If you’ve read my list of frequently asked questions, you’ll see that at one point in my life, I entered a writing contest and got some lovely encouragement from Julia Quinn. The piece I wrote for it was in response to the writing prompt which I reproduce below. It was written years before I published anything—and I can’t read it without wanting to edit it. It’s not quite 1500 words long. And here, without editing it is.
The writing prompt:
The time: London, 1815, Spring;
The setting: The Duchess of Alderman’s annual ball
When your chapter opens, it is well after midnight and the ball is in full swing. A hush comes over the room as the beautiful and mysterious Countess Fraser enters. With little more than beauty, wit and charm, she has taken society by storm. But what is her background? The ladies are suspicious, and the men are predictably smitten.
All except Damien, the Earl of Coulter. He is convinced the lady is a charlatan. Determined to unmask her deception, he demands a dance.
The chapter concludes at the end of the evening. The twists and turns are up to you.
The Goddess of Small Things
The clock had long ago struck twelve, and Captain Damien Rathbourne, Earl of Coulter, had developed a ferocious itch in his left leg. As that leg had been amputated over a year ago, he had no choice but to suffer in discomfort. The itch, of course, was the least of his pains. Tonight, the small things festered: women fastidiously avoided his eyes; conversations politely fixed on the weather rather than his health.
Half-foxed and wholeheartedly tired, he longed to leave. And yet at this late hour, guests still arrived. The latest announcement—Countess Something-or-Other—was a disaster. Her orange hair was twisted into a careless bun from which strands were already escaping. Her gown was outmoded, and her figure leaned towards chubby. As she walked down the stairs into the ballroom, she slipped on a step, and crashed into a gentleman. A ghastly silence swept the ball; a woman tittered.
“Unbelievable,” Damien muttered to himself.
Lord Darby, who stood near him, cast him a shocked look. “Countess Fraser? She’s a goddess.”
Damien’s gaze flicked back to the Countess. She had picked herself off the floor and appeared to be apologizing, her hands gesturing animatedly. She didn’t seem to be a beauty. “If you think so, you shouldn’t have much competition for her.”
“Are you mad? Countess Fraser could have her pick of any man.”
“She’s an Incomparable?” Damien was dubious.
““Course not,” Darby remonstrated. “I can compare her to loads of girls. She just comes out on top, is all.”
“She’s an Original, then.”
Darby waved his hand in denial. “No. Originals are all alike—snooty girls who think that wit and insult are synonymous.”
“Penniless, if rumor holds true.”
“Before she married the now-departed Count Fraser, her people were nobodies.”
“Connected to the grand dames of London society?”
“So far as I can see, the women all hate her.”
“She’s a goddess?” Damien frowned dubiously.
“A goddess.” Darby affirmed. “Not Aphrodite, of course. But a goddess of little things gone right. You can’t understand unless you meet her.”
Damien shifted his weight from one crutch to the other. After Vitoria, it was as if his human interactions had been amputated along with his leg. His cohort stopped speaking to him of sport and war, and gradually withdrew from him altogether. Damien was suddenly furious with the purported goddess. He had everything but his leg, and yet could find no one. This mysterious woman had nothing and yet charmed everyone. He suddenly wanted to prove that she was like every other girl at the ball. She would be wretched. Conniving. And above all, she would be unable to meet his eyes.
“Well,” he said, striving to hide his anger. “Why don’t you introduce me then?”
Damien felt every eye in the ballroom carefully choose to look in another direction as he crutched his way across the ballroom. He could move at a reasonable clip; Darby barely had to slow his pace. The little things, however, irritated. Young maidens magically waved to friends across the room as they registered his direction; they dashed away lest he should corner them. Men fixed their gaze on some far away point. Damien gritted his teeth and clumped along.
Darby had not been lying; the Countess held court over a veritable bevy of men, ranging from pups down from Cambridge to sixty-year-old widowers. “Countess!” cried Darby, edging inside her circle. She smiled and gave Darby her hand. He bowed over it, and turned. “Allow me to introduce Captain Rathbourne. Earl of Coulter.”
