When Wine Meets Cheese: A Love Story

 

 

Chapter 1

Annabelle Perry was nothing special. She lived in the pastor's house in a rural village deep in Kalebeth. Her life was simple, her pleasures few, and as she walked in the fields among the cows and sheep, she dreamed of a better life. Orphaned as a small child, the vicar and his wife cared for her as their own, and brought her up to be a good-natured young lady. Her accomplishments consisted of playing and singings hymns at church, and a few mediocre landscapes. She spent most of her time looking after the tenants of the parish, and helping her adopted father with his duties. The first seventeen years of her life progressed in this gentle but dull fashion, and she yearned for some excitement.

One April night, her wish was granted with the arrival of an urgent post from Romagnola. Her uncle the Earl of Sainte-Maure, had died, and Lady Sainte-Maure was requesting her presence in the capital city as soon as possible. Annabelle had met these relatives only once, as a small child, soon after her parents died. She remembered her aunt as a coarse old woman, who scolded her for dissolving into tears at the funeral breakfast. Lord Sainte-Maure had been quiet but kindly, and her heart was touched to hear of his demise. Why the Countess was summoning her she could not fathom, but she went in search of the Reverend to inform him of the news. He was hesitant to let her journey all the way to Romagnola, for it was a long and arduous trip for a girl to make on her own. Yet when he learned that Lady Sainte-Maure intended to send her own carriage for her niece, he was forced to put aside his misgivings, and allow her to go. It was not within his power to prevent her own relation from seeing her. He knew that it would be the last time he would see her as his own little Annabelle Perry, that she would never return to the home where she grew up. Annabelle suspected no such thing, and he did not have the heart to tell her.

And so, Annabelle left the only life she had ever known, and set forth across the plains of Kalebeth towards Romagnola, the seat of government, the seat of society, the seat of all that made Kalebeth great. As the carriage approached the gates of the city, she saw the flag of her country flying over the tower of the palace, and she was filled with awe. Never before had she seen such a sight, so many buildings. They seemed to touch the sky. She was overwhelmed with the grandeur of this great city, and her country sensibilities were thrown into a whirlwind. As she drove through the streets, in her grand carriage, nobody stopped to look at her or waved to welcome her. She was frightened by the hustle and bustle of the busy streets, the calls of cattle merchants and dairymaids, all making their way to market. It was a great relief, therefore, when the carriage finally came to a stop before the grand facade of a stately townhouse in the most fashionable part of the city.

She stepped carefully out of the coach and was ushered into one of the sitting rooms by the butler, a short portly man with a stern face. She trembled at the unfriendly feeling that wafted through the air in this house. It was several minutes before her aunt came to greet her. Dressed all in black, with a veil covering her face, she entered with all the pomp and circumstance she possessed. A long silence ensued, until finally Lady Sainte-Maure said, "Come closer, child. Let me look at you."

Annabelle stepped timidly forward.

"I see there's quite a bit of work to be done, but I believe you shall be a success."

"A success at what? Whatever can you mean, Aunt Sophie?" Annabelle inquired.

"The first thing you must learn is to refrain from asking impertinent questions. However, because of your unfortunate upbringing, I shall have to excuse your manner until it can be remedied."

Annabelle was shocked into silence. Lady Sainte-Maure continued, "As you know, your uncle has passed on to glory. You child, being the only heir to his estate, must prepare yourself to become Lady Annabelle Touraine. You are responsible for continuing the Sainte-Maure line, since both our boys were lost, one to Scarlet Fever, and the other in the Great Stampede of 1790. You will be tutored and instructed in the arts of an accomplished young woman, and next season you will be presented at court."

"But what do you mean, Aunt Sophie? Am I to live here?"

"Of course you are, you silly child! Did you expect to learn how to be a lady in a dairy village? Tutored by the poor Reverend Stockton?" She shook her head and continued briskly, "You must be tired from your journey. Prudence will show you to your room. I shall expect you for dinner." Before Annabelle could say a word, the maid was leading her upstairs, and Lady Sainte-Maure had vanished from the room.

 

 

Chapter 2

When the maid had left, Annabelle wept by her bed, until all her tears were spent. She could not believe that in so short a time her whole life had been entirely uprooted. What she had thought would be an adventure had turned into a nightmare. Was she never to see the vicar or her village again? What of the little stream that ran through the meadow, or the cherry blossoms that she could see through her window? Would she never pick wildflowers in the meadow, or milk her cow Bessie? Were the heartless, crowded streets of Romagnola to be her new home? She was disturbed from her reverie by a knock on her door. Prudence had come to dress her for dinner. Prudence sifted through her clothing looking for something suitable, but found her wardrobe lacking. At last she pulled out Annabelle's best Sunday dress, and said it would have to do until more clothes could be made. Annabelle dressed, and Prudence fixed her hair in a way she had never seen before. The maid explained it was a French fashion that was all the rage in the great cities of Kalebeth.

Annabelle was led to the parlor where her aunt was waiting for her.

"Lord child," she said, "You will certainly need new clothes. Stand up straight. Hold your chin up, and stop trembling so! A lady never slouches."

Dinner was a wretched affair; her aunt could say nothing but criticism, and it was all Annabelle could do to refrain from screaming. After dinner, she excused herself, claiming fatigue from her journey, and retired to her room. Tomorrow she would be fitted for new dresses and her new life would begin.

***

The next morning, Annabelle was roused from her sleep by Prudence, who commented on the sorry state of her complexion and sent her to wash away the effects of her weeping so that her aunt would not notice. When she returned from the washbasin, Prudence had her dress for the day, her only black one, laid out on the bed, which would have to pass for mourning garb until the new dresses arrived, and sat her down at the dressing table to arrange her hair. When the twenty minutes of pulling and tucking her unruly curls were over, Annabelle was quickly ushered out of the room and down to breakfast. She was met in the drawing room by her aunt, who commented on the sad state of her dress.

"That, however, will be remedied today," said Lady Sainte-Maure, "as I expect my dressmaker at nine. You will be given clothes befitting your status as heiress of an estate. Your uncle's attorney will come later this afternoon to discuss your new situation."

Annabelle nodded meekly as she followed her aunt into the breakfast room. She served herself from the sideboard and took her seat at the table to the right of her aunt, but all she could do was push her food around the plate in imitation of eating. During the breakfast hour Lady Sainte-Maure informed her of the numerous duties she would be expected to fill in her new station in life.

"Beginning next week, you will have instructors in music, dance, drawing, languages -- French and Latin -- and since you are past the age for a ladies' academy, I myself will instruct you in proper etiquette every morning."

Annabelle was intrigued, yet felt overwhelmed by the vast amount of expectations her aunt held for her.

The dressmaker arrived promptly at nine with several patterns for dresses. Annabelle felt like something on display as she was prodded and pinned, various fabrics held up before her for her aunt's approval or rejection. It seemed that her own opinions would not matter, and so she chose to remain silent for fear of her aunt's disapproval. After two hours of endless pinpricks, she had an entire new wardrobe set to be made. The dressmaker said the clothes would be ready within the week, but would send a simple black dress later that day for immediate wear. Since there was an hour to spare before luncheon, Lady Sainte-Maure decided to begin her etiquette lessons with proper walking and posture. For the next hour Annabelle walked around the house up and down stairs with a book on her head. She curtseyed more in this single hour than she had in her entire life, and ever expected to do in the future.

When luncheon was announced, she thought she would have a respite from her lessons, but the meal became a lecture on proper dining habits and conversation. ‘If every day is going to be like this, I don't know how I'll ever survive,' she thought to herself. After lunch, her aunt gave her a sewing basket, and demanded to see how she could stitch. Before this, she had thought her stitches to be passable, but with the constant criticisms as to the size of her stitches, she now thought she could succeed in nothing. She was almost about to scream in frustration when the butler appeared and announced the arrival of Mr. Carver, the attorney.

They went to the late Lord Sainte-Maure's study, where several documents, which made little sense to Annabelle, were laid out and explained, and she had to sign her name a dozen times in order to receive that which was left to her in her uncle's will. She went into the room plain Miss Annabelle Perry, and left the study Lady Annabelle Touraine. Growing up as a girl, she had fantasized about the titled upper classes, and what it would be like to be one of them; however, she found that after this day all she wanted was her cozy little room in her home village of Braford, and to be plain Miss Perry again.

