Temporary Paradise

 * * *

She descended the stairway dressed to perfection. Her gown floated around her, hair sparkling with jeweled pins. Around her throat was a diaphanous silk scarf, helping to fill the gap created by her plunging neckline. She smiled as she walked, careful not to interrupt the gripping conversation going on between her father and Lord Retford but hoping, nonetheless, that the viscount might notice the arrival of his intended.

He did not.

Sophia went down a few more stairs, stepping a bit harder than she normally would, thinking that the click of her heel might distract them. Nothing. Still more stairs. She was nearly down them all and could catch snatches of their conversation.

“ . . . verdant leaves that, when cross pollinated . . . ”

“An exploration expedition, you say?”

“. . . fascinating research.”

She entered the parlor and cleared her throat. Loudly.

At last George looked up. “Sophia,” he said crisply. He crossed the room and took her hand, sweeping a kiss across the back of it that actually almost touched her. “How lovely you look.”

Sophia’s mother had entered as well. “Doesn’t she, my lord? We had so hoped you would find her dress becoming. Sophia specifically selected the color that she thought you would like.”

Sophia groaned, fervently wishing her mother wouldn’t act as though she were invisible. But she decided not to dwell on it and instead focused her attention on George.

“Thank you for the invitation this evening, my lord. I have been looking forward to it a great deal.”

George smiled, transforming his scholarly, serious face into something that could — in a pinch — nearly be described as handsome. “In that case I sincerely hope you will enjoy yourself.” He nodded to the footman who stood nearby to indicate he wanted his cloak. “Let’s be on our way.”

He took Sophia’s arm and escorted her to his coach that awaited them just outside. Sophia’s mother and father would follow behind in their own coach. Lord Retford’s coach, while not as beautifully appointed as that of the Haliday’s, nonetheless had one thing that theirs did not — a coat of arms painted on the door that displayed his status of peer.

As they were on their way Sophia could feel excitement building. Tonight’s event was sure to be well attended and she did so love to dance. Although thus far she and George had never done so, she was secretly hoping that perhaps this evening she might get him out on the floor. She smiled at him as she thought of it, thinking how nice it would be to dance in her intended’s arms, and George smiled back, taking her high humor as an invitation to continue his conversation.

“I was telling your father about my upcoming trip,” he said, turning to face Sophia more directly, “and how I have been able to secure a tour about his grounds with none other than Anders Dahl himself.”

He paused, apparently waiting for some reaction from Sophia. She smiled, stalling for time, her mind racing to figure out who Anders Dahl was. Had she met him? Was he a friend of George’s? A peer? She wrinkled her brow, thinking harder, but nothing came to mind. The name was completely unfamiliar. At last she was forced to admit defeat.

“I am terribly sorry, my lord, but I don’t recall meeting Mr. Dahl. Was it at the opera, perhaps? Or during a walk in the pleasure gardens?”

For a moment George looked at Sophia as if she’d grown two heads, but then dismissed the reaction as quickly as it had appeared and clicked his tongue in reproach. “Anders Dahl is a great Swedish botanist, Sophia. One of the most respected of our day. He published Observationes botanicæ circa Systema vegetabilium divi a Linné, which I have found enormously fascinating when conducting my own research.”

Sophia remembered just in time to keep her mouth from falling open. “Oh. Of course, my lord. Forgive me for not remembering.”

“I shall read a section of it to you. It’s really quite remarkable.”

Sophia looked down and smoothed her skirts, disconcerted by a mild sense of panic that engulfed her. She looked back at George and forced a smile on her lips. “That would be lovely.”

“Tomorrow, then. I will come to say goodbye before my trip and will read you some passages. It will give you something to think about while I’m away.”

She beamed brightly, making certain George knew how much she already looked forward to his thoughtful invitation. They sat in silence for the rest of the short journey, George no doubt ruminating on Dahl’s teachings concerning the care and maintenance of herbariums, and Sophia continuing to wrestle with her growing panic. Minutes later they arrived at the ball.

The assembly building shone like a beacon guiding ships in the night. Elaborate chandeliers, ablaze with candles, were suspended from the ceiling, with dozens more candles mounted to the walls. The floors gleamed with a fresh polish of beeswax, and the air was scented with the perfume of fresh flowers placed in large vases about the room. The laughter and talking of the guests mingled with music from the orchestra who had just struck up a lively gigue as George and Sophia entered the room. It took every ounce of willpower within her not to simply stand and stare, mouth agape, at the astonishing scene before her. The elegance of the room, the lilting strains of the music. And the people! The cream of the crop, all gathered in one room, a tableau vivant of stunning beauty. Sumptuous gowns in every imaginable color swirled before Sophia’s eyes as the wealthy and noble turned about on the polished floor. Silks, satins, and elaborate brocades adorned men and women alike. Topping off their dresses were the women’s ornamented hair, piled high and accented with pins and feathers, fluttering ribbons and breathtaking hats. Soon this insular world would welcome Sophia as its newest member. It was at once both exciting yet daunting, for life as she’d known it for the past one-and- twenty years was about to become an entirely different experience, one that came with a new set of rules and expectations. A small shiver raced the length of her body. How fortunate she was to have George help guide her through the maze of it all.

“What a breathtaking room, my lord. I had not thought there would be so many people.”

Retford glanced around with a bemused expression, as if Sophia’s observation was his first indication that there were others about. “It is rather crowded,” he agreed with a nod, assuming that was what Sophia meant. “These balls do tend to be popular, especially with the weather so fine. Puts people in a celebratory mood, I suppose.”

“The orchestra is wonderful. What talented musicians!”

“Ah . . . yes. I suppose they are. A bit loud, if you ask me, but — ”

“You are so right, my lord.” Sophia’s parents, just joining them, had overheard Lord Retford’s comment and Frances was quick to agree. “It puts a strain on the ears.”

Sophia was surprised at her mother’s comment for she, like her daughter, had always adored music and dance. Was she was subtly demonstrating for Sophia the behavior most appropriate when in the company of nobles? But, really, agreement with their every word? It made no sense whatsoever and Sophia dismissed the idea as pure rubbish. Instead she looked back at George.

“I do so love this piece,” she said, indicating the sarabande that had just begun. “My lord, could we, perhaps, dance? Just this once?”

Retford hesitated, a look of horror etched upon his face, as if desperate to avoid the one thing he loathed most in the world — dancing. Fortunately for him, Sophia’s mother came to his rescue.

“I think Lord Retford might be more interested in continuing the fascinating conversation he and Mr. Haliday were just having about his upcoming journey to Sweden.” She turned and grasped hold of her daughter’s arm. “Sophia and I will take a turn about the room while you gentlemen talk.” Without further ado, Frances guided Sophia away from the men and toward a small refreshment table. Once they were out of earshot, she gently reprimanded her daughter.

“Really, Sophia. What were you thinking? You know Lord Retford does not care for dancing.”

Sophia released a disappointed sigh. “I was only hoping for one.”

“I am afraid that you must discard that hope, dearest. ’Tis not to be.”

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