He could not keep his eyes off her.
She felt like pure flame in his arm – as he had discovered during their first dance together. He recalled now the touch of her skin, looking into her eyes, the smell of her so close to him; he was still enthralled even after their eight months of marriage.
He felt lucky; there were very few marriages where the spouses were in love. With her, the match they had made had been the talk of all of London society; their union had been approved by the queen herself.
It is wonderful indeed, he thought, a smile on his face as he imagined twirling her in the center of the dancing area. The faces of the other guests were a blur; at this moment, only the two of them existed.
She seemed to know his thoughts for she turned to him, those mesmerising eyes gazing into his own from behind the mask she wore. Hers was a swan, as elegant and graceful as herself. She raised a hand to his own mask, patting his cheek and running her hand down his jaw. He felt owned by her, allowing her this act. Nothing, he vowed, would tear him from her side.
The masked ball had ended soon after the fourth dance, and they had said their goodbyes to the other guests, thanking Lord and Lady Farrington for the party before they left. Sitting back in the carriage as they returned to the family house in Camden Square, he stared out of the window, enjoying the night air. Turning to the woman sitting opposite him, he smiled at her, noting the lock of hair falling out of place, resting to curl on her shoulder. Illuminated by the lamp inside the carriage, he admitted that she was beautiful indeed.
He was just about to say so when the carriage lurched, throwing him forward from his seat into her. Bracing his arms on the seat to avoid colliding into her, he raised himself to sit beside her, inhaling the sweetness of her perfume in such close proximity.
“My lady,” he murmured apologetically, the sharp rebuke for his coachman dying on his tongue as he gazed at her. “Are you all right?”
“Tis nothing, my lord. Only a little fright…”
The words had barely left her mouth when the carriage lurched again, this time swaying wildly. Reaching out for her, he managed to grab hold of her hand when the carriage swung sharply, throwing him off the cushions. Horror filled him as he heard her cry out in alarm, his fear not for him but for her.
A moment later, there was another jolt, accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. Heart thudding wildly, he tried to regain his balance and hold her from the impact, even as he felt a sharp pain on his arm and the back of his head. There was a cry from outside – presumably his coachman. But his heart thudded faster at the silence inside the carriage, his eyes fluttering shut still trying to make out his wife’s form in the wreck.
And darkness fell…
It was impossible to forget her – he wished never to. Memories long etched in his mind came roaring to the surface.
He took her hand and turned her to face him, the other dancers moving in the alternating steps of the dance while holding the circle. The palm of his left hand on her right high in the air, he trailed his other hand down her shoulder, to curve around her back.
Without warning, he drew her flush against him, his body aware of the softness of hers. And as he gazed into her eyes – their faces mere inches from each other – he was lost by how mesmerizing she was.
“Are you ready, my lady?”
She nodded, and they began to move.
It was almost like they were flying. Guiding her across the room with a dexterity that both thrilled and amazed himself, he felt his heart race with each completed move, each breath, staring into her eyes while their feet skimmed lightly on the floor as he led her expertly through the steps.
She was bold, holding her head up, maintaining his gaze; trusting him to lead and keep her steady.
He drew her closer, bending his head to hers without missing a step to whisper into her ear, “You are an excellent dancer, my lady.”
The music slowed temporarily. Her hands remained on his shoulders as she looked up and smiled at him. “Thank you, Your Grace. And I must admit you are a much better dancer than myself.”
“I cannot claim that assertion, my lady.” They began moving again in a slow circle. “Your twirl was perfect, and you have a dancer’s spirit…and body. Where did you learn to dance?”
“I have always loved to dance. I had an excellent teacher.”
He smiled down at her, wishing to remain here with her, in this moment, for all time…
The memory dissolved into mist.
His Grace, Peter Tavernor, ninth Duke of Talingsdale, shook his head, his mind back to the present. Taking in the room, his wandering eyes flitted over to the portrait hanging in the place of honour above the door, visible from where he sat behind the desk in his study.
Lady Clarissa was beautiful, her face calm as she seemed to stare down at him. The artist had managed to capture her likeness so well, and it felt like she was about to descend from the portrait to touch him.
Yet, despite the brilliance of the portrait, nothing could compare to her physical form. Clarissa was a remarkable lady and her beauty was far more than what brush strokes and paint could ever replicate. She had been perfect.
And she was gone, leaving him with a broken, empty husk of a heart.
Even after two years, the memory of the terrible accident still lingered in his mind, a nightmare that had him sitting awake for hours.
He sighed as he turned to the papers on his desk. There were reports, letters of credit, and his ledgers for matters concerning his estate; and they were causing him a headache.
