Every year, the Marwood ball was packed to the rafters with the rich and the richer, the titled and the landed, the people who wanted to move up the social ladder and those who were clinging on by the tips of their fingernails. This year was, of course, no different.
Edward wondered if there was a certain comfort in that predictability – things didn’t change, events occurred every season and would go on until the day he died. And even then the events wouldn’t stop; he just wouldn’t be expected to attend anymore.
That was something at least.
The smell of pomade and starch was strong, the room overheated from all the candles and hot air as the guests prattled on and on about how dreadful the prior night’s musicale had been. Five young women trotted out before the ton so that they could display just how badly they played the pianoforte. It had been excruciating.
“And that’s the Duke of Somervale,” he heard a girlish voice whisper from somewhere to his left and above. There was a balcony there where people would have punch and look at the dancers.
And apparently gossip about him.
He couldn’t say why he just stood there and listened. He should have turned around and given them a glare or moved off and ignored them.... But he didn’t; for some reason he couldn’t define, he stayed and listened.
“My sister was ever so in love with him when she made her debut.”
“Which sister?” a female voice asked. Edward suspected he didn’t know her either.
“Ooohh, what happened?”
Edward wracked his brain, trying to sort through recent debutantes he knew by the name of Anne. No one in particular came to mind.
“She met him. At the Winchester’s house party in Norfolk. Said she was so nervous she could barely say her own name. She said he’s different; that being next to him and talking to him, it’s terrible.”
“Terrible?” the other girl said, her tone fascinated.
Edward frowned. Terrible? He was terrible? The way they spoke, it was as though they were telling a naughty ghost story. Did that make him the ghost?
“Because he’s so handsome. It was like he was seeing into her soul. She said it was as though he knew she liked him.”
“Did he?” the other girl asked with a gasp.
Edward wanted to turn around and say ‘no, he didn’t’. Explain that, in fact, he had no idea who they were talking about. He went to the Winchester’s house party every year, and he couldn’t remember meeting somebody named Anne. And he certainly had not been gazing into her eyes soulfully. Whatever that meant.
“I doubt it.”
He was just getting ready to move off, deciding he didn’t need to hear any more gossip about himself and how another debutante thought herself half in love with him when she said, “Anyway, she doesn’t like him anymore. She said he was cold. Came across as unfeeling and that Katherine, that ice princess he’s engaged to could have him. They deserve each other. Now she’s obsessed with that banker, the Swiss one who’s been funding the prince and his escapades.”
A banker? Some girl had decided she didn’t like him because she liked a banker instead? He sighed and did move away, parts of their conversation still ringing in his ears. He didn’t care. Not really. They deserve each other. It wasn’t a surprise that the girls did not like his fiancée; there was something rather distant about her. As though she were so busy in herself and thinking about how things related to her and her own perfection, that she didn’t have time for anybody else. Not people she met, were related to or perhaps would even marry.
And this gossiping stranger thought they deserved each other.
Edward spotted his fiancée on the dance floor dancing with some regimental hero, who’d undoubtedly done something very brave in some far-off land and come back with stories of killing natives armed with sticks. Very heroic[b1] , he thought with a scowl.
It would be his turn soon enough. When she looked at him, lifted her clear blue gaze from the man she was with and sought him out, it wasn’t to see if he disapproved or because she wanted to see him; it wasn’t because she couldn’t keep herself from looking at him because she cared for him. No, that would be…common. Vulgar, even. No, the reason his fiancée kept track of him was because she should.
When his dance came at the end of the evening, (and it was just one, sometimes two if she really wanted to show how ‘in love’ she was with him) she wanted to ensure he was where he was supposed to be. Not playing cards in the anteroom or drunk in a corner, but ready to squire her around the room for all to see.
Not that he ever did get drunk in corners or shirk his duty. But just in case. She didn’t trust anyone to do the correct thing except for herself. Just then, she flashed him a look, those arctic blue eyes colliding with his from across the room, ignoring the besotted man she danced with. Her new partner, the Earl of Chester, looked at Katherine as though she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.
Edward supposed that was true. She was certainly the most graceful and beautiful woman in the room. His bride-to-be. Every doting mama told him how lucky he was; every man thumped him on the back and leered at her unpleasantly. Not only was she beautiful, she was rich as hell, blue-blooded as they came and the perfect choice for a duke.
And now, here he was, standing in a room full of people, watching them twirl around him and he suddenly felt sick, almost panicked at the idea that he was…here. Lucky enough to be alive when he dreaded today, tomorrow and every day into the future. Lucky enough to be alive when people who were better than him were dead.
Well, not people, just one—Helen. Was it a sign of just how awful he was that other people lived and died every day, hundreds of them, even thousands of them, and yet all he thought about was one? Just Helen. Who occupied his days with grief, and filled his nights with a desperate and peculiar sense of loneliness that was deeper than misguided lust.
Helen. She was unlucky. She was....
Edward looked down into his glass of champagne, watching the bubbles fizz to the surface. Bubbles rose. Dead bodies rose too sometimes. Although her body had never been found. An image of Helen on the last night he’d seen her came to him, replacing the world around him, overriding the noise and scents, the conversations and dancing, the happy people and even those who were here simply because they were expected to be.
For one pure moment, everything around him disappeared, and all he could see was Helen’s dead body floating to the surface of the water. The way it would move up, as if life and vitality had been holding her dozens of feet under, and when she gave that last breath, when she finally sucked in water and it exploded in her body and killed her, that, in his mind, was the moment she rose to the surface. Weightless, motionless, limbs relaxed, and dark hair spread around her like a cloud.
Was she still out there, floating in the water? The idea of it was so sharp that it pierced him. He felt the pain of it in his chest and stomach. It made his fingers clench and his breath exhale. The glass in his hand shook as his hand trembled.