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1 July, 1818
"You've always been so good, Eleanor," Beatrice Summerson said appreciatively as her eighteen-year-old sister entered the sunny drawing room bearing a silver tea tray. "Between Ben and Helen and me it's a mystery how you ended up so well behaved. Father thinks of you as an absolute miracle."
"Oh, I don't know I'm not so good," Eleanor replied as she laid the tray on a side table. She began organizing its contents without looking at her sister.
Beatrice cocked her head, her eyes slightly worried. "Now, now, you mustn't protest. You're perfect, and you couldn't be a more agreeable guest. Charles and I are grateful to have you."
"I hope so," Eleanor said uncertainly. "Would you like a slice of cake, Beazie?"
Beatrice smiled, her concerns momentarily allayed by the prospect. "Well I am eating for two at the moment."
Eleanor cut a very large slice, and brought it to her sister, who patted the spot next to her on the yellow damask sofa. "Do have a seat, Eleanor. I've been wanting to talk to you."
Slowly, Eleanor sat. "Oh?"
"Well I've been feeling rather guilty. I know it might seem that Charles and I are terribly busy and distracted with Mark, and with the new baby on the way, but I hope you don't feel too neglected."
Eleanor looked down at her lap. "I can entertain myself all right." There was, she hoped, a melancholic note to her voice.
"And our household must feel very chaotic to you at the moment," Beatrice continued apologetically. "It's such a shame that our butler, Cummings, absconded with our downstairs maid. We're completely disorganized as a result, and I've no time to hire new staff. I'm afraid it's become a bit of a burdento you. You shouldn't have to help out as much as you do, especially during your first season."
Eleanor shrugged. "You'll get a new maid soon enough. Besides, Cummings was kind enough to recommend his father."
"Yes," Beatrice sighed, "but while Mr. Cummings Senior is very polite and correct in his manner he's also completely deaf."
Eleanor frowned. "You mustn't let him go. I'm very fond of him." Realizing her response seemed disproportionately heated, she added, "He's kind to me."
Beatrice narrowed her eyes. "Eleanor? Is something the matter? You're behaving rather strange."
It was Eleanor's turn to sigh. "No, no, Beazie. Everything's fine. I've just been thinking about the ball this evening."
"You're looking forward to it, I hope."
"I'm afraid I am not."
Beatrice sank back in the sofa. "Nor am I. But we must do what we must do."
"Would you like more tea?" Eleanor asked, rising. Beatrice nodded contentedly. "You're in an obliging mood this morning. Just a drop of milk, please."
Eleanor poured the tea in silence, then asked hesitantly, "Would you think it the worst thing if I didn't go tonight?"
"You're feeling well, aren't you?"
"Oh, yes. It's not that. It's just, you see, a friend of mine asked me to come for a visit, and I already told her I would"
"A visit on the night of the Montagu-Dawsons'ball?"
"Miss Pilkington won't be going to the ball. She took ill yesterday."
Beatrice cocked her head slightly. "Pilkington? Have you mentioned her before?"
Eleanor smiled patiently. "Yes. Jane Pilkington. I introduced you to her at the Nortons'party two weeks ago. Surely you remember."
Beatrice obviously remembered nothing of the sort, but she agreed nonetheless. "Oh, yes. Of course. You know how scatterbrained I can be."
Eleanor nodded sympathetically. "I met her at the beginning of the season. She's come all the way from Yorkshire and doesn't think her family can afford to back to "Are you not to crow with joy. Instead, "You are the best sister in carriage round later and I'll nothing to worry about."
"I never worry about you, Eleanor. If you were our dear sister Helen, on the other hand, I'd be worried indeed. But not you."
"Really?" Eleanor should have been pleased her sister thought so highly of her, but instead she was rather disappointed. Being sensible and dependable was all very well, but
For a moment they sat without speaking, the only sound provided by Beatrice finishing off her cake. Eleanor began to drum her fingers on her lap. Catching herself, she said, "Oh, my."
"Yes?" Beatrice asked, her fork poised midair.
"The time, Bea. You're going to be late."
