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2 July 1897
Devonshire House, London
I raised the long, curved bow and with two fingers pulled back its string, all the while resisting the urge to remove one of the silver-shafted arrows nestled in the quiver slung over my shoulder.
"It would be so easy," I said, a sigh escaping my lips as I gazed across the ballroom.
"Too easy." My husband, his dark eyes sparkling, lowered my weapon with a single finger. "It would be beneath you, Emily."
"It is not often one is permitted to arm oneself at a ball," I said. "Fancy dress is a marvelous thing, and as such, my taking full advantage of the situation is nothing short of strict necessity. Without seeing an arrow, my prey may not realize she has been made a target."
"My dear girl, were you actually planning to shoot the dreadful woman, I would hand the arrows to you myself. As things stand, however, she is far too thick to understand that, by raising your bow, you are putting her on notice." Colin Hargreaves had no patience for gossips, and I had set my sights on one of society's worst, the lady whose lack of discretion had caused all of society to learn that Colin had refused the queen's offer of a dukedom some six months ago. The awkwardness of the incident had been compounded by the fact that my mother had encouraged Her Majesty to dangle the prize before him, and now both she and the queen were embarrassed, put out, and displeased. Not with my husband, however. So far as the two of them were concerned, he was incapable of any wrongdoing. They were convinced that I must have motivated his inexplicable refusal, and forgave him for indulging his wife, although the queen did make some quiet comments to him about how even she had, on occasion, bowed to the will of her dear Albert. My mother was less forgiving. She refused to see me for three months. I bore the loss with what I hope appeared more like reasonable equanimity than obvious relief.
"I am not certain one ought to take military advice from Beau Brummell," I said. I could not deny that Regency fashion, with its snug trousers, well-cut coats, and tall, gleaming boots, suited my husband's athletic form well. Nonetheless, Colin and I had argued about his choice of costume. "You should have dressed as an Homeric hero—"
"Hector, I assume?"
"You were perfectly free to go as Achilles if that better suited you," I said. "All I did was remind you that such a choice would necessitate your sleeping at your club instead of at home. I understand some husbands prefer that sort of arrangement."
He put his arm around my waist and pulled me close. "I shall never be one of those husbands. I am, however, stung that you could suggest I choose Achilles over Hector. You know me too well to make such a monumental error. Did we not cover this ground thoroughly before we were married?"
"Of course we did," I said. "I should never have considered your proposal if your views on the subject were not first utterly clear to me. Tonight, though, our hostess instructed us to dress in costumes allegorical or historical—"
"Dating before 1815," Colin interrupted. "Yes, I am well aware of the fact. It is why I specifically tied my cravat in a fashion favored by Mr. Brummell prior to that year. My entire ensemble is an exercise in historical dress."
"So far as satisfying the technical details of our instructions, yes, but I stand by my belief that you are violating the spirit of the duchess's request."
"Riddle me, my sweet love, what matters to society more than fashion? And who mattered more to gentlemen's fashion than Beau Brummell? I argue that my choice of costume is of the greatest historical significance to the current gathering."
"You are impossible," I said, standing on my tiptoes to give him a quick kiss on the cheek.
"Be careful not to take your role as Artemis too seriously, Emily. I have plans for you later that do not include still finding ourselves in this wretched house at dawn. I see Bainbridge making eyes at you from across the room. He looks rather like a sheep, so I shall leave you to deal with it. I am long overdue for a cigar. Make sure to promise no one but me your last waltzes."
"I am not about to let you hide out until then," I said. He took my hand, raised it to his lips, lingering over it too long, just as he had in the days of our courtship, and my body, just as it had then, tingled from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.
