Grace put the final edits on Mr. Clark’s manuscript. A noise made her look up. “Mr. Brown. I’m sorry, father is out at the moment.”
“I know, miss.” I need to confide something in you.”
Her father’s young assistant sat across the desk from her and proceeded to explain how the company was failing due to her father’s bad decisions. “What can we do, Mr. Brown?”
“It’s his health. You’ve been away and haven’t seen the progression, but he’s gotten worse. Forgetful.”
“We must help him!”
“Yes, miss. I don’t want to lose this position.”
“We will save the company!”
Violet covered her mouth, but giggles escaped. “You did not just burp in Charles Lancaster’s face.”
“She did,” Constance said, eyes wide. “I saw it, or rather heard it, myself.”
Grace turned around, hands shading her eyes. “I’m done for. Soon this story will travel the ballroom.”
“What if it does?” Violet asked.
“My mother will murder me.”
“No she won’t.”
“She will try to force a match on me. Same thing.”
“But you don’t need a husband,” Constance added. “You have the business.”
“Yes, but she doesn’t know father is training me.”
“She is going to find out eventually.”
Charles turned to his friends, a wide grin making his face hurt.
“You see, Charles? Miss Elliot is not perfect,” Percy explained. “She breaks wind just like the rest of us.”
“She did not break wind!”
“Did you see Constance?” Edmund asked with a frown.
Percy nodded. “She was hiding from you.”
“I know,” he sighed. “She still hates me.”
“What did you expect? You used to be rather horrid to her,” Percy reminded.
“That was years ago! I’ve changed.”
“Tell that to Miss Beanpole, er Maypole.”
Charles suddenly laughed. “I was absolutely brilliant, wasn’t I!”
What would Alice do? She would be bold. Grace put her hands on her hips and waited, chin up.
Charles stopped short, looking at her in surprise. He cleared his throat.
Hoping something interesting would come out of her mouth, Grace took a deep breath… and burped.
Percy and Edmund burst out laughing and she blushed. Charles bit his lip, but his eyes laughed. Then he did something most unexpected. He winked at her.
She was still standing there in silent shock when the men walked away chuckling. When she turned around she gasped. Charles Lancaster smiled back at her.
Grace had been discreetly watching Charles. She was glad to see he wasn’t taken in by Victoria. Not that he would ever look twice at herself.
“What do you keep glancing at?” Constance asked, following Grace’s gaze. She suddenly squeaked and turned away. “Hide me!”
“What’s the matter?” Grace asked.
“Edmund Fitzhugh, the bane of my existence,” she whined.
“Never fear, I’ll protect you,” Violet announced, pulling Constance behind her.
“I don’t think he saw you,” Grace said, then froze. “Oh, dear. They are headed this way.” A moment later Grace stepped away, right into the path of Charles Lancaster.
“Thank you for your quick thinking, Percy,” Charles said. “I felt like a fox trapped by a pack of snarling dogs.”
“Think nothing of it. Anything to help a friend.”
“You’re always so clever. I wish I could be more like you.”
“No you don’t,” Percy snapped.
Charles jumped at his best friend’s cold tone. He had never known Percy as anything other than jovial. In the next instant Percy gave him a sly wink and motioned up ahead.
Edmund elbowed Charles and whispered, “Beauties right ahead.”
Charles pretended not to notice Grace as they walked over to the wallflowers.
Catherine flushed. “I merely said I would try to bring him with me.”
Victoria’s gaze never left Charles. “I was expecting him.”
“I meant no disrespect, Miss Pearson. I merely had business to attend to,” he lied.
“All is forgiven. After all, where would we be without the bank? Society would simply crumble.”
The other two girls, he had forgotten their names, nodded and said in unison, “Crumble!”
He grimaced. Why couldn’t his father have been an archaeologist?
Percy took Charles and Edmund by the arm and announced, “Sorry ladies, we’re expected elsewhere!”
Victoria gasped in outrage as they escaped.
Catherine and her friends sauntered up, but the men didn’t notice. She cleared her throat prettily.
Victoria huffed and pushed forward. “Good evening, my lord, Mr. Fitzhugh, Mr. Lancaster.”
“Ah, Miss…” Percy looked to Catherine for help. She mouthed “Pearson” behind her hand so only he could see. “Miss Pearson, how delightful to see you again.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
Charles wondered if the girl referred to herself or Percy. Then she turned her attention to himself and he gulped.
“Why didn’t you attend my mother’s tea last week, Mr. Lancaster? Catherine promised me you would.”
Charles glared at his sister.
Edmund glanced at Percy, distracted. “Me too, what?”
“You fancy Miss Maypole.”
“He always has,” Charles said.
Edmund spun on Charles. “What? How did you know?”
“I did wonder,” Percy said. “You were always teasing her. Never missed an opportunity to say something rude to her.”
“I loved watching her blush,” Edmund admitted. “She was so shy, but I couldn’t act like I cared for the girl. I would’ve been a laughingstock.”
“Now’s your chance, gentlemen. You shall casually stroll around the room and throw them a smile. Nothing more, mind you. You must be subtle.”
Charles and Edmund nodded.
Edmund glanced at Percy. “Who?”
“The ice maiden?”
Charles growled and Edmund started.
Percy clapped Edmund on the back. “Don’t take it personally, old chum. Charles is coming to terms with his feelings.”
“You’re in love with Grace Elliot?”
“I’m not in love.”
“Infatuated? Enamored? Smitten? Obsessed?”
“Shut it, Percy. I am not amused.”
Edmund looked across the room. “There she is! My word, is that Constance Beanpole?”
“Maypole, you mean,” Charles corrected.
“Right. Sorry. She used to be so skinny, and towered over us.”
