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Lady Antonia Lamb stood before the oval cheval glass, a worried frown marring her lovely brow. She was classically beautiful with black-fringed, wide green eyes above delicately sculpted cheekbones and full, generous mouth. With impatient hands she swept the cloud of dark hair that fell past her waist back over her shoulders to reveal high, young breasts thrusting up from her lacy corset.
“They’re so small!” she lamented.
Her maternal grandmother, Lady Rosalind Randolph, put down her chocolate cup and said dryly, “It isn’t size that counts, it’s firmness. The champagne glass was molded from Marie Antoinette’s small breast, which was declared perfection. Much good perfection will do her with the rabble of Paris,” Roz added irreverently.
Her eyes assessed the tall, slim figure of her granddaughter, noting with satisfaction the nineteen-inch waist and the lovely long legs. It brought back memories of her own debut when she had been sixteen.
“The men will be at your feet, Antonia, you haven’t a thing to worry about. The last ball I attended looked like a competition for hideousness. Lady Denham, who’s as thin as a damned lat, wore an exaggerated bosom of stuck-out gauze. She looked exactly like a pouter pigeon and had the absurd idea it was becoming. The Duchess of Bedford was aiming, I think, to copy the Navy’s new colors of blue and white, but her gown was a screaming shade I can only describe as woad. Fortunately no one noticed because they couldn’t take their eyes off her blue, powdered hair, replete with battleship. Damned woman held court for an hour repeating the unedifying eloquence of her hairdresser, Legros, no pun intended.” Roz struck a pose to mimic: “Three weeks is as long as a head can go well in the summer without being opened.”
Antonia’s eyes brimmed with laughter. She flicked a snowy curl on the creation sitting on her dressing table, made a pretty moue with her mouth, and said, “Oh, Roz, I was so looking forward to wearing my first wig, but you’ve quite put me off.”
“Good! They are nothing but monstrous germ gatherers of horsehair, hemp-wool, and powder. I shall thank God when they go out of style, for daytime wear at least.”
“I suspect you are trying to build my confidence. The Duchess of Devonshire is such a renowned beauty and I know her preseason ball next week will overflow with beautifully gowned and bejeweled ladies.” Antonia had little confidence in her looks, in fact she had no idea she was beautiful. All her life whenever anyone had met her they had said things like “How unfortunate you don’t have your mother’s coloring,” or “You are tall as your brother, yet I remember your mother being dainty as a kitten.”
“Not all of them are ladies, darling,” Roz drawled dryly. “Least of all Georgiana herself! Besides, it isn’t the women you’ll have to compete with, it’s the men. ‘Skiffy’ Skeffington’s face was painted with white lead, he reeked of civet cat, and the raffish Carlton House set wore red high-heels to a man.”
“Skiffy, what a preposterous name,” Antonia said, “I can’t wait to see him.”
“Not nearly as preposterous as his real name, poor devil. It’s Lumley,” Roz confided. “I swear he carried a snuffbox, sword stick, handkerchief, fan, head scratcher, patch box, and a muff. He resembled an internal juggler from the circus!”
“You’re exaggerating again. I’m sure he only carries a muff in winter.”
“Oh, no. The very latest fashion in the London Magazine is a summer muff of swansdown. We must get you one when we go up to town next week. It’s all the rage to be eccentric, but then is it any wonder when King George himself is raving mad?” Without seeming to pause for breath Roz said, “Now let’s get Molly in here. I want to see what the new ballgown looks like.”
Antonia could feel excitement beginning to build inside her. Until a few weeks ago, leaving Stoke behind for the London town-house had meant only an opportunity to haunt the bookshops for volumes on stately homes, their furnishings, and gardens that Antonia found fascinating. Then her grandmother, Lady Rosalind Randolph, and her grandmother’s great friend, Lady Frances Jersey, had decided Antonia was old enough for her first season. Suddenly, instead of spending her days riding and sailing with Anthony, her twin, she stood for endless hours being fitted for ballgowns, took dancing lessons, and listened to advice on how to bludgeon eligible young lords into offering for her hand in marriage.
The maid was summoned, the white-and-silver tulle creation was settled over Antonia’s petticoats, her own hair was tucked beneath the fashionably curled wig, the glass cone was held to her face while the white powder was applied, then a patch was selected and carefully placed near her lips à la friponne.
All three heads turned to the doorway of the bedchamber was the unmistakable tread of a boot told them Anthony was returned from riding. With hands thrust into his pockets, the tune on his lips died away as the tall, dark young man stood upon the threshold.
“Tony, is that you?” he asked his twin in disbelief.
His sister dimpled. “Tony, indeed it is me. What do you think?” They called each other Tony, which confused others but never themselves and was precisely the reason they’d done it since they were children.
“I don’t like it,” he said bluntly and without apology.
Antonia’s face fell, her confidence shattered.
“You look like a damned wedding cake!”
“Oh-ho,” Roz teased, “you hear wedding bells and that will deprive you of a first mate to order about on the sailboat. Well, let me remind you, Anthony, that’s a decidedly selfish attitude.”
“I’m a male.” He grinned. “I’m supposed to be selfish.”
“It’s all very well for you, darling. You’ll inherit all this without so much as lifting a finger, but your sister must marry and marry well if she wants a home of her own and a title for her firstborn son.”
