"If money could buy what I want here tonight, I'd empty the last few pounds in my bank account and run home. This minute." Cat met her friend Dorrie in the woman's upper hall and spun at her silent order to turn and let her inspect her new ballgown.
"You've squeezed your last stone, though, Catherine Farrell. You did it for that dress Worth did you the honor to design." Dorrie Billington's eyes danced down the iris silk creation by the noted Paris dressmaker. Cat had depleted her inheritance to pay him, surrendering almost the last of her father's money to buy herself a chance at a rewarding future.
"Honor, my foot." Cat's fingers skimmed her remaining treasure: her family's heirloom amethyst necklace at her throat. "If this gown doesn't help me make an impression, you must realize I'll be growing turnips to survive instead of trying to bleed a few here tonight!"
Dorrie chuckled as she looped her arm through Cat's. "Come along and stop worrying. Blanding and I promise you no one will dare be rude to you."
"Facing half of London and most of Kent downstairs in that receiving line and ballroom is my chance to save my school, Dorrie. If I fail..." She grimaced.
"You won't." Dorrie patted her arm as they descended the grand staircase of Billington Manor.
"I haven't danced in three years." She was blathering and she knew it but didn't care. "What if I don't remember? Suppose I go downstairs, waltz into that ballroom, and no one waltzes with me? What happens to a twenty-three-year-old jilted spinster who tries to open a school for girls and can't enroll enough students to meet the monthly butcher's bill? Hmmm? I'll be aimless. Idle. Still poor and ostracized!"
"Will you please calm yourself?" Dorrie was grinning with her never-ending optimism.
"How can I" Cat grit her teeth. She had to make the biggest impression of her life on these people tonight. She had to show them she was genteel, capable, worthy of educating their daughters. Before she'd gone to Mr. Worth, she'd sunk almost every penny of her father's bequest to her into the Farrell School for Young Ladies. She needed a few more students to operate her first term with a small profit. To flourish, however, her school required that laying on of hands society called acceptability. For that, she had to show them she was no oddity. No disgrace.
She would. She had to.
Her own self-respect depended on it. During these past three years, she'd come to know that was more valuable than any other prize on earth.
Cat squeezed her eyes shut and summoned courage. Tonight, she needed every ounce. Here -- she once more tried to convince herself -- she was a hunter. Not the prey. No one would hurt her here. No one would risk Dorrie and Blanding's wrath, would they?
At her best friends' ball, Cat had to be treated as just another guest. If in reality she was a woman reclaiming her reputation and obliterating the catastrophe of the past three years, few would note it in their public manners. Would they?
After all, what she wanted was so simple. Not a man. Not a social life. Just her school and the opportunity to enjoy those simple things money could never buy. Like peace. A job she adored. Children to help and to watch grow into adults.
But to do that the whole of Great Britain had to politely "forget" how Catherine Farrell had been abandoned by her groom the morning of her wedding three years ago. Could they?
The news had been the London tabloids' savory tidbit for weeks. Even now, years later, when Cat's father's fame as an Egyptian archaeologist was recounted in newspapers as background for an agreement Her Majesty's government sought with the khedive of Egypt, Cat knew everyone resurrected details of the scandal that had rocked her world. She had daily proof.
She could not ride into Ashford for a yard of cloth nor up to Canterbury to interview a prospective teacher for her school staff without recognizing how people remembered.
Shopkeepers, who wanted her money, were neutral, if deferential. Those of her own station, who could not avoid her at church or at local lectures, were tolerant. Those of higher rank, whose approval she needed now more than ever, were still too terribly indifferent. She wished people would have outgrown those reactions long ago. But their very longevity drove Cat to a frenzy. Victorian Society ordered itself by donning a rigid social corset. For those who tested the stays, The Proper Set could yank the laces in reproof If the reprimand seemed ineffective, expiration could be arranged by the artless Slow Death, a series of stifling snubs that cut one's breath, suffocated one's hope, crushed one's heart.
