Today's Reading

At least not until she discovered the glittery magic of the queen's rum punch. Eliza wanted to tell Hollis and Caroline about the rum punch, but she'd been separated from them almost the moment they'd entered the palace by the mob at the entry. Eliza had tried to keep pace with them, but she was hindered in her progress when three ladies dressed in Alucian costumes crowded in front of her, and Eliza had been so enthralled with their gowns, made in the redingote style and cut tightly to their bodies, and their trains! She'd never in her life seen such beautifully made trains, and she admired how they were tucked up in the back and sides with elaborate fasteners. "What do you imagine is the cost of a gown like that?" she'd asked, and looked up, only to discover Hollis and Caroline had disappeared into the dizzying array of ball gowns and jewels, elaborate masks and the square, black shoulders of all the gentlemen.

At first Eliza was a bit desperate to find them. She'd never been to a ball, and definitely not to one where it was rumored the queen and prince consort might appear. She didn't know what she was to do.

But the crowd was so thick, and before she knew it, she was being carried up the grand King's Staircase, past the painted friezes of people standing at a balustrade watching the guests go up, and then down the hall, past more paintings and elaborately carved ceiling medallions and priceless porcelain vases on French consoles. Past gold-gilded mirrors that made it seem as if even more people had been stuffed inside the palace, which was really quite a lot. It was impossible to fathom that London had so many people of Quality, so many people deemed worthy enough to be extended an invitation to this royal ball.

The wave of people she was riding had poured into the ballroom, and once again Eliza was dumbstruck. At least fifteen crystal chandeliers with three tiers of candles glittered above the heads of the dancers. The ceiling soared above them, held aloft by full-length windows. Portraits of Important People lined the room. Risers, covered in red velvet, had been installed on either side of the room, and men and women lounged on them as if they were in a park watching a parade while others danced a quadrille. In a small alcove high above the floor, she could see the musicians, squeezed in practically shoulder to shoulder, their bows moving quickly over their strings as a dizzying swirl of skirts and masks twirled around.

It was magic. Glittery, sparkly magic, and Eliza had to pinch herself to make sure she wasn't dreaming it.

She'd been given a dance card when they entered the palace, and she'd thought perhaps she ought to step aside and affix it to her wrist. But she'd been distracted by all the people, and gone up on her toes and craned her neck, looking for Hollis or Caroline, but she saw no one she could possibly recognize behind a mask.

That was when a short, broad woman with a plain gray mask that matched her tower of gray hair had cried, "You there!" and pointed at Eliza.

Eliza had looked behind her and, seeing no one obvious, pointed at her chest questioningly. The woman had impatiently gestured her forward, snatched up her dance card when Eliza was close enough, then clucked her tongue. "You've none of them filled! What have you been doing?"

Eliza realized with a jolt that the woman must be one of the ballroom hostesses Caroline had warned them about. Her function was to ensure that all dance sets were filled, and all unattached ladies had a partner. "If you don't want to find yourself dancing with old, leering bachelors, you best avoid them," Caroline had advised.

The woman snorted her displeasure at Eliza and commanded her to hold out her wrist, tied her dance card to it, then pointed to a group of young women. "Wait there," she said, and turned away, presumably to find her an old, leering bachelor.

Eliza looked at the small group of women huddled in a corner. Well, that was a motley lot of wallflowers. One of them was picking at her sleeve, unraveling a thread. Another's mask was so large that she had to tilt her chin up to keep it on. Eliza might be an old spinster, but she was not joining that group.

She glanced slyly at the ballroom hostess, who was occupied with berating another young woman unfortunate enough to have been caught without a dance partner. She'd thought it curious how a gown and a proper mask could transform a person so utterly in the space of a moment, but Eliza was indeed transformed. Once upon a time, she'd been terribly obedient and quick to please. She'd thought that was the way good young women who would make good young wives were supposed to behave. A review of her life might suggest she was too quick to please, for when Mr. Asher Daughton-Cress had asked her to be patient with him and the offer he would definitely make for her hand, she had not questioned him, because she was naive. She had trusted him because he told her to. And besides, he'd assured her he loved her desperately. But she'd discovered, far too late, long after the situation could be repaired, well after everyone else knew what she did not, that he'd been courting another woman.

A woman with twenty thousand pounds a year, thank you.

To whom he was now married and with whom he shared three lovely children.

That incident, which was the talk of London for what seemed weeks, had taught Eliza a valuable lesson. One, she would never ever suffer the pains of a broken heart again, because there was nothing quite like it—she had wanted to die, unable to grasp even the idea that one person could lie to another person so completely and without remorse. And two, never again would she please others for the sake of pleasing, and tonight, of all nights, she would not abide it.
She would never again have an opportunity to attend a royal ball and she refused to be shackled to a group of undesirable wallflowers whom men were forced by etiquette to dance with, or worse, around whom leering old gents lingered.

So she quickly glanced around and spotted a footman slipping through a door that was disguised as part of the wall. She brashly followed him on a hop and a skip, escaping the eagle-eyed gaze of the hostess and sliding in through the door behind the footman before anyone could stop her.

This excerpt is from the paperback edition.

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