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The encounter that led directly to Colonel Gregory being disinherited by his father and to Miss Joanna Fulgrave running away from home in disgrace took place at the Duchess of Bridlington's dress ball on the sixth of June.
It was a very splendid occasion. As her Grace fully intended, it succeeded in both marking the approaching end of the Season and ensuring that any other function held between then and the dispersal of the ton from town seemed sadly flat in comparison.
Joanna progressed as gracefully to the receiving line outside the ballroom at Bridlington House as the necessity to halt on every step and to guard her skirts from being trodden upon allowed. Beside her Mrs Fulgrave mounted the famous double staircase with equal patience. The Fulgrave ladies had ample opportunity to exchange smiles and bows with friends and acquaintances, caught up as they all were in the slow-moving crush.
As always, mothers of less satisfactory débutantes observed her progress, and in undertones reminded their daughters to observe Miss Fulgrave's impeccable deportment, her exquisitely correct appearance and her perfectly modulated and charming manner.
If Joanna had not combined these enviable virtues with a natural warmth and friendliness, the young ladies so addressed would have long since begun to dislike her heartily. As it was, they forgave her for her perfections while their mothers poured balm upon each other's wounds with reminders that this was Miss Fulgrave's second Season now drawing to a close and she was still unattached.
That was a matter very much upon her fond mama's mind. No one, Mrs Fulgrave knew, could hope for a more dutiful, lovely, conformable daughter as Joanna. Yet not one, but seven, eligible gentlemen had presented themselves to Mr Fulgrave, were permitted to pay their addresses to Joanna and went away, their pretensions dismissed kindly but firmly. In every case Miss Joanna was unable, or unwilling, to provide her harassed parent with any explanation, other than to say she did not think the gentleman would suit.
However, that very morning Joanna had refused to receive the son of her mama's dearest school friend, a gentleman of such excellent endowments of birth, fortune and looks that her father had rapidly moved from astonishment to incredulous displeasure and Joanna discovered the limits of parental tolerance at last.
"How can you say you will refuse Rufus?" her mother had demanded. "What can I say to Elizabeth when she discovers you have spurned her son out of hand?" 'I hardly know him," Joanna had said placatingly, only to meet with a snort from her parent. "You hardly know him: why, you said yourself that you had not met his mama for over ten years."
"You met Rufus Carstairs when you were six." 'He pulled my pigtails and took my ball." 'When he was ten! Really Joanna, to turn down the Earl of Clifton because of some childish squabble is beyond everything foolish."
Joanna had bitten her lip, her eyes downcast as she searched for some acceptable excuse. To tell the truth, the reason why she would have turned down anyone from a Duke to the richest nabob, was quite out of the question, but she was hesitant to wound her mama with the specific reason why she would not have considered Rufus Carstairs in any case.
"Well?" 'I do not like him, Mama, really I do not. There is something in his eyes when he looks at me " Her voice trailed off. Those penetrating blue eyes were the only clue to something burning inside the polite, elegant exterior that filled her with a profound mistrust. "It is as though I have no clothes on," she finally blurted out.
"Joanna! Of all the improper things I can only hope that your natural innocence has led you to mistake the perfectly understandable ardour of a young man in love for something which I sincerely trust you know nothing about!" Mrs Fulgrave had broken off to compose herself. "Has he said anything to put you to the blush? No. Has he acted in any improper manner? No, I thought not. This is another of your whims and your papa and I are reaching the end of our patience with you."
Pausing yet again on the stairs, Joanna closed her eyes momentarily at the memory of her mother's voice, normally so calm and indulgent. "You could not hope for a more eligible or flattering offer. I suggest you think very seriously indeed about your position. If you think that your papa can afford to support you in an endless round of dances and parties and new dresses while you amuse yourself toying with the affections of decent young men, you are much mistaken."
"Mama, I am not toying with Lord Clifton's affections," she had protested. "I hardly know him — he cannot love me! I have not seen him since we were children " But her mama had swept out, throwing back over her shoulder the observation that it was fortunate that the earl would not be able to attend the ball that evening and risk a rebuff before Joanna had a chance to come to her senses.
They climbed another two steps and came to a halt again. Mrs Fulgrave exchanged bows with Lady Bul-strode, taking the opportunity to study her daughter's calm profile. What a countess she would make, if only she would come to her senses!
