Marion’s fingers trembled with anticipation. A positive outcome at tonight’s musicale would set the tone for her first Season in London.
“There, there, Mary Berry, it will be over soon enough,” her father whispered. “Remember, it does not matter what anyone here thinks.” He gave her tightly clasped hands a comforting pat.
The assembly hall continued to fill to its capacity. It was overheated, and Marion felt the pull to find a dark corner in which to hide.
Her mother, Lady Gwen Watt, held up her oriental fan to mute her voice. “Don’t be naive. What they think is everything.”
The slight motion of her mother’s head and pointed eyebrows drew Marion’s attention to the distinguished Lady Mowen seated on the row behind them. The woman managed to make even her mother nervous, though Marion knew her by reputation only. Several other persons of affluence and rank were in attendance as well. By the end of the night, she was supposed to know whom to avoid and whom to impress.
“Miss Marion Watt will now play ‘Piano Concerto no. 24 in C Minor’ by Mozart on the pianoforte.” The announcer made her name sound very droll and unimportant. Marion made her way to the large ebony instrument in the front of the room, only too aware of the many eyes following her.
She took her seat and poised her fingers expertly atop the ivory keys. This was her comfort—what she lived for. It was the people who unnerved her. The music hall wasn’t a courtroom, but she was on trial. Her jury was exceptionally well-dressed, without a straight face among them. Her talents would be measured, analyzed, and compared to those of the other eligible ladies of the ton. The verdict: unknown.
Marion’s gaze momentarily flitted from face to face, where it unconsciously settled on the strikingly handsome Lord Everton. This was bad luck indeed. It seemed even he, as unacquainted with her as the rest of them, intended to scare her with his brooding eyes and popular opinions.
Was it her imagination, or did his expression dare her to give him a reason not to leave? Lord Everton was notorious for never staying longer than necessary at any social function. Gluing her eyes to the glossy wood of the instrument before her, she almost laughed. Even the best of musicians could not keep his attention. It was unlikely his sensibilities inclined toward music at all. She wouldn’t dream herself capable of impressing the Season’s most sought-after bachelor. But just the same, it was a challenge she accepted. If Lord Everton did appreciate her performance, then she would know the depth of her talent.
She plucked the first notes softly, with practiced grace. After several measures, the melody erupted, and Marion lost herself in the beauty the composer intended. Years of training and devotion poured through her. Her hands danced in symphony to the music they created. The song progressed toward a difficult passage.
Generally, Marion’s steady fingers never faltered, but her concentration broke when suddenly a tall figure stood to leave. Out of the corner of her eyes she connected the identity with Lord Everton. Every head turned to follow the infamous bachelor as he left the room.
She had not been good enough. A tremble of embarrassment caused her to miss a note and then another. Horrified, she tried to regain the flow of the music, but her nerves stole away every ounce of her confidence. It was all she could do to finish her selection and fumble back to her seat beside her parents.
Despite her father’s whispered attempts to placate her with his compliments, her mother’s frenzied fanning made Marion squirm in her chair. She was relieved when the last piece concluded, and her father escorted her mother to retrieve some light refreshments. Marion thought about joining them but froze in place when she found herself within earshot of Lady Mowen and her companion. It was pointless to ignore their conversation, as the two made little attempt to subdue their voices.
“Because her mother married outside the peerage and reduced her circumstances, Miss Marion’s only hope for a successful marriage of means falls on her own shoulders. And with a face so shy and unremarkable, her abilities to impress a gentleman at all are brought into question.”
Marion saw Lady Mowen’s thick cheeks bounce with the nod of her head. “I daresay her sad performance tonight demonstrates a lack of poise and skill that comes rather naturally to most young ladies these days. I’m surprised her mother, as sister to the Duke of Bellcrest, did not see properly to such things.”
“I quite agree,” the first woman said in a voice loud enough for half the room to overhear. “I predict Miss Watt’s first Season will prove fruitless. It’s very unfortunate for the entire family.”
Marion’s heart plummeted in her chest. In one night, her hopes of a good marital match had evaporated. She’d not only embarrassed herself but her mother, who had painstakingly poured years of time and money into preparing Marion for her entrance into society.
