The wind whipped through the tendrils of hair that had escaped the bun holding the rest of her hair back from her face. As much as she wanted to be able to roam free with her hair whipping around her face, she knew if she did that, she would not be able to see anything as she rode her beloved horse, Silver.

She slowed Silver to a walk.

“Easy, boy, easy,” she said. “Come on. Back to the stables we go.” She smiled as she urged her horseback to the stables. She had been outside long enough.

Her mother would want to see her soon, and if not, then she could freshen up in peace without a timeline, knowing that she had to attend to her mother as she finished freshening up.

The stables came into view and soon she was dismounting her horse. She turned to groom Silver, comb the knots out of his mane, and get the saddle off of him. It was one of her great pleasures and the reason she loved being in the countryside.


Ever since the last time she had been to Town and had become embroiled in the scandal with Lord Oliver, she had not wanted to go back to Town.

She would much rather spend her time in the countryside, enjoying the fresh air and the way the wind could whip her hair about when she rode. In particular, she loved to go horseback riding. She could delightfully do it all day long.

“Lady Belle!” A voice interrupted her thoughts as she continued to groom her stallion. “Lady Belle!”


She turned around and found that Lucy had come to find her.

“What is it, Lucy?” She frowned. Lucy only ever called for her like this when it was urgent.

“It is almost time for your poetry lessons. Come along. You must freshen up; you would set up your mother’s bristles if she saw you in this state for lessons,” Lucy said. “Inside.”

She smiled a little. Sometimes, it was Lucy’s job to remind her of her appointments, and other times, it was to be her handmaid. The lines blurred sometimes when all Belle wished to do was ride the day away on Silver. Sometimes she could, and that was wonderful, but usually, she had other duties to take care of.

Belle walked inside, and Lucy helped her freshen up. Her bun was redone, her face washed, her riding jacket was left in the bedroom, and she walked down to the drawing room.

“Oh, what a sight you are,” her mother said. “Have you just come from riding Silver?”

“Yes… Is it still obvious?” Belle frowned. She had freshened up, but perhaps not enough.

“Not from how you are dressed and how clean your face is, but you always have a shine in your eyes after your ride,” her mother said.


“You have always enjoyed riding Silver, and I think it wonderful you find joy in it. Now, recite your poetry for me.”

Belle took a deep breath. The recitation of poetry had been helping her with her stutter, and she had to admit that her mother had been right two years ago when she had suggested this. Now, she tried the longest poem she had ever recited—it was almost one hundred lines.

Though she did not remember all of the poem immediately, she remembered enough of it that as she recited it, the missing words filled in from sheer memory. They had worked on this poem for a week.

Her mother, when Belle was done speaking, was silent. She looked up, and then saw that it was not because Belle had missed something in the poem. Her mother’s eyes had tears in them, and she was smiling widely.

“You did wonderfully, Belle,” her mother exclaimed. “You did not stutter! Not one word!”

Belle could not help but break into a large smile at this. She had been so worried when she started reciting poetry that she would only ever stutter. For a while, this had been the case. She hated reciting to begin with, but that had been something that had been helpful. Without it, she may never have been able to stop stuttering every time she was nervous.

“I have noticed that I stutter less when I am nervous now,” Belle remarked. “You were right to tell me that the recitation of poetry would help, Mother. I thank you for everything you put into it.”

“Anything for you, Belle,” her mother reassured her. “I only want to see you happy. You know that, right?”

Belle could only nod. It had shown the last two years by not forcing Belle back to Town. She wanted to give the scandal enough time to calm down, but there was no guarantee that there would be anyone who wanted to court her when she returned to Town—if she returned to Town. She was not afraid to be alone for the rest of her life, as much as her parents did not want that to happen.

“You are excused, Belle. I do not have another poem for you quite yet; I wish to find one that is slightly longer or the same length as this one, and it seems to be hard to find one,” her mother said, frowning. “Do you have any ideas?”

“We could do The Iliad, Mother,” Belle said. “I’ve always wanted to read that.”

“The Iliad… I will look into it, Belle.” Her mother smiled. “You are a wonderful young woman. I hope you know that.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Belle responded. Then, she excused herself and went upstairs.

