A Spinster for anEligible Bachelor
Late September 1820, Ellesmere Park, Berkshire
Julia turned this way and that in front of the mirror, inspecting her reflection. What she saw in the mirror pleased her. The Season was beginning, and every young lady wanted to be in good looks for that.
Miss Julia King was well-established as a beauty in the fashionable circles of London. While fashion for dark or fair beauties tended to wax and wane – meaning that Julia’s friend, the languid and ethereal Frederika, was now out of fashion with her limp, yellow locks – red-headed beauties were always exciting and intriguing.
Julia was the perfect height for a young lady. Not too tall as to make the fragile, self-conscious gentlemen uncomfortable, and not too short as to look dumpy and childish. She was fortunate enough to have an oval face that suited most hairstyles, good skin, nice teeth, clear green eyes, and curly red hair that her maid, Suki, knew exactly how to dress.
Yes, Julia was very pleased with her looks. Perhaps that was a little vain, but why should it be? She was not the most beautiful woman in London at the moment, but she knew that she was pretty. Good looks were entirely a matter of chance. If one had them, they wouldn’t last, so why not be pleased with the way one looked while it lasted? She didn’t want to be a faded beauty in a few decades’ time, wishing she’d been happy with her own face when she had been young and beautiful.
Youth and beauty are passing gifts, Julia reminded herself, Enjoy them while they last.
After all, if one was a woman, youth and beauty were the only qualities that anyone cared about. If one didn’t have money, those qualities were quite indispensable.
Fortunately, Julia had all three.
“If you’re done admiring yourself,” Suki observed, “You’re late for breakfast, madam.”
“Not to worry, Suki,” Julia said, smoothing down the front of her bodice, plucking experimentally at the fine lace. “I’m only going downstairs. Should I wear my blue satin instead, today? No, perhaps not. It’s only breakfast with Mama and Papa. I’ll save it for the Season, instead.”
“Very well, Miss. I’ll pack the blue satin. Anything else? We’re leaving tomorrow morning, but the cases will be mostly packed and lashed to the carriage tonight. His lordship wants to leave early, I believe.”
“I can’t think of anything at the moment,” Julia answered absently. She turned to smile at Suki. “Are you excited to return to London?”
Suki pulled a face. “Not particularly.”
“You’ll be the one at the dances and dinners and parties, Miss. I will be the one getting you ready and waiting for you to come home after you’ve danced till dawn. Either that or I will come with you and sit in the servants’ hall. But at least that gives me an opportunity to read my book. And I’m usually fed rather well.”
Julia grimaced. “I’m sorry. We should dress you up in a fine gown and bonnet and bring you along as my companion, and then you could dance till dawn, too. You could choose your favourite. I know you like my green and white gown.”
“No thanks, Miss.” Suki answered. She stepped forward to tweak one of Julia’s curls into place. “I don’t know how you stand it, to be frank. I was talking to Anne lately – you know, Lady Eleanor’s maid – and she said that her mistress was relieved that she was no longer expected to attend the Season now she’s married. She said she was heartily tired of it by her second time round. Aren’t you tired? This’ll be your third Season now.”
Julia turned back to inspect her reflection again with a smile. “Not at least. In fact, I think I’m more excited for my third Season than I was for my debut. Perhaps I should be tired of it – it’s all very trite, I’ll admit. It’s very energetic and yet one seems to spend all day doing nothing at all. Oh, and there are endless visits to be made and most of them are terribly dull. But still, I love the Season. Everyone is so handsome and fine, and there’s always chatter and laughter. There’s lots of dancing and good food, and I can spend all day with my friends. Besides,” she turned back to Suki with a grin, “I’m sure you’ll lecture me for being vain, but I like being admired. There’s no better time than during the Season, after all.”
Suki sighed, but she didn’t quite manage to suppress her smile. “Shall I get out your emeralds, Miss? They’ll suit that grey gown very well.”
“Thank you, Suki.”
