Authors: Josi S. Kilpack
Book cover design © Shadow Mountain, 2016
Cover Images: DarkBird/shutterstock.com, Ollyy/shutterstock.com, Naffarts/shutterstock.com
Art direction: Richard Erickson
Design: Heather G. Ward
Bianca Davidson glanced over her shoulder and, assured that none of the evening’s guests were watching her for the moment, slipped out the side door of the drawing room—the door the servants typically used. She moved down the narrow hall, through another door, up the servant’s stairway, and into the linen cupboard on the second floor. She’d have gone to her bedchamber, but it was the first place Mama would look when she realized Bianca was missing—a fact Mama would realize in about fourteen seconds.
The cupboard was blessedly dark and private, but unfortunately cramped. She’d often found solace here, or in the hayloft, when she was a young girl. Only the stakes had not been so high when she’d needed escape back then, and she had fit in the cupboard more comfortably than she did now. With her back pressed against the shelves, her nose nearly touched the inside of the door. But the discomfort she felt wasn’t half what she’d felt in the drawing room.
“He is the most insufferable fool I have ever met,” she said to the sheets and throw blankets crammed into the shelves behind her. How long could she reasonably hide here? Ten minutes? An hour? A month? Perhaps she should have chosen the hayloft.
—Lord Strapshire—had been welcomed by the entire village the instant he had appeared in the doorway of the Braithwaite’s ball a month earlier. As cousin to the family, had come as a guest to the engagement ball of Miss Constance Braithwaite, but few people noticed the bride-to-be once Lord Strapshire arrived.
He drew every eye in the room. He was far more fashionable than the other young men in northern England and breathtakingly handsome with wavy, golden hair combed into a perfect Brutus, rich green eyes that sparkled like emeralds in the candlelight, and a dimple in his chin that made women’s knees go weak.
Bianca had been as entranced by him as everyone else. The way he walked with the easy grace of aristocracy, and the low timbre of his voice further seduced her to the point that when he asked her to dance, she had stumbled over her reply.
In addition to the physical impression Lord Strapshire made, he danced beautifully, had the softest hands, and the glowing compliments he paid her made her feel as though she were the only woman in the room. She was not used to such attention and had gone home on a cloud.
When he’d called on her the very next day, why, she felt that the sun, moon, and stars had aligned for her benefit alone. Mama thought the same and could not stop talking about his attention.
“He might be the one,” Mama had said after that first visit. She peered through the drawing room curtains to watch his fine barouche drive away, then turned a brilliant smile to her only daughter. “He might be the very destiny I have prayed for you!”
That Lord Strapshire hadn’t talked of anything but his horse and his dogs and his estate and his recent trip to London hadn’t seemed out of place during that first morning visit. When he came for dinner a few days later, however, he again talked—nearly boasted—only of himself. And the next visit. And the next.
For two full weeks, Bianca attempted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he was uncomfortable in this new place, and it made him ramble. However, she also noticed that his compliments toward her remained superficial—comments about her hair and dress and figure—and that he would often cut her off when she began to tell something of herself or share something that interested her. A week ago she had stared at the ceiling of her room late at night and admitted to herself that she did not like his company nearly as much as she had in the beginning.
After that she had assessed his behavior with a more objective eye and found him to be an absolute boor
a bore. When he did talk about other people, it was with a sense of superiority. His usual tone for the servants was snappish, and Bianca had sought out one upstairs maid who left his company with a quivering chin after he called her an idiot for bringing him the wrong coat after dinner. After tea last Friday, she caught him wiping his nose with the sleeve of his coat. He spit into the bushes when she walked him to the stable to fetch his horse, a pure white stallion named Orion’s Triumph. He’d seemed to expect her to accept his poor manners without objection. She did not object out loud, but neither did she accept his behavior simply because he was handsome.
When they’d gone for a walk through her mother’s prized rose garden, he had absently plucked the petals from nearly a dozen blossoms before she begged him to stop ruining the flowers. He defended himself with the explanation that the deep red petals perfectly matched the red stitching of his waistcoat, and he liked the idea of walking back over a trail of petals upon their return. She told him it was wasteful to destroy the blooms for such a thing.
“Oh, but I asked the roses if they minded, and they assured me that they could think of no higher distinction than to serve as a backdrop for my fine coat. It is from Weston, you know.” He went on to tell her,
, how he managed to secure an appointment with the heralded tailor in London, who then proclaimed him a paragon of the male physique.
