Ash was starving. He nodded and grinned at the Bloomsburys as they rambled on about their own attempts at hatmaking, he himself unable to even glance at the food table over his shoulder, for it would have been rude to turn his head away from them. At last, they exhausted their knowledge of millinery and moved on to the dance floor, giving him leave to turn his body and survey the feast in front of him.
His eyes met with those of Mrs. Brandenberg. Only for a brief moment, though, for within a split second she was gone, scuttling through the crowd without once looking over her shoulder. He watched her violet figure disappear to the other side of the room, where she planted herself at a round table near the orchestra. Her face became hidden behind a brass bowl overflowing with deep yellow roses and an obnoxious scattering of baby's breath.
After procuring a glass of Chablis at the beverage table, he grabbed up a plate and covered it with his own pile of food, his stomach growling so abominably that he was certain anyone within ten feet could hear. As he plucked the delicacies from their silver serving trays, he scanned the room for traces of the mayor, seeing him at last in the far-right corner conversing with a small crowd of men. A cigar rested between the fingers of Brandenberg's right hand, while he sipped a glass of bubbling champagne from his left. And from the look of his comfortable stance against the wall by the back door, there was no indication that he would be leaving soon to seek out his wife for a dance. Besides, he was probably of the old school of men who believed waltzing with one's spouse to be improper.
Satisfied with the mayor's position, Ash picked up an ivory linen napkin for himself, balanced his plate in one hand and his glass in the other, and made his way to the inconspicuous little table near the orchestra. As soon as he arrived, he set down his refreshments and slid the burdensome vase of flowers out of the way, revealing Mrs. Brandenberg's startled face. She was just about to take a bite out of a tea biscuit, but her mouth and hand became paralyzed as soon as she saw him peering down upon her.
"Good evening, Mrs. Brandenberg. Do you mind if I sit down?"
It would have been inexcusably rude to say yes. "No, of course not."
She placed the tea biscuit back down on her plate and stared at the hand-painted blue roses encircling the china. It was a common, Japanese-inspired pattern. Nothing extraordinary. Ash seated himself and unfolded his napkin, shaking it out ceremoniously before spreading it across his lap. The wooden legs of his chair made a loud screeching sound as he skidded himself closer to the table.
"I want to apologize for upsetting you the other day when you were in my shop. It wasn't my intention, and I fear I made a terrible first impression upon you."
Emma looked up, witnessing her husband's head looming in the background to the left of the milliner.
"You really didn't do anything wrong. I simply wasn't feeling well that day."
"Is that all that it was? Well, I'm relieved to hear that. Are you feeling better now?"
"Much better, thank you."
He was aware that her eyes repeatedly wandered to some disturbing object behind him. She sat as stiff as wood, her darting irises the only trace of movement in her body.
"I was surprised to find you sitting by yourself over here."
"I told you I wasn't a celebrity."
He chuckled. "You did, didn't you? But even non-celebrities tend to congregate with other people at parties."
"I know." Another glimpse at Philip. "But most of my acquaintances are currently occupied at the moment. So, instead of making idle conversation with others, I prefer to sit alone." One more peek at her husband ensued.
Ash finally looked over his shoulder to see what preoccupied her, discovering the still comfortably positioned mayor directly within eyesight.
Emma realized she had been caught, wishing she could better conceal her displeasure toward Philip from the milliner's perceptive eyes.
"Doesn't your husband like to dance?"
"Not really. He says he can never breathe properly when he's dancing and gets horrible cramps in his sides."
"Really?" He bit into his lip to suppress his laughter. "Well, does he allow you to dance with other men?"
"What do you mean, does he allow me? Must I obtain permission from him?"
"I mean, does he become jealous when you dance with other men?"
"It depends upon who the man is, I suppose."
He took a sip of his wine, resting it on the faintly stained tablecloth as he swallowed. He studied Emma's face as she picked at her chicken salad with her fork.
"Would you like to dance with me?"
She looked up suddenly, her eyes riddled with fear, though she strove to appear unaffected. "No, thank you."
"That's unfortunate." He needled the stem of his wine glass between his fingers, a sullen expression hanging upon his face. "Because I had my heart set on dancing."
"There are plenty of other women here who I'm sure would be thrilled to dance with you."
"But I don't want to dance with anyone else."
A heavy, prickling sensation dropped to the pit of her stomach; her face turned crimson. The temperature in the hall rose to one hundred degrees. "Why not?"
He leaned closer to her, his voice growing softer: "Because I'm a lonely boy and you're a lonely girl. And I think we'd be very good for one another."
She breathed faster, recalling all the ridiculous women she had seen fainting dead away at dances, their corsets wedged up against their lungs far too tightly. She attempted to laugh at him, but it merely came out as a nervous, chortled gust of air.
"You're a lonely boy?"
"Really? I find that very hard to believe when almost every time I've seen you, you've been surrounded by hordes of giddy women."
He sat up straight in his seat. "Yes, and you're the wife of a mayor, an attractive and intelligent woman, and at a party amongst all of your friends. But you're sitting here by yourself in a corner of the room, hidden by an overbearing assortment of flowers." He watched her struggle for a response, but her lips remained silent. "You've heard the expression that things aren't always as they appear, haven't you?"
Her throat produced a visible swallow.
"It's not fair that you shouldn't have fun tonight. Everyone else is. I'm not saying that dancing with me will provide oodles of entertainment, but at least you won't just be sitting here." He watched her carefully, but her pressed eyebrows indicated that she hadn't been swayed. He glanced back at Philip, who was now bellowing tremendously at something he evidently found amusing, his body bent over in a fit of laughter. "What can I do to persuade you? Is there any possible thing I can say that will change your mind?"
Emma, too, looked in her husband's direction, obtaining a full view of the enjoyment he was experiencing. He always had a grand time at parties. Or at least he gave an extremely convincing impression that he was full of effervescence and good humor. His body appeared even fatter than usual; his evening suit was probably being held by taut threads, the seat of his pants ready to burst at the seams at any moment. His face was a contorted, bright-red blur from where she sat, but it was clear that he was flushed from laughing harder than his smoke-laden lungs could handle.
"All right, I'll dance with you," she heard herself saying, though hardly believing the words. "But it can only be one dance."
The hatmaker smiled. "One dance is fine."
Excerpt is Copyright Catherine Karp 2000, 2002.
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