At tea time, Annabelle was once again instructed as to the proper way to hold her cup and saucer, and she was finally allowed time to herself when her aunt went to lie down for her afternoon rest. Annabelle was alone in the drawing room at last. She had just settled into one of the large chairs by the fire with a novel she had found lying on the table, when suddenly she heard a knock at the front door. Pierce the butler appeared saying there were two visitors for Lady Sainte-Maure. Seeing that the countess was not in the room, Pierce was about to inform the gentleman and his daughter that she was not at home, but they had followed him right into the room, and he was forced to announce them.

"Admiral and Miss Charbray, madam."

Annabelle, unsure of what to do, stood up as her guests entered the room.

"My word!" exclaimed the admiral. "You must be Lady Sainte-Maure's little niece come to live with her. You're the talk of the town, miss! It's been ages since there was a young person in this house! Delighted to make your acquaintance, my dear. You must allow me to present my daughter, Eleanor." Eleanor curtseyed with a friendly smile.

Annabelle curtseyed carefully, trying to remember her aunt's instructions. She directed the admiral and his daughter to a sofa, and rang for tea. Before Annabelle could say a word, the admiral had begun again. He talked on for several minutes about all the sights she must see in Romagnola, the people she must meet, the galleries, plays, and assemblies that she must attend.

"I realize that your aunt is not yet out of mourning, but I would be happy to escort you to the Talbot's party Thursday next. I know that Eleanor would be delighted to have your companionship. My duties require me to be in town for the summer, and so all of Eleanor's friends are in the country. Having a friend in town would do the both of you a world of good."

"Oh yes!" Eleanor spoke up. "It is so lonely here in the summer -- you must ask your aunt if you may join us."

Before Annabelle could answer, Lady Sainte-Maure stormed into the room, her black silk rustling as she walked. The Admiral and Miss Charbray stood and greeted her.

"Delightful to see you, Admiral and Miss Charbray. I am sorry I could not receive you when you arrived. I hope my niece has been performing her duties as hostess properly. She only arrived yesterday, and is not accustomed to the society of Romagnola," said Lady Sainte-Maure.

"Oh, nonsense!" said the admiral. "Lady Annabelle has been a wonderful hostess! My daughter and I were hoping she would accompany us to the Talbot's party next week, to meet some friends and aid her adjustment. Though you are yet in mourning, God rest the good Earl's soul, it is a shame that such a delightful young person should be forced to remain at home."

"Thank you for the offer, Admiral Charbray," said Lady Sainte-Maure somewhat stiffly, "but my niece is hardly ready to go into society at this time. Perhaps she will attend the next event."

"It would do her good! What better way to acclimate herself to society than to put into practice the things you are teaching her, and meet some of our finest families? You know the Talbots only invite the best people, and as you are a special friend of Mrs. Talbot, you know it would do no harm."

"I'm sorry, Admiral, but it is out of the question."

"Very well, but will you allow Lady Annabelle to accept a dinner invitation from us later in the week?"

"That is, if it is acceptable to Lady Annabelle, of course papa," interrupted Eleanor with a smile.

Annabelle was hesitant, but was not opposed to the plan.

"We shall see," said her aunt.

"We shall expect you for dinner on Monday, then," said the Admiral, giving the arm of his chair a jovial slap. "Did you read in the paper about the engagement in the Park family? Their youngest child is marrying a sailor! With the current situation with Bonaparte, I hope he will not be taken away from her so soon."

Annabelle was relieved to have the conversation turned from herself, and as the Admiral and Lady Sainte-Maure began to talk of the new couple, Eleanor came to sit by her.

"I must apologize for my father -- I hope he did not offend you. He never was one to be discreet in public. But we are sincere in our invitation. It is lonely in town during the summer. Most everyone else is in the country, but due to my father's duties, we must remain in Romagnola. I'm sorry you have to be in town at such a low point of the year, but I'm sure we will make the best of it. I hear from my father you will be coming out this season -- there will be much to do to prepare for it. I had my coming out last year, and I remember all the anxiety that accompanied it. I would be delighted to help you in any way I can. I am afraid you will be lonely living here alone with your aunt - having only a father and no siblings, I know it is difficult not having another person to confide in. However, I hope we shall become true friends."

Annabelle was touched by her kindness. "I, too, hope that we shall be friends. It is hard leaving behind all that I know, and I would be very grateful for someone talk to." Just then, the Admiral stood and told his daughter it was time to take their leave.

"I am most delighted to have met you, Lady Annabelle," he said, "and I look forward to seeing you at dinner next week." Eleanor nodded and smiled at her. Once Admiral and Miss Charbray had left, Annabelle was once again alone with her aunt.

"You must not allow the Admiral's manners to unnerve you," said Lady Sainte-Maure.
"Oh no," said Annabelle, "I found him very pleasing."

"He is good man, but a trifle garrulous. I hope that you would not behave so. You must be demure and say very little. Men do not prefer outspoken women. Miss Charbray thankfully had a governess to teach her how to behave in company. She is a sweet child and would be a good companion for you. I hope you will get to know her better. Now, it is time to dress for dinner. Upstairs with you."

The rest of the week passed quickly. Annabelle's days were filled with one instructor after another, giving her lessons ranging from how to hold her fork to how to decline Latin nouns. When Sunday morning dawned, it was time for Annabelle's first venture out into Romagnola's public eye. She was to attend the church service with her aunt, and was distressed that people would see her in the dismal mourning clothes that reflected no true sorrow, since she had hardly known her uncle. She waited in the foyer with her aunt for the carriage to be brought round, and when it came they departed. There were flutterings in her stomach as she anticipated meeting so many strangers. She hoped the Charbrays would be there, so that she might see some familiar faces. Her aunt led the way to her customary pew. Annabelle could not help noticing that everyone turned to look at her as they walked down the aisle. She did, however, see the Admiral and his daughter, who gave her a kind smile.

The sermon went on, and though she tried to listen, her eyes continually wandered to the new sights around her. The church was so grand, a great difference from her tiny parish in Braford, and the voice of the minister boomed throughout the hall, hardly like the kindly voice of the vicar, her adopted father. There were very distinguished ladies across the aisle, very unlike the simple dairymaids of Braford. The one familiar sight she saw was a woman prodding her husband, who had been lulled to sleep by the pastor's dronings.

When the service was finally over, Annabelle and her aunt rose to leave. As she walked down the aisle, she noticed a young gentleman sitting in the back of the church with an elderly lady. He had kind eyes, and was very handsome. He looked up at her and she quickly turned away. She turned back in a moment, and saw him looking at her with a smile. He nodded his head, and then turned to help his companion out of the pew.

Once outside the church, Annabelle was introduced to a dozen grand ladies who were wearing more jewels than she had ever seen in her life. She was greatly relieved when Eleanor came up to her and took her away from the group of older women.

"Thank you for rescuing me! I'm so happy to see you again. I don't know how many more introductions I could have borne!"

They chatted for a few minutes, and then Annabelle remembered the young gentleman at the back of the church with the elderly lady. She asked Eleanor who he was.

"Do you know him, Miss Charbray?

"Oh! Do call me Eleanor! You must mean Mr. Richmond. He is a pleasant young man, orphaned at a very young age. He was brought up by Mrs. Brown, the lady you saw there with him. I do not know very much about him, since he does not travel in the same circles that I do. His family left him very little, so he has had to make his own way in life. He owns a modest piece of land out by the river. His cheese is some of the best in the country -- the court itself eats nothing else but Richmond cheese." Just as she finished speaking, the young man exited the church with Mrs. Brown on his arm. Annabelle saw him greet several people before helping the elderly woman into her carriage. She watched as he drove away -- she didn't know what it was that drew her to him, but she wanted to know more about him.

 

 

Chapter 3

*We apologize for the long time between posts. We were studying abroad together and have since come home to different states, so it is harder for us to collaborate, but we think we have got a good system worked out. Enjoy and please leave comments!! Your input is very helpful!!!*

Monday came and the dinner party was approaching. Annabelle was both eager and frightened, anticipating her first social event in Romagnola. She sat at her dressing table as Clara, her maid, dressed her hair. Her aunt sat in the chair next to her, instructing her on the correct behavior for the evening. Annabelle tried to block out her aunt's voice as she thought about the night ahead of her. She had been to dinner parties before, but never in such society as she would be in tonight. At home, they would dine with several families from the local parish, but no one as distinguished as the company she would have this evening. She looked down at her plain black dress and wished she could make an appearance in something more cheerful. She heard the rumble of carriage wheels below, and a knock at the door followed, announcing the arrival of the coach. With one last word from her aunt on decorum, she left her bedchamber and went downstairs. The coachman was waiting for her and led her to the carriage.

