Hope,In Love with a Scarred Spinster
Six years ago . . .
Lady Amsford coughed and spluttered, bringing up reddish spittle. Her daughter, sitting quietly by her side, immediately leaned forward with a handkerchief, gently wiping her mother’s mouth and chin.
“Have a care, Mama. Don’t tire yourself with trying to talk. Would you like some water?”
Lady Amsford nodded eagerly. “I’d like . . . a good cup of tea,” she rasped. “Mrs. Jacobs always makes the best tea. If it’s not too much trouble, Hope.”
“Of course, Mama. Just a moment.”
She moved to the doorway, stepping as softly as she could, and opened the bedroom door. Any noise had started to grate horribly on Lady Amsford’s nerves, even the distant jangling of the bell rope used to summon the servants or the squeak of door hinges. So, the door hinges were well oiled, and a footman or maid waited outside the door for any orders. So far, Lady Amsford wanted nobody near her except her oldest daughter, Hope.
The butler himself was waiting outside and stepped eagerly forward when Hope came out.
“Miss Hope, how is her ladyship? Any improvement?”
Hope swallowed, shaking her head. “No improvement, Smith, I’m sorry. There won’t be an improvement, I’m afraid.” She drew in a breath, consciously straightening her back and pushing back her shoulders. Hope knew she had to take charge now. She didn’t have the luxury of grieving, of locking herself in the schoolroom and sobbing, like her younger sister Marcia was doing.
“Lady Marcia asked to see her ladyship again,” Smith said. “I repeated Lady Amsford’s request, but to no avail.”
Hope sighed, raking her hand through her greasy blonde hair. She hadn’t had a chance to wash properly and, save for a few absent-mindedly placed pins to keep her hair out of her face, she hadn’t bothered to do her hair, either.
It was odd how such things became entirely unimportant in times of tragedy.
“Mama doesn’t want Marcia to see her like this. I love my sister, but she’s no nurse. She’ll break down and panic when she sees how bad Mama is, and then what? That’ll upset Mama, and Marcia will be even worse. I’ll talk to her later, but for now, tell her to stay downstairs.” Inspiration struck her, and she added, “Actually, Smith, could you ask Marcia to play on the pianoforte? It’ll sound very distant up here. I know Mama hates noise at the moment, but she was always so soothed by Marcia’s playing.”
Smith nodded. “I shall. Anything else, Miss Hope?”
“Mama wants a cup of tea. Like Mrs. Jacobs makes, she says.”
Smith smiled wryly. “Our talented housekeeper certainly makes an excellent cup of tea.”
“And I think we ought to call for the doctor. Mama is only getting worse.”
The butler gave a bow. “Very well, Miss Hope. If I may be so bold,” he added as Hope turned back to the door, “may I suggest Mrs. Jacobs takes over caring for her ladyship while you rest? You’ve gone several days without sleep now. All the upper servants are keen to take their turn in caring for Lady Amsford. She is well loved below stairs. And so are you, Miss Hope. Mrs. Jacobs worries for your health.”
Hope gave a tired smile. “You’re very kind, Smith, but no. It won’t be long now. I would only wake up from my rest to find my mother gone forever. I can sleep later.”
“Of course, Miss Hope.”
Hope hesitated, one hand on the door handle. “I don’t suppose there’s been any word from Papa yet?”
Smith’s face turned impassive. “No, Miss Hope.”
“My letter must have reached him in Scotland by now. I sent it weeks ago.”
“Perhaps he is travelling back, Miss Hope.”
Hope smiled wryly. “We both know he isn’t. Thank you, Smith.”
She opened the door and slipped into the warm darkness of the sickroom, leaving the door open just a crack. That way, when Mrs. Jacobs arrived with the tea she wouldn’t have to knock.
It was little things like that which made Lady Amsford’s sickness a little more bearable, a little more comfortable.
Hope took her place beside her mother’s bed. The seat had a permanent divot in it, from where Hope had curled up during the long, endless nights and tried to snatch some sleep. Lady Amsford was sleeping again. She spent most of her days and nights sleeping, waking frequently to toss and turn and groan in pain. Hope would do her best to soothe her, although it was getting harder and harder every time. She hoped her mother simply wouldn’t wake up. Her illness was not a kind one.
Only five minutes later, Hope heard Mrs. Jacob’s familiar shuffling footsteps and moved to greet her at the door.
