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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!"
Lizzie and Papa exchanged a look, understanding Mama's strident tone. Something was amiss, and Mama wanted Lizzie to fix it. Lizzie hated conflict of any kind, and more often than not, played peacemaker in the family. Now she stood, quite certain she knew what had happened.
Mama sailed into the parlor, almost at a run. Her cheeks were flushed and she was wearing an apron over her striped day gown. Like Lizzie, she had strawberry-blond hair, but hers was cut fashionably short and curly in the style known as La Victime, while Lizzie's long, unruly hair was haphazardly pinned up. Mother and daughter were both of a medium stature, and Lizzie rued the fact that from a distance, their round figures were so similar they could be mistaken for each other. Now Lydia Jane Fitzgerald laid eyes upon her sixteen-year-old daughter and she halted, almost falling over in her haste. "Lizzie! You must speak with your sister, as I cannot make headway! She is the most stubborn, ungrateful girl! Georgina has decided she will not attend the ball! Oh, my! The scandal! The disgrace! The countess, bless her saintly soul, will never forgive this! And for goodness sake, Georgina is the eldest. How will she ever find a suitor if she refuses to go to the social occasion of the year? Does she wish to marry a butcher or a smith?"
Lizzie got to her feet, holding back a sigh as Georgie came downstairs more slowly, looking determined, her color high. Georgie was darkly blond and very tall and slender. Now she gave Lizzie a look that said, there was no compromise. Lizzie sighed. "Mama, I will speak with Georgie."
"You must do far more than speak with her," Mama cried as if Georgie were not present. "We are invited to the earl's exactly two times a year! It would be the worst insult should my entire family fail to appear!"
That first declaration was true. The earl and countess of Adare opened up their home twice a year, on All Hallow's Eve, when they held a costume ball, and on St. Patrick's Day, for a lavish lawn party. Mama lived for these two events, as they were opportunities for her daughters to mingle with the elite of Irish society, and they all knew she prayed to God that just one of her daughters would land a wealthy Irish nobleman, perhaps even one of the de Warenne sons. But Lizzie knew her mother was in a dream of her own making. Although Mama claimed her family descended from a very royal Celtic line, the de Warennes were so far above the Fitz-geralds that the difference might have been that between peasant and royalty. No one would care if Georgie declined to attend.
But Lizzie knew that Mama only meant well. She knew Mama was devoted to her daughters. She knew Mama was afraid that they would not marry well—and terrified that they would never marry at all. And she knew how hard Mama struggled to clothe and feed her daughters on Papa's limited pension and present them to society as if they were not impoverished gentry. And Georgie knew it, too.
Georgie spoke, her manner firm, as it usually was. "No one will notice my absence, Mama. It is delusional to think otherwise. And given Papa's pension and the fact that Anna will surely marry first, taking up all available funds for a dowry, I doubt I will do better than a butcher or a blacksmith."
Lizzie gasped at Georgie's effrontery and quickly hid a smile. Mama was speechless; it was a rare moment indeed.
Papa coughed behind his hand, trying to hide his own amusement.
Mama burst into tears. "I have devoted my entire life to finding you and your sisters husbands! And now you refuse to go to Adare! Now you speak of marriage to—" she shuddered "—the lowest sort of man! Georgina May!" Weeping, she rushed from the breakfast room.
A silence fell.
Georgie actually looked somewhat guilty.
Papa gave her a reproachful glance. "I will leave you two to sort things out," he said to both sisters. To Georgie, he added, "I know you will do what is right." He walked out.
Georgie sighed and faced Lizzie, her expression resigned and grim. "You know how I hate these society fêtes. I thought I would at least try to avoid this one."
Lizzie walked over to her beloved older sister. "Dear, didn't you tell me just the other day that marriage serves a very distinct social purpose?" No one could rationalize a subject to a more proper conclusion than her oldest sister.
Georgie closed her eyes.
"I believe you also noted that it is mutually beneficial to both parties involved," Lizzie said, knowing she was repeating her sister's exact words.
Georgie looked at her. "We were discussing Helen O'Dell's engagement, Lizzie, to that old, foolish fop, Sir Lunden!"
"Mama is so devoted to her duty to us," Lizzie said softly. "I know she is silly and a bit absurd at times, but she always means well."
Georgie went to the table and sat down, appearing glum. "I already feel terrible, do not rub my nose in it."
Lizzie sat beside her, taking her hand. "You are usually so stoic! What is this really about?"
Georgie faced her seriously. "I merely thought to avoid this one event. I was hoping to spend the evening with Papa's Times. That's all."
Lizzie knew that was not all. But it could not be that she wished to avoid Mama's matchmaking, because on two occasions Mama had brought a marriage prospect home for her and Georgie had been dutifully polite when another woman would have cringed.
Georgie sighed. "I will never meet anyone at Adare. Mama is mad to think so. If anyone can snag a husband there, it is Anna, as she garners all the attention, anyway."
That was true. Anna was so beautiful and carefree, not to mention very flirtatious. "You're not jealous?" Lizzie asked in surprise, suddenly sensing that was the case.
Georgie folded her arms across her chest. "Of course not. I adore Anna, everyone does. But it's true. Anna will have any highborn suitors tomorrow night, not you and not I. So what is the point?"
"If you really wished to stay home, you should have pleaded a migraine, or even worse, extreme indigestion," Lizzie said.
Georgie looked at her, finally smiling. "I never have migraines and I have the constitution of an ox."
Lizzie touched her arm. "I think you're wrong. Yes, Anna is a coquette, but you are so clever and so proud! You're also the handsome one, Georgie, and one day you will find true love, I am sure of it." She grinned. "And it could even be at Adare!"
Georgie shook her head, but she was smiling. "You have read too many ha'penny novels. You are such a romantic! True love doesn't exist. Anyway, I am taller than almost every man I meet, and that is a serious offense, Lizzie."
Lizzie had to laugh. "Yes, I suppose it is—but only until you meet the right gentleman. He could be a head shorter than you and, trust me, he will not care about your height."
Georgie sat back in her chair. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if Anna did marry very, very well?"
Lizzie stared and their gazes held. She could read her sister's mind. "You mean, someone terribly wealthy?"
Georgie bit her lip and nodded. "Mama would be so pleased and our financial worries would be eased. I shouldn't mind too much if I were to remain a spinster. Would you?"
"I know you will find a beau one day!" Lizzie cried, believing her words deeply. "I am plain and fat and I have no choice but to remain unwed. Not that I mind!" she added quickly. "Someone will have to take care of Mama and Papa in their older years." She smiled again, but Tyrell de Warenne's image had come to mind. "I have no delusions as to my fate—just as I am convinced of yours."
Georgie was quick to protest. "You aren't fat—just a wee bit plump—and you are very pretty! You simply refuse to think about fashion. In that way, we are very much alike."
But Lizzie was thinking about Tyrell de Warenne and his fate. He deserved to find true love and surely he would, one day. She wanted him to be happy, very much so.
Her mind veered. She had been told that last year Tyrell had attended the ball as an Arab sheikh. She wondered what costume he would wear tomorrow night.
"Well, I never really thought I could get out of the ball," Georgie was saying.
Lizzie looked at her. "Do you like my costume?"
Georgie blinked. Then she smiled, slyly. "You know, many women would die to have your figure, Lizzie."