The Black Sheepof the Season
Courtney Everly stood in the far corner of her parent’s ballroom. It was a spot to which she quickly became accustomed since her debut season the year before. In the season and a half following her coming out ball, Courtney had had a grand total of three suitors ask her to dance at all the parties during that time combined. She never even bothered to take her dance card from her pocket any longer. At least then, she could pretend that she was choosing not to dance.
As the middle daughter, the Earl and countess of Greywood would typically be planning to marry her off as soon as the eldest sister, Viola, was married. But as Courtney watched Viola twirl around the dance floor with her fiancé, she knew that would not happen. If her failed Seasons weren’t proof enough, the wide berth that the other ball guests had taken to giving her was. She looked down at her rotund belly and sighed. Who would ever want to be with a woman her size?
She kept a pleasant, warm smile as she focused on her sister dancing with her betrothed. She knew that the ton gossiped about how she would remain a spinster for the rest of her days. And she was determined to make people think she was happy with that notion. But deep down, she longed to meet someone who would love her for who she was.
It is no use, she thought, unable to help noticing people in her periphery pointing in her direction as they talked and laughed. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but she didn’t need to. They were mocking her round figure, accentuated by the fact that she was considerably shorter than all the other women in the ton. I am not beautiful. I will never be beautiful. Not to any man.
She spent a great deal of time cursing her looks. She had the same dark brown hair and bright blue eyes that her mother and sisters had. She had the same porcelain complexion, which was highly coveted by the gentlemen of the ton.
And yet, it seemed she had inherited her shorter height and stout shape from her father. Even as she pretended to be watching her sister dance with affection, her cheeks pinked. She couldn’t think of one other woman with her stature. Why had she been so unlucky?
She continued watching her sister and her soon-to-be brother-in-law dance effortlessly on the dance floor. Worse than watching the grace with which the couple moved was seeing the clear, deep love they had for one another on their faces. It was clear to Courtney that no one else in the ballroom existed to the engaged couple. It was the true kind of love that every young woman deserved. The kind of love that Courtney could never have.
She bit the inside of her cheek to hold back tears. The only thing worse than having the guests stare at her would be to get emotional and make a scene at her sister’s engagement ball. People would do more than stare then, and her family would be more than displeased with her. There would be plenty of time for her self-pity when the ball ended.
As she lamented, she could see her mother approaching from the corner of her eye. At first, she was fearful, thinking that her mother had come to reprimand her for hiding away and further propagating her status as a spinster. But then, she saw that someone was with her mother. A gentleman, to be precise.
She glanced over her shoulder, foolish though that was, to see if by chance her mother and the man were seeking someone else. Of course, there was only the wall behind her. She blushed, turning back to face the pair just as they reached her. Her mother gave her a tight, polite smile and dipped her head graciously.
“Courtney, dear,” she said in the faux sweet voice she only used with Courtney when in the presence of others. “I would like you to meet Robert Marsden, the new Baron of Molesford.”
the Baron bowed slowly, and Courtney curtseyed in kind. She took a moment to assess his appearance. He looked to be a few years older than her, and he wasn’t what would be considered conventionally attractive. But he was tall, and not ugly, despite the graying above his ears and at the bottom of his beard. Courtney noticed that he could use a bit of a trim, but overall, he was not unpleasant to look at.
“It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Courtney,” he said softly, giving her a small but pleasant smile.
“I am delighted to make your acquaintance, my lord,” she said. She didn’t know what her mother was doing, but she knew that her manners were imperative.
Her mother seemed to relax a bit as Courtney and the gentleman exchanged introductions. She stepped back and gave the Baron a kind smile.
“Please,” she said, gesturing to her daughter. “Do not let me interfere.”
Courtney frowned. What did her mother mean by that?
the Baron answered her unasked question straightaway. He bowed again, giving her another mile as he extended his hand toward her.
“Would you do me the honour of sharing your next dance set with me?” he asked.
Courtney flushed. Could it be that her fortune was about to change? Were things finally looking up for her?
“I would be honoured,” she said truthfully.
