“That man over there keeps staring at you,” Betty said when she stopped by the table where Olive was watching everyone's things and the dancers on the floor of the club they were in all at once, collapsing into a chair next to her with a conspiratorial smile. “Shall I fetch him?”
Olive didn't give into the temptation to look. Betty was never subtle, and where men were concerned she was even less so. At least it wasn't Sylvia delivering the news. Sylvia would have asked a hundred more questions right off. “People do stare, you know.”
“Oh, hush, I won't have it. You look ravishing tonight. Stanley is absolutely perishing over it, and Violet was telling me how jealous she is over your dress.”
And Stanley had never perished over a woman in his life, Olive would bet, but still, Betty was being sweet, and Olive didn't object to the idea of a flirtation, either, as long as he didn't mind not dancing. “Fine, then. Don't bring him, but tell me where he is.”
Betty beamed at her. “You're a stunner, Ollie, don't let anyone tell you differently, and he hasn't made it much past the door in three songs. The handsome one with his hair still all wet from the rain, you can't miss him.” She kissed Olive's cheek, probably leaving a smudge of lipstick there, and sprang back to her feet. “I'll tell the girls and especially our escort to steer clear for a song or two, shall I?”
Before Olive could tell her that there was absolutely no reason to do that, Betty had whirled away, and Olive was left searching out this supposed paragon who was supposedly watching her.
As it turned out, though, it was very easy to tell which man was watching her, because he was still watching her, and he was Peter Grazinsky. His eyes were like Anna's, and Anna had showed her a picture just a few weeks ago that Peter had sent from his latest archeological expedition, so she knew him right away, and why he was watching her, too. Anyone who'd known her as a child would recognize the hair.
He was clearly embarrassed to be caught looking, but before he could politely turn away, Olive waved and smiled and even dared to beckon, very much hoping that Betty and the rest of her friends weren't watching.
Peter was polite enough not to refuse a summons from a woman, so she wasn't surprised when he came closer, even if he looked more than a bit awkward on his way. If they'd been anywhere else, Olive might have called out her own name, but it seemed ridiculous at the club, and she was very relieved when, halfway across the floor, he seemed to realize who she was, judging by the growing smile on his face and the way he picked up speed.
“It's the Honorable Olive Byrne, isn't it?” he asked as soon as he was near her table. Even after nearly half his life spent in England, there was a little bit of Russia in his voice, still, and if she hadn't known him before, she would have guessed then. “Anna said you were in London but I didn't expect to run into you so suddenly. In fact, she made it clear that I'm expected to call on you.”
“It is, though if you call me that I'm going to have to call you Count Peter. Do sit down, won't you? Join me for a little while—unless you have a partner waiting on you.”
“No, no, not at all. I came alone tonight—I didn't mean to come at all, actually. I was at the ballet with Anna and Rupert and on my way home I heard the music and I couldn't resist.” He did sit down, pulling out the chair next to her with companionable ease and smiling out at the dance floor. “I do miss music, when I'm traveling.”
“How long have you been back?”
“Only a few days. What brings you to London?”
Olive gestured at the dance floor. All of her friends were engaged, luckily, or they would be staring. “It's term break, and we thought we'd come down and have some fun before going back to the grind of our last year.”
“Very admirable. Rupert tells me your studies go well?”
Olive waved a hand. “Don't let's talk about my studies. It's a dance. Just because I can't doesn't mean I want to talk like it's an afternoon call.”
Peter nodded solemnly, and it was what she'd always liked best about him, the way he'd always seemed to understand things that she would have had to explain to anyone else. He was like Anna that way, but unlike his sister, he'd never gone about gently trying to fix things after he understood them, just let her know about the understanding and waited to see what she would do. “What shall I do, then? Fetch you a drink?”
“Then we couldn't talk, and anyway, my friends keep giving me drinks as thanks for keeping our table free, so I really oughtn't have more. No, we can watch the dancers and talk about them, or about anything, really, except how close exams are getting.” She looked out at the glittering crowd, and thought of the dances she'd watched at Heslop Hall, how exciting and adult they'd seemed but how they had nothing on the energy and joy of people dancing to jazz in a club. The only experience she'd ever had that could compare was the Russian Club. “This doesn't have anything on mummified grandmothers and Pupsik, though.”
After a startled moment, Peter laughed. “You remember that?”
“Of course I do. It was a memorable day.” She leaned back in her chair. “I'll always remember it, I think.”
“I never got to go much, being at school all the time. And I don't think I ever quite got the treatment like you did. I do miss it, though. It's good that we don't need the club as much anymore, but it was a beautiful place.”
“That is true. My childhood friend, for instance, becomes a very beautiful young woman.”
It was an amazing trait of the Grazinskys, that they could say things like that and sound sincere rather than flirtatious or flattering. Even if being a childhood friend was a polite fiction, since he'd actually been Hugh's friend. “Be honest, though,” she said, as lightly as she could. “Were you staring because I'm pretty or because I looked familiar?”
“It can't be both? I certainly recognized the color of the hair before anything else, I must admit. Like a sunset.”
Olive laughed, thinking of the Russian Club and the handsomest man she was ever likely to meet, who did, she realized, resemble his cousin a great deal. “I've heard that before,” she said, and he just smiled at her, honest and unoffended, waiting to see if she would let him in on the joke. “From your cousin.”
“Ah. Sergei thinks of the best compliments a decade and more before I do. You'll have to forgive my lack of originality.” Peter sighed and turned his eyes back to the people dancing, pink-cheeked with the speed of it all. “I missed this. People, and life, and color. I love looking into the past, but it still isn't home.”
“How long are you staying this time?” Anna always fretted when he was traveling, which was often, as he assisted some of his and Rupert's old professors with their work as they aged.
