London, the start of the season, 1816
“Girls! Please settle down. You are both as skittish as foals in a stable.”
The woman’s voice was commanding, as she stared at her two daughters, giggling together and poking each other in the ribs as they sat side by side on the drawing room settee. Lavinia Beaumont, the younger daughter of a baron, gazed up at her mother, trying to suppress her hilarity.
“Sorry, Mama,” she breathed, steadfastly trying not to look at her sister. She knew that if she turned her head even half an inch, and looked at Sophia, she would start to laugh again. She couldn’t even remember anymore why they had become hysterical, but then, it was often the way with her older sister. They could spend hours in stitches over the slightest thing. It drove their mother batty.
Lady Beaumont’s face was severe. She drew a deep breath, drawing herself up to her full, imposing height. “Yes. Well. I rather think you two are too old for such hi jinks now,” she said slowly. “You are both young ladies, do not forget. Not girls anymore. And you, Lavinia, are about to commence your first London season. We cannot have you giggling away like a silly maid at all the important social events we will be taking you to …”
Lavinia smiled. “Of course, Mama! I shall be mindful.” She glanced at her older sister. “But it is not only me, after all. It was Sophie who started it …”
Her sister looked outraged, punching her on the arm. “Liar! It was you, Liv, who said the new maid reminded you of a duck, and that you would not be surprised if she quacked instead of spoke …”
At the reminder of what had sparked their hilarity, Lavinia clutched her stomach, heaving with laughter again. Her eyes sparkled with mirth. “Oh, but she does, doesn’t she? Lips so full I declare they look like a beak …”
“Girls!” Lady Beaumont’s voice was sharp. Her ample bosom wobbled dramatically. “Enough! You are starting again! We have only just arrived in London, and we must practise being polite and sedate, as proper young ladies should.”
Lavinia shuddered, trying to suppress the laughter again, but it almost tickled under her nose, like a feather. Desperately, she got up, approaching the window, staring down at the city scene below.
London, she thought, as a stab of excitement pierced her chest. She saw fashionable gentlemen and ladies parading down the street, almost meandering, as if they had all the time in the world. Her eyes widened, as she took in the cut and style of the ladies’ gowns. They were so beautiful. She simply didn’t know how she and Sophie were going to compete with them.
She inhaled deeply. They had only arrived this morning at their grand London townhouse, travelling from their country home in the Cotswolds. It wasn’t very far away, but they might as well have crossed oceans, for the difference. Jonty Hall, their ancestral home, was located in a sleepy hamlet, where the most exciting thing that happened was the arrival of the mail. Local dances only happened every few months and were dull affairs, anyway.
Lavinia felt another stab of excitement. This was going to be her very first London season!
She glanced back at Sophie, who was still sitting on the settee, smoothing out the creases in her gown. Her sister’s mouth twitched slightly, but she was trying very hard to regain composure. Lavinia knew she was as excited to be out of the country as she was.
“Now,” said her mother, glancing at a list on her lap, adjusting her spectacles, “one of the very first events of the season is at the Earl of Hamilton’s estate, near Whitechapel.” She took off the spectacles, gazing at her eldest daughter. “There should be quite a large pool of eligible young bachelors there, my dear.”
Sophie nodded gravely. “Indeed, Mama! The Earl of Hamilton always invites the crème de la crème of society. I think that there shall be a wide range of titled, rich young men to choose from …”
Lavinia’s lip curled slightly. She and her sister were of a like mind in most things, such as music, literature, and art, but she could never understand her sister’s cold bloodedness about marriage. Sophie truly believed that they both had to marry well, in accordance with their status as daughters of a baron, and that any potential suitors simply had to be titled and rich, regardless of what they were like, on a personal level.
Lavinia had tried to argue with her, many times, that it was a man’s character that was important, not their status or their wealth. But Sophie stubbornly refused to acknowledge any such thing. She claimed that it was their duty, no less.
She exhaled dramatically, frowning. She simply wouldn’t listen to them if they continued to speak in such a manner. She turned back to the window. She would look out at the world and watch the birds in the trees until the topic changed. It was so boring to her that it took all her will not to scream.
They kept talking, in the same manner, listing this marquess and that lord, as if the gentlemen were horses they were considering betting on at Ascot. Lavinia tuned out. She was engrossed in the antics of a flower seller, who had just set up her stall across the road, when she heard her name being called, as if from very far away.
