Casually she made her way along the side of the ballroom, past spills of conversation about the opera, the Park, and the latest “new thing.” As she slipped behind Lady Berwick’s back, she half expected her chaperone to turn and dive at her like an osprey sighting a mullet. Fortunately Lady Berwick continued to watch the dancing couples, who circumnavigated the room in a swift current of colorful skirts and trousered legs.
As far as Pandora could tell, her exit from the ballroom went unnoticed. She hurried down the great staircase and through the great balconied hall, and reached a brightly lit gallery that stretched along the entire length of the house. Rows of portraits covered the gallery, generations of dignified aristocrats glowering down at her as she half-walked, half-ran across the inlaid flooring.
Finding a door that opened to the back terrace, she paused at the threshold, staring out like a passenger at the railing of a ship at sea. The night was deep, cool, and dark. She hated to leave the safety of the house. But she was reassured by the procession of oil-burning garden torches, consisting of copper bowls set on tall iron poles that lined the path across the wide lawn.
Focusing on her mission, Pandora skittered across the back terrace toward the lawn. An abundant grove of Scotch firs made the air agreeably pungent. It helped to mask the smell of the Thames, which coursed turgidly at the edge of the estate grounds.
Rough masculine voices and bursts of hammering came from the direction of the river, where workmen reinforced the scaffolding in preparation for a fireworks display. At the end of the evening, the guests would gather on the back terrace and along the upper floor balconies to watch the pyrotechnics.
The graveled path meandered around a giant statue of London’s ancient river deity, Father Thames. Long-bearded and stout of build, the massive figure reclined on an enormous stone plinth with a trident clasped negligently in one hand. He was entirely nude except for a cape, which Pandora thought made him look remarkably silly.
“Au naturel in public?” she asked flippantly as she passed him. “One might expect it of a classical Greek statue, but you, sir, have no excuse.”
She continued to the summer house, which was partially shielded by a yew hedge and a profusion of cabbage roses. The open-sided building, with matchboard walls that went halfway up the columns, was constructed on a brick foundation. It was adorned with colored glass panels, and illuminated only by a tiny Moroccan lamp hanging from the ceiling.
Hesitantly she went up two wooden steps and entered the structure. The only furniture was an openwork settee, which appeared to have been bolted to the nearby columns.
As she searched for the missing earring, Pandora tried not to let the hem of her skirts drag the dirty floor. She was wearing her best dress, a ball gown made of iridescent shot silk, which appeared silver from one angle, and lavender from another. The front was simple in design, with a smooth, tight-fitting bodice and a low scooped neckline. A web of intricate tucks in the back flowed into a cascade of silk that fluttered and shimmered whenever she moved.
After looking beneath the loose cushions, Pandora climbed onto the seat. She squinted at the space between the settee and the curved wall. A satisfied grin crossed her face as she saw a rich glitter at the seam of the wall trim and floor.
Now the only question was how to retrieve the earring. If she knelt on the floor, she would return to the ballroom as dirty as a chimney sweep.
The back of the settee had been carved into an ornate pattern of flourishes and curlicues, with spaces wide enough to reach through. Tugging off her gloves, Pandora tucked them into the concealed pocket of her gown. Gamely she hiked up her skirts, knelt on the settee, and inserted her arm into one of the openwork gaps, all the way to the elbow. Her fingertips wouldn’t quite touch the floor.
Leaning farther into the space, she pushed her head through and felt a slight tug at her coiffure, followed by the delicate ping of a fallen hairpin. “Drat,” she muttered. Angling her body, she twisted to fit her shoulders through the opening, and felt for the earring until her fingers closed around it.
As she tried to pull out, however, she had unexpected difficulty. The settee’s carved woodwork seemed to have closed around her like a shark’s jaws. Backing away more strongly, she felt her dress hook on something and heard a few stitches pop. She went still. It certainly wouldn’t do to return to the ballroom with a rip in her gown.
She strained and struggled to reach the back of her dress, but stopped again as she heard the fragile silk begin to tear. Perhaps if she slid forward a bit and tried to back out at a different angle . . . but the maneuver only trapped her more firmly, the serrated edges of carved wood digging into her skin. After a minute of squirming and floundering, Pandora held motionless except for the fast, anxious jerks of her lungs.
“I’m not stuck,” she muttered. “I can’t be.” She wriggled helplessly. “Oh God, I am, I’m stuck. Blast. Blast.”
If she was found like this, it would mean lifelong ridicule. She might find a way to live with it. But it would reflect on her family and make them look ridiculous too, and it would ruin Cassandra’s Season, and that was unacceptable.
Despairing and frustrated, Pandora tried to think of the worst word she knew. “Bollocks.”
In the next moment, she turned cold with horror as she heard a man clearing his throat.
Was it a servant? A gardener? Please, dear God, please don’t let it be one of the guests.
She heard footsteps as he entered the summer house.
“You seem to be having some difficulty with that settee,” the stranger remarked. “As a rule, I don’t recommend the headfirst approach, as it tends to complicate the seating process.” The voice contained a cool dark resonance that did something pleasant to her nerves. Gooseflesh rose on her bare skin.