There was really only one choice for this week’s Friday Fiction. You might (just possibly) have gathered that my novel, Petticoats and Promises, came out this week, both in paperback and in ebook. So there clearly needed to be an ‘excerpt’ moment here.
Serena, my heroine, and her best friend Clara are at their debut ball, but all does not go as expected…
It was a frightening time for me at the beginning of the ball, or would have been without Clara’s support. We stood by the doorway, welcoming the guests–speaking to stranger after stranger after barely known acquaintance. Clara had the poise that I lacked, and she laughed and chattered as I fought for the words that tripped so easily off her tongue. But Clara drew me into the brief conversations, and encouraged me to show myself to my best advantage. I might not want to marry any of the guests, but at the same time I did not want to be shown up as a country bumpkin. Perhaps I might be vain, but I wanted them at least to consider the prospect of marrying me, even if I had no interest in them!
Our cards were marked with our partners, and the ball began. As it was taking place at Clara’s house, it was she who led the couples out. I was content to take a secondary role, however, content to watch my love dance the figures and to follow where she led. I had never seen a gathering of so many people, and I was stunned by the heat and the noise, but at the same time I loved every second– the dancing, the drinks, the beautiful attire of the ladies and gentlemen. After a glass of champagne, I began to relax and enjoy myself, and I could see Clara doing the same.
My happy mood was not to last. Halfway through the ball, as I finished dancing with Edward Latimer, a man I had known since childhood, I looked up and caught a troubled expression on Mama’s face.
“Excuse me,” I said apologetically, as he offered to fetch me a drink, “but I must go to my mother.” I knew better than to dash across the ballroom: I had no wish to draw attention to my mother’s distress. Instead, I walked towards her as casually as I could. The mask slipped only when I was by her side. “Mama, what’s wrong?”
My mother forced a smile.
“Nothing, dear; why do you ask?”
I had never known her lie to me, and my suspicion of some intentional deceit was in itself more frightening than any truth might have been.
“What has happened?” I demanded urgently. I grasped her hand and held it between my own.
Her eyes fixed steadily on my own, her voice but a whisper. “I need you to be brave, Serena,” she said quietly. “I need you to return to the ball as if nothing has happened. Can you do that one thing for me?”
I nodded and squeezed her hand. If my silence was all I could do for her, I would keep my counsel. I paused a second, as the careless, laughing crowd turned about the room, and wondered whether any of them knew my mother’s secret. Clara danced past with her partner–a soldier who had received a major injury eighteen months earlier in the Battle of Leipzig. One of his legs was undeniably shorter than the other, but as he danced, his face showed no trace of the anxiety I saw in my mother’s. Whatever had upset her appeared to be only a family matter.
I looked around for my partner for the next dance, a Mr Feverley. He was a timid, young red–headed gentleman who stammered his request and looked appalled rather than grateful for my acceptance. He came hesitantly to meet me, still apparently deciding whether to dance or run, but his ambivalence was just what I needed. I began to forget my own troubles (and I still did not know what they were) even as I allayed his. I smiled at him encouragingly, and he managed the final few steps to my side with only the smallest of stumbles.
“Thank you for asking me,” I said, as he tripped towards me.
“My… my mother–I mean… my pleasure…”
My smile broadened. I recognised his mother from the hunted glance over his shoulder: a formidable woman who was determined that all of her relations should marry above their station.
“Don’t worry,” I murmured as the music started up again. “It’s only a dance, not a proposal to wed.”
Red–haired as he was, his face mirrored his scalp.
“It’s not–I don’t mean…”
“I know,” I soothed, and grasped his hand a little tighter. “Just relax and enjoy it. If truth be known, I’m as shy as you are. So let’s forget about it and dance.”