“What?” she pouted, staring back at them.
“Is your nose out of joint, miss?” demanded her mother. “Why are you stubbornly refusing to join in the conversation? This is your first London season, daughter, and I would have thought you would be a trifle more enthusiastic!”
Lavinia shrugged. She had been excited, until they had started their cold-blooded inventory of eligible bachelors.
“You are ornery, sister,” said Sophie, frowning slightly. “You couldn’t wait to get to London, and now you are acting as if it is the biggest trial in the world to talk about the season ahead of us.”
Lavinia sighed dramatically. “I was excited … until you both started on the infernal eligible bachelor list.” She paused, staring hard at her mother and sister.
“The line up this season is superlative,” cried her mother, waving her list in the air. “It is sure to both entertain you, Lavinia, and introduce you to a wide variety of eligible gentlemen! You are sure to find one that you will like. I simply cannot see why you would be negative about it in any way, daughter.”
Lavinia rolled her eyes. “Is there any time to eat and sleep in this tight schedule of being paraded in front of eligible gentlemen?”
They both laughed. Sophie jumped up suddenly, striding towards her sister, her eyes glittering. She took Lavinia’s hands in her own, clutching them tightly.
“Oh, Liv!” she gasped. “I am simply determined to find a suitable husband this year! This is my second season, and I have learnt much from my first … can you try to help me out in it, for my sake, if not your own? Pretty please?”
Lavinia gazed steadily at her sister. She looked so ardent. Her honey brown eyes were still glittering fiercely. She is so pretty, she thought distractedly, her eyes drifting over her sister. And in the past year, Sophie’s beauty had blossomed further. Last season, she had been a little gawky still. But her sister had grown plumper in the succeeding year, fleshing out her once slender figure, developing womanly curves. They became her. And now, alongside her porcelain pale skin and silky nut brown curls, Lavinia could truly see the beautiful woman her sister had become.
Her heart softened. Sophie deserved a good husband. She only wished her sister’s parameters for what a good husband should be were different. But then, she guessed Sophie was no different to the majority of well to do young ladies, newly arrived in London for the season.
It was she, Lavinia, who was the odd one out, it seemed.
She sighed. “I will try … I guess.”
Sophie clutched her hands tighter. “It will be so much fun, sister! I will guide you, through the fray.” She took a deep breath. “All the young ladies are competing, you see, angling for the best of the bunch. But I am aware of the status of many gentlemen, so I can warn you if a candidate is not worth the time or effort …”
Lavinia’s smile tightened. “What if the candidate, as you put it, is a decent, worthy man in his own right? Must I cut him off, completely, as soon as I realise that he is not the lord of whatever? It seems so … superficial.”
Sophie reddened. “I know that you think me a snob, Liv. But we have a duty to our parents to marry well.” She took a deep breath. “Hopefully, you will find both! A suitable gentleman, who is also considerate and polite …”
Lavinia sighed deeply. Considerate and polite were not words she associated with a potential husband, at all. What about dashing, and handsome, and clever, instead? What about a man who made her belly laugh and talked intelligently about art and literature, sweeping her off her feet?
Was she just a hopeless romantic? Was that her problem?
She knew that her mother thought so, constantly telling her to get her head out of the clouds, and to stop reading romantic love poetry. Her mother claimed that romantic love was overrated, and rarely lasted, in any case. A lady had to be smart about her choices; secure her future.
She stared at her sister. Sophie, despite looking like a Raphaelite angel, didn’t seem to have a romantic bone in her body. She was so pragmatic, it was sad. But still, she should try to accept her sister the way that she was, shouldn’t she?
“Perhaps, dear sister,” she said slowly. “Perhaps I will get very lucky indeed and find a considerate and polite gentleman, who also happens to be suitable.” The words tasted dry, like ashes in her mouth.
Sophie’s eyes lit up again. “You know who is rumoured to be on the circuit this year?” she breathed. “The Viscount Pemberton! He is supposedly extremely rich, but still young and handsome. The best of both worlds.” She paused. “I think that I shall set my cap at him if we encounter him. He would be more than suitable …”
“We are rich enough,” said Lavinia, irritated, her resolve to bite her tongue and humour her sister dissolving into thin air again. “We are the daughters of a baron! We do not have to marry for wealth or privilege. What about love, Sophie?”