She blinked back moisture from her eyes and committed to never play her music in public again. Burying her talent hurt more than the reality that she was unqualified to marry well. She’d grow to be an old maid if it meant avoiding a cut from a respected gentleman like she’d experienced tonight. She did not need love. But she did need her music. Now she had neither.
“Don’t listen to a word they say.” Marion turned to see Lady Clara Hampton, Lord Everton’s very own sister, take the seat beside her, a small plate of refreshment in her hand. Clara gave her a timid but encouraging smile. “They always critique the newest out in Season, and their reports are rarely positive or entirely accurate.”
Like her brother, Clara was often the subject of drawing-room conversation. It was common knowledge her dowry was unmatched, but her reserved nature prevented her from speaking to almost anyone. Marion could relate to her struggle with shyness and had often wished to know her better. But she could not think of a reason Clara would suddenly approach her. They had been introduced but once.
“Thank you,” Marion said, suppressing her surprise, “but I fear they are accurate in their summation of me.”
“Then we are alike and perhaps destined to be good friends. I cried myself to sleep for an entire week after I took my bows. But let my tears have been for the both of us, and pray, forget tonight.”
Clara was a tall, petite, and feminine version of her brother, though her fair features weren’t as striking. But surely Clara’s resemblance to her brother did not make them the same in character. There was a kindred look in her eyes, and Marion sensed the making of a wonderful friendship.
If only Clara wasn’t the daughter of an earl. Their circles crossed only occasionally with her own mother’s family connections.
“My cheeks feel permanently stained with embarrassment,” Marion admitted, ducking her head. “Perhaps it will improve my unremarkable face.” Her attempt at joviality made Clara giggle.
“Yes,” Clara said, inspecting Marion’s features, “I believe your blush is very becoming. I have the mind to pinch my own cheeks for want of color.” Tension slowly slipped from Marion’s shoulders. At least someone found her acquaintance worth having.
“Are you sure you ought to sit here?” Marion blurted without forethought. Her cheeks burned with shame.
“I find myself very happily situated, thank you,” Clara said, her voice sounding oddly confident.
The significance of Clara’s friendship and affluence did not escape Marion. It was a merciful gesture at a timely moment. She thought she might salvage some of her evening after all, but then Clara brought up her brother.
“I wish my brother would have stayed longer. He’s been terribly restless since returning from the West Coast of Africa.”
“Africa?” Marion asked. It was the polite thing to do. “William spent the last year assisting in the clearance of ships.” When Marion’s expression remained blank, Clara elucidated. “To suppress the slave trade. It’s all very noble. We thought he’d miss Christmas, but now that he’s home, it’s like he’s still absent.”
Marion’s mother didn’t like her discussing matters of state, but she devoured any tidbits she happened to overhear. “Travelling aboard a warship sounds rather fearsome.”
Clara nibbled on a bite of cake and then swallowed before saying, “I don’t much care for politics, and William calls me ignorant for it. It’s my father who holds the family seat in parliament, but my brother campaigns where and when he can.” She leaned forward to whisper, “He’s a Whig. His forward-thinking can be quite unsettling, which is exactly why he needs to spend more time at little functions such as this.”
“To distract him?” Marion suggested weakly. Clara’s head bobbed up and down. It was strange the way Clara confided in her as if they had known each other for years. Indeed, it felt as if they had.
“My parents are convinced marriage will settle him as he prepares to accept his future role as earl,” Clara said. “Only, it seems not a soul tonight came close to tempting him.”
Her words were not meant as a personal attack, but Marion’s heart was in a vulnerable state. The sting in her chest buried deep inside her. Why she should feel such contempt toward a man she’d never spoken to, nor aimed to make as a personal acquaintance, confused her greatly. It was a hard truth to realize she was not enough to even tempt a man.
One year later
The doctor left the Watts’ London townhome with a solemn expression. Marion had been strictly prohibited from hearing the final prognosis. She knew her parents wanted to protect her, but if she was old enough to spend another year in a futile search for a husband, then she was old enough to know the truth about her mother’s health. Marion tucked her chocolate- brown hair behind her shoulder and, in an act of defiance, pressed her ear against the crack in the door of her parents’ room.
“But she’s my only child. I want to give her everything.” Marion recognized her mother’s voice coming from her bed.
