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London10 December, 1876
'Congratulations, dear boy! Well done!' Captain Reid Bowen rose from his seat in the lounge of the gentleman's club in Mayfair and accepted the hearty handshake from his uncle, murmuring his thanks and waving a hand at the leather armchair opposite. 'Would you care to join me, Uncle Percy?'
'Indeed!' He clicked his fingers at a nearby waiter. 'This calls for champagne.'
Reid demurred, with a modest shrug of his broad shoulders. 'Come now, Uncle, let's not go overboard.'
'And why on earth not, dear boy? It's not every day that my favourite nephew returns from India and is promoted to the rank of major!'
'Uncle Percy.' Reid Bowen laughed. 'I am your only nephew!' 'Indeed, indeed you are.'
'And my promotion is not substantive until the spring.' 'Major Bowen, humour an old man, please!' They both laughed and a bottle of champagne was ordered. With his usual generosity Percy, the Earl of Clermount, invited a few fellow club members to join them, but as the last drop of expensive and delightful golden liquid was drained and the gathering dispersed, Uncle Percy turned to his nephew with a gleam in his eye, to broach a subject that had long been a bone of contention.
'Well, now, with your posting as military attache to the Embassy in St Petersburg, you seem to be short of an essential item of kit, dear boy.'
Reid set down his empty champagne flute and looked at his uncle with a puzzled frown. 'And what would that be, sir?'
'A wife, of course!'
Reid laughed, and flicked up the tails of his black evening suit, before sitting down in the leather armchair. 'I had not given it any consideration, but you may be right. I will need a hostess.'
'A wife is far more than just a hostess, Reid.'
His nephew glanced at him with a twinkle in his dark blue eyes. 'Shame on you, Uncle, I did not think you had such thoughts about the fairer sex.'
Uncle Percy blushed, his jowls wobbling as he shook his head and clucked his tongue. 'I was thinking of progeny, my dear boy. Sons, to inherit all that I shall one day leave you.'
Reid Bowen sighed, and nodded his head, yet kept his thoughts within the seclusion of his mind.
Undaunted, Uncle Percy ploughed onwards. 'Now, the Christmas Ball at Lady Westfaling's this evening will be an ideal occasion to see what's, um, er, on the market, so to speak. You did receive an invitation, did you not?'
'Yes, I had the misfortune,' Reid replied drily.
'Splendid! We will go together and I will point out the most eligible young chits. There's the Bellingham girl; pretty, intelligent, a little dull perhaps; and the Tinson-Byrne chit is a fine filly; not to mention the enchanting Packard girl, though she may be a trifle young and flighty.'
Reid gave him a keen look. 'With all respect, Uncle, I think I am old enough to select my own wife.'
'Then why have you not done so, Reid, dear boy?' Uncle Percy returned his glance with one as equally penetrating. 'I believe you will be thirty-four next spring, and it's high time you got yourself down that aisle and acquired what every man needs most in lifethe love and support of a good woman.'
'When I find her, I will no doubt rush to drag her to the altar.'
'Well, with that sort of attitude, it's no wonder you're still on the shelf.' 'Indeed, Uncle?'
'The chits today don't much go in for the dragging bit; they much prefer to be courted with respect and devotion. I think you will find that, if you apply as much savvy to courting as you do to soldiering, you will have no trouble in finding a suitable wife.'
Miss Alexandra Packard sat before her dressing table as her maid finished pinning up her hair. She glanced in the mirror at one of her three sisters, standing in her bedroom doorway and wailing with a most disgruntled expression on her pretty face.
'What is it, Georgia?' Her voice was soft and quiet, laced with a patience she was frequently called upon to exert.
'I can't find my white gloves. Have you seen them?'
'I'm sure Polly laid them out on the bed, with your gown. Did you not, Polly dear?' Sasha glanced at their ladies' maid, who nodded her head and dipped a curtsy in confirmation of this fact.
'Then someone's taken them!' cried Georgia, flouncing on her heel with a whirl of white petticoats. 'Philippa!'