Sophie blinked rapidly, her face neutral, but Lavinia could see she had hit a raw nerve. Her sister had turned down two perfectly good marriage proposals, during her first season, because she had been determined to make a more ideal match. And Lavinia knew that one of those proposals had been from a gentleman who Sophie had greatly admired.
“If only he had a title,” she had said later, a little wistfully. “I would have accepted him in a heartbeat.”
Had her sister been in love, even a little? By the tremulous look on Sophie’s face, Lavinia thought it more than likely. But she refused to talk about the jilted suitor at all. She had boxed up her heart, as if it were something distasteful, that she simply did not want to consider anymore.
“Come along, girls,” intercepted their mother gently. “Let us not talk about such things. Shall I tell you what I have heard about the Viscount Pemberton?”
Sophie turned to her mother eagerly, dropping her sister’s hands. The next minute, they were away, chattering like starlings.
Lavinia tuned out again. She rather hoped that they didn’t encounter this Viscount Pemberton. She now knew all she ever wanted to know about that particular gentleman, and she could only imagine what a tiresome, entitled bore he would be.
The sun was high in the sky, spreading golden rays over the woodlands, as the two men slowly made their way through the thick scrub.
Samuel glanced at his companion, trudging alongside him. They both had their hunting rifles slung over their shoulders, but they weren’t planning any hunting. It had just been an excuse to leave the grand manor and spend some time in the great outdoors, so that they could talk alone, at long last. His mother had been breathing down their necks ever since Walter had arrived at Hillgate Manor this morning, and he could tell that his old friend was finding the attention a bit much.
“Mother means well,” he said, breaking the silence. “She just doesn’t know when to back off, old fellow.”
Walter grinned. “I know that, Sam. But I must say, if I had been forced to eat any more scones with her special fig jam, I might have screamed.”
Samuel grinned too. “Her latest discovery. She gets it from a woman in the local village. You would think that she fermented herself, by the way she carries on about it.” He paused, slinging the rifle higher on his shoulder. “I think she is bored. There is only so much you can do this far out in the country. She misses her old life in London.”
Walter nodded. “She never struck me as a country dowager, that is for sure.” He stared at his friend curiously. “And how is the new viscount enjoying country life in Nottinghamshire?”
Samuel shrugged. “Adjusting, I guess, since poor Father’s sudden passing.” He blinked back tears. “You know that I never spent much time in London with them. I’ve always preferred leading a simple life out here …”
Suddenly, his friend whipped his rifle off his shoulder, taking aim. Samuel looked quickly around. A large pheasant had strode out into the clearing.
“Put down the gun, Walter,” said Samuel slowly. “You know it isn’t hunting season.”
Walter slowly lowered the rifle, staring at him. “Please?”
Samuel laughed softly. “It seems a shame to kill such a glorious bird, doesn’t it?”
Walter nodded reluctantly, sighing. He slung the rifle back on his shoulder, and they continued, deeper into the woods.
Samuel felt his heart start to expand. It was always the same, when he came into these woods, which formed a vast part of his estate. It was as if he could let out a breath that he hadn’t even been aware that he was holding. The sheer vastness of it, and the beauty, was deeply soothing to his soul.
It had always been this way, ever since he was a boy. It was why he had decided to take up permanent residence here, leaving his parents in the city, over the past five years. He had never been overly enamoured with London, and it wasn’t a trial to stay away from it. He found the society there so false and superficial. And he would have happily stayed away forever.
But now, he was suddenly the new viscount, since his father’s passing six months ago. His quiet country idyll had been invaded by his mother, who had found it impossible to stay in their London mansion by herself. She had begged and pleaded with him to take up permanent residence there, but he had stood his ground. She had eventually come here, to Hillgate Manor, where she had remained since, like a restless spirit, haunting its halls, desperate for distraction.
She is still grieving, he thought sadly. She has lost her beloved husband, as well as the home she preferred. Perhaps he had been cruel. Perhaps he should have taken up residence in London, to appease her.
And now, she was haranguing him, day and night, to marry. She wanted her only child settled. She wanted grandchildren. She never let up on it.
Determinedly, he pushed the thought of it aside. His best friend had come all the way from his country home near Glastonbury, many miles away on the other side of London, to see him. He knew that Walter probably couldn’t really afford the trip, but he had done it, regardless.