Mr. Watt’s footfalls were audible as he moved to his wife’s side. “Oh, my love, you must take your health seriously. The fact of the matter is, the late nights of the London Season are too taxing for you.” “I assure you, I will be well. This is only a spell.” “You and I both heard the doctor,” her father argued. “Your heart is weak, and your body needs periodic rest. I’m not saying we need to return home just yet. We’ll reduce the number of invitations we accept. Only, unless we find someone to act as companion to Marion, I fear this will be her final Season.”
Marion clutched the collar of her nightgown. A weak heart? A few months before, a terrible fever had nearly claimed her mother’s life. Surely they would not lose her now. Marion had barely endured the first crisis, and now her own heart thudded with fear.
“No,” her mother said. Her voice was strained with emotion, but resolute. “I will die first. We will come again and again until I see her married and comfortably situated.”
Stepping away from the door, Marion tiptoed back to her room, where she slipped inside. Emotion from the news dragged a choking sob from her throat. She was sure her mother would deny herself rest until Marion was married. After a fruitless first Season, there wasn’t any guarantee this one would be different. It was already early March. She was risking her mother’s heart with every delay.
The only solution lay in securing a match as soon as possible. Marion reviewed her few prospects in her mind. Two gentlemen called regularly, but, in all honesty, she wasn’t exactly encouraging them. At nineteen, she should be ready for any marriage, but she still hoped for the more uncommon love match like her parents’. She had promised herself as a youth to marry only for love or to grow old searching. But connection or not, she would try harder for her mother’s sake.
She took a fortifying breath and marched to the small writing desk by her bedroom window. She pulled out her journal and made a succinct list. She would no longer hide in the shadows at the dances. She would engage in conversation when spoken to by a gentleman. And she would finally let her mother have full rein with her wardrobe. She blew on the wet ink and sat back with a sigh. It was not going to be easy to secure a husband. What were the chances someone else would be in as great a hurry as she now was?
Nothing was more enjoyable to a young lady of society than a ball. Even Marion anticipated the rush of being spun around in a dance, if the music was adequately performed. Unfortunately, Harriet Barnsworth’s coming- out yielded more of a crush than a dance. Marion’s perfect opportunity to enact the first stage of her plans now seemed rather pathetic, considering her goals were to not hide and to dance more.
Marion found herself pushed closer to her mother, who was listening to an acquaintance’s opinion of the evening.
“Did you see the color of Miss Barnsworth’s dress? Soft pink, and what a daring neckline for a family in mourning.” Marion had forgotten the gossipmonger’s name. But she too had noticed the way every gentleman’s head turned toward the lovely lady.
“If not for the circumstances, the mourning period would surely have seen its full fruition,” her mother said. “Being that the death of Miss Barnsworth’s brother forced the family to delay her debut until so late in the Season, it is understandable that every expense be taken to make up for it.” Leave it to Marion’s mother to diplomatically address the woman’s attack.
Marion tired quickly of the discussion of the Barnsworths and absently searched for Clara before remembering she’d not come to London this year. Marion drifted from her mother’s company in search of another dear friend, Agatha Grimes. The swarm of people forced her to stand alone like a wallflower whilst she waited for a path to open. A wave of body odor drifted her way, and she wrinkled her nose.
While desperately fanning herself with her nearly empty dance card, Marion scanned the room again. She had danced twice already, but not many gentlemen gave her a second glance. She hoped Mr. Mason would be in attendance, but it seemed her favorite escort hadn’t been invited.
She was lucky to be there herself. Marion’s father was a respectable gentleman, but it was her mother’s connection as sister to the Duke of Bellcrest that had earned their invitation tonight. Having an untitled father and a smaller dowry to her name put Marion at the disadvantage in settings such as these.
The crowd opened, and Marion made a beeline for Agatha. She was sitting exactly where Marion had seen her last at a small table, having refreshments with another friend, Beatrice Garner.
“Marion! Your peach gown becomes you very well. Come and sit with me.” Agatha took Marion’s hand and pulled her toward the open seat beside her.
“Only for a moment, Agatha. My mother will be upset if she sees me avoiding the dancing for long.” Truly, she yearned to just sit and visit, but more than ever she felt a fervent urgency to meet as many gentlemen as possible.
“Nonsense. Beatrice and I are avoiding the dancing, too, and aren’t we a happy pair?”