Julia idly watched her maid bustle around the room, taking out the jewellery box. She knew that she was lucky to have Suki. Suki was a talented lady’s maid. Perhaps she wasn’t as competent and experienced as some other maids, and certainly a lot more mouthy than most ladies would tolerate from a servant, but they were good friends. Julia knew that Suki secretly enjoyed the preparation for the Season. She took pride in making her mistress look as beautiful as possible, and occasionally commented smugly about lady’s maids with less favourable mistresses.
Julia wished she could take Suki to a dance. Still, she knew exactly what would happen. Suki would grumpily follow her around and complain under her breath until it was time to leave.
Suki was the least sociable twenty-year-old that Julia had ever met. It was almost comical.
“That’ll do, Suki. Thank you!” Julia chirped, once the emerald necklace now laid against her chest. She skipped out of her bedroom and down the wide, carpeted staircase that her father was so proud of.
Their country house was exceptionally beautiful. It was larger and more comfortable than their London townhouse, but the townhouse had something that the country seat of Ellesmere House could never have – a greater access to the ton.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. The countryside wasn’t completely dull, with a few good families that Julia did like. But there was simply no comparison to the music and excitement of the London Season.
Julia tingled all over as she thought of the parties that she would attend. What new faces would she see in London this Season? Would there be many new gentlemen to admire her? Who would she dance with? Who would she flirt with?
Flirting, of course, was only fun if the gentleman in question was not serious, either. In her first Season, Julia had made a marvellous friend in Sir Jacob, who had been likeable, entertaining, and rakishly handsome. Sir Jacob was an infamous gambler, only permitted in good society because of his title as an earl and his charming demeanour. He should have known that Julia could not take his suit seriously. What parent would accept a fortune-hunter as a son-in-law?
Well, Sir Jacob hadn’t known. He had proposed to Julia and been furious at her refusal, claiming that she’d encouraged him. All in all, it had been a horrible situation and Julia had lost someone that she’d thought to be a good friend.
Her parents had been relieved, of course. Thomas King, the Baron of Ellesmere, would not have allowed his daughter to marry to a fortune-hunter, and Muriel King, the Baroness of Ellesmere, had been beside herself at the very thought. Relieved, they had assured Julia that there was always the next Season to find a suitable match.
Julia did not want a suitable man. In her second Season, she met Lord Alan Buckley, the Viscount of Denford, a man with an arranged betrothal to his cousin, the drab and boring Miss Evelyn Buckley. Since he was well-known as an all but engaged man, Lord Denford had some measure of freedom. He and Julia had danced together, laughed together, and rode in the park together. Julia had enjoyed his company, although Suki – dragged along as a chaperone when others were not available – had not.
Now, that was the sort of flirtation Julia preferred. Lord Denford knew quite well that Julia had no serious hopes of him, and Julia knew that no proposal would be forthcoming. They could simply be friends.
Lord and Lady Ellesmere had not, of course, approved. The Baroness resented every moment that Julia spent with the Viscount. Why waste time on a man that everyone knew was all but betrothed, she said, when she could be seeking out more suitable men?
Julia did not want to find a suitable man. She hadn’t wanted to make a match for her first Season, nor her second. Her third would be no exception.
“Morning, Mama! Morning, Papa!” Julia greeted her parents, walking into the breakfast room.
The breakfast room was a comfortable little family room, with a small table sitting in the centre of the room and side tables tucked into the corners. The dining chairs and drapes were the same shade of green as the walls, since green was Lady Ellesmere’s favourite colour.
It was Julia’s favourite, too. The green complemented her red hair well.
Her parents murmured a reply, and Julia sat in her usual seat. The footmen provided her with her usual breakfast – toast, eggs, marmalade, with a cup of chocolate tea. Some ladies ate small portions to remain slim; others skipped breakfast altogether. But Julia did not believe in missing meals. She knew that her enviable figure wouldn’t last, regardless of what she did. So, she might as well enjoy her food now.
“What time are we leaving tomorrow, Papa?” Julia asked brightly, cracking open the top of one egg.
“Early.” Lord Ellesmere answered. “Seven o’ clock.”
“You’ll need Suki to wake you up earlier.” Her mother observed. “You do tend to oversleep, Julia.”
