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York, March 1812
"Anthony!' said the sharp female voice. 'Oh do go and help that poor creature out of her misery. I can hardly bear to watch.'
Isabella Oakley had two choices--turn around to observe the female who had spoken or plunge forward in one last ditched attempt to save her bonnet from being blown completely away. She plunged forward but a strong gust of wind got there first, lifting the straw bonnet with its frayed ribbons up into the air and further across the lawn.
"Heavens!' she muttered, biting her lip and knowing that young ladies such as she were not supposed to look so utterly undignified. Bella put her hand up to the side of her head and felt hair coming loose. She'd now lost a hairpin as well. By now, all the people who had been enjoying a promenade on this pleasantly sunny afternoon would have stopped to watch the spectacle she was making of herself. They were most likely in better circumstances than she and could have let the elements take a bonnet with the certainty they would afford to buy a new one. She shuddered to think how much her aunt and uncle had already spent on her wardrobe to make sure she would be properly outfitted for her debut.
Bella gripped her skirts in her hand and darted forward once more as the bonnet took off from the lawn and got caught in the branches of a tree above her.
She stood next to the tree trunk and looked up with some dismay. Maybe if she balanced on her tiptoes and reached up with her right hand...?
"Miss,' a deep voice said. She snatched her hand back to her side. 'Allow me.'
A tall gentleman dressed wholly in black save his starched white linen cravat reached up into the branches of thetree and plucked out the bonnet.
"It appears beyond repair, I'm afraid,' he said, turning the squashed straw over in his long-fingered hands.
"Thank you, sir.' Bella looked up as he handed her the article and found herself looking into some very dark brown eyes squinting because of the sunlight. He had a long face with a square chin yet his strong features were softened by the tousles of his dark hair. Curls framed his forehead and around his ears, and rested in sharp contrast on his brilliant white neck cloth.
His gaze narrowed and Bella realised he was not simply trying to keep the sun out of his eyes but was regarding her with some curiosity. It was perhaps not surprising as her green serge dress was unfashionable. She looked down to the tops of his black leather boots and felt a heat rising in her cheeks.
"Anthony Davenport,' he said and gave a small bow as was customary. 'Your obedient.'
He kept one hand behind his back. His manners were clearly those of high society. What was she supposed to do? She had no idea whether she should introduce herself or simply thank the stranger and be on her way. Her uncle was going to be cross enough as it was that she had gone out for a walk alone.
"Are you not going to share with me your name?' he said his voice as smooth as cream as he raked his hand through his hair. Yet she had the strangest sensation that he was a little nervous.
"Isabella Oakley.' Whether or not he was nervous she was--her cheeks were burning and she'd already forgotten his name. Anthony something...?
"A pleasant day for taking a turn, Miss Oakley,' he went on to say, a small smile pulling at the corners of his mouth.
Bella's attention turned to the conversation of two fast approaching ladies.
"What a circus,' one of the ladies said.
Bella wanted to hide her head in her hands. She should have noticed one of the ribbons on her bonnet was fraying and then none of this would have happened. But she'd been in such a thoughtless rush as usual....
The second lady said, 'Well, Anthony is busy making an acquaintance. One day he really will disgrace us all!'
The conversation ended there as Bella turned to look at the ladies, now only a few yards away and approaching purposefully with formidable looking smiles.
"Anthony,' the lady who had last spoken said. Her puce-coloured dress gave a final swish against her ankles as she and her companion drew to a halt.
"Miss Oakley,' he said with the briefest of nods, 'may I present my sister, Miss Pamela Davenport and our friend Miss Georgiana Shuttleworth.'
The two ladies nodded but neither showed a hint of deference. The sister wore a haughty expression and a fashionably straight cut black spencer jacket over her walking dress although a jaunty ostrich feather graced her felt black hat. The friend looked far less military but equally luxurious in an apple green silk gown covered by a grey and probably sable trimmed pelisse. These were ladies of high society. They looked quite in place next to the fine tailoring of the gentleman.
Bella smiled and tried to stop herself blinking too rapidly.
"Miss Oakley,' said the sister, tapping her fingers on the handle of her pink parasol, 'are you here in York on business or for pleasure?'
"I am travelling with my aunt and uncle to London so I am afraid our stay in York is very brief.' Bella struggled to remember the sister's name. Pamela...?
"Oh?' A perfectly curved eyebrow was raised. 'What a pity we will not have time to make your acquaintance, Miss Oakley. We hope you enjoy your stay in York and have a pleasant and safe journey on to London.'
