The Bridemakerby Rexanne Becnel
She's called "the Bridemaker", but Hester Poitevant prefers to think of herself as the gentle facilitator of marital union. Hester's popular Mayfair Academy has helped teach many the awkward society miss how to find her way to the altar with the eligible bachelor of her choice. But while her students flirt and mingle, Hester possesses as a prim widow--rather than… See more details below
She's called "the Bridemaker", but Hester Poitevant prefers to think of herself as the gentle facilitator of marital union. Hester's popular Mayfair Academy has helped teach many the awkward society miss how to find her way to the altar with the eligible bachelor of her choice. But while her students flirt and mingle, Hester possesses as a prim widow--rather than reveal herself as the never-been married beauty she truly is...
He made his fortune in America. Now the dashing, scandalously sired Adrian Hawke is in London, determined to fight off the season's most wily debutants. Adrian isn't fooled by Hester's thin disguise--for she possess the soft, womanly curves no somber gown can hide. The question is, why does she dress like a schoolmarm when she could easily make a better match than any of her student? Adrian vows to reveal Hester's most precious secrets. But what he discovers is a woman with a past more complicated than he could ever imagine--and whose beauty is not just skin-deep...
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This was the part Hester liked best, the part that made all the other less pleasant aspects of her job worthwhile. She fastened the Ainsley family emeralds around Dulcie's neck, then tugged at the tissue-light silk that draped with such deceptive grace across the girl's shoulders and neckline.
"There." She smiled down at her student who, despite her past two months of hard work, looked panic-stricken at the thought of attending tonight's ball. "Are you ready to view yourself now?"
Dulcie heaved a great, woeful sigh, then stared down at her new apple-green gown. "It's a very pretty dress," she admitted. "That Madame Henri you suggested is indeed a most talented dressmaker. But ..." Her voice wobbled a bit. "But," she continued in little more than a whisper, "I hate balls. I hated them last year, and I shall hate them even more this year."
"Now, now. What have we discussed in the past about the importance of attitude?" Hester gave her young charge an encouraging smile. Dulcie Bennett was too plain, too plump, and too shy to make much of a splashin this, her second season. The first season had apparently been dreadful: social gaffes, humiliating disappointments, storms of tears, and a vow by the girl never to attend a party again. Ever.
From what Hester could tell, that had been the first act of self-will the girl had ever evinced. And more than overdue, Hester had decided when she'd heard about it. Fortunately Dulcie's mother, Lady Ainsley, had done as one of her old aunts had advised: she'd engaged Mrs. Hester Poitevant of the Mayfair Academy to properly prepare Dulcie for her next round on the marriage mart.
Hester knew what they said of her, and she took great satisfaction in it. Gossip had it that every girl Mrs. Poitevant coached inevitably became a bride. And more importantly to the harried mamas, the matches were accomplished with a minimum of bother to them.
Some called her the Bridemaker. Others referred to her as a miracle worker, given the raw material she often had to work with. Word was that Mrs. Poitevant could make a stout young lady appear slender, turn a wallflower witty, groom a plain girl into handsomeness, and make a graceless creature endearing. In short, her girls learned how to charm men. The right men.
So long as your daughter had a reasonable dowry attached to her hand, the wags said, Hester Poitevant could get her married with a minimum of fuss and investment. Considering the expense of a second, third, or even fourth season, the fees charged by the Mayfair Academy were actually a great bargain. Hester often made that point when the subject of her fees came up, and it always silenced the protesting papas.
But Hester was not thinking of fees right now. She was thinking, rather, of Dulcie who, despite her outward limitations, was as sweet and loving as a young person could be. Truly amazing, considering that thoughtlesslyblustering brother of hers, and her shallow, self-important mother.
Under Hester's steady stare Dulcie bashfully lowered her eyes. "I know. I know. I mustn't allow myself to speak so negatively about myself."
"Nor think negatively," Hester added. "You have focused so long on your perceived shortcomings, Dulcie, that you quite overlook your lovelier aspects. And in the process you convince others to overlook them as well. Now, turn around. Take a good, long look in that mirror and tell me what you think."
Slowlyreluctantlythe girl complied. Hester caught her breath in anticipation.
