Cinderella'sHappily Ever After
Early January, Mrs Blackmore’s Academy for Young Ladies
“Mrs B. wants to see you in her office,” a young, red-haired girl said carelessly, wandering into the classroom and throwing herself down onto the window seat. “Now, she said.”
Cailin blanched. “Me? Why? I haven’t done a thing.”
The girl, Evie, shrugged. She scratched the inside of one ear with a fingertip and stared gormlessly out of the window. Evie was the daughter of an obscenely wealthy self-made merchant. Rich he might be, but he had no ‘breeding,’ hence just about every self-respecting finishing school would have turned down the opportunity to educate his daughter.
Those which catered to the ton, at least. Mrs Blackmore couldn’t have cared less about Mr Wharton’s breeding. Unlike some of the other ‘well-bred’ parents of girls in her establishment, Mr Wharton paid on time and was duly impressed and satisfied by the paltry skills Mrs Blackmore’s girls were taught.
Evie was a strapping sixteen-year-old, taller than Cailin despite being a full two years younger. She was something of a bully, and even now could barely read and write, but that didn’t matter at all to Mrs Blackmore. She would always favour Evie over Cailin because Evie’s father paid on time.
“I can’t leave now,” Cailin repeated, “I’m supposed to finish this handwriting lesson with the little ones.”
The ‘little ones’ in question were an assortment of about a dozen of the younger girls, aged between five and eleven. Out of the whole class, only a handful could read, and the rest copied the handwriting out by rote rather than any real understanding of the words.
Evie shrugged again, despite Mrs Blackmore’s admonition that ladies did not shrug.
Or belch, or chew too openly, or employ any other posture than ramrod-straight backs, etcetera, etcetera.
“She said she wants to see you, and she wants to see you now.” Evie said, smothering a burp. She’d probably just been rifling through the kitchens for something to eat. Now, if Cailin had done that, she would have been punished most severely.
Of course, Cailin’s fees were not paid on time or in full, so she wasn’t allowed to get away with anything at all.
She sighed. It would be better to go now and face her punishment for whatever imagined misdemeanour she had committed rather than make Mrs Blackmore come to fetch her.
“Will you watch the class, then? They’re doing their alphabet exercises,” Cailin asked. Under her watchful care, she’d been able to teach more and more of the girls to read and write correctly and privately thought she was doing a much better job than the vapid, blank-faced woman who had been hired to teach English.
Evie mumbled something that could have been an affirmative. Cailin smiled encouragingly at her class and left.
Blackmore House – Mrs Blackmore was keen to apply her own name to everything connected with her school, which was a sparsely furnished, cold, and unwelcoming place. The girls were crammed into ‘dormitories,’ a grandiose description for the draughty, spider-filled rooms right up under the eaves of the house, and their beds were barely an arm’s width apart. The girls whose parents paid well and on time were placed in the centre of the room, where heat from the fireplaces below drifted up, and the cold breezes that ran through the house didn’t quite reach.
Cailin’s bed was right under the window, and she spent most nights shivering herself to sleep. She’d long since gotten used to the spiders, and the occasional mouse.
The parents, naturally, never saw these dormitories.
Mrs Blackmore had rather severe delusions of adequacy. She taught a handful of ‘accomplishments’ and hired the cheapest possible teachers. The girls were taught a smattering of arithmetic, English language and English Literature, geography (which essentially entailed memorizing a list of countries and their capitals), and handwriting, on which Mrs Blackmore was very keen.
The girls memorised a selection of French phrases to impress their parents, they learned to dance, gracelessly and without joy, and thumped on the piano under the guidance of a drunken piano teacher. They were taught etiquette, which included several ‘tricks’ involving sitting straight at all times, chewing without appearing to chew, and various conversation starters and elegant opinions.
In short, they learned nothing useful at all.
Cailin had long since stopped caring about the pointless lessons, or the narrow, gloomy corridors. She navigated the maze of Blackmore House almost without thinking, her feet automatically taking her to the door of Mrs Blackmore’s office. She knocked and waited.
“Enter,” a reedy voice came from inside. Cailin obeyed.
Mrs Blackmore was a thin, short woman in her fifties. She had never been married but gave herself the prefix ‘Mrs’ in the hopes of seeming wiser, perhaps. Her office was overcrowded with furniture, smelled musty, and was terribly stuffy. There was a fire burning in the grate, though there was never one in the schoolroom, of course, and the windows in the office were never opened. Mrs Blackmore sat behind a huge, ornate wooden desk on which there was barely an inch of free space. A huge inkwell and a pen that famously leaked and blotted was surrounded by a sea of nick-nacks, papers, and crumpled bits of rubbish. There was also a large pile of letters of varying sizes and colours. All the envelopes had been carelessly torn open, and pages of close-packed writing spilled over the desk.
Cailin knew they were the students’ letters, correspondence from parents, relatives, and friends. Mrs Blackmore read each and every one and would only then decide whether she would hand the letter over to the student in question. If there was money in the envelopes, she naturally took that for herself and passed on the letter itself . . . if she remembered.
There was no seat set out in front of the desk. Mrs Blackmore liked to make her students wait, standing respectfully before her.
There was no cane or switch laid out on the desk ready for punishment to be meted out, which surprised Cailin. Mrs Blackmore always piously told the parents that she did not strike her beloved students, preferring other forms of discipline. She relied, she told them, on prayer, the word of God, and rational talk.
