a beauty for the earl's duty
Bridget Atherton stared in numb horror as the creditors entered the drawing room, where she had been sitting and caressing the beloved pianoforte. For a moment, she considered refusing to abandon her seat to allow them to do what it was they had come there to do. It was not her fault, after all, that they were coming in the first place. She had not been the cause of the problems she and her family were now facing, and she found it exceedingly unfair that she was having to sacrifice the few things that brought joy to her life.
However, as her mother and younger sister entered the room, hugging each other and looking at the creditors timidly, Bridget merely bit her lip and moved silently from the grand instrument. It would not do to cause a scene and upset the two women more than they undoubtedly already were.
She clasped her hands in front of her and cast her eyes downward, unable to watch when men began the act of hoisting the pianoforte from the spot where it had sat for so many years, before even Bridget and her sister had been born, and prepared to remove it from their home. She swallowed a lump in her throat, as she heard them murmuring to themselves about the best way to move it through the doorway and down the hall.
Despite knowing the creditors would treat the grand, beautiful instrument as though it was their own, she winced as they went about their work. Helpless, she glanced toward her mother and sister, as though hoping for one of them to suddenly produce a miracle that would allow them to keep the pianoforte. However, the two women stood huddled together in dejected silence, wearing expressions that Bridget felt certain mirrored her own.
Bridget was conflicted. She wanted to comfort them, as she felt was her duty, but she also wanted to shout at them for doing nothing as the men carried on about their business as if the women weren’t there. Deep down, she did not truly blame them, however. But she could not deny the frustration she felt toward her mother.
A few years prior, it had become clear, even to Bridget and Emily, that their father was terribly financially irresponsible. As the young daughters of the Earl and Countess of Brentfield, they were not privy to all the business matters of the family. However, the girls had overheard several arguments between their parents late at night, long after they were supposed to have been in asleep in bed.
Even without the arguments, however, it had not taken the girls long to figure out that something was happening to their family. Their mother had begun telling them they could not buy new dresses, encouraging them instead to make use of gowns they had only worn once or twice. In the previous year, they had stopped buying jewelry to match the gowns they did buy, and Bridget did not miss the worried and ashamed expression on her mother’s face each time she had to deny her daughters what they should have had no trouble affording.
It had been painfully clear that their mother had been aware of the financial troubles. Bridget had naively believed that they must have been due to some of her father’s business deals falling through, which was what he told his daughters on the few occasions they attempted to ask him why they had to wear old gowns and jewelry. But within the last few months, and no thanks to the Earl, Bridget had learned the truth.
The Earl of Brentfield had spent years squandering the inheritance left to him by his late father; the fortune that was supposed to help him care and provide for his own family.
As luck would have it, Bridget had learned of the terrible secret during the previous London Season. She had stood innocently, happy, and hopeful of finding a potential suitor. Yet each handsome duke, earl, and count had passed by her as though she was invisible, and she often returned home from each ball feeling dejected, wondering if she were not beautiful enough. Until one night, she had the misfortune of stepping out on the balcony during a ball at Almack House, where she happened upon three women who were talking in hushed animation. They did not see or hear her, as she had frozen in place, fearful of being spotted trying to hide during the party. The women continued talking, and Bridget learned that her father was not just careless with his spending. Rather, he spent nearly every single evening at gentleman’s clubs, drinking and gambling away their fortune.
He had apparently kept the secret from his wife for several years, by pretending to have late business meetings and telling her the same lie about failed business ventures. However, as the money continued to dwindle, he became unwelcome at all the upstanding, proper gentleman’s clubs, and he had to resort to feeding his habits at unseemly pubs and similar establishments.
Worse still, he had begun to turn to men, who were well-known scoundrels, for loans, and what of their family’s resources did not vanish due to his habits went to paying off those men, to prevent them from putting a price on his head. Once his own reputation became tarnished, that blemish also passed down to his own daughters.
With horror, as she listened to the women talk, she understood why she had had no success in finding a suitor at any of the previous balls. With the full realization that her reputation was in complete ruin because of her father, Bridget had opted to not attend the final two balls of the previous Season, feigning megrims both times, so that her mother would not press her to attend. She could not bear the thought of listening to more people talking about her family in such a way, whether the things people were saying were true or not.
“Oh, Mother,” Bridget heard her sister whisper. “Whatever are we going to do?”
The Countess shrugged, and Bridget thought she had never seen her mother look so helpless.
