A Marquess for Convenience – Bianca Blythe

The stars shimmered, the moon glowed, and Madeline’s heart tumbled downward as she inched from her hiding place. Not tonight. London had had the decency to be swathed in thick fog all week, yet this evening every object in the heavens seemed intent on emitting luminescent beams poets might rave about in iambic pentameter. The wind, stronger on the roof, swept undeterred over the multitude of chimneys, and Madeline glanced downward. Glossy ebony coaches rolled outside the French ambassador’s home with the steadiness and majestic slowness of funeral processions. Women’s dresses glimmered under the moonlight, and even the coachmen, adorned with lustrous top hats and unused whips that swayed in the breeze, radiated elegance. Madeline pulled her surreptitiously purchased greatcoat tightly about her body, lest her gown sparkle with unwanted potency. Few hues rivaled the impracticality of ivory. The traffic had stilled. Most of the visitors must be inside now, feasting on the sumptuous sugary concoctions the famous pâtissier whom the ambassador’s wife had procured. Ever since the war ended, everyone seemed delighted to indulge in all the French delicacies they’d denied themselves as they imbibed brandy and burgundies with glee. Madeline moved from the chimney’s shadow and crawled over the slanted roof. The wind brushed against her, ruffling her locks and the hem of her gown, as if admonishing her for hampering its incessant path. Her heartbeat quickened, interfering with the rhythm of her movements. Just a few feet more. She wound her way to the small window on the top floor. Madeline rested her feet gingerly on the ledge. The elaborate facade that adorned the window frame seemed designed to aid unwelcome visitors, and she swiveled her body to face the room and lowered her torso. Athleticism came naturally to her, even if housebreaking remained a more novel pastime. Madeline had spotted the window open last week and she swung her legs from the roof. She glanced at the street, wary of the cluster of guards below. Still, no vigilant sentry met her eye, pointing a stubby finger toward her and calling for others to stop her. Roof clambering was not her favorite entrance method, but servants at these events possessed an unfortunate habit of announcing everyone’s arrival in a lofty, old world ritual. At some point the magistrate would investigate who’d attended the event, and she preferred for her name to be removed from any incriminating lists. Any guest who saw her would assume she’d been invited.

After all she was a baroness. She tapped her legs against the glass panes, and the window swung open easily. The guards outside didn’t have the imagination to know to stop her, and she smiled. Breaking the window would have been unideal. Even if the musicians tackled their violins with vigor, sending French songs floating through the air, someone might notice shards of glass tumbling from the heavens. Shattered glass had a propensity to damage her slippers even further than clambering on roofs. She slid into England’s most French establishment, and her feet thudded against the wooden floor. She blinked into darkness and stretched out her arms to familiarize herself with her surroundings. The stale scent and narrow corridor hardly denoted sumptuousness, but in her experience the French displayed a distinct tendency toward hypocrisy. The Costantini family depended on her success, and Madeline strode down the darkened hallway. She removed the unfashionable greatcoat and abandoned it on the floor. Later the magistrate could suspect that a man had committed the crime. She smoothed her ivory gown. Hopefully she would find stairs that would lead to the ballroom. She brushed her fingers against the wall, stopping when she came to an open space. Stairs. This was it. The last chance to change her mind. She could still grab her coat, button it up, and sneak out the way she’d come. Everyone would still be dining. Yet that was impossible. This was the Costantini family’s inheritance. Everyone dismissed the Italian peninsula as a compilation of romantic hilltops and the people as backwards and incapable of doing anything else except manage vineyards and the odd olive grove. It didn’t surprise her that the French ministers who’d been gifted the jewels by the jubilant army of peasants had ignored the forcefully worded letters from Italian solicitors demanding the jewels’ return, but Madeline would not permit the Costantini family to lose their heirlooms forever, no matter how fond the French ambassador’s wife was of parading in the stolen sapphires. Madeline was determined to retrieve the jewels, even if doing so involved entering a ball uninvited.

She crept down the darkened staircase and stepped onto the landing. Torches flickered from rusting sconces and cast a gloomy light over the corridor. Voices sounded, the roughened noise denoting servants, and Madeline smoothed her dress. Flecks of dirt spattered on the shimmering material, and she lowered her hand to remove them. “What on earth are you doing?” A stern voice berated her. She righted immediately. A man dressed in footman’s livery scowled at her. “I’m lost.” Her voice shook naturally. “Young ladies do not get lost.” “Then they are more gifted in direction than I am.” She gave a helpless laugh, and the man’s shoulders relaxed a fraction. Unfortunately his eyes remained narrow. “Tell me if anyone is with you. Perhaps some man intent on defiling you?” “Nonsense.” She tossed her hair and gave him a regal glare. “Please tell me the way to the ballroom.” He frowned. “Downstairs and to your right. In the direction of the music. Not the kitchen.” She hastily descended the steps, before the servant might decide to verify her identity with the butler, or worse yet, the hostess. The music strengthened as she neared the second landing. Some guests clustered in the corridor, and she glided toward the ornate doors that could only denote the ballroom. Vibrant paintings in elaborate frames adorned the hallway, and she pushed away the familiar wave of sorrow.

Instead she stepped inside the ballroom. At last. Men in elaborately tied cravats and woolen coats sipped brandy, older women in turbans gossiped with one another, and young women in pastel gowns with elaborate ruffled hems paraded the ballroom. Madeline inhaled. Her heart pounded, and she smoothed her hair again. Moisture dotted her brow, and she was certain her face must appear red, given the warmth that rushed through her body, but when she looked in the silver framed mirrors that lined the room, she appeared as normal as ever. If her hem was dirtier than normal, people would simply assume the journey from her carriage to the front entrance had been imperfect. At least her gown was well-cut, formed from expensive fabric that would make her blend in. She moved through the ballroom. If she appeared confident, no one would stop her. If anyone recognized her, they would not find her presence unusual. Baronesses were not an uncommon sighting at balls, even if most were more inclined to enjoy lemonade than reclaim jewels. The French Ambassador’s wife fluttered from the punch to the profiterole station, and her sapphire and diamond necklace sparkled under the eight-hour candles. I have her.


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