The journey was not long, as the Charbrays lived in the same neighborhood as Lady Sainte-Maure. They arrived at a grand townhouse that had a cheerful facade, much reflective of the manner of the Admiral himself. There were several carriages lined up at the door to deposit guests. She entered the townhouse and was met by the Admiral and Eleanor, who greeted her warmly. A servant handed her a glass of wine, and she was ushered into the drawing room. There were several couples there conversing, and Annabelle felt uncomfortable, for she did not know anyone. She took a seat on one of the sofas by the fireplace, and waited for Eleanor to appear. When Eleanor finally came into the room, she approached her forlorn friend as soon as she saw her, like a saving angel.

"My dear Annabelle. I don't want to see you looking so sad. I must introduce you to some of my friends. I know they all older, but most of the people my age have gone back to the country for the summer." Annabelle tried to put on a good face for Eleanor, but she had to admit that she was scared to death. From the minute she had been thrown into the room by herself, everyone was watching her. She knew that everyone was talking about her. They were probably talking about how unfit she was to be the heir to the Sainte-Maure fortune. She herself thought that. She knew, however, that she needed to do this for the sake of her aunt. She did not want to be a disappointment, so she put on a brave face and took Eleanor's offered hand.

She was first introduced to Lord and Lady Newbury. They were an elderly couple that was very important in society. Eleanor whispered that it was a great honor to be invited to one of Lady Newbury's parties. When Eleanor introduced Annabelle to their Lordships, Annabelle curtsied in the way her Aunt and showed her and waited for them to speak to her.

"Lady Annabelle it is a pleasure to meet you. We were sorry to hear of your Uncle's passing. He will be missed. We look forward to seeing you and your Aunt in the future."

Annabelle was paraded around the room through many other introductions. She didn't think that she would ever remember all the names that were presented to her. Some people were genuine in their remarks. Some seemed to take her presence as an offense. She knew that she wasn't half as sophisticated as most of the people in the room, but she did try. She overheard two women who looked to be in their twenties talking.

"Did you see that new upstart from the country? She must think she is so grand and is so high above all of us. Look at her. She barely spoke two words to any of us. Does she think she can look her nose down at all of us just like her Aunt? It wasn't long ago that she was just some nobody in the country. We will see how she survives in society." Both ladies giggled to themselves. Annabelle discreetly looked up at the two women. They were both all done up in satin and silk. It must have taken an entire bird to supply the feathers for both of their hair. She quickly turned her eyes away to another part of the room when they turned to look at her. When she did, she did hear something that interested her greatly: the name of Richmond. She tried to listen closer without showing any sign of eavesdropping. She had been scolded before for eavesdropping and she knew that it was not proper behavior in a social setting.

"Did you see that young Mr. Richmond at church on Sunday? Mrs. Brown was not looking well, but he certainly was. Have you heard the rumors about him? I heard from Miss Parker that he is the illegitimate son of someone very important in society. She didn't know whom, but I suspect that it is someone very important since it has been so covered up. Why do you think that his cheese does so well and how do you think that he is able to live so well. I don't believe that he is an orphan." Before Annabelle could hear the rest, dinner was announced. She wasn't really sure what the procedure was for going into dinner. She knew that she was supposed to have an escort, but nobody really knew her but the Charbrays. Eleanor noticed the look on Annabelle's face and quickly went to Mr. Stern to ask him to take her into dinner. Annabelle was about to despair when Mr. Stern came to her and offered her his arm.

Dinner was a pleasant affair. She found that she was seated next to Mr. Stern who turned out to be an affable young man. He explained that he had an estate in the country and was in town on business. Annabelle found that she was comfortable in his presence and she could see that Eleanor approved of the two of them. She would have to remember to ask Eleanor more about him. Mr. Stern told her many things about the city and told her of some things she must see. It turned out that he had gone to school with one of her cousins. "The Great Stampede was a tragedy that didn't need to happen. I was with your cousin and it should have been me who was lost. Charles had jumped from his horse to help me when it happened. If it hadn't been for me, he would probably be here today. I still can't forgive myself for what happened that day. I lay flowers on the steps of the Memorial Column every year on the Anniversary."

"I am sure that it wasn't your fault. Things like that are not anyone's fault. You must not blame yourself." Their conversation was interrupted by Eleanor asking the ladies to depart to one of the drawing rooms while the gentlemen enjoyed their port and cigars. Annabelle said her farewell to Mr. Stern and then went with the other ladies. She looked forward to seeing more of Mr. Stern in the future. He seemed to be a pleasant man. Her reverie was interrupted by Eleanor who came to sit with her friend.

"I see you have befriended Mr. Stern. He is a very nice gentleman and has a large estate in the country. I am glad that you seemed to enjoy his company. He was a great friend of your late cousin."

"Yes, he informed me of that himself. I did like him and I hope to see more of him. You also seemed to enjoy the company of a certain young man and I believe that he enjoyed your company as well." Annabelle watched Eleanor blush. She might be shy, but Annabelle was comfortable enough to tease her friend who had spent the entirety of dinner in the conversation of a certain Lord Barret.

"Yes, Lord Barrett and I were talking of the theater. I was just being a friendly dinner partner." Annabelle laughed as her friend tried to come up with excuses, but before she could come up with a good one, the gentleman had rejoined the ladies for coffee and cards. Mr. Stern immediately sought out Annabelle and Lord Barrett did the same for Eleanor. They made up one of the whist tables and fun was had by all. Before they knew it the carriages were called and Annabelle was on her way home.

As she rode back to the house, all she could think of was her evening. She was so happy that her Aunt had relented to the Admiral and allowed her to go. She only hoped there would be more events in the future.

***

In the ensuing weeks, Annabelle entered on a grueling voyage of education, preparing to take her new place in the aristocracy of Kalebeth. Each day instructors poured in and out of Lady Sainte-Maure's house, and each night Annabelle collapsed onto her feather pillows, exhausted with mental exertion. Though not yet very well versed in upper class social interaction, she was not as dull as her aunt had feared, and she learned her lessons, if not at breakneck speed, at least not too slowly.

Mondays were for music. In the morning, Annabelle practiced on the pianoforte, as all accomplished young ladies should, and learned the harp, her aunt's favorite instrument. In the afternoons a singing instructor came, to prod the girl's voice into melodious submission. At first, the only reward for her hard work seemed to be sore fingers and a sore throat, but after much practice and much honey tea, her fingers and her voice began to flow, and she enjoyed her musical pursuits more and more.

Tuesdays were devoted to languages. Lady Sainte-Maure insisted that she learn French -- not only would it admit Annabelle to cosmopolitan circles, but also the late Lord Sainte-Maure, benefactor of his orphan niece, had been part French, and his farms were populated with the best French dairy cattle. Thus, it was of personal, as well as public, importance. Annabelle got along fairly well with her comment allez vous and enchantée-ing, but Latin was rather more difficult. She didn't know what had possessed her aunt to make her learn it; she could only suppose Lady Sainte-Maure wanted her to be prepared for anything. Annabelle was not of an overly analytical or intellectual nature, which made for slow going at first, but in time Caesar and Cicero gradually came under her command, and eventually Virgil and Ovid did as well.

On Wednesday, Annabelle learned drawing. Bowls of fruit were set up all over the house for her to sketch, and none of the housemaids escaped modeling duty. Charcoal and crayon wax found their way inexorably into the curtains and on to the upholstery, but only one or two of the several priceless pieces in the house were ruined beyond hope. For a few weeks, Annabelle went through a watercolor phase, but Lady Sainte-Maure quickly put an end to that, as both water and color were being flung onto everything but the easel. Annabelle quickly began to suspect that she did not have a talent for this sort of artistic endeavor, but her aunt demanded that she have a working knowledge of the ways of the pencil, and so she persevered in her study.

Thursdays and Fridays were for literature and general reading. Annabelle was shut away in the library for most of the day with a pile of books and a tutor or two to guide her progress. She enjoyed these days most, for the reading was often interesting, and she was occasionally able to slip a novel in place of a history or geography book, without anyone noticing. At dinner, Lady Sainte-Maure would test her on what she had read, and Annabelle was soon able to converse almost freely on rather intelligent topics.

Saturday belonged to Lady Sainte-Maure, who lectured on rules of etiquette and social behavior. Annabelle learned the finer points of sitting down, standing up, and walking, as well as how to hold teacups and forks and drink wine without slurping. She learned to dance and to carry her train and to tie a bonnet properly, and infinite other bits of useful information, without which her survival in society could not be expected. On Sunday Annabelle did not rest, but was given a daylong exam on everything she had learned during the week. Her behavior at church in the morning and at home in the evening was carefully judged by Lady Sainte-Maure, and fortunately for Annabelle was only sometimes found to be wanting.

