Poppy gasps. I can literally hear the sharp intakes from most others. A snort of laughter comes from some lady in the crowd.
I scramble to my feet. My face is burning, my heart sinking to the soles of my aching feet. I don’t dare to look at the queen. Or Darcy Guy. I should have finished the journey, but I can’t risk it. I gather my train in my left hand, brush my veil aside with my right, and slink away to the nearest seat.
Even though I’m keeping my head down, I can sense Bianca’s glare, directly across the aisle, sharp and piercing. Her performance must have been flawless, but I, on the other hand, couldn’t have been worse. Well, I had made an impression, though not what Lady Bradshaw expected.
The queen pretends that nothing happened, bless her.
“Let the next lady be presented.”
Claire proceeds down the aisle; she is perfect as the quintessential blonde beauty. Her hair trails down her back like a waterfall of pure gold, her crystal blue eyes are luminous and fringed by thick lashes, her skin pink and glowing. She executes the curtsy in a movement as smooth and graceful as a ballet dancer.
If the queen were an Olympic judge of gymnastics, she would have held up a card with full marks on it. Whereas I would get a big fat zero.
While I’m staring at Claire’s back, I notice Darcy Guy looking over at me. His eyes—hazelnut like the queen’s—gleam like a flashlight in darkness, and he gives me the tiniest of nods.
I don’t respond. I’m mad at him, even though it isn’t his fault. Judging from his attire, he must be a close relative of the queen. Holy guacamole, he could be the prince!
I told him the royal family were imbeciles. What if he tells the queen? He asked my name, and they announced it just now, so he knows who I am. Oh God, what kind of trouble am I in?
Someone kill me again.
At the dessert buffet that follows the presentation, I avoid talking to others. Which isn’t hard; no one bothers to talk to me. Except for Poppy, who tries to offer a few sympathetic words. Maybe, after seeing how I humiliated myself before the queen, everyone figures it’s best to leave me alone.
I pick at my food and sigh. They have arranged chocolate muffins, cranberry scones, and lemon cream puffs into pyramids on huge silver platters, along with glass pitchers of chilled fruit juice. But right now I’d have no appetite even if I were at the Ritz. I screwed up my presentation.
Bianca’s chatting with some other girls. Poppy is occupied with her aunt and Claire. I poke my fork at the food, then reach for a glass of water. I really wish I had a fan.
So I do the most logical thing available. I stand up, wipe my fingers on the napkin, and get out of the chair.
“Katriona, where are you going?” Lady Bradshaw says sharply. Nothing escapes her eagle eye.
“I just need some fresh air,” I say. “It’s stuffy inside. I’ll be back soon.”
“You’re supposed to remain indoors.”
“If I don’t get out now, I will faint away and make an even worse spectacle. I’ll just be gone for a second, and no one’s going to miss me anyway.”
She purses her lips and glances at the crowd in the room. Everyone’s conversing and having a good time.
“Very well then. But do not wander too far. It would be dreadfully embarrassing if you lost your way and required assistance to be brought back.”
I slink away, glad for a chance for temporary relief. When meeting difficulty, I escape. In the modern world, I’d hide in my bedroom and cry, or delve into books, as if they could ease the pain.
I ask a servant to show me the way outside. Soon I find myself in the gardens. There’s this maze of tall green hedges that looks like the one they depict in Alice in Wonderland. It’s pretty cool, and just what I need at the moment.
I duck into the maze and remove my slippers. My feet ache terribly. Angry red boils have sprung on my big toe, and my heel is blistering. Blissfully barefoot, I find a bench right at the end of the maze, beside a rose bush.
Urgh. Thank God the presentation is over. I look up at the sky. Wispy clouds float in a sea of blue. So carefree, so relaxed...unlike me.
Brisk footsteps head in my direction. I jump up and look for my slippers, but it’s too late. Darcy Guy appears in his full royal glory—swirling red cape, leather boots, white shirt, and a sword hanging from his belt. He looks totally different from the plain-suit guy that day—if he had worn his medieval prince outfit, I would have guessed who he was.
