“Lady Barrington,” Marianne called out to her cousin across the dance floor. The duchess was easy to spot in a vibrant peacock-blue gown, her hair wrapped up in stylish ribbon, her collar of the new French style. She looked up at the sound of Marianne’s voice and stood to make a space for her at their table on the edge of the ballroom.
“Lady Marianne,” she said with a wide smile. “I was hoping that you and Mr Stapleton would be here tonight, but had not dared to hope that you would make the second season so shortly after dear little Ellen was born.”
“Shortly?” Marianne cried with a laugh, falling into the chair at her cousin’s side. “It has been months; my figure is quite returned to what it used to be, and yet I have been kept in regular seclusion for the proper time of healing, and I am yearning for company again.”
“Where is the little one now?” the duchess asked, waving across the room where her husband had stopped to talk with Edmund by the punch table.
Marianne smiled. “She is home safely with Mrs Stapleton; well-cared for by grandmother and nanny alike.” She leaned in. “To be honest, I am torn between feelings of earnest delight at being reintroduced into society and the strong feeling that I am abandoning my daughter.”
“It is only an evening,” the duchess reassured her.
Marianne nodded and looked out on the dance floor. There, spinning about in a pale rose-coloured gown, was Louisa. She seemed as lovely as ever, and as sought after.
“It is her second season, and yet she seems to have all the allure and bloom of a girl embarking on her first,” Lady Barrington said quietly. “Many wondered why she turned down so many suitors last season.”
“She did not love any of them,” Marianne said simply.
“I am not arguing with her reasons,” the duchess said with a smile, “only stating that there must be something holding her back.”
“I’m here as her official chaperone, just as you were here as mine,” Marianne said. “And I have promised to be on the lookout for a good match for her. This season will not be as unsuccessful as the last, I assure you.”
Lady Barrington raised her eyebrows slyly. “You ought to be careful,” she said. “Once I agreed to chaperone a young lady I thought to be quite careful and refined, an easy girl to direct, and I found myself embroiled in a long line of clandestine meetings and secret affairs. Things do not always go to plan, my dear.”
Marianne laughed. “Ah, that young lady you speak of sounds exciting. I would like to meet her.”
The duchess nudged her gently, and they sat in comfortable silence for a time. Then Lady Barrington reached over and tapped Marianne’s arm, a hidden excitement in her eyes. “I was going to wait,” she said quietly, “but I cannot.”
“What is it?” Marianne turned with interest.
Her voice low, the duchess explained, “You know that the duke and I have yet to produce an heir,” she said softly. “We thought it would not be possible but …” she looked down subtly at her stomach and then back at Marianne. “But it turns out it is more possible than we had thought.”
Marianne’s eyes widened in delight. “How long have you known?”
“Mere weeks and I am still not showing.” She bit her lip. “But I suspect I will soon have to refrain from balls and social functions as you have been forced to do.”
“I am so happy for you.” Marianne’s eyes filled with tears. “You and the duke are so deserving of this; I can think of no couple better suited for parenthood.”
She put a hand over the duchess’, sharing in her secret joy, just as Louisa came off the dance floor, flushed and breathless.
“May I sit with you?” the girl said.
There was something in her demeanour that seemed lacking, as though her mind were elsewhere. Always before she had seemed as enamoured with the party as the party was enamoured with her, but now the situation seemed different.
“Of course you may.” Marianne slipped to the side. “I know that Edmund will be interested in that young man you were dancing with from Bristol. You took two turns about the floor with him, and everyone else is jealous beyond belief.”
Louisa did not appear amused. “What young man?” she asked, distracted.
“Why, the gentleman with the coattails,” the duchess said teasingly, “the one that kept looking at you as though you hung the moon?”
Louisa took a deep breath and then frowned at Marianne. “Marianne, do you think we could possibly go home early? I’m not feeling quite myself, and I do not wish to continue dancing at present.”
The duchess exchanged a look with Marianne and raised her eyebrows. It was unlike Louisa to leave anything early, especially a party where she was so popular and at the centre of attention. Marianne nodded slowly.
“Edmund could take the other carriage home,” she said after a moment. “Of course, you and I can leave now.”
Louisa reached forward and clasped her hands. “I know you were looking forward to all the socializing,” she said, “but I’m feeling very unwell. You could allow me to return by myself.”
“No,” Marianne said. “This is the beginning of the season, and there will be plenty of time for socializing. You are my priority.” She stood with a smile and wrapped an arm around Louisa’s waist. “Come with me now.”
She cast a glance back at the duchess. “I’m sure we will be picking our conversation up at a later time,” she said meaningfully. The duchess blushed and bid her farewell.
Marianne slipped up to Edmund, gently winding her hand through his arm until he had turned his attention to her, and then whispered to him of her plans to take Louisa home early.
“I will come with you,” he said.
Louisa shook her head. “That’s not necessary,” she said quickly. “Marianne is company enough.”
Edmund looked unconvinced, but Marianne reassured him and then slipped away to fetch her cloak and call the coachman forward. It was not until she and Louisa were settled comfortably on the ride home that Marianne attempted to get to the root of the problem.
“It is unlike you to so quickly tire of the social scene,” she pressed. Louisa looked strangely worried in the moonlight filtering into the carriage. She bit her lip.