It was difficult to think; the memory of his first meeting with Clarissa, their first dance at her father’s manor in London, was still very fresh in his mind. When he closed his eyes, he could still see her face, the urge to reach out and touch her was a driving compulsion.
But he could only touch air.
A knock sounded on the door, snapping him out of his reverie.
He bit down a snarl at the interruption. He had become irritable of late; with the heat of the summer bearing down on him, he had stayed indoors, venturing outside at night to watch the starry sky.
There were very few diversions to be found in the countryside.
“Enter,” he answered when the knock sounded again. Hopefully it would be something to take his mind off the business matters he had to attend to.
The door swung open and his steward, Silas, ambled in. His hands behind his back, Silas bowed deeply.
“A good morning to you, Your Grace.”
“Thank you, Silas.” Peter’s eyes caught the thin chain hanging from the other man’s pocket. “Say, what is the time please?”
Silas’ eyes brightened as he pulled out a pocket watch, a look of pride as he glanced down at it. “Tis a half hour to noon, your Grace,” he answered after a moment, returning the watch back into his pocket.
Peter smiled indulgently. His steward was given to flighty notions of fancy and being fashionable. He had given Silas the pocket watch as a gift only last year, and had watched with no small amount of amusement each time the man checked the time.
Silas was growing to be a gentleman himself.
His steward pulled a letter now from his pocket and stepped closer to his desk. “This arrived not long ago for you, your Grace. The lad who delivers the groceries left it with Mr Crompton.”
Peter took the letter from his steward, noting its weight and the paper. Peering closely, he sighed as he recognized the writing on the cover.
It was his mother’s.
How long had it been since she had written to him last? Easter, was it? Or was it last Christmas? His mother had taken up residence in their family home in Bath, preferring the weather there, her circle of friends, and the responsibility of caring for his younger sister, Amelia.
He had not heard from Amelia in as much time too. Last he had heard, she was in her final year in the ladies seminary school in Bath, almost a refined lady, as the letter his mother had sent had recounted.
It was amusing, picturing his little sister in a lady’s dress and sitting still. She had been wilful as a child, and while he had known she would grow out of it, he had admired the spirited, lively creature she had been. Who knew what sort of lady she had turned out after all?
Tearing the envelope open, he glanced quickly through the letter, sighing deeply with each word. His sister had finished her schooling and was set to make her debut into society. And Mother wanted his presence at the event; in London.
Memories of his time in London flashed through his mind. The last time he had been in the city was the most painful he had ever been. Clarissa’s parents, Lord and Lady Stokeworth, had sat with his mother in their London house hours after the physician had announced that his wife had passed away from her injuries.
He had avoided looking at anyone, wondering himself why he had survived the very accident that had claimed the life of his wife and coachman, leaving him unhurt but for a few minor injuries. An accident, the constable had declared, caused by the faulty wheel of the carriage. Yet he had not heard the words, hoping to wake up from the horror of this reality.
Why had he ever agreed to attend the masked ball?
It had been Clarissa’s idea. She had been intrigued at the promise of a magical evening, and had asked him to come with her. He had almost refused, but he was powerless where she was concerned. He could never refuse her anything – even if he wanted to.
In the end, the ball had been magical and he had found himself more in love with her; which should have been impossible as he already loved her deeply. The music, the food, the wine, the fireworks, and the dancers were all wonderful, and he had had a dance with her outside in the Stokeworth gardens. They had twirled under the open air, with the full moon shining radiant down upon them, their witness the croaking frogs and toads in ponds, chirping crickets and birds roosting.
The memory twisted into the terrible crash a few meters away from their London home. In the moment before his eyes had shut, his horror rising as he stared at his wife’s unmoving form, he had never felt so helpless in his entire life. And after Lady Clarissa’s death, nothing had held any meaning for him anymore.
Two days later, his entire family and that of his wife had made the journey to the Tavernor country estate in Talingsdale, where his wife was laid to rest in the family crypt. He had commissioned a befitting tombstone for her:
Lady Clarissa Eloise Tavernor
Duchess of Talingsdale
Beloved Wife, Friend and Companion.
And he had remained in the estate ever since, never returning to London, too saddened with each passing day at the memory of his loss. And now, even after two years, it still seemed like it had been just yesterday.
He sighed, placing the letter on his desk and looking up at Silas who stood with his hands behind his back, a solemn expression on his face.
“Thank you very much, Silas. It would seem,” he inclined his head towards the letter, “that our time here in Talingsdale would be interrupted. My mother has written to inform me of my sister’s coming debut into society, and has asked for my presence in London.”
Silas’ brows shot up in surprise. “You mean, my Lord Duke… erm, that you are to return to London?”
