Authors: Manda Collins
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“Amelia, do hurry,” Miss Harriet Smithson wailed to her companion, who was trying desperately to keep the girl calm. “The gentlemen will be gathering for before-dinner drinks any moment now!”
The Miss Amelia Snowe of last season would have sliced the demanding young woman to ribbons, but among the many changes wrought upon Miss Snowe’s behavior was an ability to hold her temper.
“Patience, Harriet,” she told the girl as she settled a pretty sapphire-and-diamond circlet over her mousy brown curls. “It will be much better for you to arrive just a few minutes later than your guests. That way you can make an entrance.”
After years as the reigning beauty of the
, Amelia knew whereof she spoke. Even if her mother’s sudden death had left her destitute and forced her to seek out a position as a young lady’s companion—to the daughter of a family she’d surely have turned her nose up at had she encountered them in London before her step down on the social ladder—she still knew better than anyone just how to turn a gentleman up sweet. It was the only perk of being a beauty she still retained.
“Pooh,” her charge muttered. “You always want me to curb my enthusiasm. How on earth am I supposed to catch a husband if I never put myself in the way of any gentlemen?”
Unable to stifle her laugh, Amelia squeezed the other girl’s shoulders and stepped back. “Somehow, I think you’ll manage,” she told her. And not just because she was quite pretty in her own way. No, Amelia had a sneaking suspicion that Harriet’s oversized dowry would see to it that she found a husband soon enough, even if her looks did not.
Had she ever been as young and eager as Harriet? she wondered.
Unbidden, a flash of memory overtook her. Of a rainy summer afternoon. Of waiting desperately for one gentleman in particular to arrive at a country ball. Of stolen kisses and broken hearts.
Yes, she’d once been just as young and just as eager as Harriet. But hopefully Harriet would never, ever be as foolish as Amelia had once been. Harriet, she felt sure, would not allow herself to be persuaded from accepting a gentleman she truly held in affection. At least she hoped not.
“Come,” she told her charge, stepping back and allowing the girl to rise from her seat at the vanity. “Let’s go downstairs and watch the ladies’ eyes light up with envy and the gentlemen’s with admiration.”
In a demonstration of why Amelia held the girl in affection, Harriet linked her arm with her companion’s and giggled. “You always make me feel better about things, Amelia. I simply do not know how I’d manage all this social nonsense without you.”
“Then it’s a good thing you do not need to,” Amelia responded, pausing to survey her charge one more time before pronouncing herself satisfied with her appearance. “You look as lovely as spring roses. And I have little doubt that you’ll charm all the gentlemen tonight.”
“If I manage to stand apart from my companion,” Harriet retorted with a wry smile.” No matter how Mama attempts to make a silk purse out of this sow’s ear, I will never be as lovely as you are.”
“Hush, you silly creature,” Amelia said with a laugh. “You are as fine as five pence. And you have something that I ceased to possess long ago.”
“What’s that?” the younger girl asked, her eyes puzzled.
“Youthful enthusiasm,” Amelia replied wryly. She was only three and twenty, but at times she felt as ancient as Methuselah. That was what five unsuccessful years on the marriage mart would do to a girl.
“Funny,” Harriet said, closing her bedchamber door behind them as they made their way into the hall. “I suppose you are getting a bit long in the tooth, aren’t you? Shall I fetch you an ear trumpet and a shawl for your aching bones?”
“Impudence does not suit you,” Amelia responded. “Now hush your nonsense and tell me again about the gentlemen your mama has invited.”
Obediently Harriet recited the names of each of the five gentlemen who had been invited for the weeklong house party, followed by a brief description of their properties and interests. Amelia had made it clear to Mrs. Smithson that the gentlemen chosen for the entertainment should be carefully selected from among the most likely to find Harriet and her dowry attractive. And Amelia had spent the past week schooling her charge on the best ways of making herself agreeable to them. Naturally, she’d make a choice among them based on her own preferences in the end. But at the start of the party, she’d need to present herself in as positive a light as possible.
“Do you really think one of them will find me enticing enough to marry, Amelia?” Harriet asked, her worry over her prospects overshadowing her giddiness for a moment. “What if none of them likes me? What if they think I’m pudding-faced? Or worse, gauche?”
“They won’t think you’re pudding-faced,” Amelia chided. “You are a perfectly lovely girl and this party will go off without a hitch. And if there are hitches, we will simply deal with them as they happen.”
Before Harriet could respond, Mrs. Smithson entered the hallway just ahead of them and hurried forward.
“Harriet! There you are,” the reed-thin matron said, the ostrich feather in her turban bobbing up and down. “All of our guests are gathered in the drawing room, waiting for your arrival. I told you not to be late.” She glared at Amelia, clearly blaming their tardiness on her daughter’s companion.
