“It would be a waste of my time to tell you this is foolish, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t pay any attention.”
Nan stepped back and surveyed Lorna, shaking her head all the while.
The room they shared was small and with only a tiny mirror over the common bureau. Nan would have to be her eyes.
Each maid was assigned an oil lamp and a certain amount of oil. If it was used before the end of the month, she had to dress in the dark, a way of ensuring that she rationed the light better the following month.
Lorna hadn’t used any of her oil for a week, saving it all for this one night.
“Maybe it is foolish,” she said, glancing down at the wide panniers of the gown she wore. “But it is such a magical evening and when would I have another chance to experience a ball at Blackhall?”
“You’re a maid, Lorna,” Nan said, sighing heavily. “Not a guest.”
“Tonight, though, Nan, no one will know.”
Nan made a sign in the air and she obediently turned so that the back of the dress could be inspected.
Things happened for a reason, didn’t they? The housekeeper had sent her to find a certain table in the attic and she’d gone, reluctant to climb into the darkened space. She couldn’t disobey Mrs. McDermott. The dear lady had taken her on when she hadn’t a whit of training or background in service.
To her surprise, the attic wasn’t gloomy or dark at all. Porthole windows along the outer wall let in the June sunlight. For an hour she’d pulled up one sheet after another, only discovering the table at the far end of the attic. Between the stairs and the door, however, there’d been dozens and dozens of trunks, each begging to be opened and inspected.
In the third trunk she’d found the carefully wrapped wig and the golden dress with the panniers. A fortuitous find, especially since they’d been preparing for the fancy dress ball at Blackhall for over a month.
She was not one to overlook circumstances, especially when they were calling out to her. Her father had often said that fortune favors the bold – fortuna audaces iuvat.
“We could have found a dress for you, too,” she said now as she tugged on the wig.
She’d taken the precaution of grabbing some flour from the kitchen. None of her training had given her any insight into fashions from a hundred years ago, but the wig had given off a cloud of finely milled powder and the only thing she could think of to substitute was flour. Nan dipped a powder puff into the bowl and patted it on her temples and the tall crown of hair adorned with gold bows.
“I’m not as brave as you.”
“Or as foolish,” Lorna said.
“That, too.” Nan stepped back and surveyed her handiwork. “Mrs. McDermott will have no choice but to dismiss you if you’re found out.”
“Then I’ll make sure I’m not discovered.” She turned and smiled at Nan. “It’s a fancy dress ball, Nan. Everyone will be wearing masks. No one will know who I am.”
“What?” she asked.
Nan shook her head again. “You see what you want to see, Lorna. You have ever since I’ve known you. You’re lucky Mrs. McDermott didn’t assign you to serve the guests. What would you have done then? Come up with some sort of sickness?”
“I would have found some way,” she said, smiling down at Nan.
She’d been deliberately clumsy this past week, especially in the housekeeper’s sight for that very reason. She’d dropped an armload of books she was dusting, fumbled with the jar of spent tea leaves used to clean the carpets, and repeatedly stumbled holding her brushes and pail.
After all that, Mrs. McDermott would have been foolish to select her as one of the servers. Better to dismiss her early, send her to her room, and instruct her to appear at dawn to help clean the ballroom. To her relief the housekeeper had done exactly that.
“Well, how do I look?” she asked, carefully affixing the mask strings behind her ears. That, too, had been another miraculous find, a sign that she had to attend the ball.
It was as if Providence, well aware of her barely contained curiosity and fascination, had provided her with a way to see the Duke of Kinross up close. Granted, it would only be for a few hours on a June night in the Scottish Highlands, but who was she to deny Providence?
“You look beautiful,” Nan said, nodding. “The gold makes your brown eyes sparkle. And the white wig accentuates your complexion.”
“Could I pass for one of the guests?”
Nan sighed again. “Yes, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
“My father was Robert Gordon. I’m the equal to most of them there.”
“But it isn’t because of most of them that you’re going, is it? It’s to see the duke. We both know how foolish that is.”
Lorna reached over and hugged Nan, depositing a fair share of flour onto the other girl’s shoulders. Apologizing, she pulled back.
“Don’t worry, Nan. I’ll go and pretend to be someone else for a few hours. Then I’ll return and be a well disciplined upper maid, I promise.”
Nan didn’t appear convinced. Nor was Lorna, if she were to tell the truth. It was going to be so difficult to be herself after tonight.
The last thing Alexander Russell, the 9th Duke of Kinross, wanted to do was mingle with his guests. He could put the time to better use. Nor did he have friends among the throng. Acquaintances, perhaps, but few could be called more than that, especially after this afternoon when he’d been subjected to a humiliating rout.
Nevertheless, Alex forced himself to enter the ballroom, pasting a smile on his face that hid his true feelings.
The ballroom had been polished like a seldom worn crown. The three rows of four brass and crystal chandeliers illuminated every inch of the massive room, reflecting light off the windows and making the floor shine.
The jewels in the crown were the women, most of whom had taken to the idea of a fancy dress ball with enthusiasm, choosing costumes ranging from stunning to amusing with a few ridiculous examples in between. A half dozen hapless husbands were dressed to compliment their wives’ choices, but most men were attired in black evening dress.
At least twenty-five of them had witnessed his drubbing this afternoon.