The fact that Cat's hadn't been was what propelled her to Dorrie's house and hospitality. Tonight and for the rest of this interminable weekend, Cat knew she had to brave the treacherous shoals of this social sea -- or founder on rocks that could dash her school and her efforts for a life of quiet fulfillment.
Dorrie wrinkled her nose in gaiety as they made the foyer and she described her guests. "We have forty-two staying in the manor for the weekend but half of Kent coming for tonight's ball," she said as she adjusted Cat's roses in her hair. "Relax, dearest. Enjoy yourself. If it's easier for you, pretend they are children -- "
Cat gasped with Dorrie and watched her husband, Blanding, stride toward them, his butler at his heels.
"What did you say?" Dorrie asked him on a screech.
"Hello, darling. I love the emerald on you. Matches your eyes, don't you think, Cat?" he asked as he pecked both on the cheek. "Lucky man I am this evening. Two gorgeous women to work this damnable receiving line."
Dorrie tossed her black curls. "For which you will please imagine we are not naked."
"Not a chance." His hand circled her waist. "I use that ghastly image only to get me through these interminable events. Puts a smile on my face."
"I bet," Dorrie chastised him.
"It's a matter of survival. Especially for people like Spence who hate these preliminaries."
Cat turned to stone. Spence.
"Well, lord, I put my foot in it. I am sorry, Cat."
"It's fine, Blanding," she told him though she didn't feel it yet. The mention of Spencer Lyonns always petrified her. The very reason she stood here, alone, with this particular problem was because of him, wasn't it?
She picked at her gloves, molding the skintight kid and touching the fifteen tiny pearl buttons individually.
"Don't," Dorrie pleaded. Few had known -- only her cousin Jessica and her best friend Dorrie -- how deeply Cat suffered after Spence had deserted her. They knew what his actions cost her and understood what her father never could. Indeed, Walter Farrell died last year believing his only child hated the man who had defiled her good character. He never surmised that Spence's golden image strolled her daydreams and danced in her nighttime illusions of what could never be.
How could she ever hate Spence?
Oh, she supposed her initial reaction to his rejection was all of that. But she'd felt it for only a few months after he left her at the altar. Soon after dawned the dreadful but unavoidable realization that they were better parted if he could never love her as much as she loved him. She had seen in her parents' relationship those bounties a mutually affectionate partnership offered a man and wife. She wanted the very same for herself and nothing less. Though she knew now she'd never have that, she would have her name, her pride, and her vocation.
To acquire those, she needed more students. When she had confided that to Dorrie two months ago, the lady had swung into action. Insisting that now Cat must reenter society, Dorrie invited her here for the closing house party of the country season. She'd even enlisted Blanding's support.
Cat had debated, demurred, and finally accepted. Then she'd removed the maudlin purples of her mourning attire and packed them away with her precious memories of her doting father. Withdrawing a sizable amount from her bank account, she'd ignored how small the balance was, taken herself off to Paris, and ordered a few frocks. When she returned, she replaced the fading Farrell family brougham with a black-lacquered coach fit for a duke and practiced quadrilles and waltzes with Jessica in the morning room until she dropped. Now she stood here, hoping someone -- please God, anyone -- would deign to smile at her, talk with her, ask her to dance just one time.
They needn't fill up her dance card or chatter with her or even escort her in to the buffet supper. Only help her slightly, politely become once more that elusive, priceless commodity: respectable.
"I wish -- " she ventured, "I wish one's acceptance came more as a result of what one did with one's life and less as dependence on what other people thought or did."
Dorrie smiled with compassion. "We're here to make that a reality for you, Cat."
"I wonder if we can. Some cannot overlook the past."
"They will." Dorrie squeezed Cat's hand. "Try."
"I will. I am." Dorrie and Blanding examined her as she nodded. "Open the doors, will you? The sooner we start, the earlier we're done. Besides," she said, rolling her eyes at Blanding, "I'm curious about what this year's crop is wearing."