“What can we do, Emily, darling?” she said, the heartbreak in her voice filling the room.
The creditors stopped, and for one mad moment, Bridget thought they might replace the instrument and leave their family in peace, if only out of pity. But then, they began talking again and changed the method by which they were moving the pianoforte.
Emily put up a hand and put her face into her mother’s shoulder. Unable to stand anymore, Bridget walked quickly over to the other two women, not caring that she bumped carelessly into one of the creditors and pulled her younger sister into an embrace.
“Everything will be alright,” she said, looking over her sister’s shoulder at their mother.
Emily sobbed, and Bridget’s own heartache and anger with her father flared anew.
“This is horrible,” Emily wailed. “How can it ever possibly be alright?”
Bridget squeezed her sister tightly, looking at her mother helplessly. The Countess shook her head and averted her gaze, no doubt feeling ashamed for not having any words of comfort for either of her daughters. Bridget swallowed a fresh wave of anger that was beginning to form toward her mother, reminding herself that, as the lady of the house, she was in no more of a position to change things than her daughters were.
“I do not yet know,” Bridget said. “But I do know that bad times cannot last forever. Perhaps, now that Father sees what is happening to us, he will make strides toward righting everything.”
Emily did not release Bridget, but her sobs began to quieten. Bridget did not know if her sister believed the words she was speaking any more than she herself did, but for the moment, they seemed to be soothing the younger girl.
“I hope you are right, Sister,” Emily said, pulling out of her embrace at last.
The younger woman then turned to their mother and embraced her. Bridget stepped forward, wrapping her arms around them both, biting back her own tears as her mother then put her head on her eldest daughter’s shoulder.
What if I am wrong? Bridget thought, as the creditors at last finished their work and disappeared from the room. What if things only get worse?
Once the creditors had left, the women went their separate ways. Bridget considered following Emily to her room, to try and offer her more comfort, or, at the very least, to have a strict conversation with her mother about what the women could do to prevent more things, or even the home itself, from being taken away from them. But the expressions on their faces were too devastating for Bridget, and, in the end, she decided to simply retire to her own bedchamber as well.
She had not known she was so close to tears until she closed the door behind her. Then, she felt the hot wetness begin streaming down her cheeks. There were no sobs; just torrential tears that would not stop flowing. She stumbled across her room, just making out the shape of the chair by the window through her blurred vision and collapsing into it. With nothing to be done about the dire situation, she spent the rest of the afternoon praying to the heavens, and anyone within who might be listening, for a miracle to save her family.
She chose to not go downstairs for dinner. And, from the sound of her father’s stumbling footsteps and his calling for his wife a few hours later, Bridget guessed that the Countess had done the same. She considered slipping out into the hall, after she could no longer hear her father, to see about her sister. But she saw that the clock read nearly ten o’clock, and she decided it was best to let Emily sleep—if she could.
So, instead, Bridget rose from her chair and walked over to her wash basin to clean the tears from her face. Then, she walked back over to her bed, undressed, and crawled into the inviting blankets. She had little hope of sleeping because her mind was still replaying the scene of the creditors removing the beloved pianoforte from their home.
Just over an hour later, she gave up her efforts to sleep and fetched her journal from the table just beside her bed. She flipped through the pages, carefully avoiding her entries from happier, less worrisome days. She did not want to remind herself of times that she and her family would likely never see again.
When she reached one of the last pages she had written, she stopped. She skimmed the page before her, looking at the list of suitable names belonging to unmarried men of the ton. Truthfully, she had started that page shortly after her debut ball, which had, of course, been a wonderful time in her life. But she had continued it in the following years, and she found it brought her comfort, even in such trying times as the present.
She dragged her finger down the page, reading the names she had written on there. Some of them had been crossed off, which meant she had met the gentlemen and found them to be either uncouth or insufferable. There were others still that she had to cross off because they had recently been married.
As she reached for her pen, she tried to not allow herself to be too disheartened at the ever-shortening list. She noticed some names remained; those of men she had yet to meet and with whom she not interacted at social events. She sighed, realizing that now, many of them would likely never wish to meet her.
As she tucked the journal back into the table drawer and settled back into bed, she could not help wondering if she would forever be writing down names on the page and crossing them off.
“Well, Mr. Vance,” Peter Henderson said, looking at the solicitor with a combination of expectancy and boredom. “It sounds precisely like what Father and I discussed before his passing. As his heir, it was previously established that I would inherit his title, his fortune, his home, and all his business ventures, so long as his partners were willing. So, why are you here?”
