Restoring a Lady's Reputation
“She looks rather ravishing tonight, doesn’t she?”
Christine Scott lifted her head from the table and turned to stare at her cousin Melissa dancing in the middle of the room. She had the brightest smile on her face. One that reminded Christine of her first dance five years ago.
Lady Veronica sucked in her teeth and squinted her eyes. “She looks so much like you, Christine. I remember you wearing the same colour dress at your debut ball. I recall it vividly. You were dressed in a blue dress, your bright blonde hair fell in fat ringlets just as you always wear it. You looked beautiful, Christine.”
Christine felt goosebumps all over her skin. “Oh, please don’t remind me of that time; I’m begging you, Veronica.”
“Why not?” Lady Veronica asked, setting down her glass of wine.
“It happened so long ago,” Christine answered. “What’s the use in talking about it?”
Veronica scoffed. “Long ago? You look exactly the same, Christine. Ever since I got married, I aged like milk. But look at you. My goodness, you still look the same. It’s almost as if this is your debut ball all over again.”
Christine shook her head disappointedly. “Was that supposed to be a compliment, Veronica? Am I supposed to be happy?”
Lady Veronica rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on. It’s Melissa’s debut ball. You should have a smile on your face. Instead, you’re sitting in the corner of the room like a wallflower. Aren’t you happy for her?”
“Of course, I’m happy for her. I’m thrilled,” Christine said with a sigh. “As much as I hate to think about it, I recall how happy I was during my debut ball. I’m glad Melissa gets to experience it.”
“Well, you don’t look thrilled,” Veronica said. “Aren’t you going to dance tonight?”
Christine sighed and placed her head on the table. “No. I don’t think I’m up for it. Tonight is about Melissa. I’m content watching her from here. You know, I personally chose that dress for her, and I talked her into doing her hair that way too. She was sceptical at first, but she loves it. She couldn’t stop giggling.”
“You practically moulded her in your own image.” Veronica giggled. “She is going to be fine, you know?”
Christine gazed at Melissa as she twirled around the dance floor in the arms of Viscount Arrington. From what she knew, the viscount was a polite and kind man that all the other ladies in the ton were swooning over. Christine had a good feeling about him attending her cousin’s ball. Perhaps, this was going to be Melissa’s first and last Season.
Her mind drifted to the night of her own debut. She had felt the exact same way about her night too. A lot of gentlemen had asked to dance with her, she had lengthy conversations with most of them, and the night had been unforgettable. Christine recalled how she had been in awe of the balls, soirees, and all the events of her first Season. None of the others that she had participated in had matched up to it. It was the memory of that time when she was nineteen that had kept her reminiscing happily for the last five years. She recalled how thrilled she was, how excited . . .
How in love . . .
“Christine Scott! What in the world are you doing sitting here?”
Lady Veronica rose to her feet awkwardly. “If you’ll excuse me, my lady.”
For some reason, Veronica had always been scared of Diana Scott, The Countess of Scotsville and Christine’s mother. It had been like that since they were children. She would always quiver and run away when Lady Scotsville walked into the room or when she spoke in a demanding tone.
“Mother . . .” Christine said lazily, sitting up.
Her ladyship sat on the chair and emitted a long sigh. “Christine, you haven’t answered my question. What are you doing, sitting in the corner of the room?”
“I’m watching Melissa dance with Lord Arrington,” Christine answered. “Doesn’t she look astonishing tonight?”
“That’s not a valid excuse. You look like a melancholy wallflower and trust me, it’s not a good look. You should be on the dance floor, dancing with one of the fine young men here.”
“I don’t want to, Mother,” Christine answered, fiddling with her fingers.
Five years had passed, and yet Christine could only admit to herself that she had not gotten over her first Season. Nothing could have prepared her for what the Duke of Islingwood did to her. Nothing. Christine had been so heartbroken that her heart physically broke. Christine had never been the same after that Season. Everything changed, but she tried to remain positive. She tried to believe that love was going to happen for her. However, one year turned into two, then into three, and then five years went by before Christine accepted her fate.