Dinner would be served soon, and she was to be ready for it when it was served. Ever since she could remember, her family had always dressed up rather elegantly for dinner. Tonight, she would wear a cream-colored dress. Her mother had insisted she wears it again soon, and especially for dinner. It was one of her mother’s favorite dresses on her, and Belle had to admit, it was a good dinner dress.

After she put it on, she finished the look with matching cream gloves. The gloves would come off when she sat down to eat dinner, but she knew that her parents would expect her to have them on when she walked into the dining room.

“You always look stunning in this dress, Lady Belle,” Lucy said. “I hope you enjoy dinner.”

“Thank you, Lucy,” Belle said.

Then, she walked down to the dining room. Her parents were there, as she had expected, and she took her seat at the elegantly mahogany pedestal table. The first course was served, and Belle took her gloves off carefully to avoid flinging them carelessly into her soup.

“Belle, I have come to a decision,” her father started. “We are going to Town, and we will be leaving within the next two days.”

She almost dropped her spoon.

“London?” she repeated, hoping that she had heard him wrong. She hoped he would correct himself and say they were going to Paris. Anything; anywhere was better than London.

“London, yes,” he repeated. “I wish for you to partake in the upcoming Season, since you have been out of society’s gaze for two years. I am sure this scandal with Lord Oliver is no longer the talk of the town, and thanks to your poetry lessons, you no longer stutter when nervous. I have not heard you stutter in a long time. This will be good for you.”

Belle gazed over at her mother. She found that her mother was staying silent, sipping her soup from her spoon.


Belle’s stomach knotted up. She did not like the idea of returning to London.

“Father, please,” Belle whispered. “Do not make me return to Town. I quite prefer the open country air to the stuffy air of the city.”

“We are going to London, and you will participate in the upcoming Season,” her father stated. “That is the final word I will allow on this subject. You need to find a man to marry; I will not allow my only daughter to become a spinster.”

She did not understand why she was supposed to marry so early. Whatever society had against spinsters, she did not understand. In fact, it sounded as though it would be perfect for her. She had never thought she would have children, as she cared as little as possible for the wails of a crying child or for the needs of the little things, and she did not feel like she was competent enough to run a household.

Her mother still said nothing, and the rest of the dinner was surprisingly silent. An air of misery hung over Belle like a cloud on a rainy day, and when she was able to excuse herself, she did so. She had not used her travel trunks in two years, and she had hoped her father would say he was going to Bath for business, as he was already so often away on business that she would not have minded.

As Lucy helped her out of the evening dress, there was a tangible nervousness to the air. Belle refused to say anything, afraid that she would start to stutter again.

She laid on her bed once she was in her bedclothes, and she tried to get some sleep. Perhaps in the morning she would be able to talk to her father about why this was such a horrible idea.

Sleep did not come easily to Belle. It did not come at all, in fact; she spent much of the evening tossing and turning in bed. When she realized that she was probably not going to get any sleep, she got out of bed and threw a dressing gown on. There was no reason to be found in her bedclothes, should Lucy or her mother check in on her to see why she was not sleeping.

She sat on the windowsill and watched the night sky. One could not see the stars in London unless things had changed. There were too many buildings. They all blocked out the stars and the moon. Tonight, there was a perfect night sky shining down through her window.

There were plenty of stars, and she could see the moon bright and clear. The stars twinkled as if they were trying to tell Belle that it would all be okay. She only had to get through a Season in Town, and if she did that, she would be all right.

As she sat, quietly pondering all the ways this could go wrong, she heard the knob of her bedchamber turn. She turned around, and she saw her mother stepping into her room.

“I thought you might be awake,” her mother whispered. “I tried to persuade your father not to pressure you into the London Season, but he seems set on it. He is worried you will be unmarried forever, and he does not want to see that humiliation befall you.” She let her shoulders drop, as if that was supposed to be some big weight off her shoulders.

Belle got up from the windowsill and took her mother’s hand.

“It will all work out for the best,” she said. She was not sure she believed it, yet, but if her father was truly that worried, then there was no reason she ought to put up a fuss. “I know it will.”

Her mother smiled a little.

“I am glad to hear that, Belle,” she said. “Now, will you be able to get sleep tonight? Or do you need a cup of tea?”


“I believe I will be able to fall asleep now, Mother. Thank you,” Belle replied. “You ought to get some sleep, too. We have a long day ahead of us; packing for London is no easy feat.”

