Eleanor sat by the window with her spell book laid out on the table. She pulled it closer to make out a difficult word. She’d written her own notes all over this page, and sometimes her tiny script obscured the original. She sighed and sat back, closing the book. Ford’s Magical Accomplishments for Young Ladies. The title was faded, and the leather of the cover was scuffed and worn. This copy had been Mama’s when she was young. Indeed, some of the notes in the margins were in Mama’s flowing handwriting. Mama had insisted that they practice all the usual accomplishments—singing, dancing, drawing, playing the pianoforte, and magic—but with an emphasis on magic. Eleanor didn’t mind at all; magic was her favorite. She knew nearly all of Ford’s book by heart, including the extra notes.
“Eleanor, dear, what new accomplishment are you practicing? You’ve been squinting again.”
Eleanor blinked up at her aunt. “I’m sorry, Aunt. Some of the spells are hard to make out.”
“Was your squinting worthwhile?”
Eleanor smiled. She reached over to the candelabra on the table and touched the wick of each candle, concentrating on the spell-word as she did. They flamed to life, one after another.
“I’m hoping to learn to light them without touching them,” Eleanor sighed.
“You will,” Anne said. “But that was well done—you haven’t needed to whisper the words in ages.”
Silence was a sign of skill, Mama had told them. It was accepted that young ladies would speak their spells, as part of the performance, but magicians trained at Oxford or Cambridge were expected not to. It was one of the many double standards within English magic. Illusions and small parlor tricks were the purview of high-born young ladies; discussions of magical theory and executing spells of power were restricted to university-educated men. And for the poor, access to spells or magical training was near nonexistent.
The unfairness of it rankled Eleanor. But she made the most of her training, and like Mama, she never spoke her spells.
“I hadn’t noticed how dark it was getting until you lit the candles,” Aunt Everley said. “Ring for tea, Anne, and then we must dress. Thank goodness your new gowns arrived from the modiste today.”
“I still fail to see why a lack of new dresses ought to keep us from entering London society at Lady Sterling’s ball,” Eleanor said. “The gowns we brought with us from home are perfectly elegant.”
“Oh, Eleanor, we’ve been over this,” Aunt Everley said. “You’re being presented to the ton. You need to look your best. First impressions are everything.”
Sophie wrinkled her nose. “I agree with Eleanor. I just want to go to the ball and dance.” She executed a little twirl in the center of the room, her light brown hair coming half loose from its pins and wisping around her face.
“Yes, well, you’re young enough that dancing is all you need to care about.” Anne went to the table to clear space for the tea tray that she accepted from the maid who appeared promptly at the parlor door. “You could have a second, or even a third, Season if you wanted to.”
“And whose choice was it to wait until you were one-and-twenty?” Aunt Everley said pointedly.
Anne pursed her lips.
Eleanor spoke up. “We all agreed together to come out at the same time. One-and-twenty isn’t so very old.”
“It is for a debut Season,” Aunt Everley said firmly. “Even Sophie could have come out two years ago.”
“Eighteen is plenty young enough to be finding a husband,” Eleanor protested. “Besides, now that peace has finally come, all the officers are home, with money and time and no one to share them with.”
Sophie laughed. “And some of them with titles to inherit.”
“But I wish, Anne, that you wouldn’t get so worried about making a good match. I’m sure it will all work out.” Eleanor stepped over and planted a kiss on the top of her elder sister’s dark blonde head.
“It’s not just about making a match,” Anne murmured, pouring tea. “If all I wanted was a husband, Aunt Everley and Papa could have one arranged before the Season’s half over. I want—”
“Passion and romance,” Sophie declared dreamily, plopping into her seat.
“Don’t interrupt,” Anne chided, smiling as she handed Sophie a cup. “I’d be happy with friendship and compatibility. Passion may not last, but friendship would set us up well for life.”
Sophie made a face. “I won’t settle for less than being swept off my feet.”
Aunt Everley tutted. “Love matches are all well and good, but it’s possible to have a happy marriage even when it’s arranged for other reasons. Your uncle and I did just fine together.”
Eleanor spoke up to prevent Sophie from arguing with their aunt. “I want what Mama and Papa had,” she said softly. “I want respect and admiration.”
