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"Oh, Nicky." The Honorable Miss Eleanor Sheridan sighed. "I would give anything to be an orphan, like you. You are so lucky."
Miss Nicola Sparks, far from taking offense at her friend's remark, looked thoughtfully at her own reflection in the great gilt-framed mirror before them.
"Aren't I, though?" she agreed.
Eleanor's mother let out an indignant harrumph. "Well, I like that!" the Lady Sheridan said as she handed a pile of Eleanor's undergarments to the girl's French maid to pack. "I'm terribly sorry your father and I have been so unobliging, Eleanor, in not perishing in a more timely manner."
Eleanor, who stood behind Nicola at the dressing table, examining her chestnut brown curls in the mirror with the same critical eye Nicola was applying to her glossy black ones, rolled her eyes.
"Oh, don't be tiresome, Mama," Eleanor said. "You know I don't wish you and Papa dead. It's only that lucky Nicola gets to pick from a horde of invitations where she'll go now that school's finished, while I have no choice in the matter at all. I've got to spend the rest of my life -- until I'm married, in any case -- with you and Papa and wretched Nat and Phil."
"I can arrange for you to spend the rest of your life with your great-aunts in Surrey," Lady Sheridan pointed out dryly, "if our household is so offensive to you. I am sure they would love to have you."
Eleanor's hazel eyes widened, and she spun from the dressing table to face her mother. "Surrey!" she burst out. "What in heaven's name would I do in Surrey?"
"I'm sure I can't say." Lady Sheridan closed the first of herdaughter's many trunks, then moved to the second. "But I can promise you'll find out if you don't start showing a little more sense. Nicola, lucky to be an orphan, indeed!"
Nicola, roused by this remark from an examination of her new, upswept coiffure -- the first she'd ever been allowed by Martine, her own very strict French maid, who did not believe it was proper for girls younger than sixteen to wear their hair up -- turned around on the tasseled stool upon which she sat, and said to her friend's mother with some gravity, "But I am lucky, Lady Sheridan. I mean, it isn't as if I ever actually knew my parents, so you see, I cannot miss them. They died a few months after I was born. And though their deaths were tragic, at least they perished together. . . ."
"So romantic," Eleanor said with a sigh.
"I hope that when I die, it is like Nicky's parents did, drowning in the river Arno after a sudden storm."
"And though Father hadn't any money to speak of," Nicola went on calmly, as if Eleanor hadn't spoken, "he did leave me the abbey, which provides me with some income -- not much, of course, but enough for a maid and school and new lace for a bonnet now and then, anyway."
Nicola turned back toward her reflection, which, though by no means the prettiest one at Madame Vieuxvincent's Seminary for Young Ladies -- Eleanor surely had the distinction of being the most beautiful girl at school -- no one, with the exception perhaps of Nicola herself, would dispute was anything but pleasing. Nicola found the fact that her nose bore traces of a powdering of freckles, left over from an injudicious river expedition the summer before with neither hat nor parasol, a dreadful shortcoming.
Still, freckles notwithstanding, she was forced to admit, "So really, Lady Sheridan, Eleanor is right. I am lucky. At least I have been, up until now. What shall happen to me next . . ." Nicola bit her lower lip, and watched in themirror as it turned a deep scarlet. Rouge was strictly forbidden at the school -- as, unfortunately for Nicola's freckles, was powder -- and so the girls were forced to resort to pinches and bites if they hoped to achieve the effect of blooming health, though Nicola, with her ivory complexion and ebony lashes and hair, usually managed quite well without such tricks. "I haven't the slightest idea. I suppose now that I'm finished with my schooling, I shall be blown about by life, like a thistle in the wind."
"Well, if you should ever tire of being a thistle," Lady Sheridan said, shaking out one of her daughter's sadly crumpled shawls before handing it to Eleanor's maid, Mirabelle, to press between sheets of tissue, then fold into the trunk before them, “you are always welcome to stay with us, Nicola, for as long as you like."
"As if she would want to," Eleanor cried, turning away from the sun-filled window she'd gone to stand before. "Why, Nicky's had invitations to come and live with some of the richest girls at school! Sophia Dunleavy's asked her. Oh, and Charlotte Murphy. Even Lady Honoria Bartholomew's asked her. Her parents have a town house on Park Lane, and Lady Honoria's got her own curricle . . . not to mention an entire wardrobe copied straight from the fashion plates of La Belle Assemblée, just for her first season out. And her father's an earl -- the Earl of Farelly -- and not a measly viscount, like Papa."
"Good Lord." But Lady Sheridan was not, as one might have thought, commenting on the grandness of Lady Honoria Bartholomew's lineage. "I can't imagine what Lady Farelly could be thinking, inviting a girl like Nicola to stay during her own daughter's first season out. The woman must be mad...An Avon True Romance: Nicola and the Viscount. Copyright © by Meg Cabot. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.