The Countess extended her hand to Damien as well, and then stopped. Her gaze traveled down, and caught his single leg. Up close, he could see something more of beauty in her features. Her complexion was clear, and while her coiffure was less than perfectly arranged, her vivid hair sparked about her face like orange flames. Damien could see her animated blue eyes realize that he could hardly take her hand without dropping his crutches. She raised her face and met his gaze directly.
“Captain,” she said, dropping her hand. “I think that I should bow to you.” And she did. Her bow was inelegant and choppy, but her voice seemed sincere.
Sincerity. Eye contact. He would weep if he thought she were real. But it would take so little effort to expose her for a fraud. She, too, could see no farther than the surface. He was sure of it. The opening bars of a waltz played.
“Countess,” he said, before he could think. “May I have this dance?” The members of her throng opened mouths to object, but shut them one by one. They had spent a year pointedly ignoring his lack of a leg; they could hardly talk about it now.
But the Countess smiled sweetly. “I’d be delighted,” she said, and walked towards him. Calling his bluff, was she? Oh no; he wouldn’t back down now. He could not take her arm, and so she placed her hand on his elbow, as he limped out onto the ballroom floor. She turned towards him and smiled.
“Now, how do we do this?” she mused.
“I haven’t the faintest.”
“You’ve never danced—?”
“Not since Vitoria.”
“Well,” she said, undaunted. “We’ll have to figure out how to make do. Now let’s see.” She stepped closer to him. “I’ll have to put one hand there.” One hand lightly touched his shoulder. “As for the other one . . . .” She paused and laid it atop his right hand where it gripped the crutch. “Here.”
He had to lead. How, he thought, could he lead when he barely had room to place his crutches? Desperately, he heaved one crutch forward and shifted his bodyweight. Unfortunately, she stepped to the left. Her foot caught his crutch, and she tripped, sending his support flying. She fell; he followed, the wood floor of the ballroom bruising his wrist as he landed. He heard something that sounded like the ripping of cloth.
It was really only a few bars of music before he leveraged himself into a sitting position. She was kneeling next to him, a look of concern on her face. The lace hem of her dress had torn.
“Go.” He whispered. She had called his bluff; he had paid the price. He fumbled behind him, blindly seeking his other crutch. “Go!”
But she shook her head. “If you leave this dance floor now, you will never return.”
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t believe you.” The Countess stood up, grabbing his other crutch. He glared at her balefully. She reached down, took his hand, and hauled him erect. He leaned against her, helpless, until she handed him the other brace.
“I’ve always wanted to sweep a man off his feet,” she said, dimpling into his eyes. “But I had never intended to do so literally.”
It took him a few moments to understand. She had not tripped him on purpose. She was not making fun. She was treating him with care and reason, but not pity. He hadn’t realized what a weight there was in his chest until it lifted.
He gave her a tentative smile. “Foot,” he replied.
“You swept me off my foot,” he explained. She laughed. It wasn’t a genteel titter, or a giggle, but a real laugh from the belly.
“Let’s start again,” he said, and she moved against him, once again resting her hand against his chest. “I don’t believe I can waltz the normal way.”
“No,” she murmured, looking up at him. “But think,” she said, “how well-designed you are for the waltz.” He blinked at her. “One-two-three,” she counted.
He shook his head, confused all over again. “One,” she explained, patting his right crutch. “Two.” She motioned to the left crutch. “And three.” Her hand gently patted his thigh. He lived. Oh gods, he lived.
“One, two, three.” He counted, in tune to the music. “One,” he said, shifting a crutch. “Two,” he said twitching the second crutch into place. “Three.” And he pulled his leg into place. “Brilliant. Now you just need to dance along with me.”
Laughing together, they hopped along. It was not an elegant dance, nor a sensual one.
“I feel like a frog,” he complained.
At first she didn’t respond. Then—“Ribbit,” she croaked. And he laughed. She gleamed up at him like sunlight.
When the music ended, he grinned at her. “Thank you, Countess.” Had he really thought her plump? Suddenly, the other women seemed skinny and without substance. She was not graceful, like the pinched swans that glided around the ballroom. But grace also meant salvation.
He would never have her, he thought. Not when he was a cripple, and every man in London wanted her. But perhaps he would share her company again, and bask in the pleasure of small things gone right.