Jeremy Sheffield, Duke of Bainbridge, and one of my dearest childhood friends, had not been making eyes at me from across the room or anywhere else. Jeremy thoroughly enjoyed the freedom provided by his status as bachelor duke as much as he thoroughly dreaded the confines of marriage. I might be carrying the bow of the goddess of the hunt tonight, but Jeremy kept himself armed daily with what he viewed as weapons in his fight against matrimony. I was one of them, the girl he could never wed, a semipermanent distraction that half the mothers in London were convinced kept him from proposing to their extremely eligible—and willing—daughters. They believed I had once spurned him, and that his heart had not yet recovered. The old dragons might sympathize with him now, so long as they believed it could enhance their daughters' chances with him later, but pining forever would not be allowed. This fit nicely with my friend's own plans, as Jeremy had no intention of leaving his dukedom forever without an heir. He was simply too committed at present to his love of debauchery and irresponsibility to settle down. Only once he had achieved his oft-stated goal of being recognized as the most useless man in England would he agree to find a wife.
I waved my bow at him as he started to cross the room in my direction. Devonshire House was crammed full that night, none of the beau monde wanting to miss the masquerade ball Louisa, the Duchess of Devonshire, had planned in honor of the queen's Diamond Jubilee. Seven hundred of London's best had received invitations, and I could well believe that number, if not more, had heaved through the entrance gates to the house, eager to show off the elaborate costumes they had ordered for the occasion. It was as if we all had been dropped into a book of the best sort of historical fiction. Napoleon and Josephine sipped champagne while King Arthur and one of the myriad Valkyries (I had counted at least six so far) took a turn on the dance floor. Two Cleopatras did their best to avoid standing too near each other. Petrarch wooed Desdemona, Lord Nelson was in a heated political discussion with a seventeenth-century baron, and the Furies delighted the room with torches illuminated by electric lights.
Jeremy had made very little progress through the crowd to me, but a gentleman dressed as an ancient Greek from the time of Pericles stepped forward, his face hidden by a theatrical mask depicting tragedy, his flowing robes gathered over one arm. His eyes moved up and down my costume, but when he scrutinized my face, he tilted his head to the side, looked around, and sighed.
"Sleep, delicious and profound…" He let his voice trail.
"The very counterfeit of death," I finished for him, delighted to have found someone at the ball who shared my love of the ancient poet. I had, some years ago, translated Homer's Odyssey from the original Greek and was often criticized by my mother for quoting all things Homerian. "What a surprise to—"
He grabbed my arm, wrenched it, and stood too close to me, his eyes flashing. "You are not at all as advertised, madam. I believe my requirements were quite clear. This will not do in the least." He turned on his heel and tore away from me. No sooner had he departed than Jeremy was at my side.
"My darling Em, have you scared off another suitor?"
"I am a married woman, your grace, I do not have suitors."
"Except me," he said, kissing my hand and grinning. "Frightful old bloke, wasn't he? Was he supposed to be Julius Caesar? Pity I don't have any knives. Or fellow conspirators."
"He was Greek, not Roman."
"Never could tell the difference."
"I cannot say that shocks me," I said. "It was very odd, him approaching me like that. He seemed to expect someone else. There must be another Artemis at the ball."
"There could be a thousand and yet none could so much as hope to catch the silvery beauty of the moon like you do, Em."
I rolled my eyes. "Really, Jeremy. There's no need to talk like that when you don't have an audience to witness your flirting. Who are you meant to be?" I asked.
"Robert Dudley, first Earl of Leicester, another gentleman in love with an unattainable lady. I am quite bent on bringing back Elizabethan fashion. It shows off my fine legs, don't you think?"
"I am not the proper person to answer such a question, but I see Cécile. She will no doubt have a firm opinion on the matter." Cécile du Lac, one of my closest friends, had come from Paris just for the Devonshires' ball.
"The duke is in need of a firm opinion?" Cécile asked as she joined us.
"Thinking about it, more like a firm hand," I said.
"I am incapable of giving him either at the moment," Cécile said. "I have just learned that Estella Lamar is in attendance this evening. Are you acquainted with her?"
"The same Estella Lamar who is always climbing pyramids and exploring India?" Jeremy asked. "One can hardly open a newspaper without seeing a picture of her somewhere exotic. I am a tremendous admirer of her exploits. Capital lady."
