41. To Meet without Trousers

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I was feeling great. I had won! Against Mr Arrogant Stone Face Ambrose! I was feeling really great – until I got home that evening and saw the familiar coach of Sir Philip Wilkins standing in front of our house, with several servants in attendance.

Blast!

I immediately knew what that had to mean. On his previous visits, when Wilkins had come alone to see Ella, he had arrived in a small carriage with open roof. The arrival of his largest coach could mean only one thing: a ball. And moreover a ball to which not only Ella would be attending with him. No. We all would go.

Including me.

Me! Sweet little me, exposed to the horrors and dangers of a ball!

Blast, blast, blast! Why hadn't I heard of this? Yes, last time he had given us a last-minute invitation, but something like that was far from usual. Normally invitations to balls were normally issued weeks in advance.

Why didn't I hear about this? I could have started my protest in time, or hidden in the London sewers, or burned the house down!

I saw my aunt step out of the door. Thank God I had already changed out of uncle Bofford's trousers, because a moment later she spotted me and gave me a self-satisfied smile. A very bad word escaped me that I was sure a lady shouldn't use, especially to describe her own aunt. But I couldn't help it. I realized what had happened. Of course! That witch had deliberately not told me about the ball so I wouldn't find a way to get out of it!

For a moment, I considered running. I could escape into the dark streets of London and spent the night under a bridge, where surely it would be more comfortable than in a brightly lit ballroom with people everywhere wanting to dance. Nobody would try to step on my feet under a bridge, for a start. But then I remembered Ella, and felt ashamed of myself. Hadn't I promised myself that I would find a way to help my little sister get rid of Wilkins? And here I was, shirking to go to a ball along with her and her unwanted admirer.

I had to go! I had to protect her from Wilkins' attentions as best I could.

So, feeling as though I were walking towards my doom, I began to set one foot in front of the other, finally reaching the doorway.

"Ah, there you are, Lilly!" My aunt smiled a smile so devious it belonged exclusively to aunts and serial killers. "Do you know what? I absolutely forgot to tell you that we received an invitation to Lady Metcalf's ball."

I closed my eyes. My fate was worse than I had imagined.

"Lady Metcalf?" I whispered, my voice resembling the last desperate vocal attempts of a victim of pertussis[1] before the grave claimed them.

"Indeed. And Sir Philip is so nice as to take us all there in his coach. Isn't that just wonderful, Lillian?"

"I can hardly find words to express my feelings on the subject."

"Probably." She eyed me sharply. Suddenly, her  voice became a lot less sweet, and a lot more like that of a general. "Go upstairs dress! I've laid your ball gown out for you, and will expect you down here in five minutes."

"We'll be leaving that quickly?"

"No. But I'll need to keep an eye on you. And I have a few words to say to you before we leave."

Oh-oh... This can't be good.

I hurried upstairs to change, determined to do it in under five minutes. Unfortunately, Ella wasn't there to help me, so it took me over a quarter of an hour to squeeze into my ball gown. When I came down again, my aunt didn't look all too pleased. I could hear Maria's high laugh from the drawing room, and a door opening.

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