Her mother smiled at her, almost proudly, for the first time in as long as she could remember, as she took the Baron’s hand. At first, she felt as though she was dreaming as he led her onto the dance floor. She wasn’t even bothered by the stares of the other ball guests, even though she could hear some of them whispering. She felt that she had finally been granted her chance to find love, just as her older sister had.
But as the orchestra began the song and the Baron began moving her around the dance floor, Courtney’s dreams quickly turned to a nightmare. He kept stepping on her toes in shoes that felt as sharp as daggers. When he wasn’t doing that, he was nearly running them into other dancing couples, who were staring as hard as they had been at Courtney standing by herself.
“Forgive me,” he slurred about halfway through the fifteen-minute dance set. “I seem to be a bit out of sorts this evening.”
When he wheezed a laugh, Courtney noticed something she had not before. His breath carried the heavy scent of liquor, and her heart stopped. His speech issues and his clumsy footing had a very distinct cause. It was because he was completely foxed. Worse still, people went from glaring at them briefly as they narrowly avoided colliding with them, to ceasing their dancing and staring at the pair in horror.
Courtney’s heart sank just as quickly as it had previously leapt. She worried that her family was witnessing the spectacle that was her dance set with the Baron. She wondered if her mother had known Lord Molesford was drunk when she introduced him to her. And she prayed that the dance would hurry and end so that she could return to hiding away from everyone. Those who didn’t see the fool he was making of them would hear about it soon enough. She just prayed the ball had ended by then.
When the dance at last did end, she did flee the ballroom. The door to the balcony was open, and she did her best to cling to the shadows along the walls to get to it. She slipped outside, glad to be away from the crowd and the drunken baron, but no less horrified than she had been as he had tripped and bumped his way around the dance floor.
She hid around the corner at the edge of the balcony and put her face in her hands. No matter how desperate she was for a marriage match, the last thing she needed was to be with a gentleman who indulged in spirits the way the Baron clearly did.
But now that she had danced with him, she wondered if her parents would seek to make a match for her with him. Would they really do such a thing, with their own reputations on the line, as well? Or would it be more shameful for them to have a fat, spinster daughter than to marry her off to a drunk?
As the ship approached the London docks, Lucas Northington heaved a sigh that could have changed the direction of the sails. He wasn’t entirely unhappy about returning home. The Grand Tour had served its purpose; he had become a top-notch chess player by competing against some of the best all over the world, he could speak French, Spanish and Italian, as well as Latin and his native English language. And he had insight into how other rulers ran their respective territories. But it had been exhausting, and he would be glad to settle back in with his family for a time.
However, the letter his father had sent him made him wary. His father had clearly stated that he wanted Lucas to return home to start taking over some of the duties regarding the Northgrove dukedom, in addition to his as Marquess of Lyningdale. What he didn’t know was exactly what that meant. His father had been cryptic. Was the Duke ill? Did he expect his eldest son to become duke sooner than Lucas had planned?
When the ship docked, Lucas summoned his valet.
“John,” he said, giving the man a small smile. “See to my belongings. I shall be on the lookout for the carriage that is to take me home.”
John bowed graciously to his master.
“Right away, Lord Lyningdale,” he said.
John hurried away and Lucas followed in line to disembark from the ship. He scanned the crowds of people waiting for their respective travelers. It didn’t take him long to spot a familiar face. He waved, receiving one of acknowledgment in return.
As soon as his foot touched the wooden slats of the dock, there was an arm draped around his shoulder.
“Big brother,” Dylan Northington said, grinning from ear to ear. “It is so good to see you again.”
Lucas pulled his younger brother into a full embrace.
“Likewise, Dylan,” he said, smiling. “Did Eton teach you all about how to run our beloved empire?”
Dylan rolled his eyes, but he was still smiling.
“I dare say that I’m an expert,” he said. “As well as in how to maintain the social class hierarchy.”
Lucas laughed loudly. He hadn’t realized just how much he had missed his brother’s wit.
“Which must mean that you didn’t learn a thing,” he retorted with a chuckle.
Dylan held his head up high.
“Not a single thing,” he said, winking.