“Miss Katriona Bradshaw.” He sketches me a bow. “A pleasure to meet you again.”
His gaze falls on my slippers, which I’m still clutching like an idiot. He smirks, and suddenly I’m filled with anger. For a moment, my Clumsy-When-Meeting-Hot-Guy-Syndrome fails to surface.
“You’re the prince, aren’t you?”
“Why didn’t you tell me who you were? Look what you’ve done to me.”
“Precisely what have I done?”
“You...” I glare at him. “If you had told me who you were when I first met you at Elle’s house, I might have expected you’d be at the presentation! I wouldn’t have freaked out and landed on my butt, right before everyone!”
The prince cocks an eyebrow. “Pardon me, but you were in a hurry to leave that day.”
Fair enough. But still...
“Aren’t you supposed to be like, in the palace? Why were you in the city? And why did you wear those ordinary everyday clothes? I can’t believe I took you for a…a middle-class gentleman.”
“Wait.” He holds up a hand. “As the daughter of the late Earl Bradshaw, have you not seen me before? Even if I generally do not like to make my presence known in public.”
Uh-oh. I look down on the ground. “I...I didn’t pay attention before.”
He stares at me for a long moment, as though he can’t believe me. I can’t blame him. From the way Bianca and Claire and the other girls talk about him, he must have been used to girls fawning over him ever since his birth. For good reason. Heck, my anger’s crumbling as he looks at me with those golden-brown eyes of his.
“Sometimes I like to accompany Henry when he visits Dr. Jensen,” he explains. “I dress as a citizen because I’d rather not be recognized. Much less of a fuss. Besides, if people do not know who I am, they will be more willing to talk. Which is more beneficial if I am to become their king one day.” He pauses, and clears his throat. “In fact, I am surprised that you are the earl’s daughter. The dress you wore certainly was much plainer compared to the one you have on now.”
He rakes a gaze on me from top to toe, quickly, but I swear his eyes linger on my bare shoulders longer than necessary.
“I’m not used to fashionable clothes,” I mutter. “This gown is beautiful, but try wearing it all day. It’s a miracle I haven’t fainted.”
“Which is why you took off your shoes.”
“Oh! Um...yeah.” I sit down on the bench again. “I should be returning to the buffet. I only came out for a bit of fresh air.”
“So did I.” He smiles, and I quickly focus my attention my feet. Focus, Kat. Don’t be swayed by his incredible good looks.
To avoid further embarrassment, I decide to return to the buffet. Lady Bradshaw will be suspicious if I disappear for too long. I hike up my skirts just a little above the ankles. Weird, I know. I’m used to wearing shorts—summer heat drives me crazy—but in front of him, I’m not comfortable showing my legs. Geez. Only a few weeks in this world; I’m adapting fast.
“Your feet,” he says, looking pointedly at my big toe. “They’re bleeding.”
Dude, I’ve been walking for hours in these heels, thanks to your ridiculously enormous castle. But I just roll my eyes and say, “Of course. You try walking in these heels from the entrance to the castle, standing for hours waiting for the presentation, and see if your feet don’t blister.”
He kneels before me and cups my foot. A tingle shoots up my body, right from my toe to my head.
“Hey!” I try to snatch my foot back, but he holds on.
“I may not have undergone medical training like Henry,” he says gently, “but I can treat a minor wound. If you keep walking around with those blisters, you’ll hurt yourself worse.”
Then he takes off the white cravat he’s wearing and unravels it, so in its original shape it’s a long strip of silk, not unlike a bandage. Then, with his sword, he cuts it in half.
I cannot believe this. The prince is treating my blistered feet with his own clothes. Not really sure if a cravat counts, I suppose it’s more like an ornament, but still. I’m turned into a statue—I just sit there while he winds the silk deftly over my toes and then round my heel, finishing with a snug knot around my ankle.