The middle-aged housekeeper had been a staple in the Amsford household for as long as Smith. She was a diminutive woman, short and round, looking comically small next to the tall, thin butler. She held a tea tray with a pot of tea, two teacups, a plate of cold meat and bread, with a side of cake upon it.
“Mama won’t be able to eat any of that,” Hope murmured. “She can barely swallow water.”
“The food is for you, Miss Hope.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You must eat. It’ll distress your mother to think you aren’t eating. Now, are you quite sure you won’t let me take a turn at caring for her? I’ve waited on Lady Amsford since before she was a viscountess and was plain old Miss Sophia Murray. I’ll take good care for her.”
Hope smiled. “I know you will, but I’d rather care for my mother. As I said to Smith, it won’t be long now.”
Mrs. Jacobs swallowed hard, nodding and looking away. “I see. What else do you need, Miss Hope?”
“Could you see that Miss Marcia is all right? If there’s any word from my father, please let me know immediately. Oh, and show the doctor up to Mama’s room as soon as he arrives.”
Hope slipped back into her mother’s room and took her seat again. She blew on her mother’s cup of tea, trying to get it cool enough for her to drink. When Lady Amsford took her first sip, she gave a sigh of contentment.
“Delicious,” she rasped.
Then, the sound of gentle pianoforte music began to waft up from far below, and Lady Amsford’s eyes widened.
“Oh,” she managed, her voice thick with the bloody mucus in her throat. “Canon in D! Marcia is playing again. How lovely.”
Hope smiled, smoothing back her mother’s hair from her brow. “Yes, it is lovely.”
Hope must have fallen into a doze because she was woken by a harsh rapping on the bedroom door. Lady Amsford jolted awake with a moan of pain, and Hope hurried to the door, pulling it open.
“Didn’t you know not to knock?” she hissed, her voice faltering as she took in the strange man’s apparel. He was clearly the doctor, but he was not their usual physician.
The man’s eyes lifted from her décolletage to her face, and his gaze widened with shock and revulsion.
“Good Lord!” he bellowed, flinging himself backwards. “What in heaven’s name happened to you, girl?”
Hope folded her hands in front of her and waited for him to compose himself.
“I am Miss Hope Adamson,” she said calmly. “You are not our usual physician.”
The man tilted his head, trying to get a better look at Hope’s face. She resisted the urge to cringe away or lift her hand up to shield the right side of her face.
“I’m Doctor Stevens,” the man said, squinting at her. “Doctor Emmerson is unavailable.”
Hope sighed. “I see. Well, my mother is very ill, would you care to . . .”
“What on earth happened?” Doctor Stevens gestured towards Hope’s face, wincing.
Footsteps were approaching rapidly, and Hope caught a glimpse of Mrs. Jacobs and a couple of footmen hurrying towards them. Doctor Stevens’ time there was rapidly running out, judging by the expression on Mrs. Jacob’s face.
Hope smiled politely. “I fell when I was a little girl and burned my cheek very badly on a hot brazier. The scarring is very bad, as you can see, but I’m in no pain, and there’s no further damage, except to my cheek.”
Doctor Stevens winced again. “I see. Well, I suppose there wouldn’t have been much you could have done. I’m so sorry, Miss Adamson.”
Hope raised her eyebrows. “Sorry? What on earth are you sorry for?”
Doctor Stevens blinked, clearly taken aback. “Well, your face . . .”
“There’s more to life than looks, Doctor.”
He gave a short laugh. “Not for a woman.”
Then Mrs. Jacobs was upon him.
“How dare you?” she hissed. “Banging around like nobody’s business, insulting Miss Adamson. How dare you! Make up the draught that Doctor Emmerson usually makes up, then get out. Be assured we’ll complain to the good doctor about your behaviour.”
Doctor Stevens went crimson, glancing at Hope as if she might intervene. When she only smiled coolly at him, he muttered some insult under his breath and went inside, slamming the door behind him.
Hope went straight into her mother’s room after the doctor had left, not bothering to greet him again. Downstairs, Marcia was still playing the pianoforte, another tune Hope didn’t recognise. Probably another of their mother’s favourites.
She closed the curtains that Doctor Stevens must have thrown open and smoothed the bedsheets where he’d sat heavily on the edge of the bed to inspect his patient.
“I didn’t like that man,” Lady Amsford rasped. “I heard what he said to you, Hope.”
“You ought to have been sleeping, Mama. You shouldn’t worry about Doctor Stevens. I shan’t.”