Agatha was a sweet and pretty thing but despised large parties. And Beatrice was six and twenty with a quiet elegance but was often neglected by the gentlemen simply because of her age. Yet, Marion’s friends did seem happy, which only encouraged her to take the seat by them.
“Are you unwell?” Beatrice addressed her with a nurturing eye. Marion’s shoulders were tight with worry for her mother’s health and her own resolution to secure a husband. Mr. Mason’s absence only added to those unsettled feelings. If news of her desperation got out, she would risk ostracizing herself from eligible gentlemen. She required her friends’
good-natured conversation to change the tone of the evening for her. “A little overheated to be sure, but I am perfectly well.”
“It is good you are in health, or you would have missed the social engagement of the Season,” Agatha said. “Miss Barnsworth’s turnout will go on the record, and we’ll hear of nothing else for weeks.”
Beatrice agreed. “The Barnsworth family will be quite pleased with tonight’s success.”
Agatha rolled her eyes. “They thrive off attention. It’s a good job they live here, or we’d have to force their swollen heads through the doors at the end . . .” Agatha’s voice faded as she caught sight of the new arrivals entering the ballroom.
Marion followed Agatha’s line of vision. The Earl of Morley, his wife, and his son, the Viscount Everton, were announced. Marion wished Clara was on the arm of her distinguished brother. But it wasn’t the absence of Clara that stole the crowd’s eye. It was the blond dandy. Through Clara, Marion had learned much of their family. The earl held many estates and a small fortune. He was also deemed a significant personage in parliament. But his son commanded his own attention.
Since last Season, his title and wealth had become a secondary topic of conversation to the subject of his shockingly colorful attire and charming looks. More and more gentlemen attempted to mimic his fashion. Lord Everton captivated people wherever he went. Unfortunately, society hadn’t the same effect for him.
“I’ll wager he’ll stay no more than half an hour,” Agatha said. Beatrice’s back remained ramrod straight, even though she shook her head emphatically. “He’ll stay at least two hours if he has any manners at all. It is one thing for a man of his station to choose to make an appearance, but if he does, he must set a prudent example. It’s his responsibility to society.”
Agatha shrugged. “He doesn’t care for rules. He’s the most sought-after man in the marriage mart, and yet no one really knows anything about him. It’s clear he feels no responsibility to anyone but himself. He might be devastatingly handsome, but a man who’s turned down as many well- connected girls as he must not have a wit of sense.”
Marion turned back in her seat to show she did not include herself as one of Lord Everton’s fans. She did, however, feel obligated to speak the truth. “He is intelligent, Agatha, whatever sources may tell you otherwise.”
Agatha’s eyes lit with a spark of curiosity. “Oh, but of course. You and his sister, Clara, were quite close last Season before she married. And what is your opinion of our popular guest?”
“No opinion. I’ve scarcely had more than one or two conversations with the man. Only, I know from Clara he did very well at university. He is not only well-read but speaks Latin, French, and Italian. He’s clearly not dimwitted, but that does not mean he is kind or generous.”
It was all true. Because of her time with Clara, Marion had almost forgiven the man for ruining her love for performing on the pianoforte and was beginning to think him almost decent. But, as he wasted no time at all in ignoring her at every turn, she agreed to do the same. Everyone else might find him the breath of perfection, but she had built up immunity to his class of gentlemen. She was searching for a respectable and grounded young man, not pompous charm.
“No, no it doesn’t.” Agatha said quite conclusively. “And I am inclined to be rather harsh on the subject of his character. He makes a scene with his striped waistcoat and gilded gold buttons, flirts shamelessly, and then leaves before anyone can condemn him of any wrongdoing. Any man who can be both elusive and crowd-stirring cannot be trusted.”
Beatrice smoothed out a wrinkle in the tablecloth. “He is an anomaly, but if you ask me, he’s acting a part. I’ve seen it many times amongst the aristocracy.”
The last thing Marion wanted to do was discuss more of Lord Everton. She had rested long enough, and it was time to rejoin the dancing. She didn’t wait for Beatrice to expound on her strange theory before excusing herself.
Following the edge of the wall, she made her way toward her mother again. It was easier to gain introductions with her mother by her side. She seemed to know absolutely everyone.
