And in his arms, feeling the burning imprint of his hand upon my waist even through the hard shell of my corset, I found not only the joy I had sought earlier but the realization, without a doubt, that I was.
The Corn Exchangenormally a huge, drafty place with soaring ceilings, broad exposed beams, sawdust-covered wood floors had been transformed. Tonight the floors had been scrubbed and polished to a sheen with beeswax; the cavernous walls were hung with velvet maroon drapes, great gilded brackets holding dripping candelabras, and bouquets of flowers tucked into swaths of lace and cord. A very welcome addition was an enormous stack of ice blocks near the back, which did help cool the room from the heat of the candles and the warmth of the dancers.
While my gown was, naturally, one of the most elegant, there was no shortage of finery on display. The young ladies wore gowns of the lightest materialwhispery muslin, delicate lace, rustling tarlatan, gauzy tullein colors of the gayest spring, bustles lower this season, more trailing than bunched; the men were elegantly slim in their close-fitting black trousers, skimming dress coats to match, showing broad expanses of white shirtfront studded with diamonds or gold. Naturally, everyone wore white kid gloves.
The ballroom was a feast for the senses: a rainbow of colors swirling, merging, parting; the beguiling music of the orchestra, the low, mellow instruments keeping time while the melody swirled about courtesy of the violins; the honey-sweet aroma of burning beeswax combined with the hothouse fragrance of a thousand flowers all mixed together. And hovering above it all was the rise and fall of ballroom conversation; teasing, taunting, laughing, occasional serious undertones of earnest lovemaking. I do love balls. I sighed, content to be simply one fair maiden among many tonight.
That is the least profound idea I have ever heard come from your delectable mouth, and I love you for it. Leo laughed indulgently, even paternallyand I allowed him to do so with a bashful, very maidenlike smile.
Am I too serious for you at times? Would you prefer it if I only chatted about gloves and bows and parasols instead of books and art and ideas?
Not at all! Ive spent far too much time in the company of such perfect ladies
So Im not a perfect lady? Arching my back, I pulled slightly away, feigning outrage with a pout.
No, nooh dear! He began to laugh, helplessly, his slim shoulders shaking with mirth. This is one of those conversations which I will never survive. Suffice it to say youre perfect in every way, and I dont want you to change one whit. Theream I forgiven?
I suppose so. I tried very hard not to smile, but I couldnt help it. He looked so appealingly confused, like a small boy; still, when he gazed at me with that sparkle in his eye, I knew I was his equal in every way, and that he admired me for it.
The music came to an end with a violin flourish; the dancers applauded, and Leo bowed while I curtsied. Somehow we had ended up in the center of the ballroom, all eyes upon us, and I decided that, after all, I did not want to be one among many. I wanted to be the sole prize upon the arm of Prince Leopold, admired, studied, envied. Holding my chin high and proud, feeling my cheeks blaze, knowing my eyes sparkled, I rejoiced that I was the talk of the ball. I had known notoriety, of course, but this was different; this was intoxicating, and Im afraid I rather encouraged it by laughing just a little louder than usual, touching Leos arm, as he led me off the dance floor, just a little more often than necessary. Tonight, I did not care who saw me.
Excerpted from Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin Copyright © 2010 by Melanie Benjamin. Excerpted by permission of Random House Audio, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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