Some time later, at the back of the ballroom, partially hidden by a massive palm, Ava, Phoebe and Greer frowned at the slipper Ava held in her hand.
“It’s hopelessly broken,” Phoebe declared, flicking the heel with her finger. The offending piece clung to the rest of the shoe by an alarmingly small sliver of silk. “And I worked so hard to bead it,” she added with a bit of a pout.
What Phoebe lacked in self confidence she made up in creative endeavors. She was a master at taking their purchased gowns and shoes and accoutrements and enhancing them with embroidery and beading to make them truly original. She had beaded the slippers Ava was wearing over a fortnight in the winter, painstakingly creating tiny suns that matched the dark gold embroidery she’d done on the blue silk gown Ava was wearing. She’d also strung small, glittering beads together that the three of them wore wrapped in their hair.
“Clumsy Sir Garrett,” Ava sighed. “He hadn’t the slightest notion of the steps, and he moved forward instead of backward as he ought to have done, and pushed me right off the edge of the dance floor.”
“Poor man,” Greer said. “To be so hopelessly besotted with a woman who shall not have him.”
“Of course I shall not have him,” Ava muttered as she studied her shoe. “If he were to offer, I’d politely decline and suggest he set his sites on Miss Holcomb. She would be delighted to receive an offer from a knight.”
“Aunt Cassandra said you really must begin to consider all serious offers,” Greer reminded her.
Phoebe and Ava stopped in their examination of the slipper and looked at Greer. Greer lifted a brow.
“Did she indeed? And pray tell, what did she say of you?” Ava asked. “You are only a year younger than me, and you’ve had one serious offer this young season that you refused.”
“My circumstance is quite different from yours,” Greer said calmly. “I cannot possibly consent to marry a man who will not read as much as a newspaper, and Lord Winston, by his own admission, does not enjoy reading at all. In fact, he admitted quite plainly that he believes books are a frivolous expense.”
“There, you see?” Ava asked as she slipped her foot into the offending shoe, “You have made my point. We are not bound to accept offers from gentlemen we cannot abide every day for the rest of our lives. It is the same reason I cannot accept Sir Garrett’s offer.”
“No…but Lord Downey might,” Greer suggested, referring to Cassandra’s current husband, their stepfather.
Ava frowned at her cousin. “Fortunately, Mother is not bound to agree with Lord Downey’s preferences. And if Mother wasn’t feeling unwell an in attendance tonight, she would remind you that she would never marry me away to Sir Garret, as a match with him would be neither convenient nor inspired,” she said, mimicking her mother.
Greer smiled—Lady Downing had told them many times that marriage was strictly a matter of convenience and fortune, and rarely inspired.
Privately, Ava thought her mother’s second marriage to Lord Downey was neither very convenient nor inspired, and really did not see the allure of such an arrangement at all. At two and twenty, she was one of the oldest unmarried women among the Quality still considered to be marriageable, and yet she saw no reason to rush into a match—her mother’s fortune was more than enough to keep them all quite happy. Why shouldn’t one hope for compatibility and affection above fortune? What purpose was there in a marriage of convenience if one had a suitable fortune to provide for her? Ava preferred to wait for an offer from a man she might love.
“I do not think Sir Garrett will offer for you tonight,” Phoebe said. “Nor do I think you will dance another set this evening, as your shoe cannot be repaired. You’d best sit with Lady Purnam until she’s ready to see us home.”
Lady Purnum was their mother’s closest and dearest friend, and had instantly offered to see the three young women to the ball when Lady Downey began to feel unwell. The offer was met with some reluctance by Ava, Phoebe, and Greer, for Lady Purnam believed, by virtue of her close association with their mother, that she had a duty to insinuate herself into their lives and instruct them on all matters to do with propriety. She could be very tiresome in that regard, and the suggestion that Ava might have to sit an entire evening with her was more than she could possibly endure. “Sit alongside Lady Purnam and listen to her talk all evening while I suffer the undying attention of Sir Garrett? Thank you, but I’d rather walk home.”
“Ava, don’t be silly, you can’t possibly walk. The rain is turning to sleet and your shoe is broken,” Phoebe reminded her.
“I can think of nothing worse than sitting in a chair at a ball while everyone dances past me,” Ava said. “I’ll ask Lady Fontaine to send a footman to attend me,” she said, and suddenly smiled. “Did you see the one with the golden hair and lovely brown eyes?”
Phoebe snorted. “A footman? Now I am convinced more than ever you are daft,” she said, and held out her arm. “Come on, then. To Lady Purnam’s side.”
With a groan of capitulation, Ava took Phoebe’s arm, and listing a little to the left, allowed Phoebe and Greer to escort her across the room.
Lady Purnam was seated in a throne-like chair near the dance floor, closely peering through her lorgnette and studying each pair of dancers that waltzed by. She was delighted to have Ava’s company and waved at a footman to have a chair brought over.
Ava sat, but a little petulantly and frowning at the departing backs of her sister and cousin as they joined Miss Holcomb at the punch bowl.
“A broken shoe, eh?” Lady Purnam said, directing her lorgnette at Ava’s feet. “Happened to me once, at Ascot. The heel broke and I couldn’t possibly make my way to the railing to see the end of the horse race.”
“It was terribly unfortunate. Lord Purnam was in quite a dither, for his horse held the lead until it was bumped by the king’s horse and faltered.” She turned suddenly toward Ava and said dramatically, “He never recovered.”
“The horse? Or Lord Purnam?” Ava asked innocently.
Lady Purnam clucked her tongue. “The horse, of course!” She turned back to the dancing and picked up a fan, and began to fan her bosom. “To have a broken shoe at a ball is inconvenient, isn’t it? You cannot dance, and you dare not say why ever not when a gentleman inquires. Gentlemen should not hear of such things as broken shoes.”
Ava glanced curiously at Lady Purnam. “I cannot mention a broken shoe?”
“No,” Lady Purnam said, shaking her head. “It is uncouth to mention a broken shoe. A gentleman will want to repair it, which would put him in direct contact with your foot, which is connected to your leg, of course, and it will turn his thoughts to forbidden things.”
Ava failed to see how a broken shoe could bring to mind anything other than a broken shoe. “But I—”
“You may politely decline,” Lady Purnam said sternly, with a pointed look for Ava. “But you must never give a gentleman such a personal reason for your decline.”
Dear God. Lady Purnam’s idea of propriety seemed positively ancient and all too meddlesome. But Lady Downey had trained Ava to be nothing if not exceedingly polite, and with a slight sigh, she resigned herself and leaned back in her chair.
“Up, dear,” Lady Purnam said, tapping her knee with her fan. “Up, up, up,” she said with each subsequent tap to her knee.
Ava sat up, her back straight and stiff, her feet tucked carefully under the hem of her gown, her hands folded in her lap. After a moment, however, she was already beginning to feel quite mad with tedium. She could not sit like a duck on a pond all night, so Ava carefully began to persuade Lady Purnam to have her new barouche plucked from the stream of carriages outside to drive Ava home.