Some of the softer-hearted parents were very taken by this. Cailin, of course, knew the truth.
Mrs Blackmore didn’t strike her students, that much was true, but her reasoning was much more pragmatic than she claimed. The truth was, the small and spindly Mrs Blackmore simply didn’t have the strength. The average fourteen-year-old student was taller and stronger than her, and Mrs Blackmore wasn’t about to risk the irreversible loss of authority that would come from a girl turning her own switch back on her.
There were other ways to hurt children beyond physical punishment, and Mrs Blackmore was an expert in them.
Cailin shivered at an unpleasant memory. Mrs Blackmore’s pale blue eyes raked over her, taking in the shudder.
“Do you know why you are here, Miss Gately?”
Cailin briefly thought over the last few days. She couldn’t think of anything. Her chores had all been done, including scrubbing the filthy scullery floor. She’d been busy in the schoolroom for most of the day, teaching insolent, snobbish girls whose parents had paid on time and so did not have to act as a teacher or do chores.
“No, Mrs Blackmore.”
This seemed to please the woman. She settled back in her chair, the high wingback dwarfing her small frame and thin shoulders.
Mrs Blackmore let the silence drag on. Cailin’s mind was whirring at top speed. She was sure she hadn’t done anything to require punishment, although that didn’t necessarily mean she wouldn’t be punished. Mrs Blackmore was a woman with a cruel temper, and she had several unfortunate girls who were behind on their fees on whom she could take out her anger.
To Cailin, that could only mean that her brother had something to do with her being summoned to the office.
Cailin still remembered that awful, rainy evening two years ago when Mrs Blackmore had summoned Cailin into her office and informed her that her brother had requested that she stay at the Academy for another two years.
It was the day before she was due to leave, and Cailin was quite sure that Mrs Blackmore had waited deliberately so as to inflict maximum distress.
She’d lost count of the times Mrs Blackmore had summoned her here in a rage, angry that her fees were late again, or not fully paid.
What horror did she have to face today?
“Your brother has written me a letter,” Mrs Blackmore said casually, lifting a torn-open envelope for Cailin’s inspection. Cailin vaguely recognized the stamp in the wax; it was from a seal ring that had once belonged to the Earl of Gavinshire, and now belonged to his son and heir.
Cailin’s heart sped up. “Oh?” she said coolly. The key was not to let Mrs Blackmore know you were nervous, miserable, or afraid. That would only encourage her. She was like a bloodhound, eager to pick up a scent.
She eyed Cailin for a long moment, then sighed, obviously disappointed at the lack of response.
She tossed the letter back onto her desk, well out of Cailin’s reach. She clearly didn’t intend for Cailin to read it.
“Your brother has settled your outstanding fees in full.” Mrs Blackmore said bluntly. “You’re to leave this evening. A coach is being sent for you. You’re going to attend this year’s Season, it seems.”
Cailin stared at her, trying to work out what the woman’s motive could be for making the extraordinary claim. Was it all some elaborate ploy?
But then Cailin saw the receipt, written out in Mrs Blackmore’s spiky hand, signed and sealed by the Earl of Gavinshire. She saw the figure scribbled at the bottom, and she swallowed hard. There it was, laid out in pounds, shillings, and pence: the whole ridiculous sum for Mrs Blackmore’s farce of an education, which had spiralled into little more than slavery in the past two or three years as payment of the fees had faltered.
The new earl had dragged his heels when it came to paying up. He sent promissory notes and IOUs or simply neglected to pay altogether. At times, Cailin had been quite sure she was about to be turned out on her ear, thrown destitute onto the streets of Gloucester.
But she’d underestimated how savvy Mrs Blackmore was. Of course, it was preferable that a girl’s family paid her fees, but the girls’ food and board cost next to nothing, and the education was little more than worthless. So, Mrs Blackmore got her money’s worth in other ways. She put the girls whose fees weren’t paid regularly to work, making them teach, cook, clean, mind the little ones, do mending, and washing, and so on to pay their way.
Such had been Cailin’s lot, and she was starting to think she’d be an unpaid, unwanted teacher and maid at the Academy for the rest of her life.
But now her brother had sent for her. It seemed too good to be true.
Mrs Blackmore pursed her lips, her gaze dwelling on Cailin’s worn, patched dress. “You’d better pack. Don’t pack anything that belongs here, or I’ll have you arrested as a thief. You can go out and wait for your carriage at the bottom of the lane, too.”
“Very well, Mrs Blackmore,” Cailin said, still not quite believing she was about to be freed.
“Finish the girls’ handwriting lessons first.”
Cailin smiled. “No, Mrs Blackmore, I don’t think I will.”
Mrs Blackmore reddened, and she opened her mouth to deliver a scolding blast of fury, but Cailin turned on her heel and skipped out, leaving the door, and Mrs Blackmore’s jaw, swinging open.
Cailin was punished for that last spark of insolence. Mrs Blackmore told her that she should go out and wait for her carriage before tea, despite the rain. That would get her out of the house and withhold one last meal. Cailin was too happy at her release to care too much. She waited a full hour, stomach rumbling, before the blocky, black shape of carriage loomed through the rain, rumbling towards her.