The solicitor blinked and shrank a little at Peter’s words. Peter winced inwardly. He often forgot that the people of London were rather more genteel and polite in their dealings than those he was accustomed to. They were not yet familiar with his American straightforwardness and eagerness to get straight to the heart of any business dealings. He cleared his throat and offered the solicitor his best warm smile.
“What I meant to say is that you sounded as though this meeting were very urgent,” he continued, softening his tone. “But it seems that, from everything we have discussed, the matter is as clear and unchanged as it was the day when I spoke with my father about it all.”
The solicitor relaxed visibly and gave Peter a small smile of his own.
“Of course, Lord Hemingford,” he said. “Do forgive me. I simply wanted to be thorough and candid with you about your father’s wishes, including his stipulation.”
Peter nodded, hardly paying attention to the solicitor’s rambling. He was impatient to get the meeting concluded, so that he could go about his day. He still had stacks of his father’s paperwork to finish sorting, and he hoped to do it before nightfall so that he could go to one of his favorite prestigious clubs for a drink. However, before he could respond, something that Mr. Vance said squirmed its way into his mind. He tilted his head and frowned at the solicitor.
“I’m sorry,” he said with a little chuckle. “Did you say something about a stipulation.”
The solicitor nodded, and Peter could not help noticing how proud of himself he looked. The man shuffled through the papers he was holding, pulling a monocle from his jacket pocket, and using it to skim one of the pages. After a moment, he nodded.
“Yes,” he said, turning the page so that Peter could see it. “Indeed, I did, and here it is.”
Peter waited for the solicitor to hand him the paper, but he did not. At last, Peter cleared his throat.
“What stipulation, Mr. Vance?” he asked, his patience with the man once more beginning to wane.
The solicitor realized his mistake and flushed. Then, he once more looked at the page, replacing his monocle, and running a finger across the middle of the page as he reread a passage.
“It would seem that your father has one final request for you to fulfill in order to keep your title as earl,” he said.
Peter blinked and shook his head.
“I do not understand,” he said. “What request?”
Mr. Vance slid the paper across the desk to Peter, hovering a finger over the paragraph he had been studying.
“The Earl has stipulated that you must marry and produce an heir within the next year,” he said, saving Peter the trouble of reading the passage himself. “That is the addendum to the terms of you keeping the earldom.”
Peter’s eyes widened. He looked up from the paper, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Father never mentioned this to me,” he said, more to himself than to the solicitor. The man leaned forward and smiled sympathetically.
“Your father met with me just days before his death,” he said. “He wanted to ensure the legacy of his title, and he felt that this was the best way to do it.”
“He felt that way, or you did?” Peter snapped, his mind reeling.
His father had expressed a desire to see Peter marry on a few occasions, but the last time they had discussed the matter had been at least two years prior to his death. The late Earl had made no mention of such a demand since. His father had seemed confident in Peter’s abilities to take over the earldom, and he could not understand why his father would make such a sudden change without speaking with him about it first.
The solicitor’s sad smile faltered, and he shook his head.
“Forgive me, my lord,” he said meekly. “But it was your father’s idea to meet just before he died. I merely drafted the paperwork at his request.”
Peter took a deep breath, pressing his fingertips against the bridge of his nose. He looked at Mr. Vance and gave him another tight smile.
“It is I who should apologize,” he said. “This just comes as quite a surprise.”
The solicitor nodded, but this time did not relax.
“I understand,” he said, his voice still quiet and nervous. “I do hope this hasn’t caused you any undue distress.”
This has distressed me plenty, in fact, Peter thought bitterly.
He silently cursed his father for doing such a thing, especially without his knowledge. Peter chewed his lip, trying to regain control of his thoughts. There was no refuting what the paper before him dictated. However, with his father no longer living, perhaps all was not lost.
“And what, exactly, would happen, should I choose not to adhere to this stipulation?” he asked.
Mr. Vance blinked and stared at Peter as though he had just spoken in a foreign language. He shook his head and chuckled nervously, still studying Peter’s face, as if searching for something. When Peter’s expression did not change, the solicitor cleared his throat and shook his head, his eyes widening.
“I must advise against that very strongly, Lord Brentfield,” he said. “Your father was very clear and very adamant about this request.”
