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"Do come to the window, Beatrice," Cecilia Brent urged her sister without turning around. "Tell me if you know who this is. It must be someone important. He's riding the most impressive horse and has a red scarf around his neck."
Beatrice could feel Cecilia's anxiety as clearly as she could see it in her eyes. They might not look alike but the closeness they shared as twins made it easy for Beatrice to know what her sister was thinking. Do I look as good as possible? Is my dress the right style, the right color? Will people like me?
How was it that even when she wasn't smiling Cecilia still managed to be more beautiful than any woman for ten miles? And what in the world could she do, Beatrice wondered, to convince her anxious twin that this house party could be fun?
"I do believe the countess gave us the best suite in the house. We can watch everyone arrive."
"I wish Papa had given us the guest list instead of insisting we memorize it," Cecilia said as she clasped her hands together.
The sitting room's cream and gold colors with pale green accents were lovely and very calming, but they did not seem to be doing anything to allay her sister's nerves.
"Papa meddles entirely too much. Even Roger agrees with me on that, Ceci." Beatrice put her arm around her sister's waist as they both watched the people below perform the practiced choreography of greeting and being welcomed.
"He is your best friend. Of course Roger agrees with you."
"That's true, but he also works with Papa so he agrees with me at his own peril. Roger says that Papa approaches everything as though it were a business merger."
"Some marriages are."
"Yes, but we are here for a party," Beatrice emphasized the word, "and not for a husband."
Cecilia gave her halfhearted nod, the one she used when she wanted to avoid an argument.
Beatrice abandoned the subject. There would be time enough for it later. She concentrated on the man below.
"I do believe that's the heir to the Bendas dukedom. He is on the list as Viscount William Bendasbrook, but I think he has a new title now. His grandfather died last year. Do you recall the gossip? His grandfather was that crazy duke who was always at odds with the Duke of Meryon."
"And then Meryon married his daughter. Yes, I recall. It was like a fairy tale." Cecilia was silent for a moment. "Just think, Bitsy, a man who will be a duke is at our house party!"
"Ceci, Papa could easily buy a dukedom if they were for sale." Beatrice bit her lip again to keep back her next thought. As heiresses we are at least as valuable a commodity as any titled heir. If she spoke aloud it would only add credence to Ceci's idea about marriages as mergers. "This will be fun," Beatrice insisted. "It's the beginning of our lives among the ton."
Which was another thing Ceci said when she did not agree. No big loud arguments for Cecilia Brent, Beatrice thought. It was odd because Beatrice herself quite liked a rousing argument now and again.
Beatrice waited until Ceci looked at her. "But it will only be fun," she added, "if you stop fretting."
Her sister nodded and sighed. "I will try."
"Consider it this way. The next two weeks will be our entrée into a world where every sort of adult intrigue is commonplace. Watching it will be fascinating. And we are the ones to decide if we want to be a part of it."
"You think we are the ones who choose? Not at all. This is a test," Cecilia said flatly. "To see if we fit in."
"Stop, Ceci." Beatrice tried to hide her exasperation. "Of course we fit in." Or at least you do. "We've had an education equal to theirs, clothes from London, a sponsor who is a countess. What more do we need?"
"Better birth? A father who is not a mill owner?"
Ceci did have a way of arrowing to the truth. The Season they had such hopes for was where they would meet the ladies and gentlemen of the ton who measured everyone by their birth, not just by their wealth. So they were, and always would be, a mill owner's daughters.
"We can only hope that the countess's influence will be an adequate substitute." Besides, once the gentlemen of the ton saw Cecilia, her parentage would be the last thing they thought about. Beatrice kept that to herself.
"Hope and pray that I do not break out in spots," Cecilia said with a little laugh, which made Beatrice feel five times better. When Ceci joked about her looks all was right with the world.
Cecilia leaned a little closer to the window as if that would improve her view. "I thought that the viscount was older than we are, but he seems rather small."
"I am even shorter. Perhaps you think I should flirt with him and the two of us should make a match?"
"Not at all, dearest." Ceci's tone was all apology. "Your diminutive size seems perfectly natural for a woman, but for a man it is a bit odd, is it not?"
Beatrice considered him again. "He is said to be unusually short, but the red scarf is actually how I recognized him. Viscount Bendasbrook, or whatever his title is now, always wears one." As she spoke he disappeared from sight. "According to the countess, despite his size he is manly in every way. Quite an adventurer both in the bedroom and out of it. That's the way she described him."
"How would she know that?" Cecilia asked, and then sighed. "I wish I did not sound so shocked. We are nineteen and I should be more sophisticated about such things." She walked over to the dresses that were spread out across the sofa. "Do you think he and the countess had an affaire du coeur?"
"No, I do not. The countess is old enough to be his mother and besides, she was happy in her marriage and has only been widowed for just over a year. I do not think she has taken a lover yet." A blush spoiled her try at a sophisticated comment. "Ladies gossip. Just like we are right now."
"But this is not gossip." Ceci paused and then went on. "Even your Roger would agree with that. This is an exchange of vital information. In fact it would be rude if we did not know as much about our fellow guests as possible. Just imagine what they must know about us." Cecilia examined the dresses and shifted a gown from one end of the row to the other.
Beatrice surveyed the collection of dresses with her sister. The more natural waistline was very flattering on Ceci, on both of them really, and the apricot color of this particular gown would show off her sister's perfect complexion.
"What do the other guests know about us? That we are newcomers to society and are late making our appearance among the ton because we were in mourning for Mama, God rest her soul."
"And that our dear mama," Cecilia finished, "was a school friend of the countess who kindly consented to be our godmother."
Beatrice nodded, for her part desperately wishing that Mama was part of this adventure. The pang of loss still haunted her, but a little less each day. She did not know whether to feel guilty or relieved.
