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So This is Love
Author: Elizabeth Lim

To Charlotte, for teaching me a mother’s love

—E.L.

 

 

It was the event of the season—a royal ball in King George’s palace that every eligible maiden had been invited to attend.

And Cinderella couldn’t believe she was going.

One dance, she promised herself, watching the palace draw near from within her carriage. If I just have one dance . . . even if it’s by myself, I’ll be happy. I just want to remember what it’s like to be free, to spin round and round under the moonlight.

The palace was tremendous, a city within itself; Cinderella could have spent the entire evening simply exploring the courtyard where her carriage dropped her off.

But she’d arrived hours late, so late that there was no one at the entrance to greet her. Even the halls inside were empty but for the dozens of unsmiling guards standing against the walls. She didn’t have an invitation, so as she wandered up the grand staircase in search of the ballroom, she didn’t dare ask a guard for directions, lest they ask her to leave.

If not for the charming young man who found her searching for the king’s party, she might have spent the entire night happily lost in the palace.

“The ballroom is this way, miss,” he said, gently tapping her hand.

Flustered, she whirled to face him. She’d expected him to be one of the guards, but to her relief, he was a guest at the ball—like herself. “Oh, so it is. Thank you!”

Her cheeks were already warm, flushed from climbing the endless staircase, but they seemed to grow hotter still. How foolish she must look. Why hadn’t she simply followed the music? She could hear the strains of the orchestra not far, and the low, dense murmuring of the king’s guests.

But the young man made no indication that he thought her a fool. Maybe he was simply being polite; that would explain his squared shoulders and stiff posture. Yet his eyes were warm and kind, and as he bowed to her, something unfamiliar but wonderful fluttered in her stomach.

“Thank you,” she said again, instinctively curtsying.

“Would you . . . would you like to dance?”

Cinderella blinked. “Did you read my mind?” she said with a soft laugh. “All I wished for tonight was a dance . . . it’s been so long I worried I’ve forgotten how.”

At that, the young man chuckled, and he seemed to relax, breaking the formality between them. A smile as warm as his eyes spread across his face and he offered her his arm. “Then allow me to remind you.”

The next few minutes were a blur. A beautiful, rapturous blur, yet Cinderella knew she’d never forget the waltz that stirred the hall, its lilting melody singing its way deep into her heart.

Nor would she forget the way her companion looked at her—as if there were no one else in the ballroom. Every now and then, he parted his lips as if he wanted to speak to her, but the music was so overwhelming he must have thought better of it. It was a miracle they hadn’t collided with anyone else dancing, or were they the only ones on the floor? Cinderella hardly noticed.

When the waltz ended, Cinderella braced herself to wake from the most beautiful dream. Murmurs of conversation replaced the orchestra’s lush music, a potpourri of perfumes thickened the air, and the chandeliers seemed to glow dizzyingly bright.

She half expected her dance partner to make an excuse to leave, but instead he leaned in to whisper, “Do you want to walk outside for a short while? I’d love to show you the gardens.”

Again, he’d read her mind. Or were they simply of one mind? Her father used to say that about himself and her mother, that from the moment they’d met it had felt like they’d known each other forever.

Or maybe I feel that way because it’s been so long since I’ve made a friend, she thought as they left the palace. A cool breeze tickled her nape, and she inhaled, relishing the garden’s freshness.

“It’s so peaceful,” she said, brushing her fingers across the finely pruned hedges. “Would it be awful if I told you I preferred it out here to the ballroom?”

“And why is that?”

She hesitated, wondering what he’d think of the truth. “I think I’m more comfortable around the flowers and the trees. I haven’t been around so many people in a long time,” she admitted shyly. “I wouldn’t even know what to say to most of them.”

“You didn’t come to the ball to meet the . . . to meet new people?”

“I came to the ball mostly to watch. To listen to the music and see the palace. But I have to say, it’s even more beautiful out here than it is in there.”

“It’s certainly not as stuffy.”

They laughed together, and Cinderella felt that flutter in her stomach again.

“I want to remember everything about tonight,” she said. “The waltz, the flowers, the fountains—”

“And me?” her companion teased.

She smiled, but she was too shy to answer. Yes, she wanted to remember everything about him. The way he held her hand, gentle yet firm—as if he never wanted to let go. The way his shoulders lifted when she smiled at him, the tenderness in his voice when he spoke to her.

But she didn’t even know his name. She should have asked when they first met, except her mind had been—and still was—in such a whirlwind. Besides, now that they had danced together and escaped the ballroom to this beautiful garden, it felt like they had gone on a grand adventure together, and she didn’t want to take a step back with pleasantries.

And, if she was honest, she was also afraid he would ask where she was from.

“What’s on your mind?” he asked, sensing her thoughts had escaped the present.

“Simply that I don’t want tonight to end,” she replied.

He leaned closer, and Cinderella tilted her head, waiting for him to say something. But he closed his lips and cleared his throat, an odd flush coming over his cheeks.

“I don’t, either.” He hesitated. “I’ve been away from Valors for years. Didn’t think I wanted to come home, but now I’m starting to change my mind.”

“Oh? Where were you?”

He blinked, as if surprised she didn’t know the answer, but he quickly recovered. “Away at school. It’s not a very interesting story. Come, would you like to walk more?”

She nodded. “I love it out here. Strange that there aren’t more people in the gardens. Are we the only ones?”

“Everyone’s inside,” he responded.

“Dancing?”

“That . . . or looking to meet the prince.”

“I see. Well, I’m glad to be out here. We used to keep a garden . . . not as magnificent as this, of course, but . . . oh!” Cinderella spied a path of rosebushes not far ahead.

“You like roses?”

“Who doesn’t?” Cinderella knelt, careful that her skirts did not snag on the thorns. “My mother used to grow roses in her garden. We’d pick them together every morning.”

She fell silent, remembering how she’d carried on the tradition with her papa after her mother died. One by one they’d cut the flowers, each still so fresh that dew glistened on its petals and trickled down her trembling fingers.

“Eight pink roses, seven white ones, and three sprigs of myrtle,” she murmured, pointing at the pink and white roses in the line of bushes.

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