“And adoration.” Anne smiled. “They worshipped each other.”
Aunt Everley’s expression softened. “They did. Your mother made your father a better man, and he was a good one to begin with.” She looked at the three of them and heaved a sigh. “Well, I hope you all find what you’re looking for, but I also hope you’ll keep your heads about you.”
“We will,” the girls assured her together.
“None of us are in a rush,” Eleanor added.
“Except Anne,” muttered Sophie.
“Well, I’m three years older than you.”
“You’re the best of us at conversing with strangers, and you’re lovely,” Eleanor said, half teasing. “The ton will be so enamored by you that they won’t even notice Sophie or me.”
“Sophie has the best figure.” Anne waved off the teasing. “And you, Eleanor, look like a Greek goddess just stepped off your pedestal in that new white silk.”
“I always saw us as three Muses,” Sophie said. “Alike, but different. If one of us does well, I’m sure the others will too.”
Eleanor grinned at her younger sister’s romantic view. At age nine, Sophie had sweet-talked their father into teaching her to read Greek. Since then she’d spent all her free hours reading Greek poetry in the shade by the stream, or else dancing through wildflower meadows in bare feet. Perhaps Anne wasn’t entirely wrong in suggesting that Sophie could do with an extra Season or two before settling down to running her own home.
Eleanor took a sip of her tea, but her stomach was a nervous tangle over their evening plans. You’re being ridiculous, she told herself. It’s just another ball. Balls were nothing new; Father hosted at least one every summer at Fairfield Hall, and all three girls were excellent dancers. But this was the beau monde, and every single person there would be assessing the new arrivals, judging their worth as friends, rivals, or potential matches.
“When we saw Lady York at the milliner’s the other day, what was she saying, aunt?” Anne asked. “Something about Almack’s?”
“She suggested that Almack’s was the best place for you to appear first,” Aunt Everley said dismissively. “There are merits—whoever the patronesses approve are set up well for the Season—but Almack’s is rather intimidating for a first foray into Society. Lady Sterling’s ball will be more prestigious and more elegant, and I dare say Lady Cowper and Lady Castelreagh will be there anyway. They are all quite good friends.”
“And we’ve met Lady Sterling,” Sophie said. “She’s not as terrifying as I expected a countess to be.”
Eleanor grinned. “That’s probably because she likes Aunt Everley.”
“She likes you girls too,” Aunt Everley said. “In all, she’s an excellent person to know on your introduction to Society.”
When they’d finished tea, they retired upstairs to dress for the ball. Eleanor shrugged out of her day dress and lay it on her bed before slipping into her new white silk. She put on her matching slippers and joined her sisters in Anne’s room, which was the largest and had the best light. They helped each other with ribbons and flowers and took turns in front of Anne’s mirror. They had done this a hundred times before, but tonight there was a buzz of excitement in the room that was entirely new.
“Sit still,” Anne told Sophie, who was fidgeting in the chair so much that the hairpins and carnations were going in crooked. Once the pins were in, Anne took the loose, light brown hair that framed Sophie’s face and wrapped it around her index finger, breathed a spell-word, and released the hair, now a perfect curl. She repeated the process until Sophie’s face was framed by six perfect ringlets, which somehow made her blue eyes look bigger. Then Anne rested her hand lightly on the top of Sophie’s head and whispered another word. She dropped her hand with a sigh. “Good. It will stay up all night, no matter how energetically you dance.”
Eleanor, who had been watching them in the mirror, caught Anne’s eye and winked. She looked back at her own reflection and bit her lip as she twisted her darker brown hair tighter and adjusted the pins. She and Anne always curled their hair by magic, but they never needed the spell to keep the rest of it in place.
When they were all ready, they stood for a moment together in the gathering dark in Anne’s room. Anne and Eleanor were of a height, not tall but not petite, and willowy. Sophie was a few inches shorter with light, girlish curves.
“It will be fine,” Eleanor said, as much to reassure herself as her older sister.
“Better than fine,” Sophie added. “It’s not dancing with her, but it’s still dancing.”
A moment later, they were informed that the carriage was at the door. They bundled themselves up in furs and capes and joined their father and aunt to climb into the carriage. Lady Sterling’s residence was not far, and despite the press of traffic, they were pulling to a stop before Eleanor even felt like she’d settled into her seat.