"You make it all sound so simple, Beatrice. What if they think we are posers? What if they think Papa is not enough of a gentleman to associate with? We will be ignored from the first."
"The countess would never invite guests who would treat us that way." Maybe it would be better for Cecilia to worry about their clothes. "Now, tell me what dress I should wear tonight."
"I have no idea." Ceci began to wring her hands again. "Do you think we have the right clothes? Can we wear jewelry or are we too young for anything but pearls? Oh, I do wish this first meeting with the ton was over. A fortnight is a long time to look and be perfect. I do so miss Mama."
"Sweet, dear sister." Beatrice hugged her, rocked her back and forth. So do I, so do I, she thought. She'd always been able to calm everyone, whether the upset was caused by nerves or temper. "Mama is with us in spirit, and you could wear a flour sack and look lovely, and these gowns are perfection. The countess approved of them and even supervised the needlework herself."
She patted her sister on the back before letting her go.
"I'm sorry. I am so sorry, Bitsy. You are right."
Most of the time I am, Beatrice thought, but did not dare say it aloud.
"I am being silly."
"Soon these people will be our friends," Beatrice insisted, devoutly hoping this was another one of those things she was right about. "And then when we go to London for the Season we will know people."
"I will be relieved if they acknowledge us in London. Friendship is too much to ask."
At the sound of wheels on gravel, Beatrice went back to the window, grateful for the distraction. Ceci was considering the dresses yet again.
"Who do you think this is?" The awe in her voice drew her sister's attention instantly.
A singularly handsome gentleman had jumped out of the impressive coach. He was blond, well built, and lithe. He offered his hand to a woman. An older woman. Old enough to be his mother. Then he gave his hand to help a much younger woman down.
"Are they a couple?" Beatrice was surprised at the disappointment she felt as she stepped back from the window, no longer particularly interested.
"No," Ceci said. "At least I don't think so. My guess is that the older woman somehow talked him into escorting them and he is trying to free himself from their grasp already."
"How in the world do you know that?" Beatrice moved back and stood next to her sister. "Yes, I do believe you're right. He's smiling and all that is polite but somehow he has already detached himself from them." How had he so clearly conveyed his lack of interest without being rude? "I have no idea what his name is, but he is surely a gentleman of the ton. He has that way of dismissing someone by his very air."
"Yes. Where do they learn how to do that?"
"It's not an ability that is limited to men born to rank. Papa can do it."
"Yes, he can, Bitsy, but not like this gentleman. With Papa it is quite final. With this man there is an air of regret that hints at next time."
"I think it's called charm," Beatrice said, and they looked at each other, neither willing to say aloud that charm was one thing their dear papa lacked completely. They both returned their attention to the scene below. "We will meet him soon enough."
No sooner had Beatrice spoken than the gentleman looked up.
"Eeek" was all that Ceci said before stepping back, out of sight.
Beatrice did not move, caught by the way the gentleman's smile grew into a grin. He did not look away, but kept watching her.
Beatrice returned his smile, wishing that she could draw. She wanted to catch his delighted expression, his appeal, the way he made her skin tingle. Instead she kept staring at him, committing his face, his smile, to memory, before remembering that she was going to see him any number of times over the next weeks.
Beatrice raised her hand, not quite waving, in a gesture of greeting.
The nameless man swept off his hat and bowed extravagantly without taking his eyes from hers.
Beatrice's smile froze. That was not what she'd intended at all. She had only wanted to make a small sign of friendship. His outlandish bow acknowledged her tiny wave as if she had invited him into her life or even into her bed. She answered his gesture by abruptly pulling the drapes closed.
Still standing in front of the velvet panel, Beatrice concentrated on the elaborate fringe as she instantly banished the mental picture of him naked in the pose of Michelangelo's David.
"Why did you do that?" Cecilia asked.
"Why must some men think every gesture is an invitation to a flirtation? Every man except Roger."
"He is a perfect gentleman," Cecilia agreed.
She wished Roger were one of their party. She would have much more fun with him nearby to discuss ideas and her current readings. But no, he and Papa had to go to London this week. Papa insisted it could not wait. Now she would have no escape from unwanted flirtation. Best not to dwell on it at all, she decided.
"That dress will look awful on you," Beatrice said with as straight a face as she could manage.
Ceci turned to her, panic in her eyes, and then relaxed. "Oh, stop teasing me. It's lovely. But is it too much for the first night?"
"Perhaps we should let the maid the countess hired give us her opinion. She has served the ton for years and I'm sure we can depend on her."
Ceci's long silence gave Beatrice hope.
"Yes, that's a very good idea."
It was as much enthusiasm as her sister had shown all day.
Beatrice kept her expression solemn but mentally clapped her hands and wished she could jump up and down. If Cecilia kept on being this reasonable and listening to her suggestions, this house party would be as much fun as she insisted it could be. Beatrice relaxed for the first time since their arrival.
There was a tap at the sitting room door and a footman came in at her "Enter."
"I beg your pardon, miss, but Mr. Brent would like to see you and your sister before he leaves. He is in the front hall salon if you would like me to escort you there."
The twins exchanged a look and then Cecilia stopped at the looking glass to check her appearance, and Beatrice gathered her spectacles. She could only hope that whatever Papa had to say would not ruin all her efforts at cheering Ceci.
"I've sent for Beatrice and Cecilia so I can give them the written guest list as you asked, but before they arrive I want to know why in the world Lord Jessup Pennistan has been added to the list." Abel Brent set the paper down. Still standing, he folded his arms and waited for the countess's answer.
"Because it is impossible to say no to him." The dowager Countess of Haven folded her arms, imitating him, ready for an argument. When Abel stayed silent, a shocked look on his face, the countess laughed instead.