Amid the swirl of debutantes in white, young wives in jewels, and turbaned matrons, the girl across the room stood out. The brown dress, plain hair, and aura of being forgotten. She curled in on herself like a snail whose shell was invisible.
A poor relation? Not my concern. I was here to observe interesting people.
A murmur raced across the room, and everyone’s gazes darted toward the door where a man entered.
“Lord Blake. He’s a handsome one, isn’t he?”
I quite concurred. Lord Blake was a handsome man. More eavesdropping completed the story. He’d been in the army. His cousins had died, and he’d risen from relative obscurity to an earldom.
One wouldn’t have guessed his antecedents from his firm stride and air of imperturbability. Then, his stride broke, his mouth tightened, and his eyes widened.
No one else seemed to notice, but I followed his gaze and saw her. My brown snail girl who no longer looked like a brown snail. Her posture had straightened. Her cheeks pinked. Even from a distance, her accelerated breathing was visible.
The long moment snapped. Both seemed to recall where they were. He returned to accepting the adulation of the gaggle of hopeful debutantes and their equally hopeful mamas. She shrank back to her chair.
I should ignore it. Pushing my oar into these deep waters would be insufferably forward of me.
But, perhaps, I could just chat with her. In that one moment, she had morphed from a dull girl wearing brown to the heroine in a novel.
I nodded to those I passed as I skirted the dancers. The lucky girl who had captured Lord Blake’s hand cast superior glances on those ladies who had not been so fortunate.
“Lovely evening, isn’t it?” I murmured when I reached the girl’s side. Only then did I realize the candlelight had been kind. She had passed the first bloom of girlhood.
She jumped and turned to look at me. She no doubt wondered why I had chosen to speak to her, but I was unthreatening enough she relaxed. “Indeed, ma’am.”
Not a promising start, but I tried again. “The lemonade is very good.”
“Indeed.” She gave a prim nod, but I caught sight of something in her eye. A very faint mockery.
I pushed forward. “The dancers are very skilled.”
It was a game. Was it limited to fellow wallflowers, or did she answer everyone so?
“You are not dancing.” Would she say indeed yet again? If she did, I would leave her to her own thoughts.
One eyebrow quirked. “A fine observation, ma’am. May I compliment your eyesight?”
“Certainly. It allowed me to see Lord Blake’s dashing appearance. He was quite startled when he entered. I wonder if you noticed.”
Her cheeks reddened, and her eyes searched mine. “Did he?”
“I thought he looked rather like he had seen a ghost.”
She attempted a laugh.
“How long have you known him?” I should stop. Still, I had given characters happy endings, why shouldn’t I give one to real people?
“I think I must visit the retiring room.” She paused. “Do you wish to come?”
I smirked. “Indeed.”
The retiring room was blessedly empty. “I didn’t expect to see him here.”
“So I assumed.”
She breathed a laugh. “We knew each other when I was a girl, and he was a nobody. We loved each other, but my half-brother wouldn’t countenance the marriage. He told everyone who would listen Henry was an upstart. The real reason was, if I married, my inheritance from my mother would pass into my husband’s hands and out of his.
“My brother offered me a choice. I could marry. I would inherit, but my two younger sisters would be forced to fill the family coffers by marrying unkind men. If I married Henry, or told the truth, off to the altar they would go. A cruel persuasion.
“We were going to announce our engagement at Christmas. Meet under the mistletoe and tell everyone. Instead, I left him standing alone under the mistletoe and later told him he didn’t have enough money.”
She smiled. “My sisters married good men. I took possession of what remained of my inheritance. But, Henry could never forgive me.”
The door opened and she pasted on a smile. “Thank you for helping pin my ruffle, ma’am.”
I accepted the dismissal and left. Lord Blake had retreated behind a glass of lemonade. I requested an introduction, but he seemed confused. Why would someone like me seek his attention?
“Happy Christmas, my lord.”
“I always think of Christmas as the time for forgiveness. A time to seek out those who have wronged us and discover if they might’ve had a good reason why.”
His eyebrows rose. “An oddly specific list of Christmas goals, madam.”
“But a good one, my lord. Forgiveness is why the Christ-child came. Christmas is the season for second chances. Would you not agree, my lord?”
“I suppose I do.”
“Then, perhaps you might enjoy a stroll to the library. I saw a bough hanging in the doorway.”
He darted a glance at the mistletoe. “I stood under mistletoe before, as you seem aware.”
“Not this mistletoe.”
He left me and walked in the direction of the library. I found the young woman next. “Take your second chance. We don’t often get them. He’s waiting at the library door.”
My hero and heroine reached the doorway at nearly the same moment. I remained silent. They had to take the final steps toward the mistletoe—and forgiveness—on their own.
As one, they moved beneath it.
They stared into each other’s eyes. He bent his head. Their lips met.
I smiled. They had found their way back to each other. I was forgotten.
Or, so I thought. She appeared as I prepared to leave. “Thank you.”
“I never properly introduced myself. I’m Agnes Fredrickson.”
I smiled, a story idea growing in my mind. “Jane Austen.”
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