Cailin wondered if this sudden release was a sign that her brother planned to be more, well, brotherly from then on. He’d wasted no time in packing Cailin off to a finishing school – presumably the cheapest he could find – as soon as their father died. That had been five years ago, when Cailin was barely thirteen and reeling from their sudden change in circumstances. It was hard not to resent her brother for what he’d done, but Cailin was determined to let bygones be bygones.
He’d rescued her after all, hadn’t he? She would be properly grateful. They would start a fresh chapter in their lives together. Mrs Blackmore was behind her, and Cailin’s life could begin anew.
The carriage drew up beside Cailin on the muddy lane, the soaked chestnut horses tossing their heads and stamping their hooves. A cloaked coachman, huddled up and bundled against the cold and rain, barely glanced at her, and nobody made any move to help her into the carriage.
That was all right. Climbing into a carriage by herself was the least of Cailin’s worries just then. She opened the door and pushed in her sodden, battered suitcase, preparing to climb in after it.
“Good heavens, girl, you’re soaked. Why didn’t you wait inside?”
Cailin flinched, poised to climb into the carriage and very nearly slipping. She stared at the man slumped in the far corner of the carriage as if he had two heads.
Clayton Gately, Earl of Gavinshire, smiled grimly at his younger sister.
“Observant as always, Sister. Hurry up and get inside, the rain is blowing in. Why did you come out here to wait? Are you simple in the head?”
Cailin flushed, hastily climbing inside and closing the door. Clayton’s waspish tongue hadn’t softened with age, it seemed. She reminded herself of her promise.
This is a new start. Everything will be different now. Clayton wouldn’t have come to get me from Mrs Blackmore’s if he didn’t really care for me, would he?
She forced herself to smile. “Mrs Blackmore told me to wait outside.”
“Why the hell did she do that? Can’t she see it’s raining?”
“She didn’t want to serve me tea before I left.”
Clayton stared at her. “She sounds like a ghastly woman.”
Cailin snorted. “Oh, she is.”
The corner of Clayton’s mouth twisted, as if he wanted to smile. The movement was quickly tucked away, however, and he turned to stare out of the window at the rain. For a few moments, there was no sound besides the wet squelch of carriage wheels on the ground and the rain pattering on the roof.
Cailin discreetly tried to dry off her hair and face. Nobody had come out to offer her an umbrella or a coat, not that she had expected them to. She had no friends at the school. Some of the smaller girls would be sad to see her go, Cailin was sure, but they were young and they would forget quickly.
It was every girl for herself at Mrs Blackmore’s, and she did not encourage friendships. In fact, building strong friendships was likely to cause her to make some mischief between the girls to break them up, knowing it was better for her to divide and rule.
Cailin had assumed her brother would provide her first real experience of friendship. She had imagined they would talk and laugh together. She couldn’t quite remember if they’d done that before she had gone to school, but surely, they would have. After all, there were only two Gately siblings. But Clayton hadn’t greeted her with any real friendliness, and he hadn’t so much as flashed her a single smile.
His chilly reception now made her wonder if her expectations about their future relationship were realistic. After all, his last visit had been almost three years ago, she recalled, when she was fifteen and had a fever. Mrs Blackmore had written to Clayton, clearly thinking Cailin might die. She had recovered, but surely, she thought now, after such a long time, were a few kind words or perhaps an embrace too much to ask?
How old was Clayton now? Somewhere in his mid-twenties, Cailin thought. He looked older, much older.
His skin was sallow, and he had dark rings below his eyes. Too much drinking and late-night card parties, no doubt. There were creases on his forehead and between his eyebrows from frowning, and Cailin was sure they hadn’t been there before she’d left home for school.
It was obvious they were siblings. Both Clayton and Cailin had the same wispy blonde hair, although Clayton’s hung lank and greasy around his ears at that moment. Neither of them was very tall nor strongly built. They had matching large brown eyes and golden eyelashes. Clayton’s eyes were red and sore, probably from lack of sleep, Cailin thought. He was thin, too, and pale, as if he hadn’t seen the sun in months. Cailin knew her skin was moderately tanned and freckled, as she’d done a lot of gardening during a hot, sunny spell the previous week.
What did he think of her? She probably looked like a scruffy, bedraggled rat. Would he change his mind about the Season?
That was an unpleasant thought.
“Clayton,” Cailin ventured, “Mrs Blackmore said that I am to join the Season this year.”
Clayton, who had been leaning against the side of the carriage with his eyes closed, sighed heavily. “That’s right. It’s time for you to polish up and join proper Society again. You need to start thinking about your future. Your Aunt Jeanette has offered to sponsor you this Season, so I daresay you won’t cost me very much.”
“Aunt Jeanette? Oh, I haven’t seen her since . . .”
“Yes, yes,” Clayton said irritably. “I’m tired, so please don’t gossip all the way home.” He stretched out his legs, knocking against Cailin’s wet case, and gave a tut of annoyance. “You ought to have put that on top of the coach, Cailin. I do hope you’ve learnt a bit about conducting yourself properly in Society. I hope you haven’t wasted your time at Mrs Blackmore’s.”
All the bad humour in the world couldn’t dampen Cailin’s spirits now. She was going to attend the Season. She wasn’t going back to Mrs Blackmore’s.
She was free.
“No, Brother.” Cailin said happily. “I promise you, I haven’t.”
As always, there were too few hours in the day.
