Chapter 64

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Mr. Brummell was fashionably late, as was the usual course when picking Clara up for a meal. Clara wished she could put what she learned out of her mind, but she could not. How could Benjamin be so deceitful? How dare he take this choice away from her?

"Ah, there you are!" Mr. Brummell said as if it was Clara who's been missing. Clara smiled at him tolerantly and rose to accept his greeting.

"Shall we?" Mr. Brummell offered Clara his arm. She nodded, linking her arm with his. Clara engaged in little conversation on the way to dinner. Her heart heavy with the knowledge she gained, it was difficult to relieve herself of her melancholy.

As they sat at their reserved table, Mr. Brummell looked at her with concern. "Are you unwell, Clara? Is that the true reason for you not joining me this morning, as always? If you are, you must tell me. If anything were to happen to you on my watch, Benjamin would never forgive me."

A snide remark leaped from her mind to her mouth but thankfully did not escape her lips regarding how Benjamin would treat her well-being. Instead, she swallowed it and gave Mr. Brummell a gracious smile.

"My apologies, I am quite distracted. I have much on my mind." Clara thought it best to keep things vague and was rewarded with Mr. Brummell, providing her with the perfect excuse for her mood.

"So, you received your invitation, then? Mr. McAlister and I have as well. You have accepted, of course?"

"Of course, I would not hesitate for all the world."

"You have born this trial beautifully, Clara. No one could have born it better, but soon this charade will end and you and Mr. McAlister will be together again."

"Speaking of charades, don't you think it odd that the Queen would choose to hold a masquerade ball. It seems a little unpatriotic, all things considered."

"You wish my honest opinion?"

"Always."

The waiter interrupted them by taking their selections. Mr. Brummell ordered for them both. A habit that irritated Clara, but she allowed it. He then leaned in conspiratorially, whispering, "I believe it a test."

"A test? What sort of test?"

"The Queen is well aware of your attraction for one another. You'd have to be blind not to see it. You light up a room whenever Benjamin is near and he can not stop beaming at just the mere sight of you. I must admit there is something I envy in the way the two of you get on. I've always found relationships engaging but never felt inspired enough to wish to be engaged."

Mr. Brummell laughed at his own joke and had Clara wondering why should any of this matter to the Queen.

"But why the need for costumes?"

Mr. Brummell looked upon her as if she were simple and perhaps she was. Despite all her adventures and experiences, Clara knew very little of courtly intrigues. The constant drive to better one's status, to gain favors among the elite, were all foreign concepts to her. Watching Mr. Brummell perform whenever they were in society appeared exhausting. She didn't know how he did it, another reason she guessed for Benjamin keeping her away from London.

"I believe it to be a test of love," Mr. Brummell provided. "Will you and Mr. McAlister be able to seek one another out? Find each other through a crowd of masked members? The Queen is a romantic at heart, evident by how she has stuck by the King and mourns his loss, even though he is still here."

"I hadn't thought of that," Clara said. All she wished to do was confront Benjamin, to demand certain truths, but this will complicate matters greatly. Clara frowned in her frustration.

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