Her mother let out a soft giggle before biding Belle a good night.

Belle shut the door to her bedchamber behind her mother, and then sat on the bed. As much as she wanted to yell at her father and tell him that this was not going to work out, her mother had a point. Her father was only doing what he thought was best for her.

Then again, he had said the same thing when she debuted on his timetable. He had been ready to see her make her way into London society as someone of power and of wealth, but she was not ready then. She had been too naïve to see when she had been used.

This time, she was not going to let her heart be broken. She would not fall in love. She would court if someone asked her, but she would not fall in love. It was not real. Men in society wanted to use women to their advantage.


She sincerely hoped Lord Oliver had moved on. If he was still unmarried, and still attending these events meant to introduce single women to single men, then she was going to have the validation that no one else had courted him. Or he had not asked anyone to court…

She shook her head. She was not going to entertain thoughts of resuming that courtship. It had ended in heartbreak once, and it could easily do so again. She was not going to give him the satisfaction of breaking her heart again.

Belle took a deep breath and pushed all of that aside.

This was a new Season. She was no longer the same woman who stuttered when she was entirely nervous anymore.

With that thought comforting her, she finally found some sleep, and it stole her away swiftly. She had too much to do in the coming days to afford to let the sleeplessness continue. Her dreams were full of the night sky, of the twinkling stars, and the bright moonlight. If she could hold onto that image, she would be all right.


Five years. He had spent five years away from London, and he had loved every second of it. In the Far East, he had been overseeing his father’s business interests. It had been a wonderful five years, even though his presence was now being requested in London. His sister was to be married this spring, and she wanted him at the wedding.

That was the letter that he had gotten weeks ago that had spurred this return to Town. He wanted to be there to support his sister, and now, as his ship moored in port, he took a good look at the city ahead of him. He remembered this sight well, and he was not sure he wanted to be back for anything other than his sister’s wedding.

It was a city of power and wealth, and he knew his sister’s wedding was going to be in the middle of the London Season. Everyone who was anyone in society, and that usually meant having a title in front of their name, was going to be in London until the summer, and they were going to be making connections, catching up with friends, and plenty of weddings were to happen this Season; he could feel it.

He stepped onto the dock and then started to look for the carriage his parents had sent for him. It did not take all that long to find it, and as he got into it, he looked down at his clothes. He had worn many suits in India, and this was simply his favorite one. He had bought it from a shop there, and he thought it worth wearing a little bit of comfort.

He would much prefer the fresh, humid air of the Indian city he had been living into the dank, musty air of London. The Thames, in particular, had a scent that he could not quite place, but he knew it was the Thames from the smell. It had been burned into his mind.

The carriage took him away, and he wondered what had changed in his home, Evandale Manor, since he had been away. Selena’s letter had not said much about what would be happening around the wedding, but that was because it was still being planned.

He could not believe that little Selena was all grown up now. She was a woman of society, and she was quite well-known, she had told him. Regardless, he was excited for her. Marriage was always something he had thought would never be for him, but he knew that if Selena were to marry, she would be marrying a man that made her absolutely happy.

Anything less and their father would have been devastated.

He arrived at Evandale shortly after that though, and he was not surprised to see that his mother and sister were waiting for him in the drive.

“Mother, Selena, what a pleasure it is to see you again,” he said as he got out of the carriage.

His mother hugged him first, and then Selena gave him a tight embrace.

“Oh, I was worried you would not make it!” Selena said. “You were supposed to be here days ago, according to your letter.”

“I thought I put the proviso that travel is always hard to estimate coming to and from India,” he said. “I am sorry to have worried you so, Selena. You do not need the extra stress.” He pulled away from her. “Where is Father?”


“He is in Parliament for the first meeting of the Season; he now serves as the Lord Chief Justice,” his mother said. “I am quite proud of him.”

“That is wonderful to hear,” Aaron said with excitement. “Well, shall we go inside? It seems as though a storm is brewing.” He looked up, and indeed, dark clouds had started to form above him. “The captain was worried we may not make it to port before the storm.”

“Well, you made it, and we ought to celebrate that. Come, lunch is ready,” his mother said.

He walked in behind his sister and his mother, and he knew that there was going to be something about the atmosphere at home that made him long to go back to India. It probably wouldn’t be tangible until his father said something that he didn’t agree with—that was the issue.