He glanced at his friend, Walter St Clair. They had been the very best of friends since they had been boys, despite the vast difference in their social status. Walter was the son of an impoverished pastor, who had been assigned the local parish church near Hillgate Manor, over twenty years ago. His own father had admired the Reverend James St Clair greatly, often inviting him to Sunday lunch, along with his family. He and Walter had hit it off immediately and stayed in touch over the years, even after he had moved to Glastonbury to work as a solicitor’s assistant after his parents had died.
Samuel knew that life was tough for his friend. He worked hard, rarely having a day off, and had managed to lease a small country home. But his lack of status and wealth greatly affected his marriage prospects. It was a shame, because Walter was one of nature’s true gentlemen, with a fine mind. He knew many wealthy, titled men who couldn’t hold a candle to his friend.
“Are you looking forward to the upcoming London season, old chap?” asked Walter now, not missing a stride.
Samuel grimaced. He had forgotten all about it. Or, at least he had distracted himself enough to convince himself he had forgotten all about it. But really, it was always there, in the back of his mind, like a niggling headache that simply would not go away. And it was why Walter had journeyed all this way, after all. A few days together at Hillgate Manor, before hitting the city. Or at least, that was the plan.
He took a deep breath. He had only agreed to it to stop his mother’s constant nagging to find a wife, and to help Walter. His best friend was desperate to find a wife, and without him at his side, what hope did he have?
“Like a hole in the head,” he said slowly. “It will just be the same old crowd, Walter. The simpering fools, and the grasping young ladies, who cannot see beyond my title, as always. It becomes so very tiresome.”
Walter stopped abruptly, gazing at his friend. “You sound very glum, old chap. That is not like you at all, to be so down about such a thing.” He took a deep breath. “I declare that we should terrorise the town and woo young ladies by the bucketful!”
Samuel laughed. If he wasn’t aware that he was no such thing, he would think that Walter was a hopeless cad and womaniser. But it was just a front to cover up his insecurity over his lack of status and wealth.
“I cannot stand how society falls all over me because of who I am,” he said slowly. “They all try to dazzle and impress me, seeking my favour. I find it embarrassing and uncomfortable …”
“It is not that bad, surely?” asked Walter. “Everyone is not like that, are they?”
Samuel sighed. “Just about everyone, my friend. It is the reason I avoid London and have done consistently over the last few years. And when I am there, I only associate with a select crowd, if I can help it.” He paused. “I feel so undeserving of such sycophantic attention. They do not even listen to me. I could be dull or depraved, and they would still all fawn over me …”
Walter sighed too. “I suppose we all have our crosses to bear, don’t we? And here is me, thinking your life is so charmed.” He frowned momentarily, but then his face cleared. “You are the Viscount Pemberton, after all. I suppose it is to be expected that they will do that. If I were you, I would take full advantage of it, and sample all the lovely ladies!”
“Walter, the role of the Lothario does not suit you,” said Samuel dryly. “I have never seen you play such a role. If anything, you are too intent about finding your one true love.”
Walter grinned slightly. “Yes, you are right. But can we not try on the role, just this once?”
Samuel laughed. “I suppose we shall have to, since it has been announced that I will be attending this season …”
“Your good lady mother?”
“Just so.” Samuel grimaced. “She has let the cat out of the bag, writing letters to all her friends to tell them I shall be partaking.” He paused, his face turning wistful. “What I wouldn’t give, just to melt into the crowd. If only I could attend as myself, rather than the Viscount Pemberton. Then at least I would know that the ladies like me, rather than the title. You are very lucky to be a commoner, old chap. At least you know that a woman is truly interested in you.”
Walter jumped. He turned to Samuel, his eyes wide.
“Why can’t you?” he breathed. “You haven’t been to a London season in years. Most of the ton probably wouldn’t know you if they fell over you.” His face split into a grin. “If you dressed in plainer clothes and changed your hair a little … well, I think that you could fool everyone that you are not the Viscount Pemberton!”
Samuel gaped at him in astonishment. What exactly was Walter suggesting? That he lie about who he was, to the whole of London society?
But then, his mind started to come around to the astonishing idea. His friend had a point. It would certainly be interesting to see life from a whole different perspective, especially if it meant meeting people, especially a potential bride, on a more authentic level.
“I think it is a wonderful idea,” he said slowly. “But I will need your help, old friend.”
Walter gasped. “I don’t believe it! You are really going to do it?”