Tonight’s entertainment was the last time he’d have to stand here and smile fatuously. He couldn’t wait for them all to be driven back to the train station tomorrow morning, en route to their various homes. The Scottish Society for Scientific Achievement could go to hell and with it their annual medal.
Someone in this room was a traitor. Not to country, even though they might well stoop to that. Someone here, being feted and entertained, had betrayed him. That was the only reason Simons had won the damn medal. Alex’s research was nearly word for word with the other man’s. His subjects were more numerous, however, numbering in the thousands to Simons’ hundreds. Even Simons’ conclusions, enumerated on the last page of his paper, had sounded too close to his own words. But his findings had been submitted to the Society a good three months before Simon’s. Three months, yet Simons had been the one critically acclaimed.
Someone had leaked the results of his research. Either a member of the Society attending this ball, the last event of a torturous week of hosting at Blackhall Castle, or someone to whom he’d confided about his work.
“You must learn to trust people, Alex,” his mother had once said to him.
He couldn’t remember why she’d offered up the sentiment, but he could remember the occasion. They’d been standing in Blackhall’s chapel and watching as the bronze plaque had been affixed to his wife’s last resting place.
He could also recall his response. He’d turned to her and said, “Why?”
She hadn’t an answer, which was a pity. Perhaps her words could have softened his emotion. Ruth, the late Duchess of Kinross, hadn’t been faithful, a fact that had been tearfully admitted by her sister.
“You mustn’t hate her, Alex. Ruth always wanted admiration. When you were too busy to give it to her, she sought it elsewhere.”
His wife would have enjoyed this ball. She would have purchased something ruinously expensive to wear, and no doubt a little shocking. She would have flitted among the guests, charming everyone. He could almost see her golden hair bobbing as she turned to greet one person then another. The noise level was intense in the ballroom and his memory furnished her laughter. Those who’d never come to Blackhall would leave with praises for her on their lips.
She made us feel so welcome.
What a gracious person the duchess is.
How beautiful she is and that gown!
Ruth had a bright and receptive approach to life. If it was interesting or exciting, Ruth wanted to experience it. Her blond beauty was only enhanced by her trilling laugh, a smile that she used to great advantage and a skilled, almost manipulative way, she had of making any man feel as if he were the most important person in a room.
Ruth collected people the way other women collected gloves. She had dozens of friends, each one of whom thought she was the most important person in Ruth’s life. They never figured out that Ruth didn’t care about them individually. She only wanted the adulation such friends brought to her. The more important, titled, or wealthy the better. He had come to believe it was the same reason she’d married him.
By the second month of his marriage he realized she didn’t give a flying farthing for him. He was just a mark on a mental scorecard, an item no more important than a scarf from her dresser or a gown from her armoire.
After her death he’d been approached by one poor sod who’d openly wept about her passing. He’d wanted to ask the man if he genuinely believed Ruth had loved him, then realized that the truth wouldn’t serve any purpose.
As far as he was concerned, Ruth wasn’t capable of loving anyone other than herself.
He had no doubt that, given the passage of years, she would have still charmed people. They would have said things like: she hasn’t changed, has she? She’s still one of the most beautiful women in Scotland, isn’t she?
Ruth would have gloried in their comments. She would have draped herself in diamonds whose sparkle matched that in her eyes. Did you hear that, Alex? They did enjoy themselves, didn’t they? We should entertain again soon, I think.
Even perched in the middle of the Highlands, Blackhall Castle had once been known for its hospitality, its entertainments, and its beauty.
The beauty had never faded even though it took a fortune to maintain. The entertainments were fewer lately; he hadn’t the inclination to invite hoards of people to his home. And the hospitality? At the moment, he wished them all to perdition, including the men from the Society in their evening attire, clustered in small groups around the ballroom.
Who would Ruth have dressed as tonight? He suspected she would prefer to come as herself, the Duchess of Kinross. Or perhaps she would have stolen her sister’s costume. Mary was Cleopatra, her long, white tunnel like dress adorned with an intricate gold necklace. His mother was Queen Elizabeth, if he didn’t miss his guess, complete with a bright curly red wig.
Why was Ruth at the forefront of his mind tonight? Because he felt betrayed again? Because this was the first ball they’d held since her death three years ago? Because he’d been made raw with this feeling that he’d been a fool?
The orchestra his mother had hired was excellent. They were playing a waltz and a great many people were dancing. He should be a good host and greet his guests, but he had neither the will nor the ability to mask his emotions that well. He was furious, the rage building with each moment he stood there.
He waited until a footman was near, then gave him an order in a low voice. In moments the young man returned with a tumbler filled with whiskey.
“Watch me,” he said. “When it’s empty, I want you to bring me another one.”
“Yes, Your Grace.”
He didn’t drink often, but tonight he was going to with the single minded pursuit of drunkenness. He could only remember two times he’d done something similar in recent memory: the day he’d learned his wife had been unfaithful and the day she’d died in childbirth, taking his heir with her. Or perhaps the child hadn’t been his after all, a question he’d never have answered.
Tonight seemed an excellent occasion as well. He was facing the destruction of a dream, one brought about by someone he’d trusted.
“You must learn to trust people, Alex.”
The echo of his mother’s voice intruded into his thoughts.
Why seemed as good a word as any in response. Or perhaps a resounding no would suffice.