"Rise and shine, New York's finest Four Hundred. 1913 promises to be another eventful season, but not, this author believes, for Her Gracefulness, New York high society's most elusive (and well-heeled) bachelorette, who has shown no indication that she plans to marry.
And in truth, why should she? When it comes to playing the consummate singleton and incorrigible rabble-rouser, nobody does it better.
—Lady J’s Society Column, The Daily Bugle, April 1913
Peter dashes into the grand ballroom, frantically straightening his formal suit jacket over his other less-nice (and mostly-bloody) suit and checking that he hasn’t missed a button in his haste.
He's still bleeding from the stray bullet that caught him in the leg and he's worried about his shirt-buttons. Typical.
The irony doesn't escape him that just an hour ago, he was wearing a grimy, homemade mask and creeping through the Pinkerton encampment, looking for the explosives they were planning to use on the factory workers striking tomorrow. Now, Peter is waltzing into the most expensive hotel in New York City for a decadent party filled with the very same business tycoons who hire thugs like the Pinkertons to keep their workers in line.
The same kind of thugs, Peter suspects, who murdered his Uncle Ben for helping workers unionize all across the city, then covered it up as a fatal mugging.
But revenge is not why he's at the Waldorf Astoria, at least not tonight.
It's the opening fête of the social season, and in attendance are the crème de la crème of New York society—although Peter feels more like whey slosh, or whatever dregs are left from curdled milk.
He's always considered himself a bit of a romantic, which seems naive in hindsight, and the calculating, almost mercenary, nature of the courtship process has left him feeling disillusioned.
But it is his responsibility to enter an advantageous marriage as much as it is his responsibility to protect the city as Spider-Man.
With his parents long gone and now his uncle six feet under, Peter has few practical options outside of making a good high society match to maintain his family's modest estate. At the very least, it would improve social prospects for his younger sister Teresa, and help support his uncle's widow, May.
Using his family's Stark Industries connection to get his foot in the door, Peter has attended every society party he can get invited to. His father, Richard Parker, had been the head engineer for SI when the iron-mining company first transitioned into steelmaking, making the Starks even wealthier—and the Parkers' fortunes rose with the tide.
Unfortunately, Peter's efforts have proven to be fruitless and mostly demoralizing so far. Perhaps he isn't ready to let go of his hope for a love match, like his parents and his aunt and uncle once were, as impractical as it may be. But he has a responsibility to his family, now more than ever, and hopes tonight could be different.
Before he throws himself into the fray of courteous small talk and dancing, he makes his way over to the buffet table, hoping to get something in his stomach first and give his leg time to heal.
His eyes rake over the spread of luxurious and strange foods he’s still not used to having—fried blue point oysters, salmon soaked in champagne and truffles, and cuts of beef, ham, and chicken suspended in jelly. It's certainly a far cry from his Aunt May's wheatcakes, but he can't imagine stomaching any of it right now.
Turning abruptly, Peter bumps into a woman standing by the pastries, making her drop the piece of bread she was buttering. They stare at the pitiful morsel on the ground for a painfully long moment before panic sets in.
Apologizing profusely, Peter swiftly crouches down to clean up the mess, frantically wiping the butter off the floor before one of the hotel's footmen can get to it.
“Sorry! I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to bump into you, Miss... um...” His mind goes blank trying to place her face, he’s so transfixed on her dark eyes and unreadable expression. He doesn't think he's ever met her before because he'd definitely remember someone this beautiful. "Your name, miss?"
"Am I to honestly believe you do not already know my name?" she scoffs, raising an eyebrow.
Alright, arrogant and beautiful—he shouldn’t be so surprised that both should come hand in hand, especially among this set of society’s elite.
"If you wanted an introduction, sir," the woman continues, dusting bread crumbs off her dark embroidered dress, "I do believe accosting me under such a pretense to be the least civilized of ways."
"Accosting you?" Peter chokes out, still holding the bread in a napkin. An accidental bump is hardly the confrontation she's making it out to be, but he can't help worrying that he unwittingly made some sort of faux pas.