“Yes, but not tomorrow. We’re going to London!” Julia beamed around at her parents. Perhaps if she hadn’t been so wrapped up in her own excitement, she might have noticed that they didn’t smile back.
“You seem very excited.” Lady Ellesmere stated.
“Oh, I am. I cannot wait for the Season to begin. I was wondering if I could have a new gown, for the first ball of the Season, Mama? I’ve seen a beautiful green fabric in the Gallery of Fashions, and I think it would suit me well.”
“This is your third Season, Julia.” Lady Ellesmere said.
“Yes, I know, I know. If you think the fabric is too much, I did see some cheaper material. I don’t mind wearing a few of my older gowns, but I do want at least one new gown, Mama. Three would be ideal, but I can make do with just…”
“Your third Season.” Lady Ellesmere interrupted.
Julia paused, a piece of toast halfway to her mouth. Her mother’s tone was almost angry, something Julia wasn’t used to hearing at all. She glanced at her parents and noticed for the first time that both of her parents’ expressions were serious.
“Yes,” Julia answered cautiously. “Indeed.”
Lady Ellesmere smoothed out a wrinkle in the tablecloth, glancing over at the Baron. “Most young ladies are married or engaged by the end of their first Season. It’s generally considered something of a failure if a lady is unmarried in her second Season.”
Julia set down her toast. She wasn’t a fool. She knew that her parents were putting her through Season after Season in hopes that she would marry.
Julia did not want to marry.
“Well, I haven’t found anyone suitable, Mama.” Julia said. “You wouldn’t want me to settle with someone unfavourable, would you?”
Lady Ellesmere sighed. “Silly girl. You do know that people are gossiping about you, don’t you?”
Julia gave an unladylike snort, earning a grimace from her mother. “People are always gossiping about others, especially about single women. Especially single, pretty, rich women. I might as well have a target on my back.”
“No, not like that, Julia. This will be your third Season without so much as an engagement. You have had offers, Julia, but you turned them down.”
“Sir Jacob wasn’t…”
“Not Sir Jacob, you silly girl.” Lady Ellesmere snapped. “I am talking about other gentlemen, like Captain Rutherford, Mr Vines, and Lord Perrin. I believe that there have been more. You refused them because you did not like them, as you say, but they were perfectly adequate.”
Julia swallowed hard. Her good humour was rapidly evaporating. She was beginning to believe that this Season was going to be far more serious than her previous ones.
“You know what I’m like, Mama.” Julia said lightly. “I like to have fun, you know. I like to dance, gossip, and enjoy myself with my friends. I’m not twenty yet, you know. Not for another few months.”
“You are going to be a notorious old maid, Julia.” The Baroness snapped. “People already talk as if you are one. Younger ladies are coming out all the time, and you will suddenly find that you are not as popular and admired as you once were, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
“I don’t care, Mama! I just want to have fun. What is so terrible about that?”
Lady Ellesmere sighed. “There is nothing wrong with that, Julia, but you are getting older and it is time to put away such silliness. You need to marry and you need children. It’s time to look to your future.”
“Gentlemen don’t have to marry until they are almost thirty.” Julia countered. “It isn’t fair.”
“Perhaps not, but that is not the way things are. We – your Papa and I – want you to take this Season seriously, Julia. It’s time to find a gentleman to settle down with, and there’s no time to lose.”
Julia drew in a breath. “I want to enjoy this Season, Mama. I don’t want to settle with any one gentleman. I’ve never met anyone that made me want to marry, in any case.”
“It’s not about wanting to marry a particular gentleman, Julia. It’s about choosing someone proper and deciding to entrust your happiness with that man.”
“I will go to all the balls and parties, Mama, and I will enjoy myself. But I don’t think I’ll find a someone to marry this Season.”
Lady Ellesmere looked pleadingly at her husband.
Without warning, Lord Ellesmere brought his fist down on the breakfast table with a thud, sending the dishes and cutlery rattling.
Julia let out a squeak of alarm, and even Lady Ellesmere jumped. His lordship was not an aggressive or angry man, and this was very much out of character.
Even the poor footmen serving them their breakfast flinched and stared in surprise.