The air seemed very still as if it were frozen even though it was a pleasantly warm day. There was a cough from the gentleman and Bella's eyes flew to his. His gaze appeared impassive and he tilted his head slightly as he said, 'Miss Oakley.'
"Good day.' Bella swallowed and nearly tripped backwards in her haste to be gone from the awkward situation. She wasn't even sure if the sister had snubbed her or not! How was she going to survive in London when her knowledge of manners and etiquette, and people, was so small?
The straw from her crushed bonnet pushed into the palm of her hand painfully and she quickened her pace without looking back. She would survive. Somehow. There was always a way.
She went through the avenue of the New Walk and back into the city and to The Swan.
Bella arrived there with not a minute to spare before Uncle Samuel returned. How cross he would be if he knew not only what had happened to her best Dunstable straw bonnet, but also that she had disobeyed him by leaving the inn at all. She stood quietly in the room they had secured as a private parlour as he removed his woollen great coat.
"Bella, what has happened to your bonnet? Have you been abroad?' Her uncle stroked his greying whiskers.
"I took a short walk to...'
"Fie, no time for that now, tell me later.' He looked about in a distracted fashion. 'Go and pack up your things. An old friend of mine, Charles Sinclair has kindly invited us to stay at their house.'
Who were they, the Sinclairs? Bella wanted to ask but she held her counsel. Uncle Samuel wore a worried frown.
"It will be much better for your aunt,' he muttered, 'though The Swan is comfortable enough, granted.'
Bella went straight upstairs. Folding her clothes was no chore, she had never had her own maid, and she was quickly packed and ready.
The Sinclairs lived in a fashionable part of the city called Bootham in a tall, well-proportioned house painted the colour of grey stone. They sent their own carriage to the inn as her uncle and aunt did not possess their own private conveyance. Charles Sinclair was also an attorney, like her uncle Samuel, but clearly one with a superior income.
His wife Jane wore in a flattering mauve day dress which complimented her dark hair and immediately began to fuss about Aunt Harriet no sooner had they stepped inside. Bella watched Mr Sinclair clap Uncle Samuel on the back and lead him off into the depths of the house and then found herself ushered into the drawing room, papered in lemon yellow and furnished with fashionable delicate rosewood pieces.
The day did not necessitate a fire and Bella perched on one of the sofas and let the sunshine coming through the windows warm her back.
She wasn't alone for long. Mrs Sinclair swept in and sat down beside her. 'How delightful to have visitors,' she said, arranging her skirts. 'York has quite the finest Assembly Rooms in the North, far better than Harrogate or Newcastle, and a better quality of people than anywhere outside London, except, grant you, Brighton or Bath. Really, there is hardly a need to go to London we have so many people of fashion who come here.'
"I think...' Bella began. She wanted to explain how very important it was to her aunt that she did her London season. Aunt Harriet had been talking about it for ... years.
There a tap on the door, and Bella sank back into the chair as a maid bringing tea on a large white tray. A footman rushed ahead and pulled one of the rosewood tables into place and the maid set down her tray before they both nodded and left the room.
Mrs Sinclair's attention snapped back to Bella.
Bella sat up very straight and folded her hands in her lap.
"I thought you might be parched,' Mrs Sinclair said. 'Now my dear, what have you seen of the city?'
"This morning I went to the New Walk. It was very nice and there were some people of fashion, ladies mostly.' And a rather tall, handsome gentleman, immaculately dressed who had been rather charming and gallant. And she'd made a fool of herself but she was not going to mention any of that to Mrs Sinclair.
"How pleasant,' Mrs Sinclair lifted her tea cup. 'Did your aunt have some benefit from the fresh air?'
"Oh, no. I was there ... alone.'
Mrs Sinclair spluttered and coughed. She set her cup down with a rattle. 'You mean to say you were out quite alone?'
Bella nodded. She often went out alone in Hexham but it did not seem like a time to mention this fact.
"Oh dear, oh dear. My child this will never do!' Mrs Sinclair dabbed her mouth with her napkin. 'Now, have you been to the Assembly Rooms?'
"Ah! Well, we shall go then. This evening.'
"This evening, Mrs Sinclair?'
"Certainly, for if we don't go tonight we shall have to wait until Thursday for the next ball and your aunt will be most likely fully recovered by then and you half the way to London.'
Bella did not think so. When Aunt Harriet was struck with her nervous complaint she suffered severe headaches, and then was left for days after fatigued and with spirits much depressed.
"Thank you, Mrs Sinclair,' Bella said forcing a smile onto her face. 'I shall very much enjoy going to the Assembly Rooms.'
