It was a beautiful party.
The ballroom of the St. James Hotel glittered with crystals and candlelight and the gemstones clasped around the necks of so many women. The only shadows in the room were the gentlemen in their dark suits, partnered with their more colorful companions or gathered with each other for secret male conversation to make larger pools of darkness amongst the brilliance.
The dance floor was a rolling sea of scarlet and azure, green and gold, the dancers all but hidden in the rise and fall of bustled skirts as they swirled and spun in time to the waltzes and gavottes being performed by the small orchestra at the head of the room. Music and conversation and laughter filled the room as men made deals and women made matches. It was the social event of eighteen hundred and seventy-two.
Sarah Adams watched it from the side.
She was content with that. It wasn’t as though an event such as this was a common occurrence in her daily life. It was rare that she ever even left Fairport, so just the trip into Manhattan was an excitement in and of itself. Uncle Robert might never have agreed to it at all if it weren’t so close to Daphne’s sixteenth birthday; and for the fact that he was paying none of the costs.
As though summoned by thought, Daphne appeared at her side to collapse breathlessly into the chair next to her. “Oh, Sarah, isn’t it a marvel?” she demanded, obviously expecting no contradiction. Daphne looked as pretty as a plain girl could, her eyes bright with excitement, her pale cheeks flushed. No expense had been spared in outfitting her for the evening, although perhaps some better taste might not have gone amiss. The gown was a girlish pale pink, but the cut was much more daring, suited more for a woman of greater experience and … stature than a nubile young debutante. But Daphne had insisted, and her mother would deny her nothing. The gentlemen seemed to appreciate it, as she hadn’t been without a partner all evening. Sarah’s only concern was that the young men retained their manners. It was, after all, why she was here.
“And there are so many important people here!” Daphne rushed on, not really expecting an answer. Daphne never needed a conversation partner, only an audience. “Look,” she said, pointing shamelessly at a woman holding court near the fireplace, “that’s Mildred Hathaway. She is a leader in the National Women’s Suffrage Association. And there’s Jason Sinclair. He has such a wicked reputation, every girl here blushes if he so much as looks at her.”
The man in question certainly looked the part of a rakehell. His clothes were all of the latest style and finest quality, and he wore his chestnut hair slightly longer than his high collar. He had a drink in one hand and his arm around a smug-looking young woman as he leaned forward to talk to another. Sarah thought she saw his eyes duck down briefly to peer down the girl’s bodice.
“And Abigail Fremont,” Daphne twittered on. “You remember her from that horrible scandal in the paper last autumn, don’t you? And over there…”
Sarah laid a hand on Daphne’s forearm, forestalling any more sightings. “My, you’ve picked up quite a collection of acquaintances in one evening,” she chided mildly. “Scoundrels and scarlet women and radicals; I’m not certain Aunt Margaret would approve.”
“Oh pish.” Daphne brushed the concern away. “You know Mother’s never fussed with what I do.”
Which was very true, Robert’s second wife was much too worried about her own interests to be much bothered with what her daughter was doing.
“Besides, they aren’t acquaintances. I’ve just heard about them from some of the girls here.”
“Daphne,” Sarah reprimanded, “you know better than to repeat gossip. It’s unseemly.”
Daphne just grinned. “But how else am I to find out who the most interesting people here are?”
Before Sarah could scold her for her cavalier attitude, they were interrupted by David’s laugh. “I’m surprised to find you sitting, Daphne. I had thought you intended to dance the night away.”
“Oh, I do!” she chirped in excitement. “But I didn’t want Sarah to sit here alone the whole night.”
Sarah was grateful for David’s arrival. She would never speak uncharitably of her younger cousin, but she couldn’t help but be relieved at a distraction from the girl’s constant prattle. “Where’s Eleanor?” she asked, taking the glass of wine he offered. “Don’t tell me you’ve cast my sister off for one of the pretty young things here tonight, have you?”