There was a stack of papers needing Neill’s attention, and the pile never seemed to get any smaller. Neill was guiltily aware that he would probably end up missing dinner with his mother that night.
He tried not to think of Lady Louisa Clarendale sitting by herself at the long, highly polished dining room table, with nobody but the footmen to keep her company.
I really ought to spend more time with Mother. And I shall, once all of this is dealt with, Neill promised himself, reaching for the next document from the seemingly never-ending stack.
As he pulled it away, a small, gilt-edged piece of card tumbled out of the pile. Neill knew what it was before it even landed on the desk. It was that wretched invite to the Whistenshires’ soirée. The party was that night, and Neill had still not replied to his invitation.
In fact, he had received his invitation very early on, making it quite clear that he was part of the original, most valued group of invitees. But in such cases, once a few people had declined, there was always a second round of invitations, with lesser guests making up the numbers.
Neill did not want to go to the Whistenshires’. There’d be supper, and dancing, and conversation, and the whole thing would be a dreadful crush. Why did people insist on inviting him to these endless, painfully long social events? Didn’t they know how busy he was?
Neill had slipped the invitation into his pile of papers in the hopes he would forget about it, and then be able to quite honestly say to Oliver Whinston and Lady Emma that he had misplaced his invitation altogether.
Oliver Whinston, the Duke of Whistenshire, probably wouldn’t believe him.
He was about to slip the invitation back into the pile – near the bottom this time – when there was a faint tap on the door.
The door cracked open, and Lady Louisa peered through it.
“You ought to be getting ready now, Neill,” she said reprovingly. “It’s Lady Madelene’s coming-out ball tonight, or have you forgotten?”
Neill shifted in his seat, hating the rush of guilt that washed over him. He ought to go.
“I did forget. I haven’t replied, Mother, so they won’t be expecting us.”
The dowager duchess stepped fully into the room, folding her arms across her chest. She was a short, stout woman – Neill had inherited his size and bulk from his father – and she had bequeathed her glossy brown curls and blue-green eyes to her only child.
“They will be expecting us,” she said firmly, “because I wrote to Lady Emma and accepted on behalf of us both. So there, you see, you have to go.”
Neill’s heart sank. “Mother, I have so much work to do.”
“You always claim to have endless work to do, though you have a team of secretaries and assistants to help you with it. You can take one evening off, I’m sure.”
Neill raked a hand through his hair. “It’s too late.”
“No, it isn’t. John is on standby; he’ll help you get dressed in time.” She glowered down at her son. “Neill, come on. I’m going, and they’ll be so upset if you don’t come too.”
“Would you have me neglect the business, Mother? Father would never . . .” Neill bit off the sentence, but it was too late. Her expression hardened.
“Don’t you dare try to tell me what the late duke would want you to do. He was a hardworking man, and so are you. However, your father made room for important things in his life. Whistenshire was a dear friend of your father’s, not to mention a business partner. He’d never have missed Lady Madelene’s coming out party.”
Neill sighed. “You aren’t going to let it go, are you?”
The duchess’s cheeks dimpled. “I’m certainly not. Now, hurry up and get ready. We’re leaving at six.”
“Neill Clarendale, the Duke of Clarenwood, and her Grace, Louisa Clarendale, the Dowager Duchess of Clarenwood,” boomed out a suitably impressive, liveried footman.
Having been properly announced, Neill and his mother were free to step into the cavernous ballroom.
Neill gave a low whistle, glad that the noise and hubbub of the room masked his surprise.
The dowager gave his arm a warning squeeze. “Yes, they have, and yes, it’s rather too much, but the Duchess of Whistenshire loves it, so be sure to compliment the décor.”
Neill had no intention of doing any such thing. It wasn’t a particularly helpful quality for a businessman to have, but Neill would not – and could not – lie. He never gambled or played games if he could help it, as one could read in his face what cards he held in his hand.
“How long do we have to stay, Mother?”
She pursed her lips. “Long enough for politeness, Neill. And you must dance with Lady Madelene. This is her ball, after all. Oh, there she is. Doesn’t she look beautiful?”
Neill didn’t need to ask which of the young ladies was Madelene.
He sometimes thought Madelene was some sort of changeling because she didn’t seem to resemble either of her parents very strongly. True, she had her father’s large gray eyes and long lashes, and her mother’s glossy, jet-black hair, carefully arranged into ringlets. But there was no getting around it – Madelene was staggeringly, breath-takingly beautiful, and her good-natured, wealthy parents . . . weren’t.
Both of her parents were short and tubby, round-faced, genial, and always had something to say.
Lady Madelene was tall and willowy; with the sort of face one might see peering down from an old master or carved on a particularly good-looking Greek statue. Just then, she looked exactly like the subject of a painted masterpiece, reclining on a chaise longue, with a number of admirers clustered around her, each trying their best to get her attention.
And that was only a few of her would-be suitors. There were other gentlemen crowding around too, wishing for the opportunity or the courage to approach her.
There were other ladies there, too, but compared to Madelene, they looked like peahens next to a peacock. Gentlemen visibly adored her, ladies envied and hated her, matrons and chaperones smiled fondly on her, and dandies raised their quizzing glasses and admired her.
“She does look very pretty,” Neill acknowledged.
The dowager raised her eyebrows at him. “I’m not going to beat around the bush with you, Neill.”
