In the most remarkable coup of the season, this Author has received multiple reports that the Impoverished Romeo has caught the eye of the one and only Uncatchable.
But is this a love match we have on our hands, or just another one of the Uncatchable's escapades?
—Lady J’s Society Column, The Daily Bugle, May 1913
"I don't think it's really an improvement, going from a 'charity case' to 'impoverished'," Teresa muses, referring to the latest Daily Bugle articles about Peter. "Seems like a step down, no?"
"Thank you for your unwavering support," Peter says sarcastically, trying to snatch the paper out of his sister's hands.
He knows that his name has been popping up in tabloids and gossipped about in drawing rooms all over the city, just as he and the duchess had intended, but that doesn't make him feel any less self-conscious and uneasy about having strangers speculate about him and the nature of their relationship.
Teresa ducks and manages to get beyond his reach, twirling away from him with the paper in hand.
“You’re being awfully touchy about it,” she observes, dropping to a seat beside Peter and holding out the Bugle like a peace offering. "Say, just when do we get to meet the duchess?"
"Never, if I can help it," he replies, taking the paper. It really is too bad that they will never meet; Peter suspects they would get along quite well—perhaps too well.
"Not even on your wedding day?"
Peter sighs and decides to give her a half-truth. "We're just friends. The papers are just making it out to be… something else."
“Just friends? With a duchess?” she presses, eyebrows raised incredulously.
“More like friendly acquaintances, if even that,” he backpedals. While everyone devours Lady J's gossip column as gospel, Peter doesn't like lying to his sister about the duchess. Not another soul knows about Spider-Man, but it's strange keeping another big secret from his family that he's sharing with a woman he's just met.
“Fine, don’t tell me. Just remember: you’re a man, therefore you have everything,” she says, not without an edge in her tone. “You're able to do anything. So do it. Be bold." Her expression softens. "At least that way I can live vicariously through you.”
“You don’t want to live vicariously through me,” Peter laughs.
“Okay, you’re right, I don’t. But it’s better than waiting for someone else to decide my life for me,” says Teresa, suddenly sounding older than he’s ever heard her.
"I only want to give you every possible opportunity, you know that right? That’s why I’m even doing this," he says, more seriously this time. “So when you come out into society, it might be a little easier for you, if I’ve made a respectable match.”
“We’ll see about that, Impoverished Romeo,” his sister teases, sticking out her tongue. "Maybe I'll just run away and never come out! That'll save you all the trouble."
Reaching across the settee to bop her on the head with the rolled up paper, Peter calls her a menace and tells her to wash up before their aunt gets home for supper.
“If this is to work, we have to appear madly in love,” Michelle hisses in Peter’s ear.
Easier said than done, he wants to retort, but he just nods and smiles tightly at her instead, wondering how they can appear madly in love while awkwardly stepping to a minuet. She returns a look that says she thinks he's hopeless, but they're in too deep now to call off their ruse.
For one thing, Peter doesn't know what being madly in love is supposed to look like. His aunt and uncle were always casual and easy with their affection—everyday gestures of love, like when May would serve Ben the largest slice of his favorite pie, or how he'd would surprise her with an afternoon at the park if he got off work early.
Peter's charade with the duchess is a delicate balancing act of sorts—he needs to appear attached to her but still available to other ladies, a potential conquest, so the two of them make no formal declarations and let everyone else make their own assumptions.
But he's not used to getting all this attention as Peter Parker. He can feel them all staring daggers into his back, more pointed and malicious than any attention he’s ever gotten as Spider-Man.
“We also have to look like we’re enjoying ourselves, as difficult as that may be,” the duchess adds, catching the way he’s frowning and assuming it’s because of her.
"I don't know what you're talking about, I'm having a grand time," says Peter, pointedly jerking her closer towards him. “But it might be easier if you didn’t keep trying to lead.”
“I wouldn’t have to if you knew how to lead properly—”
"Not all of us had fancy dancing instructors—"
"Not all of us have two left feet!"
In the heat of their bickering, they nearly step into another couple dancing beside them. Without thinking, Peter pulls Michelle into him as he spins them both away from a near collision. With a gasp, she clings onto his jacket as they almost stumble into another pair of dancers, and Peter stammers out apologies as he rights himself up, his arms still around her waist.
