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"Heavens, child, you are as nervy as a fox on opening day of the hunt season. I do not understand you, Rowanne. It is not as if you were some green girl never out in society before."
"Yes, Miss Simpson." Her governess-turned-companion was correct, of course. Rowanne Wimberly had been hostess for her widowed father for two years before his death and for her older brother Gabriel during the year of mourning since. The younger woman nodded, but still she remained at her mirror, twitching uncertainly at the tendrils of soft brown hair framing her face.
"Do you think all these curls make me look childish, ma'am?"
"Gracious, Rowanne, Monsieur Henri assured us they were all the crack. You wouldn't want to appear as a matron, would you?" Before her charge could start tugging up the décolletage of her gown again, a neckline cut lower than any Rowanne had ever worn, revealing more of Miss Wimberly than anyone but her maid had seen, Miss Simpson reassured her on that score also. "No more would you want to be considered one of the infantry. Now come, my dear, this is not like you. Your gown is superb, your hair is charming, and your brother is waiting."
Rowanne stood, however reluctantly. "We mustn't keep the horses standing, not after all it took to convince Gabe to accompany us." She gathered up her beaded reticule, her fan, and her courage, and headed for the door. "But are you sure about the pearls?"
Miss Simpson clucked impatiently. They had discussed the pearls twice too often for her taste. "Yes, dear, the pearls are eminently suitable for a young lady in her first Season. Even if you are above the usual age, all of nineteen, your mama's diamondswould appear coming and the emeralds would make you look like a painted woman, with the color of your gown."
The deep-rose satin was far more attractive to Miss Wimberly's honeyed coloring than debutante white would have been, if she were indeed a giddy seventeen-year-old. The ivory lace overskirt kept the gown from being too sophisticated for one not officially out. "The pearls are just the thing. Now shall we leave? Remember, they close the doors at eleven."
Miss Simpson was talking to Rowanne's back. "One minute more," Miss Wimberly called, rummaging in the velvet-covered chest atop her dresser. "There," she declared triumphantly, coming up with a small brooch, a pink coral cameo, which she held out to her ex-governess. "Mama gave it to me when I was barely six or so. See, it has her miniature inside." Rowanne flipped the tiny catch to show Miss Simpson the portrait that could have been Rowanne herself, so similar were her looks to her deceased mother's. She closed the locket and fixed the pin right at the vee of her neckline. She touched the cameo. "For luck. Now I am ready."
"Fustian," declared Miss Simpson, straightening her own gray silk gown and checking the neat bun at the back of her head. "Luck has nothing to do with it. You are the granddaughter of an earl and sister to a rising Parliamentarian. You are a substantial heiress, a charming-looking and well-figured young woman with, if I may say so who shouldn't, an excellent education and pleasing manners. Now do cry halt to all of these vaporish musings, Rowanne, before I get the headache in truth. After all, we are only going to Almack's."
"Only Almack's," Miss Wimberly echoed, trailing her companion down the hall.
There were three major hurdles in the frenzied steeplechase of a young girl's comeout: her curtsy to the queen, the most lavish ball her family was able to provide in her honor, and her acceptance at Almack's.
Miss Rowanne Wimberly sailed over the first fence with ease. Hadn't she been trotted around foreign courts all her life in the wake of her parents, when her father was with the diplomatic corps? She had been dandled on the knees of many an eminence, and Prince George himself had once carried the brown-eyed moppet on his shoulders, neighing in horse fashion to her childish delight.
Her brother Gabriel had only to present Rowanne's name to Prinny's secretary and Miss Wimberly was summoned to the queen's next Drawing Room, hooped skirts and all. Rowanne neither blushed, stammered, fainted, nor fell over, so she was declared a pretty thing, whose parents would have been proud. Prinny pinched her, which Gabe assured Rowanne meant she was a success.
The debutante ball was another minor obstacle to overcome. The Wimberlys had no close kin in Town to demand a major crush to puff off the family's latest bud. Their uncle Donald, the Earl of Clyme, never came to London, so his niece and nephew had free rein with Wimberly House, Grosvenor Square, where they made their home. Most hopeful parents invited as many of the upper ten thousand as they could fit in their homes to their daughters' comeouts, and then some, in an effort to impress the ton with the family's financial worth and the chit's possibilities as a bride to some equally as well-born and well-breeched scion.