Peter sighed deeply. “Tis not a vacation. We are only to stay for a few weeks, enough time for my sister to make her presentation and be introduced to worthy suitors. After which I intend to return here to continue my work in the estate.” He gave the man a stern glance for emphasis. “Do not imagine that I shall entertain fancy balls or lavish dinners on my journey. You shall manage the estate in my absence, and I do not wish to return to find you wanting. Is that clear?”
“Of course, your Grace. I shall begin preparations at once.” He hesitated momentarily. “Might I ask, Sire, when you intend on departing?”
Peter looked down at the note. “In a week.” And he would have to remain in London for three months at the least. He groaned. It was still too soon, and he would have loved to remain longer here in Talingsdale. How would the ton react to his reappearance after such a prolonged absence?
Hopefully his sister’s presentation would not draw too much attention to him; yet even as he hoped he knew it was mere wishful thinking; the return of the Duke of Talingsdale would be the talk of all of society.
A thought flashed through his mind; what excuses had his mother made for his absence?
It did not matter anymore now anyway. He had a duty to his family, and it fell upon his shoulders as duke of Talingsdale to ensure that his sister made a proper match. He had promised his father on his deathbed to care for his family.
Devotion and honour; their family words echoed in his head.
He would grit his teeth and bear the social events, make the proper introductions for his sister, and steer off would-be rakes and ne’er-do-well gentlemen who would try to take advantage of her naivety.
A deep sigh and he dismissed Silas with a wave of his hand. He had to settle his accounts for the next month, and send for his financial advisor to draw up plans for running the estate in his absence.
The worries of my duchy lie heavy on my shoulders, he thought, leaning back into his chair and lifting his head to gaze up at the ceiling. Thinking of his mother’s letter, his mind conjured up images of heavily powdered, bejewelled and bewigged wraiths.
Georgina Bennington watched with her big blue eyes as her lady’s maid packed the last of her trunks.
The heat of the day was oppressive, rolling down upon the land in stagnant waves as the sun turned its burning face upon them from far above the horizon; then unleashing its sweltering rays upon the city.
“Would you like the yellow dress with the bows, my lady?”
She shrugged at the question. Her maid, Miss Evangeline, held up the dress she had just described, an inquiring look on her face. “I suppose I may need it for walks in the park,” Georgina answered. “You may add it to the others.”
“What would the weather be like in London? Hopefully it will be much more pleasant than the summer,” Miss Evie said, folding the dress neatly into the bag.
Georgina turned to stare out of the window, grateful for the light breeze that blew upon her now. The city of Bath had been unusually hot this time of the year; sitting before the open windows, even with the drapes drawn she held a fan which she cooled herself with, the sweltering heat causing beads of sweat to run down her back, plastering her clothes to her skin.
It was just as well that she had changed her morning dress into something lighter, preferring to remain in her room on the far end of the top floor in the east wing. It was in an effort to cope with the heat that she now sat at her perch in a thin shift that was a welcome relief upon her perspiring skin from the heavier dresses she had brought from London.
Her maid had pulled back the heavy draperies and pushed the windows facing the back of the house, allowing the gentle summer breeze to flow through the room. Still, the cruel flaming tongues of the sun had proved unrelenting, and Georgina sweltered in the heat. Miss Evie, a dedicated maid as ever, had hurried down to the kitchen and asked the cook for some ice from the supply store in the cellar, returning upstairs with a large chunk to her room and, after breaking it into smaller pieces, wrapped them in a linen towel.
Georgina had heaved a grateful sigh as she rubbed the cooling towel over her skin, leaving refreshing wet trails in its wake. With the heat soothed, she had perched cross-legged on a windowsill, shaded by a large tree growing in front of the window. There she lazily stroked the ice-filled cloth along her arms as she observed the summer sky and the animals racing upon the tree, attending to their business while oblivious to their audience.
Georgina draped the ice-laden towel around her neck and leaned her head against the window frame. Closing her eyes, she allowed her thoughts to roam homeward. Her musings helped to distract her from her worries over the upcoming London Season for which she was to make her debut into society.
Her mind drifted to their house in Grosvenor Square. The thoughts were so real that she could almost smell the flowers growing the gardens behind the house and the small crafted waterfall wrought by an artist her father had invited from Germany to remodel the house last year. She recalled the numerous times her father had ridden up the lane to their home, and even fancied that she could hear the slow clip-clop of his horse’s hooves and the familiar creak of a leather saddle as he dismounted at the front of their house.
London had been pleasant then, when she had not had worries of making her debut.
She recalled the discussion she had had with her father two days earlier.
He’d shaken his head. “You cannot stay with me forever. You have to get married and raise your own family. But first you need a suitor, and for that you need to make your appearance and introduction into society. Do you wish to become a spinster?”
Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad, she thought. At least she would be free to pursue her dreams, or whatever caught her fancy. Miss Fumberton was a spinster, but she lived a grand life as an artist. Imagine travelling alone to all the cities on the continent, with no need for a chaperone, or a care for the tongues wagging at her scandalous lifestyle.
But she knew she could ever let her father hear those words.
Instead, she had hung her head in submission. “I do not wish to become a spinster.” She took his hand in hers. “Can’t we stay a little longer, Papa? You would miss the country dreadfully.”
“I would. However, it is more important for me and your mother to that you find a husband. It is our duty to ensure you make a fine –and worthy match. Do you want us to fail?” He had a sad expression on his face as he spoke.
She’d shaken her head; London it was then.
Turning, she saw Miss Evie close the trunk, a look of satisfaction on her face. Finished with her task, her maid set it with the others.
“Would there be anything else your ladyship wants?” she asked.
“Not particularly, no. I just wish I did not have to bear this whole affair.”
Miss Evie had a sympathetic look on her face. “Does the prospect of your debut not seem exciting, my lady?”
It should have, Georgina thought. She had dreamed of the moment where, with other young ladies, she would be presented to the Queen and introduced into society. All her life, she had been trained for that moment, had been taught all the things expected of a lady; how to walk, talk, sit and act as a lady. If she married well, she was expected to be able to run a household as well; her success in all these was largely dependent on her training, and her family had spared no expense.
The Bennington family would demand nothing short of perfection.
Sometimes she felt like screaming at the pressure that came with the entire affair. Would that she was free to make her own choice. At least her mother had assured her that with marriage at least she would have some freedom of her own. But was the cost of that to be found in the bonds of marriage?
But she could not talk about this with anyone, and her maid would not understand. It was her fate then to endure it and bring honour to her family.
“Yes, Evie. I admit I am not as excited as I should be. But perhaps it may be just stress. It will pass and I am sure everything will turn out wonderfully.”
“I believe so too.” Miss Evie smiled.
Georgina admired her maid’s cheery look and gentle disposition. It made her so easy to talk to, and she also knew that Miss Evie was completely loyal.
A sound from outside drew her attention. Her mouth fell open when she saw a bird flitting about a branch before perching on it, hopping to a nest that had been up ahead. Staring in fascination as the bird dropped tiny seeds from its mouth into the nest for its young, she thought of her time growing up in her family home in their country estate in Bath.
The air there was peaceful, idyllic, and wonderful. In the summer it had been beautiful, watching bursts of flowers basking in the sun. She recalled the swaying of branches and leaves falling to the ground in autumn. In spring, she had loved the rain falling upon her, and had played with her cousins outside.
And in winter…
Bath was wonderful at that time, especially when it was snowing. The entire land was covered in a blanket of white. Making snowmen and pelting those cousins of hers had been her favourite pastime, the tingling of snow melting down her back from the snow pellets thrown at her. Those were happy memories indeed.
When she was married, she would not be able to spend as much time at Bensingdale as she had as a child. Would she need her husband’s permission to visit when she wished, for as long as she wished?
“There is one thing I hope for at least,” Georgina spoke after some seconds. Moving from her perch by the windows, she sat on the bed, fanning herself some more. The heat was less sweltering, but not fully gone.
“What’s that, my lady?” Miss Evie had a look of curiosity on her face.
“I may not be as excited as I ought to be for the debut, but I do hope to make a worthy match. I know father would absolutely make sure that I had the right suitors, but I would wish to know the gentleman, to know what he likes, what he does…”
“What he does?” Miss Evie looked confused. “I thought all lords drank and hunted all day?”
Georgina threw a pillow at her maid who began laughing. “I am quite sure that whoever father approves of shall be a gentleman; one beyond any vices or wrongs. A perfect chivalrous man who I shall come to have great affection for.”
“Tis understandable. I am sure Lord and Lady Bensingdale shall make the best decision.”
Lowering her voice to whisper conspiratorially, she leaned closer to her maid, “I do imagine that there should be more to a match than just attraction, no?”
“I do not understand, Lady Georgina? Do you mean you wish for love?”
“Certainly. What is a match without love? I wish to have a marriage not out of convenience, or his title or his family status, but one that I am attracted to, one who will cause my heart to beat faster and my breath to cease when he is near. A man who shall cause me to blush and sigh in contentment when he draws close to me…”
Her words trailed when she saw Miss Evie’s eyes grow wide at her declaration. Georgina could hardly believe herself too. How had she thought of such words? Too much time reading those scandalous French books, no doubt. It was a good thing that no one knew about them but Miss Evie.
“I do not know what to say, my lady,” Miss Evie responded. “I think it is a rather fine notion, to want to have love and affection from a match. I trust you shall find what it is you desire.”
