The party would begin at five o'clock and, at four, Mama came in to help me get ready. She brought my servant, Cecile, with her. Cecile's purpose was two-fold: she cleaned my room, took care of Cami when I wasn't able, and helped me dress for important functions. She was also my source of nourishment during emergencies. There was one small problem: She didn't like me.
"This is how it will work," Mama said as Cecile put the dress on for me. "At five, your father will escort you down the stairs. All the guests will already be assembled. You will stand with us until he has finished delivering the speech. We have hired a few musicians and you will start off dancing with Ilya. Other men will cut in. The cake will be presented then you will open your gifts."
"I'm nervous, Mama," I whispered as I sat down so she could do my makeup.
She smiled kindly, dismissing Cecile who left happily.
"I know, my sweet," she said. "But you will be fine."
She painted my lips red and did light blue eyeshadow. She put my new necklace on for me and we both sensed Papa outside the door.
"Come in," we said in unison and laughed as I stood up, putting on my black high heels.
"Look at my beautiful daughter," Papa said, spinning me a little. "That dress is wonderful. We will have to send a note to Mrs. Tresser."
"Already taken care of," I said. "Is it time?" I added nervously.
"Yes," he said and offered his arm. Mama walked ahead of me but I hesitated. "What is it?"
Mama had reminded me to avoid talking about this man with Papa.
"Just a little nervous, that's all," I said. "It's the first time we've had a public party."
"True," he acknowledged, leading me down the stairs.
Everyone applauded and I discreetly surveyed the crowd. I could smell him but I had no idea where he was. Uncle Ilya offered his hand and I accepted. My papa cleared his throat and conversation ceased.
"I want to thank you all for coming to my daughter's 20th birthday," he said with a smile. "We are very excited and honored that you accepted our invitation. We have provided food and entertainment. Please, enjoy yourselves and make sure you grab a dance with the birthday girl."
Ilya led me into a dance and I bit my lip.
"Do not look so nervous," he said.
"That's easy for you to say," I muttered. "I know he's here but I don't know which one he is."
"Well, if you keep worrying then you'll faint again."
"It's hard not to," I said, wrinkling my nose.
He laughed. "I know."
He twirled me and let me go. A young man took my hand. He grinned at me, flashing white teeth. His eyes were unpleasant, though, and one look told me he was more interested in the fact that I was a duchess. Repressing a smirk, I kept stepping on his toes.
"Oh, forgive me!" I said after the tenth time. "I guess I haven't warmed up enough yet."
"Well, when you do, I'll come back," he said, wincing as he walked away.
"May I?" another young man asked.
He was here under pressure from his parents so I was nicer to him.
"What do you do for a living, sir?" I asked.
"I'm a fish merchant," he said and I wrinkled my nose. "Yes, I know."
"I'm sorry," I said quickly. "I didn't mean to insult."
He chuckled. "If it makes you feel any better, I hate fish, too."
"Then why do you work there?" I asked, temporarily forgetting about Mathias.
"I don't have any brothers," he said with a shrug. "I'm to inherit it. You're a lovely dancer. I thought Ian said you were awful."
He laughed, though, and I knew he was aware of what I did. He was a nice young man but someone tapped his arm and my new dance partner was a little boy. I looked at my mama but she was laughing behind her hand.
"I'm gonna marry you," he said, standing on my toes so he was tall enough to hold my hands.
I giggled. "Is that so?" I asked.
He nodded. "Mommy even said so."
I heard a small groan to the right. A young woman was shaking her head, covering her face. A man beside her was trying to hide his laughter. I leaned down and kissed the boy on the cheek.
"Well, I'm sure you'll make a fine husband."
He beamed. "Did you hear that, mommy?" he cried, running to her. "She'll marry me! And look! She even kissed me!"
I laughed. I was too distracted by the small family that I didn't realize whose arms I was in until I looked up.
I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. It was him.
Mathias was handsome with brown hair and dark brown eyes. His skin was tan and he seemed very strong. He smiled at me. I returned it and tried to speak but something had happened to my voice.
"I'm glad to finally meet you," he said and I managed to unstick my throat.