Sasha sighed and rolled her eyes at Polly, her glance skimming away from her own reflection. Compared to her beautiful sister Georgia, who had inherited their father's blond and blue-eyed features, she felt there was nothing appealing about her appearance, being the only daughter to have the sable-dark hair and black eyes of their Russian-born mother, the Princess
Olga Alexandrovna, now simply Lady Packard, who was also slightly built and somewhat pale. All that her sisters seemed to have inherited from their mother was her temperamental nature, sometimes passionate and full of life, at other times sinking into a sulk that could last for days. After the birth of four children in close succession, none of whom had been the son her parents had hoped for, her mother had been incapacitated by a weak heart and now spent much of her days lying upon a chaise longue, bravely insisting that there was nothing wrong with her and encouraging her daughters to go out and enjoy their own lives to the full.
It was left to her eldest daughter, Alexandra, twenty-three years old and fondly known as Sasha, to see to the girls: Georgia, the prettiest of them all; Philippa, nineteen and ripe for the marriage market, though she was cruelly afflicted by a glandular problem and a trifle overweight; and Victoria, the youngest, who shared her father's passion for the library and spent much of her time with her nose buried in a book.
'Thank you, Polly.' Sasha rose from the dressing table, her fingers briefly touching the maid's arm in an affectionate gesture as she passed to lift her maroon velvet shawl from the bed. 'Don't wait up, I'll see to the girls when we get in.'
Polly smiled and wished her a good evening, rushing off to see to Miss Vic as she called urgently for assistance with her garters and stockings.
'Come along, girls,' Sasha called as she walked down the corridor, 'Papa will be waiting.'
Voices shrieked, doors banged, slippered feet pattered on the thick carpet behind her, but Sasha did not pause or glance over her shoulder. She knew from experience that any sign of weakness on her part would be pounced upon and time would be wasted on whether this bracelet or that ribbon or those slippers were really the best to wear, so she merely glided as serenely as a swan, gathering her cygnets behind her as she descended the stairs to the hall.
Brigadier Sir Conrad Packard looked up as he fastened his cloak, and his eyes gleamed with pride as he watched his four daughters. No one could deny that he was the proudest of fathers, the only hint that he might have experienced some disappointment at the birth of a daughter being the bestowing of the feminine form of masculine names. Disappointment had long since faded, and he adored all his girls, fortified by the firm hope that one day soon he would be acquiring four strapping sons-by-marriage.
There was a flurry of activity as shawls were fastened and reticules clasped firmly about the wrist and then the butler, footmen and their father assisted and chivvied the four Packard girls into the waiting carriage. At last, settled in his seat and rolling his eyes in sympathy with their butler as the door closed, the Brigadier called, 'Thank you, Lodge. We will not be too late.'
'Very good, sir.' Lodge bowed with a knowing smile at these familiar words and turned back to the house as the carriage set off, prepared for a night of rummy and copious cups of tea to keep him going until the early hours of the morning. He would not rest until the girls and the master were safely home again.
A fresh flurry of snow that afternoon slowed their progress as they joined other carriages on the slush-laden roads of London's fashionable Mayfair, making their way to Lady Westfaling's Christmas Ball. They were warm and snug within the carriage, a froth of white lawn petticoats, beneath silk gowns in shades of cream, red tartan and green, billowing as the girls sought to tame their skirts.
'Do you think there will be a treasure hunt like last year?' mused Philippa, offering a small bag of sugared almonds to her sisters.
The girls each selected one, and sucked on the sweet pink-and-white confections while they speculated on the evening ahead with eager anticipation.
Victoria helped herself to another sugared almond, her sister frowning and snatching the bag away, with an envious glance at
Victoria's slim waist. 'I wonder if the Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby, will be there? I would so like to hear if the Turks'
'Oh, never mind that,' exclaimed Georgia. 'I wonder if Felix will be there? I want to dance all night!'