He was amused. “Hardly. More the opposite.” He gestured towards a small cluster of men, and Sarah could just make out Eleanor’s pale head in their midst. “Wherever we go, they flock to her. I’d be jealous if I weren’t certain that she is completely besotted with me.”
Sarah hid her smile behind her wine glass. “We all are, David. You’re too charming for your own good.”
“A curse I will gladly bear.” He bent down to kiss her cheek affectionately. When he stood back up, he rubbed his hands together in enthusiasm. “But aside from slaking your thirst, I came over to make an introduction.” He stepped aside to reveal the gentleman standing behind him. “Ladies, may I present a colleague of mine, Mr. Matthew Ingram. Matthew, this is my wife’s sister, Miss Sarah Adams, and their cousin, Miss Daphne Fox.”
As she dipped into a polite curtsy, Sarah took the man’s measure. He was tall, topping David by a good three inches, with coal black hair and pale skin. His clothing was of fine quality and well tailored but simple, as though wanting to avoid accusations of frippery. The clean elegance suited his broad frame better. But what startled her most were his eyes, clear and blue and as pale as aquamarines. They seemed to cut right through her, sharp and assessing in an instant.
He seemed uncomfortable at the introduction and a bit distant, as though there were somewhere else he would rather be. For a moment, he reminded Sarah of Mr. Darcy from Miss Austen’s novel, handsome and wealthy with an air about him which came off as pride but was in truth just his reserve.
Sarah hoped she wouldn’t make Miss Bennett’s mistake.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ingram,” she said in a soothing, gentle manner. “David is most kind to introduce…”
Daphne interrupted, suddenly all aflutter. “But you…” she gasped like a beached fish. “Sarah, do you … Oh!” Flailing her hands in the air, she dashed off without another coherent word.
Sarah’s face flamed. “I apologize for my cousin’s behavior, Mr. Ingram,” she said, mortified. “She’s … young.”
But he seemed more relieved than embarrassed, as though a distasteful duty had been accomplished and he now could move on. “Please, don’t be uneasy, Miss Adams. It’s unfortunately a reaction I’m well acquainted with.”
“I would imagine so.” She sat again, gesturing for the men to join her. “One doesn’t receive an introduction to one of the richest bachelors in New York without some reaction.”
“And Daphne will take things to extremes,” David sighed. Clapping his hand on Ingram’s shoulder more companionably, he continued, “Well, now that that’s settled, I think I’ll go rescue my wife. Excuse me, won’t you?”
They both bowed their heads in acknowledgement as he departed before Ingram turned back to her. “You don’t seem overly awed,” he said, a note of curiosity coloring his voice.
“On the contrary,” Sarah answered, puzzled by his response. “I’m honored you would even take the time to speak to me at all.”
To her surprise, he sat down beside her, still formal and erect but somehow seeming more relaxed. “It surprises you that I would make conversation with a sensible, intelligent woman?”
“I’m certain you can find much better companions than I, Mr. Ingram.”
Any response he might have made was interrupted by a woman who suddenly appeared at Ingram’s side, young and pretty, her burnished red hair piled atop her head in an intricate arrangement held in place with ropes of seed pearls, her gown a confection of gold and lace that clung tight to her lush curves. She granted Sarah only the briefest of acid glares before turning a practiced, charming smile on Ingram. “Matthew, darling, what are you doing sitting in the corner? I simply won’t have it!”
Ingram seemed to flinch at her words, although Sarah never saw him move. Reluctantly he rose and bowed briefly. “Celia,” he said with forced courtesy, “may I introduce Miss Sarah Adams to your acquaintance? Miss Adams, Miss Celia Johanssen.”
Sarah started to drop into a polite curtsy when Miss Johanssen waved her away. “Yes, lovely, charmed. Now Matthew, come and dance with me. This party is dreadfully dull and no one dances so well as you do.”
His face remained bland. “I’m sorry Celia, but I’ve just this moment asked Miss Adams if she would partner me for the next two. You interrupted her answer.” He turned to Sarah expectantly.
