Authors: Olivia Drake
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical Romance, #Victorian
Beatrice reached up to smooth a perfect lock. “I do hope it isn’t a detriment. Some gentlemen don’t care for redheads, and I confess to being quite determined to secure a betrothal in my first season.”
Ellie groaned inwardly. At times Beatrice had no sense of subtlety. And it was clear from the astute gleam in Lady Milford’s eyes that she had surmised the purpose of this visit.
“I see,” Lady Milford murmured. “Well, that is a worthy goal for any young lady of rank.”
“I’m pleased that you agree, my lady.” In a pose of angelic sweetness, Beatrice folded her gloved hands in her lap. “Heaven knows, the coming weeks will be a whirlwind of preparation. There are dress fittings, dancing practice, deportment lessons. A girl cannot help but wonder if all the effort will result in victory … or defeat, with nary a proposal in sight.”
“Rest assured, the gentlemen will flock to a lovely ingénue like you. I doubt you’ll have any difficulty in attracting suitors.”
Beatrice dipped her chin in feigned modesty. “Your ladyship is most kind. Yet I have it on good authority that quite a large number of girls will be making their debut this season. I fear I shall be only one face among many. That is why I thought to come here and beg
Lady Milford raised a cool eyebrow. “Has your father been tightfisted with your marriage portion? Shall I have a word with Pennington?”
“Oh, no, my lady! That isn’t it at
. In truth, I wouldn’t wish for him even to know that I’m here…”
At that moment, a footman wheeled in a tea tray. Thankfully, Beatrice had enough discretion to bide her tongue in the presence of a servant.
Rising, Lady Milford picked up the pot and filled three porcelain cups. Ellie came forward to save their hostess the trouble of bringing one to her. As she did so, she took the opportunity to study the woman.
Lady Milford was even more striking at close perusal. She had remarkable eyes, a deep violet rimmed by black lashes and showing only faint lines at the corners. There was a timeless quality to her fine bone structure that defied Ellie’s ability to gauge her age.
Then she realized that Lady Milford was giving
a keen perusal, too, taking in the ill-fitting gray gown of kersey wool with its long sleeves and high neckline. Ellie refused to quail under the frank assessment. So what if she was a drab sparrow beside Beatrice’s peacock beauty? There was no shame in being the poor relation.
“You are also a Stratham,” Lady Milford said to Ellie. “Would I be correct in presuming you’re the daughter of the earl’s late brother?”
“Yes. Lady Beatrice and I are cousins.” Noticing that Beatrice was frowning from the chaise, Ellie added, “If you’ll excuse me, my lady.”
Turning, she retreated to her solitary chair against the wall. It was best to avoid being drawn into conversation. Beatrice would become peevish if she wasn’t the center of attention, and Ellie preferred not to face a fit of the pouts on the way home.
The hot cup warmed her chilly fingers. Savoring a sip, she watched as Lady Milford resumed her seat across from Beatrice.
“Now,” Lady Milford said, “you were telling me that you hope to lead the other girls in the race to the altar. And
was saying that a girl as lovely as you are is certain to attract scores of suitors.”
“Oh, but I don’t need
. If I may confess something, my lady?” Without waiting for an assent, Beatrice set down her teacup and leaned forward in a confiding pose. “There is one man in particular who intrigues me. Perhaps you know him. The Duke of Aylwin.”
Ellie concealed a start of surprise. She hadn’t realized that her cousin had settled on a prospective candidate for husband. Over the past few months, Beatrice and their grandmother had spent hours bandying the names of eligible bachelors, looking up possibilities in
and assessing the soundness of each man’s finances. Ellie found it all quite tedious. She had become adept at half-listening while her thoughts traveled their own course, usually dwelling on her secret project.
“Aylwin?” Lady Milford said musingly. “I was acquainted with his late father. However, the present duke isn’t one for social gatherings. He keeps to himself, and I must caution you, he has shown little interest in marrying.”
“So I’ve heard.” Beatrice released a wistful sigh. “His Grace spends all of his time cooped up in Aylwin House, studying relics from ancient Egypt. It must be a very lonely life. I can’t help but think that he needs a wife to keep him company.”
