With the HeartbyEveHasFallen©
Bella momentarily forgot about Phil’s unexplained irritation as she allowed this Etien Brouillard’s story to swirl inside her thoughts. He was an outsider by virtue of his birth, yet kept himself distant from society by choice.
He reminded her of herself. “He is quite handsome. And what remarkable eyes,” she said, her own eyes following him and Beth around the marble floor. It wasn’t that she was particularly attracted to him or held any designs for him in a romantic sense; it was more like she had felt a connection to him, as if he could understand her in ways that no one she had ever met would be able.
Phil’s voice drew her out of her reverie. “Yes, I have heard tell that many women of the ton find him quite handsome. But,” he said slowly, with the same tightness in his voice, “I believe Cathy has set her sights for him and he for her.”
Bella peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. Every fiber of his being seemed to have been drawn taut as he watched the couple swirl around and around, so close in each other’s arms. Bella had never seen Phil behave like this and it confused her. Why would Phil react so strongly just because a man asked Beth to dance? The same type of thing had occurred countless times before and he simply joked into Bella’s ear about their mincing steps as Cathy made faces at them over her partner’s shoulder. Then, the truth of the matter dawned on her like a thunder clap.
'Phil is in love with Cathy.'
The thought occurred to Bella with such lightning swiftness that she could barely refrain from gasping aloud. Of course, it all made sense; for had they not appeared by her side tonight having already been in each other’s company? And didn’t Phil pay ‘friendly’ calls at Cathy’s home a few times a month? And, hadn’t he sworn that he would never, ever marry unless he was able to form a friendship with any prospective wife?
Her head spun with the implications of her discovery. Biting her lip she continued to watch Phil’s expression from beneath her lashes. As his friend she knew that she should say something to try to help him, but for the life of her, she couldn’t imagine a single thing to say to someone who was frustrated in love.
Fortunately, she was saved from needing to comment when Phil turned to her. “Are you thirsty? Let’s go find something to dampen the throat and, with any luck, lighten the mood.”
Clasping her elbow, he turned to lead the way through the crowd when Bella heard him mutter a quiet, “Bloody hell.”
Looking around for the cause of his irritation, she realized that it was the gorgeous woman coming toward them, having just disengaged from a group of friends. Mrs. Anastasia Clyde had been widowed at the tender age of twenty-three, yet had never finished the customary year of mourning for the husband who was twice her age. The woman was a walking masterpiece. It was true that the haute monde had its claim to beauties to fit every taste and fancy, but this was a woman who brought men to their knees.
She walked with a sensual sway to her hips, which only served to accentuate the fact that the dampened silk skirts of her crimson gown clung to every curve of her perfect body. Coal black hair curled in delectable waves to frame a porcelain-skinned face and thick-lashed, cerulean eyes. She intimidated Bella with her self-confident air and the way she could make any man forget decorum for the lure of her bow-shaped lips. For the fifth time in fifteen minutes, Bella found herself regarding Phil from the corner of her eye. Half-expecting his mouth to be hanging open and for him to, any moment, desert her for the guaranteed pleasures of Mrs. Clyde’s company, she was surprised to see that his countenance had once again turned stormy.
“Phillip,” Anastasia breathed as soon as she drew close enough, “ I have had quite the trial finding you again, my lord.” It didn’t escape Arabella’s notice that Anastasia neither looked in her direction nor greeted her.
She felt Phil’s hand tense where he still held her arm. “Anastasia, I believe you’ve met Arabella Smythe,” he said pointedly, illustrating that he’d noticed her rudeness. Bella curtsied to the other woman as Phil continued. “As for not being able to find me, I do believe that is a regular occurrence at gatherings of this size. Though it may seem an inconvenience to some, to others it may be a blessing.”
Bella’s gasp at Phil’s comment was drowned out by Anastasia’s tinkling laughter. “Careful, my Lord, or I may have to drag myself back to my circle of friends with a broken heart to tell them that the ever amicable Lord Rutherford is not the man we thought he was, and has given way to an ogre.” Something glinted deep in the woman’s eyes as she said the words and Bella sensed something inexplicable pass between the two. She felt as if she were caught between two tigers about to claw each other to death.
“Madam…,” Phil began through clenched teeth, only to be cut off by Mrs. Clyde.
“By the by, m’lord, I came to tell you that you missed our dance,” she said, holding up a dance card on which Phil’s name was written, “and I’ve come to claim another, as brazen as that might make me.”
“Forgive me, madam, but I am just escorting Lady Arabella to fetch a glass of punch and it would be most ungentlemanly of me to desert her. Perhaps later I will—“
Once again, Mrs. Clyde cut him off. “Fie, Phillip, I am sure Lady Arabella is quite able to look after herself. Besides, she spends her time sitting out the dances all the time, so I’m sure this will be no different. I, on the other hand, shall be most put out if I am deserted. I shall question your honor, m’lord.” Her voice was almost icy as she finished speaking and the silence that descended between them made Bella sure that there was some underlying tension that caused Phillip and Mrs. Clyde to eye each other like the gravest enemies.