“My darling,” the Countess said softly and glanced at Melissa. “Nothing is stopping you from taking part in the Season. You are a beautiful young lady, just like your mother. I hate to see you sit here like this. It doesn’t look good.”
“Mother, you know no gentleman would possibly be interested in dancing with me,” Christine answered. “What’s the use? I’m already of spinster age.”
Diana reached over the table and squeezed Christine’s hand. “What an absurd thing to say. Don’t give up on finding love so easily, dearest. There are a lot of fine gentlemen here tonight. The Earl invited a lot of suitable young men.”
“It doesn’t matter. None of it matters,” Christine whispered.
It took three Seasons before Christine finally gave up. After her first experience with love, Christine found it incredibly difficult to trust any gentleman. She could never bring herself to be vulnerable with anyone ever again because she feared she was going to get her heart broken. Recalling how bad it went the first time, Christine didn’t want to feel it again.
After the heartbreak, Christine had still held on to the hope that she could love again. She tried. She really gave it her best to get past her bad experience with a gentleman and give her heart to someone else. But she couldn’t. It was much better to give up. There was no harm in being a spinster.
“Good morning, Your Grace,” Mr. Graham greeted and bowed.
“Good morning, Graham. I left a letter on my table. I need you to send the errand boy to deliver it to Lord Peyton. He has been expecting a reply from me, but I’ve been too busy to write back.”
“I’ll do so right away, Your Grace.”
James gave him a sharp nod and hurried down the stairs. The morning sun was seeping into the room through the large windows. Mornings like that were James’ favorite time of the day. When the sun was burnt orange, and its rays were not as harsh. Most of the time, James preferred to take a walk in the garden before breakfast to inhale the fresh, dewy air. It was one of the few things that exhilarated him.
Ever since he took over the dukedom from his late brother over a year ago, James had not had a moment of rest. Nothing thrilled him anymore. Every day was the same. His days were filled with staring at ledgers, skipping breakfast, and going to sleep really late, only to wake up before the sun rose. However, James wasn’t complaining. It was better living like that, with his emotions well-guarded. At least no one would disappoint him. Again.
“Good morning, Μother,” James greeted as he walked into the room. “You look really nice today.”
Augusta Upton, the Dowager Duchess of Belmire, set down the paper in her hand and turned to James with a puzzled look on her face. “Well, isn’t this a surprise? What made you decide to join me for breakfast this morning, Your Grace?”
James took his seat at the head of the table and sighed loudly. “Can’t I decide to have breakfast with my caring mother any time I please?”
The Dowager rolled her eyes and chuckled. “Oh, spare me the flattery. We both know you prefer to sit in your study for the entire day without saying a word to a single soul.”
James opened his mouth to speak but shut it immediately. Deep down, he knew his mother was right. There were days when he avoided her company like the plague. No doubt, James loved his mother, but sometimes she was a bit overbearing. She nagged him and ranted on about finding a suitable wife for him. No matter how many times he changed the subject, she still found a way to make it about marriage. If she wasn’t pressuring James to find a wife, she was trying to get him to attend social events or forcing him to listen to gossip that she had heard all around the town. It was one or the other, and over time, James began to run away from her company.
“What are you reading?” he asked, changing the subject. “Don’t tell me it’s a scandal sheet, Mother.”
“What else would I be reading?” she retorted. “You will not believe what the Anonymous Author has written today. My goodness. Who would have thought?”
James picked up his teacup and took a sip. “I’ll be meeting with Lord Basset tomorrow. We have much to discuss, and I’m afraid I cannot postpone our meeting any longer. The man is always drunk, and it sickens me. I’d rather converse with his son, but Jonathan isn’t in London at the moment.”
Her Grace crossed her arms and arched her eyebrows. “Well, aren’t you going to ask me what the Anonymous Author wrote that has me flabbergasted?”
“Mother, with all due respect, I have no interest in engaging in the ton’s gossip. I have work to do, and talking about the personal lives of other people isn’t one of them. I don’t see how you find pleasure in reading that scandal sheet.”