"Likewise," I breathed. "Well, as soon as I find out your name."
He laughed. It was intoxicating.
"Yes, forgive me. My name is Mathias Lance," he said. "And you are Lady Kendra Moreau, of course."
"Of course," I repeated.
I didn't know what else to say. Part of me wanted to read his mind but I was too afraid to. As we twirled effortlessly across the floor, I got lost in his eyes. The urge to read his mind was strong but what if I didn't like what I saw? Mama and Papa had trained themselves to automatically ignore a person's mind but I still struggled with it.
"Can I steal my sister from you?"
Mathias and I were still staring into each other's eyes but he smiled and gave my hand to Colin.
"Until next time," Mathias said and I nodded, watching him walk away.
"Okay," Colin said. "I'm finally being nice to you and you're not even paying attention to me."
"Sorry," I said and smiled at him. "Just... distracted."
"Mathias Lance is a handsome man," Colin acknowledged.
"You know him?" I asked.
"Yes. He lives by the university they're building."
"How old is he?"
"I think he said he's 29."
I arched a brow. "A 29 year old bachelor?"
"Says the 28 year old bachelorette," he said quietly and I nudged him playfully. "Happy birthday, by the way," he added and passed me a small parcel.
I opened it and gasped. Inside was a pair of golden earrings. I hugged him.
"Thank you very much," I said. "Gosh, my feet are killing me in these heels."
He snorted. "Thank God I'm not a woman."
I laughed, too. Then the musicians struck up the Happy Birthday song and I groaned. Colin laughed and dragged me up the stairs as they wheeled in the cake. It was three layers with white icing and a blue candle at the top in the shape of a 20.
Papa lifted me by my hips as I blew out the candle and I giggled.
"Did you make a wish?" he asked.
"Of course," I said. "But I can't tell you."
"Oh, all right," he said.
I cut the cake and passed it to our guests, being extra careful with the slice for Mathias. He smiled at me then walked on. My heart was beating painfully and we heard the rumble of thunder outside.
"Looks like that storm came anyway," Papa said sadly.
People put their gifts by the cake and hurried outside to go home before the rain started. I shook their hands and thanked them for coming. But Mathias didn't come by. I frowned and pulled on Mama's arm.
"He's still here," I whispered and she frowned, too.
"Go find him."
I followed his scent to our parlor. He was looking at our family portrait and I cleared my throat. He jumped.
"Please forgive me," he said. "I needed some relief from the party."
"Well, everyone's left, so...."
"Right," he said quickly and hurried to the door. "Thank you for the invitation."
"I'm glad you accepted," I said and he smiled at me again.
"You are not from here," Papa observed.
"No, sir," he said. "I moved here recently from Romania."
Papa's eyes lit up but I saw Ilya's head snap to Mathias.
"Romania?" he repeated. "Please, you must come for tea soon!"
"Papa loves Romania," I said, giggling.
"I would be honored to come," he said and bowed. He kissed my hand. "Happy birthday, Lady Kendra."
"Thank you," I whispered and watched as the door shut behind him.
"Happy birthday," Uncle Ilya said, getting my attention.
"Oh," I said and took the box from him.
I opened it and gasped. It was a beautiful ruby ring with a black band. Papa put it on for me and put his arm around my shoulders.
"It was our mother's," Ilya explained.
"She would want you to have it," Papa added.
"It's beautiful," I said and hugged them both.
Ilya sighed. "I will have to leave in the morning," he said and my shoulders fell. "I am sorry, Kendra. It gets harder each time."
"It's okay," I said. "I understand. I'm glad you were able to come this year."
He hugged me tightly. "Be careful, Kendra," he said suddenly. I stepped out of the hug and frowned. "With the young man."
He didn't answer and I said good night to Papa. Mama walked me to my bedroom and I yawned. When the door shut, I told her what Ilya said. She looked curious, too.
"I wonder why he would say that," she said. "Tomorrow, I want you to tell your father your thoughts about Mr. Lance."
I bit my lip. "Are you sure? I mean, you said he wasn't as excited as he used to be about me finding my star...."
"I know," she said, tucking me in. "Just trust me."
"Happy birthday, Kendra."