Lucas laughed as he patted his brother on the back. When John located them, Lucas let Dylan lead the way to the waiting carriage. The men boarded, waiting for Lucas’s trunks to be delivered by John and the ship crewmen and loaded by the footmen. When the last one was secured, the carriage began moving away from the docks.
Lucas sighed again, but this time it was one of relaxation. He would be glad to reunite with his family. He would be gladder still to sleep in a firm bed that did not move as he tried to sleep. He was not prone to seasickness. But he did find it difficult to get back to sleep when the motion of the waves woke him in the middle of the night. But his relaxed mood was short-lived.
“There is something about which I must warn you, Brother,” Dylan said.
Lucas looked at his brother with amusement, only to find that Dylan’s expression was still warm, but more serious.
“Oh, dear,” he said. “Is something wrong at home? Are Mother and Father all right?”
Dylan chuckled softly.
“They are well, Brother,” he said. “Perhaps, a bit too much so.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Father has been hinting about having us marry,” he said.
Lucas rolled his eyes. He realized that he should have seen such news coming when he first received his father’s letter. But he had believed the reigning duke had simply wanted to give Lucas a better understanding of the duchy, in the event that sudden illness or death befell Peter Northington.
“I do not suppose that he might have just suggested that you marry,” he said, not especially hopeful.
Dylan shook his head and snorted.
“Not at all,” he said. “In fact, while Father has mentioned it to me in passing, it is clear that there will be a higher expectation from you to marry. And soon. You are the firstborn, after all.”
Lucas groaned and shook his head.
“Can’t we have our birth dates switched?” he asked.
Dylan laughed heartily.
“I do not envy you enough, Brother,” he said. “Does this information truly catch you so much by surprise?”
Lucas sighed. Briefly, he explained the letter he got from their father and summarized what it said. Dylan’s expression told Lucas what he suspected.
“I suppose I should have realized that it would include me settling down and finding a wife,” he said woefully.
Dylan clapped him on the shoulder.
“You truly should have,” he said.
Lucas made a face and rolled his eyes.
“I shall marry quickly, just so that the pressure shifts to you, if you aren’t careful,” he said.
“You’ll have to find me first,” he said.
The brothers finished the trip by swapping more stories from their separate education journeys over the past couple of years. Lucas was surprised to learn that Dylan had done some business apprenticing for a gentleman in the coffee industry in London. Lucas tried to teach Dylan a little Italian, but they both found the younger Northington brother’s botched pronunciations too comical to maintain focus. By the time they reached Northgrove Manor, Lucas had almost forgotten about the announcement his brother had made. Almost.
Leonard, the butler, must have been waiting poised behind the large brown oak door. It opened before Lucas and Dylan had even reached it, greeting the brothers with a wide smile.
“Welcome home, Lord Lyningdale,” he said, bowing elegantly.
Lucas smiled and returned the gesture.
“It is good to see you again, Leonard,” he said. “Where are my parents?”
The butler had just stepped to the side to let the men enter the mansion when the Duchess swept up to them, her arms open wide.
“Oh, darling,” she said, enveloping Lucas in a fierce embrace. “I am so glad that you are home.”
Lucas held his mother to him. Even though he had wanted to stay abroad a while longer, he was happy to see his parents.
“As I am I, Mother,” he said.
Blanche Northington pulled away to study her eldest son.
“Oh, I cannot wait to hear all about your time abroad,” she said, ushering both her son’s inside.
“And I cannot wait to tell you,” he said. “But that was quite the trip. I am exhausted.”
the Duchess smiled fondly at Lucas and nodded.
“Of course, dear,” she said, beckoning to some of the servants to fetch Lucas’s things. “I will give you a few hours to rest. Your father and I would both love to hear all about it at dinner this evening.”
Lucas nodded in agreement as he glanced over her shoulder.
“Where is Father?” he asked.
the Duchess linked her arm through Lucas’s and smiled as she led him toward the stairs.
“He is overseeing a business matter in town,” she said. “He will join us for dinner later.”
Lucas nodded again as he followed his mother to the large staircase in the grand hall of the manor. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs, turning to face Lucas once more.