It was Peter’s turn to chuckle. He looked at the solicitor, unable to believe that anyone could appear so afraid of a dead man.
“I have no doubt,” Peter said dryly. “But since Father is no longer with us, how could he possibly know whether I marry or not?”
The solicitor grew silent, seeming to consider the question. He shook his head again, biting his lip and looking as agitated as he did pensive.
“I really must advise against disobeying your father,” he repeated firmly.
This time, Peter burst into guffaws of laughter. He could not believe he was even considering taking orders from a man he had only just met, courtesy of a father he never even knew. Moreover, he could not believe the man seated before him simply expected Peter to comply, merely because he strongly advised him to do so.
“Why?” Peter asked, dabbing at the corner of his eye. “What difference does it make to you, Mr. Vance? You get your pay no matter what I do, correct? Why should my decisions be of any consequence to you? It is not as though you knew my father any more than I did. I presume he only hired you recently, just before his death?”
Peter sat back, expecting Mr. Vance to look flabbergasted, or even appalled at Peter’s astuteness. However, the solicitor shook his head firmly, looking at the new Earl of Hemingford with confident eyes.
“Not at all, my lord,” he said, shuffling through his papers. “In fact, I knew your father for many years.”
Peter blinked, surprised. He felt his cheeks grow warm, and he began to feel remorse for speaking so harshly. It was not, after all, the solicitor’s fault. None of this was. And it was really none of Peter’s business as to how long his father and Mr. Vance had known each other. He shook his head and once more offered an apologetic smile.
“Please, forgive me, Mr. Vance,” he said. “I was terribly out of line just now.”
The solicitor shrugged and gave Peter a smile of his own.
“It is quite all right,” he said. “I understand how overwhelming all this must be. But I assure you that I knew your father well, and that he spoke very well of you.”
“I very much doubt that,” Peter chuckled, immediately clearing his throat and averting his gaze. “I am sorry, Mr. Vance. Please, continue.”
The solicitor no longer looked timid. Now, he had adopted an expression of warm patience. He tilted his head and smiled knowingly at Peter.
“Admittedly, Lord Hemingford, your father and I did not speak very often about you,” he said. “That is, not until he had these papers drawn up. But I am certain of one thing; he would want you to continue his legacy. It is, after all, your birthright.”
Peter shook his head slowly.
“I do not even understand what all that means,” he said, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t know how the son of an earl is supposed to act, or what is expected of me, with all this newfound fortune.”
The solicitor nodded.
“Well, my lord,” he said gently. “You are no longer the son of an earl. You are an earl. And as to what is expected of you, that is one of the reasons why I am here.” When Peter failed to look reassured, Mr. Vance continued. “Please, my lord, do not fret. Your father kept excellent records of everything, and I am well-versed in many of his matters. I will be happy to assist you in any way I can. But you must heed my advice. You really must follow through with your father’s stipulation.”
Peter sighed. He could see that there was little point in expressing his thoughts to the man in front of him. He knew the solicitor wished to help, but Peter did not believe he quite understood how ill-prepared he was to inherit such a grand responsibility. And he was certainly not ready to agree to something as big as finding a wife and producing an heir.
“Is there anyone else who stands to inherit everything?” he asked. “Did my father prepare a contingency plan if I should be unwilling or unable to fulfill the duties he stipulated?”
The solicitor nodded, but slowly and with caution. He glanced down at his papers, then looked back up at Peter.
“Well, yes,” he said, just as hesitantly as he had nodded. “In the event that you had not come to London to take up your father’s title, your cousin, Cordelia Henderson, would have been next in line to inherit everything.”
Peter nodded. He forced himself to remain stoic faced, but his mind was racing. He had no love for the title of earl, and he knew he could manage quite well even without the grand fortune his father had left him. If there was someone else who could take on the responsibilities laid before him, there would be no harm in allowing that to happen.
His face must have belied his thoughts because the solicitor suddenly leaned forward and met his gaze firmly.
“Please,” he said, “at least consider everything we have discussed here today. Do not give up on your father’s wishes just now. Take some time to think about it. We can meet again, at any time you wish, but I implore you to remember everything I have told you.”
Peter blinked but nodded. If it would get the man out of his office, perhaps he should simply say what Mr. Vance wished to hear, at least for the time being. He could think more on the situation when he was alone, and not being scrutinized by the persistent solicitor.
“Very well,” he said after a moment. “I will take everything you have said into consideration.”