Samuel slowly smiled. “I do believe that I will. It will be refreshing, at the very least, to observe the ton as a commoner, rather than part of the inner circle. And I will still be attending the season, after all. Mother cannot complain.” His smile widened. “St Clair, you are a genius!”
Walter laughed aloud. “Well, I must admit that is the first time I have ever had the honour of being called a genius!”
“You are, old chap,” said Samuel. “You have a mind deserving of Machiavelli.”
Walter laughed harder. “We are going to have the best London season … ever!”
Samuel nodded, his mind already racing ahead, as to how he could accomplish it properly. As to how he could convince the ton that he really was a commoner, rather than the Viscount Pemberton.
It would require concocting a whole other identity – rather like putting on a costume at a Masquerade Ball. He would have to think of a name, a background … everything. The Viscount Pemberton must cease to exist – for a little while, at least. He sighed in relief. It would be like shedding a coat that had gradually become too heavy.
He glanced over his shoulder. He could just see Hillgate Manor, looming through the trees. His ancestral home. It had been in his family for countless generations. Every Viscount Pemberton had resided here when in the country since time immemorial. It was his heritage and his lineage. It was his very life.
For a moment, he felt guilty. His father, so recently departed, would turn over in his grave. The title had been everything to him.
But he shook the pang aside. It would be nice to leave the Viscount Pemberton behind, just for a little while. It would be nice to be simply Samuel, judged for who he actually was, rather than his status.
And he would know, that if any young lady warmed to him, that she really did like him. How refreshing would that be?
Lavinia gazed at her reflection in the dressing table mirror, as Franny, the new maid who looked like a duck, swept her hair up into a high chignon at the top of her head. The maid was pulling tightly, making tears smart behind her eyes. But she was so distracted she simply sat passively, like a doll.
Tonight is the night, she thought, her heartbeat quickening. Tonight is the Duke of Hamilton’s Ball.
The anticipation had been building all day for it. Mama had been running around like a headless chicken, making sure that their gowns and accessories were all in order. Sophie was nervous, too; she had tried on and discarded so many necklaces and earrings that Lavinia still wasn’t sure what she would be wearing.
It’s just a ball, she thought, staring at herself, trying to stay calm. But her fingers were gripping the edge of the dressing table tightly, and she knew it wasn’t just because of the maid’s rough hands on her hair.
Sighing, she gazed down at her new gown, purchased especially for the occasion. It was gold and green silk and brocade, with a tightly lined bodice of dark green ribbon, secured beneath her bust line. The short sleeves were puffed slightly, and there were tiny diamantes scattered like stars across it. It was beautiful; far more beautiful than any other gown that she had ever worn. It was also tight and uncomfortable. She felt more trussed up than a turkey at Christmas luncheon.
She flinched as Franny stabbed a hairpin into her scalp.
“Sorry, miss,” muttered the maid.
Lavinia smiled wanly. “Are you almost finished?”
The maid stepped back, flourishing her hands in the air like a magician. “All done,” she said, with a satisfied air. “What do you think?”
Lavinia gazed at herself, still not quite believing that it was she in the reflection. It seemed Franny’s rough ministrations had been worth it, after all. Who was the sophisticated young lady gazing back at her?
The maid had done an excellent job, letting tiny tendrils of her dark hair escape the confines of the chignon, framing her face. And she had expertly secured a bandeau of dark green velvet on the top of her head, weaving it through the hair.
At that very moment, there was a knock on the door, and Sophie quickly entered. Lavinia turned around, gazing in stunned disbelief at her older sister.
She looked simply exquisite. The primrose silk gown that Mama had chosen for her suited her pale complexion, and besides that, it was beautifully cut, seeming to follow the lines of her sister’s figure. Sophie’s nut brown hair was a mass of cascading ringlets, falling seemingly at random from her high chignon. A bandeau of yellow silk contrasted vividly with the darkness of her hair.
Lavinia stood up slowly. “Oh, my! You are simply divine!”
Sophie laughed, twirling around. “I feel like a princess,” she said, her brown eyes glittering. Suddenly, she stopped. “Stand up, Liv, and show me your own gown.”
Lavinia did as she was instructed, standing awkwardly in front of her sister.
“Is that my little sister?” breathed Sophie, smiling widely. “I almost do not recognise you! You look at least one and twenty, rather than the tender eighteen that I know that you are!”
Lavinia blushed faintly. It was true, she didn’t feel or look like herself, at all. How on earth was she going to walk, breathe, and dance in the tight confines of this gown?
