentially a fellow servant herself, she would err on the side of politeness.
Her head pounded as she stepped away from the refreshment table to a much safer location near the wainscoting. She needed to calm her pounding heart.
“Freeze,” she whispered.
In her mind’s eye, the ballroom froze in place. Lemonade paused mid-stream, embroidered flounces arrested mid-swish, a droplet of wax from the chandelier above floated high above the dance floor, suspended in time.
This was how she’d draw the scene tonight to send home.
To give her family a sense of the opulence, she’d make the pyramid of crystal goblets and the tower of little cakes rise taller than the footmen serving them. She would draw the lords and ladies right where they were, but add herself among them as though she were having the time of her life.
She wished such a treat were possible.
It was difficult to convey how the music from the orchestra seeped in through her toes and seemed to fill her completely, but she would sketch as many musicians and instruments in the background as she could fit onto the paper. In fact, she’d caption this one—
“Oh!” Wet liquid splashed onto her brand new gloves as the overfull goblet of lemonade collided with a passing gentleman’s elbow.
Drat her daydreaming. Would her cheeks ever cease heating in embarrassment? Lost in another artistic reverie, she must have leaned away from the wainscoting and right into the path of the most handsome man she’d ever seen.
Bright hazel eyes. Dark brown hair. Starched cravat. Silver waistcoat. Elbow dripping with the finest lemonade in London.
“I’m so sorry,” Nora gasped, mortified.
“Nonsense. ’Tis nothing.” As casually as if lords like him regularly spent their days dodging goblets of all sorts, the gentleman drew a perfectly creased, blindingly white handkerchief from the breast pocket of his tailored dark gray jacket. Rather than apply the square of linen to his own elbow, he handed the handkerchief to Nora with a charming smile. “For your glove.”
Her heart skipped. She accepted the pristine cloth not because her soiled glove was in any way more important than the gentleman’s wet elbow, but because she was tempted to hide her face behind it until she disappeared into the floor.
“Thank you.” She dabbed at her glove with a light hand, careful not to actually touch the damp parts, lest she stain the gentleman’s handkerchief. She handed it back as fast as she could. “Here. For your arm.”
He smiled as he pressed the linen square to his elbow. “I rather like it. Perhaps I will start a new fashion, and make it all the crack for gentlemen to gad about with wet spots on one’s arm.”
Nora couldn’t return his smile; she was trying too hard to keep her shaking fingers from splashing even more lemonade over them both.
What was she meant to do? He was the first Society gentleman who had ever spoken to her. Now what was she meant to say? Her head filled instantly with all the wrong things.
You are so handsome I cannot think properly did not seem the most prudent tack. Nor did babbling that he might truly be able to start such a trend, given the shocking number of young ladies of his class who dampened their bodices in the retiring room to display their assets more clearly.
She hunched her shoulders self-consciously. Was that the sort of woman men like him preferred?
Heaven help her. She’d crashed into him with a glass of lemonade and all she could think about was whether she should have dampened her bodice before doing so.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, wishing the ground would swallow her whole. “It won’t happen again.”
“I hope it does,” he said cheerfully. “One meets new faces much more efficiently this way, rather than mucking through all the proper channels to wrangle formal introductions. It can be our secret handshake. The next time you wish to speak with me, just dribble a few drops on the other side, and you’ll have my undivided attention.”
Oh no. She sucked in a breath. He thought she was of his class! “My lord, I am afraid I’m not—”
A sudden swell of music swept through the ballroom.
“Oh, dear.” The gentleman glanced over his shoulder and waved at someone through the crowd assembling on the dance floor. “I cannot dally. Indeed, my attentions are promised for the next few sets. I hope your card isn’t full by the time we’re properly presented.”
Her what? She stared at him blankly.
“Alas, there’s no more time. I cannot leave my partner waiting.” He sent her one last apologetic look as he edged away. “I’ll find you as soon as I can beg a true introduction. With luck, you’ll still have a spot free.”
With that, he disappeared into the throngs flocking toward the orchestra to dance the next musical set.
Nora gazed after him speechlessly.
A spot free.
Lady Roundtree had done such a splendid job outfitting Nora like one of her peers that the handsome gentleman had mistaken her for someone who might possess a dance card. With names on it. Perhaps even room for his.