"Where have you been?" My aunt's accusing voice startled me and I missed my foothold on the balcony. I plummeted downward, saved only by my grip on the railing. Somewhere, mixed in with the distant strains of a waltz, I heard the sound of my dress ripping.
Strength surged through my body, brought on by the fear of falling and the fear of my aunt, and it pushed heartbreak from my mind. I swung my legs, caught the edge of the balcony again, and pulled myself to safety.
My aunt stood in front of me, her anger evident even under that smooth facade. "You told the butler that you were coming up here to your room because you had a headache."
That was true. And it was the sort of headache best remedied by climbing down from my balcony and running to meet Ian. But I had a feeling it would not be helpful to say that out loud.
"You are a disgrace, Ingrid Deschamps!" From the look on my aunt's face, there were much stronger words she wanted to use. But her own high society upbringing forbade it. "My sister was a fool for running away with your father. Not only did she nearly shame the whole family, but she produced a mixed blood offspring. It makes my task nearly impossible." Her eyes darkened, and an involuntary shiver ran through me. "But my parents were too soft with her. I will not make the same mistake with you. You WILL carry yourself worthy of the Deschamps name."
I thought of the masks Ian had described. Never did I loathe my polished facade more than I did now.
My aunt smiled at me, but the smile carried no warmth. "I am not too proud to admit when I need assistance. Which is why you will be going to Dame Caramount's tomorrow. She will take you under her wing to provide your finishing touches."
I gasped. "She hates me with a passion. And she is the most scheming, shallow person I have ever met. Why would you send me to her?"
"She is one of the finest women of our society. There isn't a single ball of any consequence that she is not invited to attend. She has the most illustrious connections imaginable." My aunt cast her gaze over me, and scorn for me flashed in her eyes. "She is who I wish you to emulate, Ingrid, and she is a harsh enough woman to bring about the change in you."
"I would rather die." I could feel the passion flushing red in my face. "And who cares about your society and consequence?! There's no value in any of it!"
My aunt's eyebrows raised into a peak and something akin to a smirk curled the corners of her lips. "Take a deep breath, my dear, and change your gown. You will spend the rest of the evening by my side, headache or not. Do you understand me?"
Yes, I understood her. But I understood me, too. And there was no way I would fit into the sparkling mold my aunt had planned. I would run away.
I ducked into my dressing room and selected a shimmering pink gown. My aunt would be pleased with this one. It would keep her from seeing the plan forming in my mind.
Adventure, here I come. There is nothing holding me back.
And Ian needs me.