Home > The Beautiful Ones

The Beautiful Ones
Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

PART ONE

 

 

CHAPTER 1

 

Hector was like a castaway who had washed up on a room of velvet curtains and marble floors. The revelers might as well have been wild animals ready to tear off a chunk of his flesh.

He felt utterly lost, alien, and alone.

As Hector watched from a corner of the room, ladies and gentlemen partnered to dance, women fanned themselves and smiled, and men greeted each other with a tilt of the head.

He had attended many glittering balls, but none in this city. He knew no one here except for Étienne and Luc, and he was waiting with breathless expectation for the arrival of Valérie Beaulieu.

The first thing he’d done upon disembarking was to make discreet inquiries about the whereabouts of the lady. He was glad to discover she was in Loisail and, moreover, that she would be at the ball thrown by the De Villiers. He had no direct connection to the De Villiers—or hardly anyone else in Loisail, for that matter, having spent the past ten years abroad—but he did know Étienne Lémy, who was able to secure him an invitation.

Hector had dressed according to the weight of the occasion in a new double-breasted black dress coat, white shirt, and a white bow tie. White gloves and mother-of-pearl studs completed the ensemble. In his excitement, he arrived unfashionably early, not wishing to miss Valérie, and after greeting his host had positioned himself strategically so that he could watch every elegant guest who entered the vast ballroom. But Hector had not been long at his post when he heard a couple of ladies commenting that Mrs. Beaulieu had been taken ill and would not be in attendance, which came as a shock to the women since Valérie Beaulieu’s missing the opening of the season seemed unthinkable.

All his plans in tatters, the whole reason for his attendance at the ball suddenly vanishing, Hector did not know what to do with himself. Unable to stand the music and the chatter, he escaped to the library, which was gloriously empty, its furniture decorated with a profusion of brass inlays, the bookcases primly protected with glass doors. The only reasonable course of action at this point was to wait there until he could perform a proper exit without seeming rude. He could not possibly retire until nine o’clock.

Hector consulted his watch, and after deliberating, he decided he’d brush up on his history. He wound up flipping through the pages of a book without touching them, having dragged a chair closer to him with a motion of his left hand, his talent at work. He did not read a single line, too troubled by thoughts of Valérie Beaulieu to make heads or tails of the words.

When they last saw each other, they’d both been nineteen, nothing but children, really. But he’d loved her. She had been beautiful, sophisticated, captivating. A perverse part of him hoped that time had somewhat washed away the colors from her face, but in his heart he knew this was impossible and that Valérie Beaulieu must remain as he remembered her: the most devastating woman in the room.

And he would not be seeing her that night.

The clock on the wall struck nine and the door opened. In walked a young woman in a blue pastel silk and velvet dress, the sleeves rather puffed out, as was in vogue.

She closed the door, taking several steps into the room before she raised her head and caught sight of him. “Sir,” she said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize there was anybody here.”

“It’s no matter,” he replied, closing the book with his hands rather than with his mind; he reserved displays of his talent for the stage. He did not add anything else. He was hardly in the mood for polite conversation. The De Villiers prided themselves on attracting the cream of the crop to their functions—the Beautiful Ones, rather than the New People. The barons of barely minted empires of telegraph wires and fresh steel could socialize elsewhere. Hector had been offered an invitation, proof of Étienne’s charm and his connections, but he knew he was, at best, a novelty for these aristocrats; at worst, an intruder. He did not wish to befriend any of them and threw the young woman a frosty look. The girl did not take his cue.

She looked at him carefully, her lips curving into a smile as she moved closer. “I know you. You are Hector Auvray.”

“Pardon me, were we introduced?” he asked, frowning. He was sure he had not seen this girl before. He had been presented to the hosts, and Étienne had pointed out a few people, but not her.

“I recognize your face from the posters around town. You are performing at the Royal. Phantasmagoric: Feats of Wonder, isn’t it? I was hoping to meet you,” she said.

“Oh?” he replied, a noncommittal sound, even if his interest had been piqued. Few aristocrats would admit to knowing the name of a vulgar entertainer. Instead, they nodded their heads politely and either assumed or pretended he was a slightly more elevated type of person.

“What were you reading?” she asked, pointing at the book he was clutching between his hands.

“History. Miss—”

“Nina,” she said, stretching out her hand. “Antonina, really, but I rather hate it. I’m named after a witch of a great-aunt, the most awful wretch who ever lived. Well, not quite, but I resent the association, and therefore it is Nina.”

“Hector, though you already know that part.” He shook her hand. “It’s probably best if we exit this room now. A bachelor such as myself, a young lady such as yourself—we wouldn’t want to cause a scandal.”

Truly, he wanted only to get rid of her and could not have cared what anyone thought. If the girl wished to walk around the house without an escort, then let it be. He had come to speak to one woman and one woman alone. If she was not there, then Hector would wallow in his velvet misery.

“I can’t possibly leave now,” she replied.

“Why not?” he asked, annoyed.

She did not notice his tone of voice or did not care. Instead, she took off the dance card dangling by her wrist and held it up for him to look at.

“If I go out there now, Didier Dompierre is going to ask me for a dance, and if you’d ever danced with Didier, you would know he is the most terrible dancer. I have been told he’ll put his name down for two dances, and you must be aware a lady cannot refuse a dance from a gentleman. It would be uncivil.”

Hector did not understand why a man might want to corral this particular girl for two dances in a row. She was not an enviable beauty—somewhat run-of-the-mill, to be frank—and her square jaw, black hair, and thin lips were rather unstylish. She possessed pretty hazel eyes, though, and her dress was very fine; perhaps that was enough for a young chap with poor dance skills such as this Didier Dompierre.

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