Lady Amsford lifted her arm, tracing her knuckles over Hope’s scarred right cheek. The burn covered a fist-sized portion of her cheek, stretching from the tip of her eyebrow almost to her jaw, a fat oval of puckered skin and criss-crossed, raised white marks.
Hope had been six years old at the time of the accident and didn’t remember the incident in question. That was probably a kindness. She remembered waking up in her bed, bandages draped around her face, doctors leaning over her. She remembered Doctor Emmerson, who was much younger then. He’d been concerned. When Hope told him she didn’t remember tripping on the rug as they said she had, landing with her cheek on the brazier, Doctor Emmerson said that sometimes one’s mind cuts off terrifying, painful memories to keep one safe.
That made sense to Hope. She never thought much about her scar, not until she began to observe other people’s reaction to it. In fact, Doctor Stevens’ reaction had been rather mild.
She couldn’t feel her mother’s touch on her scar. The skin there was destroyed, lumpy and unfeeling.
“You look after your sister,” Lady Amsford whispered, her voice barely more than a breath. “Your Papa—he means well, but he can’t be trusted to care for you and Marcia as he should.”
“I’ll keep her safe, Mama,” Hope said, tears welling up in her eyes. She’d done so well until now, keeping her feelings in check and staying strong for everyone else.
“And you have to take care of yourself,” Lady Amsford continued, her watery blue eyes fixing on her daughter. They were already dulling. “Remember what I said?”
“‘Looks fade, and prettiness is no more than a piece of good luck. True beauty comes from within,’” Hope recited. “I know, Mama, I know.”
“You can’t just know it, Hope. You have to believe it. People are silly, giddy things who run from insects and spiders and mice just because they don’t like the way the creatures look. You know how you’ll be treated because of your face.”
“I’ll love myself anyway, Mama, I promise,” Hope said, forcing a smile. “In spite of my face.”
“No, not in spite of it!” Lady Amsford said, with more strength than she should have had. “Because of it. Along with it. Love yourself as I love you, Hope.”
“I will, Mama, I will. I love you,” Hope managed, tears rolling freely down her cheeks now. Her mother sighed as a weight seemed to lift off her shoulders. Hope didn’t know whether Doctor Stevens had mixed an especially good draught, but her mother didn’t seem to be struggling with as much pain as usual.
Then, the light went out of Lady Amsford’s eyes, and her hand slipped limply down to the bedsheets.
Downstairs, the pianoforte music stopped.
“The Season is a tricky thing, Marcia,” Lady Elwood said severely, stirring her tea and eyeing her youngest niece sternly. “You mustn’t think you’re here to enjoy yourself.”
Marcia wilted a little under her aunt’s furious glare.
“But . . . but I will enjoy myself a little, won’t I?”
“You might well have a few snatched moments of enjoyment, but we mustn’t count on it, do you hear? If I am to sponsor your Season, I’d like to know that you’re going to take it seriously.”
“I am, Aunt Ellen, I am.” Marcia nodded vigorously, eyes wide. She glanced at Hope as if for help. Hope raised her eyebrows, hoping it conveyed her message—What on earth do you think I can do to stop Aunt Ellen?
Hope cleared her throat. “We intended to go shopping today, Aunt Ellen, to buy some new fabrics and things for Marcia’s new wardrobe. Would you like to come with us?”
She determinedly ignored Marcia’s glare.
Lady Elwood sipped her tea complacently. “I would, my dear. I will, of course, pay for her fittings.”
“Oh, Aunt, you really don’t have to . . .”
“And yours, of course.”
Hope hesitated. “I don’t need any new dresses, Aunt Ellen.”
Lady Elwood snorted. “None of us need new dresses. You are accompanying Marcia on her first Season, aren’t you? That means that you’ll need new dresses. I shan’t have my nieces looking like ragamuffins for the Season.”
“I’m sure we won’t, Aunt Ellen,” Hope said politely.
Marcia cornered her as they were preparing to leave, while Aunt Ellen was giving instructions to the coach driver, who already knew exactly where they were going.
“What are you about, inviting Aunt Ellen to go shopping with us?” Marcia hissed.
“She’s your sponsor, and it’s a good idea for her to be there when we order these gowns. I don’t think you understand the scrutiny you’ll be under for your first Season.”
Marcia rolled her eyes. “There are plenty of girls out for their first Season this year. Besides, how would you know? You’ve only had one Season.”
Hope drew in a breath, and Marcia flushed at her own sharp words.