They’d visited Lady Sterling before, so the house itself wasn’t overwhelming, but they’d never seen her ballroom. It was already crowded when they entered. Eleanor swallowed back a gasp. There had to be a hundred couples here, nearly double the number that attended their most popular balls at Fairfield Hall. And the room itself, with marble floors and pale wallpaper and gold trim, was nearly large enough to hold them all.
Lady Elizabeth Cole, Countess of Sterling, greeted them at the door. Father bowed; Aunt Everley curtsied, and Eleanor and her sisters followed suit.
“Sir William Maybury, Lady Everley, welcome,” Lady Sterling said, extending a hand to each of them. “Miss Maybury, Miss Eleanor, and Miss Sophie, so good to see you here.”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Anne said. “We’ve been so looking forward to it.”
“As have I, to be sure,” Lady Sterling said. “Please allow me to introduce my son, George Cole.”
The young man at her side had curling red-gold hair like his mother’s and freckles across his nose. His coat was a dark turquoise that brightened his blue eyes. He bowed and smiled brightly at Anne. “Would you honor me with the first set, Miss Maybury?”
Anne accepted graciously.
Lady Sterling was barely attending. “Where is…” She looked around. “James, dear—oh, there you are.” Another young man had appeared beside the first. His appearance was entirely different: tall, dark hair, dark eyes, an aquiline nose. His expression was serious but for a slight quirk at the corner of his mouth. His own impeccably tailored coat was a somber dark blue over a burgundy waistcoat. “May I also introduce my cousin, Mr. James Weston, magician to the Royal Navy.”
Mr. Weston bowed. Eleanor curtsied with the rest, and as she rose, she just caught a significant look that passed to Mr. Weston from Lady Sterling. His mouth quirked a bit more.
The music was starting up as he said, “Miss Eleanor, may I have the first set?”
Eleanor nodded and took his arm, following Mr. Cole and her sister. Once out of earshot of Aunt Everley, she said, “You needn’t ask me if you’re not inclined to dance. I won’t be offended.”
Mr. Weston looked at her, surprised. His mouth quirked again. “I confess, Miss Maybury, that I’m rarely inclined to dance. I am not the most graceful dancer, and I’d hate for you to form a first impression of me based on it.”
Eleanor opened her mouth to speak, but he forestalled her.
“I have, however, promised Lady Sterling that I would dance at least once tonight, and you’re as lovely a partner as a man could ask for.”
Eleanor blushed. “Are you hoping flattery will gain you a better first impression?”
“It can hardly hurt.”
They joined the dance. Eleanor did not think Mr. Weston nearly as ungraceful as he had suggested, but she couldn’t help noticing that he moved with a slight limp. As the dance brought them close to each other again, Mr. Weston asked, “Have you but lately come to town?”
“We’ve been here these two weeks, but this is the first ball we’ve attended.”
“And is it your first visit to London?”
“We stayed with my aunt at Christmas once or twice when I was young.”
“Which might as well mean yes,” Mr. Weston said. “How much have you seen since your arrival?”
“Can one see anything in all this smoke and fog?” Eleanor said. “I don’t remember London being so dirty.” They parted for a moment before coming back together. “But, of course, that’s not what you meant. We’ve been to one play—The Tempest—and spent nearly all the rest of the time at the modiste’s getting fitted up for the Season.”
“Ah,” Mr. Weston said knowingly. “New clothes are always the first priority on entering town. I myself always need a new coat or cravat to feel properly ready to face Society.”
The set ended. As they left the floor, Eleanor said, “You misled me, Mr. Weston. You were no more awkward than any other dancer. It is only too crowded for anyone to appear at their best.”
“I am sure that is not true of you, Miss Eleanor,” Mr. Weston said gallantly. “But believe that, by all means.”
He escorted Eleanor back to Aunt Everley, bowed, and disappeared back into the crowd. Eleanor could see Sophie changing partners, and Anne was talking with a young lady at the edge of the dance floor.
