Page 4

And it’s as if I’ve offered him the world.

“You would do that for me? That’s very kind.” He looks off toward the dance floor and his voice drops lower. “I don’t have many friends—especially not here in the city. I’m more of a lone wolf, you know? A rebel.” He shrugs then and gives me a self-deprecating smile. “Well . . . an oddball may be more accurate. A strange duck.”

I smile. “I know that feeling too.”

Thomas adjusts his glasses. “May I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“It’s your party—why aren’t you dancing?”

My eavesdropping sister pokes her head out from behind the column like a nosy squirrel popping out of a tree.

“She’s not allowed.”

“Why isn’t she allowed?” Thomas asks.

“Chewing gum,” Miriam explains—too happily.

“Yes, of course.” Thomas nods. “I see.”

And then his nodding head turns to a shaking one.

“No, wait, I don’t see. What’s chewing gum have to do with it?”

Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.

“A lady is like a lovely stick of chewing gum,” Miriam parrots. “Sweet and unblemished, but if you’re not careful, every lad around will take a taste.”

“But no decent man,” I continue, mimicking a crotchety old sod, “will want to put a used stick of gum in his mouth.”

Thomas seems to consider the idea seriously.

“That’s a load of bollocks, if I ever heard it. Who said that?”

“The Archbishop of Dingleberry,” I reply. “My father took it straight to heart.”

“Dingleberry, eh? The name sort of says it all, then, doesn’t it?” Thomas winks.

And I laugh out loud.

Miriam does too, then she grabs Thomas’s wrist. “Now, Lenora may not be allowed to dance, but I am. And this song is one of my favorites. Let’s dance, Duke.”

Thomas seems surprised. “Well, all right.”

And Miriam drags him off to the dance floor.

Two dances later, they come back.

“We’ve concocted a plan!” my sister whisper-yells.

Oh no.

I’m already shaking my head. “The last time you had a plan, I ended up sitting next to Stinky Winky at dinner. No thank you, very much.”

Thomas looks back and forth between us.

“Stinky Winky?”

“The Viscount of Winkerton,” Miriam explains.

“The man smells like a pig’s arsehole,” I add.

Thomas chuckles.

“But this is totally different!” Miriam bounces on her toes. “This plan will actually work! I’ll create a distraction—I’m good at those. And you’ll get a chance to dance, Lenora.”

Thomas’s soft green eyes meet mine. “Everyone should get to dance on their birthday—chewing gum be damned.”

Excitement fizzes in my stomach and an unfamiliar wicked smile tugs at my lips.

“I shouldn’t.”

“Which is why it’s fun,” Thomas insists.

“I don’t know . . .”

“Oh, come on!” my tempting serpent of a sister whines. “For God’s sake, live a little.”

I glance around the room, searching for the prying eyes that always follow me, then I take a quick breath and nod. “All right.”

“Brilliant!” Miriam claps her hands, then looks at Thomas. “Wait for the signal.”

She rushes off to my father, pulling the King out to the dance floor. The bulbs of the palace photographer’s cameras flash, and you can practically hear the whole room sigh with the preciousness of watching the King of Wessco dance with his youngest daughter.

Thomas stands beside me, staring straight ahead, his hand just inches from mine. “Wait for it . . . wait . . .”

“Oh no!” Miriam screeches, and if all eyes weren’t on her and my father before, they are now.

“Now!” Thomas whispers, grabbing my hand and rushing us through the door behind us, as Miriam carries on about losing her beloved sapphire earring that was a gift from the King of Bermuda.

The room Thomas and I dive into is the mauve and gold drawing room, which was used in the corset days for all the fainting ladies who dropped like flies. But tonight it’s empty.

Thomas peeks through the crack in the door, listening—and after a moment he smiles. “The coast is clear.”

For most people, this would be a small, silly thing. But I’m not most people.

I’ve never disobeyed my father—I’ve never disobeyed anyone.

And I feel . . . alive. Maybe the most alive I’ve ever felt.

The beautiful music comes clearly through the walls—a fun, fast jig of a tune.

Thomas straightens his tuxedo jacket and his glasses. Then he bows, holding out his hand. “May I have the honor of this dance, Princess Lenora?”

And for the first time, to someone who is not my father or a direct relation, I reply, “I would be delighted.”

Thomas clasps our right hands together, squaring our arms, and rests his other hand on my waist. And beneath the dim, golden chandelier, we dance. We skip and spin, twirl and shuffle. We almost fall once, and Thomas steps on my toes . . . more than once.




“My fault—won’t happen again.”

By the time the song ends, my head feels light and my heart races. Not in a swoony, romantic kind of way, but sillier—sweeter—how it would feel to dance with a dear brother. “You’re not very good at dancing, Thomas.”

He grins, wheezing. “Yes, I probably should’ve warned you. But I figured bad dancing was better than no dancing.”

He reaches into his pocket and removes a small metal device that he puts in his mouth and breathes on deeply. I’ve read about them—a new way of administering inhalant medicine.

He lets out his breath slowly, then shrugs, explaining, “Asthma.”

I nod as he slides the device back in his pocket. And when a new song begins, Thomas lifts his eyebrows. “Want to go again?”

I nod and put my hand back in his.

But we’ve only taken a few steps when a sharp scream comes from the outer room. And the music cuts off. And a still, eerie silence covers us like a blanket.

Thomas and I look at each other, and then we run for the door.

The guests are clustered on the dance floor. I push my way to the center and there, on the floor, my father cradles Mother in his arms.

“Anna, Anna!”

She doesn’t answer.

Her eyes are closed and her face is still and a trickle of red-black blood seeps from her nose.

“Anna . . .”

Miriam is curling into me, hiding her face against my arm. There’s a rush in my ears, a whole ocean crashing against my brain. And it’s as though I’m leaning over the edge of a cliff, about to plunge into the jaws of the dark, bottomless sea.

But then, from the other side, there’s a hand on my shoulder—warm and strong.

I tear my eyes from my parents and Thomas’s soft green gaze catches me. He holds on tighter—tethering me, anchoring me, letting me know I’m not alone, that he’s there.

And he won’t let me fall.


Such sad words. Terrible words—the most awful words I ever heard.

“Your mother has died.”