“Lady Ratna, I think?” a mellow voice asked just over Eugenia’s shoulder.
She turned slowly, amazed that anyone in this crowd, all of whom had heretofore ignored her presence completely, would deign to speak to her. She was even more amazed that the delicate, rather prettily handsome, fresh-faced young man who addressed her was not already of her acquaintance.
Speaking to a lady without an introduction? Eugenia wondered if she’d like him or hate him. She’d lay odds on the latter, but tonight had been…surprising.
“Yes?” she asked, careful to show no interest.
He made a casual, almost flippant bow. “Oliver Plumtree, your servant. Forgive me for introducing myself, my lady, but I admit I was hoping to find you here.”
“You amaze me,” she said, since she kept thinking it over and over. She took a sip to compose herself, concentrating on the play of the bubbles and the tartness of the wine on her tongue. When she felt sufficiently herself again, she added, “I was so looking forward to an evening of being invisible, too.”
“In that dress?” Oliver Plumtree’s eyebrows, thin, pale, and finely arched, rose. “Hardly.”
“Ah, so you hoped to find me here so you could flatter me. How original.” Eugenia was almost sorry the moment it was out of her mouth; damn Delaney for putting her in a sour mood. She took another, longer drink.
Plumtree only laughed, though. “Partly, I think. I apologize for interrupting your evening of invisibility, though. And they say infamy has nothing to recommend it.”
She blinked to hear someone—someone so obviously genteel—openly comment on her reputation. It was…odd but refreshing. “Would you like to be invisible too, Mr. Plumtree?”
“In that jacket?” Eugenia offered up a genuine smile as apology for her previous snappishness. And it wasn’t simple flattery; Oliver Plumtree wore the most charming set of waistcoats, one maroon-striped and one navy, under a well-cut maroon coat that almost made up for his lack of shoulders. A bit of a dandy, but Eugenia enjoyed looking at dandies well enough.
And then, like lightning, it hit her. Before Plumtree could open his mouth to respond, Eugenia gave a little yelp of dismay. “Oh no! The
Oliver Plumtree? Not—not Lord Plumtree? Perhaps his son? Were you named for your father?”
“I was not,” Plumtree—Lord
Plumtree—said with a smile. “I rather think he expected me to be the trial run. Alas, I was his only son.”
“I do apologize,” Eugenia said with a sigh. She still wasn’t certain she didn’t want to utterly destroy all hope of reconciliation with her family tonight, but she didn’t want to end things with a silly faux pas
. “You’re so young; I didn’t realize. Lord Plumtree, then.” She held out her hand.
Plumtree took it and brushed his full lips against the knuckle of her glove, then released her. In truth, not only did he look too young to be lord of anything, but in Eugenia’s mind all those old, northern families must be craggy and gray-looking, like their famous, haunting castles and rainy afternoons. The Plumtrees were one of the oldest, most respected, and certainly richest alchemical families, well known for their medicines, herbcraft, and textiles. Their holdings were vast and well maintained, their tenants were thought to be universally content…and Lord Plumtree was one of the most eligible bachelors in the land.
What he should want with her, Eugenia had no idea.
Plumtree, thankfully, told her. “All is forgotten, if you’ll forgive me for speaking so easily of your reputation. I put no stock in such things. Indeed, I think it makes for interesting possibilities in a company otherwise peopled with bores.”
“So you came to talk to the black sheep?” Eugenia’s smile faltered. When a man made such references, could he want anything but to see what was under her skirt for himself? What other reason would a man want to speak with a ruined woman?
“I came,” he said gently, offering his arm, “in the hope of finding someone a little more like myself than the majority of our peers.”
She took his arm, wondering. Of course, she knew there were men who were interested in other men, as she was in women. Perhaps Plumtree was one of them, queer like her? The prospect was tantalizing indeed.
Before she could articulate this thought, though, Plumtree asked, “Will you dance, Lady Eugenia?”
“We will cause a scandal,” she said. “The juiciest bachelor in the land and the most disgraced lady.”
“You need not convince me, my lady. I’ve already asked.”
They lined up, and all the other couples pretended not to stare—including Rebekah and some fresh-on-the-scene buck she’d already enraptured. There was jealousy in the eyes of many a matron and bachelorette, but Eugenia couldn’t glory in it as she wanted. Though Plumtree was an excellent dancer, and of the perfect height to do her justice as a partner, being rather short for a man, Eugenia’s mind slipped back to Delaney behind the drape.
She had pushed her brother and no mistake. She had been selfish. That was why Eugenia had felt shame, and why she felt it now—though at least her flush might be mistaken for the exertion of dancing.
But that was no excuse for him to threaten her. Yes, she had been proud of him for standing up for himself, but the more she thought on it, the more cowardly his methods seemed. He offered her a carrot, like some cart donkey, and then showed her his whip. Perhaps the carrot wasn’t even for her but to ease his guilty conscience.
“You are distracted,” Lord Plumtree said as they came together, hands crossed and clasped between them for one of the steps. “Should I not have asked you?”
“No, no, I am very sorry, my lord.” Eugenia shook the thoughts of her brother from her head. She did like Lord Plumtree so far and was interested to know him better. Damn Delaney for a fool. “I’ve had a quarrel with my brother tonight.”
