But then he smiled, and something about it reminded her of the way Edmund had smiled—that eternally boyish, ever-so-knowing tilt of the lips. It had always made her heart flip, and while this gentleman’s smile didn’t quite do that, it woke something inside of her. Something a little bit devilish, a little carefree.
“I would be delighted,” she said, placing her hand in his.
“Is Mother dancing?” Eloise whispered to Francesca.
“More to the point,” Francesca returned, “who is she dancing with?”
Eloise craned her neck, not bothering to hide her interest. “I have no idea.”
“Ask Penelope,” Francesca suggested. “She always seems to know who everyone is.”
Eloise twisted again, this time searching the other side of the room. “Where is Penelope?”
“Where is Benedict?” Colin asked, ambling over to his sisters’ sides.
“I don’t know,” Eloise replied. “Where is Penelope?”
He shrugged. “Last I saw her, she was hiding behind a potted plant. You’d think with that leprechaun costume she’d camouflage better.”
“Colin!” Eloise smacked his arm. “Go ask her to dance.”
“I already did!” He blinked. “Is that Mother dancing?”
“That’s why we were looking for Penelope,” Francesca said.
Colin just stared at her, his lips parted.
“It made sense when we said it,” Francesca said with a wave. “Do you know who she’s dancing with?”
Colin shook his head. “I hate masquerades. Whose idea was this, anyway?”
“Hyacinth,” Eloise said grimly.
“Hyacinth?” Colin echoed.
Francesca’s eyes narrowed. “She’s like a puppet master,” she growled.
“God save us all when she’s grown,” Colin said.
No one had to say it, but their faces showed their collective Amen.
“Who is that dancing with Mother?” Colin asked.
“We don’t know,” Eloise replied. “That’s why we were looking for Penelope. She always seems to know these things.”
Eloise scowled at him. “Do you notice anything?”
“Quite a lot, actually,” he said affably. “Just not generally what you want me to notice.”
“We are going to stand here,” Eloise announced, “until the dance is finished. And then we shall question her.”
They all looked up. Anthony, their eldest brother, had arrived.
“Mother is dancing,” Francesca said, not that that technically answered his question.
“With whom?” Anthony asked.
“We don’t know,” Colin told him.
“And you plan to interrogate her about it?”
“That was Eloise’s plan,” Colin replied.
“I didn’t hear you arguing with me,” Eloise shot back.
Anthony’s brows came together. “I should think it is the gentleman who warrants an interrogation.”
“Has it ever occurred to you,” Colin asked of none of them in particular, “that as a woman of fifty-two years, she is perfectly capable of choosing her own dance partners?”
“No,” Anthony replied, his sharp syllable slicing across Francesca’s: “She’s our mother.”
“Actually, she’s only fifty-one,” Eloise said. At Francesca’s sour glare, she added, “Well, she is.”
Colin gave one baffled look at his sisters before turning to Anthony. “Have you seen Benedict?”
Anthony shrugged. “He was dancing earlier.”
“With someone I don’t know,” Eloise said with rising intensity. And volume.
All three of her siblings turned to her.
“None of you find it curious,” she demanded, “that both Mother and Benedict are dancing with mysterious strangers?”
“Not really, no,” Colin murmured. There was a pause as they all continued to watch their mother make her elegant steps on the dance floor, and then he added, “It occurs to me that this might be why she never dances.”
Anthony quirked an imperious brow.
“We’ve stood here for the past several minutes and done nothing but speculate about her behavior,” Colin pointed out.
Silence, and then, from Eloise, “So?”
“She’s our mother,” Francesca said.
“You don’t think she deserves her privacy? No, don’t answer that,” Colin decided. “I’m going to look for Benedict.”
“You don’t think he deserves his privacy?” Eloise countered.
“No,” Colin replied. “But at any rate, he’s safe enough. If Benedict doesn’t want to be found, I won’t find him.” With wry salute he wandered off toward the refreshments, although it was really quite obvious that Benedict wasn’t anywhere near the biscuits.
“Here she comes,” Francesca hissed, and true enough, the dance had ended, and Violet was walking back to the perimeter of the room.
“Mother,” Anthony said sternly, the moment she reached her children.
“Anthony,” she said with a smile, “I haven’t seen you all evening. How is Kate? I’m so sorry she wasn’t feeling up to attending.”
“Who were you dancing with?” Anthony demanded.
Violet blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Who were you dancing with?” Eloise repeated.
“Honestly?” Violet said with a faint smile. “I don’t know.”
Anthony crossed his arms. “How is that possible?”
“It’s a masquerade ball,” Violet said with some amusement. “Secret identities and all that.”
“Are you going to dance with him again?” Eloise asked.
“Probably not,” Violet said, glancing out over the crowd. “Have you seen Benedict? He was supposed to dance with Penelope Featherington.”
“Don’t try to change the subject,” Eloise said.
Violet turned to her, and this time her eyes held a light gleam of reproof. “Was there a subject?”
“We are merely looking out for your best interests,” Anthony said, after clearing his throat several times.
“I’m sure you are,” Violet murmured, and no one dared to comment on the delicate undertone of condescension in her voice.
“It’s just that you so rarely dance,” Francesca explained.
“Rarely,” Violet said lightly. “Not never.”
And then Francesca voiced what they had all been wondering: “Do you like him?”
“The man with whom I just danced? I don’t even know his name.”
“He had a very nice smile,” Violet cut in, “and he asked me to dance.”
Violet shrugged. “And that’s all. He talked a great deal about his collection of wooden ducks. I doubt our paths will cross again.” She nodded at her children. “If you will excuse me . . .”
Anthony, Eloise, and Francesca watched her walk away. After a long beat of silence, Anthony said, “Well.”
“Well,” Francesca concurred.
They looked expectantly at Eloise, who scowled back at them and finally exclaimed, “No, that did not go well.”
There was another long unfilled silence, and then Eloise asked, “Do you think she will ever remarry?”
“I don’t know,” Anthony said.
Eloise cleared her throat. “And how do we feel about that?”
Francesca looked at her with obvious disdain. “You’re speaking about yourself in the plural now?”
“No. I honestly want to know how we feel about it. Because I don’t know how I do.”
“I think . . .” Anthony began. But several seconds went by before he slowly said, “I think we think that she can make her own decisions.”
None of them noticed Violet standing behind them, hidden by a large decorative fern, smiling.
Aubrey Hall, Kent
?t very many advantages to growing older, but this, Violet thought with a happy sigh as she watched several of her younger grandchildren frolicking on the lawn, had to be one of them.
Seventy-five. Who would have ever thought she’d reach such an age? Her children had asked her what she wanted; it was a huge milestone, they said, she should have grand party to celebrate.
“Just family,” had been Violet’s reply. It would still be very grand. She had eight children, thirty-three grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. Any family gathering would be grand!
“What are you thinking, Mama?” Daphne asked, coming to sit next to her on one of the comfortable chaises Kate and Anthony had recently purchased for Aubrey Hall.
“Mostly how happy I am.”
Daphne smiled wryly. “You always say that.”
Violet gave a one-shouldered shrug. “I always am.”
“Really?” Daphne didn’t sound as if she quite believed her.
“When I’m with all of you.”