“Let’s talk about something else, Mother,” James said softly. “I would just like to have a nice meal with you.”
“Alright then,” she answered and adjusted in her seat. “We’ll change the subject. James, I would like you to participate in this Season. You had no reason to refuse last year, but you did. Now, I’m asking again, and this time, I’m not taking no for an answer.”
James massaged his forehead, immediately regretting his decision to join the Duchess in the dining room. He ran his fingers through his light brown hair and shut his eyes. “Mother—”
“I won’t listen to any excuse, James,” she interrupted him. “You are almost thirty years old. Time doesn’t wait for anyone. The more time you waste, the worse it’s going to get.”
“How is anything going to get worse? I don’t think it affects anyone that I choose to remain alone for now.”
“It affects me,” she answered. “It affects our family. It affects our name. The sooner you find a wife and settle down, the sooner we can get a son to carry on the family name. Would you at least think about our future and not just yourself? Do you not have plans to marry?”
“I do,” James blurted. “Just not at the moment. I still have so much to do, mother. This can be discussed at a later time.”
“No, we will discuss it now,” the Duchess said sternly. “You are not getting any younger, my dear. Right now, finding a suitable wife is the most important thing in your life. Why won’t you take it seriously? Don’t you care about me?”
“This isn’t about you, mother. It’s about me. I am under a lot of pressure right now, and you are aware that I’m still adjusting to this new role that I’ve been given. It’s been less than two years since I became the duke, and it has not been easy. I would appreciate it if you were a little considerate.”
The Dowager sighed and shook her head. “The dukedom is always going to be this way. You might think it’s tough now, but it’ll always be tasking. You cannot prolong the inevitable. Take your brother, for instance. Andrew thought he had all the time in the world. He thought he could wait, and have fun, and take his time. But the cold hands of death took him away from me. Away from us. You’re threading down that same path, and I hate to see it. You don’t have all the time in the world as you may think. Listen to your mother.”
James felt a pang in his heart at the mention of his brother’s name. “Mother, I’ll handle it.”
“I’m not asking you to assure me. I’m asking you to do something about it. You need to start thinking about our family’s bloodline. You think after all this time you’ve wasted, I’ll leave you to just . . . handle it?”
A sigh slipped from James’ lips. “What else do you want me to say?”
“Nothing,” Her Grace answered and cleared her throat. “I want you to do as I say, not say anything. There’s a list of all the debutantes that have been circulating ever since the start of the Season. I’ve gone through that list, and I’ve picked out suitable ladies for you. A particular favourite this Season is Lady Melissa Scott. She is the ward of the Earl of Scotsville. I think she is the best choice for you, and I would appreciate it if you put some effort into getting to know her.”
“Fine,” James said. He was willing to say anything to gain his peace and quiet back.
“Good,” she said blankly. “And I will be hosting a dinner ball soon.”
The Duchess rose to her feet and held her head up high. “I have invited many of the ladies from that list as well as their parents. Your attendance is imperative, and I will not be taking no for an answer. Prepare accordingly.”
“I beg to differ. My attendance at this ball, which I had no prior knowledge about, cannot be imperative since all the planning was done without my knowledge. I will not be attending the ball, Mother.”
“It would be scandalous for the host not to be in attendance at his very own ball. Prepare accordingly,” she said and waltzed out of the room.
James shook his head. His mother always had her way no matter what. He had known that since he was a child, and it scared him that she was going to find her way around this time. It wasn’t that long since he had his heart broken, and finding love or a life partner was the last thing on his list. The first was living up to his brother’s name, making Andrew proud. James was not looking forward to the Season.
“You know, life was much simpler when I was the second son.”
The conversation James had earlier that day with the Duchess had completely ruined his day. James was unable to focus on compiling the monthly ledgers he had been occupied doing before breakfast. There was no reason for the conversation he had with his mother to bother him the way it did, but James couldn’t get it out of his mind. Her Grace never put in any effort to understand things from his perspective.
To avoid any more altercations with her, the Duke decided to leave home. He got on his stallion and rode around the town for a bit before heading to his favourite club in the city. Charles, one of his few friends, lived across from the club, hence James thought it was a good idea to grab rounds of drinks with him.