Long straight black hair coiled at the back of her head and held by pearl-headed pins; elegantly arched brows, which only she knew were the result of painful work with the tweezers; wide hazel eyes, which magically changed from brown to green in extremes of unhappiness or joy, and a tall, slender figure. Mrs Fulgrave could never decide whether Joanna's white shoulders or her pretty bosom were the best features of her figure, but both were a joy to her modiste.
Madame de Montaigne, as the modiste in question styled herself, had excelled with tonight's gown. An underskirt of a pale almond green was covered by a creamy gauze with the hem thickly worked with faux pearls. The bodice crossed in front in a mass of intricate pleating, which was carried through to the full puffed sleeves, and the back dipped to a deep V-shape, which showed off Joanna's white skin to perfection. Her papa had presented her with pearl earrings, necklace and bracelets for her recent twentieth birthday and those completed an ensemble that, in Mrs Fulgrave's eyes, combined simple elegance with the restraint necessary for an unmarried lady.
It was no wonder that the earl, who could hope to engage the interest of any young lady who took his fancy, should be so taken with the daughter of his mother's old friend. He had seen her again for the first time as adults on his return from a continental tour where he had been acquiring classical statuary for what was already becoming known as a superb art collection. Joanna might not be a brilliant match, but she was well bred, well connected, adequately dowered and lovely enough to turn any man's head.
Joanna herself was engaged, not in wondering how her gown compared with anyone else's, nor in dwelling on that morning's unpleasantness, but in discreetly scanning the throng on both wings of the staircase for one particular man. She had no idea whether he would be there tonight, or even if he was in the country, yet she hoped that he would be, as she had at every function she had attended since her come-out more than two years ago.
The man Joanna was looking for was her future husband, Colonel Giles Gregory, and for his sake she had spent almost three years preparing herself to be the ideal wife for a career soldier. A career soldier, moreover, who would one day become a general, would be elevated far above his own father's barony and would doubtless, like the Duke of Wellington, become a diplomat and statesman of renown.
She had fallen in love with Giles Gregory when she was only seventeen and just out of the schoolroom. She was already causing her anxious mother to worry that when she came out she would prove to be a flirt and a handful. Unlike her calm, biddable sister Grace, who had become engaged to Sir Frederick Willington in her first Season, Joanna showed every inclination to throw herself into any scrape that presented itself.
Then their cousin Hebe had arrived from Malta to plunge the family headlong into her incredible and improbable romance with the Earl of Tasborough. As the earl was in deep mourning and had just inherited his title and estates, yet insisted that his Hebe marry him within three weeks, preparations were hurried and unconventional. As groomsman, the earl's friend Major Gregory found himself thrown into the role of go-between and supporter of the Fulgrave family as they coped with the marriage preparations.
Much of his time had been taken up amusing young William Fulgrave, freeing William's mama from at least one concern as she made her preparations. Army-mad William had plagued the tall major for stories and neither appeared to take much notice of sister Joanna, who would quietly come into the room in her brother's turbulent wake and listen silently from a corner.
Joanna moved up a few more steps, her eyes on the black-clad shoulders of the gentleman in front of her, her mind back in the tranquil front room of the house in Charles Street. The sedate parlour had become full of vivid and exciting pictures as Giles held William spellbound with his stories of life on campaign. She had soon realised that, whatever William's blandishments, his hero never talked about himself but always about his soldiers or his friends. Insidiously the qualities that meant that his men would follow their major into hell and back, and then go again if he asked, drew Joanna deeper and deeper into love with him.
She understood very clearly that she was too young and that he would not even think of the gauche schoolroom miss that she was now in any other light than as a little sister. But she would be out that Season and then she could begin to learn. And there was so much to learn if she was going to be the perfect wife that Giles deserved. And the wife she knew with blind faith he would recognise as perfect the moment he saw her again.
Almost overnight Mrs Fulgrave's younger daughter became biddable, attentive and well behaved. From plucking her dark brows into submission to mastering the precise depth of a curtsy to a duchess or a rural dean, Joanna applied herself. Her parents were too delighted in the transformation in their harum-scarum child to question what had provoked this miracle, and no probing questions disturbed Joanna's single-minded quest for perfection.
And month after month the army kept Major, then Colonel, Gregory abroad. Joanna never gave up her calm expectation that they would meet again soon, although every day, as soon as her father put down his Times, she would scan the announcements with care, searching anxiously for the one thing that would have shattered her world. It never occurred to her that Giles might be wounded, let alone killed, for she believed that no such fate would intervene in his pre-destined path to greatness. But there was another danger always present and each morning Joanna breathed again when the announcement of Colonel Gregory's engagement to some eligible lady failed to appear.