Lunch was served as they walked into the dining room.

“I cannot wait for Lady Sarah’s masquerade ball,” Selena said. “I hear that everyone who’s anyone is going to be there, and I know my beloved will be there, too.”

“Have you been to a masquerade ball before, Selena?” Aaron was intrigued now. He had never heard his sister gush so much about a party before; she was usually one to host the parties but keep the gossip to a minimum.


“I have been to a few of Lady Sarah’s parties before. They are always wonderful,” Selena said.


“It would be good of you to go too, Aaron,” his mother said.

The Duchess of Evandale always had strict ideas about what would be good for him, but they had never included a masquerade party, until now. He gave his mother a look based on that alone. Why would he need to go to the party?

“Why ought I go? I was not invited, was I?” He felt it would be odd to go without a proper invitation.

“Lady Sarah is always including you on the invitations Selena receives,” his mother explained. “Though she has never met you, she is always gracious enough to include you despite you being in India. She believes that when you come back, you will attend, and I believe it would only be proper of you to go to this one now that you are home. She has been inviting you since she started inviting Selena.”

“It is true,” Selena said.

“All right. I suppose I will go to the party,” he said.

He was not looking forward to attending a lot of parties. He had been part of society before leaving for India, and it had not been pleasant for him. He found many of the women to be gossips, and that was not something that he wanted in a woman. The scandal with Lord Oliver toying with that young woman’s heart had been enough to convince Aaron that courting had a lot of unnecessary troubles attached to it.

“I am glad to hear it, Aaron,” Selena said. “You will look splendid in a new suit, and I am sure that we can find you a mask.”

His sister and mother made plans to take him to get fitted for a new suit, and Aaron simply ate as they made the plans. He was willing to please his sister by going to this masquerade ball, but mainly because he would be able to meet his sister’s betrothed. He hoped.

There was no reason for him to start courting again. His last courtship had ended horribly, and he did not want to put his heart out again.

The rest of the evening consisted of unpacking the many trunks he sent ahead and then greeting his father when he arrived home from Parliament.

“I am glad to see that you have returned safely, Aaron,” his father said when Aaron greeted him. “You have grown into a fine man, and I am certain that you will have a good time here in London while we prepare for Selena’s wedding.”

Aaron’s stomach knotted up. This sounded like the introduction to another kind of sermon, and it was one he had been hoping he could avoid while he was here. There was simply nothing like it. His father probably wanted to tell him that he was not to go back to India, despite that being his wish—his sincerest desire.

London reminded him too much of Chloe. She had been ripped away from him too soon, and he was not certain his heart would ever recover from that blow. She had died too early, too young, and it had hurt to come to terms with.

“I know you probably still have a place in your heart for Lady Chloe, bless her soul,” his father continued. “But you are a man, and a stunning man at that. I want nothing less than the best for you, and as such, Aaron, I would like you to participate in the London season.”

“Father, please,” Aaron countered. “I do not think it appropriate. I am only here because Selena would like to see me at her wedding. That is the only reason I have so abruptly left India, and I plan to return.”

“You did not allow me to finish,” his father interrupted. “Please.” He took in a breath before adding, “You are twenty-five now, Aaron. You have not been seen in society for some time, and I think it best that you are seen this year.” His father looked him in the eyes at this point. “You should look for a young woman with a large dowry attached to her. I believe you will do well with this; you did the first time, and I believe you have not lost that charm. If nothing more, then at least think about this, Aaron.”

“Why do you wish for me to find another woman so badly, Father?” He could not understand his father’s thinking.


“I believe it will be best if you settle down. India is a wonderful occupation for a bachelor, but a man of society should not be seen in the mud and muck. He should not be seen doing his own business in a country far away unless he is starting a business there.” His father turned to go inside. “If nothing else, at least think about finding a young woman to settle down with. The longer you wait, the harder it will be for you to find such a woman to be with. Young women do not tend to look on older men making advances with pleasure, no matter how much their fathers may enjoy it.”

With that, his father walked inside.

Aaron turned to face the carriage. He had not yet been planning to leave, but having his father talk to him about finding a young woman to marry so suddenly had disoriented him. He did not believe the best course of action was to stay at Evandale tonight. Instead, Aaron would stay at his private quarters in Town.