“It doesn’t matter. You have to be perfect. There are lots of unwritten rules about what you can and cannot wear in Society, and Aunt Ellen knows those rules better than either of us. As you said, I’ve had only one Season before.”
“I didn’t mean that, Hope. It was unkind,” Marcia said quietly.
Hope smiled wryly. “You needn’t worry. I’m sure I’ll endure far worse during the Season.”
Marcia was six years younger than Hope. She had just turned eighteen, and this was her very first Season. Hope couldn’t help but pray that it would be her last— Seasons were very cruel on young ladies.
Marcia was extremely pretty, with large grey eyes compared to Hope’s clear blue ones, and the same blonde curls. And, of course, she had two perfect, unmarred cheeks on her face, not a burn scar in sight.
Yes, Marcia should make a good match early on in the Season, or so everyone hoped.
Marcia sucked in a breath, smoothing her skirts, and pasted on a bright smile.
“I’ll make a marvellous match, Hope, just you wait and see. I’ll marry a rich man, and you can come and live with us, away from Papa’s griping and moods. Mama will be so, so proud of me.”
Hope smiled weakly, reaching out to tuck one of Marcia’s curls behind her ear. “She is always proud of us, whether we marry or not. I just know it.”
“Come on, girls!” Lady Elwood called from the front door. “Hurry up, we’ll be late!”
The best modiste in town was Madame Fleur’s. She sold the finest Parisian fabrics in the latest styles and had created an impressive sense of opulence and finery. If you bought a gown from somewhere other than Madame Fleur’s—for reasons of price, for instance—it was considered rather shameful, something to be hidden.
A fresh, spicy scent washed over them as the shop door opened, and Lady Elwood breathed deeply.
“That, my girls, is the smell of Society,” she announced.
“I thought Society smelled like sweaty bodies and crowded ballrooms,” Hope murmured in her sister’s ear, making Marcia laugh.
Madame Fleur fluttered forward to meet them, flanked by a handful of her minions. She spoke in crisp, French-accented English and was too well bred and clever to let herself so much as flinch when her eye caught Hope’s scarred face.
Her minions, however, gawked freely. At least, the younger girls did, until an older one elbowed them and glowered.
“Welcome, ladies, it is a pleasure, as always. I understand that Lady Marcia is coming out this Season, yes?”
Marcia blushed, nodding. Lady Elwood stepped forward.
“She is. We’ll need to see a selection of your debutante gowns first . . .”
“Oh, Aunt Ellen, I have already taken care of Marcia’s coming out gown. It’s all made,” Hope interjected.
Lady Elwood cleared her throat. “Oh, how kind of you. I think we’ll still take a look at those debutante gowns, though. Then some riding things, classic evening gowns, things for soirées, garden parties—oh, you know what she’ll need, Madame.”
Hope swallowed hard, trying not to feel snubbed.
Madame inclined her head gracefully. “I certainly do know what she will need. You will be brought tea at once. Miss Adamson, can I find you a comfortable place to sit?”
“Miss Adamson will also be buying some gowns today,” Lady Elwood intervened before Hope could take the easier option and sit quietly somewhere. “Hope, darling, why don’t you browse while Marcia is fitted, and then we’ll look at your gowns afterwards?”
Hope nodded, forcing a smile. “Of course, Aunt Ellen.”
Then, the three of them were hustled away, leaving Hope alone in the centre of the shop.
Well, not alone exactly. There were plenty of Madame’s minions as well as other customers in the place.
Feeling uncomfortable, Hope moved over to a display of ribbons, running her fingers over them without really seeing or touching them.
She hated this sort of thing.
Madame’s shop was very expensive looking, all red satin and plush carpeting. A huge chandelier hung from the ceiling, rather too big for the room, but still impressive. Heavy velvet curtains hung at the windows, blocking out most of the light. The inside was lit with countless candles, giving the place a beautiful, ethereal tint. You could almost imagine yourself in another world altogether.
Then, Hope suddenly became conscious of a group of girls tittering behind her, and she was very rapidly transported back into our world.
She glanced briefly over her shoulder and found that she didn’t recognise any of the three girls. They were all debutantes, no doubt, ready to affect shyness and act demurely around gentlemen, all the while tearing down their friends and other ladies to make themselves look more appealing.
Hope knew the type all too well.
“I would wear a mask, I think,” one girl with mousy curls and a rosebud mouth whispered to her friend, loud enough for Hope to hear. “Or a veil.”