“You never do.”
“Don’t be cheeky. You and Madelene have known each other since you were children. You’re good friends, aren’t you?”
They were not, but Neill only smiled distantly and allowed his mother to continue.
“She’s a very suitable lady, and you know how your father always hoped you two would make a match of it. I fancy Oliver Whinston wants the same.”
“Even if I wanted to offer for Lady Madelene, I don’t think I’d be able to fight my way through her hordes of suitors.”
Her Grace snorted. “Don’t be silly. You’re far more eligible than any of them. You know a lady needs to overlook most of her admirers due to their being unsuitable. Madelene is a clever girl – she won’t turn gentlemen down, but neither will she encourage them. She is leaving herself open to better offers. That’s shrewd, isn’t it? I would have thought a businessman like you would appreciate something like that.”
Neill sighed. “Mother, are we really going to discuss this here? In the middle of Lady Madelene’s coming out ball, you in your lovely green satin and me in my blue velvet suit? I really can’t argue in evening clothes, you know.”
The duchess groaned. “You are incorrigible, do you know that? I am cursed to have such a clever son. Cursed, I say. Now, I’m going to go and mingle. Try not to look too miserable. You might even talk to a few young ladies.”
“Mother, if I so much as glance sideways at an eligible young woman, her mama and half the ton will have us engaged by the end of the week.”
“Well, you have to marry somebody sometime,” Lady Louisa pointed out before disappearing into the crowd.
That left Neill with nothing much to do besides fetching himself a drink. Such events made him uncomfortably aware of how few friends he had. Most of the young gentlemen there lived off allowances from their parents, or had their own dukedoms and estates, complete with stewards to run those estates.
Neill had none of that. He had never wanted to be idle, and the old duke had certainly not wanted an idle son. Neill was perfectly happy to work at his own estate, secure in the knowledge that he was earning enough money to keep himself, his mother, and his entail safe for years to come.
That left him with less time to do the things other young gentlemen did, like spending their days drinking and gambling at their clubs, playing silly games, flirting with ladies, and going to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in the evening.
At least, that was what Neill assumed they did. He had too few friends to say with any certainty.
He barely had a chance to take so much as a sip of his champagne before the musicians started up, and there was a general flurry of excitement, with couples hurrying to the dance floor.
Of course, Lady Madelene would have to open the ball, and gentlemen were clamouring for her hand.
Neill was struck by inspiration. If he asked Madelene to dance now, his duty would be over with, and they could leave as soon as dinner had been eaten. Setting aside his champagne, he hurried across the room, cutting across several gentlemen who were waiting to speak to Madelene.
“Lady Madelene, you look very well tonight,” Neill said, offering a bow.
Madelene smiled lazily. “Neill Clarendale, my Lord Duke, welcome. It’s good to see you.”
Neill was vaguely aware of glares boring into his back. Several gentlemen had recognized him and understood he was a more ‘eligible’ gentleman than they were and, therefore, more likely to attract Lady Madelene’s much-coveted attention.
“Would you like to dance?” Neill asked in a rush, eager to get out of the little circle of animosity.
Lady Madelene’s smile widened, and she extended one slim, white hand. “I should love to.”
Madelene’s mother, the Duchess of Whistenshire, did not agree with the waltz. It was improper, she said, and she frankly refused to have it at her balls. She didn’t allow Madelene to dance the waltz at other events either.
So, despite it being desperately unfashionable, the opening dance at Lady Madelene’s coming-out ball was a country reel.
Neill was hopelessly out of practice at dancing, and nearly got his ankles in a tangle more than once. However, he was relieved the dance didn’t leave them with any breath to talk.
He and Madelene had been thrown together since their youth, that was true. Neill was perfectly aware that their respective parents all secretly hoped they would make a match of it. Madelene was, as Neill’s mother had pointed out, very beautiful.
Unfortunately, as far as he was concerned, that was about all she was.
She was rich and beautiful, and that was where Madelene’s attractive qualities ended. Perhaps she’d never wanted to attract Neill’s attention, or perhaps her languid, fashionably bored persona clashed with his vibrant and energetic personality, but they simply did not mix well.
Neill completed a full dance set with the most beautiful young woman in the room, the one sought after by virtually every eligible man there, and he felt absolutely nothing. When the dance ended, Neill bowed to her, made his excuses, and retired, relieved his duty was done.
Before he could find himself another glass of champagne, Oliver Whinston pounced.
“Young Neill Clarendale, it’s a pleasure to see you!” the Duke of Whistenshire said, his round, red face beaming. “Mind if I borrow you for a moment? I’d like to have a word.”
“Certainly,” Neill said, following his host to a small private room just outside the ballroom. Oliver closed the door, muffling the sound of music and laughter.
“Is this about the Ruskin account?” Neill asked. “If so, I—”
“Heavens, no, boy! Goodness, it’s like dealing with your father, God rest his soul. I lost count of how many times I told him it wasn’t the thing to talk business at a ball. Would you like some port?”
“Yes, please,” Neill said. At the duke’s suggestion, he settled himself in an armchair while the port was poured.
“It’s been six years since last month, isn’t it?” Oliver Whinston said, not turning around.
Neill stiffened, not wanting to dredge up bad memories. “Yes, I believe so.”