“But how can you be certain?” Georgina fell back into bed, her eyes upon the ceiling. Who knew what the future held for her, what prospects awaited her in the coming months?
She felt a hand on hers and she sat up to see the gentle face of her maid. “It will be fine, my lady. I am certain,” Miss Evie said with a smile.
And somehow, Georgina felt reassured with those simple words.
The next week saw the Bennington household thrown into a frenzy of preparations for their departure to London.
The journey was riotously arduous. Georgina stared out of the coach window at the scenery before her, puzzled at the unrelenting heat. It had been hours since they had departed from Bath, and she could almost say that the heat was determined to remain with them until they arrived in London.
Would the London weather be hot as well?
The London Season were traditionally held during the pleasant spring months from late January until early July. Although it did not get into full swing until March or April, she had never heard of weather such as this during the Season.
Outside the coach, the sun shone through the dusty haze looming above the treetops, tinting the tiny grains of sand with vibrant shades of crimson until the very air seemed aflame. The reddish air offered no promise of rain or respite for a parched and thirsty land. Excessive heat and a lengthy drought had scorched the plains and barren steppes, wilting endless areas of grass down to densely matted roots. But here in the mixed wooded region that they passed through, Georgina noted that the thick forests appeared relatively unscathed by the lack of rain. Even so, amid the voluminous clouds of choking dust stirred aloft by the horses’ hooves, the occupants of the coach and its accompanying vehicle behind still suffered the same as they traversed the area.
In her years of travel throughout the country, Georgina had seen a wide variety of appearances her homeland could present, each one as unique as the changing seasons. The long, brutal winters could be a test of endurance for even the heartiest of men. In spring, the thawing ice and snow created deceptively treacherous bogs, which in times past she had heard proved formidable enough to dissuade even the bravest trackers from hunting the wild geese that migrated from the North.
Summer was a temperamental vixen. Warm, lulling breezes and the gentle patter of rain could placate the soul, but when imbued with dry, scorching temperatures such as those that were presently hampering the land, the season served vengeance on anyone foolish enough to travel beneath its broiling sun, a fact which the Georgina morosely wished her parents had considered prior to leaving their home.
Wearily she braced an elbow upon the corner armrest and, with a trembling hand, clasped a dampened handkerchief to her brow as she sought to dispel the heat and a feeling of nausea, which no doubt was elicited by the writhing of the vehicle. The wild gyrations of the coach remained unyielding as it swept around curves and jounced over deeply rutted roads. While the handkerchief relieved some of the ache, Georgina was convinced that nothing short of the end of the journey would ease the pain throbbing in her temples.
Whisking a slender finger over a puffed sleeve of her gown, she promptly wrinkled her fine, straight nose as dust billowed up from the fabric. The dark green travelling gown dress had been acquired in France at the cost of no small sum, and she could only conclude that after such a gruelling jaunt, the garment’s continued usefulness had been seriously hindered.
The thought caused her to frown, silently railing at the incessant heat. Even now, the late-afternoon sun seemed puckishly bent on punishing her as it cast its blinding rays into the windows, forcing her to squeeze her eyes tightly shut until the coach passed into the cooler, mottled shade of the lofty trees that flanked the road. When she finally dared open them again, a spotted red haze obscured the interior and the other two occupants of the coach.
“Can it be that you are distressed, my lady?” Miss Evie inquired with a concerned look.
Georgina blinked several times in an attempt to focus her gaze upon her loyal maid, who was her traveling companion and temporary protector of sorts. Her maid had cared for her unrelentingly, passing her the dampened handkerchief when the heat was at its worst, with no concern for her own comfort.
With her parents in the coach up ahead, Georgina wondered how they themselves fared in the weather.
“I am hot and thirsty,” she complained with an exasperated sigh. “This unrelenting pace has left me weary beyond belief. For every hour that we have spent on the road, I constantly feel the jostling and ache from the wild gyrations and bumps. Tell me, Evie, do I not have cause to be distressed?”
On the seat opposite her, Miss Evie shifted restlessly, offering mute testimony to her own fatigue. At the moment, the other woman seemed far more fragile than her older age might normally have indicated – Miss Evie was not more than twenty – but then, Georgina was sure her own face showed a similar strain.
“Apologies, my lady,” Miss Evie said simply.
“Whatever are you apologising for? ‘Tis no fault of yours that we have to endure the rigours of the journey. I only wish we would get some respite from it all.”
Miss Evie nodded. “Bear a little more, your ladyship. We shall soon arrive in London, and then a hot shower and some sound sleep will put all this strain to rest.”
