Elouise shifted uncomfortably as the corset seemed to tighten itself around her gut. Perhaps the meal of a delightful slice of fish wasn’t so pleasant after all. She sipped at her glass of sherry and gulped it down, hoping to quell her awareness of discomfort.

“Are you alright, my dear?” an elderly lady, dressed in a comfortable shade of blue to her whitening blonde hair asked. Elouise flashed her most polite smile and nodded. “A new corset, I’m afraid. It’s taking quite a while to get accustomed to,” she placed a hand delicate to her breast. “Ah! These ‘new’ fashions. Cutting girls to become as trim as the stalk of a rose bush!” the lady tittered. “And just as sharp, I hope,” Elouise muttered, taking another sip. “Perhaps a seat would help,” the lady led her to an unoccupied seat, away from the main hall.

Elouise cast a glance towards Hugh, but he was occupied in an apparently deep conversation with one of his senior colleagues. She tried to suck in a breath, anticipating a whole horde of tittering ladies. The lady in blue kept a tender grip on Elouise’s arm, lest she wobble under the lack of oxygen.

They entered a smaller hall, with a pianoforte in a corner and a shelf of books in another. Weren’t the room full of gossiping ladies, it would have been quite quaint to spend an afternoon in. Either way, Elouise was, to some mild extent, terrified. The lady soon located a seat just by the piano and sat herself and Elouise down. “Thank you, Lady …?” Elouise tried to better acquaint herself with her surroundings. She tried not to think about it, but the hush that fell over the other women in the room when they entered was too jarring to ignore.

“Barrett. Millicent Barrett. A pleasure to meet you, Miss …?” the lady responded. “Rose,” Elouise panicked and spotted a rose etched on the lid of the piano label. “Rose? I’m afraid I’m not familiar with anyone by the name,” the lady frowned slightly. “Ahh, well, I am here as a companion to  L-Mr. Roxton,” she straightened. Lady Barrett laughed heartily. “Ah, I see! I was beginning to wonder about that boy. A bit too shy for his own good, I said; but here he is, with such a fine accompaniment!” Elouise’s smile became genuine.

“Really? With Mr. Roxton?” another woman, closer to Elouise’s age with dark hair and equally dark eyes sat next to Lady Barrett, on the piano stool. Elouise gave what she hoped was a polite nod. “Well then tell me, Miss Rose; how you came to be acquainted with Mr. Roxton,” the woman fluttered her long black eyelashes. Elouise felt a twitch in her gut, and not because her dinner was trying to settle. “Oh yes, please! Tell us all how you came to become a companion to the elusive Mr. Roxton!,” a few other women came over and giggled, leaning around the piano.

Elouise took a sly gulp of her sherry. “Well, there’s not much to say actually. We’d met during a visit to Hyde Park, and, well, a lovely conversation struck about horses,” she smiled coyly. She really did not like the way the other women smiled over their shoulders. Lady Barrett clapped cheerily. “Really, horses?” the dark-haired woman looked at Elouise down her nose. Elouise nodded happily, patting herself on the back internally for doing such a good job acting all coy.

“Oh dear!” Lady Bennett cried, seeing her own glass empty. “Ah, allow me, Lady Bennett!” Elouise sprung to her feet, noticing her own glass was close to emptying. She would need more, if not something stronger to continue being in the room, in the company of these ladies who resembled the scary white fluffy cat Mrs Wellens’ neighbor had.  “Thank you, dear!” Lady Bennett almost cheered. Maybe she should have a glass of water next, Elouise felt.

“Hey, are you doing alright?” Hugh met her a little way from the doorway. “Yes! I-I-I’m just fetching Lady Bennett a drink,” Elouise held up the two glasses. “Ah, allow me,” he smiled and lifted the glasses from her hands. “If you might, Hugh … might I have something a little… stronger?” Elouise shrugged. Hugh’s brow pinched together. “Perhaps, after the party?” he suggested. Having Elouise drunk and a little unruly was a definite no. She opened her mouth to protest, but closed it quickly and nodded instead. That was a little unusual. “Are you sure you’re alright?” Hugh tried to meet her gaze. “Yes. It’s just the corset,” Elouise tried to bend herself backwards, earning a chuckle from Hugh. “Alright, I’ll meet you back in the room,” he smiled. Elouise curtsied and left.

The hushes and whispers returned as Elouise reentered the room. “Empty handed, I see,” Dark-hair swayed her pretty head around. Elouise was about to answer when another girl spoke up. “She’s probably stolen them,” earning a horrible tittering from the group of ladies. “Pray, what makes you say that?” Elousie blinked rapidly in surprise. “My father is Mr. Roxton’s superior. Apparently they have been after a common thief matching your description,” the dark-haired girl stood up. Elouise listed her head, matching the girl’s glare. “Really now? And how is this thief described?” The dark-haired girl bristled. “Well… dark blonde, medium build, blue eyes. Seems to match you perfectly well,  does it not?”

“Yes, and three other girls in this room in fact,” Elouise crossed her arms. “Ahh, but you are the most probable motive for such! With considerably plain jewelry and all,” The dark-haired woman smiled. Elouise’s expression froze. Lady Bennett lowered her head. Elouise racked her brain for a retaliation, but opted to merely smile tighter. She sighed. “I take it that you are not a woman of sentiment, Miss.”

Lady Adderton to you,” one of her posse sneered. “Lady Adderton, of course. Well! Please excuse me,” Elouise curtsied and promptly exited the room. As soon as she was out of sight from the company of ravens, a hand flew to her mouth but she kept on walking. Hugh came from the other direction, two full glasses of sherry in his hands. He saw her leave the room in such a rush, but refrained from calling out to her in such a crowd.

Puzzled, he stopped just by the frame of the door. “Such nerve! To show her common face here.” “True! And to be Mr. Roxton’s companion of all things. She must have bewitched him.” “And did you see her face when we pointed out that dull thing around her neck? How laughable!” “I wouldn’t be surprised if I find a few things missing around here tomorrow. Only goes to show why strange looking people like her should remain where she came from!” A wave of giggles flushed over the company of young ladies and Hugh felt a pit drop into his stomach. He managed to catch Lady Bennett in the corner of the room, looking quite asleep, probably from drink.

Flustered as all hell, Hugh downed the two glasses of sherry in his hands. He had to find Elouise, and find out what the ladies had said to her to make her leave in such a way unlike her.

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