It was a cold, crisp day at the at the start of the London season, and Juliana Rothmond looked out on a world sparkling with frost and austere elegance from her bedroom. She stood in the arch of her window, frozen like the land outdoors, and watched as people moved to and fro in the streets below. Bloomsbury Street was a fine place to find oneself in London, and she’d loved her family’s grand house ever since she was a little girl.
The Rothmonds weren’t titled, but they were well-known and wealthy, living in the fashionable side of town across from one of the many parks in the city. Even in the off-season the city was a bustling place, but at this time of year it was tumbling with life and promise. All the young lords and ladies who spent their autumn and winter in the countryside hunting and languishing in their sophistication returned in sparkling grandeur to claim their beaus and make a name for themselves during the parliamentary session.
Juliana found that all the excitement no longer filled her with the same promise. As she looked down on a few passing groups of people in the street outside, she felt her hand drift almost of its own accord to her face and rest there on the scar that ran a jagged course across her right cheek.
“Juliana,” she heard a voice call lightly from her door. “Is it all right if we prepare for the ball in your chambers? Elsie assures me it would be easier to dress us both if we were in the same room.”
Juliana turned around and saw her sister standing in the doorway, swishing back and forth in her white muslin shift with a ball gown laying casually over one arm.
“Is that why you wish to prepare together?” she asked in a teasing voice, letting the curtains fall closed over the window again. “For the maid’s convenience?”
Her sister stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. “That, and it’s tradition,” she chirped cheerfully. “We always prepare together, and we always will.”
Eighteen-year-old Penelope Rothmond was two years younger than Juliana and different in more ways than one. Both girls were petite and small, but while Juliana had only brown hair and green eyes to pair with the scar on her face, Penelope’s jet-black tresses and dark brown eyes set off a flawless complexion. She looked like the girls’ mother had looked, the sort of stunning beauty that turned heads at every social event even before she was properly out of her first season. Juliana had an even temper and enough patience to support her younger sister’s passion and energy as well as her own. Penelope, not only because she was younger, but also because of her very nature, had a sharp wit and a quick tongue to match. She never seemed to understand why Juliana chose to overlook slights and situations quietly that Penelope would have addressed with fierce fire.
Now, she came in and lay down on Juliana’s bed with her arm’s stretched out beside her, and she sighed blissfully.
“Isn’t this just the most beautiful feeling in the world?” she exclaimed, closing her eyes. “The whole city is on tenterhooks for the first ball of the season, and you and I are going to be amongst the honoured guests.”
Juliana smiled weakly and sat down by the mirror to pin her hair up loosely. Elsie would be up later to assist, but Juliana liked to do her own styling. It bothered her to see the look on the maid’s face when the woman attempted to make Juliana look beautiful. No amount of pinning or primping could disguise the hideous scar Juliana had received when she had had scarlet fever as a child. It ran pale and white across her face, some of the edges flushing to a dark red when she was angry, and Juliana knew that, whatever kinder people might say, it was the only thing that people could see when they looked at her.
She had grown up with the hidden winces, the whispered comments, and sometimes the outright insults spoken to her face. I’m not sure this bonnet will make much of a difference. You understand, don’t you dear? Oh yes, she had understood every time, even when people didn’t have the cruelty to say it aloud. She knew that she was ugly, she knew that everyone looked at her, a girl who ought to have been in the prime of her life and beauty, as though she was a lost cause and a waste of youth.
It was an added insult to see even the house help attempting to prepare her for balls as though enough silk and ribbons would make that jagged scar disappear. So Juliana had begun, at a young age, to prepare herself and to tend to her own needs as much as possible. Now, she twisted her long brown hair into a high knot and pinned it there carefully, reinforcing the arrangement with some small seed pearl pins that sparkled in amongst the strands. Some curls came out at the front and cascaded loosely in a frame around her face. It was a pretty enough arrangement, and if she slipped her hand up and covered the scar for a moment she could almost pretend she was a beauty like Penelope.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Penelope said. She’d sat up, apparently, during Juliana’s preparation, and was frowning at her sister in the mirror. “You don’t have to cover the scar to see that you’re beautiful, sister.”