They rarely saw each other, and Charles always complained about it to James or anyone that listened. James knew how horrible he had been to Charles as a friend, and since he was out of the manor that day, there was no reason to put off their meeting any longer.
They were seated in the private area of the club, facing each other. James intentionally picked a seat by the window so he could stare into the street and watch the people stroll by and the horses gallop away. Forming distractions for himself was a skill that he was not proud of.
James could easily withdraw from any conversation he didn’t want to listen to by simply staring out the window. He had learned over time that nodding at intervals and throwing people a faint smile was the easiest way to make them believe he was listening when he actually was not. This particular skill usually came in handy when he had to sit with men of the ton as they discussed their business achievements and bragged about how many ships they had or how many houses they had built.
“It surely was,” Charles replied. “At least I could see you whenever I wanted to, Upton. Now, you’re the duke, and I have to wish upon a star for an opportunity to see your face. Life was much easier when you were just the son of the duke, not the duke himself.”
Charles was right. Ever since James took over the dukedom, everything changed. It had initially started with his father’s death, the late Duke of Belmire. James adored his father, and his father loved him too. Sometimes, the Duchess would complain that the late duke spoiled James. He gave him everything he asked for without hesitation and would take him everywhere.
However, James’ father was different with Andrew, James’ brother. He was stricter with him. Perhaps, it was because Andrew was to take over the dukedom. Andrew spent most of his time in the study with their father, he was always on his best behaviour, and he was well-mannered at all times. Even in private. He was the perfect duke. Until he unfortunately passed away from a sudden illness.
James had never imagined being the Duke of Belmire. It had never crossed his mind. He was alright being the second son of the duke rather than being the duke himself. But with Andrew gone, the mantle fell to him. Whenever James thought about his present situation, he would feel the heat rise in his throat from anger. There was a weight that came with the position. A weight of responsibility. The Dowager never failed to remind him that the fate of their family, their legacy, rested on his shoulders. That much pressure was one he wasn’t used to. One he despised.
But it was never going away.
“You know you could be different, Duke,” Charles said after downing the content of his mug.
James tilted his head to the side. “Different?”
“From your brother . . .” Charles explained. “From your father. Honestly, it’s hard to paint a picture of you as the Duke of Belmire. It doesn’t quite suit you.”
James scoffed. “You’re only saying that because you know me, Charles.”
“True,” Charles admitted. “I mean, look at you. You are the kind of gentleman that ladies swoon over. The prince charming, they await to sweep them off their feet. You have the looks, the wittiness . . . You look like a rake.”
James gasped softly. “I am not a rake.”
“I know.” Charles chuckled. “But you do look like one. All I’m trying to tell you is that you shouldn’t let all the work you have to do or the responsibilities you have to uphold stop you from actually living. You are allowed to come out for a drink once in a while and talk about your day and all of your business with your friends.”
“Charles, you’re just saying that because you want me to keep coming here for you.”
“That’s partially true,” Charles said, chuckling. “But I am also looking out for you. Are you sure you’re alright?”
James glanced at Charles and fiddled with his mug. He had no answer to that question. Physically, he was alright. He had everything he needed and more. He had his mother, who loved him a great deal. The workload he had that kept piling up every single day was enough to distract him from whatever it was that was plaguing his heart. There was no reason for him to say no to Charles’ question. But something was stopping him from answering. Was he truly happy? Or was he faking everything?
“Think about yourself first, Your Grace,” Charles said to him. “If you’re not happy, you cannot make anyone happy.”
James turned and stared out the window. His problem didn’t seem like an actual problem, but it troubled him. His biggest fear was giving his heart to someone again. James feared he wasn’t ready for any commitment. Participating in the Season wasn’t a good idea. Not for him or his broken heart. But there was no way of convincing the Dowager Duchess otherwise. She always found the means to have her way.