“He seems a charming young man,” Aunt Everley said, looking after Mr. Weston. “Lady Sterling told me that he’s six- or seven-and-twenty, and he has no family, so she’s half adopted him. He has an estate in Hertfordshire worth upwards of three thousand pounds a year and has spent the last seven years at sea serving as a magician aboard the—oh, what ship did she say?”
They were interrupted by an acquaintance, and introduction followed introduction for the rest of the set, as Aunt Everley was acquainted with at least half the room. Eleanor soon tired of curtsying every few minutes, but it ended with her being engaged for the next four sets. Her sisters were engaged as well, and they passed each other in the dance. The lively country dances put Eleanor more at ease than anything else in that grand, crowded ballroom could do. Her final partner escorted her to the refreshments, where she met Anne, and he left them drinking punch together.
After a moment, Eleanor said, “I told you it would be fine.”
At home, Anne might have made a face or rolled her eyes, but not in Lady Sterling’s ballroom. She merely smiled, eyes sparkling, and sipped her drink.
“It would be if it were not so stifling in here.”
Eleanor took her sister’s hand and led her through the crowd to the nearest window. It was closed against the chill of a March evening, but Eleanor lifted the sash a few inches.
“Now it’s fine,” she said.
Eleanor whirled around. If her glass hadn’t been almost empty, she would have spilled it over Anne. Her cheeks glowed.
“Forgive me for startling you,” Mr. Weston said, mouth twitching. “May I have the next set?”
“I thought you only promised Lady Sterling to dance once,” she blurted before she collected herself. Anne stepped on her foot. She blushed brighter.
“At least once,” he corrected. “And as you didn’t seem to mind my dancing before, I thought perhaps you would tolerate it again. Unless, of course, you were telling a kind falsehood earlier.”
“No, not at all,” Eleanor said quickly. “I’d be happy to dance. You simply caught me by surprise.”
“And in the heinous act of opening a window, no less.” His mock solemnity was too much. Eleanor giggled. Anne reached over and took the punch glass from her hand, and Eleanor took Mr. Weston’s arm to join the dance again.
Mr. James Weston called on George Cole and his mother late the following morning. Lady Sterling had told him never to stand on ceremony and to treat their home as his own, but this morning he waited until well past the beginning of visiting hours. The ball had gone late the previous night, and Lady Sterling had had to farewell all of her many guests. It was only to be expected that she would sleep in and breakfast late. James had been up and pacing his own rooms for hours. He hadn’t attended many balls since returning to England, and he could never remember feeling so alive the next morning. He intended to convince George to go with him to the club: a little fencing match was just what he needed.
He was ushered into the drawing room. George lounged in a chair, hiding his yawn behind a book. Lady Sterling looked as elegant and unfatigued as ever. James greeted them both and sat in a chair near his friend, but, as so many times already this morning, the memory of Miss Eleanor Maybury’s giggle brought him back to his feet to walk about the room.
“You’re limping more than usual,” George said bluntly, watching him.
“I’m not in the habit of dancing,” James said.
“No indeed,” Lady Sterling agreed. “You’ve been at sea too long and have forgotten a good many things.”
“I haven’t forgotten how to dance,” James protested.
“No, dear,” said Lady Sterling. “But when you promised me to dance at least once, you were supposed to dance with more than one young lady, not twice with the same one.”
James colored and began another lap around the room.
“Well then, mother,” George said. “Weston won’t ask it, so I will. What do you know of the Mayburys?”
“Sir William Maybury is a well-respected baronet,” she said. “His sister, Dowager Lady Everley, was married to the late Lord Everley of Sussex, and Sir William’s son Charles inherited his uncle’s title. Sir William’s own wife passed away several years ago, and his daughters have been managing his home ever since.”
“And this is their first Season?” George asked.
“Yes. Lady Everley wanted to bring Miss Maybury to town years ago, but first it was too soon after her mother’s death, and then she refused to come without her sisters.”
“Indeed. I understand that they were also waiting for their youngest brother to be old enough for school.”
James listened to the conversation attentively as he paced the room. The closeness of the sisters was charming, and he saw nothing wrong with them waiting to come out until their youngest brother was out of their care.
“And what are their accomplishments?” George asked, giving James a look that said he really ought to begin asking questions himself if he wanted to hear the answers so badly.
“Playing, singing, magic, and French,” Lady Sterling said. “Miss Sophie also reads Greek.”