After brief parting wishes of a good day, and a promise that the solicitor would be at his disposable any time, the man left at last. Peter walked him to the front door and, as they exited the study, he thought he heard muffled footsteps hurrying down the hall. When he looked, however, all he saw was one of the maids coming from the direction of the kitchens. After seeing the solicitor off, Peter returned to his study and tried to continue making some sense of his father’s business documents.
Later that evening, one of the servants came to announce that dinner would be served shortly. He thanked the woman and rose from his seat. He realized he was, indeed, quite hungry, so he made his way quickly to the dining room, where his cousin Cordelia was already seated. When he entered the room, she rose from her seat and rushed to his side, embracing him.
“Good evening, Cousin,” she said. “I am so glad that you are joining me for dinner tonight.”
Peter tensed, offering a tight embrace back to the young woman. He had only just met her days before, and her exuberance at his presence was overwhelming.
“Good evening, Miss Henderson,” he said, pulling away from her at his first opportunity.
The young woman smiled and shook her head.
“Please, Peter, we are family,” she said. “I insist that you call me Cordelia.”
Peter nodded curtly, making his way to his seat in hopes of ending the strange interaction. The meal was served a few moments later, and Peter put all his attention on his plate.
As the meal concluded, Cordelia looked up at him and smiled.
“How are you liking London so far, Cousin?” she asked.
Peter was caught off-guard by the question. He had only been in London once since his arrival in England, and he had not spoken to anyone. He shook his head and shrugged.
“I’m afraid I do not yet know enough about it to form an opinion,” he said, smiling sheepishly.
His cousin beamed.
“Well, you have, at the very least, considered attending some of the balls during this Season, have you not?” she asked.
Peter winced. He had not, in fact, thought any such thing. Truthfully, he had temporarily forgotten about the Season, and about its importance to the high society members of London’s ton. However, her words had reminded him of something he had been thinking in the days previously. As the new Earl, he was now responsible for the woman who had become his father’s ward, and it was his duty to see to it that she adhered to the expectations of society.
“I will give it further consideration,” he lied. “However, I very much wish that you should attend the Season.”
Cordelia’s smile brightened, and she nodded.
“That is very gracious of you, Cousin,” she said. “I know it must be very difficult for you to accustom yourself to everything here, and it is kind of you to think of me at such a time.”
Peter nodded, rubbing his forehead with his fingertips.
“It has been a little overwhelming,” he admitted. “But I see no reason why you should not proceed with your life as you normally would. I shall figure out everything in time, I suppose.”
Cordelia rose from her seat and approached Peter, putting her hand on his shoulder.
“Do not worry, dear Cousin,” she said, smiling widely. “I shall be delighted to teach you everything you must know about London society’s customs. So, perhaps I can help you with at least one of your burdens.”
Peter looked up at the young woman and smiled. Even though he did not know her very well, it felt good to have someone who seemed to be compassionate and understanding during a time of such turmoil.
“Thank you, Cordelia,” he said. “That would be wonderful.”
Bridget sat by the large window in the drawing room, taking great pains not to look at the wide, vacant spot where the pianoforte had once stood. In the month since the creditors had visited their home, no one in the family had made mention of the incident. This had infuriated Bridget. It was bad enough that no one would address the reason why their possessions were being repossessed by the creditors. But that her parents could simply go about their days, pretending as though it was not happening at all, was maddening.
Even Emily seemed hesitant to discuss the matter, though Bridget suspected that was because it was as heartbreaking for her as it was for Bridget herself. So, rather than try to speak to anyone in her family about it, she had opted to spend her days sitting in brooding silence, either in the drawing room or locked away in her room. This did little to improve her disposition, but at least she could manage to resist the urge to confront her parents.
With a sigh, she watched two birds flit about and hop after one another on a bush just outside the window. She smiled sadly, envying how carefree and unburdened the creatures were. Sometimes, she forgot that, although her family was in such ruin, the world continued. And, in moments like those, she could pretend, if only for a moment, that all her family’s troubles were just a bad dream, and that the situation would eventually mend itself.
She smiled, placing her hand on the glass of the window. The gesture startled the blue birds, and they flew away, vanishing just as everything else that brought Bridget joy and beauty seemed to be doing as of late. Her smile fell, and she let her hand fall from the glass and idly back into her lap.
“Bridget, darling,” the Countess said, pulling Bridget’s attention to the drawing room door.
Bridget forced her smile to return as she rose to greet her mother, whom she noted was wearing a bright, happy expression.
