The Norbury ball was held in Belgravia, a district of calm and quietness in the heart of London. One could be overwhelmed by the bustle and roar of traffic and activity on Knightsbridge or Sloane Street, cross over to Belgrave Square, and find oneself in an oasis of soothing decorum. It was a place of large marble embassies and grand white terraces, of solemn mansions with tall powdered footmen and stout butlers, and carriages conveying languid young ladies and their tiny overfed dogs.
The surrounding districts of London held little interest for those fortunate enough to live in Belgravia. Conversations were largely about local matters—who had taken a particular house, or what nearby street needed repairs, or what events had taken place at a neighboring residence.
To Poppy’s dismay, Cam and Amelia had agreed with Leo’s assessment of the situation. A show of pride and unconcern was called for if Poppy wished to stem the tide of gossip concerning Michael Bayning’s rejection. “The gadje has a long memory of these matters,” Cam had said sardonically. “God knows why they attach such importance to things of no consequence. But they do.”
“It’s only one evening,” Amelia had told Poppy in concern. “Do you think you could manage an appearance, dear?”
“Yes,” Poppy had agreed dully. “If you are there, I can manage it.”
However, as she ascended the front steps to the mansion’s portico, Poppy was swamped with regret and dread. The glass of wine she’d had to bolster her courage had pooled like acid in her stomach, and her corset had been laced too tightly.
She wore a white dress, layers of draped satin and pale blue illusion. Her waist was cinched with a belt of satin folds, the bodice deep and scooped and trimmed with another delicate froth of blue. After arranging her hair in a mass of pinned-up curls, Amelia had threaded a thin blue ribbon through it.
Leo had arrived, as promised, to accompany the family to the ball. He held out his arm for Poppy and escorted her up the stairs, while the family followed en masse. They entered the overheated house, which was filled with flowers, music, and the din of hundreds of simultaneous conversations. Doors had been removed from their hinges to allow for the circulation of guests from the ballroom to the supper and card rooms.
The Hathaways waited in a receiving line in the entrance hall.
“Look how dignified and polite they all are,” Leo said, observing the crowd. “I can’t stay long. Someone might influence me.”
“You promised you would stay until after the first set,” Poppy reminded him.
Her brother sighed. “For you, I will. But I despise these affairs.”
“As do I,” Miss Marks surprised them all by saying grimly, surveying the gathering as if it were enemy territory.
“My God. Something else we agree on.” Leo gave the companion a half-mocking, half-uneasy glance. “We have to stop doing this, Marks. My stomach is starting to turn.”
“Please do not say that word,” she snapped.
“Stomach? Why not?”
“It is indelicate to refer to your anatomy.” She gave his tall form a disdainful glance. “And I assure you, no one has any interest in it.”
“You think not? I’ll have you know, Marks, that scores of women have remarked on my—”
“Ramsay,” Cam interrupted, giving him a warning glance.
When they had made it through the entrance hall, the family dispersed to make the rounds. Leo and Cam went to the card rooms, while the women headed to the supper tables. Amelia was instantly captured by a small group of chattering matrons.
“I can’t eat,” Poppy commented, glancing with revulsion at the long buffet of cold joints, beef, ham, and lobster salads.
“I’m starved,” Beatrix. said apologetically. “Do you mind if I have something?”
“Not at all, we’ll wait with you.”
“Have a spoonful of salad,” Miss Marks murmured to Poppy. “For appearance’s sake. And smile.”
“Like this?” Poppy attempted to turn the corners of her mouth upward.
Beatrix regarded her doubtfully. “No, that’s not pretty at all. You look like a salmon.”
“I feel like a salmon,” Poppy said. “One that’s been boiled, shredded and potted.”
As the guests queued at the buffet, footmen filled their plates and carried them to nearby tables.
Poppy was still waiting in line when she was approached by Lady Belinda Wallscourt, a pretty young woman she had befriended during the Season. As soon as Belinda had come out into society, she was pursued by several eligible gentlemen, and had quickly become betrothed.
“Poppy,” Lady Belinda said warmly, “how nice to see you here. There was uncertainty as to whether you would come.”
“The last ball of the Season?” Poppy said with a forced smile. “I wouldn’t miss it.”
“I’m so glad.” Lady Belinda gave her a compassionate glance. Her voice lowered. “It’s terrible, what happened to you. I’m dreadfully sorry.”
“Oh, there’s nothing to be sorry about,” Poppy said brightly. “I’m perfectly fine!”
“You’re very brave,” Belinda replied. “And Poppy, remember that someday you will meet a frog who will turn into a handsome prince.”
“Good,” Beatrix said. “Because all she’s met so far are princes who turn into frogs.”
Looking perplexed, Belinda managed a smile and left them.