For the first time all evening, Sarah was ashamed of her secondhand, outmoded evening dress, modestly cut and unadorned. It was fine for the spinster sitting on the wall, but hardly appropriate for dancing in society. “Well, I…”
“There, you see?” Miss Johanssen was quick to speak up for her. “Now you’ve embarrassed the poor dear. Come now, before you do more damage.”
But Ingram’s eyes hadn’t left Sarah’s. “Miss Adams?” he said softly, almost pleading. “I would be greatly honored.”
It was the trace of panic in his eyes that made her relent. “Thank you, Mr. Ingram, it would be my pleasure.”
Sarah could feel Miss Johanssen’s burning gaze as Ingram escorted her onto the dance floor and took her into his arms. For a brief moment her heart raced ahead at the intimacy of his arm curling around her before the steps of the dance took precedence and carried them away into the sea of dancers.
Once they had established their rhythm, Ingram looked down at her. “Thank you for this, Miss Adams. You just saved me from a dreadful fate.”
“Really?” Again he surprised her. “The two of you seemed very familiar.”
“We grew up near each other upstate,” he explained. “Her brother and I were good friends, so I’ve known Celia almost since she was born. Unfortunately, she believes that entitles her to certain attentions that I am not inclined to offer.”
“I would imagine that’s a common inconvenience for a man of your position,” Sarah answered, relaxing as his sure footing and strong hands guided her easily through the dance.
“You seem to know a great deal about my position, Miss Adams, while I know very little of yours.”
She smiled and turned her eyes aside. “That is because a Mr. Ingram, lumber baron and wealthy bachelor, is of much more interest to the gentlemen of the press than is Miss Adams, penniless spinster.”
“Then the gentlemen of the press have very poor judgment.” He wheeled her about in a heady spin, never losing his firm hold on her. “So how does a Miss Adams, penniless spinster, come to be at a St. James’s ball?”
“It was David’s doing,” she answered, trying not to be discomfited by his reiteration of her status as both poor and unmarried. “He thought Daphne might enjoy a few weeks in town in honor of her birthday. We’re to return to the country at the end of the week.”
They slipped into polite, impersonal conversation and then companionable silence as the first dance flowed into the second. It had been a long time since Sarah danced with anyone she wasn’t related to, so she was happy to let him guide the conversation as well as their steps. While he was rigid and formal, she couldn’t fault him on his skill. She would imagine that with someone he was more familiar with he would be more at ease. Even so, his arm was strong and sure around her waist, his broad hand comforting as it enfolded hers.
She gasped in surprise when he stopped suddenly, clutching her tight against him to halt her forward motion. She was about to protest when a low tenor voice behind her grumbled, “I’m leaving.”
Sarah turned to find the handsome scoundrel Daphne had pointed out standing there, his arm around a different young woman as he scowled at Mr. Ingram.
Ingram seemed none too pleased, but he held his temper. “This could have waited until the end of the dance,” he said mildly, but Sarah could sense a furious undertone to his words.
“No, it really couldn’t,” the other gentleman insisted. “I told you this would be dull, and it’s exceeded all my expectations.”
Ingram glared at the man before turning to Sarah. “I apologize for my friend’s boorish behavior, Miss Adams. May I present Mr. Jason Sinclair to your acquaintance? Jason, this is Miss Sarah Adams. She is sister by marriage to David Barnett.”
Sinclair glowered back before tracing a sketchy bow. “And this is…” he hesitated, looking down at the girl he had his arm around. “You know, I don’t think I got your name.”
The girl giggled and pressed up against him. “Trina,” she said, flustered. “Trina Devries.”
“There you are.” He gestured from one woman to the other. “Sarah Adams, Trina Devries. Miss Devries, Miss Adams. Now, may we please get the hell out of here already?”
Ingram’s face grew stony. “You’re embarrassing yourself, Jason, and the ladies. If you want to leave, far be it from me to stop you. But I have obligations to see to here.”
Sinclair sniffed. “You and your damned obligations. You’ve wasted half your life worrying about obligations, Matthew.”