Sophie approached her, taking her hands. She stared tenderly into her sister’s face.
“You look beautiful, little swan,” she whispered. “I think you shall be the belle of the ball.”
Lavinia felt tears spring behind her eyes at her sister’s use of her childhood nickname. Sophie only used it when she was feeling particularly affectionate.
“I think that title will go to you, my dearest,” she whispered back. “That colour becomes you so well! I feel like a stiff matron in my old lady’s green and gold …”
“Nonsense,” said Sophie quickly. “You are simply feeling a little nervous and overwhelmed, that’s all. Do not be self-conscious, dearest. You do look lovely, and you need to go into that crowd believing it, or else they will eat you alive.”
Lavinia felt her heartbeat quicken again. This was going to be her first London ball, and she simply did not know what to expect. The thought of going into such a fashionable crowd gave her tremors.
“You will stay by my side, will you not?” she whispered suddenly.
Sophie pressed her hands tighter. “I will not desert you, sister, and I will guide you when I can, but you must realise we are there to socialise, after all.” She paused. “We have to take opportunities as they come. If suitable young men ask me to dance, then I must. Some of our cousins will be there, so you will know some other people, at least.”
Lavinia nodded, still unconvinced. She had not seen her cousins Freddie, Beatrice, and India in such a long time, it would almost be like conversing with acquaintances. She took a deep breath. She just had to face it, that was all.
The door opened again, and their mother entered. Lavinia suppressed a smile. Lady Beaumont looked swamped by a cacophony of white lace and frills, and her frilly white mob cap seemed to swallow her greying dark hair entirely. But then, Lavinia supposed her outfit was totally suitable for a matron of eight and forty. Mama wasn’t going to the Duke of Hamilton’s ball to vie for an eligible bachelor, after all, like she and her sister were.
I feel like a horse going to auction, she thought darkly.
“You look beautiful, girls,” beamed Mama, gazing at them with shining eyes. “I do declare that Mrs Bolton is a genius! I have never known a dressmaker to work such magic with cloth.” She paused briefly. “The carriage is ready! Let us depart.”
Lavinia took a deep breath. She just had to grit her teeth and endure it. The nerves were definitely swamping any excitement she had been feeling. She just had to get on with it. The night wouldn’t last forever, after all.
The lights were ablaze in the Duke’s grand ballroom as the three women entered. Lavinia gazed around, trying to suppress the trembling that had started as soon as they had descended from the carriage and made their way into the assembly.
Sophie was beaming, gazing around avidly, as they pushed their way through the crowd. Suddenly, she stopped.
“Is that Freddie and Beatrice over there, near the food table?” she asked. “They look so much more sophisticated than I remember them!”
“Indeed it is,” smiled their mother. “Let us join them.”
Lavinia trailed them as they pushed further through the crowd, staring at the man and woman who were sipping flutes of champagne. They had indeed changed; it had been over five years since she had set eyes on these cousins. Freddie had shot up, standing at least a head taller than most of those around him. And Beatrice had grown up, too. She barely recognised the slender girl that she had been. There was no sign of their other sibling, India.
Greetings were quickly exchanged before glasses of champagne were procured for them from a passing servant. Lavinia sipped the liquid, feeling the bubbles rise into her nose. She had only ever had one glass of champagne before, and still wasn’t sure that she liked it.
“I will leave you young ones alone,” declared Lady Hamilton. “I might sit down with the other older ladies. I think I saw Lady Colborne and Mrs Browning.” She swept off determinedly into the crowd, gripping her champagne glass tightly.
Beatrice turned to Lavinia. “You have grown up so much, cousin! You are quite the young lady now. Is this your first London season?”
Lavinia nodded. “Indeed it is, Bea. I must declare, I am a little nervous …”
Beatrice smiled indulgently. “I remember what my first season was like! Do not worry, cousin. It will all become familiar, after a while.” She sipped her champagne, staring hard into the crowd. “This is my third, and my dear mother declares that if I do not find a match this season, she does not know what she shall do with me!”
“How is our aunt?” asked Sophie.
Beatrice sighed. “Her smelling salts have become her constant companion, and she can no longer attend social functions like this. Papa thinks she is suffering from a nervous affliction …”
“She is suffering from a nervous affliction,” declared Freddie tightly. “There is no debating that, sister. She has turned into a hysterical old woman.”