“With the extra layers, the slippers will be tighter,” he says, “but at least the blisters won’t become worse. There, try them on.”
Face burning, I insert my foot in the glittering slipper. He’s right—it’s definitely a tight fit, but I’m not rubbing my raw wounds against the shoe. The silk is soft and smooth, better than any bandage.
“Thank you,” I say. Then, remembering this is a monarchy, I add, “Your Highness.”
He straightens up. “I am glad to be of service, lady. Shall I accompany you back to the buffet?”
“Please don’t,” I quickly say. He looks hurt; I wish I hadn’t spoken so fast. “The girls in there will kill me if I’m seen with you.”
He grimaces, but nods. “As you wish.”
I don’t trust myself to curtsy prettily, so I bow my head. “Then I’ll just, um, go. Thanks again, Your Highness.”
The prince smiles—a smile that should be banned for making a girl’s knees go weak.
“You’re very welcome, Miss Katriona.”
To my surprise, Lady Bradshaw does not lash out at me when we get back home.
“The queen seemed quite accommodating when I suggested the ball,” she says, smirking. “She says it is an excellent suggestion and that she will discuss it with the king. I wouldn’t be surprised if they make the announcement before the Season is over.”
My heart leaps. Finally, one of my goals is going according to plan.
“And to imagine that the prince actually accompanied his mother in the presentation!” Lady Bradshaw brandishes her bread stick in the air before dipping it into her soup bowl. “Bianca, dear, how right I was to insist on that décolletage! He cannot have missed the view when you curtsied.”
Décolletage? I guess she means that Bianca showed a lot of cleavage.
“True, but Claire’s also wearing the same fashion. It is possible he may prefer her assets over mine.” Bianca tosses her head, but a blush spreads across her neck to her face. “It is rather surprising, though, that the prince should choose to attend the presentation. I am certain that he was absent when Harriet presented.”
“That was two years ago,” Lady Bradshaw says. “Perhaps he has finally come to his senses. Twenty-one is a great difference from nineteen. Most young men are married before they are twenty-five. I should not be surprised if his parents have convinced him to stop dilly-dallying.”
“I hope that Katriona’s misfortune will not reflect badly on me,” Bianca says as though I were not at the table. “It is no minor feat competing with Claire and the other girls. If this ball will be held, I shall endeavor in every way possible to outshine the others.”
I shall endeavor in every way possible to make Elle outshine you, I want to say. Instead, I pretend like I haven’t heard her.
Lady Bradshaw looks thoughtful.
“Truly there is no guarantee that the prince will favor you over the others, but your opportunity is greater than the other young ladies’. Lady Eckhart informs me that her eldest son is quite wild over you, and she insists that we dine with them next week.”
Bianca shrugs and reaches for another bread stick. “Why settle for a star when there is the sun?”
Lady Bradshaw smiles—a slow, calculating smile. “Very well. We shall strive to increase the chance of your being selected when the time comes. It is preferable to attract his attention before the ball, but there’s no telling which events he will participate in. One appearance at the presentation is insufficient.”
“Perhaps,” Bianca taps her fingers on the table, “perhaps it is worth trying to find a servant in the palace who could supply us with the prince’s schedule. Or we could try getting further acquainted with Duke Henry. He is, at least, easier to find, as he still attends science lectures in the royal institute.”
Damn. Now I have more stuff to worry about. Apart from finding the godmother and lady lessons, I now have to prevent Bianca from getting the prince. That might not be impossible, but I also have to prevent everyone else from getting the prince. And with the Season opening, there’ll be plenty of chances.
For a second, an image of the prince flashes in my mind. When he knelt before me and bandaged my foot, when he bowed and smiled...
I’ve reached for the teapot and my fingers brushed against the pot instead of the handle. This time, both Lady Bradshaw and Bianca are too deep in scheming to admonish my klutziness.