As usual Madame Henri had worked wonders with the pattern adjustments Hester had requested. Into the most current pattern of pinch-waisted dresses, Hester had instructed her to add a wider and lower corsage with drapery folds which did not descend completely to the waist. The bodice beneath it and also the skirt were fashioned with several gores piped at the seams with a slightly darker shade of apple-green silk.
As she'd expected, it created an amazingly slimming illusion. Higher heels than normal added to that illusion.
Dulcie's eyes grew huge as she caught sight of herself in the tailor's mirror. Her mouth formed a small, shocked O, and for a long moment she could not speak. Finally she said in a reverential whisper, "It's ... it's lovely."
Hester's eyes danced with glee. "No. It's you who are lovely." Indeed, the dress was even more becoming than Hester had imagined when she'd selected the fabric and patterns. Cream and soft apple green complemented the girl's coloring far better than white and mint. Dulcie's hazel eyes glowed as green as the gown, and her delicate coloring fairly bloomed.
"With your hair styled this wayand that little touchof makeup we applied" Hester added that last in a whisper. "You have become beautiful. Absolutely beautiful."
"Oh." That was all the stunned girl could say as she turned back and forth before the tall mirror. "Oh."
To Hester's satisfaction, a smile began to curve Dulcie's lips. First hesitant, then happy, and finally ecstatic. At the same time the girl's posture straightened, and she relaxed her shoulders as Hester so often reminded her to do.
Dulcie had a beautiful complexion, not a spot or a freckle in sight. She had a lovely bosom and delicate, expressive hands. Plus a beautifully shaped mouth. A longish nose, shortish chin, and a too high brow prevented her being considered pretty. But Hester had had girls with far greater flaws. In truth, she'd rather work with a sweet, plain girl than with a pretty petulant one.
Hester folded her hands neatly at her waist. "I take it you like the dress?"
When their eyes met in the reflection of the mirror, Hester saw the glitter of tears in her young student's eyes. Dulcie nodded, for she seemed unable to speak. But that was all right with Hester. Though she endeavored never to reveal any sign of favoritism, Dulcie was without a doubt the favorite of her students this year. To see her so happy gave Hester a thrill of her own.
But enough of all this sentiment. It was time for the ball.
"All right then." Hester pushed up the spectacles that were always sliding down her nose. "Here's your reticule. And your fan. Now, let's go show you off to your mother and brother, shall we?"
George Bennett, Viscount Ainsley, clearly was struck speechless by his sister's appearance. He'd been impatient to depart for tonight's entertainments so that he could sample Lord Soames's renowned selection of cigarsand brandies. When Hester and Dulcie reached the head of the stairs he was pacing the foyer, slapping his gloves against his thigh and complaining to his mother about tardy females and their endless vanities.
But when he spied Dulcie, his expression mirrored that of his dumbstruck parent: eyes wide and staring; mouth hanging open in stunned appreciation.
As well they ought to be, Hester thought with no small amount of pride. In addition to the handsome gown, Dulcie's hair had been arranged to disguise her high brow. Plus Hester had added a few touches of shadowingdark to shorten her nose, and light to bring her chin forward. And of course the striking green gown and slippers made her look taller and slimmer.
But more than the illusions applied to her person, it was Dulcie's bearing that most altered her appearance. The girl's family might not recognize that fact, but Hester did. The changes to her clothing were all well and good. But it was the confidence they lent the girl, the belief in herself, that made the greatest difference.
Dulcie Bennett had never thought herself beautiful, nor even passably pretty. But tonight she believed it, and so tonight she was beautiful. There was a proud tilt to her head, an excited light in her eyes, and a pleased curve to her lips.
As was her custom with her clients, Hester was attending tonight's event to lend the girl support. But even if she hadn't been planning to be there, Hester knew Dulcie would succeed as she never before had.
Hester paused three steps up and let Dulcie proceed without her. Her family hurried forward, twin smiles on their faces.
"My dear, you look wonderful," her mother gushed.
"Indeed," young Lord Ainsley admitted, recovering his more normal arrogant tones. "You actually look presentable,Dulls. P'rhaps now I can convince Westham to dance with you."
Hester shot him a quelling look. It had only taken two weeks for her to learn to hate George Bennett. He might be handsome and considered by some to be quite a match, but she thought him a selfish boor.
"The dress is lovely," Lady Ainsley said, circling her daughter with an examining eye. "I would not have picked that color, nor such a plain style. But it suits her. Yes. It suits her."