"Oh, dear. You're right. When will I learn?" She deposited her plate on a small satinwood table and Charles helped her rise. As they walked to the door, Beatrice turned around to remark, "By the by, those items arrived from Father's house early this afternoon. Meg brought them to your room. What on earth do you intend to do with all those clothes? They're not suitable to wear."
"Probably planning to rope us into more of her drawing room theatricals," Charles suggested. "Don't think for one moment that you'll get me into that blond wig, Eleanor."
She grinned, imagining her tall, handsome brother-in-law in the straw-colored woman's wig that was a staple of her costume collection.
Beatrice just rolled her eyes. "Do try to enjoy yourself with Miss. Pilkington tonight, darling."
"I will," Eleanor said, following them out of the room. Indeed, she had a most marvelous evening plannedeven if she couldn't help feeling nervous.
Of course, there wasn't any Jane Pilkington.
Eleanor started changing her clothes the moment she heard the front door close behind Beatrice and Charles. She didn't ring for a maid to help. Her wardrobe for the evening was designed to be put on without assistance. A serviceable gray cotton dress with a simple linen collar. Sturdy black boots. The outfit had belonged to a past governess and had been moldering in her father's attic until she'd rescued it for her costume chest last year. She'd known it would come in useful.
She examined her reflection in the mirror. She looked passable. She pulled on the blond wig and grimaced. Each of her three siblings was blond. Tall, blond and stunning. Eleanor was quite pretty, she supposed, at least when she wasn't standing next to one of them. Her hair was brown; she was of medium height; her eyes, at least, were a striking blue. For the time being, however, her less impressive looks were a godsend. She must not be recognized.
She removed the wig and looked away from the mirror with a sigh. I really am a disappointment, she thought as guilt settled over her. As Beatrice had said, she'd always been the good child in the Sinclair family. Ben had been a terrible rake before he'd married, while Beatrice found wedded bliss only after being thoroughly compromised first. Helen promised to be the worst of them and she was only fifteen.
But her family had always assumed that Eleanor would do her duty and wed with relative ease. If only they knew that she didn't give a fig about getting married, not that anyone seemed interested in proposing to her, anyway. She was far too much the bluestocking, and although men seemed to enjoy her conversation, few glowed with pride to be seen in her presence.
No, the reason she'd longed for a London season was precisely what she was preparing to do tonight. She was going to the theater. It was her favorite thing in the world and had been ever since she'd seen her first play with her family in Bath at the age of nine. She'd have liked nothing more than to be a playwright herself, although that would probably never happen. She'd even like to be an actress, and that would definitely never happen even though tonight's performance proved she was perfectly capable.
The closest she'd ever get to these aspirations was sitting in the audience, and since she'd turned sixteen, every trip to London had included as many plays as she'd wanted, provided she could convince a family member to act as chaperone. She'd always imagined her coming-out would basically resemble these earlier trips, but now she was here and Beatrice and Charles were too busy to escort her. A London season, she was dismayed to learn, was serious business. Her life was carefully regimented, and she had little time to attend plays, not unless there was a very good reason to go. The only acceptable reason for her to go anywhere these days was that hordes of eligible men would be there. Getting married took priority.
And she was bored.
So she'd invented Jane. At first, it'd seemed a simple idea: tell Beatrice that she was visiting her dear sick friend but go to see a play instead. She'd disguise herself, and she'd probably only do it once, so what could possibly go wrong? Only now that she'd lied to her sister and dressed up in someone else's clothes, she knew that everything could go wrong, and probably would. But she was already committed and she was excited, too. She had been well behaved her entire life, and it was about time she experienced a bit of rebellion.
She pulled her cloak around her shoulders, stuffed the wig up one of its voluminous sleeves and headed downstairs. At the bottom of the main staircase the ancient Mr. Cummings dozed fitfully. He jerked awake as she passed him.
"Good evening, Cummings."
"Good evening, Miss Sinclair," he responded in his reedy voice. Reluctantly, he began to rise.
"Please, don't get up," she chided. "I saw the Pilkingtons' carriage approaching from my window and am perfectly capable of opening and closing the front door myself."
"But, miss " Despite his protests, he had already resumed his seat and showed no sign of rising again.
Eleanor was hard-pressed not to smile. "I insist, Cummings."