Christine brushed her fingers down the side of her neck and smiled. The sun caused her skin to glisten, and it was pleasing to her eyes. Hazel, her maid, always said that Christine had porcelain skin, and although Christine thought it was pure flattery, she was starting to think Hazel was right. Her blonde hair really complimented her skin, and her bright blue eyes were nice to look at in the mirror. Christine slowly smiled before turning away from the mirror.
Her smile waned instantly. It seemed as though staring into the mirror for too long was atrocious. Suddenly, she was reminded of a hundred reasons why she was meant to be sad. Who cared that she or her family thought she was beautiful? What good was it to her?
Christine was away from her reality, and it had taken her a long time to accept it, but she finally did. She was a spinster, and there was no way a gentleman would be interested in a lady that debuted five years ago. Christine couldn’t blame them. She couldn’t bring herself to feel anything for any gentleman, hence there was no need to waste any time.
The issue was her family. More specifically, Lady Scotsville who did not want to accept Christine’s reality. Christine felt sorry for her dear mother, but there was nothing she could do. She was tired of trying. After her first Season had ended horribly, it took Christine a full year to recover. She decided to go into the second Season with an open mind. A part of her wanted to show Auric, the Duke of Islingwood, that she had moved on from him, but it didn’t work the way she wanted it to. Everyone knew about what transpired between her, her best friend, Lady Patricia, and the Duke. Some of the men she danced with at balls and soirees used the opportunity to ask her about it. There were other times when Christine caught ladies staring at her and giggling to themselves. It was embarrassing, to say the least.
But Christine had gotten over it. At least to the best of her abilities. Whenever people brought it up, she would smile about it and mask the hurt in her eyes by shutting them. People expected her to have moved on from the incident, so they had no idea that speaking about it hurt Christine. She didn’t deserve the hurt that she got. No one deserved that kind of pain.
“My lady, would you like me to fetch you the books you acquired last week?” Hazel asked, staring at her through the mirror.
“Oh, no,” Christine answered. “I’ll read those later. Right now, I need to join my mother and Melissa in the drawing room.”
The thought of it made Christine sigh. Hopefully, they weren’t reading the scandal sheets again. Every time the Countess laid her hands on the paper, she always found a way to make it about Christine’s marital status. She would call out names of eligible bachelors in London and how exciting it was that they were gracing the Season with their presence. Lady Scotsville would then go further and suggest ways Christine could run into some of them before the balls and social events commenced fully. No matter how many times Christine had asked her mother to stop, she never listened. Of course, Christine knew her mother meant well, and she was only after her happiness. However, it didn’t stop her from feeling burdened by Lady Scotsville’s expectations.
As Christine walked down the hallway towards the main drawing room, she could hear her mother and Melissa laughing from inside. The bond between them warmed Christine’s heart. Melissa was like her little sister and seeing her so excited to be debuting made Christine proud. She was already a favourite among the mothers of the ton due to her debut ball. The Season was looking up for her dear cousin, and Christine was elated for her.
“Darling!” The Countess beamed as Christine walked into the room. “If it isn’t my beautiful daughter. How are you today, my love?”
Christine chuckled and cupped her cheeks as she strolled to a seat by the window. “I’m very well, mother. Thank you for asking.”
“I love that gown on you,” she continued. “Did we just have it made?”
Christine assessed the square-cut, emerald green dress she had on and shook her head. “Oh no, Mother. We had this dress made late last year. It was one of the dresses you gifted me. Don’t you remember?”
“No wonder. Only I could have picked such a fitting gown for you,” her mother bragged. “I’ll always make sure you have the best of everything, my dear. Do you need new dresses? Many of the ladies this Season are swarming the modistes around town, making new gowns. If you want, I could ask Georgiana to come over.”
“That won’t be necessary, Mother,” Christine answered. She was already used to all of Diana’s tactics. Her plan was to get Christine excited for the Season by throwing new and pretty dresses at her. Christine had fallen for it in the past, but that had changed.
“Ah, Christine, you have got to read the scandal sheet,” Melissa chimed in with a wide smile on her face. “The Anonymous Author wrote about me!”