As usual, Penelope knew Juliana better than Juliana even knew herself. Juliana dropped her hand and blushed, embarrassed that blushing always made the scar stand out even more horridly. She didn’t like feeling sorry for herself, and elegant events like this always brought out that side in her.
“Let us speak not of beauty until we have seen your curls atop your head and that beautiful green ribbon amid them,” she said, forcing a smile that her own reticence would not bring her sister’s joy down. “Come, dear. Sit here and I will help you until Elsie arrives.”
Penelope shrugged, as usual her quick nature forgetting the problems just as quickly as she had remembered them before, and she slipped onto the seat in front of Juliana while her sister combed through her black hair gently with her fingers.
“What shall we do today?” Juliana asked, fluffing the tresses.
“Something new and exotic,” Penelope answered, as she always had since she’d turned fifteen and begun caring about such things. “It is my desire to turn every eye in London tonight.”
Juliana winced at a memory. Do you see the eldest Rothmond daughter? She turns every eye in this place. But then you’d expect a Gorgon to. She tucked Penelope’s curls into a wide knot and began braiding a piece to wrap about the outside of the bun for ornament.
“Even if I didn’t pin up your hair in the latest fashion, you would be turning eyes,” Juliana assured her sister quietly. “Remember, you’ve more than a few proposals already to consider.” This last sentence she spoke in a light and teasing manner, knowing what response Penelope would give her even before the first dramatic sigh. Penelope blushed and wrapped her shawl more tightly about her shoulders.
“You know I only have eyes for one gentleman, sister.”
“Ah, yes. Somehow the good Lord Tindley has managed to capture the heart of the most beautiful woman in London,” Juliana said, feeling bittersweet about the arrangement. She gently patted her sister’s shoulder. “I only wish that our father would allow you to move forward with the engagement as your handsome young nobleman so clearly desires.”
Mr Rothmond, for all his kindness, was set on both his daughters finding good matches. He refused to allow Penelope, the beautiful and winsome daughter, to marry until her older sister was as well.
“It isn’t proper,” he always said, “for the younger sister to surpass the elder.”
“But Father,” Juliana would protest, knowing that in this one thing Penelope would never assert herself for fear of wounding Juliana’s feelings, “you know that I have had no proposals, and with a face like this I do not expect to have any. You cannot base Penelope’s future off the marriage prospects of a maimed woman.”
“You have many other qualities,” he would always say, as he’d said patiently since she was a child. “Beauty is not everything.”
What he meant, of course, was that she had a sizeable dowry and the chance for some gentleman to become well-connected with one of the more powerful merchant families in London if he could afford to be married to a hideous woman for the rest of his life. So far, it didn’t seem to be reason enough to keep anyone around for long.
Penelope seemed to read her sister’s mind, for she looked up with worried eyes and put a hand on Juliana’s.
“Don’t worry,” she said quickly. “It was only last year that you were even considering marriage seriously. I’m sure this will be the season where a gentleman walks in and sweeps you off your feet. Your eyes will meet across the dance floor, and you will fall into each other’s arms in the magic of the moment.”
“If some gentleman falls for me,” Juliana said with dry humour, “I doubt it will be at first sight.”
“Juliana, you must stop this,” Penelope said, whirling around and peering up into her sister’s face. She was the only one Juliana could stand looking at her for any period of time, because she was the only one Juliana really believed could see past the scar. “You are always so down on yourself, but you are a remarkable and beautiful woman, well worth the attentions of a man. You shouldn’t worry about me and Lord Tindley. I believe he will wait for me as long as is necessary, and perhaps you’ll find a husband by the end of the season.”
Juliana looked tenderly at her sister. “It is sweet that you are the one reassuring me always,” she said. “But I think it a waste of your energy and excitement. Let us speak no more of marriage pacts or scars. Let us talk only about this Lord Tindley of yours. Do you know if he will be in attendance tonight?”