“Good day, Mother,” Bridget said, kissing her mother on the cheek. “You certainly are in good spirits today.”
The Countess nodded and took her eldest daughter’s hands.
“I have wonderful news,” she said, gently tugging Bridget toward the door.
Bridget could not help giggling at her mother’s glee. It was a rare sight to see the Countess smile of late, and though Bridget could not begin to guess what had made her so happy, she was thrilled to see it.
“Well, what on Earth is it, Mother?” she asked, looking at the Countess in bemusement.
“You shall be attending a ball at Almack House this evening,” the Countess gushed.
Bridget felt the color drain from her face. Her mind raced with the memories of the women gossiping about her and her family at the last ball she had attended. She shook her head and frowned.
“But how, Mother?” she asked.
The Countess held up an envelope, her smile widening.
“You have received a voucher, my dear,” she said, embracing her daughter.
Bridget tensed, pressing her lips together—of course she had received a voucher. Her mother was dear friends with all the patronesses at Almack House. Though the Countess was proud of her friendships with the women, Bridget often wondered if the Patronesses simply saw the Countess and her daughters as charity cases, to be pitied and humored, rather than respected and treated as true friends.
Blushing, Bridget gave herself a mental shake. She had seen many of her mother’s interactions with the ladies of Almack House, all of whom had visited her family’s home for tea on more than one occasion. She knew well that the women truly loved her mother. She also knew that her mother was grateful for their continued friendship and kindness, especially now that their family name had been so terribly besmirched throughout the ton.
Deep down, she held no animosity toward the patronesses. It was her own discomfort and insecurities that made her skeptical of even the sincerest words and gestures. And she had her own father to blame for that.
She did not realize her mother was looking at her expectantly until the Countess gently squeezed her shoulder. Determined not to spoil her mother’s high spirits, Bridget gave the Countess her biggest, brightest smile.
“This is wonderful news, Mother,” she lied. “The patronesses are most gracious, indeed.”
The brightness returned to the Countess’s face, and she tugged at her daughter’s hands once more.
“Come, darling,” she said. “We must get you ready. We only have a few hours before the ball.”
The next few hours passed by in a blur. The Countess had managed to hide a little money from her husband, and she ushered Bridget out and into the family’s carriage. Even though the two women were all but certain that the Earl had already departed for his evening of drinking and gambling, as was his nightly custom, the Countess wanted to slip into town to shop for a new dress for Bridget without risking her husband finding out about her hidden money.
While they were in town, Bridget tried to allow herself to be enthusiastic about buying her first new dress in well over a year, and about the party ahead. However, the voices of the women who had gossiped about her father kept invading her thoughts, and she found that, as each minute passed, she only grew more nervous and dreaded the ball more and more. Still, she tried to make the best of it, and at least enjoy the opportunity of dress shopping.
She and Emily had once loved to shop for new gowns with their mother. Since the family finances had prohibited their expenditures, none of the women had talked much of shopping. Now, Bridget felt as though she could pretend that her father had not caused them so much grief and appreciate the shopping trip, if only for a little while.
A few hours later, Bridget and her mother were heading back to their home with Bridget’s new dress in hand. The Countess spoke excitedly about that evening’s ball, and Bridget felt a wave of guilt that her mother had not had enough money to get herself a new dress too. She understood her mother was still trying to do everything she could to give Bridget an opportunity to find a suitor and get married. She could not bring herself to tell the Countess that a new dress would hardly be the solution to a reputation as sullied and tarnished as that of their family. It would take more than a new outfit to make her appear marriageable.
“Oh, darling,” the Countess was saying when Bridget came back round from her thoughts. “You will have such a lovely time tonight.”
“Are you not coming, Mother?” she asked.
The Countess shook her head sadly.
“No, my dear,” she said. “It would raise too many questions with your father, should he return home and find us both gone. Besides, this time, they only issued us one voucher, for you, at my request.”
Bridget nodded, her nervousness about attending the ball refreshed. It had been frightening enough when she thought her mother would be accompanying her. Now she knew the Countess would not be attending, she was unsure of whether she would survive the night.
The Countess seemed to sense her eldest daughter’s apprehension. She reached across the carriage and took her hand.
“You will be perfectly fine, darling,” she said. “The ladies of Almack House adore you just as much as they treasure my friendship with them. You will have a lovely time.”