“Do you think she realises how awful it looks? I feel quite sick.” A second girl spoke, a black-haired beauty with ice-blue eyes. “Oh, Agnes, do you think anyone has ever fainted at the sight of her?”
The mousy-haired girl giggled. The third girl, another mousy girl who seemed quieter than the other two, spoke.
“Don’t be cruel, Blanche. You too, Agnes. It isn’t her fault. We ought to be kind.”
Blanche rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so dull, Doris. She ought to have a sense of propriety and stay inside. She looks terrible.”
Agnes giggled. “Do you know who she is?”
Blanche tossed her long black locks over her shoulder. “She’s infamous. Lady Hope Amsford. Her sister is coming out at the same time as us. She’s very plain, everyone says so.”
Hope ground her teeth. Were these horrid girls really calling her sister plain? The audacity!
“Do you know what they call her?” Blanche continued, dropping her voice to a whisper, but not quite low enough. “The Scarred Spinster.”
The three girls burst into giggles, even the more reasonable Doris.
“What gentleman would want to marry her?” Agnes snorted. “He would have to be blind. Or perhaps just very stupid. Unless she has a very big dowry. No, even then, I don’t think anyone could bear to look at her.”
“Do you understand?” Blanche whispered. “Because she’s four-and-twenty but still not married, and of course the . . .”
Hope turned and began to walk right towards the girls. The smiles dropped off their faces and their colour drained as she approached.
Hope stood in front of them, glancing from face to face. As one, they dropped their gazes to the ground, seeming very interested in their own feet.
“Are you looking at these fabrics?” Hope enquired icily, and the girls glanced around at each other, clearly confused. She nodded towards the wall of ivory-coloured fabrics. “Those fabrics. If not, could you possibly move along? I’d like to take a look at them.”
There were murmured apologies and general mutters as the three girls shuffled out of Hope’s way. She stepped up to the rolls of fabric and stared at them, not taking in any of the shades or textures.
She was conscious of the girls shuffling around behind her, no doubt shooting poisonous glances at her back.
I ought to have just ignored them. These girls will be Marcia’s peers this Season, and they won’t forget that I embarrassed them like that.
The girls gave up, turning and flouncing out of the door, barging past one of Madame’s minions as they went, making her drop the handful of ribbons and trinkets they’d planned to buy.
Still, it was too late. Hope idly ran her hand over a brocade fabric, and as she turned away to help the poor minion pick up the scattered trinkets, she caught a glimpse of her own face in a mirror.
Madame Fleur had mirrors everywhere in her shop. Her customers liked to see themselves as often as possible.
Hope avoided mirrors wherever possible.
She had a mirror on her vanity table, of course, and she naturally had to look into it at least once a day.
Hope had never found pleasure in looking at herself. She knew every crease and scar of her cheek, knew how the skin would feel rough and thick under her fingertips. She knew that while she had no pain, too wide smiles tended to stretch the skin uncomfortably. Burned skin didn’t stretch and move with one’s muscles like healthy skin did.
If it wasn’t for my scar, I could be beautiful, Hope thought, eyeing her reflection. She had blue eyes, blonde hair, good features, nothing off or plain about the way she looked. Marcia was beautiful, regardless of what those girls had said about her looking plain. Perhaps she and Marcia wouldn’t win any beauty contests, but she could have been at least normal.
Hope drew in a breath, her mother’s words echoing in her mind. Looks don’t last. What’s inside is what matters.
She resisted the urge to reach up and touch the ruined skin on her face and turned instead to help the minion.
The girl goggled at Hope’s face, just as she’d expected, but Hope pretended not to notice, crouching down and picking up a scattered handful of ribbons.
“Thank you,” the girl said, flashing her a small smile. “You didn’t have to do that, my lady.”
“It’s nothing,” Hope said, rising to her feet.
The girl hesitated, eyeing the fabrics Hope had just been looking at. “Do you like the ivory, my lady? Would you like to see some of the newer fabrics?”
“My sister is coming out this Season, so I’d better not wear white or ivory,” Hope said with a smile.
“Well, what’s your favourite colour? We have fabrics in every colour you can think of.”
“White, believe it or not. White, or ivory. I like the cleanness of the colour.” Hope gave a wry smile, turning to move away.
“Please, wait, my lady!” The girl set the trinkets aside, eyeing Hope speculatively. “I think you would suit greens and blues. Blondes often do. Not yellow or orange, not unless it’s a very dark orange. Oh, how about red?”