“Looks like she’s filled out quite nicely,” Percy noted.
“Not you too!”
“You were right about that Clark novel,” Percy said. “Quite exciting actually.”
Charles was not listening.
“She’s over there.”
“Miss Elliot.” He pointed across the room. “Catherine was just chatting with her.”
“Watching my sister, were you?”
Percy hesitated. “It is her first ball. Someone must warn away inappropriate suitors. You’re obviously too busy.”
“What makes you so certain I was looking for Grace?”
Percy raised his eyebrow.
Edmund joined them. “I say, Charles, you should’ve seen yourself just then.” He demonstrated by opening his eyes and mouth wide and chuckled. “Who are you looking for?”
“His lady love.”
Violet stuck her tongue out at the retreating stiff backs. “Catherine seemed nice enough though.”
“She’s one of my oldest friends,” Grace replied. “Her father’s been in business with mine forever.”
Constance scrunched up her round face, her dark brows nearly meeting above her nose. “Those girls together remind me of someone.”
“The witches from Macbeth?” Grace asked.
Constance raised her finger. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland!”
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Grace quoted.
“Girls, we have just met the Queen of Hearts and her minions, Tweedledee and Tweedledum.”
“Can we call them ‘Up and Over’?” Violet asked.
They laughed loudly.
Catherine clasped Grace’s hands. “I begged Mama to send me to St. Anne’s with you, but she thought it was…”
Grace shook her head. “Say no more. I know she wants only the best for you, not the most affordable, like mine.” She smiled sadly.
“Catherine!” Victoria snapped. “We are expected elsewhere.”
“Yes! Expected elsewhere,” Angelina and Wilhelmina parroted.
“Apologies, ladies. Duty calls.” Catherine rolled her eyes.
Grace understood duty, something her mother demanded of her. Hopefully she would be able to convince her father to talk to mother about the business. She had no desire to be a wife.
Before Violet could respond, a cluster of quietly tittering girls walked by, noses raised. The words “social climbers” whispered loudly. One of the girls frowned at the comment and stepped forward.
“Grace! It’s so good to see you again,” Catherine Lancaster greeted. She introduced her rude friends, who smiled coldly.
Victoria Pearson, Angelina Upton, and Wilhelmina Overton all held matching facial expressions, like they had swallowed bad oysters.
Grace adored Catherine and wondered why such a lovely girl was associating with these snobs. “It has been too long, Cat.” She introduced her own friends from school, who smiled warmly.
After the girls waved goodbye to Nate, Grace turned to Violet. “You were uncharacteristically silent.”
“He just wasn’t who I was expecting,” she murmured.
Constance nodded. “You were looking for a great hulking mountain man.”
“I think Nate was very pleasant,” Grace said.
Violet pouted. “Let’s stop talking about him, please. I need to find a husband before I’m foisted off on some aging land baron.”
“We cannot allow that!” Constance declared.
“No,” Grace agreed. “We must help Violet find a handsome young husband.”
Constance scanned the room, before facing Violet with a grin. “What about Mr. Clark?”
“You look like a school teacher,” Grace said.
Nate shrugged. “I suppose I am a teacher of sorts.”
Constance nodded eagerly. “Your books are quite educational.”
“Thank you.” He looked over at Violet, who was avoiding eye contact, before turning back to Grace. “Your father was the one who pointed you out to me. I understand you are my editor on this project.”
“Yes. I’ve already read the first chapter.”
He handed her his card. “You can contact me anytime you have questions.” He gave a short bow and bid them all a good evening, frowning at Violet’s turned head.
The girls turned as one to see a handsome young man with blond hair and glasses. His blue eyes twinkled behind them. He spread his arms wide showing off his elegant black suit. “Look, no guns.”
Violet shrank back.
“Nathaniel Clark?” Grace asked.
“My friends call me Nate.” He held out his hand and she took it, surprised when he kissed her fingers.
“An honor to meet you, Mr. Clark.” She introduced herself and her friends, apologizing for their ignorance.
“I confess to perpetuating that illusion.”
“You don’t look like an explorer at all,” Constance said.
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“Do you even know what he looks like?” Constance asked.
“No, but I’m sure I would recognize him anywhere.”
Violet shut her eyes for a moment and smiled. “He wrestled bears and hiked canyons, fought Indians and rescued damsels in distress.”
Grace and Constance gaped at their friend.
“He must be very strong. Like Hercules.” Violet raised her arms and flexed her muscles.
The girls giggled.
“His hair is probably long and dark, with a thick beard. And Americans usually wear gun belts.”
“Not all of them. And definitely not to a ball,” a male voice replied softly.
Grace, Violet and Constance could hardly contain their excitement upon seeing each other again. They were reprimanded for walking too fast and talking too loud.
They did not care in the least.
The moment their mothers entered into conversation, they sneaked away to the farthest wall.
Grace whispered excitedly. “My father gave me a job!”
“He did?” Constance asked. “Doing what?”
“I’m editing the latest from Nathaniel Clark!”
Violet gasped. “The daring American explorer?”
“Is he in England?” Constance asked.
Grace nodded. “Actually, my father said he is at the ball tonight.”
Violet glanced around. “I have to meet him!”
Grace watched her father from the doorway. He had been staring down at something for the longest time.
“Papa?” No response. She went to him and looked over his shoulder. “Nathaniel Clark? Oh, I love his books!”
Her father startled, “Oh hello, my dear. Didn’t see you there.”
Grace pointed. “Is Mr. Clark changing publishers?”
“Yes. He’s just moved to London. Came to see me yesterday.”
“That’s quite a boon.”
“May I?” She reached for the top sheet. “Braving the Scottish Highlands”. I can’t wait to read this!”
“Your first assignment.” He handed her the manuscript and she grinned.