His face is burning and he doesn’t dare look around them, but he can hear the hushed giggles and scandalized murmurs, and he’s almost certain that this isn’t what being madly in love looks like.
Before he can apologize to Michelle, a delicate bell rings to signal that it was time for Mrs. Astor’s famous grand midnight supper—a sumptuous respite from the night of dancing where guests are served by footmen in green plush coats and white breeches.
The party itself is one of the highlights of New York’s social calendar, with the Astor family’s palatial mansion on Fifth Avenue glowing ablaze all night with electric lights, orchestra music playing on every floor, and the most exclusive and sought-after guest list of the season. Of course, one did not attend to enjoy oneself but to be seen—and everyone would see Peter with the duchess tonight, lending credence to the rumors from the gossip columns about their newfound flirtation.
Seated beside each other at dinner with their heads bowed close together, one would never suspect the true nature of their quiet exchange.
"Ugh, not her,” Michelle whispers loudly, rolling her eyes. “That's Justin Hammer's daughter, she's a Titanic survivor and just will not shut up about it."
"Okay, how about her?" asks Peter, gesturing at another debutante.
The duchess makes a face and shakes her head. "She’d bore you to tears about her tiny souvenir spoon collection.”
“What makes you think I wouldn’t be interested in tiny spoons?”
“If you do, then you’re a bigger fool than I'd already figured you out to be.”
“I thought it would be impossible for you to think any less of me,” he quips back through a mouthful of food.
“Never underestimate how low my esteem for a man can go,” the duchess retorts without hesitation, taking a sip of her wine. Peter almost chokes trying not to laugh out loud.
But just as he’s about to take another bite of his poached salmon drenched in Mousseline sauce, his spider-sense starts to prickle, making the hairs on his arms and neck stand on end.
It's only been a few months since the spider bite and he is still getting a handle on his newfound abilities, but he’s already faced the consequences of ignoring his instincts too many times. So he excuses himself and gets up to follow the urgent sensation, despite the puzzled frown Michelle gives him.
He can feel all the eyes following him as he wanders through the party, looking for whatever set his Spider-sense off. Heads turn his way, and his ears redden at the soft titillated whispers and laughter he overhears in his wake.
Turning into the parlor, Peter finally catches sight of his target only to lose them again in a throng of party goers, but when they resurface in the crowd by the smoking room, Peter’s Spider-sense goes on overdrive as he recognizes the man as a Pinkerton enforcer. There’s no reason for a thug like that to be at the Astors’ soiree, unless he works for a guest—perhaps the business mogul responsible for the recent wave of anti-union violence all over the city.
Peter makes a beeline toward the Pinkerton and reaches out to accost the man, but when he turns, it’s someone else entirely. Stopping short before he could collide into anyone, Peter blinks several times and looks around, the tingling of his Spider-sense dying down as he loses the trail.
With a heavy sigh, he makes his way back towards the dining room, hoping he hasn’t missed dessert and doing his best to ignore the stares and snickers at his expense. But Peter’s so focused on his feet that when someone bumps into him hard, he loses his balance and stumbles back.
"Oh, sorry chap! Didn’t quite see you there!" It's one of the young men who kept looking over at Peter with a decidedly unfriendly glare all throughout dinner.
"That's alright, no harm done," says Peter, regretting leaving Michelle’s side more and more by the second.
“Say, I don't think I've seen you around before this season. Were you off on your Grand Tour?" the young man pries. "I spent some time in the Mediterranean, after Harvard. You know, sailing the Greek islands and all that."
"Uh, no, I wasn't in the Mediterranean," says Peter, itching to get out of the conversation. "Just swinging round the city, you know. Taking in all the, um, local sights."
“You mean that infamous hounddog Stark didn’t send his ward off to a pleasure stay in Venice or residence in Rome? Pity!” says another voice.
Peter glances around to see that a few other gentlemen have come up to surround him.
“I’ll be direct with you, Mister Parker,” says the man who bumped into Peter. “We don’t like you sniffing around Lady Watson.”