Lavinia gazed at her cousin, feeling a stab of dislike. He seemed so dismissive of his own mother. Poor Aunt Catherine couldn’t help it if she was ailing, could she? She had always been a slightly nervous woman, constantly fretting over her children, declaring that mere childhood sniffles were consumption.
“And India?” asked Sophie, pointedly ignoring Freddie’s comment. “Is she here tonight?”
“She is,” said Beatrice, a sour note in her voice. “You will find India on the dance floor. She has already been swept away by a crowd of eager suitors.”
There was a strained silence. Lavinia remembered that Bea had always been jealous of her older sibling, who was far prettier and more popular than her. But India was also shallow and frivolous, with a vacuous mind. Lavinia secretly preferred bookish, plain Bea to her older sister.
“Come on,” said Sophie, gripping her sister’s arm excitedly. “I see some people I know over there. I will introduce you, Liv.” She turned to their cousins. “If you will excuse us?”
The siblings nodded graciously, and the next minute, Lavinia was being dragged through the crowd by her sister. She felt so stiff and awkward in her gown; she could barely walk, and the crowd was pressing in on her, making it difficult to even breathe. They had only been at the ball a short time, and already she wanted to go home.
Sophie pulled up in front of a group of five people, who were sipping champagne with bored expressions on their faces. Lavinia’s heart hammered in her chest. They were obviously very highly placed, judging by the opulence of their dress. The little confidence she had punctured suddenly like a bubble popping. She looked like a country bumpkin by comparison. How on earth could she hope to hold her own in such a fashionable crowd?
Introductions were made, but Lavinia was so nervous she forgot their names as swiftly as they were told to her. Lord something, and Lady something else … it was all so confusing. She stood awkwardly on the edge of the group, as Sophie conversed easily with them, staring around at the crowd fanning out around her.
She took a deep breath. Everyone here was so very fashionable. The ladies were dressed in elaborate headdresses, and diamonds sparkled around their necks. The gentlemen were all richly attired, as well. But none of them looked like they were having a particularly good time. They all wore glazed expressions on their faces, critically studying each other.
Suddenly, her gaze was arrested by a tall man, standing on the edge of the crowd. He had golden red hair, curling in a slightly long dishevelled manner, and sideburns drawing down his face, ending right at the edge of his squarish jawline.
He was laughing uproariously at something a man beside him was saying, his green eyes sparkling with delight. His laugh was obviously infectious because his companion suddenly started howling, too. People around them stared at the pair a little distastefully.
Lavinia kept staring at him, feeling somehow that she couldn’t look away. It was so refreshing, seeing two people enjoying themselves, not caring a whit what anyone around them thought. The men were obviously commoners, judging by their dress. Their clothing stood out like a sore thumb amongst the rich attire around them.
The man with the golden red curls, she thought, completely distracted. He is so very handsome, and so unaffected.
The man turned, suddenly gazing at her, straight in the eye. Lavinia gasped. She knew she had been caught in her frank appraisal of him. But his face didn’t turn cold. Instead, a wide smile spread over his face, as his eyes flickered over her, in blatant appreciation.
Her face reddened. Quickly, she turned away, her heart beating hard. At that moment, she felt Sophie gripping her, pulling her away from her friends, so that they could talk privately.
“I saw you gazing at that young man,” whispered her sister into her ear. “You can do better, Liv. He is obviously a commoner, judging by his appearance. Do not let your head be turned by the first handsome face you see in the crowd whose eyes light up at a pretty face.”
Lavinia stiffened. “Sophie, I barely recognise you when you talk in such a way,” she whispered back, fiercely. “When did you become such a snob?”
Her sister flinched slightly. Lavinia regretted the words, as soon as they had come out of her mouth. Her sister looked so hurt, it was impossible to stay irritated at her.
Besides, she knew that it wasn’t true. Sophie wasn’t a snob; she conversed the same with everyone and didn’t put on airs and graces. She was simply trying to remind her that they should be aspiring to society’s highest standards, according to their own position. For Sophie, it was as clear cut as that.
“I am sorry you feel that way,” whispered her sister, looking wounded. “You are just so young, and new to all of this … you can do better than a commoner, Liv. You are so beautiful, and intelligent, and come from a good family – it is your duty, your lot in life, to do everything that you can to advance our family’s position. I do not want your head to be turned by the first handsome face that you see, regardless of who owns that face.”