So, he told the footman to take him there. It was in the heart of London proper’s best area, and he sat back in the carriage as they went on the way.

His heart ached for Lady Chloe now. Her father had given her hand in marriage to Aaron, and he had been so blissfully happy when he had been given permission to marry her. She had been something of a beauty in society with gorgeous porcelain skin and dark brown hair and eyes. Everything she wore looked beautiful on her, and her eyes always sparkled with joy.

Then, influenza had taken her away from him. He could do nothing but watch as she was reduced to a husk of herself, and then, slowly, she passed away with pain in every breath. He tried to be there to buoy her spirits, to tell her that she would get better, and that they would live happily together.

When he had been proven wrong, it had broken his heart.

“Sir, we have arrived.” The footman interrupted his thoughts.

“Thank you.” Aaron nodded slowly and got out of the carriage.

He walked inside and sat down on the couch in the drawing room. How could his father expect his heart to so quickly get over Chloe? Yes, it had been five years, but pains of the heart could not disappear rapidly. He had gone to India as a way of dealing with the pain.

As he sat there, wondering how his father could expect him to settle down, he came to realize that India had only allowed him to push the pain away periodically, but he had never dealt with it. Chloe had been the woman he wanted to marry. Out of all the other women in a society that he had met at balls and parties, it had been Chloe who had won his heart; who had torn the walls down and let him see what was in her own heart.

It had not been easy to admit he had fallen in love with her.

Instead, he had had to contemplate everything he did with her. He overanalyzed the relationship and almost lost her. When he realized he was in love with her, he let go of that and let the relationship blossom as it would.

That had been when she had fallen in love with him, seeing the real Aaron behind the wall that he had put up to keep his over-analysis of the situation a secret from her. She had talked him out of it…  And now, his mind raced again with the kind of over-analysis that he had once been able to shy away from.

No one in the ton had seen him in five years. They all probably believed him dead or married or on the continent. Perhaps in the colonies, as he had been for the last five years, but no one would know for sure what he was doing or where he was.

It felt wrong to enter society so suddenly again after such a disappearance.

He sighed, pulling himself up from the couch. At the very least, he had promised Selena that he would attend this masquerade party with her. So, he went to his bedroom to see what clothing he had left here, and how much of it still fit him. Regardless, his sister had insisted he get fitted for a new suit, so he took his time going through what he had left.

Five years left a lot of time for a body to change. He hoped he had not changed too much; perhaps he had gained some weight, but he did not think much of it.

Until none of his suits fit because they were all too small.

How did his father expect him to do anything without proper clothing?


A week had passed, and Belle already wished to be back in the countryside riding Silver. Her hair was pulled up in a tight braid that day, and she swore it was tighter than any bun she had worn in the last two years. Being in Town meant she had to follow society’s rules, and it was the rules that she believed her nerves stemmed from. While she had yet to stutter in front of anyone while in town, she felt it was only a matter of time before it happened again.

“Belle!” Her mother’s voice echoed up to the drawing room, where she sat working on a painting. “Belle, where are you?”

Belle had no time to answer before her mother burst into the drawing room, a few papers in her hands.

“What is it, Mother?” Belle furrowed her brows.

Her mother had never been so animated about papers before. She imagined that there was something in the papers, something important, otherwise, her mother would have brought this up when they were at dinner instead of searching out Belle explicitly to tell her about this.

“Your father and I have received an invitation to attend a masquerade ball. Listen to this, ‘To celebrate our daughter Lady Sarah Spencer’s debut into society, you are cordially invited to a masquerade ball. We would be much delighted to see the Duke and Duchess of Rayborn, as well as their lovely daughter, attend our masquerade ball.’ Isn’t that exciting Belle? We must get you a dress immediately!” Her mother was too excited to slow down.

Belle put her paints down and stood up, but only to gain her mother’s attention.

“A masquerade ball? But Mother, the last time I went to a ball…” She did not finish the sentence. There was no need to.

“I know. The last ball you went to was not the best,” her mother said. “But it is time to start anew. Come along, then, clean up your paints. Hurry.” Her mother made some motion as if to shoo a bird away. “The ball is tomorrow!”

This made Belle hurry. She cleaned up her paints and put them away, but she was still worried that she would not be able to attend a ball without inviting humiliation back into her life. It did not matter; a dress was hurriedly ordered from a nearby modiste, and the next evening, Belle had been fitted into it.

