Today's Reading

It would be crass, under so many searching eyes, to rush to his side. She had to let him come to her. As she paused to exchange greetings with an older couple, he turned slowly toward her.

That dark hair, those aquiline features, that easy smile...were attached by an arm to a dark-haired woman in a pale yellow gown. She was a sloe-eyed beauty with olive skin and a demure smile that seemed oddly knowing. As the pair turned, his gaze swept across the ballroom and passed over Sarah without the slightest glint of recognition.

She stood with leaden limbs and a racing heart as one of the earl's boisterous dark-haired companions pointed to her and asked the earl something. He turned with a half smile and replied in Italian before escorting the woman on his arm across the ballroom toward her.

"There you are," he said a bit too loudly, before speaking in what she recognized as Italian to his voluptuous companion. "Mi amore, vi presento Signorina Sarah Bumgarten." The woman said something in a dry tone that sounded like "Sono, in effetti, incantata" to her, which might have meant either "enchanted" or "eat grass, you cow" in her language. He nodded before turning to Sarah. "My dear girl, I would have you meet Signorina Ava Marie Lombardi, of Florence...soon to be my countess."

Words—always her obliging servants—utterly failed her.

She looked between them and forced a brittle smile, hoping to hide the fact that her heart was shattering into a million pieces. She managed a sociable lie about the pleasure of making the woman's acquaintance, and watched helplessly as Terrence's Italian bride turned to him and said something that set the Italians around them smirking. She caught two words that were appallingly similar in English: dollaro and principessa.

She backed a step and brought her hands up defensively—realizing too late that they held the gift she had brought.

"Ahhh." The Lombardi creature pounced on that mistake with icy amusement, focusing on that pretty blue paper and brilliant yellow bow. "E così per lui? Eri una bambina tanto dolce."

Bambina. She had read enough of Dante and other Italian classics to know she had just been called a child. When she looked up in disbelief and caught Terrence's gaze, he quickly looked away. He might be uncomfortable, but he clearly did not value her enough to intervene in such rude and degrading treatment.

She glanced away, only to find a quarter of the ballroom watching that unthinkable exchange. Standing at the front of the onlookers was her mother, and the horror on Elizabeth's face jolted her wits back into action.

"I believe you have mistaken me for someone else," she said, throwing the gift on the floor near his feet and hearing the satisfying tinkle of breaking glass. "I am not now, nor have I ever been a 'sweet child.' And it appears that I have mistaken you, sir"—she looked at the earl through a prism of hot tears—"for a gentleman of character and worth."

She turned on her heel and strode for the door, spine straight and head held high, ignoring the slither of gossip trailing her through the crowd.

Moments later, as she donned her wrap near the front doors, her mother came rushing down the stairs from the ballroom to pull her aside.

"What did that beast say to you?" she demanded.

"Nothing I shouldn't have seen coming," she answered bitterly.

"Where are you going? You cannot run from this, Sarah. You must stay and hold your head up and brave it through. The Richardsons are here and the Spencers. They will see us through."

She pulled the hood of her cloak up over her hair and looked around the grand entry hall, watching the faces of the people staring at them while pretending not to stare.

"I don't want to be seen through. I don't want to have to bow and scrape and pretend I give a flying fig about these awful people. They think I'm odd and eccentric because I read so many books and help stray animals and study medicine. Well, they can all bloody well die on the privy, for all I care."

As she turned to the door, her mother grabbed her wrist and held her until Sarah turned a scalding look on her. She loosened her grip and then, reading the pain and fury in her daughter's gaze, released her.

"Wait, I'll get my cloak—"

"No. You stay and gut it out with the Spencers and Richardsons." Banked tears finally slipped down her cheeks. "You'll want a life here after I've gone."

"Gone? What are you talking about? Where are you going?"

"Anywhere"—Sarah forced the words past the constriction in her throat—"but London."

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