“I hope so,” Penelope said with a happy sigh, turning back to her reflection in the mirror as Juliana put the finishing touches on her hair and wrapped an emerald ribbon about her head. “I know that he usually comes in from the country later than the others, but he knew that I would be here tonight and that might just be reason enough for him to make an early showing.”
She stood, and let Juliana help her into the green ball gown she had left behind her on the bed. It was of a deep emerald silk with stunning fringe trim around the edges and a wide bodice. Juliana took the time to lace it up along Penelope’s trim figure, and then gave her sister a quick spin in the mirror to show it off.
“Just the sort of statement you want to make on the first night of the London season,” Juliana said with a smile. “Bold, but serious. Beautiful, but no longer childish or indulged in fripperies.”
“And what statement are you going to make?” Penelope asked with a smile.
“As subtle a statement as I can,” Juliana answered back. She pulled her own gown out and, with Penelope’s help, stepped into it and waited while her sister fastened the seed pearl buttons on the back. It was simple cream, with a square-necked bodice and delicate embroidery. Something pretty and sweet certainly, but also something that would fade into a sea of other women in white and cream gowns who would be flitting around the dance floor.
“You’re a vision,” Penelope said quietly when she had fastened the gown. “And Elsie will be astonished that we completed our toilet so thoroughly without her oversight.”
“I am sure she has her hands full with preparations for the next few months,” Juliana said with a smile. “If we can help with something as simple as our own wardrobe, I’m sure she’ll be more grateful than alarmed.”
“That is the lovely thing about you,” Penelope answered with a grin, sitting gingerly on the edge of the bed to tie on her satin slippers. “You are always thinking the best of other people. Willing to help support even those who are not your responsibility to support.”
“If we’re being quite particular about language,” Juliana corrected her sister, “as part of humanity it is our responsibility to support whoever we can. Or at least to have compassion for their plight.” She slipped on her own shoes and drew a pale green embroidered shawl about her shoulders before putting on the gloves she would wear to the ball.
Penelope finished tying on her shoes and leaned back on her elbows to preserve the line of her gown. “See, dear sister, I do not know why, when you speak so beautifully and with such noble intentions, you could ever fear that you would not catch a man’s eye. Surely there are men aplenty who would treasure the opportunity to have for themselves a bright and kind wife.”
Juliana smiled again, but only because she hoped that Penelope would drop the subject for the remainder of the evening. In truth, she felt the pressure to marry more than she cared to admit. She loved her little sister and wanted her to have every happiness. It bothered her more than she could say that her “little Penny” had to wait for a beautiful marriage because Juliana had the misfortune of an ugly scar to dissuade suitors. If she had to marry, she wanted a husband of her own choosing. But in her heart, not even the romantic ideals of youth remained even a seed of hope in her any longer.
She felt certain that, even if she were to find a man who wanted her for herself and not for the wealth of her father, she would be an eventual disappointment to such a man. For how could anyone, even the kindest of people, look long on a face such as hers with love?
“The first ball of the season? To what do we owe this honour, Lord Vincent?”
Horatio turned in the direction of the voice, and saw his long-time friend, Lord Alistair Wilford, leaning against the beautiful banister of a staircase at the front of the ballroom. Horatio smiled widely and crossed the room quickly to his friend’s side.
“You know me,” he said with his grin still in place. “I wouldn’t deny the lovely ladies of London the chance to see Lord Horatio Vincent on the first night of the season. Just as you have chosen this particular place to wait for me so that you might show off the latest fashion from Paris in that tailored overcoat.”
Alistair shrugged nonchalantly. He was a good deal shorter than Horatio, with a head of curling black hair and sparkling eyes. Horatio, on the contrary, was tall and blond, with blue eyes and a face that had won the heart of more than one young woman in London society over the twenty-seven years he had been alive. Alistair had been his friend almost as long, and teased him mercilessly about his exploits.
“Is there any young woman in particular who has caught your eye today?” Alistair enquired now in a slightly lower tone, although Horatio still found himself wishing for more of a whisper in the conversation.