"Truly, they will try anything. Unbelievable," the woman mutters under her breath, crossing her arms. Somehow, she makes petulance look graceful; perhaps it's something rich girls learn. "What next, were you going to accidentally fill my dance card with your name?"
"No. No, that’s not what I meant to do at all. I was just…"
"At least you know how to clean up after yourself," she observes impassively, ignoring his flustered state. "That's more than I can say for the lot of dudes1 here, so I suppose that's worth something."
His face gets hot under her scrutiny, and he can't help bristling at her patronizing tone while still wanting her approval all the same.
Thankfully, he catches sight of a familiar face and desperately gestures at his friend to come over.
Ever since they first met at a cotillion at Delmonico’s, Peter and Ned—more formally known as Edward Leeds II, son of the current Resident Commissioner representing the Philippines in Congress—became fast friends, finding commonality as outsiders on the fringe of New York’s elite circles. Ned is also the friendliest gossip he has ever met, and Peter appreciates all the help he can get navigating these waters.
“Your grace,” Ned nods politely at the woman.
“Mr. Leeds,” she acknowledges, eyes darting back to Peter for a brief moment. "I believe I saw Miss Brant earlier, if you were inclined to make your presence known, though I can't believe that you two are at this tedious party."
Ned furrows his brows in confusion. "But you're here, too?"
"...Am I?" she replies cryptically, plucking another roll from the tower of bread before sweeping away from the buffet table.
“Who was that?” asks Peter, staring after the woman as she disappears into the crowd.
"Uh... only New York's most eligible and most uncatchable debutante?” says Ned, reaching for a canape.
“Uncatchable? I guess with her lack of manners...”
"Uncatchable as in she does not wish to be caught," Ned explains in between bites. "And having just inherited her father's entire estate as his sole heir, Michelle Jones Watson has the means to remain unattached for as long as she wants."
“Watson? As in Senator Philip Watson?”
"Yup. They're descended from old money—I'm talking about the Dutch patroons that settled New York, like, centuries ago—plus she inherited her father's old world title, probably even has a duchy somewhere in Europe."
That explains her attitude, Peter supposes. Hopefully the duchess won’t speak poorly of him to the other ladies at the ball, but he can’t imagine someone so foul-tempered having friends. No matter, he needs to worry about himself tonight, not some haughty heiress who thinks being beautiful and clever gives her a pass for rudeness.
Making rounds of the ballroom to meet as many eligible women as he can, Peter finds himself speaking over the din of the orchestra and trying not to sweat through his clothes beneath the chandelier of what must be a thousand incandescent bulbs.
To compensate for his less than illustrious pedigree, Peter offers up witty rejoinders whenever appropriate—and sometimes not so appropriate, judging by the expression of some of the mothers. The young ladies seem more forgiving, and he even charms a few debutantes into a polite laugh, but it seems that even his punny wit isn't enough to make him a compelling suitor.
He does manage to get his name on a few dance cards, but is otherwise thwarted by shrewd mothers before he could even introduce himself.
"Their loss," Ned assures him with a pat on the back.
To distract Peter, he introduces him to his dance partner, a blonde woman named Betty who insists that he must join them for the next quadrille.
“I’d love to, but I’m afraid my dance card is empty for the rest of the night,” Peter sighs.
“That’s alright,” says Betty, waving at someone behind him. "I'm sure Her Grace would be happy to join us, won't she? That makes a pair."
Peter turns around in time to catch the duchess rolling her eyes, but she comes over to them anyway. Unlike the other debutantes, she hasn't been making rounds of the room to assess the bachelors while ensuring that she'd be seen as well. Instead, she seems to be purposefully keeping to herself and avoiding attention, preferring to observe everyone else.
"We went to Miss Spence's School for Girls together," says Betty, "before Her Grace abandoned me for college up at Vassar."
“Um, yeah, we didn’t get properly introduced before,” he says. “I’m Peter. Parker. Of, uh, Queens.”
“Ah yes, 'the Iron-man’s charity case'. That's you, is it?” asks the duchess, holding out her hand.
Peter purses his lips together and begrudgingly takes her hand in his. "The Bugle is always so generously descriptive with their codenames, one has to wonder why they bother at all."