The weeks marched along in this way, each one bringing her closer to that grand event -- the winter ball when she would at last make her entrance into the High Society of Romagnola. The anticipation of this event was the driving force that kept her spirits up through the long months of her training, but it had valuable assistance from the growing curiosity and interest which accompanied the weekly sightings of Mr. Richmond, who always smiled at her as he helped old Mrs. Brown to and from church. She also enjoyed several visits from Mr. Stern; however, he soon left for the country. Annabelle mourned his loss, but her attention was soon drawn to other things. Eleanor and Lord Barrett grew closer and Annabelle was happy for her friend.

 

 

Chapter 4

Summer and autumn passed in a whirlwind of music books, lessons, and teacups. It was winter now, and Annabelle's first Christmas in Romagnola was over (the holiday was a little drearier than usual, since the household was still in mourning for Lord Sainte-Maure). The greatest day of Annabelle's young life, up to this point, was fast approaching -- the Royal New Year's Ball, held to celebrate the King's birthday. The ball would be Annabelle's first entry into the grandest spheres of Romagnola society. She was to be presented at court in the morning, and would attend the ball in the evening, and there, according to the hopes of her aunt, charm the crème de la crème of the court.

The days leading up to this grand occasion were crammed with preparations -- skin treatments, hair treatments, dress fittings, and constant drills on proper social behavior. Annabelle was extremely jumpy. She was naturally anxious about the ball, a social custom that was entirely new to her. She had been to one or two country dances in her little village of Braford, but those were purely for amusement -- they did not have any of the immense social importance with which this dance was apparently brimming. Her nerves certainly did not receive any help from Lady Sainte-Maure, who commanded her again and again to "Stop fidgeting, for heaven's sake!" To make matters worse, it seemed that everyone in the house, as well as anyone who came to visit it, had some advice to give to Annabelle. Most of it was well meaning, of course, but nonetheless annoying.

Eleanor came nearly every morning with some suggestion about who to befriend at the ball, and what topics of conversation to introduce. The ladies who came to have tea with Lady Sainte-Maure gave their decrees as to what color she should wear and which of her aunt's carriages should be used. The lawyer who came every week to go over her aunt's papers told her which dishes she should not miss at supper, and which to avoid. The butler, the housekeeper, and her own maid had their advice as well -- it seemed to Annabelle there was no escape.

The morning before the fateful day, Annabelle was having a final fitting. She stood on a footstool, as the dressmaker sat behind her with a mouthful of pins, working at her hem. Lady Sainte-Maure sat nearby, looking on with an imperious expression.

"Now, my dear Lady Annabelle," said the dressmaker, poking the girl's ankle with a pin, "hold your train up this way when you curtsey to the King," she demonstrated with a flourish, and almost pulled Annabelle off of the footstool. "It shows the fabric off to best advantage. Hold it like that when you dance, as well. There will be no one who looks lovelier than you. But you must be very careful not to step upon it, or it will tear."

Annabelle had a wild look in her eye as she listened to all this, and she began to breathe a little faster.

"There now, dear, don't pant, we're almost finished."

The butler appeared just then and said, "Lady Sainte-Maure, you have a caller. Lady Finchley. I have told her to wait in the drawing room."

"Oh, gracious," said Lady Sainte-Maure impatiently. "What can she want? She knows she will see me tomorrow night." She rose and went to the door. Over her shoulder she called, "I won't be but a few minutes. Annabelle, I want you to stay put until that gown is perfect."

As soon as she was gone, Annabelle threw her hands in the air and cried, "I cannot stand it! I must have some peace! I must have some rest!" With her hem still full of pins, she leapt from the footstool with a shriek and made for the door.

"Oh, all right dear," said the dressmaker in utter confusion. "Why don't you go and lie down..." But Annabelle was already out of the room and far down the hall. She did not go to lie down, but naturally headed straight for the front door. The butler had been called off to see to something elsewhere, and nobody was about. She flung open the door, jumped down the steps, and took off at a run.

At home she could have run out into the fields, and thrown herself down among the daisies and tall grass until she was calm, or she could have gone to the barn to tell her troubles to her own little cow, Bessie. But there were no fields here, and no Bessie. She must make do as best she could. Two or three blocks away from the house was a lovely park, where she and Eleanor had often strolled on summer Sunday afternoons. With tears streaming down her face, she ran into this park. The avenues and tree lined lanes were nearly deserted at this time of year, for there were no flowers or leaves, and she ran along, wiping the tears from her eyes every now and then, and not knowing what she did, until she was suddenly jolted to her senses by a collision with another walker.

"I say!" said a gentleman's voice. "Are you all right, Miss? Is there anything we can do for you?"

Annabelle, nearly breathless, brushed the hair out of her eyes, and gasped as she beheld Mr. Richmond standing there before her, looking ever so concerned.

"Why Lady Annabelle!" said a second gentleman's voice. "What has happened?" It was Mr. Stern. In her shock and relief, Annabelle felt her knees begin to buckle. She wobbled a bit, and was very glad when two strong hands, one from each of the young men, took hold of her arms. The two gentlemen supported her to a nearby bench. Once seated, she needed only a few minutes to catch her breath and calm herself. The gentlemen sat down on either side of her. Mr. Richmond picked up a few pins that had fallen to the ground, and, smiling gently, handed them to her. She smiled in return, and in a moment found her voice.

"I thank you, Mr. Stern, and you, Sir. You've been very kind. I am perfectly well, I assure you."

"Has something happened to distress you, Lady Annabelle? May we be of service to you in any way?"

"Oh, it is nothing serious." She blushed, rather embarrassed. "We have all been so busy these past few days, preparing for the court ball, you know, and I suppose I felt I needed to get some fresh air." She attempted to smooth out her hair and dress.

"Perfectly understandable," said Mr. Stern with a smile. "The ball is the greatest social event of the year, as I'm sure you've been told many times. I'm in town for the ball myself."

"Well, it is good to see you again," said Annabelle.

"May I introduce my friend to you?" asked Mr. Stern. She nodded and smiled, and looked over at Mr. Richmond. Mr. Stern continued, "Lady Annabelle Touraine, I present my friend, David Richmond."

"How do you do, Mr. Richmond?" said Annabelle, miserable within her heart that her eyes were so red and her hair so disheveled.

"How do you do, Lady Annabelle? I've had the pleasure of seeing you often at church, with your aunt."

Annabelle could only reply with a deep blush. Mr. Richmond continued to make some small talk, and Mr. Stern looked on. He was an intelligent young man, and saw what was happening. He could not help but feel jealous that Annabelle seemed to be paying more attention to Richmond. If he wanted to continue his suit of her, he would have to make sure that she got to know him better. There would at least be one ally who would support him over Richmond: Lady Sainte-Maure. He was sorry for Richmond, however, for Lady Sainte-Maure was not likely to approve of him at all, even for nothing more than friendship. He hoped, however, that he too would not be swayed by Lady Sainte-Maure. He knew as well as anyone the great hopes she had for Annabelle. The upper crusts always married each other and he feared that she too would be forced into a loveless marriage simply for the title and the prestige.

In a few minutes Annabelle realized that she was probably missed at home, and realized with some apprehension that her aunt was undoubtedly in a rage. As the three of them walked along towards the Sainte-Maure townhouse, Annabelle was busily thinking of ways to avoid or lessen her aunt's wrath. She supposed she might be able to put it off a little while if she was not alone when she first came home, and so she invited the two gentlemen in to have a cup of tea before they went on their way. They agreed, and Annabelle, with only a little trembling in her step, entered the perilous presence of her aunt, safe between her two protectors.

It had been discovered a few minutes before, when Lady Finchley was gotten rid of and Lady Sainte-Maure returned to the dressmaker that Annabelle had not gone up to her room. They were just about to send the butler out to search when the girl appeared with two guests in tow. Lady Sainte-Maure met them in the drawing room. She sat rigidly, tight-lipped and a little purple about the face, glaring at Annabelle now and then. She spoke with the barest civility to Mr. Stern, and hardly spoke to Mr. Richmond at all. When they had drunk as much tea as possible, and Annabelle had drawn out the visit as long as she reasonably could, the gentlemen took their leave. Alone with her aunt, Annabelle waited with bowed head for her doom to come upon her.