The Duke of Whistenshire handed him a brimming glass of port. “The dowager seems to be holding up well.”
Neill smiled weakly, remembering how last month, on the anniversary of the old duke’s death, she had locked herself in her room to read their old letters, sobbing inconsolably. She’d emerged the day after, red-eyed but otherwise composed.
“She is a strong woman.”
Oliver Whinston nodded, taking a sip of his port. “I know you don’t need a father figure anymore, Neill. Goodness, you were one-and-twenty when he passed. Already a man. But I do try and keep an eye out for you, just as I would my own son. Simon would have wanted it that way, I think.”
Neill swallowed past the lump in his throat. “Thank you.”
“So, I feel as though I ought to drop a word in your ear about marriage.” Oliver leaned forward. “It’s hardly my business, but that won’t stop me giving you good advice. You’re seven-and-twenty now. You need to start thinking about marriage and children in earnest.”
Neill paused before answering, staring down into the glossy black depths of his port. “You’re right,” he said eventually. “I just can’t quite bring myself to scrabble through the marriage mart. It’s so undignified.”
“I agree, but that’s the way it is. However, there is a way you can side-step all that.”
Neill glanced up. “And how’s that?”
The Duke of Whistenshire chuckled. “Marry my Madelene, of course.”
There was a pause. “Lord Whistenshire, I . . .”
His Grace held up a hand. “Now, hear me out. You’re a grown man of independent means, and you can do what you like. But let me tell you, you’ll not find a finer girl on the marriage mart than Madelene. She’s beautiful, accomplished, and will have an enormous dowry. She likes you well enough, and I daresay you’d get along famously. Marriage isn’t all about love and that sort of nonsense – sometimes it’s just about companionship and plain good sense. What’s more, it’ll make our business run a little smoother. Family businesses always do, don’t you know? If you marry Madelene, there’ll be no call to meet all of those simpering Society misses. It’s an excellent match, and one your father always dreamt of for you.”
Having said his piece, Whistenshire sat back in his seat again and drank his port down in one swallow.
“I don’t know what to say, Your Grace,” Neill said finally.
“You needn’t say a thing. Not yet, at least. You’re a clever, and too savvy a businessman to leap right into a contract without reading the fine print first. Take your time, think it over.” He got to his feet, setting his empty glass down on a side table. “Don’t take too long, though. I’ll not have my girl miss out on good matches while we wait for you to make up your mind.”
“Has the house changed very much from when you were here, milady?”
Cailin forced a smile. “Yes, a bit.”
The carriage ride home with Clayton had only gotten worse. He’d slept for an hour or two, then woken up shortly before they entered London and complained that Cailin’s wet clothes were making the carriage smell. He’d clambered out of the coach as soon as they pulled up in front of the townhouse, striding inside without waiting to see if Cailin followed.
She was left to scurry after him, carrying her own case until a footman finally swooped to carry it away.
Clayton was well down the hall, heading towards the ornate wooden door which Cailin vaguely recognized as their father’s study. He had always kept it locked. She watched Clayton fiddle with a key and let himself in. Before he closed the door behind him, he paused, and turned to face her.
“By the way, I’ve engaged a maid for you,” he called. “Her name’s Mary. Have Mrs White send her to you.”
Then the study door closed, and that was that.
Mary was a girl of about nineteen, with straight mousy hair and thick, round spectacles. She seemed very earnest and eager to please, and Cailin immediately felt as though she had found a friend.
“I’ve never had a maid before, you know,” Cailin admitted, and Mary’s eyes widened behind her spectacles.
“Really, my lady? Never?”
Cailin shook her head.
“What about at that ladies’ school you were at?”
Cailin suppressed a smile at the thought of Mrs Blackmore paying for her students to have expensive ladies’ maids to wait on them. There was a cook and a maid at the Blackmore house, and that was all. The girls took care of themselves, or the older girls were commissioned to care for them.
“No, it wasn’t really that sort of place.”
Mary pursed her lips, seeming to struggle with the concept that the sister of a duke wouldn’t have a proper ladies’ maid.
“What about before?”
“Well, I was sent to school when I was three-and-ten, so I suppose I was too young for a ladies’ maid. I had a governess, though.” Cailin briefly wondered what had happened to Miss Evans. She’d probably been dismissed, and Cailin hoped Clayton had given the poor woman a good reference.
Or maybe not. Cailin and her brother had never been close, and now she was forced to admit that, as a man, she didn’t know him at all.
“Now, let’s get you dressed, Lady Cailin,” Mary said, bustling around the room.
Cailin sat down and let her work.
The chamber wasn’t her childhood bedroom. Cailin had still slept in the nursery at the age of thirteen. After all, there were no younger siblings to need the space, and so she’d simply stayed.
Shortly after arriving, Cailin had been shown to the Green Room by the elderly, disapproving housekeeper. It was a sumptuous room, with satin and silk and padded cushions everywhere. Everything was green, of course, and while green was Cailin’s favourite colour, she almost felt as though she were drowning in sea of it. The wallpaper, bedclothes, carpets, and decorations were all green. There were even green frilled skirts around the chairs and the vanity table.
Cailin’s memories of her former nursery bedroom were of a dark, small room with windows that were painted shut, and then of her small, cold pallet in the Blackmore dormitory.
