by Carly Waller
Cecelia Green sat before the crackling fire, alone in the library and reading her favourite novel. There was a ball that evening, but Cecelia was unbothered. The other ladies had picked out their dresses and were now stuck in their rooms, fixing their hair and faces. There had been non-stop chatter all week – who would be there, who would take their first dance and what plans they had to flirt. Cecelia herself has no plans. She was not interested in putting on a show, parading around the dancefloor and attempting to catch a man. She would much rather stay within the warm confines of the library, hidden away and comfortable. Just the thought of putting on a fancy gown that evening set a frown upon her face.
‘What a terrible book you must be reading for it to cause such a reaction,’ a voice said from behind Cecelia.
Cecelia jumped, her book landing on the floor with a thud. It was extremely rude to enter a room without announcing oneself, but Cecelia pushed away her annoyance and stood.
Leaning against the back of the chair stood a woman Cecelia immediately recognised. Lady Alexandra was famous among the court for drinking far more than a lady should, often being loud and outspoken and talking of crude subjects. Cecelia had only ever seen her from afar, never having to interact with her personally.
‘Lady Alexandra,’ Cecelia bowed her head gently. ‘Good afternoon.’
Lady Alexandra smiled slowly. Asalways, she was dressed well; her dark curls piled upon her head and her dress in-season. For someone who could seem so rowdy, Lady Alexandra always looked proper; an image that was often deceiving.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t think I know your name,’ she said, looking Cecelia up and down.
‘Cecelia Green,’ she replied, her heart ticking nervously. What on earth was Lady Alexandra doing here? The library was supposed to be free of all outside drama.
Lady Alexandra’s smile grew, and she laughed faintly. ‘Cece, how cute.’
Cecelia frowned. They were not that familiar, and Lady Alexandra knew it.
‘Oh, come now! Surely us ladies, here in the privacy of the library,’ she whispered ‘library’ as if it were a dirty word, ‘can be friendly!’
Cecelia looked around the room. They were alone – but still. While Cecelia didn’t always fit in with the other girls, she nevertheless attempted propriety.
‘I’ll even allow you to call me Alex.’
Cecelia felt a blush rise to her cheeks. Alex was so…intimate. ‘I-perhaps I will try it out.’
‘Perhaps,’ Alexandra – Alex – said. She made her way around the chair and closer to Cecelia.
Once she was standing before Cecelia, she knelt down, picking up the forgotten book. Cecelia’s fingers itched to take it from Alex’s hands, wanting to hide her passions for fear of embarrassment. Cecelia’s mother often frowned upon her hobbies and wished her to be more sociable.
Alex paid no attention to Cecelia, instead flicking through the pages of the book, her face blank.
‘I’ve read this one,’ Alex said thoughtfully. ‘It did not warrant your frown from earlier.’
Cecelia was momentarily thrown before she remembered Alex’s comment.
‘I was thinking about the dance – not the book.’
Alex closed the book with a snap. ‘Are you going? You don’t look ready at all and the ball is in mere hours.’
Cecelia glanced down at herself. She was wearing a somewhat casual dress, something one would wear to tea but not to a ball. Her hair was loose, strands falling from the ‘do she had not bothered to fix the day before. Cecelia felt like a drab mess compared to Alex and wished again that she had been left alone.
‘Of course I’m going. It would be stranger for me to not appear, than to appear looking less spectacular than the other ladies.’
Alex tapped a finger against her chin. ‘I see I am not the only one with a reputation.’
Cecelia’s heart thumped in her chest. So, Alex knew exactly what others thought of her? Did she care? She wanted to know more about Alex, about the way she lived her life.
‘Why do you-’
‘I will not dull myself down and I will not make myself more pleasing for a man’s eye.’ Alex tossed the book onto the chair, turned from Cecelia, and stared into the fire. ‘Why should I? I do not need to marry for wealth, and I care little for others’ opinions.’
‘Do you not wish for romance?’ Cecelia asked before she could stop herself.
Even Cecelia, who hated the formalities of the balls and the awkward flirting, did wish to one day fall in love. To marry and be happy – wasn’t that something to be desired?
Alex turned back and stepped in close to Cecelia.
‘Of course I do.’ Alex’s eyes searched Cecelia’s. ‘But it is not men from whom I seek romance.’
Cecelia could not help the small ‘oh!’ that escaped her. Suddenly, the comments she had always heard from men made sense. They did not approve of Lady Alexandra and Alex was happy to have it that way.
‘I…don’t know what to say,’ Cecelia whispered.
Alex smiled. It was a gentle smile, so unlike the cruel smirk that Cecelia often spied upon her face at parties.
‘Say you will see me at the ball this evening.’ Alex grasped Cecelia’s hand. ‘Say that perhaps if I asked you to dance, you might agree.’
Cecelia looked down at their hands – to where their bare skin was touching. She felt a strange and unknown warmth in her heart. When she looked up into Alex’s eyes, she could not look away.
‘I will see you at the ball this evening. And if you ask me to dance, perhaps I will say yes.’
Alex gave her hand a squeeze and let go. She turned and left the room with a swish of her dress, leaving Cecelia standing alone in the library. Cecelia stood frozen, searching through all her memories of Lady Alexandra, searching for one in which she had not thought of her as anything other than beautiful.
Cecelia was glad her mother would not be attending tonight’s ball.