The Billingtons burst out laughing.
"God knows," Blanding sputtered, "I'd rather dance than shake a hundred hands. Carlton," he called to his head butler who stood like a soldier, "let the hordes inside."
But the servant moved like the dead, and Cat thought of feigning a headache, a toothache. Taking a powder...
But from far down the gaslit drive, the first carriage in line started forward. That procession became an endless stream of broughams and curricles, coaches, and all manner of conveyances that the local gentry kept to high snuff. Discharging the ladies and gentlemen of Kent in their latest formal dress, the vehicles disappeared around the side where the drivers were welcome to dance and dine in the servants' hall with the few resident staff who were not crazy as old hens with work.
As the first couple walked up the steps, Cat recognized Lord and Lady Mellwyn, minor members of the peerage, but major influences on the social life of Ashford. Lady Mellwyn had not spoken to Cat in three years. Of all the hideous ways to begin the evening, greeting this woman presaged disaster. Cat steeled herself for the blow.
The lady sailed forward, looked Cat squarely in the eye, and, amazingly, smiled. Smiled!
Cat's heartbeat pounded in her ears. Why was Lady Mellwyn reaching for her hand, pumping it, saying something innocuous about the weather and her delightful choice of color for her gown?
"The precise shade of your eyes, Lady Farrell. How suitable and charming."
Cat mouthed some inanity.
Lord Mellwyn stood just behind his wife. His hand was bigger, stronger, clumsier. His words as smooth as glass. "So nice to see you, Lady Farrell. You look none the worse for all the work you've put into opening your school. You must need a few minutes of rest. Perhaps you'd take tea with us some afternoon?"
Tea with the Mellwyns? They'd slip a jigger of bromate in the brew and watch her acquire an angry case of hives by which she'd scratch herself to death in ten minutes. They could then claim the glory of having obliterated that sad blot on local gentility, the onerous Lady Farrell.
Dazed by this stroke of good fortune, Cat accepted the invitation, then handed the man on to Blanding, who nodded his head at Mellwyn as if he were approving of something.
"Donald, how good of you to join us. I think I'll have an opening in my schedule soon to discuss your desire to stand for the Ashford seat in Parliament. I have a few insights I'd like to share."
"It will be my pleasure, milord," Mellwyn said, his quivering body stilling to some semblance of quietude.
Cat frowned. Mellwyn had been nervous to meet her. Yet he had done so chivalrously. She enjoyed the relief but questioned its cause.
"My lady Farrell," crooned the next woman in line, whom Cat recognized as Mrs. Winslow, the wife of the Tuttle church vicar. "How thrilled I am to see you here."
"And I you, Mrs. Winslow." Cat took the lady's hand in frank glee. Her husband came close behind.
"Good evening, my dear," crooned the bewhiskered man as he leaned over conspiratorially. "I'm tickled to see you here. Should have happened years ago.
Then, as if he had passed a benediction over all those who came after him, the terrors of her past three years blew away like so many ashes in the wind. People greeted her as if amnesia had overtaken them en masse. For the next hour, Cat stood and shook hands, smiled, conversed, and accepted a few kisses on the cheek from people whom she had hardly seen or thought about for ever so long. The marvel of the evening for Cat was that not one person -- not any of the neighbors nor any from the prince's Marlborough Set here for the entire weekend -- approached her with anything less than kindness. Many greeted her with downright enthusiasm. In fact, only the adder-tongued doyenne whom many thought was paid by the London tabloids for her gossip, Lady Marietta Hornsby, reacted differently by frowning. But Marietta soon smoothed her features when Bertie, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, descended the grand stairs as the last to arrive by royal prerogative. He hailed Cat with a buss on the cheek.
Cat stood, rooted to the marble, dying to throw her arms about the suit of armor in the comer and kiss the steel in glee. But Blanding stopped up her urge as he took her elbow and his wife's and steered them along the hall to the ballroom. With Bertie at their side, Cat felt more ready to meet the world than she had imagined was possible again. She didn't bother to contain her wobbly smile.
