London, Spring 1814
At the mature age of twenty and three, Lady Harriet Stanton—Hattie to family and friends—was almost on the shelf and eagerly awaiting the moment she would be declared fully on the shelf. When a lady had been born in the bosom of the bon ton, attaining the status of spinster required an unwavering will and a sound plan. Especially when said lady was the only daughter of the Earl of Lynmouth and both prestige and fortune came with the marriage.
“You have used all your allotted megrim excuses,” her mother whispered, patting Hattie’s hand as they entered the Carruthers’ house. “Just the other day, Lady Reddington asked me about your health. Soon, rumors you are of a rather delicate constitution will spread. We can’t allow any talk hinting you are not marriage material.” She didn’t mention her daughter was already in the matrimonial dotage because the topic had already come up earlier in the day. Twice.
Handsome footmen in purple and black liveries directed them to the end of the receiving line. Lords and ladies crowded the grand entrance hall, waiting to be greeted by the hosts. The scent of beeswax and a mix of hothouse bouquets and perfumes permeated the air. Soon, it would be too warm, and the fragrances would become cloying.
“Mama, but I do feel queasy.” In truth, Hattie didn’t feel well.
Shivers and a general sense of malaise had confined her to her bedroom for most of the day. She had consented to go to the countess’s ball only after her mother promised she would allow her to remain home for the rest of the Season. The extravagant pledge alerted Hattie something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t dismiss the possibility she had finally worn her mother down.
“Is it too much to ask for you to feign interest in tonight’s entertainment?” Her mother raised an eyebrow and gave her one of her quelling looks. “If you could summon a smile, I would be forever grateful.”
Hattie swallowed her retort and nodded. She stretched her lips in what she hoped approximated an acceptable attempt, then tilted her head before fanning herself like a simpering debutante.
Her mother closed her eyes and took a long breath. When she looked at Hattie again, it was the haughty Countess of Lynmouth staring down at her daughter. “Childish antics are beneath you. You will behave tonight, and we won’t leave before time.”
The smile faded from Hattie’s face. “Yes, Mama.” The dance slippers she put on in the carriage felt too light compared to the walking boots she preferred.
“Stop fidgeting. Straighten your back and walk as if you are this Season’s Incomparable.” Her mother raised her chin and led by example. With her dark auburn locks, youthful visage, and regal deportment the countess never entered a room without drawing everyone’s attention.
Many commented how uncanny the resemblance was between mother and daughter, but whereas admiring crowds energized Lady Lynmouth, Lady Harriet wished the floor would swallow her whole any time she entered a room full of people.
That hadn’t always been the case. During her first Season, Hattie had enjoyed the new dresses, the balls, the attention from the young bucks.
They moved slowly in line but finally reached the end and exchanged a few polite nothings with the Earl and Countess of Carruthers. Her mother complimented the newly married lady’s dress, and Hattie couldn’t help but notice the many decades of difference in age between the pretty bride and her stodgy husband.
“You should have followed her example,” her mother commented when they were out of earshot. “Lady Carruthers and Lady Reddington made their mothers proud.”
“They should write a manual for the rest of us. ‘How to compromise oneself and catch an earl.’” Hattie regretted the waspish comment right away.
The two ladies had their coming out the same year as Hattie and struggled to find a husband because their fathers had gambled their dowries away. Rumor had it they had become fast friends and schemed together to obtain advantageous marriages. As far as Hattie was concerned, if they were happy with their lots in life, nobody had any right to judge—and least of all Hattie, who didn’t want to marry at all.
“You could have been the new Countess of Carruthers,” her mother reminded her.
A long shiver ran down Hattie’s spine. She could still feel the elderly earl’s lips on her mouth, when the man had cornered her and stolen a kiss. Being an earl, he thought he was entitled to act like a lout because she was past her prime. Carruthers’s surprise when Hattie slapped him soundly and refused his offer of marriage still made her smile.
“There you go,” her mother said, misunderstanding Hattie’s merriment. “Was it so hard?” She hailed a friend over. “You are such a pretty girl when you smile.”
Hattie inwardly groaned when she recognized the Dowager Countess of Aldbury descending upon them. The peeress was the mother of the new Lady Carruthers and an egregious busybody. She cut through the crowd like a hot knife through butter, regaling a few chosen guests with bright smiles. Her voluptuous curves and blonde hair made her impossible to ignore even if one wanted to.
After exchanging polite greetings with her mother, Lady Aldbury turned her attention to Hattie. The scrutiny lasted several seconds, but finally, the lady nodded her approval. “It is high time you marry, Lady Harriet.”
Hattie had heard the statement before, but those careless words had the power to irritate her every single time. She composed her face into a neutral expression lest she show her sentiments.
Her mother sighed. “I can only hope Harriet will marry as well as your daughter.”
The dowager countess patted her mother’s gloved hand in a show of sympathy. “Not everybody can be so lucky.” She gave Hattie another long stare. “But we can always steer our life into our chosen path.”
“Truer words were never spoken.” Her mother, too, contemplated Hattie with a thorough look as if she had never seen her daughter before.
Hattie wasn’t the squirming type but being the subject of such focused scrutiny left her unbalanced. She grabbed a glass from a footman walking through the crowd with refreshments. The lukewarm orgeat slid into her throat with a sickly sweetness, but drinking the orange and almond concoction gave her something to do.
“Have you read the scandal rags about what happened yesterday?” the dowager asked with a naughty glint in her eyes.
“Even better. I heard the whole story from Mr. Canterbury, who claims to have seen everything,” her mother said, pointing her chin at the notorious gossip walking across the dance floor.
Hattie shuddered when Mr. Canterbury smiled at her. She turned away to avoid having to talk to the man. The third son of an earl, he was a gentleman only in name. Penniless and mired in gambling debts, he paid his way through society by entertaining the bon ton with rumors he spread.
“I always thought Miss Bells was a wet goose, but maybe I was wrong,” her mother added.
The latest on-dit drew her mother and the dowager countess’s attention toward a different topic, and Hattie took full advantage of the opportunity.
She murmured, “I see Lady…” and made her escape. She didn’t bother to invent a name for her imaginary friend because when her mother and Lady Aldbury began talking about the latest salacious bit of gossip, they could go on for hours.
As soon as she entered the ballroom, Hattie had looked for the nearest set of doors leading to the garden in case she needed a moment of reprieve. It was a habit she developed during her second Season, when she had discovered the bon ton’s golden façade was made of coal and people would fake interest in her to achieve their goals. Her father’s title and her dowry assured a string of suitors would seek her out for the pleasure of her company, even if one of them had once called her an ape leader to her back. Sycophants looking to secure a good marriage usually treated her as if she should have been grateful for their attention. Tonight, the orgeat had worsened Hattie’s queasiness, and she had no patience to listen to popinjays sprouting inanities—a few minutes of fresh air would help.
Hattie would have sprinted toward the large double door at her right but knew better. Years of etiquette lessons taught her how to behave—the rigid stick Mrs. Caldwell used had impressed, rather forcefully, on her young mind what a lady could do in public. Running across a room filled with peers would have prompted her tutor to apply the stick across Hattie’s palms. Even years after her last lesson, Hattie still cringed at the memories of those punishments.
So, she walked toward the freedom of the terrace at a sedate pace, hoping none of her acquaintances would stop her. A footman with a tray of ratafia slowed before her. She politely declined the offer and moved to the side only to step on someone’s foot.
“My apologies,” Hattie said, turning to face a fleshy mouth, a straight nose, and the most beautiful set of blue eyes she had ever seen. Words eluded her afterwards.