After a long and frightful pause, Lady Sainte-Maure said, "Well, my girl, I am not going to lecture you about your little disappearing trick this morning. You must know it was very wrong, very foolish indeed, and at any rate, I wouldn't even know where to begin. Six months ago, I would have expected such crude and childish behavior from you, but now..." she sighed. "Now I would have hoped you knew better. Lord knows what got into you child! And romping about with those two young men in the park! I only hope they have the decency not to speak of it." She stopped and glared in silence for a moment.

"Is that all, Aunt Sophie?"

"No, that is not all. I am simply astounded that you invited that Mr. Richmond here." She spoke the name as if it put a sour taste in her mouth. "He is far beneath your notice -- again, something I thought you would have known. He is only a cheese farmer, for heaven's sake, and there are rumors afoot that he is somebody's natural child. However that may be, he is not for you. I cannot help the fact that you have been introduced, but from now on you must cut him whenever you see him."

"But Aunt Sophie!"

"Hush! And as for Mr. Stern, I remind you that you mustn't encourage him. He's a good sort of young man, I suppose, the last to see my poor Charles alive when those awful enraged milkers took to the streets and ..." she shook her head. "But you should be concerning yourself with titled people."

Annabelle felt the tears rising to her eyes.

"You are Lady Annabelle Touraine," continued her aunt. "Soon to be the next Lady Sainte-Maure -- very soon indeed," she muttered, "if you continue to vex me this way." She looked hard at her niece. "Annabelle Perry might have done these things, and consorted with these people, but Lady Annabelle Touraine must not."

This new criticism from her aunt, combined with all the stress of the past week, was too much for Annabelle and she began to weep again.

Lady Sainte-Maure sighed, and lowered her voice a little. "I know it is difficult for you," she said, "but you must remember you are not a free and simple country girl anymore. You have responsibilities now, to your family and your name. The fate of the House of Sainte-Maure rests on you. I want you to be happy, of course, but you can be happy and do your duty at the same time. This is why the ball tomorrow is so important, you see. If you make connections with the best families, there will be no stopping you." She smiled, as kindly as her stiff face would allow, and said, "Now go upstairs and see if Clara can do something for your face. I'll never forgive any of you if your eyes are puffy tomorrow."

Annabelle did as she was told. Clara gave her some soothing creams for her face and put cucumber slices on her eyes, and Annabelle went to bed early. After much tossing and turning, she slipped into an exhausted slumber, filled with many anxious dreams about the coming day.

Annabelle was nervous about being presented at court. She knew that she was going to trip over her dress and disgrace her entire family in front of the King and Queen. It was the morning of the dreaded event and everyone in the house was running around trying to prepare things for the presentation that morning and the ball later that evening. It seemed to Annabelle that the ball was going to happen at their house instead of at Ayershire Court. Her Aunt was ordering everyone about and Annabelle was being poked and prodded. She has to look perfect for her presentation as her Aunt reminded her hourly.

Eleanor arrived at the house at nine to support Annabelle and help with the finishing touches. They were to depart for the palace at ten and she was to be presented at eleven. Following the presentation, they would come back to the house to rest and change for the ball that was going to be held that evening at the palace to open the Romagnola Season. "Oh Eleanor, thank you so much for coming. I couldn't do this without you." Eleanor smiled at her friend and patted her on the shoulder.

"Do not worry Annabelle. You will be a great success and your dance card will be filled this evening. I remember my presentation and my coming out ball. It was all so nerve racking. I was so afraid that nobody would ask me to dance. Once I was at the ball, though, I was so busy that I completely forgot to be nervous. Since you are so much prettier than I and you just inherited quite a fortune and title, I promise that you will be the most popular girl tonight." Eleanor put a comforting arm around Annabelle and led her to a mirror. "Look at yourself. You are stunning. Their majesties will love you."

"Thank you dear Eleanor. I don't know how I would make it through this without you. You must promise to stay near me at the ball. I know Lord Barrett will want all your attention, but promise me you won't go far."

"Oh Eleanor, Lord Barrett will probably be dancing with all the rich beautiful women that attend court functions. I know I will be forgotten."

"How can you say that? You know he adores you and can't keep his eyes off of you. If he does not make an offer to you by spring, I will be quite surprised." Both girls laughed and Annabelle continued to prepare herself. She had checked her appearance about five hundred times when finally the coach was announced. Eleanor bid her friend goodbye and Annabelle followed her Aunt to the carriage.

The carriage ride to Ayershire Court was not long enough. Annabelle felt sick with nervousness. She kept going over the steps she had to remember in her head. For the entirety of the ride her Aunt gave her more and more things to remember. They pulled up to the palace and were met by a footman. Annabelle was helped out of the coach and when she looked up she froze in her place. The structure in front of her was very grand with hundreds of windows. She wondered how many people it took to run a building of this greatness. She was immediately intimidated when they entered the grand hall and were ushered into the drawing room from whence she would be called. There were several other people in the room that were dressed in their finest. She looked at her own appearance in one of the mirrors that lined the wall and saw that she too fit into the crowd. She felt so out of place. The amount of jewels and feathers that she was forced to wear were so heavy that she couldn't wait to sit down so that she could rest. She was practically out of breath by the time that she reached the assembly line. When she was finally in position she saw her Aunt go to the footman and give him her name. This was it and she knew there was no turning back. From this point on she would always be Lady Annabelle Touraine, the future Lady Sainte-Maure. Annabelle Perry was long gone and there was no way that she would ever return to Braford. She tried not to let herself cry so that the work of Clara would not be ruined. Instead she breathed in as deeply as she could in the heavy dress and squared her shoulders. It was going to be a long day, but she knew that she could get through it. Then it came: "Lady Annabelle Touraine, niece of the late The Right Honorable. The Earl of Sainte-Maure and his wife The Right Honorable. The Countess of Sainte-Maure." Annabelle froze where she was for a moment, which to her seemed a lifetime. She felt her train being straightened and then she felt herself moving forward. Somehow her legs were moving, but everything around her was a blur. It was as if things were moving in slow motion. All of a sudden she was curtsying. In front of her was King Lorenzo. He kissed her on the forehead and she then moved to curtsy to Queen Beatrice. When she curtsied, the Queen put her hand under her chin. She looked up into her crystal clear blue eyes. She looked like a kind woman. The Queen kissed her on the cheek and then she continued down the line. It was sad that they could not have any children as she could tell the Queen had a kindly heart. She noticed several Ladies in Waiting behind the Queen. One caught her eye particularly, but she couldn't say why. Before she knew it, her train was handed to her and she walked backwards out of the room. It was a miracle that she didn't trip. All those months of practice must have paid off.

After the doors were shut she stood in her place, too stunned to do anything. Her Aunt approached her and for once had something nice to say. "Very good Annabelle. You would have made your Uncle proud." Annabelle was shocked at her Aunt's words and didn't know how to respond. She simply followed her Aunt to their waiting carriage and was silent during the journey home.

They arrived back at the house and Annabelle was met by the staff who was curious as to how she made out. Her Aunt assured them that she was a success, and then ordered luncheon prepared. She sent Annabelle with Clara to get undressed. Clara was full of chatter on the way up the stairs, but her curiosity was not to be satisfied about the court and the royal family since Annabelle could only give one-word answers. When they arrived at her bedchamber, Clara took off the dress and all her jewels then released her hair. It was such a relief to have such a burden removed. She massaged her soar muscles while Clara combed her hair. "Oh miss! I am sure you shined today. I know you looked so fancy and done up. Your Aunt must have been mighty proud of you. I wish I could be all fancy like you."

"Yes, everything went well. You should never wish to be something else. I too used to wish for this when I lived in Braford, but I found that it is not what I thought. All the stories make it to be so glamorous. I just want to go back home." She could barely finish what she was saying before she burst into tears. She laid her head on the table in front of her, her wild curls falling all around her.

"Oh miss, you mustn't cry. You don't want your eyes all puffy and your nose all red. Mr. Stern won't want nothing to do with you. I see how he looks at ya. I wouldn't be surprised if he called more often. Now I'm not one to gossip, but what I hears is that he's been makin' inquiries about you. I hears it from Mr. Baker the stable man. He tells me that he heard at the market that he was askin' after you."

"Oh Clara. You mustn't say such things. You know that isn't true. Mr. Stern sees me only as a friend. I admit that he is a very nice man, but you must not spread rumors that aren't true." Clara looked skeptical.

