The ballroom of Wil Hyland’s house in London was lit with a dozen gleaming silver candelabras. The ceiling was two stories high and the marble floor shone deeply, reflecting the light. One hundred guests sounded more like two hundred, their heels clattering on the floor, their laughter echoing up the walls.
The room was full of women and a few men, though there were enough women dressed in gentlemen’s evening wear to make the balance between the sexes appear at first glance to be nearly equal. Eden took a glass of champagne from a footman’s tray, hoping to calm her nerves as Eleanor talked animatedly with a woman she had told Eden was her cousin’s sister-in-law.
Eden felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to find Wil Hyland herself, standing there, smiling at her. “Welcome, Eden, I’m so glad you made your way to London sooner rather than later. So many of our friends are simply panting to meet you.” And she looked over Eden’s shoulder and waved at someone.
Eden turned and saw a fair-haired young lady of about twenty years approaching through the crowd of guests. She wore a sleeveless ball gown of ivory satin with gold embroidery and little clusters of pearls scattered about. Daring earrings in gold and pearl dangled almost to her shoulders. As she approached, Eden noticed that the people she passed moved to catch a glimpse of her, shifting to create an easier path for her through the room. A few openly watched her as she went, to see where she was going and to whose bidding she was responding.
For this reason, several strange eyes were on Eden by the time the girl arrived at her side, smiling at Wil.
“Alice, this is Eden Smith, a friend of Eleanor Stephens’s from Boston,” Wil told the girl.
“Eden, this is Alice Vine, my—niece.”
Miss Vine gave Eden a hand wrapped in a long golden glove with tiny pearl buttons from wrist to elbow.
Eden took it. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Vine,” she said.
The girl turned a pair of blue eyes on Eden. “And you, Miss Smith,” she replied.
Miss Vine squeezed Eden’s hand, “of course,” she said with a little smile, “and you must call me Alice.”
Three glasses of champagne and several waltzes later, Eden had entirely lost track of both Eleanor and Wil. Alice Vine had introduced her to several people, but she remembered none of their names. Meanwhile, the girl kept her engaged, asking all about Eden’s studies at Radcliffe, and her opinion of what she had seen of London so far in her visit.
Eden had seen very little of London, as yet, having spent most of her time at the National Gallery among the Elgin marbles and a day in Westminster Abbey. Eleanor had offered to take her to her country house in Kent, but then Wil had sent the invitation to her summer ball and they had stayed in town.
“Then you haven’t been to the theatre at all?” Alice asked Eden in as sympathetic a tone as if Eden had been telling the girl about the symptoms of a head cold.
“Not yet,” Eden said, noting that the champagne in Alice’s glass was just the color of her gloves and the embroidery on her gown. In the flickering candlelight, the liquid seemed almost to dance in the glass.
“Eden?” Alice was asking her now. Eden looked up. “Did you hear me? I wonder if you’d like to see a play tomorrow evening?”
The girl’s eyes also caught the candlelight and flickered as Eden watched.
“I’m sorry—” Eden collected herself and smiled. “Yes, I’d love to.
Alice tilted her head slightly. “It’s so warm in here…Would you mind very much a little visit to the garden?”
And the next thing Eden remembered when she tried to recall it later, was sitting on a garden bench with her arms around Alice Vine, kissing her in the summer moonlight and being kissed back with more ardor than Gertrude Prescott had shown her in two years’ of kisses combined.