“Listen to me well, daughter.” The Baron said heavily. “This has gone on long enough. You do not see it, but you are becoming a laughingstock. Your third Season, and no engagement? For a young woman of your calibre, you ought to have been engaged after your first Season. You are becoming known as a silly young woman who loves to flirt, and you will soon be an old maid. You have a door of opportunity that many young women would kill for, and you are allowing it to close. You are our only child, Julia, and you must marry and produce an heir.”
“I haven’t met any gentlemen that I like.” Julia murmured, feeling silly tears prick at her eyes.
“Then allow yourself to be guided by your mother. You will find a suitable man to marry this Season, or a man will be chosen for you. Is that quite understood?”
Julia got up abruptly and hurried out of the room. Her mother called after her, but she kept going.
No one came after her. Julia ran upstairs to her room, slamming the door behind her. Suki was gone, no doubt eating her own breakfast downstairs in the servants’ hall. Julia sank to the floor.
They wouldn’t really force her to marry some strange man.
Would they? Julia was uncomfortably aware that she wasn’t yet twenty-one, and so was still under her father’s guardianship. Still, her parents loved her. She knew that much. They wouldn’t force her into anything.
Julia wiped her burning eyes with the back of her hand, sniffling.
She would do what she wanted. They would see. If they wanted her to marry, they’d have to drag her, kicking and screaming, down the aisle.
Weatherfield House, Irontree, Kent
“I shall bring your horse around at once, My Lord.” Mr. Lewellyn said deferentially, bowing.
Ross smiled at the butler. “Thank you.”
Mr. Lewellyn was a relatively new hire, replacing their elderly butler who had just retired. He was a good man and a hard worker but tended to do things that a butler shouldn’t do. Like going himself to order Ross’s horse brought from the stables, rather than delegating the task to one of the stablehands.
Ross pulled on his brown leather gloves, inspecting himself in the hallway mirror. He reached up to tweak one blond curl – he probably shouldn’t have made his poor valet style his hair this morning. The Brutus style was his valet’s favourite, and Ross knew that it suited him, but it would be ruined after his ride.
His hair had been admired abroad. Ross found himself still missing the warmth and blue skies of Italy and Spain. Fair-haired maidens and gentlemen were somewhat rare in those parts, so Ross’s blond hair and blue eyes made him an instant favourite with the ladies. Ross grinned at his reflection at the memory. He had to be careful to keep his pale skin out of the sun, of course – he’d had a red face and a peeling nose for the first few weeks of his stay in Italy – but it was always pleasant to be admired. More than one lady had hinted that she would be very happy to return to drab, grey England as Lady Lowater, with the hope of being the next Duchess of Kent one day.
“Ross, there you are!”
Ross flinched at his father’s bellow. The Duke of Kent had a loud voice that carried well along the cavernous halls of Weatherfield House. Ross privately hated this place, and longed for the more fashionable, modern landscapes of London. He couldn’t wait for the Season to begin.
“Good morning, Father.” Ross turned to greet his father with a smile. He did not receive a smile in return.
“Where are you going?” his father demanded to know.
“I’m going for a ride with Toby. Mr. Lewellyn is fetching my horse.”
“Hmph. Well, that explains why the wretched man didn’t answer when I rang. Come with me, Ross. You and I need to have a talk.”
Ross’s heart sank. That was not a good sign. Why hadn’t he just stayed in Italy? It was warmer there, and everybody liked him in Italy.
He followed the Duke along to the study, their footsteps ringing on the stone and echoing in the hallways. They did not speak.
The Duke opened the door to the study, letting out a rush of cold air that made Ross shiver. There was no fire in the study, and it was unbearably cold. At least, that was what Ross thought. The Duke looked perfectly comfortable, settling himself in a large leather seat behind a desk.
Ross was left to stand awkwardly before the desk, a great expanse of polished mahogany between himself and his father. There was no seat available for him, unless he wanted to heave an armchair across the room.
The study wasn’t designed for comfort. At least, not for the comfort of any visitors. It was a large room, but the dark interior and cluttered space made it seem smaller. There were heavy velvet drapes at the window, and the walls were crowded with bookshelves, full of dusty books that were never read.