Reaching out to hold her maidservant’s hand, Georgina smiled warmly at her. “You are very kind and care for me. Wouldn’t you like to cool yourself as well?” she asked, passing her another handkerchief.
“Thank you, Lady Georgina, but I’m not bothered by the heat.” Miss Evie smiled. “Merseyside is much hotter in the summer, and I grew up there. It made me hardy.”
“Indeed,” Georgina chuckled. Miss Evie seemed rather hardy, in truth, that sometimes Georgina wondered if she had been an ox in a past life.
Stiltedly directing her gaze out of the window, she let her gaze of the rolling fields occupy her thoughts. Considering that further complaints would yield nothing of importance, it seemed advisable for her to retreat into silence and endure the journey without further comment on any subject.
The four-in-hand swept past a thick stand of lofty firs edging the road and, in its wake, left widely spreading boughs swaying vigorously. The coach lurched heavily as the team raced around another sharp bend, and once again Georgina braced back into the plush cushions to keep from being launched into the lap of her maid. Heavy fir branches snapped back suddenly against the conveyance, momentarily startling them.
“What is that?” Georgina asked in alarm as the coach pulled to a stop.
She heard the sounds of men disembarking and doors being opened. Peeking out of the window, she saw the men huddle around the coach in front, the one where her parents rode in. Disembarking with Evie, she hurried to where they stood, covering her face from the dust with the handkerchief.
“What is it, Papa?” she asked when she reached them. “Is something the matter?”
“Tis nothing, my dear; just a minor accident. Two of our horses have thrown their shoes and it will only take a moment to fix them up.”
Georgina sighed, tired all over. She wished now that they would appear quickly in London.
“Do not worry, darling,” Lady Bensingdale said. “Please go back inside the carriage.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, milord,” a coachman said, holding up a horse shoe in his hand. “I am afraid another horse has lost its shoe.”
Could the day become any worse? Georgina wondered silently.
As evening quickly drew near, they were soon on the road again. The pace was more cautious now as the moon cast ominous shadows far ahead of them. Each bend in the road was carefully approached. Still, the air was cooler and far better tolerated than the oppressive heat of the day.
The fields gave way to greying wooden cottages, adorned with painted carvings and fret worked gables which were nestled close behind the trees. Small sheds, gathered like ragged skirts behind the humble dwellings, were joined together with board fences, providing a windbreak against the fierce winds which could savage the land in winter months.
Georgina sighed in relief as stately homes began to appear and the clatter of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones reached her ears. They had arrived in London. The coach made its way quickly now, past the Old King’s road and past the Westminster bridge. The houses were illuminated by candle lamps hanging in the street and in windows, and a few storekeepers were open for a few more hours.
As the carriage turned unto Dofton road, Georgina thought of her memories in London. Playing in the park as a child, and trips to the Royal Art Gallery where she had watched in childlike wonder the beautiful paintings hanging on display. She had been too young to understand art, but in a matter of days, she was to be a lady; a woman.
She smiled at the thought as they arrived at Bensingdale Manor a quarter hour later. She watched the grand house as they entered the driveway. Outside, the servants waited in line as the coaches pulled to a stop in front of the house, bowing and curtsying as her parents, the Marquess and Marchioness of Bensingdale climbed down.
Georgina stepped out of the coach, helped down by the coachman. She looked up and breathed in the fresh air. The driveway of the magnificent Bensingdale Manor was lined with sycamore trees. As she walked the length of it, she admired the gardens and the various trees in them. Hazel, birch, cornelian cherry tree, black poplar, silver maple and others she could not identify, she admitted that it would not be so bad to be here for the coming months.
And the weather was much more pleasant than it had been at Bath.
While her parents spoke with the butler, she watched as the footmen carried their bags inside. Georgina desired more than a mere token washing for herself and settled her mind on having nothing less than a thorough cleansing and a soothing bath for her own sorely bruised body.
“Georgina dear, you must be tired,” she heard Lady Bensingdale say. Turning, she saw that her father was staring at her with concern alongside her mother. “Go upstairs to your room, dear. You must have a hot bath.”
“Thank you, mother,” she replied, dropping to a curtsy before climbing the stairs to her old room in the east wing of the house. Pushing open the door with Miss Evie behind her, she smiled when she saw that a bath had already been drawn, and a fire was burning in the fireplace.
“Thank you, Evie,” she said to her maid who inspected the kind footmen as they arranged her belongings in the room. As soon as they left, Georgina hustled her maid out of the room, much to the other woman’s protests.
“Please, my lady, it is my duty to wait upon you,” she said.
“You should not bother. I am sure I can manage to bathe myself. You take care of yourself now, and I shall ring for you if there is any matter that needs attending to.”
