Authors: Jennifer Robson
This book is dedicated to my father, Stuart Robson.
You are the finest historian and the best teacher I will ever know.
The lamps are going out all across Europe;
we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.
—Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary of Great Britain (1905–1916)
Belgrave Square, London
t was past nine, past time, for the sun had set, the orchestra had begun to play, and hundreds of guests were streaming up the grand central staircase, their voices rising in an ebullient, ever-swelling chorus to the floors above. Past time to call for Flossie, and array herself in the gown her mother had chosen. If only there were armor for occasions like this.
A scratch at the door; then: “Lady Elizabeth?”
“Flossie. I was just about to ring for you. I’ve left things rather late.”
“Your hair’s done already, so we’ve only to worry about your gown. We’ll have you ready in no time at all.”
After shedding her dressing gown, Lilly stood in her chemise and stockings, still as a mannequin, as Flossie tightened and tied her corset. Then the maid fastened several petticoats around her waist, just enough to support the modest fullness of her skirts.
The gown itself had been set out on the floor, on top of a clean sheet, its bodice drawn wide so Lilly might step into it with Flossie’s help. Made of palest pink satin, it was overlaid by cream-colored net lace embroidered with lilies of the valley. Although it had not been her first choice, it was a pretty gown, and she loved the way the light caught and reflected the seed pearls and crystals of its embroidery.
She drew on her gloves, their kid leather so paper-thin it took forever to smooth them up her arms, and bent her head while Flossie fastened a pink sapphire and pearl choker at her throat; it was followed by a tiara, bracelet, and earrings from the same parure.
She’d never be the belle of the ball, for that role fell to mahogany-haired beauties like her sisters. But she could admit, assessing her appearance with a critical eye, that she looked passable tonight. Pretty, even. In her favor was her complexion, glowing and clear, without even a hint of freckle, an acceptably rounded bosom, and an abundance of shiny brown hair.
It had been an age since she’d attended a ball. After her debut, two Seasons ago, she’d avoided such grand occasions whenever possible. Fortunately, this was the last event in honor of her brother Edward and his fiancée that she was expected to attend, at least until their wedding drew near. After tonight she could retreat to the quiet of Cumbria and enjoy what remained of the summer in peace.
The carriage clock on her mantel chimed the half hour. She had wasted enough time already.
“Thank you very much, Flossie. I’ll ring for you when I come back upstairs.”
“Yes, miss. You do look lovely.”
“You’re very kind. I’ll see you soon.”
Lilly took a steadying breath, as deep as her corset allowed, and hurried downstairs to the library via one of the back staircases.
At her arrival, Edward rose with alacrity from one of the wing chairs that flanked the fireplace. His fiancée’s father, Lord Halifax, was clearly suffering from gout and took longer to extricate himself from his seat.
Dropping a kiss on Lilly’s cheek, Edward moved past her and surveyed the empty hallway. “Where on earth are they? Shouldn’t they be here by now?”
“I spoke to Helena and Lady Halifax not long ago,” Lilly reassured him. “I’m certain they’ll be here presently.” Seeking to divert his attention, she caught sight of the evening paper on a side table. “Has there been any news?”
“Nothing from the Austrians, though it’s only a matter of time.” Edward picked up his glass of port, drained what was left of it, and grimaced. “We’ll all be at war before the summer is out.”
“Is there truly no hope that an agreement can be reached?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“Best to get it over with,” Edward said. “Like—how did you put it, Lord Halifax?”
“Lancing a boil.”
“Yes, that was it. Quick and sharp; that’s how we’ll do it. We’re sure to prevail, and once we do we’ll finally be certain of peace.”
A dismissive harrumph from the library door told Lilly that Lady Halifax had arrived. “None of your war talk this evening, gentlemen,” the countess commanded. “You’ll alarm the young ladies.”
Edward smiled apologetically. “You’re quite right, of course.” Stepping forward, he kissed Lady Halifax’s hand with a flourish. He then turned to his fiancée, who had been hovering behind her mother, and bestowed upon her the full, dazzling effect of his smile and regard.
“Helena, my darling, you look utterly beautiful tonight. I’m so very proud.” He reached into his coat and pulled out a slim leather box from the inside breast pocket. “A small token of my esteem. I do hope you like it.”
Helena opened the box, her gloved fingers fumbling with the catch, and gasped as she saw the diamond bracelet inside. She looked up at Edward, her heart in her eyes, and Lilly felt a brief, and disquieting, spark of envy. Was that what it felt like to love, and to be loved in return?
A discreet tap at the door announced the butler’s arrival. Resplendent in his silk tailcoat, Mr. Maxwell led them up the grand staircase to the ballroom. As they approached the ornate double doors to the room, the orchestra inside fell silent and the accompanying din of voices grew hushed.
Mr. Maxwell’s sonorous baritone was perfect for such occasions. “The Earl of Halifax and the Countess of Halifax,” he proclaimed. “The Viscount Ashford and the Lady Helena Montagu-Douglas-Parr.”