The maids were forbidden from cleaning in the Duke’s study, so the air was full of dust. The carpets desperately needed a beating, and cobwebs clustered in every corner. Every few months or so, the Duke would notice how dirty and dusty his study had become, and fly into a rage. He would summon the housekeeper and maids and bellow at them, threatening to dismiss them all without references.
There was really no use in pointing out that the Duke himself had decreed that no one should enter his study. The newer maids often sobbed and sniffled, but the experienced maids and the housekeeper simply let the threats and ranting wash over them, then obediently cleaned the study.
“What is it, Father?” Ross asked, fidgeting. “Toby is waiting for…”
“It’s about the Season.” The Duke said abruptly. “You need to marry, my boy.”
Ross drew in a breath. “Father, I don’t feel as if…”
“I couldn’t give a damn about your feelings, Ross.”
Well, that was never a pleasant thing to hear from one’s father. Ross pressed his lips together and braced himself to wait for the forthcoming lecture.
He wasn’t disappointed. The Duke settled himself more comfortably in his chair while Ross uneasily shifted from foot to foot.
“You are six and twenty, Ross.” The Duke said. “Six and twenty. When I was your age, I had settled down with your mother, and you were already born. Let me be clear: by the time I was your age, I was an excellent specimen of a suitable heir and had secured the family line. Now, your mother and I have thoroughly spoiled you – I do take blame for that – and this is the result.”
“Father,” Ross said, “I’m sorry if I have disappointed you in some way, but…”
The Duke raised a hand for silence. He got it.
“You’ve travelled abroad,” The Duke continued, “You’ve spent time with your friends, drinking and joking and sowing your wild oats. That’s quite all right. I like to see a young man enjoying himself, and you have certainly had a good life up until now, Ross. You’re a bachelor but for how long? Have you ever wanted for anything?”
“Have you missed out on any enjoyable experience, or something that your friends were allowed to do?”
The Duke leaned back in his seat, looking triumphant, as if he’d made some dramatic point.
“Exactly. You’ve led a charmed life until now, and I think it’s time for you to start taking things seriously, don’t you? Starting with a good marriage.”
Ross clenched his jaw. “I understand, Father, but I simply haven’t met the right lady yet.”
The Duke waved his hand dismissively. “Nonsense. Pick a pretty young thing that’s well-bred and reasonably rich, and that’s all you need. Preferably a girl with lots of siblings. That indicates that she’s from good breeding stock.”
“Good breeding stock?” Ross echoed, trying to control his temper. “We are talking about the woman with whom I’ll spend the rest of my life, Father. Not a mare for sale.”
The Duke smiled grimly. “I’m afraid it’s the same principle. It’s not called the marriage market for no reason, Ross. This is final, I’m afraid. Pick a girl during this Season, or there’ll be consequences to pay. I’ll let your mother choose some dowdy, horse-faced spinster for you. How about that?”
Ross bowed curtly and made his escape. There was no angry shouts trailing after him, so he assumed that the conversation was over and he was permitted to leave.
Mr. Lewellyn was waiting in the hallway, looking faintly confused.
“Oh, there you are, Your Lordship. I…”
“Is my horse ready?”
“Yes, it is, My Lord. Enjoy your ride.”
Ross rudely didn’t answer. He stormed down the stone steps in front of their oversized home and to his waiting horse.
Byron, his sandy-coloured stallion, stood patiently in front of the house, the groom standing by with the reins. Ross snatched up the reins, mounted Byron, and they were off.
His father used to tell him stories about young men needing challenges when Ross was younger. Spirited horses, dangerous rides, travelling, aloof yet beautiful ladies. Ross wasn’t one for great challenges.
He enjoyed spending time with his friends, drinking, and maybe even enjoying some light-hearted flirtations with ladies, presuming that no hearts were broken in the process. He enjoyed riding his resolutely mild-tempered and relaxed horse and he enjoyed fishing, not hunting.