After Miss Evie left, much protesting, Georgina dropped her reticule onto a nearby chair, too tired and bruised to think of anything beyond a bath. She prepared the bath herself in the wooden tub brimmed with steaming liquid. From a small vial she retrieved, she sprinkled droplets of scented oils over the surface and laid out a bar of fragrant soap and a large towel. She ran slender fingers through her hair, coiled the length into a heavy rope, and wound it on top of her head, where she secured the bulk with ornate combs. The topknot loosened a bit, allowing softly curling tendrils to plummet downward onto her brow and neck, but for the most part, the dark mass was held by the combs.
Freeing the ties at her waist, she sent the robe slithering downward with a shrug of her shoulders until she caught it with a swirling motion of her arm and flung it aside. As the garment settled in a billowing cloud on the bed, she paused, testing the heat of the water with a finger. Nothing could be heard beyond the melding murmurs of a crackling fire and trickling water. The heat of the water was just right, allowing Georgina to banish her doubts.
Lifting a foot upon the rim of the wooden tub, Georgina inspected her lower legs, looking for any signs of bruising from the harsh journey. Seeing none, she gave a long, pleasurable sigh as she lowered herself into the scented bath. A delightful interlude passed in which she allowed the steaming water to relax and soothe her aching muscles. After a time, she began to wash and lather soap over her shoulders before progressing to her limbs, working the suds up along her body until she was covered with the whitish foam. Dallying at the task allowed her tensions to fade to near oblivion.
Once her blonde hair was washed, Georgina leaned her head over the edge of the tub and arched her back as she rinsed away the soap with fresh water from a bucket. When she relaxed again in the tub, she leisurely dribbled the contents of a dripping sponge over her shoulders.
She indulged herself in the luxury of the bath until she realized the hour was growing late. Exiting the tub, she wrapped a towel about herself and moved to the window to gaze into the night.
The golden moon nestled like a new born babe within the cradling arms of towering pines, firs, and larches. Gradually the orb weaned itself from its earthly breast and began to climb upward in a wide arc across the night sky. Humbling a myriad of stars with its brilliance, the lustrous sphere condescendingly cast its light upon the earth, setting aglow the rustling leaves of the oaks and birches that lined the road through the village, creating scintillating flashes of light as soft breezes bestirred their branches.
From somewhere in the distance she could hear the tolling of the night bell; the constables were on patrol, and the city had gone to sleep. Yet, Georgina sat for a moment, admiring the night sky as she thought of balls and music and dancing.
The next evening, Georgina lay in her bed reading a book.
It was one she had taken from the family library downstairs, a book on the history of the Danube. Not exactly reading material expected of a lady, but nobody would mind. At least the topic was not a forbidden one.
Tired of waiting endlessly for dinner, she had taken it to pass the time, all the while thinking about the prospects of her coming out. Already she had been to one ball, and while there had been no proper introductions, her mother had assured her that it would soon be well underway.
It was no use bothering herself with thoughts of the future. Concentrating on the book, he let the words distract her from her ideas.
Her maid came to fetch her a while later.
“What is it, Evie?”
Her maid curtsied, her head bowed as her skirts brushed against the floor. “The table has been laid, Miss. Dinner has been served, and Lord Bensingdale has already come down from his study.”
Georgina closed the book she had been reading and rearranged her look in the mirror above the dressing table. It was just two days since their arrival in London, and she already missed her father’s country estate. The loud noises of carriages outside the house had made her prickly the first evening. Now it has begun to fade into the background.
There were other things as well. Little things that she had been accustomed to once before, but now found irritable since her return to London. The air was cooler than it had been in Bath, but there were other things she disliked; the hall was smaller, and the city more crowded than the country.
Her first thought was to convey her displeasure to her father. Most likely he would tell her to bear it patiently. As there was nothing that could be done about it, she decided not to say a word about her protests. It would not do to let her father feel more responsible for her any more than he had to.
Fingers twirling the pendant her mother had given her which now lay on her neck, Georgina strode out of her room and descended down the stairs to the dining room. Her father sat at the table, his shirt folded at the sleeves, speaking to another woman. Georgina recognized the blonde hair piled high, and that slim neck.
“Aunt Elizabeth,” she greeted and the other woman turned to her.
“My darling, come here. Let me see you properly.” Her aunt, her father’s younger sister, Elizabeth Wexton, Dowager Countess of Wextonshire, opened her arms and Georgina walked into the embrace. She closed her eyes, her thoughts on how many times Aunt Elizabeth had held her this way.
“It has been too long, my sweetling,” her aunt cooed, “I was just telling your father here how much I had missed you. Why did you stay away for so long?”
“Oh, Aunt Elizabeth, I missed you as well. But I haven’t been away for so long. I was at your residence at Bath only last spring.”