The woman turned toward Hester, and for a moment their gazes held. Then Mrs. Bennett nodded, a concession to Hester's greater skill and knowledge. "Perhaps you and I should take tea tomorrow," she said to Hester. "Just you and I. Why don't you come at four."
Not a request of course, but a demand. Hester gave the woman an aloof smile. "I'm afraid not, Lady Ainsley I've a previous engagement in Portman Square." No need to reveal who her other clients were, only that their address was very good. "Perhaps Friday. Around ten?"
Viscountess Ainsley hated being dictated to, especially by a woman she employed, a woman she looked upon as little better than a tradeswoman. But she agreed to Friday, and Hester knew why. This wasn't the first time a society matron was so amazed at Hester's improvement of her daughter that she sought Hester's services for herself.
Perhaps it was time to elevate her fees, Hester thought as she donned her cloak and gloves. People like Lady Ainsley could certainly afford it.
They took two coaches. One would not accommodate three women's full skirts as well as Lord Ainsley. Hester was only too glad to ride independent of the puffed-up viscount. He and his widowed mother were two of a kind. Self-involved and greedy, with only one view ofsweet Dulcie and her three younger sisters: pawns to be bartered with; potential brides to men who could fatten the Ainsleys' pockets and increase their standing in society.
An earl or his heir for Dulcie. That's what the mother had specified. The brother wanted money and connections.
Neither of them cared in the least what Dulcie might want.
Across from her Dulcie sat, running her small hands along the elegantly piped skirt, fingering her fan, and all the while smiling.
"I see you no longer dread this evening," Hester remarked.
Dulcie averted her eyes, but her smile only deepened. "I suppose not. Though I remain just as nervous."
"You shall do wonderfully well."
"Yes, but ..." Her hands knotted together around the fan.
After a long pause, when all they heard was the metal-clad wheels rattling against the pavement and the busy city sounds as they passed along High Street, Oxford Street, and Regent Street, Dulcie cleared her throat. "There is this particular gentleman, you see."
Aha. Hester idly fiddled with the cuff of her own plain gloves. The first phase of her work with Dulcie, preparing her for the season, was done. The second phase, making her into someone's bride, had begun. "A particular gentleman?"
"Oh, yes." The words were said with such breathless reverence Hester had to suppress a smile. "He is a paragon among men," the girl rhapsodized.
Even by the light of the carriage lantern Hester could see the pink glow that flared in Dulcie's cheeks, making the girl almost pretty. Hester had yet to see Dulcie soinfatuated. She hoped the man was someone suitable.
"So. Who is this paragon of manliness?"
Again came a great, heartfelt sigh. Really, it was like something out of a lurid novel, Hester thought, amused. But her amusement swiftly faded. Hadn't she sighed just that way when she was Dulcie's age?
"His name is Adrian Hawke."
Hester nodded. She'd heard that name several times now. Every year society seemed to fix upon a new darling. Mr. Hawke seemed well on his way to capturing this season's title. "Adrian Hawke," she repeated. "Have you been introduced?"
"Well, no. Not yet. But ... But I'm hoping we will be. Perhaps tonight," she added in a lower voice, as if speaking of some exalted personage and not simply another attractive, unmarried young gentleman.
"Tell me about him," Hester said. She considered it an important part of her work to keep up to date on the most eligible men in society.
Dulcie's round face turned serious. "Well. He's very handsome. Very. And I've heard that he's terribly rich."
Hester pursed her lips. He would not have become society's latest darling if he were not.
"There's only one thing," Dulcie added more hesitantly.
"He's from America." She gave a dejected sigh. "You know how Mother feels about Americans."
Indeed Hester did. The phrases "radical upstarts," "crude provincials," and "untitled nouveaux riches" came to mind. Dulcie's mother was nothing if not a snob.
"But he's not really an American," Dulcie went on. "He was born in Scotland, you see. Southern Scotland. He's certainly not one of those wild men from the north. But he's lived in America for years and years. They sayhe has only come over for his cousin Catherine's wedding."
"If you haven't even met the man, how do you know all this?" But Hester knew how. Gossip during the season had legs of its own, galloping through the ton like a town crier might. Anything new or curious or, best of all, scandalous, was pounced upon, dissected, digested, and inevitably passed on considerably modified from the original truth.