Marion stopped mid-step when she realized she was in the direct path of the notorious viscount himself. She would find a way around him. There was no way she would put herself in a position to be snubbed. She’d long known she was beneath him in station, but her connection to Clara made the continued rejection somehow personal.
She turned around only to discover she’d been boxed in by a tight group of young people. Their bodies, whose mouths were in a constant state of chatter, sealed off her escape route. With the wall to one side and the dancing on the other, the only course was the path to Lord Everton.
Agatha had been right to say he never stayed at a party long. It was his signature to leave his company wanting. While Marion was not quite the timid girl of last Season, she wasn’t about to make a fool of herself either. She would not move until he either moved along or left entirely.
Her gaze drifted warily to her mother across the room. The white plume in her mother’s hair waved above the heads in front of her. When the dancing shifted, she realized her mother was speaking with Mr. Mason. Anxiety poured through Marion’s veins. She didn’t love Mr. Mason. Not yet anyway. But she had put him off too many times, and she needed to secure him before he lost interest. He was an amiable man. She’d practically weighed on paper his many attributes and discovered they were compatible enough to be happy.
She saw her mother shake her head, and in return Mr. Mason nodded and walked away. Drat! Would he be able to find her in such a crush?
Lord Everton’s voice dripped rich like syrup, and those around him hungrily ate up every word. Marion fisted her hands at her sides and tried to tune him out. The longer she waited, the more distance Mr. Mason put between them.
“Excuse me, but I see a lady in need of rescuing. Miss Watt is doomed to continue as a wallflower if I don’t offer myself as partner to her.” Lord Everton’s voice could no longer be ignored. His words and her name somehow connected, and in the most rude and unflattering way. Her normally pale cheeks flamed with embarrassment.
Lord Everton’s green-striped jacket caught her eyes first as he placed himself in front of her. His flashy attire faded from her vision as she became arrested by his bright-blue eyes. Her breath almost left her, which was to be expected when faced by such a man. She stilled herself emotionally for further degradation. In referring to her as a wallflower, he had publicly humiliated her and could limit her partners for not only this night but potentially the rest of the Season. His opinion weighed more than gold.
“Miss Watt.” Lord Everton bowed. “You look rather lonely without my sister by your side. Perhaps a dance will cheer you up.”
She hesitated in responding to him. She felt Lord Everton’s friends staring her way, and now the group behind her turned to see who Lord Everton favored. Well, favor was too generous a description--pity fit better. “Come now,” Lord Everton said, closing the gap between them and lowering his voice. “One dance with me, and you will not lack a partner for the rest of the night.”
Considering the source, it was not the most attractive offer, nor was it humbly made. Ignoring the strange sensations in the rhythm of her heart, she pursed her lips tight and leaned toward him as he had done to her.
“One dance with you, and I might lose taste for it altogether.” Her eyes popped open wide at her own words. His eyes mirrored hers, in equal disbelief. A year of ill will toward this gentleman, and her thoughts had bounced out of her mouth without permission.
“Headache, you say?” Lord Everton announced loudly. “Well, we cannot have that. You must retire immediately and rest. It will only grow worse in this noisy chaos. Come, let me escort you to your dear mother.”
Reluctantly, Marion accepted Lord Everton’s arm. Now it seemed every path opened to her. People moved aside for Lord Everton like the parting of the red sea. Marion rather liked the rare feeling of importance, despite its connection to the man whose arm she now clung to.
“Are you not fond of dancing, Miss Watt?” Lord Everton asked as they walked.
“Oh, very much so. It is my choice of partner I am fickle about. Not that either matters now that you have ended my night prematurely.” She could feel his blue eyes on her, but she kept her gaze straight ahead.
“I think Clara would be disappointed you don’t care to stand up with her brother.”
“Clara would be disappointed that her brother publicly insulted her friend.” She locked eyes with her mother as they approached, and her mother beamed with pride. Marion hated to disappoint her. “Thank you for the use of your arm, Lord Everton. Good night.”
Her curt words did little to affect the poised smile on Lord Everton’s face. Apparently, one casualty was nothing to him. He bowed to her and her mother, and then, with an air of grace, turned and walked away.
Marion heaved a sigh. Good night, Lord Everton. And, Mr. Mason, wherever you are.
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