This room was something else entirely. Aside from its profusion of green décor, it was the warmest and most comfortable room Cailin had ever slept in. When she sat on the bed, the mattress was soft and springy, and she sank down through layers of thick, fluffy bedclothes. When she had arrived the night before, she’d gone straight to bed once Mrs White had shown her to her room, and she had only met Mary in the morning.
The bed was indeed marvellous, and Cailin was already looking forward to sleeping in it again.
“Are these all your dresses, milady?” Mary asked, eyeing the few dresses hanging in the wardrobe.
Cailin flushed. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
Mary said nothing and took out the least worn and threadbare dress for Cailin to wear.
Cailin only went downstairs when she couldn’t put it off any longer. She’d slept in, missing breakfast, but Mary had thoughtfully brought up a tray. She’d neither seen nor heard from Clayton since they’d arrived, and the house was large enough for them to avoid each other. Cailin tried not to be disappointed. Her brother was probably a very busy man.
She approached the drawing room door and paused, taking a breath to compose herself.
“My aunt is in there,” she said by way of explanation to one of the footmen waiting there, who looked vaguely horrified at being addressed. Flushing at her faux pas, Cailin muttered an apology and hurried inside, lest she embarrass herself any more.
The Dowager Viscountess Harrington waited inside. Cailin hadn’t seen her aunt since well before she was sent away, many years before her father’s death. She remembered the dowager as a large, tall woman, but she’d assumed it was just because she was a small girl looking up at a grown woman back then.
She was wrong. Lady Harrington was indeed a huge woman. She was extremely tall, six feet at least, and while she wasn’t exactly fat, she was certainly stout and strongly built. Her remarkably tall hat added at least half a foot to her height. She stood up as Cailin approached and beamed widely.
“Cailin, my girl! Goodness, you’re the very image of your mother. You’re just as small as she was, too.”
Cailin had come prepared with all of the flimsy etiquette rules she’d learned at Mrs Blackmore’s and was determined to make a good impression on her aunt. She never had time for her painstakingly memorized conversation openers because the viscountess was upon her in a moment, wrapping her arms around her and enfolding Cailin in a tight hug.
She released her just as suddenly, holding her back and looking over her.
“You’re a little thin, and rather too freckled, I think, but overall, you look well.”
“Thank you,” Cailin managed.
“Although, I’m not sure I like this dress. It’s rather old-fashioned, and yellow doesn’t suit you at all. Call me Aunt Jeanette, by the way. Let’s not stand on ceremony.”
“Certainly, Aunt,” Cailin said, feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Aunt Jeanette guided her to the sofa and began pouring out a cup of tea, for all the world as if she were the host and Cailin the guest.
“So, I daresay you’re delighted to be home. I recall my experience with finishing school. It was quite dreadful.”
Cailin had a feeling that Aunt Jeanette’s finishing school hadn’t been quite as dreadful as hers, but she didn’t bother saying so.
“Yes,” Cailin said honestly, “I am glad to be home.”
“And how’s the new Earl of Gavinshire?” Aunt Jeanette asked shrewdly.
“I haven’t seen much of him. I only arrived home last night.”
Aunt Jeanette pursed her lips. For a moment, Cailin thought she was about to say something else, but then her aunt sighed and popped an entire finger-cake in her mouth.
“I am looking forward to my Season,” Cailin said impulsively. “Clayton says you have agreed to sponsor me.”
Aunt Jeanette delicately dabbed crumbs from the corner of her mouth with a napkin. “Yes, that’s right. I do love the Season, and I hope you will, too. I have to say, I was very surprised when I received your brother’s letter.”
Cailin frowned. “What letter?”
“He wrote to me a fortnight or two ago, asking if I’d be willing to sponsor your coming out. It’s an expensive business, debuting a girl, and a man can’t possibly do it.”
Cailin coloured. “Oh, I hadn’t realised . . . I thought you’d offered. I didn’t know Clayton had asked.”
That felt . . . was impolite the right word? An imposition, that was it. Cailin barely knew her aunt, and here Clayton was asking for an enormous favour. Introducing a young woman into Society was certainly expensive, but it would also require a lot of time and energy. Aunt Jeanette would have to secure an invitation to Almack’s, take Cailin promenading daily, and she’d certainly have to throw at least one ball at her home, as well as entertain countless guests and throw ‘informal tea parties,’ which were really the most formal, nerve-wracking events possible.
Lady Harrington looked at her over the rim of her teacup.
“It’s no trouble, dearest. I wouldn’t have agreed if it was. You are my only niece, and I’ve always wanted to introduce a young woman to Society.” She began to stir her tea absently, clattering the spoon against the porcelain. “I daresay you don’t remember your mother.”
Cailin shook her head. “Not at all, I’m afraid.”
“Well, she was a wonderful woman. She was the complete opposite to me – one would never believe we were sisters. After she . . .” Aunt Jeanette paused, clearing her throat. “When she was gone, I wanted very much to adopt you. I have no daughters, and it seemed perfect. I think your father might have agreed, too – he already had your brother, his precious heir, and that was all that mattered. But it wasn’t to be, I’m afraid. My dear husband – Alfred – was beginning to get ill. I suspected it would be a long haul to the end, and I was correct. It wouldn’t be fair to try and bring up a child in a house with a dying man. By the time Alfred finally passed away, you were six years old and it didn’t feel right to take you away from your family. I contented myself with visits and bullying your father for updates on your health by letter. When your father, the late earl died, I tried again, but with my Alfred gone I knew there was no chance. Your brother was your legal guardian, and he was determined that you wouldn’t be wrested away from him. I liked to think it was because he cared so much for you.”