Hope considered it. She’d never cared for gowns and dresses, but there was something lovely about getting something new. The girl seemed genuinely interested in helping her. Why shouldn’t she have some beautiful new gowns?
“All right,” Hope said. “Show me the fabrics you are thinking of.”
The girl beamed and led Hope towards a rainbow of coloured fabrics, silks, muslins, watered silk, chiffon, and more.
Hours later, the three women piled back into the carriage, Lady Elwood’s lady’s maid laden with boxes and bags. Hope had ordered three dresses, and Marcia seven. The dresses wouldn’t be ready for a while, of course, but there was an air of excitement in the carriage.
“I’m sorry you were alone for the whole time, Hope,” Marcia said, breathlessly cradling a box of what might have been shoes. “You ordered some beautiful dresses, though.”
Hope smiled. “Yours too. Yours are beautiful.”
“What’s more,” Lady Elwood chimed in, “I ran into Margaret Webb—you know, Lady Waverleigh? They’ve left their card and will be paying a call on us. You might know her daughter, Marcia, Miss Blanche. A very beautiful girl, and everyone says she is ever so sweet and charming. I’m sure you two will be fast friends.”
Hope sighed to herself. Just wonderful.
Alex poked hesitantly at the soggy mess on his plate.
“Mother, I don’t mean to sound rude, but what is this?”
Louisa Collins, the Dowager Duchess of Colbrooke, stared at her only son in mild horror.
“It’s bread pudding, Alex. You used to love bread pudding. I’m sure those years in the Far East, or wherever it was you went, can’t have changed your tastes that much.”
Alex swallowed hard, trying not to think of the delicious foods he’d enjoyed in places like China and Singapore. Rich spices, dishes bursting with flavour, shockingly simple and wonderfully delicious. He used to love fruits which were unheard of in England, and the meat and fish meals he’d enjoyed so much were gone altogether. He’d tried to explain what udon was to the cook and had received only a blank, disinterested stare.
No more spices. No more delicious Asian cuisines to sample.
Just . . . bread pudding.
Alex tentatively put a piece in his mouth. In fact, it tasted worse than it looked. He sighed, setting down his fork.
Louisa tracked his movement with her gaze and sipped her tea. “I’m surprised at you, Alex. I would have thought that after all that disgusting foreign food . . .”
“If by foreign food you mean the food I ate while I was abroad, I can assure you it is not disgusting. In fact, one of my favourite dishes . . .”
“Oh, don’t, Alex. I already feel nauseous in the mornings,” Louisa said, waving a hand.
Alex sighed. “I asked the cook if we had any spices, and she offered me some salt.”
“There you go, then. Now, we ought to talk about this upcoming Season.”
Alex pushed away the plate of soggy bread pudding with a sigh. “Mother, please. I’ve barely arrived back in the country.”
“That means there’s no time to waste. I know you, Alex. Your father would have wanted you to put business aside for just a little while and concentrate on what’s really important.”
“And what’s that?”
Louisa set down her cup with a clack. “Marriage, Alex.”
“I won’t be put off anymore. It’s been two years since we lost your father, and still no marriage and no heir. It was something he worried about, you know, and I promised I’d see to your marriage and make sure you were happy—as well as securing our line. Do you understand, Alex? We’re visiting Lord and Lady Waverleigh later this afternoon, to meet their daughter.”
“She’s very pretty, and she’s been voted the Diamond of the Season,” Louisa continued eagerly. “I suppose I don’t have to tell you what that means. Are you going to get ready?”
Alex gestured to his clothes. “I am ready.”
Louisa pursed her lips. “Why don’t you put something else on?”
“No, Mother, this is what I’m wearing.”
“It looks dreadfully oriental, dear.”
“It is oriental, Mother.” Alex got up. “Lady whatever-her-name-is will have to accept me as I am.”
“Her name is Jessica, Miss Jessica Webb!” Louisa called after Alex. “Oh, and don’t forget we’re attending the coming out ball of one of the Amsford girls! The youngest one, thank heavens, the one that isn’t horribly disfigured.”
Alex paused, wondering if he should ask what on earth had disfigured the older Amsford girl, but he decided it really wasn’t his business and walked on.
Alex closed the door to his room and pulled on the bell to summon his valet. The man appeared promptly, immaculately dressed, as always.
His valet, Bai Keung, had agreed to come with him halfway across the world to England. Alex privately thought that Keung had made a bad bargain. To Alex’s mortification, Keung had not been well received in England.