"Very well miss. I only tells what I hear." She finished dressing Annabelle then excused herself. Annabelle looked at her reflection in the mirror and could not help thinking that Mr. Stern really was interested in her. He did call on her quite often and he always managed to be sitting next to her at dinner parties. She liked Mr. Stern, but she wasn't sure if she felt any more for him. She did enjoy his company a great deal, and when he was gone thought about him and when he would call next. Was she in love with him? Wasn't love supposed to feel different? She has always read in novels about the passionate feelings that overwhelmed the body and the mind. How people would not be able to see straight when in the company of their love. She did not feel this way. She was very confused, but could not figure this dilemma out as Clara came back to tell her luncheon was served.

Annabelle was allowed a short rest before she once again had to go through the ordeal of dressing. She once again was poked and prodded, tucked and pulled. When her dress was finally on, she sat at her dressing table for the long ordeal of fixing her hair. Her curls never did cooperate and she saw how Clara struggled. When she finally finished, Annabelle admired herself in the mirror. He hair had been twisted up and a several curls were left to fall down her neck. There were silk ribbons woven through out and a strand of pearls. The pearls really brought out the gold streaks in her chestnut brown hair. Her dress was cream-colored with embroidery on the bodice. She had elegant long gloves and around her neck was a necklace that had several pearls surrounding a sapphire. It was a sapphire of a brilliant blue that reminded her of the eyes of her cow Bessie. Oh how she missed her. She had fought with her Aunt over the choice of jewelry, but this was finally agreed upon. When she was finally ready she stood up and turned to face Clara. "Well Clara, what do you think? Will I disgrace tonight?"

"Oh no miss. The gentleman will not be able to keep their eyes off ya. I never knew you were so pretty miss. Mr. Stern will certainly have to fight for your attention tonight." Annabelle furrowed her brow. "Oh pardon me miss. I didn't mean to overstep. You really do look beautiful."

"Thank you Clara." Annabelle went to down to meet her Aunt's scrutinizing glare. She was made to turn and finally her Aunt gave an approving nod. The coach was summoned and Annabelle walked out the door into her future.

 

 

Chapter 5

The Sainte-Maures arrived at the ball in excellent time. There were hundreds of carriages lined up in front of the palace and Annabelle was glad because it gave her a chance to calm her nerves before she would have to exit the coach. When the door finally opened, she knew that this was it. She had already survived the presentation earlier, what was a little ball to the King and Queen. Well, the King and Queen would be here as well as all of the other members of Romagnola society. Everyone was constantly telling her that she would be the belle of the ball, but she didn't believe them. She was just a simple country girl in a city girl disguise. She knew that people would be able to see through her facade.

The footmen helped the ladies out of the carriage, and they were led into the palace. It was elaborately decorated and Annabelle wondered at such a transformation from this morning. She knew this was the most important event of the season, but she was still amazed at the speed in which they had transformed the palace. They were announced at the door and then Annabelle obediently followed her Aunt as she greeted several people. Annabelle once again was introduced to more people than she would ever remember. While her Aunt was in conversation with a certain Lord Embry, Annabelle went to talk to Eleanor, whom she saw standing to one side. "Oh Eleanor, I am so happy to see you. I didn't think that I would ever escape my Aunt. She is determined to introduce me to everyone in the city I think." The two girls embraced.

"Oh Annabelle, it is so good to see you. I want to know all about the presentation, but I think our conversation will have to wait. I think I see Mr. Stern and Lord Barrett approaching." Annabelle squeezed Eleanor's arm and awaited the approach of the gentlemen. "Good evening Lord Barrett and Mr. Stern."

"Why Stern, have you ever seen such lovely ladies. I believe they will be the belles of the ball. Miss Charbray, would you do me the honor of dancing the first two dances? It would give me much pleasure." Lord Barrett said with nervousness. Eleanor smiled into his kind face and gave her consent. Lord Barrett then offered her his arm, and Annabelle was left alone with Mr. Stern.

"Lady Annabelle, you must have a full dance card by now, so I know that I may be disappointed, but are you engaged for the first two dances?" Annabelle smiled to him and noticed his nervousness as well. He really was a very handsome man and she enjoyed his company immensely. Maybe she was falling in love with him. She decided that she wasn't going to worry about that now and that she would simply enjoy the ball.

Mr. Stern was waiting patiently for Annabelle's answer and she finally came back to her senses. "No Mr. Stern, I am not engaged. I would be honored to accept." Annabelle noticed the look of happiness that suffused his face as he offered his arm to her to lead her to the dance floor. As she was awaiting the start of the music, she noticed several people looking at her. She wondered why everyone was talking about her. She thought she must be imagining things, but even as the dance began, she could not help but see several people staring at her and whispering. During the second dance she noticed her Aunt who did not look pleased with her display. Next to her was a man whom she did not recognize. He was of a medium build with dark hair that matched his even darker eyes. She could tell from the tailoring of his suit that he was quite wealthy. There was not a piece out of place. The only thing that disturbed the appearance was the obvious scowl on his face. Although, she somehow thought that that seldom disappeared. Before she realized it the dance ended. Mr. Stern brought her back to attention and asked if he could get her a glass of wine before she would be claimed for the next dance. As she was about to say yes, she noticed her Aunt motioning for her to come to her. "Please Mr. Stern, my Aunt needs me. Would you be so kind as to excuse me. Thank you so much for the dances. They were most enjoyable." Mr. Stern looked disappointed and Annabelle felt bad for him, but she had her duty to consider. She took a deep breath and then walked to her Aunt, careful to make sure her posture was good and her chin was at the proper height.

"Annabelle dear, you must allow me the honor of introducing the Duke of Chambertin." Annabelle curtsied and couldn't believe that she was being introduced to the current heir to the throne. She had to admit that he was handsome, and she was flattered that he seemed to show interest in her. The Duke offered to get Annabelle and her Aunt some wine. Lady Sainte-Maure thanked the Duke and then immediately began to tell Annabelle all that was expected of her. The Duke had been called over by his uncle the King, so Annabelle was given an even longer speech. "Now Annabelle, I am going to go speak with Lady Meridan. I want you to stay here and await the Duke's return.

After her Aunt left she had a moment to collect her thoughts. She looked out at the dancers on the floor and then looked at her own dance card. She still had plenty of dances lined up, but she couldn't help but be nervous about her meeting with the Duke. He seemed to resemble his cheese from whence his family got his name: rather nice on the outside, but hard in the center. He gave the appearance of kindness, but she could tell that he really could care less of those below him. She turned around to she if her Aunt was still conversing with Lady Meridan because she did not want to be alone when he came back, but instead of finding her Aunt, she ran right into Mr. Richmond. Startled, Mr. Richmond quickly apologized once he regained his senses. "Oh Mr. Richmond, please forgive me. I was distracted and was not paying attention to where I was going. You must think me such a clumsy girl." Annabelle could not look up into his eyes.

"Lady Annabelle, how can you say so when you are in fact quite the opposite. I don't know if there is another lady here tonight with more grace." Annabelle felt like giggling, but knew that it would not be appropriate. All she could do was look down some more so that he would not notice the blush that spread across her cheeks. "I was wondering, if you are not engaged would you do me the honor of..."

"There you are Lady Annabelle. Here is your wine. Allow me to escort you back to your Aunt." Annabelle curtsied to Mr. Richmond and took the Duke's arm. She did not see the look of anger pass over Mr. Richmond's face. Stern, however, did notice and came to see what was wrong with his friend.

"Whatever is the matter Richmond? I can't imagine you to be mad at such a vision. Lady Annabelle truly is the most beautiful girl in the room."

"Stern, didn't you see her. All she really cares about is money and station. As soon as the better man comes around she completely forgets everyone else. She completely blew me off for that snobby Duke."

"I am sure that you misread the situation. As you can see she is only following the wishes of her Aunt."

"You think too highly of her. She is just like all the rest of them. It wasn't long ago that she was a nothing. How quick she is to forget her roots. Well she can have her Duke for all I care. I care nothing for her."

"How dare you say these things of Lady Annabelle? I demand that you take back your words."

"No, I do not believe I will and you will do best to realize that your flattery will not help your cause. She will no more think of you than she will of me. All she cares of is the title and her Aunt is her biggest supporter. Lady Sainte-Maure has always considered herself above the rest of us."

"How dare you -- I have never been so insulted sir. Good evening." With that, Stern quickly walked away and went to get a breath of fresh air. Richmond on the other hand decided that he would distance himself from that social climbing female. Instead he went in search of some wine. For a while he watched the interaction between the Duke and Lady Annabelle, but he couldn't stand to watch her dance with such a man. He could see her laughing and congratulated her on the act. If she was going to enjoy herself, he would too. He turned and looked for a pretty lady to dance with. He did not care who it was.