Christine held her breath instinctively and stared blankly at the sheet in Melissa’s hands. She had not held a scandal sheet in four years. The sight of it brought back painful memories. Christine recalled how her name was plastered all over the sheet during her debut Season. She felt her stomach twist into knots when she recalled how everyone stared and singled her out in the crowd. Her name and scandal had been splashed across the gossip pages of the sheets, and it took a great deal of effort for Christine to show her face in public after that.
Melissa stared at Christine sheepishly, as if seeking validation. Christine smiled and adjusted in her seat.
“Do you actually need anyone to tell you that you’re a favourite this Season? Look at you! Soon, men will fill this drawing room, seeking your hand in marriage.”
“Oh, I’m so glad,” Lady Scotsville said. “The Anonymous Author only had wonderful things to say about Melissa’s debut ball. She wrote expressively about her beauty and her poise too. This might just be Melissa’s Season after all.”
“I don’t doubt it.” Christine smiled. “But do not dwell too much on the things this Anonymous Author says. You need to stay alert and be courteous at all times.”
Christine stared at her mother as she gazed at Melissa with affection in her eyes. One good thing about the Season was that Melissa had debuted. It meant that Lady Scotsville was busier with preparing Melissa for her first Season. Perhaps this Season, Christine could finally escape from her mother’s constant complaints. Melissa had caught the attention of all the gentlemen that had attended her debut ball. Surely, finding a partner for her wasn’t going to be difficult. Unless Melissa made the same mistake Christine had made five years ago.
“I don’t think you like the Anonymous Author, Christine,” Melissa said, setting the scandal sheet down. “You tend to shy away from conversations that involve gossip.”
Christine picked up a biscuit from the tray and turned to the window. “I’m just glad the woman has something good to say about our family for once. Reading her letters is a complete waste of time. There are better things to do with time than spending it talking about other people and their problems. We have no idea what goes on in people’s homes, so it’s rude to draw conclusions based on the information one woman has decided to spread.”
Melissa crossed her legs and her arms. “Why do you assume the anonymous writer is a woman, Christine? For all we know, it could be a man.”
Christine scoffed. “I highly doubt that.”
Melissa arched her eyebrows. “Why so?”
“I don’t think a man would spend his time writing gossip in the papers and distributing it every single day. Men in London prefer to spend their time drinking in clubs or having meetings with each other in their studies while they drink whiskey and talk about women.”
Melissa giggled. “How do you know so much about men?”
“Isn’t that what they all do? At least, that’s what father does,” Christine answered. “Anyway, I’m almost certain the scandal sheet isn’t written by a man. It’s definitely a woman.”
“Well, it would be nice if it were a man, not a woman,” Melissa said. “Women have a high tendency to do things like this. It would be interesting if a man was behind this, don’t you think, Aunt?”
Lady Scotsville shook her head. “Interesting, indeed. But I would have to agree with Christine on this, Melissa. The Anonymous Author is clearly a woman. The way she goes into detail about gossip makes it seem almost as if she is one of us. I reckon she’s a lady of the ton. Someone who has access to our gatherings, hence she participates in the gossip and then goes home and writes all about the information she had heard about. One of the mothers in the ton, if you ask me.”
Christine turned to them. “That’s unlikely too, Mother. It’s the start of the Season. The mothers are extremely busy. Have you had time to sit with your friends for a chat? Let alone time to engage in writing? I don’t think it’s someone in the ton. What would they benefit from it?”
Lady Scotsville paused to think. “You’re right. Then it’s someone from the middle class then. Someone with time on their hands.”
Christine raised her eyebrows. “You think people in the middle class have time on their hands? We have time on our hands, Mother, not them.”
“I think your mother is right, Christine,” Melissa chimed in. “Think about it. Who would want to gossip about the ton? Surely, members of the ton know everything about each other. Why write about it? It has to be someone with ill intentions.”
“Well, they wrote good things about you, so they cannot have ill intentions. Don’t you think so?” Lady Scotsville asked her.
Melissa sighed. “That is true. But I agree with you, Aunt. It must be someone in the middle class. It has to be. But who . . .?”