“Maybe he’s just a diversion for the duchess,” one of the other gentlemen suggests crudely. “Didn't you read what the Bugle said? He’s only been seen with the duchess at evening functions.”
Peter didn't like their tone or the implications behind their remarks.
"What would they even talk about? Women's suffrage?"
The men roar with laughter, slapping their knees, and Peter frowns, not quite sure what the joke is. His aunt is an active and vocal member of NAWSA*, and he’s listened in earnest when the duchess tells him about how the organization still minimizes the role of black suffragists—all the while he's fantasizing about her having the same conversation with May, and then he has to stop himself from thinking about how well they'd get along.
"The only time Osborn here would ever care about suffragettes is when he’s sharpening his aim at them!" One of the men interjects.
"Please, gents—" the man who first came up to Peter says in a diplomatic tone, holding his hands out. But before he can continue, the duchess appears beside Peter and loops her gloved arm in his as the other men hastily greet and bow to her. Her expression is unreadable, and Duchess Watson's inscrutable glare assesses each one of them.
Having lost interest in them, she turns to Peter with a mischievous twitch of her lips that he’s learned to catch.
"Mr. Parker, I want you to take me right now—" she announces, pausing deliberately before continuing, "—for a turn around the room."
Letting out a soft chuckle, Peter lets her lead them this time without a fight, even though anger is still pumping through his veins like fire.
"What were they saying to you?" she asks when they’re out of earshot.
"Um, just that I’m not a serious suitor." She doesn't need to hear the rest of that conversation, he decides.
“They have a point,” Michelle admits. “You haven’t come calling like a proper suitor would.”
“Wouldn’t that be taking this arrangement too far, meeting your family?”
"It's only my aunt left, and we'd be able to take this ruse on daytime excursions with her as a chaperone," explains Michelle, chewing her lip in a very unduchess-like way.
The idea of spending more time with her makes Peter want to jump and skip, but he refrains and continues leading her around the ballroom at the same even pace, his eyes never leaving her face.
Her cheeks darken and she glances away. "But you're right, that might be going too far. Besides, if anyone will be hard to fool about us, it will be Lady Anna Watson."
Indeed, Peter has only seen Michelle at high society balls and parties up until now, and they were always in full view of others and never alone, even for a second. If fooling her aunt is what it takes to spend more time with Michelle, he's more than willing to try.
The thought brings his feet grinding to a halt, scuffing the sides of his nicest pair of shoes. There's no reason he should need or want to spend any time alone with the duchess.
"Are you alright there?" she asks, with far more concern than he expected. "If it's anything those knuckleheads said, I'd ignore it."
Peter shakes his head, forcing a smile for her, and when the crease of worry between her brows remains, he offers her his hand and says, “It's already forgotten.”
At his third society event that week, Peter finds himself by the duchess' side for most of the evening again, and he couldn't be more pleased.
Part of him does feel guilty that he's not using his time at these parties to meet other women, which was the entire reason he agreed to this ruse with the duchess in the first place. Every second Peter spends with her, a woman vastly out of his reach and wholly uninterested in matrimony, is time he could otherwise spend finding a wife.
But another part of him reasons that he's merely upholding his end of their bargain, and that their ruse would be worth it in the end.
Especially when he can get a snorting laugh out of the duchess, and she has to hold onto him for support as she balances a champagne glass in her other gloved hand, her chest shaking while she catches her breath.
"You are ridiculous," Michelle declares, wiping at her eyes.
The dark beaded gems on her dress are shimmering in the incandescent lighting, but it's her flushed face that has him hypnotized. He wants to kiss her, so very much, but he also knows it's because of all those gin cocktails he's had tonight. It would also absolutely ruin the arrangement they'd agreed upon, if he gave into any fanciful notions.
"Is it awful that I'm enjoying this?" the duchess asks, leading him to the dance floor, oblivious to Peter's internal turmoil.
“My delightful sense of humor?” his jokes, though his head feels light and warm.
"Of course not,” she snorts, looking back at him before tugging him along further. “I mean fooling the Bugle and all the other gossip papers. Lady J knows everything about everyone, and yet we have her utterly convinced that we are crazy for each other."