As they entered the gold and white ballroom aglow with brass gasoliers, and bulging at the seams with more than two hundred people waiting to dance, Cat's newfound confidence cracked like the freshly blown crystal it was.
"Buck up, Cat," Blanding encouraged. "I've instructed the orchestra to begin the first waltz." His gray eyes scanned the crowd as if searching for one person in particular. "Good," he murmured to himself. "Now, listen to me. As is the custom, I shall open the first waltz with Dorrie. Then Dorrie takes out His Highness and I will come for you."
Cat directed her voice so that Bertie might not overhear. "Blanding, really. Lady Hornsby is the most senior of the ladies of the peerage. She takes precedence over me. I'll be blacklisted again."
"No, you won't," Dorrie replied, smiling and greeting those who parted to allow the three of them to walk to the center of the polished floor. "Trust us with this, Cat."
Blanding agreed. "I discussed it with Lady Hornsby and her husband two weeks ago in London. She understands."
Cat croaked on joy and horror. "God, Blanding, why?"
He turned eyes dark as storm clouds on her. "Because I said so."
When Blanding looked so fierce, Dorrie said she never argued with him. Cat knew she shouldn't either. Blanding had obviously gone out of his way to make her acceptance a prime order of business and to refuse him was foolish. He was securing for her the very thing she could never beg, borrow, or even buy for herself.
She stared at him and slowly smiled. "If one of the queen's favored advisors has said so, then I should put my trust in him as well." She cocked her head to one side and raised a brow. "Will you tell me who then will appear to take the next dance with me?"
"The marquess of Ashford."
Cat fought the urge to gape and chuckled lightly. "Now I know you're suffering from a tropical fever!"
The marquess of Ashford, always to her simply Rand Templeton, did few people favors. He didn't need to. Frank and formidable, Rand Templeton was her neighbor. He was also forever gallant, affable to her here in tonight's receiving line. To dance with the enigmatic marquess would do her some good, even if she quaked in her satin slippers at the mere idea.
Blanding lifted his head in a sign to the conductor to begin and took his wife in his arms.
Behind her she heard murmurs and footsteps as people began to place themselves for entering the waltz. The orchestra leader grinned, raised his arms, and gave a downbeat for the piece Cat recognized as Viennese. Light chords played by ten violins trilled through the crowded room. Heady mixtures of violas and tubas made those behind Cat fall silent as the music swelled and all eyes went to the couple who swirled about the floor. The devotion Cat saw in the Billingtons' grace was a sight others noted with fascination and even envy.
"It's clear when a man adores a woman, isn't it, Cat?"
She glanced up into the sharply hewn features of Rand Templeton. "Yes, very obvious and endearing."
"Blanding counts himself fortunate to have found her, even at what he calls such an advanced age. We all excuse him his obsession because Dorrie is so perfect for him. A man searches for a long time to find the right woman for him. It is such a pity when that union can never be." Rand's midnight blue eyes brooded into hers.
"What are you telling me, Rand?"
He never had a chance to answer. Blanding came forward, took her hand, and swept her off with a style that rivaled the best partners she had had: her father and her former fiancé. She followed him easily, grinning as the guests murmured their appreciation. But as the first waltz ended, Cat could tell many pairs of eyes clung to her to see who would dare to dance with Lady Farrell.
When Rand appeared, bowed, and tucked her gloved hand in his, Cat knew her trials were over, her triumph complete. She could feel the gossip mongers shrivel like prunes as Rand and she talked idly and he took her in his arms. When they began to move to the music, Cat knew that she and Rand made a superb impression. His expertise doused her fears, and she gave herself up to the blend of man and music -- and relief. Gratitude wended through her, adding a long-forgotten euphoria. But as the waltz died and Rand took her to the edge of the floor to introduce her into a little group, their conversation -- by its very novelty of warmth -- soon had her longing for solitude to recapitulate.