She of all people knew that.
So a rich, handsome American was fair game for the gossipmongers. Hester wondered if the man had any idea what he was in for.
"I don't know. I've just heard about him. That's all. But I've also seen him. He was riding down High Street last week with his uncle, the baron," Dulcie explained. "The family resemblance was much in evidence, though of course he is much younger. And handsomer."
Lord Hawke of Scotland. Of course. His uncle was Baron Neville Hawke, the war hero who was also much respected for the stable he kept and the quality of horses it produced. His daughter's betrothal and upcoming marriage to Lord Findlan's son was considered quite the event of the next several weeks.
Still, an untitled cousin to a baron would never be acceptable to Dulcie's familyespecially her mother. Hester supposed it would be her unhappy duty to discourage any ill-advised infatuation.
The girl went on. "He is extraordinarily handsome, Mrs. Poitevant. I'm certain even you would be affected by his manly bearing."
I doubt that. But Hester kept that ungenerous opinion to herself. She'd learned many years ago that handsome men, or terribly rich ones, or those otherwise gifted with power or influence, were the ones most prone to misuse their gifts. Power had the tendency to corrupt, especiallythe male of the species whom she did not generally hold in very high esteem. That's why she'd never married, nor accepted any of the insulting offers and disgusting propositions made to her. That's why she'd left London in the middle of her second season.
She'd only come back to London several years later when her mother had suddenly died. It was her friend Mrs. DeLisle who'd convinced her to come to work at the Mayfair Academy. But Hester had only agreed after hitting upon the idea of disguising herself as a recent widow.
Respectability and independence, that's all she wanted, and she worked hard to maintain it. Through the academy she took special pleasure in helping other young girls recognize and develop a power of their own.
It troubled her that her young students' powers must be obtained through the judicious use of their personal charms, for she knew beauty was a double-edged sword, as capable of destroying a woman as saving her. Wasn't she proof of that?
But for girls who were protected by their families' names and social standinggirls like Dulcie and the rest of Hester's wealthy clientsbeauty was an invaluable tool. With beauty and charm on her side a woman could negotiate a far more advantageous marriage contract. And an advantageous contract was the only way a woman could gain access to her own money and the attendant power it provided. Women without that benefit too often lived at the whim of the men in their lives, whether father, brother, or husband.
Hester never took for granted that she'd been lucky enough to create her own independence without the necessity of deferring to any man.
"Well," she said as they drew up before the extravagantly lit house on Berkeley Square. "I look forward to meeting this paragon of an American fellow. Meanwhile,we are arrived. Here, pinch your cheeks. And remember to employ your fan gently."
The evening progressed relatively well. Though Hester made it a rule never to dance at these sort of affairs, she nonetheless remained very busy. Another of the girls from her academy was here tonight, Anabelle Finch. So she was doubly vigilant to shepherd them through this, the first of their many social outings of the season. An awkward beginning could spell doom for any of her overly sensitive students. She was determined that that not happen.
But thus far both Dulcie and Anabelle seemed to be managing handsomely. To her satisfaction they both had nearly filled their dance cards. Each of them had invitations to dine with perfectly acceptable gentlemen, though Dulcie's dinner partner was second in line for an earldom, not first. But as Lady Ainsley had so crassly pointed out, since his elder brother was the pale and sickly sort, the young brother might yet inherit.
Hester stood now among a cluster of matrons. Though not truly of their ilk, she was widely accepted among them. After all, they needed her.
She pushed her slippery spectacles up her nose, then frowned down at her dull gray gown. Yes, they accepted her because she was useful, because she did not outshine them in any way.
It hadn't been like that ten years ago. Then she'd been the focus of so many men's attentions that she'd inadvertently alienated most of the other girls and their mothers. They needn't have feared, however. For the men of the ton weren't interested in marrying a girl like Hester, no matter how beautiful she was. With no family connections, no dowry, and a mother of suspect morals, Hester had been the recipient of only one sort of proposal: the lewd sort. Which was why she'd fled London.
She glanced around, noting several matrons who'dknown her back then. Yes, they remembered her. But her "status" as a widow, still grieving her long-dead husband, gave her a sort of respectability she'd never had before. Now that she wore spectacles and a hideous wardrobe to disguise her appearance, their envy had turned to pity. So far as they knew she was a poor widow and no longer a threat to them.