“Go on upstairs, dear,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “I will send someone up to fetch you in a few hours.”
Lucas kissed her in return and smiled.
“Thank you, Mother,” he said.
After giving his brother one final hug, Lucas made his way up the stairs. Fatigue set in more quickly than he expected, and he dragged himself to his bedchambers. The familiar blue drapes and upholstery and oak furniture were soothing to Lucas. As he waited for John to help him undress, he shed his coat and stared out the window. Perhaps it was his gratitude for being off the ship, but the view of his family’s gardens was the loveliest he thought he had seen since he left Italy.
John came moments later and helped him out of his traveling clothes. He then dismissed the valet and saw him out, closing the door behind him. He stretched, surprised that he felt as tired as he did. Then, he collapsed onto his bed and fell asleep immediately.
As his mother had promised, John came to wake him a few hours later. He helped Lucas dress for dinner, then escorted him downstairs to the main dining hall of Northgrove Manor. He could smell the savory roast and potatoes well up the hall, and his mouth was watering by the time he reached the doorway.
Dylan and his parents were already seated when he walked in. His brother and mother both smiled at him, and his father leapt from his seat.
“There is my eldest pride and joy,” he said, pulling Lucas into a fierce hug as soon as he reached his father. “It is great to have you home, son.”
Lucas clapped him on the back, smiling as he pulled away.
“It is good to be home, Father,” he said.
the Duke led his eldest son to his seat and then made his way back to his own. There, he raised his wine glass and indicated for his family to do the same. They did, and then the Duke smiled warmly at his sons.
“Here is to our family being together again,” he said.
The family joined the Duke in a drink just as the first meal course was served. As they began to eat, the Duchess looked up at her youngest son with hopeful eyes.
“You will be staying the night tonight, won’t you Dylan?” she asked.
“I will return home tomorrow,” he said, looking at Lucas slyly. “I wouldn’t miss the opportunity to catch up with my big brother.”
Lucas rolled his eyes, but he was smiling.
“Do you mean that you cannot wait to make up for all the time you haven’t been able to torment me?” he asked. “Or are you just anxious for me to keep showing you up with the language skills I have?”
“When you master English, then I will feel threatened by your other languages,” he teased.
Lucas glowered at him, his shoulders shaking with laughter of his own.
“Hilarious, little brother,” he said.
“Naturally,” he said.
The rest of the evening continued in much the same fashion. Lucas regaled his family with more stories of his travels, and everyone enjoyed them thoroughly. He managed to forget what his brother had told him that their father had to say about his sons preparing for marriage. The laughter of his father and brother were refreshing, and the doting looks his mother gave him were warm and familiar. He could not deny that it felt good to be home.
“Lady Courtney,” Sophia said softly as Courtney stared forlornly out of her bedchamber window. “Which one?”
Courtney returned her attention to her lady’s maid. She had been so lost in dreary thought about her younger sister, Olivia’s, coming out that very evening that she had forgotten that her maid was even there. The red-haired woman was holding up two dresses. One was pale purple and billowy. The other was a darker green that would sit a little wider across her petticoat and, with luck, conceal some of the broadness of her hips.
“The green one,” she said.
Sophia gave her a nod and quickly put back the purple dress. Without another word, she spread out the green dress on the back of a nearby chair and began helping Courtney undress.
In all the time that Sophia had been Courtney’s lady’s maid, she had never grimaced at her mistress’s excess weight or made any unwarranted remarks. Yet she never engaged as much in conversation with Courtney as her sister’s lady’s maids did with them. Courtney didn’t know if the maid judged her as other people did. But she was always glad for the reprieve she got while Sophia helped her, even if she did wish the maid wouldn’t remain so regularly quiet.
When Sophia was finished, she stepped aside. She didn’t meet Courtney’s eyes as she waited for her mistress to look at herself in the mirror. Courtney didn’t bother. She knew that, even with the dress she had chosen, her figure was surely just as pronounced as it always was. Sophia had, as always, pulled her corset as tight as she could. But Courtney knew that trick only worked for thinner women.