Ever since Amelia’s arrival in the Smithson household, the lady of the house had made it clear through her words and actions that though she needed Amelia’s help to launch her daughter in society, she resented the gentility and good breeding that made her a valuable companion to Harriet. Amelia could hardly blame the woman—after all, in order to mark her own superiority, Mrs. Smithson needed to keep a social distance between herself and her employees—but the constant derision from her charge’s mother was becoming tiresome.
Not wishing to engage the other woman in a confrontation that would simply make Harriet more nervous, Amelia squeezed her charge’s hand and allowed Mrs. Smithson to lead her away.
Keeping a few paces behind, as her employer had instructed her to do when they were in public, Amelia could hear the chattering of the Smithsons’ guests within the drawing room as they neared the gathering. To her satisfaction, she noticed that Harriet was walking with her head held high, rather than the slope-shouldered posture she’d adopted before in an effort to diminish her height.
Pleased at that little demonstration of her influence over the girl, Amelia took up a position just outside the drawing room door, waiting for Harriet to make her grand entrance before she slipped into the room and took up a position on the periphery. As Mrs. Smithson and Harriet stepped into the chamber, Amelia heard the conversation within the room quiet for a moment as they doubtless took in the appearance of their hosts’ daughter. She winced as she heard Mrs. Smithson’s braying laughter over the other voices in the room. Money didn’t make for gentility, she reflected, not for the first time since she’d taken a position with the Smithsons’ household.
Shaking her head, she started toward the side door of the drawing room and began to pull on her gloves in preparation for her own entrance, when she heard Mr. Smithson’s study door open just down the hall. And before she could hurry away, she was faced with her employer and another gentleman, whose back was toward her. She was in the process of slinking away when, to her frustration, Mr. Smithson called out to her.
“Miss Snowe, excellent! Wait for just a moment, if you please. I was just about to take Fortescue to the drawing room before dinner,” the man barked.
Though upon her first meeting with him Amelia had cringed at her employer’s rough manner, she had since come to realize that he was possessed of a kinder heart than his lady wife. He’d made his fortune in cotton mills in the north of England, and as soon as he was able he’d moved his wife and daughter as far away from industry as possible, to this little manor house on the South Downs. He himself was not possessed of any sort of gentility or breeding, but he was determined to see to it that his daughter married a man with both. Which was why he’d instructed his wife to hire a lady’s companion for Harriet.
Amelia had come to hold the man in some esteem, but at the moment she wished him at the devil. Not only would he make her later entering the drawing room than she’d wished—a circumstance she was quite certain Mrs. Smithson would note and scold her for—he was also accompanied by a gentleman who had not been on Mrs. Smithson’s guest list for the house party. Knowing how carefully the mistress of the house had planned the numbers for the event, Amelia was annoyed both on that lady’s behalf at the new addition, but also for herself. The addition of another gentleman to the party would mean that Amelia would be forced to participate in the activities of the party to make the numbers even. Which she had hoped would not be necessary.
“Mr. Smithson,” she said in the calm, quiet voice she’d adopted since taking up her position. She knew already that hiring a girl with her looks had been against Mrs. Smithson’s better judgment. As such, she did what she could to diminish those looks as much as possible. Thus, her golden curls, which had been much admired in London, were scraped back over her head in a severe chignon. Her blue satin gown, which had been low-cut and daring in London, was now made more reserved by the addition of a lace fichu to the bodice. And her manner, which had been flirtatious and engaging in London, was now polite but distant.
“Fortescue,” her employer said to his companion, “this is Miss Amelia Snowe. My daughter, Harriet’s companion, don’t ye know. Not a bit of social business that this chit doesn’t know. Only the best for my Harriet.”
It was still a little painful to hear Mr. Smithson boast about her social prowess like that. No matter how grateful she was that he’d chosen to pay her for it.
A short year ago Amelia had been the most sought-after lady in the
Her wit, her fashion sense, and her breathtaking beauty had secured a position for Amelia in the highest circles of fashionable London. But with the death of her mother, all of Amelia’s successes had proven to be as precarious as a house of cards. The gorgeous gowns had been bought on credit—from businesses who now demanded payment. The people she’d snubbed, now that the tables were turned, shut her out of the
gatherings where she’d once reigned.
If she’d been a nicer person, or a more gracious winner, she might have survived by relying on the kindness of her friends. But the realization that she was fast becoming a thoroughly unlikeable person had come too late to save her from ostracism once her mother was gone. And even the friendship of the well-connected Duchess of Winterson, Viscountess Deveril, and Countess of Gresham—once known as the Ugly Ducklings for their status as wallflowers—could not save her.
Where once she’d have looked Mr. Smithson’s guest in the eye and allowed him to kiss her hand, now Amelia kept her eyes downcast, as befitting someone who lingered in that in-between space between upstairs and downstairs.
Still, there was something familiar about that name. Fortescue … Fortescue … her mind turned the word over and over again as she dared to look up.
“Miss Snowe,” Smithson continued, as if he had not just set the cat among the pigeons, “this is Lord Quentin…”