“I’ve only just arrived,” he said with a laugh.
“Oh, of course,” Alistair said with mock severity. “And the great Lord Vincent has never before arrived to the first ball of the season with a quarry in mind.”
Horatio smiled, but in his heart a hint of misgiving shone. He knew his reputation well. He’d used his blue eyes more than once to win a heart, but beneath the veneer of charm and arrogance he found himself dissatisfied with the women that he’d kept company with over the years. He knew that many people believed the rumours that England, London in particular, was full of women who could claim to be his mistress at one time or another. But in reality, he had never laid a hand on the women he’d wooed. He would dance a few dances and attend a few events with the maiden of the hour, but always in time he would grow weary of the constant conversation about gowns and society, the morals that they all held to so rigidly, the lack of kindness and conversation.
“I’m glad to be here, in any case,” he retorted, hoping that his friend had not seen the melancholy he felt reflected on his face. “It’s been a dull few months without your company, friend, and perhaps a fine ball will inject a bit of excitement back into my life.”
Alistair shrugged and turned to walk alongside Horatio from the main hall into the ballroom adjacent.
“I gather that your father’s health is not improving?”
“No,” Horatio said quietly. “It is not.”
“Forgive my transgression in inviting these topics into an otherwise light-hearted discussion,” Alistair pressed on, “but I know that your life has been much engaged with your estate in the country as of late, and I would think it remiss to speak only of the sparkling present when your thoughts are likely elsewhere.”
“It is kind of you to ask after my father,” Horatio said slowly, weighing his words carefully. He was not very close to his father and had never been. The current Earl of Dunville was a demanding man to whose high expectations Horatio had never quite been able to live. His battle with consumption had been a long and trying one, and the doctors seemed to think it was nearly at an end.
“I am not trying to be kind,” Alistair said, halting in place so they could finish their conversation in the privacy of an alcove on the outskirts of the ballroom. “It must weigh on you that so soon you might find yourself in possession of the responsibility of your father’s inheritance.”
“I do not wish to speak on this subject at present,” Horatio said shortly, looking over his friend’s shoulder for an opportunity to slip away.
“You never do,” Alistair responded. “But you will have to inherit one day, and I believe you’ll be a wonderful earl when you do. Imagine that, carefree Horatio setting aside his wild ways to take the responsibility of the earldom at last. You will be a regular nobleman, attending the London season for the House of Lords as much as the parlours of young ladies.”
Horatio was finding it more and more difficult to keep his demeanour light in the face of his friend’s teasing. He knew Alistair only meant to encourage him, to perhaps bring some levity into a situation that was anything but. But in so doing his friend had managed to hit upon all the fears that Horatio had to face on a daily basis. He knew in his heart that he would never be as good an earl as his father had been over the course of his life. He tried at every turn to avoid discussing the day when he would be forced to inherit the title of Earl of Dunville because it was a day he dreaded with every fibre of his being. As the only son, he had no choice but to take responsibility, but he knew that what Alistair was teasing about would come true – it would be the end of the life of carefree joys he had known.
Still, it wasn’t that he was reluctant to shoulder responsibility. It was that shouldering the weight of the estate in the shadow of his father’s greatness was a monumental task. He couldn’t help but think of all the ways his father had pointed out his failures as a young man, and how those failures would doubtless increase one-hundred-fold after the departure of the current earl.
“It was my mistake,” Alistair said, reading his expression, “to begin the first ball of the season by speaking with you of death and responsibility.”
Horatio forced a smile. “You are not over the line, my friend. You of all people ought to be able to ask me about the parts of my life that are more difficult to discuss. Still, I wouldn’t be distressed in the least if we allowed the subject of my inheritance to slip from priority at present.”
Alistair smiled. “And can I guess what the dashing Lord Vincent would like to replace the subject with?” He waved across the room at a group of elegant young ladies gathered near an arrangement of indoor ferns. “A gentler topic, perhaps?”
Horatio raised his eyebrow. “Lead the way, my friend.”