At long last, and just when Arabella felt certain she would crack beneath the strain of the past minutes, Phil stepped away from Mrs. Clyde, bringing Bella with him. Leaning down, he whispered, “Forgive me, but I must entertain that harpy’s whimsy and dance with her, though God knows I’d rather wrap my hands around her neck and…” he trailed off when he saw Bella’s eyes widen in alarm. “Bella, wait for me here and I’ll be back as soon as I can. I need to speak with you about…something of great import.” With that, he brought her hand to his lips and turned away to escort Mrs. Clyde onto the floor to the sound of a minuet.
Bella, suddenly feeling quite lonely, made her way to a solitary chair against the wall. To her left groups of men and women laughed and conversed with growing joviality as the champagne continued to flow. And to her right, the wall stretched out almost endlessly along the length of the Grand Ballroom. Just near her ear, a massive white marble pedestal held a huge vase with a generous arrangement of hothouse orchids and tiger lilies. Bella inhaled their perfume and leaned her head against the wall, wondering where Cathy had disappeared to, and when.
It was such a strange night, with her mother’s secrets, Cathy’s mysterious companion and that little scene between Phil and Mrs. Clyde. These were the times that she felt as if her life were a play and she was the only audience member, while everyone else possessed an integral part. The older she grew, the more Arabella came to realize that though Maggie’s viewed the world as a vast land of possibility, when it came to her, Arabella, it felt more like a prison.
The worst part was that she had nowhere to go. It wasn’t as if she was about to be swept off of her feet by a charming nobleman, and she had no marketable skills so she couldn’t possibly live on her own unless she became a governess. And, even the thought of caring for another woman’s children made Bella’s heart ache, for she could never do so without loving them herself, and that was only a secondary kind of love. With a sigh, she wished that the world wasn’t as vain or blind, and that life had been more kind to her. Self-pity wasn’t her typical mindset, but she felt as if she had earned, over her flawed lifetime, the right to wallow in disappointment for a few moments at least.
Her reverie skidded to an abrupt halt when she heard voices coming from very near her seated position. Looking around, she couldn’t fathom how she was able to hear a conversation when all of the people in her line of vision were yards away.
Then, a muted laugh wafted toward her, and she realized that the pedestal and vase on her right blocked her view of an alcove, into which two women must have stepped in order to gossip more freely. Once the mystery of the voices was solved, Bella began to turn her attention back to her own thoughts, being uninterested in the petty twitters of unknown women. She’d just succeeded in tuning them out when her own name caught her attention.
“…that Smythe girl, Amelia, is that her name? I can never remember,” one voice said.
“No, no, it’s Arabella, I believe. It’s her older sister, Beth, who Lord Geoffrey is said to be quite taken with.” At this, Bella smiled, forgetting her disgust with the women’s gossip, in light of her joy for her sister.
“Lady Beth is the elder? I was quite sure that Amelia was the eldest, for all her plainness. She has that sort of air about her that you see about a girl who is half on the shelf. Why, I would never have thought that a debutante or her Mama would allow herself to be so fat or mousy if she is still young and rich enough to gain a husband.”
Bella felt cold all over to hear herself spoken of in such a manner. How cruel these women were to insult and ridicule her when they had most likely only ever spoken a few words to her, if Arabella had ever been introduced to them at all.
To her horror, the first woman laughed and went on. “Hyacinth, how harsh. She is not quite fat, as you say, but she is by no means thin. In fact, she is rather an odd girl. She never dances or talks to anyone beside her family, Lady Catherine—Lord Barrany’s daughter—and Phillip, Lord Rutherford. But one can hardly blame her, for I wouldn’t want to call attention to myself with a face and figure such as hers.”
Bella decided she had heard enough. The amusement in their voices as they shredded her very being into ribbons clawed at her already bruised heart. Rising from her chair, she managed to hold herself together, even as the other woman replied to her friend. “Perhaps she doesn’t want to marry for fear that she will have children as cursedly unsightly as herself.”
The women’s ringing laughter echoed in Bella’s ears as she fled, red-faced from the ballroom. Rushing blindly through a door and down a darkened hallway, she didn’t stop until she found herself alone in the quiet interior of the house, which wasn’t lit by candles or assaulted by the noise of the crowd. Bella felt as if she could truly breathe for the first time that night.
Closed doors lined the hallway on both sides, and Bella told herself that she shouldn’t wander into unlit rooms in someone else’s household, but at the same moment she opened the door directly to her left to reveal an empty, but massive library, dimly lit by the glow of wall sconces that had been turned down as if in anticipation of being occupied.
Stepping into the room and closing the door, she felt as if she had escaped the pain of the moments before. Yet even as her embarrassment began to recede, the women’s words would not cease a constant circuit through her brain. Tears began to fall unheeded from her eyes. It was the first time that she’d cried in a very long while and they came in rivulets that coursed down her round cheeks to drip from her chin.
Moving quickly toward a velvet-covered chaise, Bella collapsed into a fit of weeping that would have disgusted her if she’d been able to see herself.