Ada never did have a head for gossip, especially when it pertained to the affairs of people buried about two hundred years before she was even born. But, well, when in Rome (or Regency London, as the case happened to be). If that meant small talking with Mister Wilhelm Willoughby as they floundered around the ballroom, so be it.
Unfortunately, Ada knew 19th century social politics about as well as she did 19th century waltzes, and so she found herself winging it on both fronts.
A faux pas was inevitable.
"Do you care much for Miss Lovell's singing?" Mister Willoughby asked. He was not what her friends back home would call handsome -- boyish and naturally reedy though in his late twenties, with a twice-broken nose and muddy red hair. But he had clear blue eyes and smatterings of freckles across his sharp cheekbones that spoke of idyllic afternoons in the sunshine. A lopsided smile. Ada thought he had real potential.
She couldn't pick the aforementioned Miss Lovell from the crowd of onlookers pressed tight against emerald-green wallpaper, much less account for her singing ability. An embarrassed, happy laugh bubbled out of Ada as Mister Willoughby spun her once. He took her hand and lead her through a line of waiting dancers, her steps just a beat too slow. "I think it's lovely."
His laughter joined hers, but it was low, secretive, disbelieving. "Perhaps we have listened to different Miss Lovells, then. The one I heard last Tuesday resembled the dying throes of a chicken before Sunday dinner."
The noise of Ada's surprised snort startled the surrounding party-goers. She could feel the weight of their stares on her, face warming. One misstep led to another -- the heel of her slipper coming down on the toe of Mister Willoughby's shoe when they emerged from the other side, hands linked as they joined the arch. A pained smile flashed through his features.
"Perhaps I subscribe to the old adage. If you can't say anything nice..." she managed.
"Suppose that's true, yes." The humor dropped from his expression like a reprimanded child. Ada felt bad for ruining his joke. "I hear that Mister Hennicker is giving her lessons in the art of singing during her season in London."
"Perhaps she ought to get a new tutor, then," Ada answered easily.
A woman with dirty blond curls blocked her view for a moment as she was lead by her partner, giggling, but when she passed it was immediately apparent that this, too, had been the wrong thing to say. Mister Willoughby's expression was dark. "If there's anyone who can improve that awful crowing, it will be Mister Hennicker. He's a good friend of mine and has quite an ear for music."
The promenade through the line of dancers was finished. It might have been her imagination, but Mister Willoughby seemed to spin her with much less care as they reformed their circle, his gloved hand catching hers roughly as the waltz resumed. At least now she was getting the hang of it.
For the first time since the dance began, her attention left him in hopes of finding inspiration that would lead them away from this minefield of a conversation. Above them, a fine crystalline chandelier was suspended, its candles bathing the room in a warm butter-yellow light that made Mister Willoughby look even earthier. The hardwood floors were so polished that she could see the whole room's reflection tinged in teak. A loose bundle of firewood cracked and glowed from the hearth. To their right, an open doorway led to the dining room, where a few servants cleaned, gilded porcelain plates clinking as they were gathered for return to the kitchen. The scent of roast turkey still hung in the air.
"What did you think of dinner?" If there was anything universally understood, it was food.
"It was fine," Mister Willoughby said, more of a derisive grunt than an actual reply. He added begrudgingly a moment later: "I liked the trifle."
Ada's smile curled knowingly. "I thought it was good, too. A little heavy on the port, but one can never have too much of a good thing if you ask me."
His expression thawed slightly.
Encouraged, she continued. "Of course, that's just my thoughts on it. For what it's worth, the kitchen is as comfortable to me as I suspect a place on horseback is for you."
There was a glint of a smile at that. "Can you read me so easily?"
"Like a book," Ada breathed. It was true. She was so close that she could catch whiffs of his copper tailcoat, which smelled like hay and grass and sunshine. "Men like you are my favorite subject to study, Mister Willoughby."
The sounds of the string quartet seemed so far away in the ensuing silence. She knew she had overstepped.
"Forgive me for being forward, Miss Bloom, but I'm beginning to suspect that you're not exactly who you say you are."
Her heart nearly stopped. "I'm quite unsure of what you mean."
She couldn't break character. It was part of the agreement.
"I've been watching you since you arrived. You struggled through dinner and now you waltz like a young girl first learning her steps," Mister Willoughby said, his voice a close and dangerous whisper that electrified the fine curls left unpinned at the nape of her neck. His fingers laced through hers, closing. The dance went round and round. "But perhaps the most obvious clue is the way you speak. It's absolutely atrocious. You're no more from Yorkshire than I am."
Perhaps her put-on accent was less passable than she initially thought.
She stared at him, jaw working, but no words came. Ada wasn't sure what the protocol was for this. Would she be fined? Banned from the agency on her very first outing? Her thoughts raced, calculating an escape route. Her chaperone wouldn't be here for another thirty minutes.
"You're a Yankee, aren't you?" His self-satisfied smile put a dimple in his right cheek.
The words pierced the mounting tension she'd felt since first arriving to the party armed with little more than some acting classes and a deep appreciation of Jane Austen movies. (She'd tried the books but could never get into them.) Her shoulders shook with the beginnings of a relieved laugh but she smothered it back down. She still needed to play the part of someone who was sorry.
"Yes," she admitted, dropping the accent entirely as she ducked her head. "Yes, that's true, Mister Willoughby. From Virginia. I'm afraid I am the retiring sort and don't wish to call attention to my foreign status. So I thought perhaps it would be better if I played a game of make-believe. My deepest apologies for deceiving you during our short acquaintance. It is wholly within your right if you don't wish to speak to me again after this dance."
Applause erupted as the song came to an end. An older gentleman in a puce coat called above the din of murmured conversation for the other men to join him outside for port.
"Perhaps I'm not the only one who is so easily read," he said, expression softening. He swallowed hard. "Would -- would a certain Yankee lady care to picnic out in the country come next month? Miss Lovell is arranging it."
"That depends," Ada said. When she lifted her head shyly she was biting back a grin. "Will she be singing?"
YOU ARE READING
[NEW UPDATE] Time travel isn't just possible, it's been legalized by the US government. Many industries have capitalized on the trend, including dating agencies. Now anyone can travel to the past for their own Regency romance or wild west affair...