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I was never much for gossip. Especially when said gossip concerned the lives of people buried about two hundred years before I was even born. But, well, when in Rome—or Regency London, as the case happened to be. If that meant feigning interest in small talk with Mr. Thomas Pickering as we floundered around the ballroom, so be it.

Unfortunately, I knew 19th century social politics about as well as I did 19th century waltzes. Not exactly something they teach you in European History class, believe it or not. Let's just say I found myself winging it on both fronts.

A faux pas was inevitable.

"Do you care much for Ms. Lovell's singing?" Mr. Pickering asked. Kairos had done a good job with him. He was certainly handsome in a 'Jane Austen romantic lead' sort of way. (The movies, I mean; I couldn't get into the books.) Wavy hair, classical features, endearingly crooked teeth. I just wish his personality had been up to par. Since the music had started, he'd done nothing but regale me with rumors regarding half of the party's guests.

If I had been introduced to a Ms. Lovell, I certainly didn't remember her. Scanning the edges of the ballroom, I tried to glean which of the blushing, chignon-wearing girls might've been her. None of them stood out to me.

"I find it lovely." An embarrassed, happy giggle bubbled out of me as Mr. Pickering spun me once. As he took my hand to lead me through a line of waiting dancers, I hope he didn't notice that my steps were just a beat too slow.

His laughter joined mine, but there was something patronizing about it that I didn't like. "Perhaps we have listened to different Ms. Lovells, then. The one I heard last Tuesday sounded like one of my hunting dogs."

"Perhaps I subscribe to the old adage." When we emerged from the other side, the heel of my slipper came down on the toe of Mr. Pickering's boot. I'd like to claim that particular misstep was intentional—a gentle push for him to mind his manners—but that'd be giving myself too much credit. Our hands linked as we joined the arch. "'If you cannot find something nice to say...'"

"Suppose that is true, yes." The humor dropped from his face like a reprimanded child. I felt bad for ruining his joke. "I hear that Mr. Hennicker is giving her lessons in the art of singing during her season in London."

"Maybe she ought to get a new tutor then." I'd learned from my first response that Mr. Pickering wasn't looking for pleasantries.

But it was immediately apparent that this, too, had been the wrong thing to say. Mr. Pickering's expression was stony. "If anyone can improve that awful crowing, it will be Mr. Hennicker. My good friend has quite the ear for music."

The promenade through the line of dancers was finished. It might have been my imagination, but Mr. Pickering seemed to spin me with much less care as we reformed the circle. His gloved hand caught mine roughly as the waltz resumed. At least now I was getting the hang of it.

The sounds of the string quartet filled the gap in our conversation as I searched for a less-offensive subject. There were no answers in the glittering chandelier above us, nor consolation in the slow drip of its candles. Though we were upstairs now, the smell of roast turkey had followed us from the dining room. If there was anything universally understood, it was food. "What did you think of dinner?"

"It was fine." It was more of a begrudging grunt than an actual reply. "I liked the trifle."

I hoped there wasn't too much victory in my smile. "I thought that 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."

Mr. Pickering's green eyes wandered. He broke into a rakish grin. "Yes. Yes, I can see that."

I could feel the good humor drain from my face. He was either ogling me or calling me fat. Maybe both, though I couldn't recall if Regency was one of those eras where the two intersected. For the moment, I decided to let it slide. "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."

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