Juliana closed her eyes and let the music from the ballroom wash over her. It was full and golden, warm like sunlight. She had chosen a secluded place to sit at the edge of the ballroom, which was ringed round with marble archways and small seats with cushions within them. These archways were the perfect size for a large plant or a little person but were otherwise quite decorative. Juliana sat down after the first few dances passed without a single fellow having the courage to ask the scarred girl for a turn about the floor, observing the beautiful movements on the dance floor from the safety of her alcove.
Penelope was whirling about on the arm of some officer from the regiment, her black hair shining like onyx; her laughter carrying across the room whenever she was nearest Juliana’s hidden place. Juliana couldn’t help wondering, as she waited there at the side of the floor, why it was that she even came to these events. Her father insisted on them because he believed, along with the rest of London society, that the best way to establish one’s daughters as marriageable young women was to show them off in a social setting. This was a reasonable enough plan, Juliana thought wryly, if you had daughters who had a chance at making a good impression. For her, however, it felt like an exercise in humiliation to be sitting near the other wallflowers and matrons, to time and again hear the beginning strains of a melody and see that no one would ask her to dance, to spend all day preparing to look beautiful for an event where no one would notice her except to see her ugliest attribute.
The music on the floor ended, and Penelope skipped back to where Juliana was sitting. Juliana could see that her sister’s cheeks were pink with exercise and excitement, and she couldn’t help smiling.
“Is your Lord Tindley here tonight?” she asked.
Penelope shook her head. “No, but he sent word via a mutual friend that he regrets his absence excessively.”
Juliana raised her eyebrow. “Excessively? Well, a girl can hope for no more.”
Penelope blushed again at the teasing. “Are you not going to dance, Juliana? If you stay hidden back here, no one will see you.”
That would be the goal. Juliana did not intend to say anything that would take that smile and excitement from her sister’s eyes. She shrugged as though she was simply bored and weary. “The dance floor is already full of people,” she said lightly. “I don’t know that I wish to add my own self to that adventure at present. In fact, I was feeling rather light-headed. I think I’m going to go catch a little fresh air and then I’ll be back. Keep pace with your partners in my absence, and when I return, we can find a spot of punch for refreshment.”
Penelope seemed willing enough to believe her sister’s story and skipped away at last as Juliana turned towards one of the hallways nearby. It was well-lit and nearly as full of revellers as the ballroom had been, although these were all lost in sparkling conversations. As she walked past, she overheard snippets of love, politics, and business. Her father always said that the London season balls were where real things got done, not the House of Lords. She also heard the occasional gasp or, more telling, sudden spells of silence as various people turned and caught sight of her face. She wondered if they knew how unoriginal they were all being. For a group of people who so prized the height of society and the latest fashionable thing, they were being intolerably predictable.
Still, she knew better than to show them how pained their reactions made her feel. After all, she suspected that they were mostly good people who were surprised and concerned for her well-being. She tried, whenever possible, to assume the best in people, though she wondered if people knew that sometimes their sympathy hurt as much as their derision.
At the end of the hall, she felt someone catch her arm and turned to see one of her mother’s old friends from Northampton, a plump lady whose name she could not remember twittering beneath a lacy cap that frosted her thick brown curls.
“Miss Rothmond! What an absolute delight it is to see that you are still coming out in society and making a go of it.”
Juliana blinked in surprise. “Why, thank you…I…” She couldn’t think how else to respond, but it was fortunate for the woman was willing to fill the uncomfortable silence with her opinions.
“I saw that your lovely sister is dancing with every eligible bachelor in the room. You ought not to let her sweep out your rightful place as the belle of the ball.”
Juliana winced at the patronising turn of phrase. “I do not believe that anyone would argue against Penelope’s place as the centre of society,” she said quietly.
“Come now, you are the oldest Rothmond daughter, and therefore the most eligible by far,” the woman said. Then she lowered her voice and patted Juliana’s arm gently, whispering loudly, “Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise, just because you happen to look –”
“Thank you!” Juliana interjected, suddenly desperate to avoid whatever disparaging thing the other woman meant to include under the guise of encouragement. “You are really too kind. I’m sorry I can’t speak with you longer, but I’m afraid I’m really not feeling very well after all. I suppose we shall have to catch up at a later date.”