Making polite excuses, she left them to thread her way through the crowd toward one fat pillar and one huge fern partially concealing one appealing chair. Here she would rest, recover her breath and her equanimity, and begin the formation of that public persona she longed to cultivate from tonight forward. To those who mattered, she would become that venerable oddity: the School Headmistress. To her students, she would become the Battle-ax. The Harpie. Their Bad Dream.
Ugh. Just her image.
She gathered her train to her left and sank to the chair with a whoosh of her skirts. A footman appeared with a tray of champagne flutes, and she gleefully divested him of one. In satisfaction, she sipped the bubbles and felt the effervescence ripple into her bloodstream.
No one had hurt her. No one had looked at her unkindly. No odd sensation of being watched had crept up her spine. This was Dorrie's, for heaven's sake. Not the tunnel to Farrell Hall, where she had felt the sinister sensation of being observed days ago. Billington Manor was safe.
After tonight, she would have her students, her school. Jess would have her dream of helping others. The past would be forgotten.
She shifted, suddenly feeling other eyes on her.
"The champagne is reviving, isn't it, Cat?"
This was not like the other day when she'd thought someone observed her in the tunnel. That incident verged on...malicious. This felt warm and sounded...husky. Seductive. Terrifying.
"Then again, you always did adore the stuff."
No, no, no. Her eyes fell closed as a haunting bass tantalized her senses, stirring memories of passionate moments to life. This cannot be happening.
"Of course, I much prefer something stronger. Like the way brandy tastes from your lips."
She clutched the flute so hard that she stared at it, amazed it didn't shatter. Scenes of one dinner party and one delicious man reconstructed fragments of one unforgettable ecstasy brought by her introduction to brandy. How he had poured it and swirled it in a bowled glass, sipped a draught, and then given her a taste of the liquor by pressing his mouth to hers and letting her taste the essence from his own tongue.
She strangled a gasp and dragged her mind to this time, this ballroom, this reality. "Oh, God in Heaven, Spence, go away!" It was a whisper, an order, a horror that he -- of all people -- should be here now.
She glanced about the room. Courtesy of the fern, no one seemed to notice that Spencer Lyonns stood in back of her, spoke to her, conversed with her as if... as if this were normal, as if nothing had ever passed between this woman and this man. "How did you get in?"
"Don't panic, Cat. I arrived the same way you did. Dorrie and Blanding invited me."
"You can't be serious." She swallowed painfully, knowing she had to temper the outrage from her voice. If she weren't careful she'd be seething, and that wouldn't win her any friends or any students.
"I am quite honest with you, darling."
"Oh, please," she groaned. "Go away, Spence. Don't do this to me. Why do this to me? Why would Dorrie and Blanding -- "
"I'll tell you everything, Cat. Just dance with me."
She caught herself before she hooted. She scanned the room like a trapped animal. "I can't dance with you. Not ever. You're mad."
There was a long pause, then a whisper. "Yes, very. I never knew just how far gone I was until I looked at you a few minutes ago. Dance with me, Cat."
"No. You know what they'll say."
"I know what they're beginning to say now as they see us talking."
She set her shoulders. Dug her nails into her skirts. "They're saying what a curious sight. Isn't that Spencer Lyonns speaking casually to the woman he left at the altar of St. Paul's? I do wonder that the man has the nerve, don't you? He must be ready to be committed."
"Ah, yes, Cat. He is that."
"Walk away from me, Spence."
"Or you'll do what? Deliver me the telling blow? By every social rule, I admit I deserve it. But the truth is, you can't do it. It's not your nature to be cruel, darling. Nor is it theirs to think beyond what you show them. Tonight, everything you want depends on you acting according to code."
"Yes. Yes! How could you come here, knowing that? How could Dorrie and Blanding do this when they understood that I needed respectability so much?"