There were times when she chortled over the deception she had so successfully played on them all, another ploy she'd learned from her mother. But there were other times when her dowdy clothes and her carefully woven web of lies chafed.
Tonight they chafed.
It was because the season had just begun, she told herself as she pretended to follow someone's story of the "most marvelous" new shoemaker who'd set up shop on High Street. Absolutely marvelous!
She had three long months of just this sort of conversation to look forward to. Three endless months of propping her girls through every sort of social situation, of directing them toward the sort of men their families would approve, and of dressing herself like a dried-up old woman.
She joined in when the three matrons laughed, though she hadn't heard whatever bon mot fueled their amusement. Perhaps she'd better excuse herself before they noticed her inattention.
But as she meandered toward the refreshment area, her thoughts remained gloomy. The fact was, she practically was a dried-up old woman. Well, maybe not yet old. But dried up? Yes.
She was twenty-eight, pretending to be older and a widow. And all for the sake of her blasted independence. Though she was proud of all she'd accomplished, it had come with one unanticipated cost: loneliness.
She took a cup of punch, determined to throw off thatlast self-pitying thought. Better to be lonely some of the time, than miserable all of the time, under the thumb of some selfish society sot.
A stir near the entrance of the ballroom drew her attention, and she looked up with interest, grateful for the distraction.
Part of her success with her students was due to her attention to the details of society: who was eligible, what their needs were, and how to place her well-prepared girls in the paths of the right men. A new face on the scene made her doubly diligent.
So Hester's every sense went on the alert when she spied a tall, dark-haired man she'd never before seen.
In truth, she did not simply spy him, which implied a casual glance turned a trifle curious. Instead the glance turned into a wide-eyed stare. Forgetting every tenet of her well-honed sense of good manners, she stood there and gaped at the man.
Who was he?
Though he was dressed much the same as every other man in the room, he still managed to stand out. She forced herself to assess why.
His hair was very dark, black even. But then, other men had black hair, thick and wavy.
He carried himself well, straight and confident. Confidence was always an attractive trait for both men and women. It was why she emphasized posture and movement so much at her academy.
His shoulders were wide enough to suggest a blatant sort of masculinity. And his face ... She tilted her head down to peer over the slightly wavy glass of her spectacles. His face was striking. Lean with straight black brows, a bold nose, deep-set eyes, and a wide mouth.
Then he smiled down at their hostess, Lady Soames, displaying a flash of straight white teeth. A wide mouth with a seductive slant to it.
An unsettling little spiral of heat began to curl down low in Hester's stomach. She couldn't look away. A seductive slant and the most sensuous-looking lips she'd ever seen on a man.
The spiral became an alarming buzz.
Oh, no. Not one of that sort. That was the last thing she needed this season. A new man to start all her girls' hearts fluttering. Who was he?
Then suddenly, without being told, she knew. This must be Adrian Hawke, the so-called paragon Dulcie had been mooning over.
Hester watched him press a kiss to some frivolously garbed woman's hand, conscious the entire time of her own increased heartbeat.
This would never do. She of all people knew the inherent danger of men with that sort of virile magnetism. No matter how visceral her response to him, she would not succumb to so base a reaction. Under no circumstances would she allow herself to become affected by him.
But what of Dulcie? And perhaps Anabelle and Charlotte as well. What if they got it into their heads to desire a man like that? Dulcie already seemed half in love with him.
She set her punch cup aside, then knotted her hands together at her waist. It didn't matter who her girls might wish to wed. In the end their parents would make the final decision.
Usually Hester resented that fact; it seemed so unfair. But she accepted it because she had no other choice. When it came to men like this Adrian Hawke, howeverfor that's surely who he must bewell, she was glad her girls must defer to their parents' wishes.
Men like this Adrian Hawke, and a hundred more of his ilk, made terrible, terrible husbands.
With an effort she tore her gaze from Mr. Hawke'selegantly rugged profile. She'd hoped that the most difficult part of her work was done with, now that all three of her students were officially launched. But she could see that she was wrong.
Her only solace was the knowledge that men who looked like Adrian Hawke tended not to waste time on the sort of girls who needed help from the Mayfair Academy.
Copyright © 2002 by Rexanne Becnel.
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