Romance Fiction posted February 7, 2010 Chapters:  ...21 22 -23- 24... 

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The Earl of Hampstead's Ball...

A chapter in the book Southern Hospitality

A Bit of A Conundrum, Part 2

by Sissy

Summary: A few years after the Civil War, Adrian travels to Washington to visit her sister, Mary. Borrowing some of her sister's old clothes, Adrian attends a few parties, and catches a couple of suitors. The first, Mr. LaSalle, pursues her all the way back to South Carolina and finds out Adrian runs the family farm and wears trousers. Undeterred, he tries to court her. They admit they have feelings for one another, but she won't leave her family to move to England, and he can't move to the States. He returns home, thinking she will soon be engaged to her other, more suitable suitor, Mr. Moore.
Some months later, Mary receives a letter from Mr. LaSalle's sister, Lucy, saying he is miserable without Adrian, but is engaged and soon to be married. Mary and Adrian travel to London to see if there's hope. Mr. LaSalle treats Adrian coldly, accuses her of being engaged to Mr. Moore, and in the last chapter, she sets him straight.

The patio door snapped shut. I stepped around Jack, who turned toward me. "Stay away from LaSalle, Adrian. He's done nothing but hurt you." He then looked at his wife. "Mary, I believe you didn't orchestrate this, I really do, but please keep in mind that if it gets out that Adrian is the girl LaSalle chased in the States, the gossip will be untenable -- for all of us."

"Oh, I agree, honey." She patted his arm. "Why don't you take Aunt Bella back inside? Adrian and I will be along directly."

He hesitated. "Well, all right." He held out his arm to Bella. "Can I get you some punch?"

"Whew! Some punch? I could use a sip or two of some stronger spirits than that, Jack," she replied as they went back inside.

"Well, that didn't go so well," I said, unable to help my sigh.

"Actually, I believe it did, in some respects. He now knows you are not engaged, and he's going to wonder why the heck you came." She paused. "But his behavior -- so cold and condescending. He fits in here better than I thought he would."

I agreed, telling my sister how I wanted to wipe that sneer off his face.

"Are you all right, Adrian? Really?"

"Yes. Yes, I am fine. I was a bit surprised at first, but I'm fine now. Truth be told, Mary, he made me so mad with those comments about shopping and Mr. Moore, I forgot I was nervous."

We returned to the ballroom and found Jack with Bella at the refreshment table. He surveyed the room, lips compressed into a thin line. He took a sip of what looked to be punch, grimaced, and set the glass down.

Mary took his arm. "Surely there is something else you prefer to drink, honey?"

He nodded, turning his gaze to her. "Why did Miss LaSalle want to talk to Adrian?"

Mary shook her head. "Not here, honey. This is hardly the place."

I dared a glance at my sister; I didn't envy Mary trying to explain to Jack that we'd come here due a letter she'd received from LaSalle's sister. Mary seemed unperturbed, however, and gave me a wink.

Mr. LaSalle kept his distance the rest of the evening. One or two times I could feel his eyes on me, and purposely did not look his way. Jack's warning about gossip scared me silly. If there was one thing I'd learned during my short time here in London, the ton talked about everyone like it was their favorite pastime. Cruel and relentless, the women here made the gossiping biddies back in Charleston look like amateurs.

We left the party at close to two in the morning, and by the time I crawled into bed, it was after three. I pulled the soft sheet and light blanket up to my chin. I'd survived another meeting with Mr. LaSalle, and had defended myself admirably. What did he think? Did he believe me?


At breakfast the next day, Mary and Aunt Bella talked very little about Mr. LaSalle. I don't know if they decided to leave the subject alone to give me some peace, but when I asked Mary if Jack had asked her again about Lucy LaSalle, she shook her head.

"He brought her up, said that he thought she was a nice girl, and didn't say another word. I guess he figures she's too young to really have anything to do with this. He's quite angry over Mr. LaSalle talking to you after he'd asked him to stay away from you. I hope, for his sake, Mr. LaSalle is more discreet if he seeks you out, Adrian. Jack is ready to knock him silly."