Still, the two were more than just valet and gentleman—they were friends.
“Good morning, Your Grace,” Keung said, his English perfect and barely accented. The man spoke five languages, which was one more than Alex.
“We’re going to visit some family friends of my mother’s. Lord and Lady Waverleigh, who, if I remember correctly, did business with my father. I’d better be on my best behaviour.”
Keung smiled. “I’m sure you’ll do admirably, Your Grace.” He began to brush down Alex’s coat of a deep-green colour, paired with an intricately embroidered waistcoat that he’d bought in Singapore. It was one of his favourites, and he was going to wear it, delicate English sensibilities not taken into consideration.
“I forgot about the Season,” Alex muttered. “It’s going to be endless coming out balls, and endless eligible ladies that my mother simply must introduce me to. And it’s a minefield, you know. If you say the wrong thing or seem too attached to one lady in particular, you’ll find yourself all but married to her in the gossip, and then you’re in hot water.”
“But you can’t be compelled to do anything you don’t wish to do, Your Grace?”
“No, I can’t, which is more than can be said for some of these poor ladies. Still, this sort of thing damages a man’s reputation, and that can damage his business interests. If I want to interest Lord Waverleigh in our business again, I’m going to have to be polite to his daughter. I can’t be seen to reject the girl in any way because that will offend the whole family, and it’s just a whole barrel of nonsense. What’s worse, I’ll have to marry sooner or later, in any case.”
Keung made a clicking noise of sympathy. “I’m sorry, Your Grace. Perhaps you’ll meet the future Duchess of Colbrooke at one of these coming out parties.”
“I don’t even know if I want to get married. This whole Season thing is more like a competition than a search for true love. The ladies have a better grasp on the thing than most gentlemen—they understand that winning or losing the great game of the Season will directly affect their futures. At least I can just go home when the Season ends, and nothing will have changed,” Alex remarked, turning himself this way and that in front of his mirror. Keung really was a genius valet. Alex’s clothes were always pristine.
“That does sound unfair,” Keung admitted. “But then, the world is often skewed in favour of men, and women always suffer.”
“I couldn’t agree more. Still, it doesn’t make it any easier to suffer through the endless ranks of airheaded girls and ambitious mamas. That’ll do, Keung, thank you. Are you quite all right to come with me?”
“Yes, I should like to come, Your Grace. The English countryside is much more beautiful than you described, and London is a rather interesting city.”
Alex lifted an eyebrow. “And what about the people, then?”
Keung grimaced. “The less said about the people the better, I think. The ones I’ve met so far, at least.”
Alex chuckled. “Come on, let’s go before Mother starts to worry about being late. Punctuality is another unspoken rule of Society. Break it, and you’ll be sorry.”
Alex prodded his memory, trying to remember Lord Waverleigh’s round, jovial face and his thinner wife’s prim and proper expression. It was no good—he didn’t remember either of them. Neither did he remember their oversized house.
The Waverleigh house was just like most aristocratic houses. Huge, of course, immaculate, decorated in the latest styles, and with pristinely manicured gardens, which never felt entirely real.
“Now, Your Grace, let me introduce my daughter, Miss Jessica Webb,” Lord Waverleigh said with something of a flourish.
Lady Jessica, who’d clearly been waiting on the landing above the stairs for just this moment, swept into view, smiling sweetly down at her reluctant audience.
“Papa, I didn’t know our guests had arrived!” Lady Jessica exclaimed. Alex smiled to himself, wondering if that little trick worked with other gentlemen. Probably it did.
She began to descend, tossing back her long black curls as she did so, eyeing Alex from under thick, dark eyelashes.
She was certainly beautiful, that was for sure. Lady Jessica was tall and slim, very graceful, with white skin and soft hands that indicated she never had to sit in the sun if she didn’t want to, nor do a hand’s turn around the house. She had large blue eyes that were startling against her silken mass of black hair, long eyelashes, and perfectly shaped brows. She wore a deep-blue dress with a neckline that just tiptoed along the edge of propriety, exposing several inches of creamy skin.
She extended her hand to Alex and sank into a curtsey.
“Your Grace,” she murmured, flicking a calculated glance up at him.
Alex smiled tightly and bowed. “Lady Jessica, it’s a pleasure.”
Louisa lay her hand on Alex’s arm. “Jessica is the Diamond of the Season, Alex. I daresay you’ve forgotten what that means, with all your years abroad!”