“While you’ve wasted half yours worrying about wine and…” he trailed off, but Sarah thought she knew what improper word he’d been about to use.
“At least I’ve had some fun,” Sinclair replied, unrepentant. “Come on, Trini, let’s go find a party worthy of the name.”
“It’s Trina,” Sarah heard the girl protest as he dragged her off with him.
“I apologize for that, Miss Adams,” Ingram said, turning back to her when his friend disappeared into the crowd. “Jason long ago gave up the ways of civilized society.”
“Please, Mr. Ingram,” she reassured him. “I’m not so Missish that coarse manners make me swoon. You have been a gentleman, which is all that concerns me.”
“You are very kind.” He bowed briefly before drawing her arm through his. “Nevertheless, I think it would be best to return you to your family.”
He escorted her back to where Eleanor sat, skirting the edges of the crowd as they went. Sarah could feel dozens of eyes following their progress, making her once again self-conscious of her outmoded gown and simple hair.
Eleanor rose and curtsied gracefully when they joined her, her eyes sparkling wickedly. “Thank you for bringing my elder sister back, Mr. Ingram. We are every day expecting some gentleman to see her worth and make off with her.”
Sarah blushed in mortification, but Ingram just smiled. “With good reason; she’s a charming companion. Miss Adams,” he added, turning to her, “thank you for your time.”
“It was my pleasure, Mr. Ingram,” she answered with a mannered curtsy.
He bowed to both of them before leaving.
In an instant, Sarah whirled on her sister. “How could you say such a thing? And to a complete stranger!”
“Hardly a stranger,” Eleanor insisted, pulling Sarah’s resisting body down into the chair next to her. “He’s a client of David’s, so we have met several times. And I’ve never seen him as attentive to a young woman as he was to you.”
“Don’t be absurd.”
“Sarah,” Eleanor’s dark eyes flashed, “Matthew Ingram is little given to offering casual attentions to the ladies, to the point where some have questioned his proclivities. For him to accept an introduction and then dance two dances with you is a sign of distinction.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Sarah insisted. “He needed rescuing from a predatory woman. I was convenient, that’s all.”
“Even better,” Eleanor insisted, shameless. “Now he is in your debt.”
“A debt I’m hardly ever likely to collect on. Mr. Ingram and I don’t travel in the same circles. And in any case, he can owe nothing to a penniless spinster like me.”
Eleanor looked pained. “Sarah, you don’t give yourself enough credit. Why, with some better clothes and the right opportunities…”
“My clothes are fine,” Sarah insisted, straightening the black and blue poplin of her skirt.
“No, they aren’t,” Eleanor denied. “Look at you, you don’t even have a bustle. This is one of Margaret’s old hoop dresses just done over. Please, let me buy you some new things. It’s the least you deserve after taking care of me all those years.”
She looked near to tears, and Sarah couldn’t help but be touched by it. Reaching out, she covered her sister’s smaller hand with her own. “Darling, it’s not your money, it’s David’s, and it is hardly his place to clothe his wife’s shiftless sister.”
Eleanor’s hand turned in hers to grip her tightly. “Don’t speak about yourself so, Sarah. You’re so much better than that.”
Leaning forward, Sarah pressed a kiss to Eleanor’s cheek. “You worry too much. I am what I am, and I’m content with that. Now stop fretting. You know Aunt Margaret says that will destroy your complexion.”
Eleanor’s normal vivacity reasserted itself with a burst of laughter. “Well, I needn’t worry about that. I’m already an old married woman. I can safely let myself go to seed.” She tightened her hand around Sarah’s once more. “I haven’t given up on seeing you married as happily as I am, though.”
Sarah smiled, unable to protest. Nothing she said would dim her sister’s enthusiasm, and she didn’t want to spoil the rest of the party. Sarah had always been more practical than Eleanor, anyway. Let her dream. Sarah knew she was far past the age where any man would be interested in her.
Especially a man like Matthew Ingram.
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