She had to admit that her mother knew what to put her in. The modiste would not have made the dress if her mother had not told her to do a pale blue ball gown. Of course, she had made up a matching pair of gloves and a reticule for the dance card she would inevitably carry.

Belle took a moment to smooth out a few wrinkles in the skirt due to how the dress had been carried to the Rayborn Manor from the modiste’s shop. It would not do to have wrinkles in her skirt.

She hurried downstairs so that her mother would not feel the need to hurry her along. When she arrived at the bottom of the stairs, she was surprised to see that her mother was not down yet. It did not matter much. As long as she was ready before they needed to leave, they would be on time tonight.

Her mother came down a few moments later, a box in her hands.

“I have something for you, Belle,” she said. “After what happened last time you were in society, I thought it time you saw this. I think it will boost your confidence.”

Belle took the box and opened it. Inside, a glittering sapphire pendant with diamonds around it sat on a velvet cushion. She took it out of the box gingerly.

“It is beautiful.” She smiled a little.

“It belonged to your great-grandmother. I would like you to have it.” Her mother smiled and helped her put it on. “Your great-grandmother used to wear this when she would go to events. She said it was a good way to get conversation started if the man could not think of anything to say, and if he started many conversations by discussing it, she did not want to court him because he would be boring.”

Belle could not help but laugh.

“Thank you, Mother,” she said. “Now, to Alesbrooke Manor, yes?”

“Yes, yes,” her mother said. “Your father is getting the carriage now. Oh, you look beautiful in this dress. You will do wonderfully tonight. If you feel nervous, recite your poetry in your head, okay?” Her mother put a hand on her shoulder.

Belle nodded.

“Yes, Mother.”

With that, the butler announced that the carriage had been brought around and that they were ready to depart. Belle and the Duchess walked out, and her father helped them into the carriage. Soon, they were off to Alesbrooke Manor.

Belle took in a deep breath as the carriage departed. She was already feeling the nerves begin, and she had not even arrived yet!

Her father complimented the choice of dress as the carriage drew closer to Alesbrooke Manor, and Belle could feel the heat on her cheeks. She donned her mask, a sapphire blue-hued Venetian half-mask meant to coordinate with the necklace, she now realized. As she drew the strings around her head, tightening the mask into place, she felt some of the nerves dissipate.

If the men and women here were to have known about the scandal with Lord Oliver, they would not be able to tell she was that woman since she has this mask on. Since she doubted that her name would have come out in connection to the scandal, since it fell squarely on Lord Oliver’s shoulders, she felt a little safer about going to the party and not having to relive that nightmare.

The carriage arrived at Alesbrooke Manor shortly thereafter, and her father got out of the carriage first. He helped her mother out, and then, he helped Belle out of the carriage to avoid either of their dresses wrinkling.

The butler answered the door, and once he confirmed that they were expected guests, he led them into the dining hall.

The dining hall itself had been transformed from what Belle could only imagine was already a grand room into something even more spectacular. It looked as though, perhaps, it had come out of a fairytale. The atmosphere was filled with the sweet smell of flowers. There was a colorful variety of them everywhere, hung about the ceiling and on the tables. Thankfully, there were not any on the floor, but Belle had a feeling that by the end of the night, there would be flowers under their feet.

The tables were another matter. Each one had been set with the greatest crystal she imagined the Spencer family could afford, but what caught her attention was the center pieces. It was not a vase of flowers, as one might have expected. Instead, each and every table was set with pineapples in the center. Belle counted at least ten pineapples. Ten.

The pineapple, an exotic fruit that did not grow there at all, was a known symbol of wealth. For each table to have a pineapple on the center was a great show of wealth and power. The Spencer family, certainly, would have known this, as everyone in high society could not stop talking about how expensive and beautiful the fruit was.

Though it was funny how no one seemed to have ever tasted it.

Belle continued to look around, though she was no longer intrigued by the show of wealth. It was a common thing in Town, especially when parties were being held. Everyone wanted to show how they could be the best match for someone’s son or daughter. It seemed as though the lord of the manner wished to show that his daughter could be a very good match indeed for someone.

Why else would someone have ten pineapples at a masquerade party?

The Duke of Alesbrooke had done some fine planning, indeed, as the pineapples were the talk of the crowd to start.