"I hope not tonight," Bella said, her expression serene. "It is the Earl of Hampstead's ball. I finagled invitations for all of us. It is the event of the season to attend. I promise you, just seeing the Hampstead's home is worth going for." She looked at me. "I have a special dress for you to wear tonight, my dear. I'm hoping Castleton gets a very good look at you."

I wanted to groan. 'A special dress' implied three hours of primping while being fussed over by Mary's maid, and at least another half hour or more of my hair being tugged every which way.

Mary patted my hand. "Chin up, Adrian. You've dealt with much worse than this."


When we arrived at the Earl of Hampstead's ball that evening, I figured there'd be no way Mr. LaSalle and I could run into one another. I had never seen so many people at one party before, and those invited appeared to be the cream of the crop in society. Once again, I felt like a true lady. Aunt Bella's choice of a beautiful off-white dress with lace trim and Mary's set of pearls made me hold my head high. I even liked the tiny white flowers Mary's maid had incorporated into my hairstyle.

Aunt Bella directed us through the crush, finding a nice spot to stand somewhere near the edge of the dancing area. I looked about; the Hampstead's ballroom took my breath away. I'd never seen such high ceilings with so many enormous chandeliers in all my life. I couldn't even imagine the number of candles that flickered and burned in the eight chandeliers stretching the length of the room. The room was pure white, with gold trim. The floor, patterned with both white and gold marble squares, made me dizzy if I looked at it for any length of time. Life-like, naked cherubs holding bows and arrows floated on the light-blue painted ceiling. Even the clouds looked fluffy and real. How the heck any artist had gotten up there to create the huge fresco was beyond me.

Aunt Bella flitted about, greeting everyone in our vicinity. A few times I noticed her talking with someone and looking my way. I stayed close to Mary and Jack, and Jack introduced me to some acquaintances. Guests continued to pour into the huge room; despite its size and the number of doors open that led outside, the air grew stuffy and a bit stale.

I spotted Miss Dumont coming in an hour after we arrived. She took up a position with a bunch of girls her age not far from where I stood, but didn't seem to notice me -- for that, I was grateful. I looked at the various groups clustered together about the room, talking loudly and laughing, and felt a headache coming on. I hadn't slept well, still unable to get used to the crazy town hours everyone else seemed to keep with ease.

Mary touched my arm. "Sister, Jack and I are going to do the waltz coming up. Will you be all right?"

I promised my sister I would stay close to Aunt Bella and found her talking with a group of women not far from the edge of the dance floor. After all her introductions, Aunt Bella asked if I would mind getting her a glass of punch, so I wandered off toward the refreshment table, glad for something to do. It took me some time to wind through the crowd, and I ended up by a set of the doors leading outside. The cooler air beckoned; I stepped onto the patio, promising myself I'd only stay a moment or two. The dark sky, awash with stars, made me long for home. Suddenly, tears sprang to my eyes and I pressed my hand to my forehead. I hated it here. I couldn't believe how much.

"What are you doing out here, unattended?" Mr. LaSalle asked in that cold voice he seemed to use only in England. I turned, startled. He must've seen something in my face, because his tone seemed slightly less caustic when he said, "Are you all right? Are you sick?"

"No. No, I'm just homesick, I think." I looked away; he studied me with a scrutiny so intense I didn't know how to respond.

"Why are you here?" he asked. "Why did you come?" He stepped closer. I could feel the warmth he radiated, and forced myself not to move toward him. "I don't understand this, Adrian."

I shook my head. I couldn't speak, afraid I'd say something too revealing, or just simply start bawling.

"Did you come to find a rich husband?"

His question felt like a slap; I spun to face him so fast he retreated a step. "Why the heck would I come here to find a rich husband, Mr. LaSalle? Why would I subject myself to the questions about living in the wilderness and speaking 'Indian'? Why would I contend with having my accent ridiculed and my manners examined - I could go to Washington or Philadelphia, or New York, or even back to Charleston -- and face far less hostility -- if I wanted to find a wealthy gentleman to marry." I glanced at the open doors. Had my voice traveled inside?