Cailin took a sip of her tea, and found it too hot, burning her mouth. She didn’t like the way Aunt Jeanette had said that last sentence. She didn’t seem to have a high opinion of her nephew.
She determinedly didn’t let herself think of what her life would have been like with this forthright, confident giant of a woman as her adopted mother. She would never have sent her to Mrs Blackmore’s.
“Well, that’s enough of that, I think!” Aunt Jeanette said, suddenly setting down her teacup and whisking away Cailin’s. “Hurry up and get ready, we’re going out.”
“Going where? This is my best dress,” Cailin stammered. Aunt Jeanette stared at her as if she’d just announced that she planned to join the circus.
“Your best dress? This monstrosity?”
“I like it,” Cailin lied. The truth was, Mrs Blackmore always purchased rolls of the ugliest and cheapest fabric she could find to make dresses for her girls, who had to put up with it or were obliged to wear clothes much too small.
Aunt Jeanette sighed. “Thank heavens I had the foresight to book an appointment at the modiste. We’re going to Bond Street. I’ve made all the preparations for your debut, my girl, and it all starts now. Wear comfortable shoes – it’s going to be a long day.”
Cailin longed to lean out of the carriage window and feel the wind on her face, but that probably wouldn’t be ladylike, so she didn’t. Aunt Jeanette leaned back against the expensively upholstered carriage cushions and talked incessantly. Cailin looked out of the window and drank in the sights. She hadn’t been in London since she was thirteen, and it all seemed so different. Has the city always been so busy, so full of people?
The carriage stopped in what seemed to be the busiest area of town, directly in front of a discreet, white-painted shop with a French name painted on the sign.
“Madame Badeaux,” Aunt Jeanette said, climbing out of the carriage. “She’s not French. I believe she’s from somewhere in the North, but nobody will go to a modiste who isn’t French. She has an excellent French accent and speaks the language rather well. I believe she’s actually been to Paris, which is more than can be said for some real French modistes. Hurry up now, in we go.”
Cailin scuttled along in her aunt’s wake, eyes as big as saucers. She knew she was gaping and gawking, and it wasn’t ladylike, but she couldn’t help it.
The modiste’s shop was deceptively large. The shop floor was spacious, with rows and rows of fabrics on display. There were drawers full of buttons, lace, caps, and ribbons, carefully left open to display their wares. There were mirrors everywhere, with little white pedestals for a lady to stand on while she was fitted for a dress. Discreet counters ran along the walls, loaded with sewing apparatus, scissors, and strips of fabric. There were padded cushions and carpets everywhere, and a sweet scent of mixed perfume in the air.
A chandelier hung in the centre of the shop. It wasn’t a large or very ornate chandelier, but it gave the place a delicate hint of opulence.
Women talked in low voices, murmuring together over ribbons and agonizing over bonnets and bodices. There were a couple of shop assistants in black dresses, waiting on their illustrious clients.
Aunt Jeanette walked past them all, walking straight towards a tall, thin woman with gray hair and an understated black gown in the latest style.
“Madame Badeaux!” Aunt Jeanette greeted her. “I’ve brought my niece . . .”
Cailin had stopped listening. She had given into temptation and hesitantly approached the fabrics. There were muslins in every colour, of course, including a delicate lilac colour that Cailin quite fell in love with. She ran her hand over the softest velvet she had ever felt and tried to imagine wearing a dress made of the luxurious, deep-green fabric.
Not just any dress, a fashionable dress, with a properly fitted bodice and lace and swathes of gloriously wasteful material. There were rolls of fabrics with pretty printed patterns, delicate little flowers, and other designs.
Cailin flinched at the voice at her shoulder and spun around guiltily. Aunt Jeanette was smiling down at her.
“Sorry, I just . . .”
“Don’t apologise, my dear. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Take a good look and decide which fabrics you like. Madame will help us choose the best styles. Now, let me introduce you to a friend of mine.” Aunt Jeanette turned to a short woman with curled black hair and large, blue-green eyes. She was about the same age as Aunt Jeanette and was smiling genially.
“Cailin, this is a dear friend of mine, the Dowager Duchess of Clarenwood. Your Grace, this is Lady Cailin Gately, my niece.”
Cailin flushed, trying to remember how deeply one should curtsey to a duchess. But now the lady was a dowager, did that make a difference? Cailin mumbled a greeting, and sunk into a low, wobbly curtsey.
The duchess burst out laughing. “Goodness, girl, I’m not the Queen! Up you get.”
Cailin obeyed, feeling even more embarrassed. However, Her Grace was smiling kindly, with no hint of malice at all.
“I hear you are soon to have your debut,” she said.
Cailin nodded. “I’ve no experience of Society, not really. I’m excited but also terrified, Your Grace.”
The duchess smiled. “That’s fair. I think I felt exactly the same when I was your age. Let me tell you, this is a wonderful time in every young lady’s life. You’ll make friends, you’ll dance, drink champagne, and wear lovely dresses. Make the most of it.”
Cailin smiled. “I intend to.”
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“Cinderella’s Happily Ever After”. It will be live soon!