It was rare for names to be published in the gossip column, but the aliases used to disguise the identity of the subjects were deliberately easy to see through. His sister particularly enjoys sharing these stories with her friends and working out exactly who an article is referring to.
“It’s not libel if she doesn’t name names,” Teresa once pointed out.
Indeed, but that didn't help Peter's reputation, especially if the duchess figured it out so quickly.
When the music for the next dance starts, the four of them take their positions for the quadrille with another pair of couples.
“Have you considered being a taxi dancer at Maxim’s?” asks the duchess, stepping towards Peter in time with the music. “I’m sure there are plenty of rich women who’d be more than willing to pay for all sorts of pleasures with a handsome man for the night—as a dance partner, of course. Might need to ply them with plenty of champagne first though, if you’re going to be dancing like this.”
Peter’s heard of those cabarets and so-called “lobster palaces” in the theater district that allows deep-pocketed tourists and locals to sample a taste of New York’s high life. He also knows that the real upper crust sneers at the whole scene and regards such patrons as tasteless social pretenders.
The duchess is making fun of him, implying that he’d be better off as nothing more than a male escort posing as a dance-partner-for-hire.
He tightens his grip on her hand and waist, and she smirks.
“I don’t see what’s wrong with getting paid for honest work, even if it’s to entertain the vapid and wealthy,” he says, leading her by the hand. “Unlike you, I don’t have the privilege of being able to do whatever I want, whenever I want—some of us have to work to make a living.”
Normally, he would never be this direct and rude to anyone, but the duchess has gotten him so wound up that he can't help himself.
"Be careful, Mr. Parker," she says, gracefully sweeping across the floor without needing Peter to lead her. "You wouldn't want to misstep."
Shifting the weight on his feet to favor his uninjured leg, Peter flashes her a crooked smile. "Well, I certainly don't want to disappoint Lady J,” he says, referring to the infamous gossip columnist. “After all, I've got a piteous reputation to uphold."
For her entire life, Michelle has tried to understand her father and the contradictions that made up the man she thought she knew.
Phillip Watson was just like any other powerful man when he was alive, proud and distant. He was a ruthless politician who was obsessed with his job and known for his blunt honesty, even when it affronted other people's sensibilities. But it had also been whispered that the duke had loved his late wife so dearly that he'd never been the same since her death, becoming so distraught that he left their infant daughter in his sister’s care while he threw himself into his work for the rest of his life.
Raised by her Aunt Anna while her father was busy pursuing his political ambitions, Michelle was always provided for—private tutors, summers upstate in the country, a fresh wardrobe for each season—everything befitting a young heiress of her status. But her early years were lonely and isolated ones, so she came to fill her mind with richly detailed worlds and, later on, ideas and histories from all the books she methodically devoured from the Watson library.
So, after careful deliberation over the facts at hand, Michelle ultimately decided that if love could conquer a formidable man like the late duke and leave him a despondent shell of his former self, then she wasn't interested in any of it—love, marriage, or the inevitable heartache. She had all she needed with her books and her wits.
Putting off her debut into New York high society until after college, Michelle only became more strong-willed and fiercely independent with age. Her strong opinions and shocking single-woman lifestyle made great fodder for gossip and high society magazines, and she became a favorite subject for both praise and scandalous rumors.
But even that was not enough to deter suitors from greedily eying the Watsons' vast estates and title, and Michelle's been fending off their advances ever since she returned to the city. To make matters worse, with her father gone, Michelle now has to attend these society events on behalf of the Watsons' as the new head of house.
Each time, she feels like a sitting duck, with every eye trained on her, waiting.
After the quadrille is over, she bids Betty and Ned farewell and steps out into the gallery for air. Peter doesn't follow her, not that she expects him to, but she'd become accustomed to his presence over the course of the dance.
Once they found common ground in their mistreatment by the Bugle, it became easier to talk to Peter about everything else. He was a quick learner and surprisingly adept on his feet, and their bodies found a comfortable rhythm together despite his inexperience with the dance. They also attracted some attention when they stayed together for another song instead of changing partners like everyone else.
Of course, they weren't actually interested in each other; it was simply convenient for her, and she's pretty sure he had no other options as far as dance partners were concerned.