In short, Ross’s idea of how a man should act was very much at odds with what his father believed. Ross was a light-hearted chap—friendly, fun, and mild-mannered. He wasn’t interested in traditional displays of masculinity. He wanted to marry – if he ever did marry – a woman that he loved. A woman whose company he enjoyed, who was his intellectual equal and his match in character.
The Duke would have laughed himself sick if he’d heard that sort of idea. He firmly believed that marriage was a duty, and a proper man could seek entertainment elsewhere while his wife raised the children and managed the house.
Ross set his jaw and urged Byron on over the hills. He rode straight past his arranged meeting place, scarcely thinking twice about it. His mind churned with anger and the childish sense of unfairness.
He didn’t want to marry. There was nobody he liked well enough to marry, and this Season would be no different.
The further and faster Ross rode, the more certain he became of two facts.
First of all, he could not find a suitable marriage mate this Season.
Secondly, he would not look for a suitable wife. The Duke had plenty to say about consequences and duty, but what could he do, really? He only had one son and heir, and that was Ross. He could hardly disinherit him. Besides, Ross was a Marquess in his own right, and he was only slightly dependent on his father.
He can’t make me do anything; Ross told himself. He can’t, and I’ll make sure that he won’t.
The King Townhouse, London
“You are so very lucky, Julia.” Lady Amelia sighed. “I believe your townhouse is twice the size of ours. We’re quite cramped and simply cannot throw a truly decent ball.”
Julia caught Frederika’s eye and smiled. Amelia, or ‘Milly’, was the daughter of one of the wealthiest gentlemen in London and had an annoying tendency for false modesty.
The King townhouse, which Lord Ellesmere had purchased two years before Julia’s debut, was indeed quite large. A broad driveway led up to a massive mahogany front door, bordered by bay windows with balconies hanging overhead. The white stucco design that trimmed the house could be found inside as well, rimming the ceiling. With more rooms than their small family would ever need, it was most certainly one of the more luxurious houses in London. But their country home remained her favourite place.
The parlour they sat in was no different, as it didn’t have the warmth and comfort of their country home. The moulding on the ceiling was exquisitely done, the auburn drapes matching the plush armchairs and couches perfectly. But there was something about the parlour and the rest of the townhouse that wasn’t right.
At least, not in Julia’s opinion.
That was very inconvenient. Since London and the ton were what Julia craved, it would have been much more appropriate if she liked their townhouse the best. Still, that wasn’t too much of a problem. After all, they were here for the Season.
“Well, I am glad that you’re all here.” Julia announced, smiling at each of her four friends. Most of her friends from her very first Season were, of course, married by now, and many had children on the way. She and Frederika had been friends since the beginning of her second Season, and they had picked up the other three ladies along the way.
Julia was well aware that the five of them made a very picturesque scene. The most beautiful one among them was probably Lady Annabelle Wallace, affectionately known as “Bell”. Bell had dusty chestnut curls, large and expressive brown eyes, and a lovely heart-shaped face. Bell was very nice, but rather lazy. She only danced at balls when she had to and preferred to lounge around in parlours and yawn at her friends.
Lady Amelia Cooper – Milly – wasn’t quite as languid and effortlessly beautiful as Bell, and often resorted to curling rags for her mousy hair, too-tight corsets, and even wished that she would be allowed to wear rouge. Just a dab, she promised.
Lady Frederika Mountpleasant of the aforementioned yellow curls and cornflower blue eyes was pretty enough, although desperately unfashionable. She even turned up her nose at the latest style of gowns, preferring more old-fashioned bonnets and dresses. Frederika was one of Julia’s oldest friends. The fifth member of their little troop was Lady Cora Penhalligan. Cora was short and a little dumpy, but made up for it by always looking perfectly put together. She had natural black curls, dancing hazel eyes, and was known for her sharp wit and excellent good humour.
Julia felt her happiest when she was with her dear friends, preferably at a grand and exciting party.
“So, ladies,” Julia said, grinning around at her guests, “Cora tells me that she brings some exciting news, and I frankly cannot wait to hear it. I’m still reeling from Bell’s engagement.”
