Bianca swallowed. “What’s that?”

All seven friends answered in unison. “Run.”


Bianca’s wish to experience her first kiss tonight was looking less likely by the second. The supposedly shooting stars outside stayed stubbornly immobile, just like the popular gentlemen stayed firmly on the opposite side of the ballroom as the “spinster seats” in the far corner.

There was one gentleman in particular who Bianca had hoped would notice her arrival, but thus far he had failed to even turn in her direction.

Perhaps “failed” was the wrong word. Harry hadn’t been given a chance. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of the Earl of Eagleton. Not only was Lady Regina practically pinning him in place, but also a constant stream of lords and ladies kept interrupting the two in order to exchange a word with Harry themselves. The poor man hadn’t had an opportunity to visit the refreshment table, much less to inspect the occupants of the spinster section.

Bianca, on the other hand, was ready to visit the refreshment table a second time. Those were some truly delicious cakes. Her friends were already on their second or third round, but Bianca had been taking her time with the first cake, savoring its tart lemon sweetness. And holding out hope that at any moment, Harry would come to interrupt her.

“Anyone want another cake?” she asked her friends.

All but one of them lifted their full plates and shook their heads. Miss Drowsy was already nodding off in her chair, an abandoned cake on the plate in her lap.

Bianca strode to the refreshment stand on her own. She had only been friends with the seven debutantes for about a week, but already felt their absence at her side, much like a general charging into battle without his armor—or fellow soldiers.

“No one is out to get you,” she chided herself under her breath.

This wasn’t strictly true. Lady Quinseley might very well be plotting against Bianca at this very minute. But the countess was not present at the ball. Bianca could relax. No one might ask her to dance, but nor were they likely to run her through with a sword.

She hesitated with her plate over the array of sweets, then decided on one each of the three most tempting cakes. Supper wouldn’t start for two hours. There was to be dancing and a production of Romeo & Juliet first. Cakes seemed like exactly the appropriate fortifying sustenance for a spectator to both activities.

With the trio of cakes balanced in a tower on the center of her small plate, Bianca turned away from the refreshment table—and found herself toe-to-toe with Lady Regina.

“Are you planning to become evenmoredisgustingly round than you already are?,” Lady Regina inquired. “Perhaps I should warn our hosts that one of their guests is feeding like a pig at a trough.”

“Uh,” said Bianca. “I took three at a time just to save myself the trip back two more times. If you think my selection inappropriately gluttonous, I could—”

“I’ll tell you what’s inappropriate.You, trying to encroach upon the Earl of Eagleton.”

“Am I?” Bianca said. “Then I have been encroaching very poorly, what with me being seated on one side of an enormous ballroom, and him standing without me, far on the opposite side.”

“Aha!” Lady Regina crowed. “I knew you were watching his every move. Well, he’s not dallying with you now, is he. I sent him off to procure me better wine. One of his friends ordered me a superior champagne from the Savoy Club.”

“Isn’t this champagne lovely enough?” Bianca glanced over her shoulder at the footmen standing at the ready with trays of champagne. “My glass tasted nice to my palate—”

“What wouldyouknow? One can tell your class by looking at you—” She made a dismissive gesture toward the golden brown skin of Bianca’s bare arms. “—which is to say, you have no class at all.”

Bianca’s muscles shook, but she ducked her head to hide her hurt, anger, and humiliation. She wished she’d stayed in her chair.

Lady Regina jabbed a finger at Bianca’s shoulder. “You shouldn’tbehere.”

“Because I’m not peaches and cream like you?”

“Yes,” Lady Regina snapped. “As if that’s not enough, does Polite Society look like the right place for the bastard of a whore?”

Bianca gasped and reached up to tuck her snow-white ringlet behind her ear.

Lady Regina laughed harshly. “There’s no hiding your parentage. You might as well have ‘Dead Earl’s Orphan By-Blow’ stamped across your forehead. You arenota lady of Quality, and never will be.” You’re fishing for a protector, just as your mother did.”

“Why are you saying all of this?” Bianca stammered.

“You shouldn’t need to be told. You should know you’re the wrong color and the wrong class. You know you’re the bastard of a whore.”

“Stop saying—”

Tags: Erica Ridley Historical
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