Their father looked up from adjusting his white bow tie, and offered snippets of advice and admonishments for their behaviour. A military man, he had served twenty-five years before a severe wound had forced him to retire from active service and spend a number of years in the Diplomatic Corps. He was a kind but very particular man, not overly tall and his pate bald of his once-fair hair, but he exuded the strength and bearing of a military officer. He still kept his hand in with the Army by making good use of his knowledge of French and Russian. Having tutored his own daughters, he now tutored young military officers who were in need of these languages. His quiet yet firm voice brooked no arguments and he was not known to suffer fools gladly, the antics of his daughters being no exception. They held him in slightly awed reverence, tempered by affection.
'We'll not be dancing too often with those young gentlemen,' he said, glancing at Georgia with his ice-blue eyes, which seldom missed anything of importance. 'Your mama was quite mortified when Lady Jessop called and commented about your behaviour at her dinner dance.'
Georgia pouted, recalling to mind the scolding her parents had delivered after that occasion, but made no reply as she sat back silently in her seat, peering out of the window as the wheels of the carriage slowed and they pulled into the portico of Lady Westfaling's impressive mansion.
Sasha exchanged a glance with her father and smiled at him reassuringly, her silent promise to keep a better eye on Georgia. A golden glow from the lit hallway spilled out upon the steps as they descended from the carriage, with the assistance of several attentive footmen splendid in frogged uniforms. The Packards joined the crowd of other guests inching along a carpeted corridor to the ballroom, where the majordomo took the proffered invitation card from the Brigadier, rapped his staff upon the marble step and announced in stentorian tones worthy of any parade ground, 'Brigadier Sir Conrad Packard, and the Misses Alexandra, Georgia, Philippa and Victoria Packard.'
They moved forwards, descending the steps to where their hosts, Lord and Lady Westfaling, their son, Felix, and daughter, Arabella, stood waiting in a line to greet them and to hand the young ladies their dance cards, which had tiny gilt pencils attached with ribbon.
'Conrad, my dear,' murmured Lady Westfaling, looking pointedly over the Brigadier's shoulder as she let him kiss the air beside her cheek, 'is Olga still not well?'
'Alas.' He shook his head and moved swiftly on from her cloying perfume and predatory clasp to extend his hand to his good friend, Avery, Lord Westfaling, with the promise to meet him in the library for cigars and brandy at the earliest opportunity. He nodded curtly at young Felix, who visibly blanched as he dragged his eyes from the delightful blonde-and-blue-eyed vision that was Georgia and bowed to the Brigadier, nervously murmuring good evening, punctuated with several 'sir's too many.
Sasha paused for a moment amidst the hubbub as her sisters chattered and looked eagerly about. Her glance fell to the dance card clasped in her white-gloved fingers. Wistfully, she wondered if any gentleman would actually put his name down, or if once again she would be so busy chaperoning her sisters and dancing with her father to have time to dance with anyone else. Most likely she would be overlooked as the gentlemen made their choices elsewhere amongst the vast bevy of lovely and well-bred young ladies present. Unobtrusively she slipped the card into the tasselled reticule dangling from her wrist, and then looked up, with a well-trained smile fixed on her soft mouth.
The ballroom was indeed a magnificent sight, proof that Lady Westfaling had spent a good deal of money and employed numerous people to transform it into a Christmas wonderland. To one side, halfway down the vast room, stood a twenty-foot Scots pine, brought in from their own estate in Scotland, and decorated with red-and-gold baubles, ribbons, gingerbreads and tiny candles. The smell of the pine and ginger was very pleasant, refreshing the somewhat-heavy atmosphere emanating from the odour of perfumed ladies and sweating gentlemen. Sasha breathed in the scent as they moved to examine the decorations, the orchestra playing discreetly in the background before the dancing began. She glanced at the garlands of holly and wreaths and ribbons festooned about the walls, and the brightly sparkling chandeliers that lit up the room so beautifully.
'Who is that?' Georgia murmured suddenly in her ear.
'Hmm?' Sasha turned as her sister's urgent fingers dug into her elbow, looking in the direction of a gentleman greeting Lady Westfaling. He was handsome, tall and broad-shouldered, his ash-brown hair flecked with blond and his face unusually suntanned. Sasha turned away. 'I have no idea, but do stop gaping before Papa notices. Oh, look, Felix is about to mark your dance card.'