Bell, stretching out on a chaise longue in the corner, smiled graciously. Bell had announced her engagement at the very beginning of the Season, to a young earl. He wasn’t somebody that Julia would have looked at twice, despite his title and remarkable fortune.
Frankly, they were all surprised that Bell had managed to remove herself from her armchairs and mid-afternoon naps long enough to get engaged. Julia glanced at Cora and saw that familiar excitement, barely suppressed.
Ah, I see.
“I’m engaged too!” Cora burst out, no doubt abandoning her carefully and theatrically planned announcement. She yanked off her left glove, extending her hand. She wore a bulky diamond ring, beautifully carved.
The ladies excitedly gathered around the ring, offering their congratulations. Except for Bell, of course, who seemed a little annoyed that her status as the only engaged woman of the party had been diluted.
Julia sat back after offering her congratulations, smiling to herself at the chaotic joy around her. Cora seemed so happy, flushed and excited. She talked happily about her husband-to-be, and it was apparent that she was deeply in love. Julia was happy for her friend, but not envious.
Her smile faded when she noticed that Frederika wasn’t joining in. Frederika had offered a bland congratulations, then returned to her seat. She was staring into space, her brow furrowed, and she chewed nervously at her lower lip.
“Frederika?” Julia whispered, and her friend jumped. “What’s the matter? You seem preoccupied.”
Frederika blinked her large eyes at Julia, shimmering with tears. It was hard to tell whether she really was on the brink of tears or not, as Frederika tended to have very watery eyes.
“I… I didn’t get engaged last Season.” She confessed.
“Yes, I know. I was there, remember?” Julia gently nudged Frederika. “But don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll find someone suitable this Season.”
Frederika’s lower lip wobbled. “That’s just it, you see. Papa was very angry when I didn’t get any offers at all last Season. He said that all that expense was wasted, and he would not allow me to attend another Season without the promise of a good match for me.” She drew in a deep breath. “He’s arranging a marriage for me.”
There was a brief silence. Frederika had only spoken to Julia, but everyone had heard. They glanced at each other, uneasy.
It was rather unorthodox—though not completely rare—to have one’s marriage arranged by one’s parents. However, when it did happen , they were not in quiet, isolated incidents. A young lady who did something improper might have a marriage quietly arranged for her by her parents, in order to save her from disgrace. Similarly, a woman careering towards spinsterhood might also have a marriage arranged by her despairing family.
That last situation hit rather too close to home for Julia’s liking.
“Who is he?” Julia asked.
Frederika shrugged. “Nobody you will know. He wasn’t present for the previous Season. He’s a friend of Father’s.”
“You don’t like him, do you?” Julia asked.
Frederika shook her head, pressing her lips together. “Not at all.” She murmured. “I told Father that, and he… he said he hadn’t time to coddle my sensibilities. I am to marry him, and that was that.” She smiled weakly around. “I suppose I ought to get used to it.”
Julia stared at her friend, anger boiling up inside her. This was not fair. It was not fair.
“Well, that is tiresome.” Milly said, carefully winding a strand of mousy blonde hair around her finger. “But look on the bright side, Frederika – you’ll have a wedding!”
There was a general murmur of agreement, much to Julia’s shock.
“Yes, but a wedding is only one day.” Julia pointed out. “And I daresay Frederika’s parents will arrange it all. After all, if they won’t let her choose her own groom, they’ll hardly allow her to have any other say in her own wedding, will they?”
“Oh, what do you know, Julia?” Bell yawned. “It’s still fun. Mama is organising most of my wedding, of course, but she let me choose what colour flowers I shall have.”
“Well, how wonderful!” Julia commented sarcastically. “You can’t seriously believe that having a pleasant wedding is worth spending the rest of your life with a man you don’t even like!”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Julia regretted them. Frederika’s face was ashen, and she looked as if she really were about to cry now.
The sensible Cora intervened and began to talk to Frederika about guests and cake and wedding plans. She shot a Look at Julia which quite clearly said, Stop talking about it.
Julia glanced around at her friends. Even Bell was moderately animated at the prospect of a wedding. Milly was bemoaning the fact that she had no fiancé, but she was hopeful that this Season would provide her with a suitable match. Frederika was still pale and miserable, but she was always relatively easy to influence, so Cora was gradually working her out of her misery.