“Marianne, do you remember the man that the duchess was asking me about, the man that you think wanted to dance with me so often?”
“I do,” Marianne said.
“Well, I don’t,” Louisa said. She paused for a moment and then burst suddenly into tears, her face in her hands. “I don’t notice any of them anymore,” she said desperately. “It is as though I am going through the motions of the conversation and the dancing, but a part of me is no longer there.”
Marianne knew that feeling well. She reached out and pulled Louisa’s hands from her face, cradling them in her own.
“Louisa, are you in love with someone else?”
“How do you know?” Louisa gasped.
“I remember when I was courting Lord Meriton; I was doing all the right things and saying all the right things, and yet I didn’t feel anything at all. I only kept wishing that the man beside me was Edmund, that it was him that was planning to marry me.” She smiled gently. “I felt as though I was going through the motions just as you feel the same way.”
“That is what has happened,” Louisa said. “I have fallen in love, and I cannot escape it.”
“Why is that a bad thing, Louisa?” Marianne smiled tenderly at her. “After all, that is the purpose of our season, is it not? You are to find someone worthy of your affections, and here you are telling me that you have done just that. Everyone will be thrilled.”
“Everyone will not be thrilled,” Louisa said. “Everyone will be shocked. It is not a match that my family will approve of.”
Marianne couldn’t hide her smile. “Louisa, your family of all families in London will understand an unconventional match. Your parents know what happens when they try to stand in the way of love. What is the hold-up? Has your father another secret feud with another family?”
Louisa laughed wryly, dashing away her tears. “It is not like that at all. If it were, perhaps I could enlist you to help me as I helped you, but it is far more difficult than that. My family will never see this man as an equal.”
“Is he a soldier?” Marianne asked slowly.
“No,” Louisa sobbed. “Far less than a soldier.” She raised her eyes, bright. “And yet, at the same time, far more. I speak only of his status when I speak of him being less. In character, form, and kindness, he is the superior of every man I have ever met.”
“My, my,” Marianne said. “Now you simply must tell me what is afoot. Who is this man you have grown to love?”
“He is a lowly servant, a footman employed at one of my friend’s homes in the country,” she said miserably, dropping her head into her hands again.
Marianne was more shocked than she wished to show. She was the spearhead for unconventional marriages, and yet as a titled lady of the ton, she could not help being astonished that a woman of Louisa’s standing would even have had the chance to talk with such a man, much less fall in love with him.
“How did this happen?” she said slowly.
“Remember how I was late to see little Ellen?” Louisa asked. “It was then that I was visiting this family in the country. We went out on a walk one day, the girls and I and James—that is his name—came with us to lay out the meal. The rain came up quite suddenly, and we were far from the road. A carriage was available, but it could only seat four quite cramped, and there were five ladies in total. I agreed to stay behind, and we walked back together.” She raised her head, tears streaming down her face. “The rain grew strong, and we took cover in a little folly. I remember that we were both laughing so genuinely because we were soaked and miserable and the entire situation was ridiculous, and then I looked at him, and I saw for the first time that he was not just a servant—he was a man and a handsome, kind man at that.”
“Oh, Louisa.” Marianne patted her friend kindly.
“After that, the few weeks I stayed there were absolutely lovely. He was very careful never to be improper, and yet I noticed him looking my way. At the final ball of my attendance, he met me accidentally in the hall on my way into the dancing, and he pretended to ask me to dance. He bowed, and I found myself curtsying and answering his request. We danced there in secret, and it was so magical.” She shook her head. “I know you are astonished at me. Everyone would be if they knew, but even though I know that it is hopeless, I cannot get the man out of my mind.”
“Do you know if he loves you too?”
Louisa raised her head in confusion. “Why does it matter? It can never be.”
Marianne bit her lip. “I will not lie to you—this is a strange sort of romance you have found for yourself—but I cannot tell you that it is wrong. I cannot help thinking about all that you did to secure happiness for Edmund and me, even when you knew that it would go against your father’s wishes and, perhaps, the wishes of society.”
She reached forward and took Louisa’s hands in hers. “Has he been appropriate with you?”
“He has, entirely. He has been more of a gentleman than some of the men here at the ball have been this evening.” Louisa shook her head. “I know that he cares about me, but I think that he sees it as hopeless as well.”
Marianne pulled out her handkerchief and gently wiped away Louisa’s tears.
“It is no matter,” she said. “If you truly love him, then I will help in whatever way I can.” She pressed her friend’s hands in her own and looked into her eyes. “We overcame years of hurt and feuding to find love; I think we can find a way to overcome a matter of social standing. I would like to meet his man; I would like Edmund to know all about it, and I would like to come up with a plan to find you the same happiness that you found me.”
Louisa’s eyes were bright. “I had not even begun to hope,” she said. “I only knew that he was good and kind and that I loved him. I did not think that you would agree with me—I did not think that you would approve.”
Marianne laughed gently. “I am not saying that I approve, certainly not now, when I hardly know the man, but I am saying that I trust your heart and good nature and that I am not willing to write off this entire situation simply because it astonishes me.”
She leaned forward, catching Louisa’s chin with her finger. “Now, raise your head, dear one, and let us begin to plot, for I think a manner of subterfuge is required again, and a manner of honesty after that.”
The two women leaned against one another, friends first and now sisters, yet again planning a way for love to triumph over all.