(Chapter Three continued)
A ripple of excitement flashed through the gathered girls as soon as the French doors opened and the butler emerged. Eyes of blue, brown, black, green, and hazel followed his every cool move. They brightened in hope as he approached before darkening in jealousy and thoughts of, “Why not me?”
Whispers floated around the early evening air heavily scented with the aroma of invisible roses. Gowns rustled as girls moved to follow the seemingly oblivious butler who was, in fact, paying close attention to each and every one of them. Five years before, a young woman had screamed with rage when he walked past her and had thrown a silver dish at his head. The back of his head still stung every time he had to wade through this ungrateful sea of females.
Elaina paid no attention; she was thoroughly engrossed in the adventures of a daring lady and the small, ragtag group she called friends. Her own friends didn’t have the same thing to entertain them. Instead, their eyes became saucers as the butler approached them.
And then walked past them to stand before Elaina.
The oblivious Elaina currently turning a page with her breath held and heart pounding. This was the exciting turning point, the moment she had been waiting for. Her eyes were riveted on the words swimming across the pages as her eyes rapidly scanned, drinking in every word, every detail.
Nigel, for his part, was suddenly at a loss when the young lady before him didn’t seem to notice is presence. Robert would pick the strangest girl in the crowd. Next to her, the blond and the brunette were whispering to each other. The rest of the girls, the ones he had wordlessly passed by, were silently gathered, jealousy and confusion warring across perfectly made up faces.
He cleared his throat.
Elaina jumped and threw her book.
Nigel had the good fortune to somehow see that a mile away and jumped back two feet.
A girl giggled.
Lily slapped her forehead and sighed.
Camille hastily reached out to prevent Elaina from falling on the grass beside her book.
Hands clasped to her rapidly beating heart, this time due to fright rather than an exciting scene in a book, Elaina stared up at the distinguished middle-aged man standing primly before her. As she caught her breath and gathered her wits, she stared at the surprisingly bald man dressed traditionally as a butler, complete with coattails and white gloves.
“Who are you?” Elaina asked.
Nigel raised a single eyebrow, but otherwise made no other move. Around them, girls twittered in shock and outrage. Whispers became mutters and mutters became loud indignation. He paid them no mind, but quickly saw the confusion and embarrassment in the eyes of his master’s chosen girl. He held out a hand to quiet them.
“I am Nigel, Miss,” he said solemnly, seriously, with a gravity only a well-trained butler could have. “I am pleased to say Master Robert would very much like to meet you.”
Elaina glanced back at her friends.
“Just you,” Nigel quickly said.
“But that’s not how it’s done,” Lily burst out, drawing nods from dozens of other girls.
Nigel lifted his gaze to study all of them. The jealousy and confusion were stark on their faces. Robert had never before chosen a single girl. Those who had adhered to the unspoken rules and had hovered in groups should have been invited into the hall. What was special about the girl who was reading a book? Clearly, she had no interest in being there, so why had she been singled out?
“I cannot say why Master Robert has decided to choose as he has,” Nigel said placidly. “I only follow his orders.” He turned his gaze back to Elaina and held out a hand. “If you please, Miss, I’ve been instructed to bring you to him.”
Irritation flashed in Elaina’s eyes. Again she would be ordered about to please a rich boy? Slowly, she stood, Camille’s hands falling from her arms. Being short, the top of her head only came up to his collarbone, but that didn’t stop her.
“And if I refuse?” she dared.
Nigel was unflappable. “That has never been done.”
“Look, I don’t know how these things are done. I’ve never been here before. But I didn’t come today willingly. I don’t care to meet Robert. I have no interest in being his companion. The last thing I need is to be sacked with another spoiled brat.”
A young woman with flashing blue eyes pushed her way forward, her white silk gown swishing angrily as she strode towards Elaina. She poked a trembling finger, but didn’t dare touch her rival.
“How dare you?” she raged. “Many of us are here year after year, hoping and praying for the chance that’s just been offered to you. Robert has been locked up against his will. The least you can do is provide him with some company. Have some respect.”
Elaina laughed. “Do you come here hoping to be picked so you know what it’s like to live in luxury, to be surrounded with servants and nothing but the best? I didn’t, because I’ve already lived that life. It’s not an experience I want to repeat.” She swept a hand towards her friends. “But my friends decided I needed some time out of the house, so they talked me into coming. Believe me, I had no intention on being picked.” She turned back to Nigel. “Please tell your master I’m flattered, but I must decline.”
“I’m afraid that isn’t done,” Nigel said calmly. He held his hand out again. “Please come with me so you may meet Master Robert and decline his offer in person.”
“It’s the least you can do,” Lily whispered.
“I don’t see why I should. I’m not here because I want to be. So why should I accommodate him?”
“Elaina, don’t let your bitterness towards Bradley affect you,” Camille urged. “Robert might be a perfectly nice guy.”
“You know, if it weren’t for you two, I wouldn’t be in this position.”
“We know,” Lily said quickly. “As soon as you come out, we’ll make it up to you.”
Elaina eyed them shrewdly. “Promise?”
Her friends nodded, sincerity brimming in their eyes.
Elaina sighed and turned back to Nigel. She inclined her head to him before stooping to pick up her book. Straightening, she ignored his hand and turned to the massive hall standing before her.
“Lead the way,” she said quietly.