Today's Reading


I DECIDED THAT if anyone saw me coming back in to the ball, I could say I'd felt a little faint and needed some air. I hoped no one would question that, even though the temperature outside was well below zero, the kind of air that took your breath away rather than gave it back to you.

The two footmen by the front door were polite enough to act as if they didn't notice I'd walked in shivering with cold and carrying a book I hadn't had when I left. I went into the little sitting room off the hall that had been set aside as the women's cloakroom and left my coat, my boots, and the book there and put my dance slippers back on. I'd be too noticeable if I wandered the party looking for my stepfather all bundled up.

Back out in the hall, the scent of the orchids was so strong it made my head ache. The grand duchess had gone overboard with the flowers, as if filling the house with a jungle of them could make the partygoers forget the bitter cold and the war raging not so far away. There were so many, she had to have ordered several heated railroad cars to bring bushels of them into the city from the southern greenhouses, taking up space that should have been used for food supplies.

I was about to go back to the ballroom when I heard the voice of the obnoxious captain I'd been forced to listen to earlier, so I darted behind a pillar wrapped in a garland of orchids. I listened as his voice moved away from me and toward the door, hopefully on his way out.

A little voice came from above me, startling me so much I bumped into the pillar, crushing several orchids and releasing yet more fragrance.

"Charlotte, why are you hiding?"

I looked up to see the grand duke's youngest granddaughter, Anna Andreevna, wearing her nightdress and peering through the railings of the staircase.

"Are you playing a game?" the girl asked. "Can I play too?"

I put my finger to my lips. "I am playing a game, but it's hard to hide in this dress. I'm waiting for a man to leave the party."

"Why?" She was five, the same age as my little sisters, so I should have known she'd want a reason.

"I don't like him very much."

Anna stood up. "You don't have a very good hiding place," she said in a loud whisper. "I always hide under a bed. Do you want me to show you a good spot upstairs?"

I was actually tempted. A nice quiet spot under a bed would mean I could sleep for a few hours undisturbed before I had to meet Ivan coming in from the country with food supplies for the hospital. Probably not the best idea to take a nap, though. "No, but thank you anyway. Next time I bring the twins over, you can show me."

I peeked around the pillar to see the captain going out the door.

"That's not the man who was looking for you before," Anna said.

"I don't think there is anyone else who would be looking for me."

"There was," she insisted. "The man asked the footmen and said your name and described you. They said they hadn't seen you. He had a mean face. I think you should hide from him, too."

Bless the footmen. I didn't know why they hadn't given me away, but I was thankful they hadn't. I had no idea why a different man would have been looking for me, and I couldn't really think of anyone I'd danced with who had a face Anna would call mean. And none of the men had been that interested in me besides the captain, who would have talked to a pillar if it had been wearing a dress. Even if I had wanted a suitor, which I didn't, I'd be unlikely to attract one. My red hair, freckles, and sturdy frame did not measure up to any standard of beauty in Russian society. And besides that, my mother's reputation preceded me.

Everyone assumed I would follow in the footsteps of my mother: an American actress labeled a gold digger for bewitching an elderly Russian count into marriage and adding her three unruly American children into the bargain. The mothers of marriageable sons were particularly wary of me after Pavel showed an interest, and when the war took him, they saw me as a continuing threat to the others. I couldn't exactly shout at them that I didn't want their sons, that I had other plans, which didn't involve marriage. Pavel had been a little like a dream out of nowhere, and I had no desire for anything like that to happen again, at least not for years and years.

This excerpt ends on page 14 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book FREAKY IN FRESNO by Laurie Boyle Crompton.

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