Lady Milford looked amused as she took a sip of tea. “Girls are often drawn to mysterious gentlemen. It is in their romantic nature to presume the man must be pining for love. However, the reality seldom matches the daydream. In Aylwin’s case, he’s nearly twenty years your senior and a scholar with no use for frivolities. I would counsel you to set your sights on someone closer to your age.”
“You may be right, my lady. But how will I ever know for certain unless I actually
the duke?” Beatrice pushed out her lower lip as she often did when wheedling a favor from her papa. “I shall have to spend the rest of my life wondering if I might have been the one girl that Aylwin could have loved. Is there no way at all for you to help me?”
Lady Milford shook her head. “I’m afraid not, my dear,” she said in a firm but gentle voice. “My acquaintance with Aylwin is slight. I have no favor of friendship with which to persuade him to do anything.”
“But what if … what if you were to give one of your exclusive parties? People clamor for an invitation to come here. If you were to host an event and invite both of us, then at least I would have the
to charm him.” Beatrice clasped her hands to her bosom. “Oh, please, my lady, don’t refuse me, I beg of you. You’re my only hope.”
That, Ellie decided, was the last straw. Her cousin’s behavior had grown worse than bold; it was downright disgraceful! What must Lady Milford think of the girl’s impudence in making demands?
Ellie set down her teacup on a table and stepped quickly to the chaise. “We’ve disturbed her ladyship long enough, Beatrice. I believe we should go now.”
Her cousin cast a disgruntled glance up at Ellie. “Not yet. Lady Milford and I are engaged in a very cozy chat.”
Ellie turned her gaze to their hostess. “Pray accept our sincerest apologies, your ladyship. We’ve some errands to complete and I fear that if we tarry, we won’t be home in time to dress for dinner.”
“Errands?” Beatrice asked, her pert little nose wrinkling as she allowed Ellie to draw her to her feet. “Why, what do you mean?”
“I’ll explain in the carriage. For now, we must take our leave, so kindly say your good-byes to her ladyship.”
While Beatrice grudgingly complied, Ellie couldn’t help but notice that Lady Milford’s gaze rested on her, rather than her cousin. Those dark slender brows formed a faintly quizzical expression as if she were pondering a topic that required thoughtful consideration.
Ellie blushed to think that
might be held to blame for Beatrice’s misconduct. It was, after all, her responsibility as governess to teach her cousin proper behavior.
“Miss Stratham,” Lady Milford murmured to Ellie, “if you might delay your departure for a moment, I have something that may be of use to you. Pray, wait here.”
Ellie’s lips parted in surprise as she watched Lady Milford glide out of the sitting room. Something of use to
? What could she mean?
In a rustle of petticoats, Beatrice minced into view and planted her hands on her hips. Her reddish-blond ringlets framed pretty features marred by a disgruntled expression. “Why did you have to spoil everything? I was just about to convince Lady Milford to help me. Instead, she wants to give
“A pamphlet on manners, no doubt,” Ellie said. “She must have concluded that I’ve neglected your education.”
The more she considered it, the more likely the possibility seemed. How mortifying to be judged as deficient in her duties! But that was precisely the way the situation must have appeared to their hostess. And as humiliating as it might be, Ellie would have to gracefully accept the instruction book.
Beatrice’s lower lip thrust out in a pout. “Do you mean to imply that I’ve misbehaved?”
“Well, let’s see.” Ellie ticked the points off on her fingers. “You presumed upon Lady Milford’s good nature to assist in your marriage scheme. You demanded that she expend time and money in hosting a party. You even dictated who should be on the guest list.”
“It’s a brilliant plan,” Beatrice declared. “Pray tell, how else am I to become a duchess? There aren’t any other eligible dukes!”
“Then turn your mind to a marquess or an earl. Besides, you should be more concerned with the character of a man, not his rank. Whomever you choose to wed, you’ll be bound to him for the rest of your life.”
“Oh, la! Perhaps a title matters little to a spinster without prospects. However,
intend to marry well and be the envy of all society.”
A spinster without prospects
. The careless description stirred an ache in Ellie’s bosom. The sensation startled her, for long ago she had buried her girlish dreams of love and marriage, when she had faced the hard truth that few gentlemen were willing to wed an impoverished nobody. Instead, she had devoted herself to repaying her father’s debts through serving the family in whatever capacity was required of her.