Meanwhile, Annabelle danced with the Duke. She tried to keep a steady conversation as her Aunt had taught her, but she was quickly running out of things to say. All the Duke really wanted to talk about was how important he was and Annabelle grew tired of his lists of all that was in his possession. She allowed her eyes to wander to the other couples when they were separated by several dance steps. She saw Mr. Richmond and a pretty blonde dancing. She seemed to be having a marvelous time and he too looked to be enjoying himself. Mr. Richmond looked in her direction, and she quickly turned her gaze back to the Duke for fear that Mr. Richmond would notice her stare.

At the completion of the dance, the Duke escorted her to the side of the room and excused himself claiming there was some business to discuss with his sister who happened to be a lady-in-waiting to the queen. Annabelle looked around her and saw Eleanor talking to Lord Barrett. She was happy for her friend. They would make a good match. She then looked out on the dance floor and she spotted Mr. Richmond with yet another pretty young lady. She could not help but feel upset. He looked up at her and she could have sworn that it was a sneer on his face. Eleanor noticed the distraught look on her face and quickly came over to see what was wrong with her friend.

"Oh Annabelle, whatever is the matter? Why do you look so sad?" she said as she put a comforting hand on her arm.

"Oh Elly, I feel that Mr. Richmond hates me. I was forced to fulfill my duty and dance with the Duke, but I feel that Mr. Richmond thinks I snubbed him. He was just about to ask me to dance when the Duke arrived with some wine. I could not ignore the heir to the throne. Why does he not see that?" Before Eleanor could answer, Annabelle noticed the Duke coming over. "Oh Elly, he is coming back." Both ladies curtsied to the Duke.

"Lady Annabelle, would you dance the final dance with me?"

"With pleasure sir." She did not want to dance another dance with this man, but she knew that there was no refusing a Duke. What would her Aunt say if she did? It would be social suicide. All of her hard work for nothing. Throughout the dance, she just kept repeating to herself her Aunt's words. "You now carry the Sainte-Maure name. Do no disgrace your Uncle's memory." Annabelle knew she was in the right, but why did it have to hurt someone. She wasn't sure if she would ever get used to this.

At the completion of the dance, the music ended and a footman announced that dinner was served. The Duke offered to escort her and her Aunt into dinner. Not wanting to be rude, she bowed her head. She only hoped that she would finally be rid of the man at dinner. She looked one last time at Mr. Richmond, but he was engrossed in another woman. Well, if that is how he wanted to be, she wouldn't care. Instead she decided that she would show him. She looked up at the Duke and smiled. He offered one arm to her and the other to her Aunt. They were then escorted into the dining room.

When they entered the dining room, Annabelle's eyes grew wide. She had never seen so many tables, nor such lavish settings. With great aplomb, the Duke brought Lady Sainte-Maure and Annabelle to their places, which happened to be not very far from his own seat with the King and Queen. Lady Sainte-Maure was vastly pleased with this seating plan -- she suspected, from the Duke's smile, that he had arranged it. She looked shrewdly at Annabelle, and wondered whether her niece understood the compliment that had been paid her. Apparently she did not, for her attention was engaged for the moment across the room, where some of the untitled wealthy were taking their seats. Mr. Stern was there, and Mr. Richmond, one a little red, one a little ashen. Lady Sainte-Maure, following her niece's gaze in that direction, could not imagine what interested Annabelle so much, and called her back to the matter at hand immediately.

"Annabelle!" she whispered harshly. "Are you not sensible of the honor that has been done you? Your uncle and I never were able to sit quite so close to the royal family at these functions. Lord Chambertin must want you near him. Show your gratitude. Smile!"

Annabelle took a deep breath and looked hesitantly over her shoulder towards the Duke. He caught her eye almost immediately, for he was often glancing in her direction, apparently waiting for that display of gratitude that her aunt seemed to think was necessary. He was wearing that same proud expression he always had, that slight turn at the corners of the mouth that was a cross between a smile and a sneer. Annabelle gave a shy, girlish smile, and lowered her eyes. The Duke smiled a bit in return, and bowed slightly, still watching her. The King, who was sitting beside him and had seen this little interchange, leaned toward him at that moment, and said something that Annabelle could not hear. The Duke smiled a little more broadly, and replied, still not removing his eyes. Blushing deeply, Annabelle quickly turned away, and faced forward again. She looked down at her plate, trying to collect her thoughts. Had they really been speaking of her? Was she actually interesting to such important people? It seemed entirely unbelievable. But the Duke had been very attentive to her, and even the King noticed her now. Could it be, that all the whispering and glances that had been directed at her all evening were not criticism, but praise? Annabelle, in her modesty, did not realize how much her innocence and ingenuousness, refined somewhat by education, enhanced her natural beauty, and made her so remarkable to the worldly, jaded members of Romagnola's high society.

Think of it! The Duke of Chambertin seemed to like her! He was handsome, and powerful too -- the most powerful man in the country second to the King. And he would one day be King himself. And he had chosen of his own free will to become acquainted with her. What would her friends at home in Braford say if they knew what sort of people she was dining with now! She trembled with excitement, and could not stop herself from smiling. She was not vain, but the flattery boosted her self-esteem a little. At least her aunt could not criticize her for this. She lifted her eyes to Lady Sainte-Maure, who was smiling at her with a calculating light in her face. Annabelle's glee was momentarily checked. Surely her aunt desired nothing more than that she become acquainted with the Duke? A creeping suspicion came into her heart. He was handsome and powerful to be sure -- but she could not say with honesty that she liked him very much.

She noticed some of the other guests were eyeing her and whispering again, as they had done in the ballroom. She blushed with innocent pride to be so noticed, and smiled. The smile faded a bit, however, as she again noticed that Mr. Stern and Mr. Richmond looked decidedly out of sorts. What could have happened to make them both appear so unwell? Mr. Richmond, she knew, was displeased with her, though why his displeasure was so acute she could not say. She was confused and a little hurt, as if she had taken a gulp of wine that she had expected to be sweet, but had proved to be very bitter. But what was the matter with Mr. Stern? He had been in such high spirits when they were dancing earlier in the evening. After watching them for a few moments, it soon became clear that something had happened between them. Though they sat near to each other, they pointedly did not converse, nor even look at each other. Had they quarreled? What about? Annabelle was rather distressed to see Mr. Richmond become so surly, and hoped he had not done something to greatly upset the affable Mr. Stern.

She could not stare at them all night, however, and so she turned her attention back to her own dinner companions, who were pleasant people for the most part. Annabelle knew she had been introduced to most of them in the ballroom, and she was grateful for the chattering of her aunt, which gave her time to try to remember their names. When the cheese course was wheeled out, the King gave a signal to the footmen, who immediately whipped golden cowbells from their pockets with a great flourish, and steadily rang them three times. A hush went over the room.

"My dear guests!" said the King, spreading his arms as if to embrace them all, "Tonight we celebrate the beginning of a new year, and a new season, which I pray will be full of good fortune for us all. I should like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the man whose own good fortune brings us such continued joy, in the refinements of civilized life. Without him, our festivities this evening would be vastly lacking. I wish to commend Mr. David Richmond, whose farms have produced this fine cheese we are about to savor. Mr. Richmond, will you stand and be acknowledged?"

The sound of polite, yet enthusiastic applause filled the room, and Mr. Richmond, his surprise hiding his glowering expression for the moment, stood up and took a dignified bow. Annabelle smiled, and clapped, and tried to catch his eye, but she could not. He would not look at her. Mr. Stern applauded half-heartedly, as did Lady Sainte-Maure, and the Duke did not applaud at all, being too busy examining his fingernails. Annabelle was disappointed in them, but at least the others seemed to recognize Richmond's worth, despite his lack of a title. Even the ladies in waiting, whom Annabelle could see behind the Queen's shoulder, were clapping as hard as they could. The tumult died down, the bells rang again, and the dinner went on. It was the most delicious cheese Annabelle had ever tasted.

When they had finally gone through all the courses and there was nothing left to eat, everyone slowly made their way out of the dining room. The ladies followed the Queen to a suite of drawing rooms, and most of the gentlemen accompanied the King to a suite of smoking rooms, for port and cigars. Aside from answering the odd inquiry from Lady Sainte-Maure's acquaintances, and a few total strangers wishing to be introduced, Annabelle was free to chat with Eleanor. They talked of the dancing, and the dinner, and the Duke, and everything in between that had happened in the course of the evening.