This is hopeless, Adrian, I told myself, then spoke aloud. "I should go. This is improper, and I need to get back to Jack's aunt."

"Wait." He took my arm and I resented how his touch caused my nerves to jangle. He didn't seem to notice, and pressed on. "First tell me why you came."

"Let go of me, sir," I whispered. "People can see us."

He shook his head. "Tell me first."

I jerked away. "I think you should ask your sister why I came."

"Lucy? What would Lucy...?"

I left him there. If I could've run to the refreshment table, I would've. I grabbed two glasses of punch and made my way back to Bella. She took one look at my face and led me to a quiet corner to find out what was wrong. I told her about running into LaSalle and my headache. When she asked if I wanted to leave, I agreed. She immediately dispatched a footman to call for her carriage. "I will go with you, my dear."

"No -- please. I think you should stay and have a good time. I'll be fine. I'm not sick. I'm just tired, that's all. A good night's sleep will do wonders." I cut her off before she could argue. "Please, Aunt Bella. I would feel awful if I took you away from such a grand party. I promise, I will go right home and right to bed. You can see me into the carriage, if you like."

"Certainly." She relented after a pause, then walked with me to the front doors. When her carriage pulled up, she had a few words with the driver while I climbed in. When the equipage finally rolled off to make its way through the heavy traffic back to Aunt Bella's mansion, I pressed my hands to my eyes. I wanted to go home. Whoever Mr. LaSalle had been in the States, he was completely different here. I didn't like Viscount Castleton one bit, and I didn't want to admit the fierce hurt I felt over his change. Had I been wrong about him all along?

I went immediately to bed upon arriving back at Aunt Bella's, and must've fallen asleep soon after. I awoke when my bedroom door creaked open.

"Adrian," my sister whispered.


"Are you all right?" She came in to sit on the edge of my bed. "Aunt Bella said you had a run-in with LaSalle, and that you had a headache."

"I did. Mary, I just want to go home." I turned to face her. "I don't want to be here anymore. This Mr. LaSalle is not worth staying for."

"I know." She brushed my hair back out of my eyes. "I'm sorry it's gone so badly, Adrian." She fell silent for a bit. "Look, I'll talk to Jack. I overheard his friend, Mr. Mellon, saying he was due to leave for Baltimore sometime very soon. I'll see if Jack will take us home, or allow us to go with the Mellons. How does that sound?"

"Wonderful," I said.

"What did LaSalle say to you, Adrian? May I ask?"

"He asked me if I came to find a rich husband." I sighed. "Mary, it wasn't that. It was how cold he was, how almost . . . cruel he looked. Jaded. I don't know the word. But it wasn't him. He wasn't the person I knew in the States."

"There was some talk about the two of you when we first got to the ball. It seems a few people may have figured out the two of you know each other. He's not very guarded when he looks at you, Adrian, and it is obvious Jack does not care for him." Mary paused. "I guess people saw you talking together this evening, and it caused quite a bit of chatter the rest of the night. I didn't see Mr. LaSalle after we finished dancing, nor could I find Miss LaSalle. What happened, Adrian? Aunt Bella said he found you on the patio."

"I went out there for fresh air. I already had a headache then. He must've followed me or something. We talked, and at one point, he took my arm when I tried to leave, trying to get me to tell him why I came here."

"Goodness. What did you say?"

"I told him to ask his sister. Then I left. I know people saw us. I told him so, but he didn't care."

She continued to stroke my hair. "I promise I'll talk to Jack, and we'll get home soon, Adrian. I'll get the boys and we'll spend some time down at The Pass with you for a bit. Maybe even visit Ella in Charleston for a few days and have a good time. Promise me you won't give up on meeting someone, though. That you won't go back to living like a recluse at The Pass and wearing men's trousers all the time."

"Can I wear them some of the time?"

"Of course." I could hear the smile in her voice.

"Then you have a deal, Mary." I paused, growing serious again. "Thank you for trying -- for doing what you could to get me here. At least now I know for certain that it wouldn't've worked."

She sighed. "There is that." Mary leaned over and kissed my cheek. "Get some sleep, sister. I'll take care of everything."

ton - refers to British High Society

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