Her aunt ran her fingers on her face, pinching her cheeks softly. “That was such a long time to me. Come, sit beside me.” She patted a hand on the chair next to her.
Sitting beside her, she piled her plate with some bread and corn while Aunt Elizabeth passed her the ham.
“The Marquis was just telling me about your plans for the Season. You can rest assured it is going to be wonderful, with me here to guide you properly.”
Georgina cast a quick glance at her father who was now very interested in his food. “Papa and mother have made plans for me to be introduced into society.”
Her aunt reached for her hand. “That must be exciting, indeed.”
Georgina averted her gaze. “I am a little afraid that the whole affair might not turn out so well.”
“You have no need to be worried about that, dearest.” Georgina turned around at the sound of her mother’s voice as she took the seat beside Father. Reaching across the table, the Marchioness took her hand and patted it reassuringly. “Your father and I will do everything to make sure that everything turns out well. As it should be. And with your aunt Elizabeth here, you have no fear that you may have a failed Season.”
“Nonsense!” Aunt Elizabeth declared. “There is nothing such as a failed Season, my dear. It is only a matter of precise planning and the right timing. I am sure that you will make a fine introduction.”
Lord Bensingdale raised his head. “Tell her what you told me; about the ball.”
“Oh! I have some exciting news for you.” Aunt Elizabeth squeezed Georgina’s hand, her excitement bubbling as her face became flushed. “The Countess of Hamptonshire, Lady Violet Hampton is hosting a ball in two weeks. It is to celebrate the birthday of her mother, Lady Anne Langford, duchess… I meant the Dowager Duchess of Thistleton. There is to be a feast, and music and dancing, and such wonderful things. Your presentation to the Queen is to be in a fortnight, correct?”
“Yes, indeed.” Georgina’s heart beat at the thought of standing before the Queen.
“Splendid! This is a marvellous idea. It would be the perfect first social event for you after your presentation then.” Aunt Elizabeth said, a wide grin on her face.
All Georgina could think about was not tripping over her feet as she was led before the queen. It was said that the queen was rather stern looking; a rumour she would soon learn the truth of herself.
There was so much at stake here, and for the honour of her family she had to comfort herself with grace and elegance.
Aunt Elizabeth turned to the Marquess. “On that note, Georgina is going to need some new dresses and jewellery for the occasion. I shall accompany her to town tomorrow to pick them from the dressmaker.”
“Oh!” Lady Bensinglade giggled excitedly. “I shall come with. I have some shopping to do on Bond Street.”
“Then we shall go together,” Aunt Elizabeth said.
The Marquess looked dubious. “How would the dressmaker be able to find something for Georgie on short notice?”
“The dressmaker is a personal friend of mine. I had her make some for a friend of mine last Season. Sadly the poor girl never got to have her debut as the family ran into debts and fled London. The dresses still remain, I am sure they should fit quite nicely, and if they don’t, we shall have the madam make some adjustments.”
Georgina felt a slight trepidation as they talked. She had just arrived in London, and now her family was talking about plans for the social Season. She tried to think on the good parts; her evenings would be filled with some of the most anticipated social events in London society.
“I do imagine that I shall see the receipts of your purchases,” Father said, interrupting her thoughts. “I would ask humbly that you do not buy every dress at the dressmaker’s shop. We do not want to be in debt at the end of the Season,” he teased.
“As if that were possible,” the aunt said. “We shall do our best to ensure that we stay with a reasonable budget.”
“Perhaps I shall draw up the budget myself.”
Auth Elizabeth’s eyes flashed in mock anger. “You would not dare put a limit on a lady’s spending.”
Despite her trepidation, Georgina allowed herself a chuckle as the rest of the family began laughing. After a moment, she felt a hand on hers. Looking down, she saw her father’s fingers curl over hers and raised her face to meet his eyes.
“I do not wish for you to have to worry about anything, my dear,” he said. “There is no pressure for you to make a match this Season. There is enough time for that. All that matters now is that you are introduced into society.”
Her father’s words seemed to take some of her anxiety away. If she did not have to worry about making a match, she could actually concentrate on enjoying the Season. After all, a lady only made her introduction once in a lifetime.
“Thank you, Father,” she said, squeezing father’s hand. She felt her mother lay a hand on her shoulder and they began to eat, while talking about plans for the Season.
Georgina smiled at them, her wonderful family. Their presence made her feel safe, secure in the knowledge that she had their support. Not every family was understanding, and her father had just shown her how much he cared by taking away the pressure of her finding a match.
Perhaps the Season would not be as dreadful as she imagined. Or it could very well turn out to be much, much worse. Whatever the outcome, she could rely on her family.