“From my brain,” he said, “via my mouth.”
The corners of her mouth quirked into a near smile, and her brow furrowed in thought. Her fork remained suspended. “I think,” she said, “it must be something I do not remember with my conscious mind, though my whole body recoils with a nameless dread when I try to recall what it was like.”
Ah. It was too bad of him to have assumed she would choose one of the two moments he had imagined. Now what had he stirred up?
“I think it must be the day I was left at the orphanage,” she said. “The man who took me there was gruff and impatient with me, I believe, but at least I must have known who he was and what connection he had with me. But then—the sheer terror of abandonment and the unknown when I had experienced security and happiness up to that point. Perhaps it was not so at all. Perhaps I was quite happy to arrive at a place where there were other children to play with. Certainly I have no really bad memories of my life there. Perhaps that almost-memory is not a memory at all.”
And perhaps it was. Well, this was wonderful conversation for a festive evening.
“Eat your dinner, Anna,” he said, and the fork finally found its way to her mouth.
“And what was yours?” she asked him. “The most frightening moment of your life, that is.”
He considered a flippant answer and decided upon honesty. “Similar to yours in a way,” he said. “When I was taken up to the dormitory I was to share with seven other boys on my first day of school when I was eleven, it was to find that I was last to arrive and the only boy who had not been there before. The hush that fell on the room was deafening. And then one of the boys said, Oh, look, Paddy. Your father has sent your baby sister to join you. And they all cackled like hens—or like budding cockerels, I suppose. That night they kept me awake as I cowered beneath the bedcovers with unexpected bangs and ghost noises and muffled laughter. But it was not ghosts I feared. It was them.”
She was gazing intently at him. “Oh, poor little boy,” she said. “When did you change?”
“Avery,” the dowager said from his left, “I have been told that you are a severe disappointment to the ladies at every ball you attend. Apparently you dance two or three times with the prettiest girls and then disappear to the card room or off the premises entirely. I hope the card room does not see more of you tonight than the ballroom does.”
He turned his attention back to her, and Anna resumed her meal and was soon conversing with Molenor again. He never, Avery mused, talked about his childhood and boyhood with anyone. But he had just done so.
“I have new dancing shoes,” he said. “And though my valet has worked tirelessly upon them, they need to be properly broken in. I shall dance every set even if have to go to bed with ten blistered toes and two blistered heels.”
* * *
The ball that followed was so far beyond anything Anna had experienced before that she only wished she could sit on the sidelines as some mothers and chaperones did, simply observing it all. But it was all for her, and she was very much the focus of attention.
The ballroom itself took her breath away. It seemed enormous, though it was probably not much larger than the ballroom at Westcott House. It was decked with banks and pots and hanging baskets of pink, peach, and white blossoms and green ferns and was fragrant with their scents. Gilded chairs upholstered with dark green velvet were arranged side by side around the perimeter. The wooden floor had been polished to a high gloss. The coved, painted ceiling was hung with three large crystal chandeliers, all of them fully fitted with lit candles. A pianoforte and other instruments on the dais at one end of the room awaited the orchestra. Double doors at the other end were thrown back to reveal a square chamber set with white-clothed tables, silver urns, crystal decanters, and empty space that would soon hold trays of dainties for the refreshment of the guests. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors lined one long wall, doubling the light and effect of the floral displays. Along the wall opposite, French windows had been opened onto a wide, lantern-lit stone balcony.
“And it is all in your honor, Anastasia,” Aunt Louise said. “How do you feel?”
“It is beautiful, Aunt,” she said, evading the question.
Guests started to arrive soon after and continued to stream in for longer than an hour as Anna stood inside the doors with Aunt Louise on one side and the duke on the other. She listened carefully to the majordomo as he announced each guest and tried for a while to memorize names and faces and to remember how perfect etiquette dictated she greet each one. But it was impossible. And how were so many people going to fit into the ballroom, let alone dance?
It did not take long for Anna to realize—as she had expected—that she did not look very gorgeous at all in comparison with every other lady who came through the doors. All of them glittered with jewels, their gowns marvels of frills and flounces, lace and ribbons and marvels too of the law of gravity. How could they possibly feel comfortable with bodices so low that disaster was a mere fraction of an inch away? Heads abounded with curls and ringlets and coronets and turbans and tall, waving plumes. Perfumes were almost overpowering.
And then it was time for the dancing to begin, and the duke led her onto the floor for the quadrille. She had learned the steps at school and brushed up on them with Mr. Robertson, but it had been too formal a dance to be much favored at orphanage parties. Anna danced it now with her heart in her throat, for she knew everyone was looking at her—and it was not conceit that made her believe so. The Duke of Netherby really did outshine every other gentleman present, of course, and he danced with elegance and with his sleepy eyes directed fully at her, with the result that she soon forgot to fear she would miss a step or a whole sequence of steps. She looked back at him and forgot too that she was a curiosity to all these people—the crème de la crème of polite society—and that she would be spoken of and judged tomorrow in fashionable drawing rooms and club rooms throughout London. She simply enjoyed the dance.