Mary Lawrence was completely and utterly done with dances and dresses and music and most especially rude men. She had managed to escape the ball by sneaking out the back way and climbing over the fence, a move that had caused her to rip the petticoat of her new lavender dress. Cecilia was sure to give her a stern talking to when she found out, but Mary refused to let that dampen her mood. She had managed to break free of that awful, stuffy place for a bit, and she no longer had to dance with that snobbish Alphonse Redmayne. Alphonse, who was so sure of his charm with the ladies but had two left feet, and loved to talk about nothing except his own adventures and accomplishments…
Too often Mary grew tired of the required social gatherings that occurred in London and the necessity of dressing up and socializing, when really all it meant for women her age was smiling at everyone and dancing with handsome men so that they might be married off and become someone else's responsibility. Mary was truly a simple young lady, who would not mind socializing as much if it provided equal opportunities for women to discuss their theories and opinions. Her father was no better than any of the young men who attended such balls; one could not speak for more than a few seconds before they were ushered along and the topic changed.
Additionally, her father insisted on them attending such events, even though he knew Mary hated them and he himself did nothing but stand at the back of the room, possibly talking to a business associate; never dancing, barely drinking, always glaring. She would never understand why he continued to torture himself, as grand balls and parties reminded him so much of her mother, gone six years from an illness. Such merriment was only a chance to drive the knife deeper into his heart, and he would always become even more distant after each party, a feat Mary did not think possible.
Mary was absorbed in these thoughts as she ran down the dark streets of London. The clock had already struck midnight, so anyone who was not attending a party had long since retired, but those inside the ball would likely not emerge for at least another two hours. Thus Mary Lawrence was quite shocked when she ran full force into another person as she rounded the corner.
Thankfully, her heels had prevented her from running too fast, so both she and the other person managed to remain standing after the impact. As she righted herself, she opened her mouth to apologize to the other person, but stopped short as she saw the brightest pair of blue eyes staring directly at her. Mary was not one to be startled by the looks of either gender, but this young man's eyes were a blue that was both gorgeous and eerie in a way that she could not quite put her finger on.
"Oi, sorry, miss! That was almost a nasty spill, eh? 'ope you're all right?" he said, tipping the brim of his hat towards her and smiling.
"Oh, that's quite all right, sir! Thank you for your concern!" She began to push past the stranger, hoping to continue putting distance between herself and the party.
Before she could get very far, the young man called after her. "If you don't mind me, askin', ma'am, where are you runnin' oft ta in such a hurry? Everythin' all right? Need any help?"
Mary turned back around to face him, and saw him looking truly concerned. "Oh, no, I'm quite all right, thank you! I've simply removed myself from a social gathering of the most boring sort and wish to escape quickly."
A grin broke out on his face as he heard her complaint. "Ah, escapin' a party, eh? I was jus' headin' ta one meself. How's about you join me? I'd be honored to have such a lovely young lady as you as me escort!" He promptly scooped his hat off of his head and gave a low bow.
Although Mary couldn't help but laugh just a bit, she said, "Your offer is kind, but I'm not entirely sure I should be going to a party with someone I just met on the street."
The boy's eyes lit up as he straightened up out of the bow and placed his hat back on his head firmly. "Well, you has a point there, miss… Tell you what, how's about I challenge you to a game, and if you win three times, you can head off to wherever you was headin' before. But if I beat you three times, you owes me a dance. What do a say?"
Shaking head and giggling, Mary said, "Oh, I suppose, since you insist. What game did you have in mind?"
The young man pranced over to the edge of an alleyway and pulled out a table with three mismatched cups on top. "Ever played 'Follow the Lady'? Well, this be jus' the same, 'cept you follow this 'ere ball under one 'o these cups." He lifted the left cup to reveal a small red ball, but quickly placed it back down. "Do ya feel up to it, miss?"
Delighted, Mary nodded at him. She loved to play games like this and was quite excellent at them, having played them numerous times with her friend Hannah. As he began to shift the cups around, she careful followed the cup with her eyes. He started out slowly, but began to speed up, until she could barely follow his hands. Right, left, center, left , center, right…. The cups glided across the surface of the table as if skating on ice. Then without warning, he stopped and looked inquisitively at her, inviting her to guess which cup contained the ball.
Although it had been difficult, she knew that she had him and proudly pointed to the middle cup. The boy slowly raised the middle cup to reveal… nothing. She looked up at him, shocked, and saw the biggest smirk she had ever seen spread across his face.
"Impossible! I watched it carefully and there is no way it could be under any cup but the middle one!"
"Are ya sure, ma'am?" he said, as he picked up the cup on the right to reveal the elusive red ball. "It is awful late. Perhaps you're jus' tired? Could 'appen ta anyone, really. Care ta go again?"
"Yes, of course! Try it again and let us see!" cried Mary furiously. She followed his every movement as he began to move the cups back and forth, carefully watching to see if he used sleight of hand to slip the ball out at any point. Abruptly the cups stopped moving back and forth again, and Mary did not hesitate.
"There!" she yelled, pointing to the center cup. No sooner had she said it then the cup was taken away and the table underneath was revealed to be empty.
"How! How is it possible?!" He pulled up the left cup to reveal the ball underneath. "Again, keep going!" she said furiously, and he resumed his whirling of hands and cups. Mary poured all of her concentration into following the movement of this particular cup. All sound seemed to be nonexistent, and only what was in front her mattered. She was almost seasick watching the flowing movement of the objects on the table, but she knew she must catch it this time, or she would be driven mad.
Finally, the hands came to a rest and she pointed triumphantly to the cup on the left. "Sorry, miss," he said, as he lifted the cup to reveal… the red ball!
"Sorry? What do you mean sorry?" she asked, thrown off by his cocky grin. "The ball is right there, I'm not going to your dance just yet!"
The boy's grin faltered for a second, but he continued cheerfully. "I 'ave no clue what you're talkin' about, miss. No ball under this cup!" He then proceeded to lift up the center cup to reveal nothing.
"I don't understand what you're on about, the ball is clearly under the left cup! I'm not sure who you think you're fooling but I can see the bright red ball plainly with my eyes, so don't try any nonsense!" She crossed her arms and stared haughtily at the young man standing across from her.
As she looked at him, gaze unwavering, she saw his face slowly drain of color. "You mean, you can actually see the ball right there? It's not under the center cup at all?"
"Why, yes, of course! Where else could it be? I don't understand what you're so surprised for!"
The young man quickly put the table and cups back into the alleyway where he had got them from, and looked around the street.
"What are you doing? That wasn't three wins for either of us!" Mary said, growing more and more confused by the minute.
"Pardon me, miss. What would be your name?" he asked, in such a tone that she could tell he was quite shaken.
"It's Mary, Mary Lawrence. But what on Earth is the matter?"
Tipping his hat, he said, "Nice ta meet you, Mary. Name's Bert, and I know I promised you three wins, but I'm afraid I need you ta come with me."