“Magic?” James asked, joining the conversation for the first time.
“Particularly Miss Eleanor, I believe,” Lady Sterling said. “Which adds to her other charms, don’t you think?” She raised a delicately arched eyebrow.
“I hardly think so.” George scratched his freckled nose. “So many young ladies can do magic; it’s as common as playing the pianoforte.”
“Quite,” his mother said, amused. “Now, James, dear, did you come see us because you were bored at home, or did you have another purpose beyond not asking me about Miss Eleanor Maybury?”
“Do I need a reason to visit you, madam?”
“Of course not, dear.” She looked at him expectantly.
“As it happens, I am intending to go to the club, and I thought to force Cole, here, to come with me.”
“Excellent.” Lady Sterling smiled. “Off with you both. I have letters to attend to.”
George sighed and set his book on the table. James grinned at him.
“You owe me a drink after all this,” George muttered as they climbed into the carriage that would take them to Pall Mall.
“Naturally,” James agreed.
George yawned ostentatiously the whole way to the club. James ignored him. They didn’t speak until they had retrieved their fencing gear and were removing their coats and waistcoats.
“All right, Weston, out with it already,” George burst. “You like her.”
James felt a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, but he continued to methodically untie his cravat. “She’s interesting,” he said finally. “Surprising. Not like all the insipid beauties who can’t think for themselves.”
“You mean half the ton.”
“Indeed. And her eyes. They’re stormy gray but with flecks of silver that put me in mind of… waterfalls.” He frowned down at his hands.
George chuckled. “It’s a bit soon to be writing her poetry, isn’t it?”
James threw a mask at him, which George only just caught.
“If you like her so much,” George grumbled, “why aren’t you in her drawing room right now instead of bothering me?”
“Because I don’t want her to associate me with the overeager puppies who will be fawning on them today,” James said. “And with three young ladies making their debut at once, they’re sure to have an abundance of visitors. I wouldn’t even get a chance to talk to her.”
George frowned at him. “You’ve put more thought into this than I ever have.”
“I’ve been up since dawn.” James pulled his mask over his face. “I’ve had time to think.”
George shook his head and pulled his own mask on. “Well, it’s a long season. I expect you’ll see her often enough to get your fill of those waterfall eyes.”
James wished he hadn’t said anything. He raised his foil and determined to show his friend no mercy.
It was a good thing Aunt Everley’s drawing room was so large, Eleanor thought as more and more callers arrived. Aunt Everley had warned them that the first morning after their entrance to Society would be like this, but Eleanor hadn’t quite believed her. But seeing eight young men in the drawing room at once, most of whom had brought flowers and all of whom were trying to solicit the attention of one of the sisters, proved that her aunt knew what she was talking about.
Half of the gentlemen were unabashedly there to see Anne. Sophie had one particular admirer, and so did Eleanor, and two others seemed eager to make themselves agreeable to everyone. Eleanor couldn’t figure out why they would come calling if they couldn’t even decide which sister they preferred, but it was helpful that some of the gathering were willing to make conversation with whoever was next to them. One of Anne’s admirers, disgruntled at being so far from where she was seated, kept leaning around the gentleman beside him and trying to join her conversation, though he couldn’t hear half of what was being said. Eleanor bit her lip once or twice to keep from laughing, and sobered quickly at a look from Aunt Everley. She wouldn’t discourage any of Anne’s suitors, however ridiculous.
It was an exhausting morning, and by the time the last gentleman took his leave and Aunt Everley told Harvey, the head footman, to have tea sent up and admit no more visitors, Eleanor had had enough of polite, disinterested conversation for a month. She leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, and found herself the slightest bit disappointed. It had been a most successful morning, evidencing a most successful entrance into Society, according to Aunt Everley. But Eleanor had rather hoped that Mr. Weston would call that morning. He had danced with her twice, after all. But then, he had been dancing out of obligation, and that she was his choice to fulfill that obligation meant nothing. Still, he had been interesting, and he was a magician, and she would have liked to talk to him again. Not that they would have been able to talk about more than the weather and last night’s ball in a gathering such as this morning’s had been. Eleanor sighed and sat up to take tea with the family, putting her disappointment behind her.