She curtsied quickly and slipped around the woman and down the hall. After walking a few paces past the last group of revellers, she turned sharply to the left at a pair of doors and found herself quite suddenly, blissfully, out of the melee and on one of the many balconies perched along the stone walls of the great mansion.
The night was cold and crisp, but she had a shawl and found the sharpness in the air to be a blessing in disguise. It cut through the haze of emotion that had followed Juliana onto the balcony, halting the tears that she felt threatening to come forth. She stood for a moment quite still, looking up at the moon overhead. The last shreds of day had long since departed, and the night was full of stars. It was too brisk for the ball to have any outdoor elements, and the garden below the balcony was dark except for a few shreds of light that filtered out from inside. The windows were open along the back part of the house, however, to keep the guests cool inside, and the sounds of music from the ballroom filtered through nearly as strong as they had been within.
Juliana walked up to the edge of the balcony and laid her hands lightly on the stone. As she did so, she saw a movement to one side and realised that she was not the only person to take refuge for a few moments outside. The other person, a gentleman, was sitting on a bench at the other end of the balcony. The scarred side of her face was turned away from him, and with that confidence and the knowledge that she had the shadow of a nearby bush as cover, she risked a few moments to look at the man’s face and determine who he was before turning her head back to the garden.
It was Lord Horatio Vincent, soon to be Lord Dunville if London gossip was true regarding the state of his father’s health. Juliana smiled a little to herself in the darkness at the impossible irony of a disfigured woman with no prospects finding herself quite suddenly thrust into the presence of a pleasure-seeking nobleman like Horatio Vincent.
Only a few months ago she’d overheard a conversation where her father had warned Penelope to stay away from “that wayward Lord Vincent”, as he had a reputation for flirting with a bevy of beauties, and nothing to show for his troubles. He was a handsome man, Juliana would not deny him that, at least. But she had heard tales of the young women who had fallen for him over the years and found themselves without a beau at the end of the season. He was not to be tied down, not to be relied upon. She took a deep breath and comforted herself that in at least this matter she need not worry – the kind of gentlemen who other women had to be careful of never found themselves in Juliana’s company. She was as safe from Lord Vincent’s influence on the balcony beside him as she would have been miles away.
Inside, the four-piece orchestra struck up the first notes to begin another set. The music came filtering through to where Juliana was standing, and she closed her eyes again to shut out Lord Vincent’s presence and simply enjoy the sound of the life inside that she could not have.
“Dancing with a Gracious Lord” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
After a childhood illness left her with a scarred face, Juliana Rothmond is determined that no man will ever look at her except for her generous dowry. When her father announces that she is soon to marry Ira Galbrathe, an opportunistic and arrogant man, Juliana desperately tries to escape from her future misery. Will she find a way to break an unwanted betrothal? Could she meet a man who will overlook her broken visage and love her for the beauty of her heart?
Before the Earl of Dunville died, his last wish was that his only son should find a suitable wife and shoulder his responsibilities. Following his father’s desire, Lord Horatio Vincent decides to stop being a womanizer and find a bride without any delay. After his first dance with Juliana, he is immediately won over by the beauty under her scars, defying all the resentful comments on her appearance. Not long after, he comes up with a plan to rescue her from an insufferable man and meet his father’s expectations; to marry Juliana the earliest possible. But, could this deal ever turn out to be a fairytale? Will Horatio manage to love Juliana, or will he be trapped in an emotionless marriage that himself proposed?
By the time their feelings are starting to bloom, their life is about to fall apart. When Ira joins forces with Horatio’s past love to break off their marriage and destroy their lives, Juliana and Horatio must prove that nothing can deprive them of their happiness. Will a true romance flourish in such an unfortunate situation, or the barriers they come across are too many to overcome?
“Dancing with a Gracious Lord” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.