"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."
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