Lilly stood well back, waiting until the watching eyes of the crowd were elsewhere, then slipped into the ballroom all but unnoticed. She made her way around its perimeter, greeting those guests to whom she’d already been introduced, repeating the same inanities of weather and health each time. And each time, as she met their eyes and shook their hands, she was beset by the conviction that the interior life of the person to whom she spoke was utterly unknown to her. They might as well have been animated silhouettes, so profound was the effect they had on her. Not that she was likely to have made any more lasting an impression on any of them.
She made her way to the blue drawing room, intent on finding a quiet corner where she might sit and sip at a glass of lemonade. Then she saw him.
Robert Fraser. Robbie.
She had only met him once before, when her brother had invited his best friend from Oxford to stay for the long Easter weekend. Her parents had disapproved, of course, appalled that Edward would choose to associate with the son of a Glaswegian dustman. But Edward had insisted on bringing his friend to Cumbermere Hall for the holiday, and what her brother wanted he very nearly always got.
Though seven years had passed since that weekend, she recognized Robbie straightaway, though she could discern little of the boy he’d once been. He was as fair as ever, his hair the color of honey, and his eyes were the same bright blue of her memories. But he carried himself like a man, with none of the gracelessness and bluster of youth, and held himself so confidently that he overshadowed every other person in the room.
He looked wonderful in formal dress. Worn by a lesser man, the conventional ensemble of black silk tailcoat and trousers, stiffly starched white shirt, waistcoat, and bow tie was frequently unflattering. Lilly had seen more than a few oversize penguins tonight. But not Robert Fraser.
Heads turned as she approached him, one hand outstretched in greeting. “Good evening, Mr. Fraser.”
He didn’t respond. Just stared at her, his gaze quizzical. “I beg your pardon,” he said at last. “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.”
He didn’t remember her.
“I’m Edward’s youngest sister. Elizabeth.”
Comprehension dawned on his face. Ignoring their whispering, gawking audience, he took her hand in both of his and held it as gently as if she were made out of porcelain.
“Lilly?” was all he said. He had the oddest expression, as if he were pleased to see her, but also, somehow, perplexed. “Of course. I do beg your pardon, Lady Elizabeth. How lovely to see you again.”
“Thank you, Mr. Fraser.”
He smiled, his eyes crinkling at the corners, and her heart skipped a beat or three. “I feel as if we’re on display,” he explained, leaning toward her fractionally. “Is there anywhere . . . ?”
“I agree, it
excessively warm in here,” she said in a carrying tone. “Would you be so kind as to escort me to the balcony?”
At his nod, Lilly offered her arm and led him through the crush of guests to the sanctuary of the balcony. Stepping outside, she let the cool evening air wash over her for a moment before speaking again.
“That’s better, isn’t it? Now we can talk and have no fear of interruption, at least for a few minutes.” She walked to a bench at the far end of the balcony and sat, hoping she looked more composed than she felt. He sat next to her, his eyes never leaving her face.
“You must think me the worst sort of fool,” he said presently.
“Of course I don’t—”
“You grew up. You were a wee girl when I saw you last.”
“Not so wee as that. I was nearly thirteen,” she reminded him.
“You wore your hair pulled back in ribbons,” he insisted. “Your face was covered with freckles.”
“That was seven years ago.”
“As long as that? How have you been?”
“Very well, thank you. And you? I believe you’re a physician now, are you not?”
“I’m a general surgeon at the London Hospital in Whitechapel. I’ve been there for a little more than six years.”
She already knew, for Edward talked about his friend from time to time, and she was an attentive listener. Once, she had looked up the hospital on a map of the city, and had been surprised to see it was hardly more than five miles from Belgrave Square. From the way people talked about the East End, she’d have thought he lived and worked in a foreign country.
“You never thought of returning home to Scotland?”
“Once or twice. But I’m happy enough at the London.”
“What sort of work do you do at the hospital?”
“I spend one or two days a week in surgery, learning from the senior doctors at the hospital. The rest of my time is divided between the postoperative wards and the receiving room. But I don’t want to bore you. Tell me how you’ve been.”
“Quite well, thank you.”
“I feel sure your brother would have told me, but you haven’t married, have you?”
“Not yet. Rather a disappointment to my—”
She broke off, her words catching in her throat as she saw her mother advancing purposefully toward them, her gaze sweeping from one side of the ballroom to the other. As Lady Cumberland drew ever closer, Lilly realized she wasn’t alone. “Oh, no,” she groaned under her breath. “Not him again.”
“The young man with my mother. Bertram Fitzallen-Carr. He’s a cousin of my brother-in-law Louis.”
“He looks like a pleasant enough fellow.”
“Pleasant, yes; interesting, no. He’s absolutely hopeless at conversation, to begin with. No matter what one says to him, his response is either ‘oh, really,’ or ‘you don’t say.’ ”
She was suddenly aware of the pressure of her tiara and the hairpins that secured it. Massaging her temples with her forefingers, she willed the thrumming pain to subside. In a moment her mother would be at the doors to the balcony and there would be no escape from Bertram’s bland ministrations.
Just then, the orchestra finished the sedate waltz it was playing, and almost immediately began a second waltz, this time in the livelier Viennese style. Robbie stepped back and extended his hand to her.
“May I have this dance, Lady Elizabeth?”
In a heartbeat they had stepped through the French doors and were drawn into the throng of couples swirling around the ballroom.