"Don't castigate your friends. They have your best interests at heart. Mine, too. They knew so much. More than I gave them credit for." She felt his hand on her bare back, discreetly restraining her from rushing from her chair. "No! God, Cat, don't leave me looking furious. This crowd would gobble it up. You've got to calm yourself, please. I knew there was no easy way to do this. So did Dorrie and Blanding. But we're here, so are all of the people who matter to you and me, and I'm asking you to wipe the past from both our lives. Dance with me."
She took another drink, but frozen terror far surpassed cold alcohol for raw power. "I cannot imagine how waltzing with you could possibly help me."
"It would show the world we are friends."
"But we're not."
"We could be."
"That's your view," she shot back, "and you're wrong. We can't ever be friends."
"How do you know if you've never tried, darling?"
"I don't want to know, Spence. And I don't want to be called darling."
"But you are mine."
"Do you mind if I laugh hysterically?" She shook her head in disbelief. "You come to me in a room jammed to the chandeliers with English society, shock me, regale me with simple arguments to supposedly, blithely end three years of -- of ostracism by dancing with me?"
"It's impulse, born of watching you. As before, you unveil violent needs in me. Besides, you know I never enter those bloody receiving lines." He took a step to her side and dropped his hand from her fevered skin. "I knew you'd never come if you thought I'd be here. So did the Billingtons. You must listen to me. In the meantime, please take that startled took from your face. Despite this obliging potted forest we have about us, people are beginning to notice and whisper. Smile, will you?"
She ground her teeth. "Why don't you?"
"I am. I have been all this while. You should, too. It makes the heartache lighter."
What would you know about heartache? she wanted to blurt. But thank God, she didn't. She let her eyes drift closed and then opened them, forcing her mind to notice how others perceived this encounter between the notorious two London's Tattler dubbed, 'The Cat and the Lyonn.' Some stared. One openly. Others intermittently.
She turned her face to her left and saw the precise black crease of his trousers. She dare not glance up at him. She need never have to took at him to visualize him. Nor did curiosity hold any allures that might complement her recollections of him. She was positive he still appeared every radiant inch the man who made her heart skip and her mouth water and her eyes hurt with his blinding handsomeness.
Till the second she died, she would recall his features. His blond hair as pate as the noon sun, with platinum streaks as dazzling as a solar glare on desert sands. His green eyes, black and moist as jungle foliage. His mouth, with its deep bow in the upper lip and the pouting wealth of his lower. His broad, bronzed face. His skin, smooth as a god's. His body, big and bold and brawny. His heart, which he had said was hers, only hers. His life, his happiness, which he said he would surrender to her keeping. Until the one day when he would have given all and vowed his troth forever -- and instead he had disappeared.
"You return so easily, Spence. Wanting things I can't give you. You ruined me once. I won't let you do it again. If you are not gone by the count of five, I swear I'm rising from this chair and leaving this room."
"Cat, hear me out."
"The time for listening to you is three years gone, Spence. The night before we were to marry, even the morning of the ceremony, you could have come to me and told me you didn't love me. Didn't want me. You could have explained and I would have accepted it. I would have had to. But you chose to leave me in the most hideous circumstances in which a woman can discover herself. No. I cannot find it in my heart to dance it all away. Nor do I think anyone here would believe that I could." The one thing she felt she could do, would do any moment, was sob. And if she did, she'd never survive society again, much less her own self-ridicule. "I can't. So if you'll excuse me -- "
"I say, Cat -- " Rand Templeton sidestepped the foliage. His dark blue eyes narrowed at Spence and then smiled down at her with sweet remorse. "You look like you could do with an escort to the buffet table. Hungry?"
"Starving." She rose, restraining the urge to turn and let her eyes devour the other man whose delicious virility always sated her.
Rand tucked her hand firmly on his arm and cast a rueful look at Spence. "Valiant display. The crows ate every morsel. Let us see if any scraps remain."
Copyright ©1996 by Jo-Ann Power