"What a match that would be!" said Eleanor with wide eyes.

"A match!" cried Annabelle. "Oh, no, Elly, you are mistaken. I am sure there will be no match. It is only flattery, a passing fancy."

"I suppose when it comes to matches, there are others you are thinking of?" said Eleanor slyly. "I think you are in danger of making Mr. Stern very much in love with you."

Annabelle blushed. "I don't know," was all she said. "Do, let's change the subject, Elly."

"It was kind of the King to recognize Mr. Richmond," her friend said nonchalantly. "Poor man, it must be difficult for him to come to such functions, when he is so far removed from everyone here, socially, I mean. It is lucky for him that the palace uses him as almost its sole dairy provider. He earns much more money than the average farmer, I should think."

"Is that why they invited him?"

"I think so. I've heard rumors from ... well, I don't remember from whom, but I've heard that it's one of the Queens ladies who gets him invited to these events, and who brought his cheese to their Majesties' notice in the first place."

"Oh! Do you know which one?"

"My guess is that it is that youngish one, over there, that he danced with earlier."

Annabelle looked, and saw the same pretty blond girl, who had been his dancing partner after she had been forced to accept the Duke's offer. "Hmm," Annabelle said, and looked away.

In a little while, some of the gentlemen began to filter in. The older ones found their wives and then called for their coaches, as it was getting to be quite late, but the younger men gladly settled down for coffee with the ladies. Lord Barrett was one of the first to appear, and Mr. Stern was close behind him. Immediately they came to Eleanor and Annabelle, bearing coffee cups for the ladies. They chatted pleasantly together for a few minutes, until Annabelle saw that her aunt was beckoning to her. She sighed quietly, begged they would excuse her, and went.

"Remember my dear," said Lady Sainte-Maure, "I have no objection to your keeping company with Miss Charbray, especially now that it seems she will be soon engaged to Lord Barrett, but you must not let Mr. Stern think your time belongs to him. You will not slight the Duke when he comes. Stay by me now." She gave Annabelle a stern look, and Annabelle meekly complied.

It was not long before the rest of the gentlemen appeared, and the great parlors were full of people. Mr. Richmond entered, talking to another young man. He saw Annabelle, and then quickly averted his eyes. She frowned, and continued to watch. He and the other gentleman came to a stop near the table where the coffee was being served. A couple of the Queen's ladies in waiting were also by that table, and at the advent of Mr. Richmond and his friend, one of them, who Annabelle realized was the one that had caught her notice at her presentation that morning, bowed her head and walked away, with a slightly agitated expression. Mr. Richmond seemed to be making many people unhappy tonight. Annabelle looked on with curiosity. Were there two of the Queen's ladies who were familiar with him? He certainly had not seemed to be that sort of man.

Annabelle's attention was called away from this scene by the arrival of the Duke, with the King at his side. His tall, imposing figure appeared in the doorway, and surveyed the room. The King had a friendlier, more personable look about him, and she wondered how two men from the same family could be so different. She supposed it was like wine -- the same vineyard could produce an excellent vintage one year, and a poor one the next. Her aunt was then making small talk with some viscountess, and Annabelle sat silently besides her, smiling mildly, as she had been taught to do when unengaged in conversation.

King Lorenzo and the Duke meandered through the room, stopping now and then to speak to various people. As they came in the vicinity of Annabelle and her aunt, the Duke murmured something to the King, who nodded, and they parted ways. The Duke came up to the ladies with his commanding walk, bowed, and said,

"Lady Sainte-Maure, surely you should not keep your lovely niece confined to your side. She must wish to be going among the company, enjoying herself. Will you permit me, if the Lady Annabelle consents, of course, to claim her for a little while and introduce her to some of my friends?" The Duke obviously did not expect a refusal, and Lady Sainte-Maure was certainly not about to give him one.

"Your Grace!" she cried. "You are most kind, most kind indeed! I would be most honored to entrust my niece to your care."

"Lady Annabelle?" The Duke offered her his arm.

"I thank you, Your Grace," she said quietly. She took his arm, and they began to walk. She did not see that Mr. Richmond observed them, nor did she see him glare triumphantly at Mr. Stern and stalk off to send for his carriage.

"You are a great addition to the Court, Lady Annabelle," said the Duke, as they paraded about. "You are a credit to Lord and Lady Sainte-Maure. I knew your uncle; he was a good man, and I would not have been astonished if I was told you were his own child, and not merely his niece."

"You are very kind, sir."

They came upon the lady in waiting who had seemed to want to get away from Mr. Richmond. She acknowledged the Duke, and the Duke was forced to acknowledge her. She smiled at Annabelle.

"Julia," said the Duke coolly, "I present to you Lady Annabelle Touraine, niece of Lady Sainte-Maure. Lady Annabelle, my sister, Lady Julia Edam."

The ladies curtseyed.

"I hope you have been enjoying the ball, Lady Annabelle," said Lady Julia.

"Oh yes, ma'am, very much." They smiled at one another, and the Duke and Annabelle continued their walk. "I did not know you had a sister, Your Grace," said Annabelle, who had been curious about that lady all day.

"She is my sister in law, to be precise," said the Duke, puckering his mouth as if he had eaten something sour. "A cousin of my family, she married my brother. She has been a companion of the Queen for many, many years. She had a rather rash youth, but lives more quietly now, for which I am glad." He looked as if he would say nothing else about her, and Annabelle did not have the nerve to ask him. She merely said,

"I did not know you had a brother, either, sir."

"He is dead, Lady Annabelle. The Great Stampede of 1790, which carried off many of our nations noblest men, including, I believe, your aunt's own son, was the source of his demise."

"Oh! I am very sorry, sir!"

"You have a generous heart. Yes, he was my father's heir. I am sadly the beneficiary of his sad fortune -- my exalted position should never have been mine, had he lived. And now I stand in a similar situation, with regards to their Majesties King Lorenzo and Queen Beatrice. I must be the one to benefit from their misfortune, and take possession of the throne which should rightfully have belonged to their child, had it ever existed."

Annabelle did not think his face exactly matched the sorrowful tone of his speech, and so she made little reply, only mumbling something about it's being "very sad indeed."

They had made their way by this time to the poor, wretched, childless Queen, who looked cheerful enough, nonetheless, in the company of her friends. She smilingly welcomed Annabelle and the Duke to her coterie, and Annabelle remained there, happy and amazed, until her aunt deemed it was time to go home.

There were so many people to take leave of, and the protocol was so exacting, and her mind so overwhelmed, that Annabelle was absolutely exhausted when she and Lady Sainte-Maure were at last shut up in the coach. As they lurched out of the palace grounds and gained the road home, her aunt reached across the carriage and patted her hand.

"You've done very well tonight, Annabelle," she said. "I am quite pleased with you. You are not at all as hopeless as I thought you at first."

"Thank you, Aunt Sophie," the girl replied wearily.

"The evening was an utter success. To think -- the Duke of Chambertin! You could not have made a better catch."

"Catch, aunt?" said Annabelle, alarmed.

"He admires you, that is certain, and if you do your work well, as I know you can, and will, you will win him soon enough. You have won yourself an entry into the best drawing rooms in the city, and may have won yourself a way into the palace as well. Your uncle would be very proud indeed!"

Annabelle smiled weakly. Her own feelings were a little more mixed, her thoughts a little more scattered than her aunt's. The Duke's attention was certainly an excellent compliment, and she could not have made better connections, as her aunt had said, and yet, it worried her. Besides her disliking his arrogance, there was something about him that frightened her -- he was a man whose anger she would never dare to incur. She did not know quite how to think of him. As she thought back on the events of the evening, she wondered why could her aunt not think more highly of Mr. Stern? He had always been so kind to her, and seemed to like her very much, and she felt she had nothing to fear from him, that he was a sincere friend. A sincerer friend than Mr. Richmond, it seemed. What had made him turn on her so quickly? Was he really so fickle? And what sort of connection did he have with the Queen's ladies in waiting? It was all a strange business, and Annabelle was mightily confused by it all. Her head began to ache. It had been an exhilarating and exhausting day, and when at last they reached home Annabelle begged to be allowed to go straight to bed. Her aunt, still smiling proudly, let her go. Annabelle was too tired even to give Clara an account of the evening, though she pleaded very persistently. As soon as her dark curls reached the pillow, she was deep in slumber.

 

 

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