A noisy and boisterous ballroom was the height of rudeness; though lively conversation and music were expected at such a gathering, a lady of breeding ought never to engage in loud talking or raucous laughter. Occasionally, a genteel titter was permissible, but frequent outbursts were unbecoming. Or so Sophia Banfield’s stalwart governess had taught. Clearly, the Fitzsimmons’ espoused a different belief, for their gathering was a veritable cacophony of braying laughter and rollicking conversations, and Sophie was certain Mrs. Beecham would faint if she witnessed the evening’s festivities. That was not to say the guests were indecorous —or scandalous, at any rate—but the drinks flowed freely, and they made themselves quite merry at their host’s expense. Mama stood to one side, surrounded by revelers and unaware that her daughter had slipped from her side, but Sophie’s brother was not so distracted. Though ringed by a bevy of beauties vying for his attention (an endeavor that would end with their broken hearts but not his), Allen met Sophie’s gaze with an arched brow, glancing between mother and daughter with a warning smirk. Holding up a finger to her lips, Sophie pleaded for him to leave her be, and with a silent sigh, Allen rolled his eyes and escorted one of his followers onto the dance floor. A reprise. For now. Sophie was not foolish enough to believe it would last the entire evening, but she refused to taint the perfection of this moment by focusing on its finite existence. After two Seasons, she knew to embrace these fleeting moments when they presented themselves. The Fitzsimmons’ ballroom was beautifully arrayed. The room itself was a mere rectangular space with little inherent beauty; however, Mrs.
Fitzsimmons must have purchased every blossom in London. Garlands hung above the doorways, spanning the wall with long flowery spires, and pillarlike pedestals dotted the walls with massive arrangements perched atop. The room was an indoor Eden. Sophie was not well-acquainted with hot-house blooms, but she appreciated their scent and that they provided a decent hiding place. Standing to the side of one particularly magnificent display, Sophie was afforded relative privacy in an otherwise open space. Not secluded enough that Mama could accuse her of being unsociable but unnoticeable to the wandering eye. “It’s a terrible injustice to stand beside a young lady and be forced to ignore her presence simply because the hosts are too occupied to provide a proper introduction.” Brows furrowed, Sophie slanted a look to her left where a young man stood a few paces away with his hands tucked behind him, watching the ballroom as though he hadn’t spoken. The gentleman had the bearing and finery of high society, which was expected at such a gathering, but in all other respects, he was the definition of unremarkable. Neither tall nor short.
Neither fair nor dark. Neither handsome nor homely. A tint of red to his brown locks kept him from being wholly bland, but otherwise, he was a perfectly ordinary fellow. “Unfortunately, there are few in attendance with whom I can claim an acquaintance outside of our dear hosts, and they are preoccupied at the moment.” Again, the mysterious gentleman did not look at Sophie nor give any other indication he’d noticed her. For her part, Sophie wasn’t entirely certain his faculties were intact, but at least his declaration made it clear her family hadn’t entreated him to keep their Silly Little Sophie occupied. “It seems an unnecessary step when one has already taken the liberty of speaking with the lady in question,” she replied. “I am no libertine. I am merely speaking my thoughts aloud to any who might be standing close enough to listen.” The gentleman’s gaze never left the dancers before them, but the corner of his lips ticked upwards, mirrored by the wrinkling at the corners of his eyes.
“Ah,” said Sophie, a responding smile lightening her expression. “Then we are not conversing. We are merely speaking to the room as a whole and if our words happen to coincide, it is merely providential?” The gentleman gave the ballroom a solemn nod, though his gaze held more than a touch of mirth. “Should anyone in the area wish to know, I am bemoaning the dictates that keep perfectly respectable gentlemen from introducing themselves to the ladies of their choosing.” A chuckle bubbled up in her at this wholly absurd and delightful conversation, and though she followed the fellow’s lead and kept her gaze turned on the dancers, her brow arched as she replied, “But once they are introduced there is no undoing it, and without a trusted source vouching for his character, how is a lady to know if a gentleman is respectable enough to warrant an acquaintance?” “I suppose there is no other recourse,” he replied with a sad shake of his head, and with quick steps, the gentleman strode away while Sophie watched with wide eyes as the crowd swallowed him. Odd indeed. And just a touch deflating if she were honest. But before Sophie could give much thought to his rapid disappearance, the guests parted once more, and the mysterious gentleman herded Mr. Bertie Fitzsimmons towards her. “Steady on,” Mr.