Yet she had no intention of enslaving herself forever. Not a living soul knew it, but Ellie had conceived a bold, enterprising plan to earn her own way in the world …
A movement drew her attention to the doorway of the sitting room. Lady Milford entered, carrying a blue velvet purse in her hands. Reaching into the bag, she drew forth an article that glinted in the wintry afternoon light streaming through the windows.
Ellie blinked in surprise. A shoe? It appeared to be a fine, heeled slipper made of garnet satin, frosted with tiny crystal beads and bearing a dainty, filigreed buckle.
Lady Milford brought out its match and placed both shoes into Ellie’s hands. “This pair was an old favorite of mine from my younger years,” she said. “I believe they may suit you, Miss Stratham.”
Ellie’s fingers closed automatically around the shoes. Having expected an etiquette manual, she could not have been more flabbergasted. Never in her life had she seen anything more beautiful—or more wildly impractical. “You’re very kind, my lady, but … where would I wear such shoes? They’re far too elegant for a governess.”
“You’ll be accompanying your cousin into society, I presume. Surely you’ll need slippers for dancing at balls and parties.”
“That may be true for most ladies,” Ellie said. “However, I’m afraid my gowns are rather plain and I’ve nothing in my wardrobe to—”
“As my chaperone, Ellie won’t be dancing,” Beatrice interrupted. Her covetous gaze flitted to the slippers. “And my feet are daintier than hers. Which means that
am far more likely to wear the same size as you, my lady.”
An enigmatic smile curved Lady Milford’s lips. “Indeed? Then perhaps you should sit down. You shall each have the chance to see if they fit.”
Departing Lady Milford’s town house a short while later, Ellie gripped the blue velvet pouch beneath her drab brown cloak. The bag held the dancing slippers that had pinched Beatrice’s toes so much that the girl had exclaimed in discomfort and kicked them off at once.
Consequently, Ellie had at first declined to try on the shoes. But Lady Milford had insisted, and by some miracle, the slippers had fit Ellie to perfection. She still didn’t understand why. Though she and her cousin shared the same proportions in gowns, Ellie could have sworn that she herself wore a full size larger in footwear.
That mystifying thought evaporated under the joy of cradling the gorgeous shoes against her bosom. From the moment she’d slid her stockinged feet into the garnet satin lining, a sense of buoyant pleasure had uplifted her. It had felt as if all of her troubles had floated away. She’d wanted to wear them home, though her practical side had swiftly overruled such foolishness.
And although she’d put the slippers back into the soft pouch for safekeeping, her gloved fingers continued to trace the slim shape and the bits of crystal beading. It had been a long time since she’d possessed anything so lovely—not since her papa had been alive. He’d often showered her with presents, though upon his death everything had been sold to help her uncle pay off the creditors.
Ellie didn’t want to remember that now. Nor did she wish to heed the sullen expression on her cousin’s face. In a peacock-blue cloak, her hands tucked into an ermine muff, Beatrice marched toward the black brougham with the gold Pennington crest emblazoned on the door.
That scowl foretold trouble. No doubt Ellie would be soundly chastised on the way home. Nevertheless, she didn’t believe for an instant that her cousin’s ill humor had anything to do with a pair of cast-off dancing slippers. After all, Beatrice owned a cupboard overflowing with fancy shoes.
No, the girl’s sulkiness was rooted in the failure of her marriage scheme. Having been pampered all her life, Beatrice had expected to persuade Lady Milford to do her bidding. Now, Beatrice would have to be soothed and placated, and Ellie didn’t look forward to the task.
A footman in forest-green livery sprang to open the door of the brougham. However, Beatrice didn’t climb inside. Rather, she stopped so abruptly that Ellie nearly collided with her.
Beatrice peered down the town-house-lined street where a few carriages and drays rumbled over the cobblestones. As if transformed by the wave of a fairy godmother’s wand, the petulant set of her mouth altered magically into a coquettish smile.
“Oh, splendid!” Beatrice pushed past Ellie, leaving a cloud of rose-water perfume in her wake. “Wait here, or you’ll spoil everything.”
Ellie turned to see a gentleman on a fine bay mare cantering toward them. He looked like the consummate fashion plate in his double-breasted blue coat, a white muffler tucked at his throat. As he drew nearer, Ellie recognized his boyish features. He was the son of one of the Earl of Pennington’s acquaintances.