“My father said the same thing, too.” Julia found herself saying and got a look of real sympathy from Frederika. She smiled weakly. “I doubt he’ll follow through, though. He’ll have to drag me down the aisle.”
Bell snorted. “Why on earth are you coming to the Season at all, Julia, if you don’t want to get married?”
She shrugged. “I like the parties. I like having fun with my friends. And I just don’t wish to get married. Not yet at least.”
“When would be the right time for you?” Cora asked curiously.
Julia hesitated. The truthful answer was never. Julia simply didn’t want to get married, and she was fairly confident that she would not meet a man who would tempt her otherwise.
“When I’ve had my fun,” she answered finally. “When I’m too old to dance till dawn. When I’m thirty, perhaps.”
Of course, this was met with a chorus of shocked gasps and giggles.
“Thirty? You’ll be the oldest of old maids.” Milly giggled, with the cruelty of an eighteen-year-old girl.
Cora clicked her tongue with disapproval. “Thirty is far too old. You must be reasonable, Julia.”
“Nobody will want to marry you when you’re thirty,” Bell said, with a hint of malice.
Frederika wiped her eyes and smiled. “I wouldn’t mind waiting until I was thirty. Well, not thirty. That really is too late. Seven-and-twenty or eight-and-twenty, perhaps.”
Julia let the wave of amused annoyance wash over her.
“Men wait until they’re thirty to marry,” she stated calmly, when the voices died down. “Nobody thinks twice about that.”
“Yes, but we are not men.” Cora pointed out.
“What difference should that make?”
“It’s different for men and women, everyone knows that.”
“Why is it different? Why are women past their prime at nineteen, while men are still considered a perfectly marriageable at five-and-forty?”
Cora hesitated. “I… Well, that’s just how it is, Julia.”
Julia snorted, jumping to her feet. “That’s a paltry excuse and you know it. I don’t want to be held to a different standard than a geriatric gentleman who thinks he’s entitled to marry a seven and ten year-old debutante.”
“Well, you will be, and that’s that.” Bell interrupted. She seemed to be getting tired of their conversation. “What’s the point of complaining about the way things are? Nothing is going to change. If you keep up that attitude, you’ll end up a lonely and ridiculous old maid, with nobody who wants to marry you. You’ll may even have to marry…” Bell hesitated, clearly trying to think of the most horrible old man she could, “…Lord Asquith.”
This was met by a horrified chorus of gasps. Julia flopped back into her seat with a groan.
“My advice to you, Julia, is to agree to your parents’ demands.” Cora said bluntly. “They’re clearly running out of patience. Unless you want to end up like Frederika, with a dull, ugly, old businessman for your husband –forgive me, Frederika,” she added quickly before turning her attention back to Julia. “You’d better start thinking about your future now. Choose a good man this Season, or next Season you’ll be sorry. Mark my words.”
Julia swallowed hard. She didn’t want to admit that Cora was right, but this was exactly what Julia had been dreading. She knew her parents had coddled and spoiled her, but it was only because they loved her.
But how far would their patience stretch? What would happen if she, the spoiled only child, suddenly found that she could no longer convince her parents to give in? Julia mentally reviewed the ranks of her father’s single friends and shuddered.
“I don’t want to marry,” she muttered. “I don’t even know how to pick a gentleman.”
Cora sighed. “You’re a clever girl, Julia. I think you do. Find a man who likes the same things as you do.”
Julia arched an eyebrow. “New bonnets?”
“Yes. No! Not new bonnets, silly.” Cora shifted on her seat, thinking. “Somebody you like spending time with. Like Lord Velmington, only not betrothed. Someone who likes the same things as you, like parties, and dancing, and…”
“Yes, someone who likes fun.”
Bell snorted. She was now leaning back on her chaise and had her eyes closed. “I’ve seen the eligible gentlemen this Season. Good luck with finding someone fun, Julia.”
I hope you enjoyed the preview of my new novel“A Spinster for an Eligible Bachelor”. It will be live soon!