Bianca grit her teeth and made the decision right then to lose his favor. She could not spend her life with a man who saw nothing but his own reflection, who cared nothing for other people, and who showed a complete lack of interest in her thoughts. Such a life would be purgatory, and she could not sentence herself to such a fate.
Only it was not so easy to throw him over as she had thought it would be.
Bianca had been completely silent through two dinner parties, and he did not notice in the least. In fact, he seemed to prefer it. When they were partnered at cards, she purposely lost, but he simply made sport of her failings and reminded her that cards were a rather intellectual form of entertainment and so she should not feel too badly—he would partner with a man next time. She bowed out of a ride in his barouche, but he came back the next day and Mama made her accept his invitation. Surely any reasonable man would see that she was not enjoying his company when she did not offer more than one-word answers, but Lord Strapshire was not a reasonable man and had commented upon returning her home how grateful he was that she had not prattled on during their ride. A silent woman was good company indeed.
Oh, how Bianca had wanted to slap him!
What else can I do?
she asked herself alone in the cupboard. She did not want to be outright rude—Mama would have something to say about that—but she was running out of alternatives.
Tonight, Lord Strapshire had arrived half an hour early for the party and dominated her company with talk only of himself—aside from a comment that the color green did not become her and she should avoid it in the future.
Her irritation had grown by the minute until, when Mr. Dawson asked about Lord Strapshire’s barouche—which Bianca had heard about ad nauseam—she slipped away, determined to find a solution to this increasingly annoying problem since the evening thus far had proven beyond a doubt that she must be rid of him. The sooner the better. She could not take much more of this.
Now that she was alone, she could think of how to fix this.
Suddenly the cupboard door flew open, and Bianca froze at the sight of the scowl on her mother’s face.
“What on earth are you doing here, Bianca?” Mama said, reaching in and taking Bianca by the forearm. “Lord Strapshire is looking for you.”
“Oh, Mama, please don’t make me go back. I must have a few minutes to myself.”
Mama pulled on her arm, causing Bianca to stumble from what she thought would be her haven.
“Which you have had.” Mama did not loosen her grip, nor pause for conversation. Instead, she pulled Bianca toward the stairs as though Bianca were a five-year-old rather than a fully-grown woman of nineteen years. Mama continued. “It is time to return to our guests.”
” Bianca said. It was past time to share her thoughts with her mother, who had been aflutter from Lord Strapshire’s attention since the start. “I’ve done nothing but
with Lord Strapshire and
to Lord Strapshire and
with Lord Strapshire and dance around the room with Lord Strapshire all evening. I am suffocating beneath his attention.”
There wasn’t even supposed to be dancing tonight, but Lord Strapshire had sweet-talked Mrs. Gibson into a playing the pianoforte so that he might show everyone the latest dances from London. His display had looked exactly like every other dance Bianca had ever seen, but the audience oohed and aahed as though he invented every step. How did no one see him for the arrogant fool he was?
“Don’t be a ninny,” Mama said, not slowing her steps. “You are lucky to have his attention, and you
a gracious hostess.”
“Mama,” Bianca said, pulling back hard enough to break her mother’s grip on her arm. “I do not
Lord Strapshire’s attention.”
“Don’t be silly. He is handsome and wealthy and well connected.” She reached for Bianca’s arm again, but Bianca stepped out of reach.
“And arrogant and self-centered and tedious.”
Mama’s expression turned to irritation. “All men are arrogant and self-centered and tedious.”
“Mama!” Bianca said in alarm, thinking of her father, who died when she was five years old. Her own memories of the man were vague—he was not much for doting on his children—but one should not be disrespectful of the dead. And though Mama never spoke of him with much affection, he had left his family with a generous living.
Mama took a reaching step toward Bianca and took her arm again, this time holding it like a vise. “I will not let you ruin this chance.”
Bianca had no choice but to stumble after her mother. They reached the stairs, and Mama marched them down, forcing Bianca to pay close attention to each step so that they did not tumble. “Mama, I do not like him.”
“Fiddle dee dee,” Mama said. “That has nothing to do with a good match.”
“It should have everything to do with it!” Bianca tripped on her skirt and caught herself on the banister with her free hand. Still Mama did not relent. The doorway to the drawing room loomed ahead of them, and Bianca felt her panic rising both at her mother’s refusal to consider her wishes and the fact that Lord Strapshire would be waiting for her on the other side of that door. “I cannot make a match with a man I cannot respect, and I will not be thrown after Lord Strapshire any longer.”