“What lovely fruits!” Belle’s mother examined one curiously. “I’ve seen pineapples before, but these are beautiful. They must be extremely fresh.”

“Do you think they actually imported the pineapples?” Her father voiced the question in a whisper.

“Oh, Bertram, you don’t know when to keep your mouth quiet,” her mother scolded him. “It does not matter how they got the pineapples; to have so many of them here tonight means they are indeed wealthy. Richer than I ever would have expected.”

“The wealth is only displayed at certain times of the year, and for him to display such wealth now to celebrate his daughter’s debut into society is only expected,” her father countered. “What makes it more of a show is whether he bought them or if he had a business partner supply them!”

“Father, Mother, I do not think it matters whether the pineapples were a gift or not. What matters is that they are wealthy enough to afford them. This many pineapples must have cost a fortune!” Belle interjected, hoping that she could stop the argument from becoming too loud.

She didn’t want other people to hear her parents arguing over this. It did not matter.

“Yes, you are right, Belle,” her father said. “Come. Let us find somewhere to sit for a moment. I know the party shall not start until the Duke of Alesbrooke has a chance to introduce his daughter, though it ought to be happening any moment now.” He started to lead Belle and the Duchess toward a table.

Belle continued to marvel at why the pineapples mattered at all. Perhaps her parents were curious and wanted to buy a pineapple off of them to try it. She would not have minded that at all; she was rather curious as to what this expensive fruit was supposed to taste like. Reports differed, but she was inclined to believe that something with such spikes on the outside was more likely to taste sour than sweet.

A throat cleared, quieting the entire room. Belle’s father stopped in his place, motioning for his wife and Belle to do the same.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice echoed. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you will all be quiet for a moment.”

Everyone turned to see where the voice was coming from. Belle was not surprised that it was the Duke of Alesbrooke speaking; he was the one hosting this lavish party, after all.

He motioned toward a young lady, who stepped forward. As she came to stand at his side, the duke raised a glass of champagne. Belle could see the bubbles in the liquid, and she wondered what kind of champagne he had acquired for tonight. It would not be any old champagne, that was for sure.

“Thank you all for coming to celebrate my daughter’s debut into society,” the Duke began again. “I am certain you shall not be disappointed. Come, partake of the fruits and drink of the night, and have a wonderful evening.” The Duke lowered his glass before giving his daughter a hug.

Then, the party began.

Belle’s father helped her find a place to sit down, as her dance card was not been even slightly full. She was not sure if she was glad about that or not; dancing had been one of the triggers two years ago. She still was not sure how Lord Oliver had come to understand her stuttering, but he had.

At least for a while.

While seated at the table, she enjoyed the sight of the pineapple. It had a nice green stem, and it seemed as fresh as could be. Perhaps it had only arrived in the country earlier that morning. That would have explained the sight, and why it did not smell as though it had gone rotten yet.

She had once been in a room with a rotten pineapple. It did not smell good. She could say that much about it.

She turned her attention off the centerpiece, feeling a bit rude for silently judging its quality. The point was not to judge the quality. Pineapples were the ultimate show of wealth, and she wanted to leave it at that.

She watched the couples twirling around the dance floor. This was a waltz, she knew; it was beautiful to watch. She could barely dance it. It took too much concentration, and if she was asked to talk to the man during the waltz, she could not manage both. Either she stuttered because she was too nervous about dancing, or she did not stutter, but she stepped on her partner’s feet quite a few times.

Both were embarrassing to her.

She enjoyed looking and watching, though. There was nothing that would have given her more pleasure than to sit there and watch the couples dance all night long. She would not have to worry about making a fool of herself. The women who were not asked to dance were never really a target for scandals.

However, a man caught her eye. He was walking toward her as if he were going to ask her to dance, but she knew that the refreshments table was behind her. He could have just as easily been going to get a drink or trying find a piece of cake as he could have been coming to ask her to dance with him.

She secretly hoped that he was just going for the refreshments. However, her stopped in front of her.

“May I hope for the honor of your hand for the next dance, my lady?” He held his hand out to her.

The waltz had finished, and another set would soon play.

Belle rose from her seat. The sound of his voice and the cologne he wore sent butterflies soaring through her stomach.

“It would be my pleasure, my lord” she said flippantly with a curtsy.

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