Lavinia stroked her sister’s arm. “I know, Sophie. I know how you feel about it. You have told me, many times.” She hesitated. “I am sorry I hurt you, by calling you a snob. My words were rash. You know how much I admire and love you.”
Sophie’s eyes shone with sudden tears.
“And I love you,” she whispered tremulously. “You are my little sister, and it is my duty to protect you, and advise you, to the best of my capacity …”
Lavinia smiled wryly. “Looking at a handsome young man hardly constitutes marrying him, sister.”
Sophie had the grace to laugh. “I know that it doesn’t, silly,” she whispered. “But I know you. I can see that you are taken with him. I just want you to be careful and prudent, that is all.”
Lavinia sighed. “Of course. I promise that I shall do my best. Are you satisfied?”
Sophie nodded. Before she could say anything else, one of her friends suddenly started speaking to her, and she was swept away again.
Lavinia sighed deeply. None of her sister’s grand friends seemed inclined to talk to her at all. She stood awkwardly for a moment, staring down at the polished marble floor, before her eyes were drawn irresistibly through the crowd, seeking out the laughing, handsome man once again.
Her heart dropped. He wasn’t standing there any longer. He and his friend had moved on. She felt suddenly bereft as if her only friend had left her all alone in a savage, strange place.
She blinked back tears. She was being so stupid. She didn’t even know the man! Just because he was the first person she had seen here, at this formal ball, that seemed like he was actually having a good time, didn’t mean that he was in any way a good person. He might be a handsome, vacuous fool, for all that she knew.
She bit her lip. Somehow, some deep instinct told her that he wasn’t, though.
“I say,” said a voice, at her elbow. “You and your sister look very alike, don’t you?”
Lavinia jumped, turning around. One of her sister’s mincing friends was actually addressing her. A man, of small stature, with closely cropped, slightly oily dark hair. He had a large, bulbous nose and thin lips. She shuddered slightly. He wasn’t handsome at all, and he smelt like rolling tobacco.
She plastered a smile onto her face, desperately trying to remember his name. Lord Fitzwilliam? Or had it been Fitzroy?
“Cat got your tongue?” he asked, his eyes drifting over her lazily. “Is this your first season? You seem fresher than a newborn lamb.”
Lavinia shuddered again. She took a deep breath.
“I am sorry, My Lord,” she said slowly. “I was distracted by all the wonders of the ball! And to answer your question – yes, my sister and I have often been told we are very alike, in our looks as well as our manners.”
The man nodded, clearly bored with her. “Well, have a good evening, Miss Beaumont.” He nodded again, turning his back to her.
Lavinia let out a silent sigh of relief. She didn’t even care that he had been intolerably rude, as long as he wasn’t speaking to her. She would rather stand here, aloof, than speak to any of these people, who her sister believed were so very fine.
High society. The crème de la crème. Sophie was aspiring to marry one of them, believing a title and wealth could make up for a lack of charm and bad manners. Not to mention that they were so unanimated they might be mistaken for corpses.
Lavinia smiled slowly. She knew that she was grouping them all unfairly; there were surely some good eggs in the basket. But nothing that she had seen here tonight was convincing her that her sister’s aspirations should become her own. If anything, her resolve was hardening, by the second.
“Falling for the Mysterious Viscount” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
When Lavinia Beaumont, the second daughter of a privileged Baron, attends her first London season, her expectations are not high. Being rather spirited and bookish, high society bores and frustrates her. She believes that a man’s character is more important than his wealth, so when she meets a handsome commoner with refreshing ideas her heart will shiver for the first time. But what if this charming man is hiding something? Will Lavinia have the courage to accept the truth when it comes to the surface?
Samuel, an honorable Viscount, is tired of ladies chasing him just for his title and wealth and wishes to avoid this season at all cost. When the time comes, he and his friend concoct a marvelous plan: Samuel will disguise himself as a commoner, and find out who likes him for his character and not for his title. His plan will change unexpectedly when he meets a beautiful lady, who disdains nobility… Does he have any chance to change her mind and win her heart, without revealing who he truly is?
Samuel knows that he is playing with fire, with the beautiful and opinionated Miss Lavinia Beaumont. But as the stakes are raised, and the deception deepens, they must face the truth about themselves or risk losing any chance of love or happiness. Can they find a way to finally resolve their differences and eventually reveal themselves, as they truly are?
“Falling for the Mysterious Viscount” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.