You check the time. Perfect. As intended, you’ve arrived fashionably late.
“Nicholas Lumley!” your mother hisses, seizing your arm as soon as your boot has crossed the threshold of the ballroom door, “Where have you been? You have kept all the ladies waiting!”
“I have no doubt about that,” you murmur, surveying the ballroom. You have indeed been spotted by at least half the mothers in the room, all of whom are eyeing you eagerly, while simultaneously whispering frantically into their daughters’ ears, not taking discretion into consideration in the slightest. You try your best to stifle a groan but do not quite succeed, and have to resort to coughing into your handkerchief.
When you’ve pocketed it at last, you find yourself face-to-face with…you blink. You can’t remember. All of these ladies are beginning to blend together, and you are not at all confident in your ability to recall who is whose daughter or mother, whom you had encountered at previous gatherings, and certainly not what you had said to them last season, although you can’t bear to think you had said anything that hinted towards marriage in the slightest.
“Mr. Lumley!” the lady trills brightly, “I cannot begin to tell you how lovely it is to see you make an appearance at last. I had begun to fear you had taken ill!”
“The pleasure is mine,” you say courteously, although you suspect that the woman’s concern for your wellbeing is less about you and more about your position as a young, wealthy, and eligible bachelor for her daughters.
You kiss her hand, and then fix your eyes on two younger ladies standing beside her. They have the same large, pale brown eyes set slightly too far apart, and are staring at you with identical devoted expressions, full of nothing but the utmost admiration.
“Your daughters, I presume?” you inquire politely.
“Indeed,” says the lady, beaming, “My eldest daughter, Miss Francesca, and my youngest, Miss Phillipa.”
At their introduction, her daughters immediately sink into curtseys low enough to please the king. You smile respectfully, but you are clearly not as entranced by the daughters as they are by you.
During the ball, you become trapped into talking with various ladies, all of whom are exactly the same—they bat their eyelashes and laugh at every word you say, though you rarely try to amuse them. You do, however, possess an admirable amount of patience that prevents you from rolling your eyes at the nonsense that pours from their painted lips, and you force yourself to laugh convincingly enough with them, albeit through tightly gritted teeth.
Then, as you are enduring the same, excruciating exercise with another lady, you see her.
She’s standing at the lemonade table, chatting with a group of other women. Her chestnut hair is pinned into a fancy something or other—you can’t for the life of you identify the various hairstyles ladies seem to prefer these days. She’s wearing an emerald green gown that compliments her fair complexion and shows off her slim figure. And she is definitely another debutante—you can’t remember many ladies, but you’re certain you wouldn’t forget a face like hers for a long time.
You watch her for a while, catching faint words from her conversations, and at one point, you swear you can hear a soft, musical bit of laughter that expresses more than happiness—it radiates pure joy.
“Forgive me,” you say abruptly to Miss Greenbury, effectively cutting her off her monologue, “I have some, ehrm, business to attend to. It was a pleasure seeing you, Miss Greenbury.”
You bow to kiss her hand and are about to thankfully leave her, but before you can escape, she says shrilly, “Oh, are you going towards the lemonade table?”
You see no reason to deny this—she would see you go there anyway. “Ehrm, yes, I am.”
“I will accompany you!” she says, beaming, “I was just about to get myself some lemonade as well!”
You wince inwardly—you are well aware that if she accompanies you to the table, you aren’t likely to get away for the rest of the evening.
“Have mine,” you say hastily, handing her your full, untouched glass, and before she can say another word, you disappear into the crowd. Maneuvering around people to further conceal yourself from Miss Greenbury, you head towards the table.
You spot the lady in the green gown almost at once. She isn’t talking with the other ladies anymore—in fact, she’s surrounded by at least three gentlemen who are showering her with flattery and compliments. You watch closely for signs that she is just like all the other ladies you detest, but to your surprise and immense relief, she isn’t. She doesn’t bat her eyelashes (thank God), and she doesn’t titter or laugh, and she doesn’t look haughty, either. In fact, she has assumed a polite, pleasant demeanor as she accepts their words. And then, amid all the attention she’s receiving, she looks at you with piercing green eyes.
And then it happens. Just like that, from that single, unforgettable moment, you are in love.
Your first thought? Not your finest. You don’t know of any other men who’d fallen in love and, immediately after the realization, had thought, Your mother will be delighted.
“Pardon me, gentlemen,” you say, your voice carrying authoritatively, “But the lady has already saved me the next dance.”
