I wince at this. Will I ever see Kartik again?

Mr. Jackson tips his hat to me. He's a tall brute of a man with a long, thin face and a handlebar mustache that reminds me of a walrus. Or perhaps I'm being unkind because I miss Kartik.

"Where did you find Mr. Jackson?" I ask as we join the well-dressed couples parading to the ball.

"Oh, he found us. Came by inquiring whether we might have need of a driver."

"On Christmas Day? That is curious," I say.

"And lucky," Tom says. "Now remember, Father has taken ill and cannot attend this evening, but he sends his deep regrets."

When I say nothing, Grandmama takes hold of my arm, all the while smiling and nodding to others who are arriving."Gemma?"

"Yes," I say with a sigh."I shall remember."

Felicity and her mother greet us as we arrive. Felicity's dress, tailored by Franny, shows a daring amount of decolletage that does not go unnoticed by the guests, the shock registering in their lingering glances. Mrs. Worthington's strained smile says all that she is feeling, but there's nothing for her to do but put on a brave face, as if her daughter weren't shaming her at her very own ball. I don't understand why Felicity goads her mother so, or why her mother endures it without much more than a martyred sigh.

"How do you do?" I murmur to Felicity as we exchange curtsies.

"Good of you to come," she says. We're both so formal that I have to fight a giggle. Felicity gestures to the man on her left. "I don't believe you've met my father, Sir George Worthington."

"How do you do, Sir George?" I say, curtsying.

Felicity's father is a handsome man with clear gray eyes and fair hair gone a muddy blond. He has the sort of strong profile one can imagine outlined by the gray of the sea. I can see him, arms behind his back as they are now, shouting orders to his men. And like his daughter, he has a charismatic smile, which is on display as little Polly enters the room in her blue velvet gown, her hair in ringlets.

"May I stay for the dancing, Uncle?" she asks quietly.

"She should go to the nursery," Felicity's mother says.

"Now, now, it is Christmas. Our Polly wants dancing and she shall have it," the admiral says."I'm afraid I'm rather an old fool when it comes to indulging young ladies."

The guests chuckle at this, delighted with his merry spirits. As we move on, I hear him greeting people with great bonhomie and charm.

". . . yes, I'm off tomorrow to Greenwich to visit the old sailors at the royal hospital. Do you suppose they'll give me a bed? . . . Stevens, how's the leg holding up? Ah, good, good . . ."

On a side table, beautiful dance cards have been laid out. They are clever, ornamented with gold braid and a tiny attached pencil so that we may write the name of our partner beside the dance--waltz, quadrille, gallop, polka--that he requests to have with us. Though I should like to write Simon's name beside all of them, I know I am to dance no more than three dances with any gentleman. And I shall have to dance once with my brother. The card will make a beautiful souvenir of my first ball, though truthfully, I am not yet "out of the schoolroom," since I've not made my debut and had my season. But this is a family party, and as such, I shall have all the privileges of a young lady of seventeen or eighteen.

Grandmama spends a tiresome amount of time visiting with various ladies while I am forced to trail behind, smiling and curtsying and generally saying nothing unless spoken to. I meet the chaperones--bored spinster aunts all--and a Mrs. Bowles promises Grandmama she will watch over me like a mother hen whilst Grandmama busies herself at cards elsewhere. Across the room, I spy Simon entering with his family, and my stomach flutters. I'm so absorbed in his arrival that I miss a question directed to me from a Lady Something-or-Other. She, Grandmama, and Mrs. Bowles stand looking at me, expecting an answer. Grandmama closes her eyes briefly in shame.

"Yes, thank you," I say, thinking it safest.

Lady Something-or-Other smiles and cools herself with an ivory fan. "Wonderful! The next dance is about to begin. And here is my Percival now."

A young man appears at her side. The top of his head reaches the bottom of my chin, and he has the misfortune of looking like a large fish, all bulging eyes and exceptionally wide mouth. And I've just agreed to dance with him.

I come to two conclusions during the polka. One, it is rather like being shaken for an eternity. Two, the reason Percival Something-or-Other has such an exceptionally wide mouth is from overuse. He talks for the whole of the dance, stopping only to ask me questions that he then answers for me. I am reminded of survival stories in which brave men were forced to amputate their own limbs in order to escape animal traps, and I fear that I shall have to resort to such a drastic measure if the orchestra does not stop. Mercifully, they do, and I manage to escape, while "regretfully" informing Percival that my dance card has been filled for the remainder of the ball.