Bridget did her best to smile and nod, but she felt numb. She fell silent once more and remained so for the rest of the carriage ride.
Soon, they returned to Brentfield Manor. Bridget suppressed a shudder as her mother ushered her inside and upstairs to help her get ready for the ball. As she had on the trip back from town, she listened quietly as her mother chatted away. This time, her mother’s excitement stemmed from talk of her plans for Emily’s debut ball the following year. Bridget bit her lip, wondering if there would be money to give her younger sister the debut ball she deserved. But, as with everything else to do with their finances, Bridget could not make herself voice the thought aloud to her mother.
Deep down, Bridget knew the Countess must know how bad things truly were and was merely continuing with her plans, so that she did not succumb to the weight of their plight. Perhaps she, herself, should try to approach the upcoming ball that evening with some of her mother’s optimism? After all, things could hardly be worse for her than they already were, especially at social events and in her search for a potential husband. With a little luck, however, things might even begin to improve. Or, at least, so she hoped.
Her mother summoned one of the maids to accompany her to the ball, and they rode to Almack House in silence. Bridget was glad for the quiet, as it gave her time to prepare herself for what lay ahead. She was determined to do her best to smile and appear as though she was having a grand time, if only for the sake of the kind patronesses who had granted her the opportunity to attend the ball. She did not wish to have to add seeming ungrateful to the growing list of things ruining her and her family’s reputations.
As she had anticipated, she spent the first portion of the evening standing alone in the corner of the ballroom. The candlelight from the many crystal chandeliers brightened every corner of the grand room, reflecting off its bright white walls and impressive marble dance floor to an almost blinding degree.
The pillars along the walls were decorated with many bright flowers of the season, and the refreshment table was adorned with silver candelabras and bright, delicious treats. There were lavishly upholstered chairs lined up against the furthest wall, but no one sat in them. Everyone either mingled nearby the dance floor or danced upon it, and all the guests seemed to be having a grand time.
Bridget could not help the pang of envy she felt as she watched the couples dancing and talking. She sighed, trying to maintain her smile, even as longing and sadness filled her heart.
Just then, she got the distinct feeling of being watched. She tried to dismiss it, but it only seemed to intensify. She glanced around the room, trying to seem disinterested as she sought the source of the sensation. It only took her a moment to spy the Marquess of Clovershire looking at her from across the room. Looking was perhaps an understatement. He seemed to have his eyes locked firmly on Bridget, even when other ball guests moved in front of him and temporarily blocked his line of sight.
Bridget recalled that he was one of the men whose names she had written down in her journal. She also remembered he had a reputation of his own. Word around the ton was that he was something of a rogue. It was also rumored that his father had threatened to cut off his allowance if he did not find a wife and start a family.
Bridget was unsure of whether she wanted to become involved with a man who would likely only seek marriage with her to appease his father. However, she also knew that to refuse to consider a person because of rumors and speculation surrounding them, as was the case with herself, was unfair. With her mind made up, Bridget mustered all her courage and gave the Marquess a bright, encouraging smile.
She felt both relief and a terrible flutter of nerves as the Marquess approached her. He was smiling when he reached her, but his eyes held a dull, impish sparkle. She kept her smile as she curtseyed, to which the Marquess bowed deeply.
“Miss Atherton. How lovely to see you here. Would you do me the honor of sharing the next dance set with me?” he asked, broadening his smile.
Bridget took a deep breath and immediately had to struggle against a wave of nausea. She had not noticed until he spoke, but he reeked of alcohol. She realized then that she recognized that dullness in his eyes. She ought to; she had seen it in her father’s eyes plenty of times as of late. Nevertheless, she reminded herself that she was doing this more for her mother and sister than she was for herself. She forced herself to keep smiling and extend her hand to the marquess.
“I would like that very much, my lord,” she said.
The Marquess managed to not stumble too noticeably as they made their way onto the dance floor. However, as they danced, he stepped on her feet more than once, and his speech was slurred and forced out more of his foul-smelling breath.
He also seemed to be struggling to keep his hands positioned properly as they moved. When the dance finally ended, she was relieved. She gracefully moved off the dance floor with the Marquess and politely excused herself.
Despite her previous vow to keep up the appearance of having an enjoyable time, she spent the rest of the evening hiding in one of the corners of the ballroom, praying that Lord Clovershire did not spot her again.
I’m glad that you finished reading the preview. “A Beauty for the Earl’s Duty” is now live on Amazon!