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By Brenda Joyce
MIRA Copyright © 2005 Brenda Joyce
All right reserved.
A Fateful Encounter
Elizabeth Anne Fitzgerald stared at the novel in her hands but not a single word made sense. In fact, the letters on the page were blurred as badly as if she was not wearing her reading glasses. Perhaps that was for the best; Mama hated it when she read at the table, and she had sat down for breakfast with her romance novel some time ago, the food in front of her now long forgotten. Lizzie sighed and closed the book. She was so excited about tomorrow she would never be able to concentrate, she decided.
Excited, and afraid.
Papa sat at the head of the small table with a copy of yesterday's Dublin Times. He rattled the page as he reached for his cup of tea, engrossed in some article about the war. Upstairs, the household was in a state of hysteria. Lizzie could hear her two older sisters and her mother racing about the bedrooms, back and forth, back and forth, heels clicking wildly, just as she could also hear Anna's wails and Georgie's brisk, sensible tones. Mama was barking commands like a soldier. Papa did not seem to notice, but such chaos was fairly usual in the Fitzgerald home.
Lizzie stared at him, hoping he would glance up. She wanted to talk but was not sure she could confide in anyone.
"You're staring," he said, not looking up. "What is it, Lizzie?"
She hesitated. "Is it usual, to be so nervous?" Papa gazed past his newspaper at her. His smile was kind. "It's only a ball," he said. "It may be your first, but it will not be your last." He was a short man with prematurely white hair, gray whiskers and a perpetually kind expression. Like Lizzie, he wore rimmed spectacles, but not merely for reading; if Lizzie had any regrets, it was that she had inherited her poor eyesight from such a wonderful father.
Lizzie felt herself flush. She quickly avoided her father's benign gaze, not wanting him to guess how apprehensive she was. After all, she was sixteen years old now, a grown woman, or practically so. She did not want anyone in her family to suspect that she still harbored the most childish fantasies -- except that, in the darkest hours of the night, they weren't childish at all.
The heat in her cheeks increased.
Beneath the table, a stray, crippled cat she had rescued and adopted the previous year rubbed against her ankles, purring.
But Papa was wise to her now, and he set his paper down and studied her closely. "Lizzie, it is only a ball. And you have been up to the house before." He was referring to the earl of Adare's home. "You know, my dear, we have all noticed how oddly you have been behaving these past few days. Why, you have even lost your appetite and we all know how much you love to eat! What is worrying you, dear?"
Lizzie wanted to smile at him, she did, but the expression simply would not form on her face. What could she say? Her infatuation with a young man who did not even know she existed had been amusing when she was a child of ten. It had been the cause of raised eyebrows and some concern when she was a blossoming adolescent of thirteen. The following year, espying him in town with some beautiful noblewoman, Lizzie had realized how absurd her feelings were. Such an infatuation was no longer acceptable and Lizzie knew it, especially as she was being launched into society alongside her older sisters.
But he would be there at the masque, because he was there every All Hallow's Eve, as he was the earl's heir. According to her older sisters, he was polite and charming to all of his family's guests -- and the object of a great deal of feminine pursuit and speculation. Every marriage-mad mother of the ton's uppermost echelons foolishly hoped to somehow snag him for their own daughter, never mind that the world knew he would marry for duty as his family wished. Lizzie had only to close her eyes and Tyrell de Warenne's dark, noble image filled her mind, his gaze piercing and intense.
The thought of seeing him at the ball tomorrow made it impossible for her to breathe. Absurdly, her heart raced. Absurdly, she could see him sweeping a courtly bow and taking her hand....and suddenly she was on his white charger with him and they were galloping off into the night.
Lizzie began to smile, realized she was daydreaming and she pinched herself. Even though she was going to the ball costumed as Maid Marian -- Robin Hood was one of her favorite tales -- he was not going to notice her. But she didn't want to be noticed, not really. She didn't want him to look at her with a complete lack of interest, as her sister Anna's gentleman callers seemed to do. She would stand by the wall with the other wallflowers and discreetly watch him as he flirted and danced. Then, when she had returned to her own home and her own bed, she would dream about his every look and gesture, his every word and even his touch.
He halted the charger abruptly, wrapping his arms around her, his breath feathering her cheek....
Lizzie's pulse accelerated and her body ached in that terribly insistent way, a strange yearning she had come to accept but barely understand. "Lizzie?" Papa interrupted her brooding.
She bit her lip, eyes flying open, and somehow smiled at him. "I wish," she began impulsively, and she stopped.
"What is it that you wish, my dear?"
She was far closer to Papa than she was to Mama, perhaps because, like her, he was an avid reader and a bit of a dreamer. On too many cold, rainy days to count, Lizzie and her father could be found in the parlor, curled up in big chairs before the hearth, each engrossed in a book. "I wish I could be beautiful, like Anna," she heard herself confess in a whisper. "Just once...just for tomorrow night."
His eyes widened. "But you're so pretty!" he exclaimed. "You have the most striking gray eyes!"
Lizzie smiled slightly at him, aware that he could offer no other possible praise. And then she heard Mama racing down the stairs, calling her name. "Lizzie!"
Excerpted from The Masquerade by Brenda Joyce Copyright © 2005 by Brenda Joyce.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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