I’ve only seen the prince twice and already I’m behaving like a lovesick fangirl. God knows what I can do when there are hundreds—no, thousands—falling for him. How am I to cut down the competition for Elle? One Bianca is enough of a headache to worry about.
Elle does not come to my room until late after dinner. Since Martha is busy clearing the dishes and washing the pots, I try my best to undress myself. First I kick off those damn high heels, hoping never to wear them again. I pull the pins out of my hair and drop them into my jewelry box, hearing them clink against the smooth, polished wood.
Then comes the hard part. I reach behind and try to unlace myself, but Elle somehow did the tie so elaborately, so complicatedly that I end up lacing myself even tighter. If I keep trying, I could suffocate myself. I wait, but soon I grow frustrated and grumpy, because my dress is so big that it’s difficult to move about the room without bumping into the dresser or the bed. I’m feeling tempted to take up a pair of scissors and slash the ribbons when Elle enters.
“Miss Katriona!” She rushes toward me. “I am so sorry that I didn’t return earlier. Here, let me to assist you.”
With her deft, capable hands, she loosens the laces in a few seconds, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I can literally feel my lungs re-inflating.
“Did it take a long time with Bianca?” I ask.
She nods. “Still, I should have come back earlier. I went to Mamsie’s today.”
“How is she? Better, I hope?” I say eagerly.
“She hasn’t coughed that much, and she didn’t throw up at all.” Elle is beaming. “It is real kind of you, miss, to ask after her.”
I don’t tell her the real reason I’m concerned about her mother’s health is because I need to ask Mrs. Thatcher if Elle has a godmother.
“And that’s not the only good news.” Elle helps me step out of my dress. She removes the crinoline, thank God. “Mr. Henry found Billy a job at a bookstore. All he has to do is dust the shelves, fill the ink pots, and run some simple errands.”
“That sounds great.” I can still remember Billy’s hands, covered with scars and scratches, his shoes ragged and torn. “We are lucky that we ran into the duke and the pri—I mean, his friend.”
Elle nods. “Mr. Henry is the kindest man I’ve ever met.” She blushes and quickly holds out my nightgown. “By the way, how was your presentation? Did it go well?”
“It sucked. I mean, um, not really.”
Her eyes widen. “Was the queen displeased?”
“She pointed at me and laughed her head off.”
“What!” Then Elle pauses and shakes her head. “You’re making fun of me, miss.”
I grin. “Well, she could be laughing in her mind. Anyway, Mother isn’t happy. I tripped and fell when walking backward.” I sigh. All those expensive lessons for nothing.
Elle’s hand flies to her mouth. “You tripped? Poor Miss Katriona, that must have been awful! Were you injured?” She gestures to my feet. “Did you twist your ankle?”
“I’m fine. The slippers were giving me blisters, that’s all.”
Elle insists on bringing me some cold cream. I give in, since my feet are starting to stink.
When Elle unravels the cravat around my foot, she frowns. “This is no common bandage; it’s too fine.” She holds up the soiled piece of silk and gives me a rather shrewd, probing look. “A gentleman’s cravat used as a bandage. Do you have an admirer, miss?”
“Oh that.” I try not to make it a big deal. “Just some guy—some man I met at the palace. The shoes were killing me, so he offered to help.”
Elle nods slightly, though she still has this thoughtful expression on. But I wasn’t really lying. I just didn’t say that the guy was Prince Edward.
“That was very nice of him.” She folds the cravat neatly into a square. “Which lord is it? Once I wash this thoroughly, we had better return it to him.”
“I—I forgot to ask his name,” I say lamely. “Seriously, I don’t think he’ll mind. I’m sure he has loads of cravats around; he can do without this one.” I simply cannot return it to him in person. First, I have no idea how I can meet him when no one can predict when he pops up; second, I’ve no idea how I can return the cravat to him in private. Actually, I’d really prefer that we didn’t meet again.