I was going in and out of focus again. It was all right- the party was dull and I had been pleasantly left alone for the time being. No one had much interest in me any longer, London's ton having lost curiosity five years ago when the novelty of a mad girl orphan became the less-thrilling embarrassment of an eccentric spinster. Spinster-to-be, rather. I was only twenty-three and although most of the unmarried women my age were making a last, desperate grab for a husband, no one even suggested I try to do the same. They knew what I knew- no man would come near me. That fact stung, but dully. I had no real desire to wed, but there was a slight indignity in me from not being wanted at all.

Emelia Stanton, the hostess of this lavish, useless affair, was watching me out of the corner of her eye. I've heard she thinks I'm merely a dormant volcano and she fully expects me to snap one evening at a gala of hers and wing strawberry tarts from the tables at the guests, howling all the while. I've been tempted, but not from madness. She's a stuffed, fat little partridge and I'd thoroughly enjoy seeing her faint in genuine shock. Strawberry tarts. If only I were a Knave of Hearts.

And speaking of Knaves, I mused, listening to a pair of trilling old biddies pass me by. One was in quite a state- "I don't know why he's here. No one even knows him. This new set of socialites, they don't care if you're the Devil himself so long as you look fine and have an ornate enough carriage."

The other woman nodded fretfully. "You're so right, Elspeth. He looks like a rotter to me. The way he just strutted in here and gave poor Emelia no chance to refuse him entrance. And those clothes. And that -smile-.he grins like a cad."

"A cat," I corrected unconsciously, not realizing I had spoken aloud. The two women stopped, Elspeth eyeing me.

"A cat? You know him, Alice?" she asked. I looked at her, trying to recall what I had said. "I hope not. He's not the sort you need to be seen with." It took a moment more, the women waiting, watching me.

"I.no. I don't know why I said that. Someone's arrived? Someone Emilia doesn't want here?" I inquired as politely as possible. A small, knotted twist of unease was making itself at home in the pit of my stomach.

"She doesn't even know him, Alice," the other old woman, Regina, told me conspiratorially. "Not a soul does, it seems. He arrived in a carriage that must have cost enough to purchase an entire stable, pardon my rudeness in speaking of it.and he sauntered into the party, smiling like mad, and told Emelia he had just arrived from Devon."

A swayed a little. Elspeth took hold of my elbow, a worried frown coming to her mouth. She was one of the few who didn't fear or abhor me. She considered me a weak, poor unfortunate. "What is it, dear? Are you ill?"

I couldn't find words. I had no idea why, but I knew I did not want to see this new guest. I -must- not see him. "I feel a bit dizzy. It may be the summer heat," I offered feebly. "Please, please excuse me." And taking hold of my skirt to lift its hem from the floor, I fled.

I listened to my jewelry and the rustle of my gown as I ran down the corridor of Emelia's manse. They sounded so inappropriate, so foreign. Bursting into Emilia's suite, I shut the door behind me, slightly breathless. Catching sight of myself in Emelia's full mirror, I tensed. Years ago, I would have been so proud of the image looking back at me. The slender form, the eyes green as summer leaves, the hair a rich mahogany, so stylish and upswept. The gown was beautiful- a gift from an aunt in Devon. Devon. Rutledge's was in Devon. The new guest had said he hailed from Devon. I shuddered and hugged myself tightly, looking away from the mirror. A mirror bearing a reflection of such a woman would never ripple or admit someone into it. The thought was comforting.

Using tricks I had developed over the years, I made myself calm and confident that everything was being twisted out of proportion. I had let my imagination run far away this time. All was well. Leaving the suite, I smiled faintly to myself. I would feign a small illness and go home. Who would care? If Emelia were to do such, all of London would crumble, but no one cared what I did. In fact, I was fairly sure the hostess of this droll affair would be glad to see me leave.

So decided, I entered the ballroom and looked about for Emelia so that I could make brief apology and take my leave. The assemblage was dancing, eating, talking. Again, I remembered myself as a child and how I dreamed of dancing at a ball myself. I had wanted my London debut to be a fantastic affair. Instead, when I was of age to be introduced to the ton, I was fastened to a cot in a place that was a small circle of Hell raised to Earth. The memory made me shrivel, even as my eyes took in the gaiety and splendor I knew was never for me. Espying Emelia, I walked toward her, only to have my elbow caught by a gentle, gloved hand.

Turning, I stared up into the face of a roguishly handsome man, whose eyes were almost golden and whose form was slender but well-cut. His hair was a soft black, stylish with small, neat sideburns and a sheen to the locks that was striking. It was not all of this that took me, though. He was smiling. And, after he murmured my name once, the smile became a grin I recognized so well it made me quake.

"It's not possible," I whispered weakly. He chuckled. A purr.

"You, of all people, know better than to utter such a phrase," he replied smoothly. He was leading me toward the floor, guiding me, an impeccable hand resting on the small of my back. The waltz moved us and, as we danced, I could not stop looking at him. His grin softened, but only slightly, into a roguish smirk.

"How is it that you're here?" I danced lightly, never realizing I had actual grace.

"I thought to ask you the same," he answered in his way of not answering. "I will admit to having a few theories, but nothing solid."

"You never were a very solid creature," I murmured in response. It elicited another grin, another rumbling chuckle, and he drew my head against his chest tenderly.