When Madison and Rupert meet for the first time…
ON THE OTHER SIDE of Tom Quad, Great Tom, the loudest bell in all Oxford, struck nine o’clock. The sharp November air smelled of woodsmoke, and Madison longed for Louisiana’s heat.
She missed her good old Converse sneakers, jeans and granny pants as she pulled a skimpy piece of material down her legs. No way this was called a dress.
Her eyes were fixed on the imposing facade of Christ Church Hall when she begged, “I’m freezing here. Can we go inside?”
Pippa gestured toward the entrance and strutted inside. Madison had met the girl—and her Irish mane of red hair—on her first day in England, on the train up from London.
For a week now she had given Madison the guilt trip. A graduate at Christ Church College, Madison was Pippa’s ticket to the social event of the Michaelmas term: Christ Church Ball. Pippa’s persistence had paid off and here she was, ready to cause mayhem with the male students.
Madison took a deep breath and followed the bright halo of Pippa’s hair up the sixteenth-century staircase that led to the Great Hall. Oliver, Madison’s dormmate, flanked her. A tuxedo had replaced his skinny jeans. She patted his thin shoulders to inject some confidence into him, but he kept starring at Pippa’s electric-blue dress. Star-struck.
At first, Madison struggled to recognize the grand, silent Dining Hall, although its vaulted ceiling rose to the heavens as usual. Tonight, the room was overcrowded and overheated. Still, it was a better option than being locked in her room obsessing over the morning’s drama and the Puritan in the painting.
“Ollie, could you please get us some drinks?” Pippa’s smile showcased her dimples. “White wine for both of us.”
How to resist the musical lilt of her voice? Ollie couldn’t and headed for the bar. “Jolly good. Beats dancing anytime.”
Pippa turned to Madison. “I’m glad I lent you the dress. The way you look tonight, all the guys will get you a drink. You’ll be the first one to get wasted.”
“I could use a few glasses right now … I feel like a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
But Pippa’s attention had already shifted toward a potential target for the night. Irish Queen Bee waved at a muscular guy and strutted in his direction. Between chasing able-bodied male victims and college gossiping, there was never a dull moment in Pippa Connelly’s life.
Madison could leave now and let everyone else have a great time, but she didn’t want to sabotage herself again.
Her skin stung. She lifted her head to survey the space in front of her and met the glassy stare of Chris Church’s founder: Henry the Eighth. Hung on the other side of the hall, his portly figure spread over a full-length portrait.
Anne Boleyn, I am not.
Resolve solidified Madison’s stance and squared her shoulders. Tonight, she would face the music. Literally.
At Yale, she’d been too busy studying and juggling jobs to be part of the party scene. But things were looking up now. She was in a master’s program at Oxford University, England. Take that. And in the month since her arrival, she had been pretty lucky, meeting Pippa, then Ollie. Yes, things were definitely looking up.
Thinking of Ollie, Madison gazed at the crowded hall in search of her roommate. He wasn’t at the bar, and she needed a glass in her hand so she would have something to do with herself.
With an old Madonna tune playing in the background, she marched toward the bar.
Please God, keep this dress below my panty line.
Ollie was nowhere to be seen. She ordered a glass of white and ignored the push and pull of the other students around her eager for a drink.
“First time here?” asked a clipped voice behind her at the jammed-up counter.
She turned around. A guy about her age towered over her. She leaned against the bar to support herself as she lifted her gaze from the light blue shirt he wore, to a crisp collar, and followed the line of his neck to the handsome face above. No tuxedo here.
Madison cleared her throat, but only managed a ‘Yes’ that sounded more like a croak.
The smell of his freshly laundered clothes drifted over her. Bergamot or lavender, Madison couldn’t say which, but the fragrance contrasted with the sweat and cheap perfume of the crowd.
He’s hotter than the hinges on the gates of hell.
He chuckled, clearly enjoying her agitation. But his voice was soft when he asked, “American? Where from?”
“Louisiana.” Adonis is chatting me up.
The full-lips-slash-chiseled-cheekbones combo was full-on cliché, but would melt a freakin’ iceberg.
He gave her a rueful smile and she tried turning away, but couldn’t find the necessary space at the crowded bar. Pivoting her head, she strained for a better view of possible avenues of retreat.
“You arrived with Ginger Girl.”
“No idea who you’re talking about … Blondie.” The steel in her voice had chinks in it.
Sparkles lit up in his eyes, and her heart missed a beat. Shivers— chilly then warm—ran down her spine, and back up again. The student bartender shook her elbow and signaled toward a glass on the bar. She held out the exact change, keeping her arm strong, her hand still, but her new friend stopped her midway.
“Allow me. I’m Rupert, by the way.”
“I’ll pay for it,” she answered in a tone that rang ﬂ at. “Mine’s Madison.” No froggy sound this time. Phew.
“Maybe we could go somewhere quieter.” His offer sounded like a naughty invitation, one that said, “I wanna do bad things with you, honey.” Or at least it did to Madison’s wired brain.
“Sorry, I’m spending the evening with my friends,” she forced herself to articulate. God, could she sound more laaaaaaame?
“I see, although I’m not sure your friends will play by your rules. Pippa Connelly doesn’t often leave a party on her own. You shouldn’t be left all by yourself.”
Taking her wine, she finally managed to move out of his way. “Is that the best pick-up line you have?” Yes, more of that. “Something tells me you don’t leave parties on your own, either.” Woo-hoo.
He shrugged and cast his eyes downward. “True.”
“Good luck then. No doubt you’ll find a desperate girl or two tonight.” She flashed him the Scarlett O’Hara smile her mother had taught her. As if the LeBon women had ever been Southern belles.
Madison walked away, her chin up.
For once, she hadn’t screwed up socially. She had even been quite good toward the end of this verbal ping-pong, even if she did say so herself.
She peeked back toward Rupert. His eyes remained glued on her, while he ignored an anorexic blond girl standing at his side. Satisfied, Madison brought the glass to her lips. The wine was almost as sweet as the rum her grandmother drank back home. She spotted a dark corner to savor her social victory in peace.
After three steps, an inner storm struck. As it had done earlier that morning.
The ballroom and the laughing crowd fell away from the foreground, as if she were on a roller coaster.