“I haven’t, Mother,” Alex said, getting the feeling that it would be explained to him in any case.
“When the debutantes for this Season were all presented to Her Majesty the Queen, Jessica was picked out of all of them as the most beautiful and most promising. The Diamond.”
Alex briefly considered pointing out that diamonds were almost certainly not the rarest jewels in the world, and not even the most pleasing to the eye.
He decided against it.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Lady Waverleigh announced. “I knew my Jessica would be chosen. She’s the most beautiful creature this Season, bar none.”
“Mama, please!” Jessicca demurred. “You are quite mortifying me.”
Lord Waverleigh chuckled. “She’s tremendously shy, Your Grace, as you can see. Such a modest girl.”
Alex cleared his throat. They couldn’t be more openly displaying their daughter for marriage than if she were sitting on a market stall in the middle of the town square. It made Alex uncomfortable.
“Well, it’s a pleasure to see you all again,” Alex said, smiling.
“I’m sure you’re thrilled to be home,” Lord Waverleigh said, not phrasing it as a question at all. “Now, shall we take our places? I’m sure we’re all quite ready to eat!”
It was a garden party, and that meant eating outside. While Alex was happy not to have to fight off hordes of buzzing insects—there weren’t anywhere near as many mosquitos here as he’d encountered in the last place he’d visited—the cold was something else. Alex tried not to shiver and wished heartily that he’d worn a thicker coat.
No one else seemed affected, not even the ladies, who didn’t even wear shawls.
The food was simple, meat and vegetables dressed up in various ways, and that, at least, was something Alex could enjoy. There was no bread pudding, thank goodness. He was, of course, seated next to Lady Jessica. An elderly gentleman who seemed to be almost entirely deaf sat on his other side, leading Alex to conclude that the table placements were cleverly designed to push Alex and Lady Jessica together.
Alex fought back a sigh. He was probably going to have to get used to it. He was a single, reasonably good-looking duke, and that was going to attract most of the single ladies this Season, along with their scheming mamas.
Alex had never considered himself particularly handsome. He wasn’t as tall as some other men, although he was much stronger than most men his age. He had dark hair and hazel eyes which he viewed as entirely uninteresting.
Judging by the way Lady Jessica kept shooting sidelong glances at him and making demure attempts to start a conversation, she was impressed by his looks.
Or his dukedom. One of the two. Probably the last one.
“Are you glad to be home, Your Grace?” Lady Jessica asked smoothly, popping a miniscule piece of meat into her mouth and appearing not to chew at all.
“Yes, and no. I am glad to see my mother again, and I’ll be glad to see old friends. I will miss my travels, though.”
“Did you see many large cities?”
“Some, although I mostly travelled through the countryside.”
Lady Jessica wrinkled her nose. “Oh, how dull.”
“Not at all. The countryside was quite beautiful. I take it you don’t enjoy it?”
“No, how could I?” Lady Jessica gave a tinkling laugh that was very beautiful and entirely insincere. “There’s nothing to do in the countryside. No one worth seeing, no dances, no parties, nothing. I’d rather be dead.”
Alex swallowed a particularly tough piece of beef. “I see. You, uh, you feel strongly about it, don’t you?”
Lady Jessica leaned a little too close to him. “I tell you what,” she said confidentially, “you show me someone who loves the countryside, and I’ll show you a terrible bore.”
She leaned back, laughing again, and Alex fought not to raise his eyebrows. He was tempted to point out that he loved the countryside, just to see Lady Jessica’s face drop.
But he was in her parents’ home, enjoying their hospitality. He couldn’t make a scene, not when it would shame his mother.
You’ve only just got back in England. It’ll take time to get used to the culture again. People make mistakes. Perhaps Lady Jessica simply . . .
“Oh, dear, what’s that?” Lady Jessica whispered, glancing over her shoulder. “That odd-looking man standing with the servants by the wall. Oh, he does look so strange!”
Alex clenched his jaw so hard; he thought his teeth would break.
“That is my valet, Bai Keung.”
“Oh. I see. Does he speak any English at all?”
“He speaks it fluently, along with several other languages.”
“Hm.” Lady Jessica turned back to her food. “How surprising.”
Clearly bored of the subject of Keung, she launched into a long and involved tale about the modiste who had made her new dress. Alex tried to look as though he were listening.
One thing was sure—he wouldn’t be rushing into a match with Miss Jessica Webb.
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“Hope” #7 of my series “Ethereal Regency Ladies”. Get it now!