Silently, Courtney followed Sophia out of her bedchambers and into the hallway of Greywood Manor. She heard her mother and Olivia before she spotted them standing just in front of Olivia’s bedchamber door.
“Oh, darling,” the Countess of Greywood was gushing. “You look like an angel.”
Courtney’s stomach churned. She had said something similar to Viola on the night of her coming out ball. But Courtney had not been afforded such kind words. In fact, the Countess had appeared ill during the first part of the evening and had pleaded a megrim and retired from the ball early. The only mention that had been made about her debut ball afterward was how disheartening it was that Courtney would likely remain a spinster.
Her relationship with her mother was strained, to be sure, but with her younger sister was all but nonexistent. Olivia and Viola had been very close, and the pair were inseparable from their mother. Courtney, however, was never included in anything the other three did. She always pretended that it didn’t bother her when her mother and sisters ignored her. But deep down, it broke her heart every time.
Courtney reluctantly approached her mother and younger sister, giving them a timid smile.
“You look beautiful, Olivia,” she said. Even though her sister was more often cruel to her than not, she still felt it proper to pay her a compliment. Perhaps, it would at least appease her mother and sister.
the Countess didn’t even look at her middle daughter as she spoke, instead fussing over some nonexistent wrinkles in Olivia’s white satin dress. Olivia, however, sneered smugly at her older sister.
“Of course, I look beautiful,” she said with cold disdain. “I am the diamond of the season.”
Courtney flinched at her sister’s words, but she didn’t say anything more. Instead, she stood back, waiting for her mother and Olivia to be ready. When at last the Countess finished fiddling with her youngest daughter’s dress, the other two women headed for the staircase, nearly knocking down Courtney in the process. She waited for her mother and sister to get a few steps ahead of her, then followed them downstairs.
the Earl was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, gazing up at them fondly. No, Courtney admonished herself. Gazing at them fondly. Her father was no more willing to look at her than her mother had been. She supposed that she couldn’t blame them. She was hideous and Olivia was beautiful. And it was her special night, not Courtney’s.
Still, as her younger sister took their father’s arm, she couldn’t help feeling another pang of envy. Why couldn’t her parents try to be proud of her for something? Courtney had a few skills that were not wholly displeasing. When she was a girl, her parents had at least enjoyed listening to her play the pianoforte. Were those days forever forgotten?
Unheard and unseen, Courtney followed her family to greet all the ball guests waiting in the receiving line. She put on her usual plastic smile, but she didn’t bother saying anything to anyone. Few people paid her any mind, and the few who differed only did so with expressions of disdain and jest. She resigned herself to simply staring straight ahead, not looking at anyone at all as they passed her. Even the ones who made a point of snickering at her.
When at last all the waiting guests had gone into the ballroom, Courtney dutifully followed her family through the room, hiding behind her parents as they formally welcomed everyone to the ball. Then, she stepped further back, pressing herself against the wall as Olivia and her father opened up the dance floor.
While the Earl and his youngest daughter danced, Courtney slipped away to her familiar corner. Everyone was busy watching the Earl and his youngest daughter dance then, so she was able to do so without being seen. Or, at least, so she thought.
As she stood wearing her public smile and pretending to watch the dance floor while she drifted in her thoughts, two young ladies approached where she was standing. Assuming she was as invisible to them as she was to everyone else, she kept staring straight ahead, only glancing at them in her periphery. But when she saw who it was, her heart fell into her stomach.
Martha Rich and Penelope Hanson, Olivia’s best friends, were whispering amongst themselves. She hoped they would just walk past instead of stopping to mock her. They did neither, however. Rather, they stopped just within earshot and, despite angling themselves so she could see their faces, they pretended not to see her.
“Heavens,” Martha said, flippantly tossing a red lock of hair away from her face. “That poor girls’ corset looks rather tight. On any other lady, it would simply look as though she got the wrong size.”
Penelope nodded, her blond curls bouncing as she did so.
“It is quite obvious that she has put on more pounds since last season,” she said. She held up her fan in front of her face, but she continued speaking loudly enough for Courtney to hear her. Courtney did not look in their direction, but her plastic smile wilted a little.