You hold out your hand to her, silently daring her to contradict your statement, though you both knew it’s a blatant lie. Wisely, she doesn’t comment—she merely smiles prettily, takes your hand, and is about to leave with you when one of the gentlemen says, “Wait one moment, Mr. Lumley.”
You slowly turn around to face the man, easily maintaining your composure.
“Has the lady seen fit to tell you her name?” the man asks, arching a bushy, skeptical eyebrow.
You don’t miss a beat. “This is Miss Olivia Beckett,” you say promptly, “did she not tell you so?”
“She did not,” the gentleman says, before deeply bowing to the lady, “it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Beckett.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” the lady replies, inclining her head politely, but her eyes are gleaming with amusement. She catches your eye, and you smile secretively.
You take her hand and begin to dance in step with the music, your hand on her waist and hers on your shoulder, but once you both are safely concealed within the crowd, you murmur, “Follow me,” and weave through the crowd with remarkable agility.
“We aren’t dancing, I presume?” she says once she joins you, but she doesn’t sound scandalized or shocked—she seems perfectly matter-of-fact, as if nothing remotely out of the ordinary is happening.
You smile mysteriously and lead her to the expansive gardens, and soon both of you are walking through the paths, thankful to be free of the stuffy ballroom air.
“I owe you an apology,” you say, as you cross a small bridge over a stream, “I should not have given you a fake identity.”
She laughs. It’s a wonderful sound, and you’re sure it was the same one you had heard earlier in the ballroom. “It was most impressive that you thought of a name so quickly,” she says admiringly, “but why did you do it?”
You chuckle. “How else was I to get you away from all those other gentlemen?”
You look at her just in time to see her blush. Then she blinks and looks away, running her fingers over the soft petals of the jasmine plant you’re walking past. “How did you think of a name so quickly, Mr. Lumley? Surely you don’t have a prepared list of Nome de plumes?”
“Well, actually,” you quip, “you’d be surprised.”
“Really,” Olivia replies, playing along with an impressively straight face, “then I must confess that I have one, too. We must get together and show them to each other, one of these days. Had the men not already known you, I would have given you a fake identity myself.”
“Would you, now?” you say, amused, “and what might that have been?”
She smiles pleasantly. “That’s for me to know. But I am curious, Mr. Lumley…wherever did ‘Olivia Beckett’ come from?”
“It is my cousin’s name,” you confess, “But I would like to know yours.”
She gives you a small, tight-lipped smile and says sweetly, “I rather like Olivia Beckett, in fact.”
“I am delighted that you do,” you reply, your voice equally smooth, “and I would be absolutely ecstatic if you told me your true name.”
Olivia’s smile fades. “Not everyone receives happiness, Mr. Lumley,” she says softly, “Good evening.”
She disentangles her hand from your arm and begins to return to the ballroom.
“Wait!” you call after her, and Olivia stops and turns to look at you. “What if I kissed you?”
Olivia’s eyes widen. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me,” you say quietly, taking a step towards her, “if I kiss you, will you tell me your name?”
Olivia regards you with a piercing stare. “I’m afraid that isn’t how it works,” she says evenly.
You step even closer and whisper, “I may have to kiss you anyway.”
Olivia’s lips part slightly, and her tongue darts out to moisten them slightly. You take one more step towards her, so you are mere inches away from her, and before she can say anything else, your lips are on hers. She doesn’t pull away—she returns the kiss, running her hands over the back of your neck and pulling you closer. You run your fingers through her hair, freeing it from the pins and clips and sending it cascading down her back like a waterfall.
Suddenly, a toad appears on the bridge, unnoticed by either of you. It stares unblinkingly at you both and then lets out a loud, unexpected croak.
Olivia shrieks in surprise and pulls away from you immediately. The toad croaks again and hops onto your head. You let out an undignified cry and shake your head violently, trying to throw it off. Olivia tries to smack it off but misses and hits you instead, causing you to clutch your head in pain as the toad leaps onto Olivia. She stumbles backward and, to your horror, topples right off the bridge and into the water! She makes a terrific splash, sending the ducks swimming away, quacking loudly.
“Mr. Lumley!” Olivia gasps as she resurfaces. She wades out of the shallow stream and curls up on a small stone bench, shivering.
“Olivia!” You hurry to her immediately and wrap her in your cloak. “Are you alright?”
“I’m quite alright,” Olivia says, shivering, “merely cold. And wet.” She pulls the cloak around her more tightly and adds apologetically, “I’m sorry about your head—I did hit you rather forcefully. Are you alright?”
