Meanwhile, Cora and her father were seated with other merchants, far from the Lady and her honored guests. That didn't mean appearances had no merit.
Cora dipped her spoon in the soup, raised broth to her lips, and tasted nothing. She listened for his voice, and caught a word or two. She kept her eyes down cast, and said nothing.
The courses passed her by. Eating felt like an act. She pretended to eat, when really she listened. She pretended to converse, only when spoken to. She would make her father proud that she tried. She did her best, then, to ignore John. She concentrated on eating, and the act grew painful.
Father spoke with Barry, who owned the shipyards to the east. It seemed they were haggling about something. Cora was glad it distracted her father. She no longer felt like pretending she enjoyed these outings.
A servant set a glass before her. She could not imagine eating another bite, so she stared at the pudding. She contemplated dessert as the others scraped their dishes clean. Laughter and conversation made it seem to Cora that everyone else was done. She still could not seem to lift her dessert spoon. Lady Emmaline stood. “My daughters and I would like to thank all our friends and guests for observing Vera's birthday. If you would now join us in dance...”
On top of this meal??? Cora thought.
She did not look up, not even as laughter seemed to grow further away. The others left for the ballroom. Cora decided the pudding matter. She stood, and about bumped into John.
“What are you doing here?” he said by way of greeting.
Cora reddened. “I was invited.”
“We're alone, no need to whisper. But we'll be expected in the ballroom soon.”
“I wasn't going to say anything,” she said. Cora was mildly annoyed that she could not seem to raise her voice above a hiss. “You didn't have to approach to me.”
“Hardly. What am I to know of it? I only met you that once--”
“But I knew who you were. I did nothing with the knowledge.”
“It wouldn't look good for either of us.”
“There is that.” Cora noticed how close John stood. It was precisely like the other day, when the guard had chased them. The ban on spell-casting had been city-wide. The guards had been out in force, and they knew precisely where to look.
Apparently, while John and Cora hadn't known of each other before that day, they had been doing precisely the same thing. Mind, they were at opposite sides of the city, and hadn't known of each other. The guards, by chance, had chased both to the center of the city.
“This is a far better place to meet someone than an alley.”
John chuckled. He tucked her hand through his arm. “You are here to dance, yes?”
“According to my father, I'm here to seek a husband.”
“But not to you?” He led Cora to the ballroom.
She couldn't drag her feet if she wanted. She couldn't protest. She was trapped.
Together they passed through the archway into the ballroom. John took her hands and spun her onto the dance floor. He skirt spun about her ankles. She knew she would trip. She would stumble over her feet. She would fall on her face.
It was then she saw that everyone watched them.
“You aren't the only one leading two lives,” he said
“I don't want either,” she returned.
“Well, now we're in it together. You have my secret, and I yours. No going back.”
“Fine.” Cora forced a smile. Everyone would expect a merchant girl to be pleased to be dancing with a lord.
“At least, you provide an out for me,” he said.
Cora decided he was a better actor than she was an actress. His doting smile almost seemed real. He leaned down, so that his breath tickled her neck. “I'm going to call on you, Mistress Cora.”
She was ashamed at the sudden weakness that made her miss a step. She could feel his smile against her cheek.
“I take it you won't mind?”
“I'll mind,” she forced out. The words had more bite in her thoughts. They had fallen off her lips to gently.
When the music stopped, he kissed her hand. His lips lingered long enough to give her butterflies and inspire the beginning of evening chatter.