The world spun around me. Really I was the one spinning.
I was only allowed to lose control in any way in small moments like this. Henry Davis’ daughter must always be in control. My best friend Olivia and I only had this careless moment to let go and twirl to the music flowing from the house. We spun so fast—faster than we probably should have—until we each had absolutely no breath left.
At eight, we would throw our hands out against the sky until gravity hit with a vengeance and we smacked to the ground full force. Falling now would’ve been inappropriate but my father was too busy to notice the spinning.
“I can’t believe I still love to do that,” Olivia said beside me once we stopped, each of us laughing too hard to keep going.
“Me too,” I said back.
We shuffled over to the side of my father’s crowded ballroom to watch the others dance. Some of the girls pretended to be happy watching and that’s where they differed. While they pretended, I was actually perfectly happy to be alone—watching. That way I didn’t have to deal with one detestable boy or another trying to take certain liberties with me. Liberties they wouldn’t dare attempt if my father would see. I didn’t need that kind of headache added to the one already called my life.
Our grand ballroom filled to the rafters. Friends and business associates of Father’s came in celebration of the official start to the season. We always hosted the first party, at least as long as far back as I remembered. My father wouldn’t stand to be second to anyone and there not a soul would refuse his invitation. Either out of fear of him or of becoming socially ostracized.
The 1923 summer season promised to be spectacular if tonight’s party indicated anything.
Even in the dim glow of the heavy chandeliers over our heads, one man did catch my attention. I’d never seen him before so he stood out.
Tall, long, and lean. Well-fitting dark suit. His face was so striking. I’d almost call him beautiful. The entire room disappeared around us leaving me the luxury to watch him without worry of who might notice.
The music faded from my ears. This stranger became my entire focus.
“Elizabeth Davis, who are you staring at?” Olivia’s voice snapped me right back to reality.
“What?” My gaze jumped to her. “No one.”
“Who holds your attention, Lizzie?” Olivia stood close behind me and peered over my shoulder to follow my line of sight. I tried to shift so she’d end up seeing one of the McCray boys but it didn’t work.
She knew me far too well.
“No one.” I began fiddling with the extravagant dress my father insisted I wear. A nervous habit Father tried to teach away.
Though much more comfortable in trousers, Father didn’t allow that. A proper girl always wore dresses. Long ones at that. In a time when women went carousing, chopping off their hair, and raising hemlines, he tightened his control of my every move.
I really missed having a mother.
“You can’t lie to me.” Her eyes scanned the area again. “Is it that tall drink of water over there?” She nodded toward the man I’d been staring at. “Who is he?”
“I don’t know.” I did my best to look uninterested because I shouldn’t have bothered being interested. My father would decide who I married and it wouldn’t matter if I preferred someone else. I had no say.
Ball gowns swished from side to side taking up every iota of space as women unintentionally swayed to the music. Even mine. It was a beautiful satin in light rose made for only me. But I didn’t even get to pick it. The ridiculous contraption had been laced so tightly it barely allowed me to breathe and it made my breasts swell creating the illusion I had more than I actually did. Every single time I noticed it, a blush crept up my chest and neck so I tried not to notice.
The walls began closing in on me.
I needed to get out of that room.
Too many people along with a firm layer of whalebone crushing my lungs, and it wouldn’t be long before I passed out if I didn’t get some space.
“I think I’ll get some air,” I said in the middle of her chatter.
Olivia’s father had already made her match and it was all she talked about. Boring.
I couldn’t bring myself to care about any road that led to a husband.
If I had my way I’d never marry. I longed for a life where I could be me not the me my father decided I should be.
The summer night had cooled from the heat of the day.
I welcomed the slight breeze that lifted my hair off my bare shoulders. Against my better judgment, as I left, I turned casually for one last glimpse of the beautiful stranger.
He saw me.
I knew he had when he started pushing his way through the crowd. He hopped around some. Skirted around others.