Cecelia had rushed to prepare – now having reason to care about her appearance. A small thought tickled the back of her mind: Alex had seen her looking unkempt already, so what did it really matter? But still, for the first time, Cecelia had paid attention to the dress that had been picked out, to the powders and paints applied to her face and the style of her hair. If people were to stare at her tonight, and they most likely would, she would have to look good.
The ball had already started when Cecelia walked through the doors, guests well into their first dance. Cecelia walked in slowly, taking in the crowd and keeping her eye out for Alex. The room was warm and stuffy – ladies sat on the outskirts of the dance with fans in hand. The room was too large and filled with people for Cecelia to be able to see the other side, to sort through every face.
Cecelia was about to advance forward when she felt a hand on her arm. She was disappointed when she turned around to see that it was not Alex, but Sophia Anderson – one of the more popular ladies. Sophia never had trouble finding a man to dance with.
‘Cecelia, my, you look wonderful this evening!’ Sophia’s blonde curls bobbled around her head. ‘Say, there’s not a special someone you are out to impress, is there?’
Cecelia had to restrain herself from rolling her eyes. Sophia would attempt to gain gossip wherever she could.
‘Yes, it’s something like that.’ Cecelia gave Sophia a sly wink.
Sophia covered her mouth with a gloved hand and squealed. ‘How very exciting! Oh look, there is Jane, I must go and speak with her!’
Cecelia knew very well that Sophia was running off to tell all her friends what Cecelia had just said. Cecelia suppressed a smile at the thought that the juiciest part of the evening was yet to come.
Cecelia’s eyes bounced from face to face as she made her way through the crowd. Alex was usually not this hard to spot. Perhaps earlier…Alex had just been jesting? It wasn’t like she was known for being serious, Cecelia had heard of some cruel jokes. But Cecelia swore she had seen sincerity on Alex’s face.
Cecelia shook her head as though to shake out her thoughts. Cecelia spotted Alex sitting at an empty table in a dim corner. Alex was lent back, one leg propped up on the vacant chair next to her. A smile stretched across Alex’s face as Cecelia made eye contact – Alex must have been watching her. Cecelia bustled over quickly.
‘You look beautiful,’ Alex said, sitting forward in her chair. ‘Although I cannot truthfully say that you looked any less beautiful in the library.’
Cecelia froze, a blush creeping up her cheeks. She could not remember what she was about to say. ‘I-thank you. You don’t seem to have changed?’
Alex’s eyebrows rose. ‘No, I thought this dress would be fine. Besides, I had to get here early to make sure I would witness your entry.’
Although Alex was sitting, Cecelia felt like she was the one being looked down upon and observed. Gathering her courage, Cecelia asked, ‘I thought you had a question for me?’
Alex stood, making her way around the table. ‘Yes, I believe I did.’ She held her hand out. ‘Shall we?’
Cecelia placed her hand in Alex’s and let herself be led to the edge of the dance floor. Cecelia couldn’t help but let her eyes wander. She saw Sophia, mouth open and staring openly at Cecelia and Alex’s joined hands. Alex squeezed Cecelia’s hand and beckoned her into the crowd of dancing couples. Alex slid her arm around Cecelia’s waist and pulled her close – closer than what would usually be appropriate, but Cecelia reasoned that most rules were not relevant in their situation.
‘You get used to everyone’s staring quite quickly, you know,’ Alex said as they danced slowly.
It was easy to forget those standing around them when Cecelia looked into Alex’s eyes.
‘Alex, I don’t think I’ve had such an exciting day in a long time.’ Cecelia swore she saw a flush in Alex’s cheeks when she had said her name. ‘I truly dread these things but I… have felt a connection with you that I have felt with no other. It’s strange.’
‘I understand, and I must admit something to you.’ Alex paused. ‘I did know your name – in fact, I knew you would be in the library and I wanted to speak to you alone. Cecelia, I have seen you at many balls and I have seen your disinterest and boredom, the terrible dresses you wear,’ Cecelia laughed. ‘But you caught my eye and I had been working up the courage to say hello.’
Cecelia was shocked. ‘You? Lady Alexandra being shy? I must say I am honoured.’
Alex rolled her eyes. ‘I have been working up the courage to do something else. Will you follow me?’
Without a glace back, Cecelia allowed herself to be led from the room and down the hall. It seemed that Alex was taking her to the library, but Cecelia could not think why.
‘Are you showing me something? You know I’m in here all the time.’
Alex led her into the library and closed the door behind them. The music that could be heard from the ball immediately ceased.
‘Shh,’ Alex said and turned back to Cecelia, stepping in close.
Cecelia hit the back of the couch, not used to someone being so close to her. Alex did not say a word but lifted her hand to Cecelia’s cheek and cupped it gently. Cecelia’s heart beat wildly in her chest and her face felt hot. There was a question in Alex’s eyes and Cecelia dipped her head, a slight nod.
Alex leaned in and pressed her lips against Cecelia’s. Cecelia squeezed her eyes shut. Alex’s lips were soft against Cecelia’s, and Cecelia couldn’t help but let her mouth part. Her hands crept around Alex’s waist and gripped the fabric of Alex’s dress tightly.
Alex pulled away slowly, her breath lingering over Cecelia’s lips. ‘Do you think they wonder where we’ve gone?’
Cecelia found it hard to gather her thoughts. ‘I can’t say that I care right about now.’
Alex smiled, tracing a finger over Cecelia’s lips. ‘Perhaps I am a bad influence.’
Cecelia gave Alex a quick kiss.