The Grand Duchess’s chamber was so vast that, even filled with women of the court, it still felt airy and open. The Grand Duchess sat on the edge of her bed as though it were a stage, and allowed her servants to dress her while the rest of us stood in attendance like spectators in the audience below. Periodically, she would call on one of her favorites, sending them to fetch things for her. Each lady she called upon breathlessly answered, as if her simple commands were an honor beyond anything.
I had stayed up all night reading, and was feeling too exhausted for the choreography of favors and positioning that was going on around me. It was far too complex for me to follow, as unschooled as I was. Hope had not returned to our rooms all night, and it took a great deal of mental effort to keep myself from thinking of the implications.
“…do you not agree, Lady Frey?” Lady Fairfax asked, holding a necklace against her dress.
“Oh yes, certainly,” I said automatically.
“Indeed.” Lady Fairfax handed the necklace to her maid, and then said, “Miss Taris, as you happen to be in the back of the room, would you fetch me that hat box? Yes- the one on top. There’s a good girl.”
My cheeks burned on Miss Taris’s behalf as she fumbled to reach the hatbox and then scurried past the court ladies toward Lady Fairfax. I knew that Lady Fairfax was trying to overcome Miss Taris’s shyness, but calling her to public attention only made things worse. Miss Taris’s unofficial rank, being the heiress of a duke, afforded her some protection at court, but it did not stop the ladies from laughing at her behind their fans.
I turned and gazed at the other ladies, making a mental note of those who had laughed.
After the Grand Duchess was dressed, she invited Lady Renoir to join her for a tete a tete. The rest of the ladies curtsied to the Grand Duchess and turned to leave.
I turned toward the back of the room, seeking Miss Taris, but I felt someone link their arm with mine and lead me to the door.
Lady Innocence, who had taken my arm, walked with me as though in affection, leading me down a seldom-used hallway and into a small alcove. Then she turned to me, revealing teary, red-rimmed eyes.
“Nothing happened between them, Lady Frey. It was only flirtation, so please tell the Prince that you were mistaken and bring Lady Purity back.”
“Bring her back? Back from where?”
The Prince sent her to del Sol last night, after he found out about her indiscretion with Lord Frey. He’s even hinted that she may lose her rank- everyone was talking about it this morning. Please, if you were the one who complained to the Prince, tell him that you were mistaken.”
“Lady, I am as surprised at this news as you. I haven’t complained to the Prince. Indeed- I haven’t spoken to him since I was presented.”
Lady Innocence fell against the wall and began to sob, letting fat tears streak her powdered face.
“Then tell your father- he must have spoken for you. I’m begging you, Lady Frey.”
“I haven’t sent my father, or anyone else, to speak to the Prince. I don’t know what happened between Lady Purity and Lord Frey, but I am not jealous of my husband.”
Lady Innocence’s sobs began to subside. She sniffed and blotted her tears with a handkerchief.
“If what you say is true, then why did the Prince send Lady Purity away?”
“I don’t know.”
Lady Innocence stood a little taller, and tucked her handkerchief into her sleeve. “Very well. If you won’t help me, I will get her back on my own.”
Lady Innocence exited the alcove and walked away, her silken skirts rustling with each determined step.
“How could you be so careless?”
I couldn’t stop the sharp words from escaping my lips. I’d spent the day trying to dodge malicious gossip, and the pomp at dinner had gone longer than usual. Now, back in my apartments, the sickeningly pervasive scent of roses filled my head until it ached.
Hope threw himself onto his favorite sofa and regarded me with a sour expression. “What have I done, now?”
“Thanks to your intrigue with Lady Purity, we are subject to all manner of vicious slander. Lady Innocence came to me this morning, convinced that I had asked the Prince to send Lady Purity away. Despite my denials, nothing has stemmed the rumors of your dissatisfaction and my jealousy.”
Hope lay back on the sofa and put up his feet. “You knew that this would be difficult, Grace. I need to take advantage of my proximity of the Prince and use my influence, before he begins another war. It’s nearly impossible to get him alone, though. Lady Purity is the Prince’s mistress, so when she came to me, I was obliged to take advantage of the opportunity.”
I dropped onto a chair and put my hand to my head. “She was the Prince’s mistress- so of course he sent her away.”
“I just need to rally. Lady Purity isn’t the only one with the Prince’s ear. Of course, if I anger him enough, perhaps he will call me in to berate me.”
“Do you know who told him about the tryst?”
Hope’s mouth stretched into a maddening smirk. “I would hardly call our encounter a tryst. I took her behind the library, at the edge of an empty field, and mesmerized her. The only people in the library at the time were you and Miss Taris.”
I opened my mouth to protest my innocence, but Hope waved his hand to silence me.
“I trust you, Grace, and I know you aren’t so petty you would tell the Prince. I know nothing about Miss Taris.”
“Miss Taris couldn’t have seen you, though. She was in the back of the library, hiding behind the tall shelves.”
“She could hear Lady Purity and me, just as I could hear her cries.”
I stood and began to pace, trying to clear my head. My headache lingered, and as the scent of roses grew ever stronger, I felt almost dizzy.
“I have been presented to the Prince, so why must I remain? Why can’t I leave you to your intrigues?”
“The Prince wishes for you to remain. He and your father want something from you.”
I turned back to Hope, but I spun too fast. My knees buckled, but Hope rose and caught me before I hit the floor.
“Grace- are you unwell?”
Hope’s words were muffled, and everything seemed strangely soft- his soft brown eyes, his soft waves of dark hair, his soft skin, his lips…
Hope helped me stand, and led me to bed, but my knees buckled again and we tumbled onto the bed together. Somehow, I ended up on top of Hope, and the touch of his skin, the warmth of his breath, and his scent overwhelmed my senses. I pressed my lips against his again and again, running my hands through his soft hair, and drinking in the sensation. Hope responded, raising his own hand and touching my hair.
At that moment, the world seemed to right itself again, and I pushed away from him.
“Forgive me,” I gasped. “I am unwell- I forget myself.”
“Don’t beg my forgiveness. I’ve been longing to feel your kiss again. Look at me.” He gestured to his own figure, prone on the bed. “I am yours. Do as you will.”
“No- you aren’t mine,” I said. “You never will be mine. Your heart still-”
“Ah- I see.” Hope slid off of the bed. “Unreasonable girl, I thought you weren’t jealous.”
“Not of Lady Purity,” I said quickly. “I know you don’t love her.”
“I know.” Hope stood and took my hand in his. “Come with me. I wish to show you something.”