“I knew you had a competitive streak in you,” he says, taking her hand in his as they get into position for a waltz.
She smiles and places her free hand on his shoulder. "What else do you know about me?"
"You hate attention and being observed, but you know you can't avoid it, so you've decided to control what parts of you other people are allowed to see."
Michelle narrows her eyes at him. "Everyone does that."
"I don’t think so—I mean, I love getting attention," Peter counters.
"You certainly seemed to love the attention from the Belmont sisters at the last gala," she says, turning her nose up.
She's just teasing him, surely, but a hopeful part of him asks, "Is that jealousy I'm hearing in your tone?"
"Of course," she replies, eyes twinkling. "Our scheme is no use if I don't appear territorial. We need to make them want to take something from me."
“In that case, we are awfully clever, huh?” says Peter, puffing up his chest for her.
“I have to admit that excessive pride suits you, Mr. Parker.”
“But pride is a sin, your grace,” he reminds her cheekily.
“One of the lesser sins,” she grins, letting him twirl her. “But do not worry, we must all start somewhere.”
Indeed, Peter is finally getting the attention he had wanted so much before meeting the duchess, but he still cannot find a spark with any of the fine ladies he’s met so far. It probably doesn’t help that at every party, he and Michelle would dance together twice—the maximum permitted without scandalizing everyone more than they already have.
They'd also whisper and joke with each other, making fun of the other guests and coming up with games to pass the time, until Peter’s forgotten why he’s at the party in the first place. That is, until something always inevitably reminds him that their time together is just a farce.
"Why don't you just find someone to marry and put yourself out of your misery?” the duchess asks, brows furrowed as she surveys the ballroom beside him. “Surely it can’t be that difficult to find a tolerable woman for that."
Peter raises his eyebrows at her. "Are you asking?" That makes her eyes widen comically and her jaw drops, looking absolutely petrified, and he swallows back a laugh. "I thought not, Your Grace."
Michelle acts like she’s been caught, but he doesn’t know for what. She just blinks at him, going still like she usually does when she's uncomfortable or wants to be left alone.
When she doesn't say anything, he takes one look at her and lets out an impatient exhale. "Oh, come on. You can start breathing now. I was only joking."
Surely the idea of marrying him isn't that appalling, but her reaction makes him feel a bit deflated nonetheless. He turns away so his expression doesn’t betray him, but he can feel her gaze linger on him.
“I suppose,” she says slowly, “if I were forced to take a husband, you would be the least objectionable option.”
"How gracious of you to say so," Peter says dryly, though his pride still stings a bit.
It’s his own fault for letting himself get caught up in the duchess, he knows it. Their ruse has been so convincing that he's even fooling himself, and he needs to stop thinking about how she smells like rosewater and vanilla musk, and that he'd like to find out where else she’s dabbed her perfume.
He's so lost in his fantasies that he only catches the last part of Michelle's invitation to the opera, but he accepts it happily.
“Just don’t be late,” she says, looking over his shoulder. "We need to be seen going into the theater all together before the show, so we make it into Lady J's column."
Her pragmatic instructions deflate his excitement a bit, but Peter promises her that he'll be there.
Luckily, a young woman in a blue frock approaches him, and he thinks this is his chance to distract himself from his growing feelings for the duchess.
"My dance card happens to have an opening for the next dance," she says, not daring to make eye contact with the duchess. "Might you be available, Mr. Parker?"
"Me? Oh, yes! I'm free! Miss…?"
"Cooper," she curtseys, "Carlie Cooper."
"Must I share you with every moon-eyed lady here, Mr. Parker," Michelle whispers loudly, exaggerating her annoyance.
"Only the charming ones, Your grace," he replies, winking at the girl, who blushes prettily back at him.
The duchess scoffs at that and makes a show of her displeasure for nosy onlookers, and it's convincing even to Peter.
"You played the perfect jealous heiress," he compliments her before following the other girl to the dancefloor.
Michelle nods but doesn't say anything as she watches him leave, so he looks back and promises, "I'll see you at the opera!"
"Don't be late," she says before the crowd separates them.
*National American Woman Suffrage Association