He protested, “Roz, we’re only sixteen! The mere thought of marriage terrorizes me.”
“And so it should, you silly boy. You won’t be ready to be shackled for years, whereas Antonia is ripe for the marriage market.”
Antonia did not feel ripe. She felt totally inadequate. Both her grandmother and her mother had captivated titled lords who had whisked them to the altar when they had been her age. She knew she had little chance of meeting anyone here in the country and gave a prayer of thanks that she was being given the opportunity of a London season.
Wide green eyes looked into identical wide green eyes. “The thought terrorizes me also, Tony. I’m nowhere near ready for marriage, although I’m breathlessly excited about all the fêtes I’ll be attending.
“You don’t take after your mother. Eve was more than ready at your age. Set society on its backside and caused the devil of a scandal.” Evelyn had been engaged to Robert Lamb but when his father died and Robert’s elder brother Russell inherited the title and Lamb Hall, she immediately eloped with him and became the talk of the ton.
“I wish our parents would return from Ceylon,” Antonia said wistfully. “I’ve almost forgotten what mother looks like, except that she has blond hair and is very beautiful.”
“That was ten years ago. Females go off in the heat of the tropics,” Anthony said irreverently.
“Not Evelyn,” said Roz. “Her ability to take good care of herself is tantamount to a holy crusade.”
“Roz! Sometimes you give the impression you don’t like mother,” Antonia admonished.
“Mmmm,” her grandmother replied noncommittally. “Molly, you may pack the wig and gown with the rest of Antonia’s new wardrobe. I think we’ll go up to town a day early so you may have twelve hours of rest. Once the season starts you won’t see your bed before dawn each day.”
The summer day was absolute perfection. The warm sun had opened up the profusion of roses and lupins and the light breeze from the south wafted their perfume through the open casement windows of Lamb Hall. Antonia was humming happily, caught up in daydreams of the social whirlpool that awaited her in London. A small bubble of excitement seemed to be expanding in her chest now that her debut approached, and she realized she probably was ready. At least she was ready for powder and paint, high-heeled slippers, and fashionably low necklines. Her very existence was about to undergo a metamorphosis with balls, routs, plays, soirées, galas, masquerades, and ridottos.
Her grandmother had made sure she had had a sheltered upbringing, rather like a country caterpillar, but now the time had come to spread her butterfly wings and attract the attention of suitors. Her parents had set aside money for her dowry and she knew this added to her attraction as did her father’s title, so she was not without hope.
Her eyes fell on the verse she had cut from Le Beau Monde, the fashion periodical, and Antonia read Luttrell’s witty lines again, entitled “Advice to Julia”:
“All on that LIST depends;
Fame, fortune, fashion, lovers, friends:
’Tis that which gratifies or vexes
All ranks, all ages, and both sexes.
If once to Almack’s you belong,
Like Monarchs you can do no wrong;
But banished thence on Wednesday night,
By Jove, you can do nothing right.”
Antonia laughed out loud. She could afford to. Thanks to Lady Jersey, she had her subscription to Almack’s, the exclusive establishment where society’s debutantes met prospective husbands. From her window she could see the boathouse where the lawns sloped down to the River Medway. She caught her breath as a heron winged through the trees, then waded out into the water. She would be gone all autumn and winter. There was much she would miss here in the country.
Antonia loved Lamb Hall with a deep and abiding passion. She had been born here and it was more than just a home. Up until now it had been her whole life. When her parents had gone to Ceylon, the beautiful country estate had represented security to her. The warm red brick covered by dark green ivy had stood there for a century and she knew it would always be there for herself and her brother, and would pass down through generations to her brother’s son, then his son. It was a comforting thought that through people might come and go, the hall would remain a bastion against the storms of life for at least another country.
She knew how much she would miss her wild rides over the meadows and the exhilarating sea when they took out their sailboat, but she knew as well that she would be far too busy for homesickness and wouldn’t give up this opportunity for anything in the world.
A carriage was being driven up the gravel driveway and Antonia watched with curiosity as a gentleman stepped from it and approached the front door of Lamb Hall. She didn’t recognize him as one of her grandmother’s frequent callers, so she went along the landing to the front staircase and was descending just as Mr. Burke opened the door to the stranger.
Her step was light, her spirits high; she had not one hint of foreboding. When she and her twin were ushered into the library, however, and she saw the pinched look in Roz’s face and watched her hands holding the paper tremble, she sensed the stranger was from London and the news he had brought would burst her small bubble of happiness.
“Anthony . . . Antonia . . . this is Mr. Watson of Watson and Goldman, your parents’ solicitors. He has brought us some dreadful news . . . oh dear, I don’t know how to tell you.” Roz’s hand went to her throat.
Icy fingers clutched Antonia’s heart, while Anthony glowered at the man who had dared to cast a shadow over the sunshine of Lamb Hall.
“Father’s ill.” Antonia voiced her premonition.
“Yes, love,” Roz said gently, “his heart . . . but his illness was fatal, darling. I’m afraid he has died.”
“When?” Anthony demanded, rejecting the unwelcome news.
“Apparently in April. It has taken some months for the letter to arrive from Ceylon.”
Anthony held out his hand for the letter. Roz saw the blood drain from Antonia’s face until her pallor was alarming.