But Peter has potential for what she has in mind—he's not pompous enough to convince anyone that he was born from money, but he’s courteous and actually quite charming, notwithstanding her ribbing. And not bad to look at either.
As if her thoughts had summoned him, Peter appears beside her, nearly startling her with an offered glass of spritzer. His shirt collar has come unbuttoned and his hair is a bit sweaty and ruffled from the heat.
"It's hot in there. Thought you might want something cold."
She accepts the drink and thanks him, all the while keenly aware of the surreptitious glances that other partygoers throw their way.
"Perhaps there is an answer to our collective Lady J issue," Michelle says, turning to face Peter.
"What did you have in mind?"
"We could pretend to form an attachment," Michelle proposes. "With you on my arm, the world will believe I’ve finally found my duke. Every presumptuous mother in the city will leave me alone, and every debutante will be looking at you, as I parade you about the room for the highest bidder.”
“What a charming way to describe it,” Peter says sarcastically, crossing his arms. His sleeves are rolled to the elbow, exposing his flexing forearms.
Michelle glances away and clears her throat, grasping for her train of thought again. “Isn’t that all it is? A meat market, followed by an auction for the prize? All these self-ordained 'titans of industry' love arguing that a free market economy is always efficient, but that's not true. The game is rigged and it's just a matter of pulling at the right strings behind the curtain."
"I think I've had too many spritzers to talk about Adam Smith and economic theory with you right now—"
“Seems to me we just need to bolster your perceived value and scarcity, Mr. Parker.” She paces the gallery, considering the idea taking hold in her mind and ignoring the warm feeling in her chest whenever she catches Peter’s eye. "You're not the richest nor the tallest bachelor in the room, you don't have any titles, and a handsome face can only get you so far..."
"Handsome? Also, ouch."
"You could try to seem mysterious," Michelle continues, ignoring him. "Maybe even dangerous, if you're seen associating with the likes of me," she winks. "Present yourself as the perfect opportunity for youthful rebellion to the sweet debs of the Upper East Side and they will bite—they can smell blood in the water, you know."
Peter frowns in distaste and mild confusion. "Is that supposed to be a good thing?"
"They read the gossip rags religiously to keep up with what I'm up to. If you're seen with me, you'd instantly get their attention."
Shaking his head slowly, Peter says, "I don't think that's the kind of person I'm looking for."
"Beggars can't be choosers, Mr. Parker," she replies, waving him off before glancing back with a cheeky smile. "I'm just kidding. It's about building up your perceived desirability to draw 'the right one' out, or whatever, right? Once you're all over the gossip columns."
"You presume Lady J will believe—"
"I presume she'll deem us to be what we are. Me, unavailable,” she says, “and you, finally desirable. And once everyone else perceives you as desirable, then that's precisely what you'll become.”
“So you admit that what the scandal sheets say about you is true? If perception can become reality?” Peter glances at her out of the corner of his eye.
“And what is it that they say about me?” Michelle challenges.
“That you’re eccentric, strong-willed, and—” he leans in close to whisper in her ear “—uncontrollable.”
She knows he intends for it to be an insult, but his words still send a shiver down her spine. Clearing her throat, she replies coolly, “I cannot confirm nor deny such allegations, but I assure you I have no interest in causing a scandal, Mr. Parker."
“No? I just assumed that scandals come naturally to you, Duchess.”
A smile tugs at her lips, and she quickly turns away, only to catch two women whispering behind their painted hand fans while eying her and Peter. It's already working.
Michelle turns back to him. "Only peers of the same social standing may call me Duchess, otherwise it's 'your grace' to you."
Peter pauses. "Well, what would a lover call you?"
"I beg your pardon?" she asks, heart pounding.
"If that's what I'm supposed to be to you," he says, pitching his voice lower, "then what would I call you? When we're alone?"
Michelle closes her eyes as she considers his question, taking a deep breath.
“You can call me MJ.”
“MJ,” Peter repeats, licking his lips as if tasting her name.
No one has called her that in a long time, and hearing him say it makes her feel light-headed and warm.
Finally, he looks up at her and grins, "Alright, sounds like we've got a deal."