Most times these crushes resulted in long waits on the carriage lines, no room to dance, insufficient refreshments, and too much noise for conversation. Instead, Rowanne and Gabriel invited only a select hundred or so guests and treated them lavishly. Feeling the awkwardness of being hostess for her own comeout, Rowanne invited mostly her parents' closest acquaintances and Gabriel's political associates.
She did write to Uncle Donald, just as she dutifully wrote him every second month, plus Christmas and his birthday, informing him of the event. Lord Clyme declined, to no one's surprise, but he did send her a small diamond tiara to wear, and a check to underwrite the expenses.
Rowanne thought she could like her uncle very well and regretted the estrangement that had kept her father and Uncle Donald apart. As she later wrote to the earl, her ball was a grand success. The supper was delicious, the orchestra excellent, the talk elevating and intelligent. Even the prince regent stopped in for a moment and kissed her hand, then her cheek. Rowanne's reputation as a discerning hostess was secure.
But the third hurdle was Almack's. Now that was going to be a rough ride.
Rowanne had no intention of making a splash in polite society. She hadn't the least desire to become the Season's Incomparable or even a Belle. Her looks were passable, she knew, her fortune respectable, her ambitions modest. She decided she would hate the butterfly existence of her parents, flitting in constant travels, filling every moment with the social rounds.
Miss Wimberly saw herself more as a humble inchworm, all feet on the ground, finding pleasure in small things, moving at a much slower speed. Occasionally she thought she might be happier in the country than in the city, although she hardly knew the rural life since her parents had disdained it so well.
But her brother Gabriel was fixed in Town, scholarly, dedicated Gabe, waiting to take his seat in the Lords when he came into Uncle Donald's title. Meantime he was working with the Under Secretaries, researching policies, polishing speeches. Even Lord Castlereagh had commented that the boy had a good future ahead of him. Rowanne could not leave dear Gabriel to fend for himself, even if he was her elder by five years. The bookish Gabe would forget to eat if left to his own devices, and would certainly have no idea of making the right connections for a political career.
Rowanne might picture herself off in Dorset tending roses, but she could never see Gabe, spectacles and all, rigged out as a country squire among pigs and sheep and cows. So here she was in London, a debutante at nineteen, about to make her first appearance at Almack's.
The problem was that while Miss Rowanne Wimberly did not seek to cut a dash through the ton, neither did she wish to be a wallflower. Vouchers to the sacrosanct Marriage Mart were easy to come by, with a morning call to her mother's friend Sally Jersey, but attendance alone at the assembly rooms in King Street did not mean acceptance in the belle monde. Only if she was seen to be popular would the other invitations and introductions follow.
If a girl did not "take" at Almack's, her social life hit a rasper. Gabe's learned associates were not likely to be found dancing on a Wednesday evening, nor would her father's cronies be looking over this year's crop of debutantes, and she certainly could not count on Prinny himself coming or singling her out in the squeeze. So who would dance with Rowanne? She had no mother or aunt to make introductions to mothers and aunts of likely young men, nor even any girlfriends likely to share their extra beaux. What friends Rowanne had managed to make in her early unsettled life were either abroad or married, retired from the lists.
Rowanne did have Gabriel, of course, who was just as liable to forget her existence if there should be an interesting discussion about the trade embargoes. And she did have Miss Simpson to lend her countenance. Even if that dear lady believed her duck to be a swan, however, she knew even less members of the ton than Rowanne and was, in fact, only a paid companion. So who would dance with Rowanne?
No one, that's who. After the first quadrille with Gabe, who had to be turned twice to get the figures straight, Rowanne was presented by Lady Jersey with a partner for the next set, a spotted youth who could neither dance nor converse and who, furthermore, was a good two inches shorter than Miss Wimberly. When the contra danse was mercifully ended, Rowanne limped over to where Miss Simpson had found them seats on the edge of the dance floor and gratefully sank into the little gilded chair. There she sat. And sat. She smoothed her long white gloves; she examined every spoke of her fan. She wished the ground would open up and swallow her. No such luck. A rough ride indeed.