"Dear girl, this is not for your enjoyment but for practice!' Mrs Sinclair's voice sounded stern. Bella swallowed as a spark of unease leapt up in her chest.
Mrs Sinclair smiled. 'Don't worry, my dear. You're in capable hands.'
Bella shivered. The heat hit her as she walked with Mr and Mrs Sinclair and her uncle into the Grand Assembly Room.
She recalled Aunt Harriet's oft-spoken words. A husband does not find a wife on the basis of her proficiency at the pianoforte. You have good deportment, demeanour and can dance well, and you have twenty thousand pounds besides.
She could dance well. She had been lucky to have had such an accomplished dancing master. Her dress was her best and newest--a mulberry coloured satin and muslin skirt trimmed with French lace.
The room was the size of a cathedral and the ceiling was so high that the chandeliers hung from them like bobbins dangling from threads. The hundreds of wax candles in the chandeliers reflected off the highly polished floor. The white colonnade of columns which appeared to hold up the ceiling made it seem as if this was not York at all but some classical Athenian temple. There were over a hundred here already and the room was far from full. The men's boots and the floor shone, and the ladies jewels sparkled. And this was only York--London was still to come.
Her dress, which had looked so fine in the mirror of her chamber, now seemed to be very plain compared to what some of the ladies were wearing.
Mr and Mrs Sinclair had the acquaintance of many people and Bella found herself being introduced to group after group. Already her fingers were damp in her satin gloves and her mind spun as she tried to remember all the names and faces.
What if she met some of these people in London and not be able to remember a thing about them! Was it Sir and Lady Melton who came from Darlington, or Mr and Mrs Sutherland? And whose daughter had married some Scottish laird? And which laird? She could not remember! She tried hard to concentrate and be attentive and at least manage to smile sweetly at all the ladies and gentlemen.
"Practice, my dear.' Mrs Sinclair handed Bella a small glass of punch. Uncle Samuel frowned but Mrs Sinclair ignore him and leaned and whispered in Bella's ear, 'When you meet someone new try to fix one thing about them so you'll remember them again.'
"Look at the gentleman over there,' Mrs Sinclair's voice was so low Bella had to strain to hear it.
She looked--and found herself looking at the gentleman who had rescued her bonnet! He was talking to some ladies so that she saw his sharp profile with his long nose and firm jaw. He rested one fist, as was polite, behind his back.
"That is Mr Anthony Davenport,' Mrs Sinclair said. 'See how he is standing with one leg a step in front of the other and slightly bent at the knee? Well, think of a Davenport bureau. Have you seen one? I find them a bit masculine. I prefer a French escritoire to use for writing correspondence. Think of a Davenport nonetheless, crafted with a curved leg.'
Mr Anthony Davenport. Bella traced the line of his shapely leg and wanted to giggle but it was true that there was no possibility she would forget his name now. She kept her lips pressed firmly together. A very masculine piece of furniture Mrs Sinclair had said. Bella found herself looking at his form again and now wanting to blush. She looked away and took a large sip of her punch.
Mrs Sinclair touched her elbow. 'Ah, Miss Davenport!'
Miss Davenport arrived in front of them looking splendidly modish in a buttermilk muslin which set off her auburn hair that was pinned into curls. 'Good evening, Mrs Sinclair. Miss Oakley, isn't it?'
"Y-yes,' Bella managed. Why did her own hair have to be so very dull, brown and ordinary? 'Good evening.'
"You are already acquainted?' Mrs Sinclair enquired.
"We met briefly. Earlier today.' Miss Davenport pushed her chin in the air.
"Miss Oakley is our guest,' Mrs Sinclair said with a frown. 'Along with her uncle and aunt.'
Miss Davenport raised her eyebrows. 'How lovely.'
Bella regarded the floor. It was so much more pleasant to look at Miss Davenport's silk dancing slippers than her critical gaze.
A male voice broke in. 'Miss Oakley?'
Bella lifted her chin and found herself looking into the brown eyes of Mr Anthony Davenport. He bowed stiffly.
"Mr Davenport.' Bella couldn't hold his penetrating stare. He seemed to look amused. What at? Her discomfort? She felt hot. It had got warmer now the room had filled up and oh, she shouldn't have touched that punch! Yet something drew her to take another glance at him. He caught her eye and she immediately looked away again. She suddenly realised his sister was speaking, saying something inconsequential to Mrs Sinclair. Before she had time to pick up what had been said Mr Davenport had taken a step towards her and felt so close that she was sure she could feel his breath on her cheek.
"Would you do me the honour...'