Fitzsimmons grumbled, shooting a scowl over his shoulder as the fellow at his back prodded him along. The young Mr. Fitzsimmons came to a stop in front of Sophie, looking as put out with her as he was with the gentleman at his side. With half-lidded eyes, Mr. Fitzsimmons looked between the pair and sighed. “Miss Sophia Banfield, may I introduce Mr. Oliver Kingsley?” he said with a quick wave of his hand between the pair that was far too impatient to be polite. Mrs. Beecham would have rapped the fellow’s knuckles for that impertinence, but Sophie merely smiled and looked at Mr. Kingsley with an appraising eye.
“Is he a gentleman of good character and worthy of my acquaintance?” asked Sophie with a haughty tone, though her eyes sparkled with silent laughter. Mr. Fitzsimmons’ lids lowered, clearly not sharing in the jest, though Mr. Kingsley’s eyes lightened at it. “My parents would not admit him otherwise,” said Mr. Fitzsimmons. “I assure you I was raised a gentleman,” said Mr. Kingsley with a deferential bow. “I would never besmirch a lady’s honor by forcing an acquaintance upon her. I do hope that with Fitz’s endorsement you will view me as someone worth knowing.
” “Perhaps,” she said with a dainty sniff while smoothing her skirts. But her jest was overshadowed by Mr. Fitzsimmons’ huff. “I’m certain you both find this very amusing, but you cost me a prime spot at Miss Dickerson’s side, Kingsley. I spent the last half-hour jockeying for that position.” And with that, he turned on his heels and stalked back the way he’d come, and Mr. Kingsley gave Sophie a commiserating grimace. “I suppose I shall have to make it up to him, but I could not wait another moment to ask you a question that has been plaguing me ever since I spied you hiding in the corner.” Leaning in, Mr. Kingsley gave a sotto voce whisper.
“Do you find such gatherings as insufferably dull as I do?” Sophie’s brows rose. “You went to all that trouble to ask me that?” Mr. Kingsley shrugged. “The rest of the crowd are all clamoring to dance, drink, and fritter the night away. I see no other person clinging to the shadows with such ferocity.” Giving a little squeeze, Sophie’s heart was rather pleased he’d noticed her. “Dull is a strong word, sir. Though I do find such gatherings uncomfortable.” “You do not care for crowds?” “Not this one.” The words came out before Sophie had the chance to think better of them.
Mr. Kingsley turned to stand beside her so they both had a good view of the ballroom. “They are a rather riotous bunch.” Sophie’s hands gripped her skirts, and she gave him a faltering smile. “I enjoy balls and parties —or I enjoy the idea of them. However, the circles in which my parents travel are far too…” She paused, searching for the word, and Mr. Kingsley supplied one of his own. “Overwhelming?” His tone matched her feelings of dread and distaste so perfectly that Sophie broke into a wide grin. “Precisely.” Mr.
Kingsley nodded. “Then it is doubly favorable I stumbled across you, for we can commiserate with each other.” Sophie gave him another saucy arch of her brow, and she didn’t know what had possessed the appendage, for it was determined to be audacious. “I am here because my mother dictates my social calendar, but you are master of yours.” “At present, I am master to my duty and honor, which will teach me to give my word with more circumspection,” he muttered. When Sophie sent him a questioning glance, Mr. Kingsley continued. “A dear friend elicited my promise to accompany him tonight. For the duration.” With a jerk of his head, Mr.
Kingsley motioned to a fellow with a mop of bright ginger hair bobbing about the dance floor in a brisk gallop with a young lady in his arms. “He wished for you to accompany him and promptly abandoned you?” she asked. “And I am forced to choose between breaking my word and hiding in the corners of the ballroom.” “So, rather than throwing him over, you invaded my haven?” Sophie gave another indignant sniff at that, mimicking so thoroughly the haughty demeanor of those prickly society matrons who viewed the world with perpetual dissatisfaction. Mr. Kingsley slanted her a look with a spark of humor gleaming in his eye. “I was stuck between the devil and the deep sea, as my uncle is wont to say, so I hope you will forgive my impudence.” “That depends.” Mr. Kingsley waited a moment before prompting, “On?” Sophie attempted a gimlet eye, but she was grinning too widely to maintain the pompous facade.
“Whether I am the devil or the deep sea in your analogy.” With all the hubbub around them, no one noticed how strongly Mr. Kingsley laughed or Sophie’s responding one, but she was all too aware of the way his eyes danced and his face lit with the emotion. Mr. Kingsley may look ordinary at first, but joy sparked inside him, lighting up his features until Sophie was quite certain he was one of the most striking gentlemen in attendance. He was certainly the most entertaining. “Miss Sophia,” he said with a very proper bow as the strains of the music came to their natural conclusion, “would you do me the very great honor of dancing with me?” Though others had asked just such a question before, Sophie could not keep her cheeks from heating as her heart gave an extra thump inside her chest. “Certainly, Mr. Kingsley.”