Christine turned to stare out the window. She disagreed with both of them. It wasn’t one of the mothers, it wasn’t someone in the middle class, and it wasn’t a man. Four years ago, she had dedicated her time to finding out the identity of the Anonymous Author. They had contributed immensely to spreading Christine’s devastating story across London. If it hadn’t been for them blowing it out of proportion, Christine would have been spared the embarrassment. Her social anxiety was all the Anonymous Author’s fault. Every time she was in a public space or at a social event, she couldn’t help but think that people were gossiping about her because of what they had read in the scandal sheet.
Christine’s thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the butler. Mr. Edwin strolled into the room, holding a metal tray with a letter sealed with a ribbon on it.
“Good morning, my lady,” he greeted Lady Scotsville.
She nodded in response. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
“A letter arrived from His Grace, the Duke of Belmire,” Mr. Edwin answered. He leaned in and placed the silver tray in front of her ladyship for her to take the letter.
“Who is the letter from?” Melissa asked, adjusting in her seat.
Lady Scotsville hurriedly opened the letter and began to read the contents. She gasped and glanced at Melissa with a large smile on her face. “It’s an invitation to a ball! The Dowager Duchess of Belmire is hosting one at her manor. His Grace will be in attendance too.”
Melissa gasped. “His Grace? I heard from my friends that he is quite a handsome man. Although I’ve never seen him.”
“I bet his Grace would be looking out for a suitable lady at this ball,” the Countess commented. “You must look your absolute best, Melissa. His Grace is a hard man to please.”
Melissa sighed and slumped on the couch with a dreamy look etching across her face. “I wonder if all the rumours about him are true. I wonder if he is as handsome as they say. Oh, it would be so wonderful if I got to dance with him. Don’t you think, Cousin?”
Christine smiled and nodded. A duke. Melissa’s reaction was all too familiar. She had reacted the same way five years ago when the Duke of Islingwood had invited her family to a ball his mother was hosting. Christine had fallen in love immediately. She thought they were meant to be. There had been no doubt in her heart. He had rained compliments on her, showed her off to everyone, and had dinner with her family on multiple occasions.
Not too long after they had met and Christine fell in love, the Duke proposed marriage to her. Christine recalled how light-headed she had felt in that moment. She didn’t sleep that night. Soon after that, preparations for the wedding began. Everyone had been so happy for them both. Christine had tried on so many dresses, gone to so many dress fittings and luncheons . . . she was the happiest she had ever been, eager to marry the love of her life.
Her friends were all over her during the preparations. Lady Veronica was even more excited because she, too, was engaged to be married to a handsome viscount. Lady Patricia, Christine’s best friend, never left her side. She would escort her to the modiste, check the dresses with her, and they would sit in the park and talk for ages about the wedding.
The day of the wedding came. Christine had heard wedding bells ringing in her sleep. She had been the first one to rise that morning. Her wedding gown was beautiful. Silky white, with white flowers, a high neck, and long sleeves. Her veil was very puffy, and the curls in her hair fell to the sides of her face; they even bounced as she walked.
But then, in a blink of an eye, everything changed.
Right there, in the church, the Duke of Islingwood declared that he was in love with Lady Patricia. Even more devastatingly, Lady Patricia immediately announced that she felt the same way about His Grace and that she had loved him secretly since she laid eyes on him. They had both jilted her on her wedding day. Her fiancé and her best friend. In the presence of her family and friends.
“Christine, are you listening to me?” Melissa asked. “What would I wear for the ball to meet the Duke of Belmire?”
“You look beautiful in any gown, Melissa,” Christine managed to say. “Please excuse me. I need to go to my bedchamber.”
“But we haven’t discussed what I’ll wear,” Melissa whined.
Somehow, all the talk about a duke was bringing back bitter memories of the duke that broke Christine’s heart. She trudged down the hallway with her head hanging down. She couldn’t help but wonder how the Duke of Islingwood and Lady Patricia were doing. If their so-called love had waxed stronger all these years. Deep down, she hoped that it hadn’t.
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“Restoring a Lady’s Reputation”. Make it yours now!