“I don't know. I've been instructed to write an article on this most recent journey, which will take a while. And I might receive an invitation to lecture, which I would like. Perhaps, in the future, I will take fewer trips, and find more of a home here.”
“Anna would be so happy, I know. And no doubt your mother and Pinny would be too. Not to mention Niannka.”
Peter's mouth quirked. “And how is Niannka?”
“Somehow busier than ever even if she is supposed to be retired, between Tom and Susie's two and Anna and Rupert's three. You ought to go down to Mersham and see her, she speaks of you so often.”
“I plan to,” he assured her. “Will you be going down to Heslop, once your sojourn here in London is done?”
“For a week or two, I think. Mother has plans to throw me some kind of party, I think.” Minna obviously had her marriage in mind, in a few years, and had been devising parties that wouldn't revolve around dancing for her benefit, to see if any of it suited Olive. Which it might, but it was still embarrassing to contemplate.
“Perhaps we'll overlap. I'd love to attend a party in your honor.”
Olive shook off her worries about Minna's plans, which were even worse to think about than the upcoming term. “And who says you'll be invited?”
Peter laughed. “I am justly chastised, my apologies, Miss Byrne.”
“I suppose an old friend would have to be welcome.”
“And, I hope, a new friend as well. I'd like that.”
“I would too.”
The music came to a crashing end, and the dancers all applauded. Olive applauded with them, and expected her friends to come back, ready to switch partners or sit with her to breathe. None of them, however, materialized, and Olive peered out to find that they were standing in a knot a ways away, pretending not to watch her. She thought about gesturing them over, introducing Peter as an old friend, watching Betty and Sylvia giggle when she introduced him as a count, folding him into their group even if he was a bit older than the rest of them. If he hadn't mentioned being a new friend too, she probably would have done it. As it was, it was worth continuing the conversation.
When the music began again, it was slow, a little melancholy, and as the lights dimmed, couples flocked to the floor. Olive sighed and watched them all, dancing the steps, clinging on tight.
“Would you like to dance?” Peter asked abruptly, and she turned to him with a blink, wondering if she'd heard him right, to find him smiling and warm and hopeful, hand extended in a courtly gesture that seemed to like him it was almost funny.
Olive frowned a little, stung at his joking or his lack of memory or whatever it was that possessed him to ask. “I can't, really. Not well enough to do in public.”
“Can you trust me? It won't be quite what everyone else is doing, but I am at a club with a pretty young lady and I would be a very poor gentleman if I couldn't dance with her.”
If he were anyone but Peter Grazinsky, Olive would have said no, and sent him away, and hoped never to see him again, and she would have been hurt and trying not to be for the whole night. But Peter never coddled her or embarrassed her when they were children, and he seemed to have an honest desire, so she stood up and gave him her hand when he stood beside her. “What do you want me to do, then?”
“Come on, if you're going to dance, you should do it on the dance floor.” He led her out, and Olive kept pace and then stood there, wondering if she should be shuffling into the correct steps. Instead of that, though, Peter just kept her hand in his, placed her other one on his shoulder, wrapped his arm around her so securely enough that she felt she would have to work hard to stumble, and started rocking a bit side to side, taking them in a circle. “There,” he said eventually, and she had to turn her head to see him, they were dancing so close. “You're dancing.”
Her friends would have questions, later. They would tease her, and prod her, and generally make nuisances of themselves, but they'd do it with affection, and she could bear up under it with the knowledge that Peter had reached out, had offered what she hadn't thought she could have, even if it wasn't the way she'd sometimes dreamed of. Tripping lightly across the floor, knowing all the latest steps, suddenly didn't seem to matter as much as slow shuffling in Peter's arms, knowing he wouldn't let her trip or fall. “I am,” she said, and rested her cheek on his shoulder, listening to the singer on stage croon through the end of the song.
When it was over, Peter bowed—not one of his sister's dramatic curtsies, which she now mostly employed as jokes, but in his own way, courtly and very sincere. “I shouldn't stay,” he said, and she imagined he even sounded like he regretted it. “I only meant to come in for a song or two, I'm supposed to meet Anna and the children in the morning.”
“Then of course you should rest,” she said immediately, retreating back in the direction of her table, which by some miracle nobody had stolen. “But perhaps I'll see you when we're both down at home?”
“You'll definitely see me,” said Peter. “Thank you for the dance, Olive. I'm honored to be your first of the evening.”
“First ever,” she corrected, and couldn't stop herself blushing at admitting that in public.
Peter just gave her another bow. “I'm even more honored. And now, I think, I shall leave you to the friends who are watching from somewhere nearby. My apologies for leaving you without getting you a drink, but I'll make up for it at that party,” he said, and with that, he vanished.
In a moment, her friends were swarming her, Betty and Sylvia and Stanley and Violet all at once. “And you thought he wasn't watching you!” Betty crowed. “Who was he? You seemed to know him? You danced with him!”
“Now I'm offended you've never danced with me,” said Stanley, with a grin that gave it away as a joke. “Just you wait for the next slow number, Ollie. We'll show them all how it's done.”
“Don't do it, he'll step on your toes,” said Violet. “Really, though, who was that?”
“An old friend—the Countess Westerholme's brother, Peter. He's been out of the country and we had to catch up.”
“An old friend, eh?” said Sylvia, grinning and elbowing her. “Will you be seeing him again?”
Olive looked over to the door, where Peter was just walking out, going back into the London evening. He hadn't danced with anyone else, even after saying he'd missed the noise and the music and the crowds. She was willing to bet he'd missed real dancing as well, but he hadn't sought out anyone but Olive. She didn't know if that was significant, but she thought she might like to find out. “I think I will,” she said, and didn't even mind her friends teasing her about it for the rest of the night.