Perhaps, they are not talking about me, she thought, trying to convince herself that the words were true. I must not assume that they are referring to me. They are, after all, close enough for me to hear them.
But even as she offered herself the weak solace, she knew she was lying to herself. Martha and Penelope had never been nice to her. Though they usually treated her as though she didn’t exist, the things they did say to her were cruel and biting. Still, she tried to believe that just maybe, they had chosen another young woman about whom to gossip that evening.
Both women giggled and fanned themselves.
“One thing is for certain,” Martha said, dabbing at her eyes dramatically. “No gentleman in all of London would ever want to be with a woman as plump as Courtney.”
As Penelope punctuated her friend’s malicious words with high-pitched laughter, Courtney swallowed. Of course, they had been talking about her all along. Now, she was as embarrassed by her foolish hope that they weren’t as she was about the awful things they were saying.
“You’re right,” Penelope agreed. “I would pity her, if she didn’t look so utterly ridiculous.”
Courtney felt her face burn crimson and she bit back tears. She couldn’t ignore the hateful women, but she did her best to pretend that she was. Their giggling was like metal on a blackboard to her nerves, and it was all she could do to not flee from the ballroom and hide in her bedchambers.
When two gentlemen approached the cruel women, Courtney held her breath. She was terrified that they were friends of Martha’s and Penelope’s coming to assist the women in teasing Courtney. But instead, the men asked the two women to dance. As the men whisked them to the dance floor, Courtney breathed a sigh of relief.
The things she heard the women saying still stung her, but she was free from having to listen to any more of their insults. Still, she slipped further back, doing her best to blend in with the shadows of the ballroom. If the two horrible women wanted to torment her again, she intended to make it as difficult as possible.
To her delight, the men requested dances from both the young women, not paying a bit of attention to her. They giggled flirtatiously as the gentlemen led them away from Courtney’s space and toward the dance floor. She held her breath, not daring to release her sigh of relief until the women were well out of earshot. Then she sagged, slipping over to the refreshment tables and fetching two glasses of wine. She wouldn’t be seen drinking from both from her little corner. And even if she was, she wouldn’t care.
The following morning, Courtney joined her family in the drawing room for breakfast. She heard the commotion drifting down the hall before she saw her parents and younger sister. When she stepped inside the room, Olivia was bouncing in her chair and holding something paper that she was shaking frantically.
“Mother, Father, look,” she said, her voice rising with each syllable. “You will never believe this.”
the Earl took the paper, which Courtney could now see was a copy of the London Times, gently from his daughter’s hands. the Countess moved closer to her husband, who smoothed out the paper before him and began to read silently to himself. the Countess did the same as Courtney slipped unseen into the room and took a seat closer to the window than to the rest of her family. A moment later, her mother gasped, covering her mouth with her hands.
“Oh, my heavens,” she said, her voice rising to match her youngest daughter’s pitch. “Olivia’s debut has been deemed a grand success.”
Olivia nodded eagerly, not waiting for her parents to finish reading that portion of the scandal sheets.
“But better still,” she said, pausing to draw in another big breath. “The ton has awarded me the title of diamond of the Season.” She barely finished the final word of her sentence before she began squealing again. the Countess abandoned her seat beside her husband and leapt toward her youngest daughter. The two women shrieked with joy, hugging and giggling like school children.
“Oh, my dear,” the Earl said, joining his wife and youngest daughter where they stood, still giving high pitched squeals. “There is none in the ton more deserving than you.”
“We are so very proud of you, sweetheart,” the Countess gushed.
Courtney cleared her throat and looked shyly over at her family.
“Congratulations, Sister,” she said.
No one paid her any heed, however, and the rest of her family continued raving over Olivia. Once again, Courtney was left out of an important thing in her family. She didn’t bother repeating herself or approaching the rest of her family. She merely sighed, resting her head against the wall and looking out the window. At that moment, she wished she could escape the Season to go live in the countryside. After all, why would her family want her getting under their feet now?
Let me know your thoughts!
I’m glad that you finished reading the preview of “The Black Sheep of the Season”. Get it now on Amazon!