“I’ve heard brothers are prone to them.”
“You have sisters, I think? One of them is out now?”
“Four sisters, but one out, yes.”
“And how does she like life in the city?”
“She adores it as much as I hate it.”
“Hate? An urbane gentleman like you!”
“I prefer my home, my laboratory, my cauldron, and my people.”
“How very unfashionable.” Eugenia laughed as they let go their hands and did a slow step to change positions.
“I let my clothes and carriage be fashionable enough to make up for my shortcomings. It’s the simplest way,” he replied with a gleam in his eye. They were fine and clear, of a dark gray, with long eyelashes that half veiled his amused glance.
“For those with money.”
“Money is always fashionable.”
Was that a smirk on Plumtree’s pretty little mouth? “What is alchemy but power?”
It rubbed Eugenia slightly wrong. It was the most unfashionable
thing anyone, let alone a woman, could do, to discuss politics at a party. Let alone the party of the season. Perversely, that only made it more delicious to ask, “Do you believe what some of the common folk say? That anyone could be an alchemist? That if we shared our knowledge, all would have enough and not have to ask us for a portion?”
Plumtree only laughed. “What of those who say it’s dangerous to think so? That the horrors alchemy could unleash in those not raised to it, regardless of blood, might be world-ending.”
Eugenia snorted. “Privilege-ending, perhaps.”
“Sadly, I fear we don’t have time to fix the world before this dance is through,” Plumtree said.
His lighthearted dodging, rather than infuriating her, only interested her more. “Then ask me again.”
“Lady Eugenia, may I have the next dance, as well?”
“You may, Lord Plumtree.”
They did not fix the world during that dance, nor the several others they shared that evening. By the time the grand duke and duchess made their entrance, Eugenia was no longer invisible, but the subject of more speculation and gossip than ever before. Oh, Lord Plumtree asked several other girls to dance—the appropriate ones, of commensurate fortune and breeding—one or two of whom were unfortunately taller than him. But he swept through the room with grace, his absence from the past several years’ balls making him even more the object of mystery and comment.
After the traditional ducal dance, Rebekah—looking very pretty with her hair done up and her rose silk—approached Eugenia. As Eugenia had, Rebekah had dressed in traditional Chrysopoeian style rather than Deccan for the evening. Overtrimmed, as usual, but it suited her personality.
They had not, needless to say, gotten dressed and ready together tonight, as their mother had once hoped they would on the day of Rebekah’s first ball. Eugenia couldn’t bring herself to lament it, but she was happy to see her sister making a triumph of things, all the same.
“Everyone is talking about you!” Rebekah clasped her white-gloved hands together, causing the rose-gold bracelet Delaney had bought from the Flamels especially for the occasion to jingle sweetly.
“I thought that was precisely what you didn’t
want,” Eugenia said into her bubbly glass. She couldn’t muster bitterness, though; she had no doubt Rebekah played no part in Delaney’s fumbling threats. She was a brat but not cruel.
“Oh, I don’t mind, when it’s good,” Rebekah said ingenuously.
Of course she didn’t. Eugenia opened her mouth to say as much but was interrupted by the sudden arrival of a distant cousin. Second cousin? Eugenia had no idea how far their family roots had sprawled since the Call had brought so many displaced alchemical families to Chrysopoeia. It hardly signified, as it was home to them all now.
“My dear, dear cousins!” said this distant relation. She was a small thing, covered in fripperies that seemed to weigh down her birdlike frame. “How delightful to see you here! I believe it is your first Grand Ball, Rebekah. And you—Eugenia! We’re all so glad to see you out and about.”
As if Eugenia had been ill for a year instead of disgraced. The absurdity.
“We are too,” Rebekah was quick to interject. She took the cousin’s arm and led her away, in spite of obvious searching glances back at Eugenia.
Many such glances made their way to Eugenia, not least from her family, both near and far in terms of kinship. Women who hadn’t deigned to speak to her in years—on the strength of mere speculation rather than the evidence she’d provided of her scandalous sexual tastes more recently—smiled and nodded and asked after her father. It took all Eugenia’s considerable willpower not to snap and bark at them to mind their own business, but she managed. Somehow.
Mainly because she hadn’t made up her mind how to mete out justice to Delaney yet. But oh, she would. And when she did, it must be in a way that would stick. And, of course, not affect Rebekah’s prospects. That much their brother had been right about, at least.
An immediate scene would not do. So Eugenia behaved and let Delaney think it was for him. Or let Delaney think it was Lord Plumtree’s marked attention that tamed her wild streak. Let him think what he would; he would get his comeuppance.
By the end of the evening, the bubbly had quite gone to Eugenia’s head. She was pleasantly warm from dance and drink, and smiled at people without affectation. It was then that Lord Plumtree swept up beside her again, took her arm, and said, “My dear Lady Eugenia. Might I have the pleasure of calling on you sometime this week? Will you be at home, say, Bridesday afternoon?”
“I will, my lord. Indeed, I insist you stay and dine with us.” She wasn’t sure why she said it, but she was glad when it was done.
“I shall enjoy it,” Lord Plumtree assured her. “Good evening to you. And thank you for bringing the light into an otherwise dull affair.”
For a man, Eugenia decided, he was very civil indeed.