“Perfectly fine, thank you,” you say, “and I realized just now that I called you by your given name. Well—I mean, the name I had given you. Forgive me.”
Olivia smiles. “I don’t mind,” she says, “it was not so improper, given the circumstances. Speaking of which,” she adds rather dryly, “we were quite rudely interrupted.”
“Thwarted by a toad,” you mutter furiously, tucking the cloak around her more tightly, “could anything be less dignified?”
“My brother Edward once put a live cricket in my soup,” she says through chattering teeth.
“Really?” you say, amused, “well, our predicament seems positively respectable now. What happened?”
Olivia giggles. “Would you be very disappointed in me if I told you it was partly my fault?”
“Not at all,” you reply, eyeing her with great interest.
“Very well,” Olivia says, pushing her sodden hair out of her eyes, “It was when we were quite young…”
You chuckle after she finishes her story. “I fail to understand how that was only partly your fault.”
“I was the one who got the cricket in my mouth,” Olivia reminds you, “so I am absolved of some blame.”
You tilt your head slightly in agreement, grinning. “Fair enough. However, returning to present matters, we should get you inside.”
“I suppose,” says Olivia, “but how will we do that unnoticed?”
“Oh, no,” you mutter, looking up suddenly.
Olivia follows your gaze and gasps. A woman is walking towards you, and if she finds you both here, alone, it would be extremely improper.
You stand up. “Good evening, mother,” you begin pleasantly. But you don’t get further than that before your mother’s eyes settle upon Olivia, who is still soaking wet and shivering, wrapped in your cloak.
“Nicholas Lumley!” your mother shrieks, aghast, “what is the meaning of this?”
“It’s quite alright, mother,” you say hastily, “it can all easily be explained—I was merely rescuing a damsel in distress. I had left the ballroom a few minutes ago in need of some air when I heard Miss Beckett here cry for help. It seems that the poor lady had had a fainting spell and had fallen headfirst into the stream.”
As you expected, your mother believes you at once. “Oh, you poor dear!” she says frantically to Olivia, “let’s get you back inside, and you can dry off.”
“Thank you, my lady,” says Olivia gratefully, and while Lady Lumley’s back is turned, Olivia shoots you a murderous glare. You choke back a laugh and smile pleasantly back at her.
“I didn’t faint, and you know it,” she hisses angrily, as you both lag behind your mother to ensure privacy while you talk.
“Was I supposed to have told her the truth?” you murmur, “imagine the scandal if I had told her what really happened.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Olivia says grudgingly, “I only wish you hadn’t conveyed the message to your mother that I am a foolish lady.”
“She would never think that of you,” you assure her, but can’t resist adding wickedly, “as long as you never tell her that you have eaten a live cricket.”
Olivia, apparently unable to think of a retort, merely sticks her tongue out at you in a most unladylike way, making you grin as you all enter the house.
“Nicholas, you should return to the ballroom,” your mother says anxiously, “our guests will have noticed your absence. I will tend to Miss Beckett in the meantime.”
“Very well, mother. Goodnight, Miss Beckett,” you say courteously, “I do hope you are not severely ill.”
Olivia smiles. “I should recover quite quickly. And thank you for lending me your cloak.”
She starts to hand it back, but you say, “please, keep it.”
When your mother frowns, you kiss her on the cheek affectionately. “Mother, it will add to the mystery. I’m sure the ladies are dying to know where I’ve been.”
Your mother allowed herself a grudging smile and said briskly, “Off with you, before you turn my hair all grey!”
You bow politely. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Miss Beckett.”
Then your mother says to Olivia, “Your voice sounds clear, thank goodness—I was beginning to fear that you’d have a frog in your throat.”
Olivia claps a hand to her mouth to stifle laughter, and you mutter, “You’d be surprised.”
Your mother looks at you both queerly. “What do you mean, Nicholas? Is something amiss?”
“Nothing at all,” you say, clearing your throat, “ehrm, goodnight Miss Beckett. Mother, I will see you later this evening.”
You look back Olivia, who is trying desperately to maintain a relatively straight face. “Goodnight!” she manages to squeak, and then she turns away hurriedly. When your mother’s back is turned, you grin broadly after them.
For the rest of the evening, you dance with a great many more ladies, but you can’t keep your mind off of Olivia. You know it’s ridiculous—how can you fall in love with someone who doesn’t trust you enough to even tell you her name?
You frown slightly—you’ve made your decision. As soon as this party ends, you’re going to find out everything you can about her. You are going to truly know Lady Olivia Beckett.