Home > Heartless(8)

Author: Marissa Meyer

And he was grinning at her.

Catherine stiffened as the King jostled down the steps. The crowd fanned out to allow him through, creating a direct pathway, and before Catherine could think to move aside herself, the King was standing before her.

‘Fair evening, Lady Pinkerton!’ He arched up on to his toes, which drew even more attention to his minuscule stature. He stood at least two hands shorter than Catherine, despite the rumour that he had special-crafted shoes with two-inch soles.

‘Fair evening, Your Majesty. How do you do?’ She curtsied again.

The White Rabbit, who had followed in the King’s wake, cleared his throat. ‘His Royal Majesty would like to request the hand of Lady Catherine Pinkerton for the first quadrille.’

Her eyes widened. ‘Why, thank you, Your Majesty. I would be honoured.’ Catherine dipped into a third curtsy – her practised reaction to anything that was said in the King’s presence. It was not at all that he was an intimidating man. Much the opposite. The King, perhaps fifteen years her senior, was round-bodied and rosy-cheeked and had a tendency to giggle at the most inopportune times. It was his very lack of intimidation that kept Catherine on her best behaviour, otherwise it would be too easy to forget that he was her sovereign.

Handing his sceptre to the White Rabbit, the King of Hearts took Catherine’s hand and led her on to the dance floor. Cath told herself it was a mercy to be swept away from Margaret, but the King’s company wasn’t much of an improvement.

No, that wasn’t fair. The King was a sweet man. A simple man. A happy man, which was important, as a happy king made for a happy kingdom.

He simply wasn’t a clever man.

As they took the position of top couple on the dance floor, Cath was struck with a surge of dread. She was dancing with the King. All eyes would be upon them, and everyone would think she had chosen this dress for no other reason than to catch his eye.

‘You look lovely, Lady Pinkerton,’ said the King. He was speaking more to her bosom than her face – a result of his unfortunate height, not any sort of ungentlemanliness, and yet Catherine could not keep her cheeks from flushing.

Why, oh why, couldn’t she have fought against her mother’s wishes, just this once?

‘Thank you, Your Majesty,’ she said, her voice strained.

‘I am indeed fond of the colour red!’

‘Why . . . who isn’t, Your Majesty?’

He giggled his agreement and Cath was glad when the music began and they entered into the first figure. They turned away from each other to walk down the outside lines of couples, too far apart to speak. Catherine felt her corset pinching beneath her breasts and she pressed her palms against her skirt to keep from fidgeting with it.

‘This is a delightful ball,’ she said, joining the King at the end of the line. They took hands. His were soft and damp.

‘Do you think so?’ He beamed. ‘I always love the black-and-white balls. They’re so . . . so . . .’

‘Neutral?’ Catherine supplied.

‘Yes!’ He sighed dreamily, his eyes on Catherine’s face. ‘You always know just what I’m thinking, Lady Pinkerton.’

She looked away.

They ducked beneath the outstretched arms of the next couple and released hands to twirl around Mr and Mrs Badger.

‘I must ask,’ the King started as they clasped hands again. ‘I don’t suppose you may have . . . by chance . . . brought any treats with you this evening?’ He watched her with shining eyes, his curled moustache twitching hopefully.

Cath beamed as they raised their hands so the next couple could duck beneath. She knew the King was stretching up on his tiptoes but she respectfully did not look down. ‘In fact, I baked three lemon tarts this morning, and my maid was going to ensure they made it to your feasting table during the festivities. They might be there now.’

His face lit up and he twisted his head to eye the long, long table, but they were much too far away to pick out three little tarts.

‘Fantastic,’ he swooned, missing a couple of dance steps and forcing Catherine to stand awkwardly for a moment before he picked it up again.

‘I hope you’ll enjoy them.’

He returned his attention to her, shaking his head as if dazed. ‘Lady Pinkerton, you are a treasure.’

She stifled a grimace, embarrassed by the dreamy tone in his voice.

‘Though I must confess, I have a particular weakness for key lime tarts as much as lemon.’ His cheeks wobbled. ‘You know what they say – key lime is the key to a king’s heart!’

Cath had never heard that before, but she let her head bounce in agreement. ‘So they do!’

The King’s grin was effervescent.

By the end of the dance Catherine felt ready to collapse from the strain of appearing joyful and attentive, and she felt only relief as the King air-kissed the top of her hand and thanked her for the pleasure of the dance.

‘I must find these delectable tarts of yours, Lady Pinkerton, but I hope you’ll keep the final dance for me as well?’

‘With pleasure. You honour me so.’

He giggled, mad as hops as he adjusted his crown, then took off waltzing towards the feasting table.

Cath withered, grateful that the first quadrille was over. Perhaps she could persuade her parents to let her leave before that final dance of the evening. Her plotting made her feel guilty – how many girls would love to receive such attention from the King?

He wasn’t an offensive dancing partner, only a tiresome one.

Thinking a bit of air might help her cheeks recover from the stretched-out smile, she headed towards the balconies. But she hadn’t gone a dozen steps through the crowd of black crinolines and white top hats before the candlelit chandeliers flickered as one and went out.

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