"She is the very one," Cécile said. "I have not seen her in more years than I care to admit and am bent on finding her. Will you help me? She is dressed rather like you, Kallista." Almost from the moment we had met, Cécile had refused to use my given name. She did not like it and much preferred the nickname bestowed on me by my first husband—a nickname he had never used in my presence and, hence, one I had not learned of until after his death. Cécile felt no compunction in usurping it as her own, but then, Cécile never felt compunction in usurpation when she believed it necessary to her own edification.
"Madame du Lac!" Jeremy took a step back and gasped. "Or should I say Your Majesty? What a wonderful thing to see Marie Antoinette with her head back where it ought to be."
"I have always wanted to have a boat in my hair," Cécile said. "It is irrational, I know, but I was taken with the notion as a child and thought this the perfect opportunity to play out the fantasy. Now help me find my friend." The House of Worth had made Cécile's costume, a fine confection of eighteenth-century fashion, replete with an enormous powdered wig fitted with a delicate model ship. Her silk satin gown, with its wide panier hoop, measured nearly six feet, and the stomacher that peeked through her overgown was covered with embroidered flowers shot through with golden thread.
We combed the ballroom first and then retreated to the garden at the suggestion of a young lady dressed as Dante's Beatrice, who informed us she had just seen Miss Lamar headed in that direction. Cécile explained, as we made our way, that Estella, upon inheriting an enormous fortune after her parents died within days of each other, had embarked on a life of adventure and exploration. As a result, she had not seen much of her friends in the following years and had proved a terrible correspondent. She and Cécile were of an age, and as young ladies in Paris society had been inseparable. Cécile had very much missed her in the subsequent years.
Cardinal Mazarin, engaged in a lively conversation with the Lady of the Lake, paused long enough to tell us Miss Lamar had just exited the supper tent, and we soon found her speaking with our host, the duke, who was dressed as the Emperor Charles V. Estella was in a costume so similar to mine that from a distance, we might have been twins. The folds of our Grecian robes fell with the same grace, though hers skewed to pale green while mine were icy blue. Her headdress had on it a crescent moon lit by electricity. Mine, though not a showcase of our rapidly advancing age, was still lovely, its mother-of-pearl moon surrounded by sparkling diamonds.
Cécile called out to her friend as we came upon her from behind. Miss Lamar turned, a smile on her face, and gave a hearty wave in our direction. Cécile stopped dead.
"You are not Estella Lamar." She marched toward the woman, her eyes flashing. "What is the meaning of this?"
The Duke of Devonshire, perplexed and embarrassed, did his best to placate his guests. "Madame du Lac, I assure you this is indeed Miss Estella Lamar. She took a break from her exploration of the Nile just to be at our little party."
"I do not think much else could have induced me to leave Egypt," Miss Lamar said. Her face did not betray her travels. It was lined, as one would expect for someone her age, but there was not so much as a hint of color from desert sun. My mother would have been most impressed.
"I have not the slightest interest in where you claim to have been or why you might want to be here," Cécile said, "but I would very much like to know what has induced you to pose as one of the dearest friends of my youth. I knew Estella almost as well as I know myself. You look nothing like her—your eyes aren't even the right color. Estella's are emerald green and quite unmistakable. Furthermore, she was a good four inches shorter than I. Am I to believe that exploration causes fully grown adults to add inches to their height? Or do your golden sandals have heels of six or seven inches?"
Miss Lamar—or whoever she was—blanched. Her eyes darted nervously and her lips trembled. Cécile moved closer to her and without the slightest hesitation the other woman pushed her away, flinging her roughly to the ground, and started to run. I lunged forward, wanting to make sure my friend, who had whacked her head on the base of a decorative column, was all right.
"This is but a trifle," Cécile said, blotting the blood on her forehead with a lace handkerchief. "You must apprehend her at once."
Copyright © 2014 by Tasha Alexander