Instead of continuing to watch him, I turned my face up toward the moon and it’s bright, not quite full shape.
I used the moon as a distraction, nothing more, and not even a successful one. I still stood there trying not to hope that the handsome stranger would follow me out there. Pointless to hope. Even if he followed me outside, I had no idea how to talk to a man. My stomach pitched at the thought.
“Lovely night,” a deep voice said from right beside me.
It was him. His presence reached out for me.
“Yes, the air has cooled nicely.” Don’t look at him. Don’t look at him. His voice sounded like his face looked. Beautiful and manly, deep and seductive.
As if I had any idea what seduction sounded like.
“I noticed you didn’t dance.” He leaned casually on his forearms against the balcony railing. His movements were fluid, full of purpose.
At best he made me feel like a child beside him.
My movements were stilted, unsure, and instead of confidence, I exuded insecurity. I shook my head and hoped he wouldn’t notice.
“I’m sorry for the men if you’ve denied them all,” he said still watching me.
The corners of my mouth turned up slightly. “No one has asked.” Somehow, without even trying, he’d put me at ease. I’d never at ease among strangers. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t at ease around most friends.
Olivia being the rare exception.
“I find that hard to believe.”
“It’s true.” With a newfound boldness, I leaned in toward him and, in a mock whisper, said, “I’m the unruly daughter of Henry Davis. More trouble than I’m worth.”
“I highly doubt that,” he said smirking at me.
His voice warmed my body like the summer sun making my breath catch in my throat.
I don’t know how he did it but within moments I was calm and comfortable, chatting with him as if old friends. He pointed out different dancing couples, laughing with me at some of the more inept boys as they stepped on some poor girl’s feet.
But I’d forgotten to ask his name and he hadn’t offered. I wanted to ask, even though it went completely against my upbringing because a proper young lady did not make herself available in any capacity to the opposite sex.
“Elizabeth, I’ve been looking for you.”
I snapped my head around and my entire body became rigid and snapped to my full, albeit lacking, height. Father used to call me the runt of the litter but as an only child, there was no litter.
“Father.” I took a large step away from the stranger while trying to gauge Father’s mood, “I… ”
“It’s time for bed,” he ordered. I’d been hoping to avoid him once my evening got infinitely better. I hadn’t had as much fun at any function in my life.
“I had hoped to… ”
“I said it’s time for you to retire.” His voice barely rose but the master of subtlety added enough edge to remind me of the consequences of disobeying.
The man beside me never have been able to hear it but I did. As if he had to remind me.
I nodded curtly and started toward the house but I still hadn’t gotten the man’s name and I knew my father wouldn’t fault me for being polite. Not in public at least.
“It was nice to meet you, Mr… ”
He reached out slowly taking my hand in his before lightly touching it to his lips quickly. My heart jumped violently in my chest. I couldn’t believe he’d kissed my hand with my father standing right there. In some circles that may have been acceptable but not in mine.
At least not with me.
“Vilkatas. The pleasure was mine, Miss Davis. I think I’ll take a walk around the garden. It’s such a lovely night.” He winked. The movement was so fast, almost as if I didn’t see it, but I still chose to believe he had. No one had ever winked at me in that way and I liked it.
“It’s quite beautiful.”
The stern look on my father’s face when he cleared his throat got me moving quickly. He didn’t usually punish me with an audience but I never wanted to test him.
Within minutes I stood alone in my room listening to the music drift up from the party along with the laughter of those without such a strict parent. Olivia would be allowed to stay until the party ended. I didn’t want to chance any more trouble so I quickly caught her attention when I got to the stairs and waved my goodbye.
As I removed one of the few things of my mother’s that he allowed me to keep, a set of diamond earrings, I replayed every word Mr. Vilkatas said to me and wished more than ever I’d gotten his first name. Then I realized what he’d said.
He’d be in the garden.
Waiting for me? Was that why he winked?
An unfamiliar level of anticipation suddenly took me over. It scared me.