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“I agree with you,” replied the stranger;
“we are unfashioned creatures, but half made up . . .”
The Scarfield Academy for Young Ladies
It had taken Miss Harriet Gardner two years of intensive training in the polite graces to become that mysterious creation known in Society as a gentlewoman. It took the stormy young Duke of Glenmorgan less than two days to undo months of discipline, of tears, of sweat, of French lessons, to reawaken every gutter instinct Harriet had fought to subdue.
The foundress of the elite academy for young ladies where Harriet was now gainfully employed would not be pleased. In fact, Emma Boscastle, the former Lady Lyons and current Duchess of Scarfield, would be the first to remind Harriet that a gentlewoman would sooner be caught in a swoon than in a sweat. Horses sweat. Gentlemen perspired. And ladies glowed, albeit only after a vigorous cotillion or lively ride through the park at the fashionable hour. Certainly a lady of the academy did not draw attention to this unfortunate bodily function. She merely applied her fan with a little more energy than usual. A well-bred lady should never speak of whatever embarrassment befell her at all.
Which was why no one at the academy ever mentioned that its foundress had abandoned every rule in her own book when she unexpectedly fell in love.
A handsome duke tended to wield a devastating effect upon even ladies who believed themselves to be above temptation. The Duchess of Scarfield’s lapse in love’s name, however, did not excuse those she had tutored from their obligations. Harriet would battle forth as her creator had intended.
For two years she had devoted herself to the study of deportment. She had turned down the dancing master’s marriage proposal. She had laughed at the footman’s clumsy effort at courtship.
Two grueling years, mind you, for everyone involved in her social edification. Days of rehearsing the nuances of proper behavior until curtsying to an earl came as easily to her as cutting a purse once had. Evenings spent practicing dictation until her tongue went numb.
“How many times do I have to remind you not to drop your aspirates, Harriet?”
“And how many times do I ’ave to tell you I ain’t never dropped my—what you said—in my life?”
She cringed to think of what an utter ignoramus she had appeared.
Certainly Harriet’s colorful past was not a Crown secret. But the fact that she had been rescued from the slums and had risen to the position of fledging instructress in the exclusive academy proved that one could indeed fashion a little monster into a suitable member of Society.
For, in a fond if morbid way, she regarded herself to be less a lady and more like the ill-fated fiend created in the recently published sensation Frankenstein. Having come late in life to the pleasures of literature, she took secret delight in comparing her own re-creation to that of Victor’s hideous being. Not that Harriet planned to end up on a sled in the Arctic. A mate would be nice, though. That’s all the misunderstood monster wanted.
Indeed, she hoped one day to meet the anonymous author and confess how the queer parts of Harriet’s own nature had been similarly redesigned as a social experiment, not by a mad scientist but rather by a genius of the genteel arts. Harriet had been the academy’s first charity case. Several others had been accepted since. This practice might have discouraged enrollment had the school not achieved unprecedented success in marrying off its graduates, known as the Lionesses of London, to numerous noblemen highly ranked on the marriage mart. One teacup, one viscount at a time, the girls of the academy were unleashed upon Society and set forth to conquer.
Harriet had worked harder than any pupil in the school’s history to overcome her flaws, and a rough bit of work she’d proven to be during those initial months. She had been tempted countless times to revert to her former ways. Instead, she had risen above her past to prove that her Modern Prometheus’s faith in her redemption had been well placed.
Yet therein lay the black magic of London’s most beloved and infamous family, the Boscastles. One way or another, by hook or by crook—although usually by charm—the lords and ladies of the notorious clan not only won over their hapless victims, they mesmerized those invited into their inner circle so that bewitchment seemed an honor and seduction a benediction.
Unfortunately, Harriet’s introduction to the esteemed family had not been of their choosing. She’d been caught red-handed in the act of robbing Grayson Boscastle’s Park Lane mansion during a house party. Fortunately, it was not the marquess who had interrupted her amateur crime. It had been his wife, Jane, a woman possessed of emotional depth and unconventional daring.
Harriet might have inherited a penchant for vice from her father’s ancestors. But the will of her Boscastle sponsors had proven stronger than the malicious influence of her own blood.
It was, therefore, what the Duchess of Scarfield would consider a regrettable irony that a member of the family that had redeemed Harriet would prove to bring about her final disgrace.
At precisely four o’clock every Thursday afternoon, Cook prepared a scrumptious tea of bite-sized ham, cheese, and watercress sandwiches served daintily between triangular slices of thin buttered bread. No sooner were these morsels consumed than scones, cakes, and cream-filled French pastries arrived to tempt the palate. The scullery maids donned fresh aprons and delivered the treats to the ravenous young ladies of the academy. The underbutler brought out the silver tea urn and polished it to a dazzling gleam to place it, steam- ing invitingly, on the sideboard. At last came the anointed chime of the long-case clock. The scuffle of slippered feet resounded in the musty drawing room like a stampede of deer.
It was Harriet’s first opportunity to preside over the practice tea. She had not felt this nervous since she stole a necklace from the Prince Regent’s mistress during an act of what she didn’t care to remember. Not only were the eyes of a dozen students observing her for the tiniest infraction, but several of Society’s stalwart matrons had volunteered their presence to ensure that the ritual went as smoothly as possible.
One might assume, from the gravity of those in attendance, that the torch of female knowledge was being passed from the hands of ancient priestesses to the uncertain grasp of an uninitiated white-gloved generation. The Duchess of Scarfield’s etiquette manual was the sacred tablet from which her young priestesses read.
Harriet would count herself fortunate if she survived the ordeal without losing her temper or spilling tea on her new lavender silk frock. Today marked a milestone in her life. She breathed in the scent of pastry and honest-to-God beeswax candles like an elixir against her evil upbringing. A far cry, she reflected, from her former days of gin and card games played under the light of cheap lard candles.
It was her pinnacle of achievement. She was to be trusted to supervise the sacred ritual. Not even the thunder that rumbled over London could spoil the occasion.
“Miss Lucille Martout,” she said in mild reproach, “do remember that the first lady to the table does not attack her tea with the brutality of Genghis Khan.”
“Hear, hear, Miss Gardner,” one of the ancients concurred. “Let us nibble in due time.”
“Sorry, miss,” mumbled the shamed girl, sliding her lacy triangle of buttered bread and watercress back onto the plate. “I shall not do it again.”
The eleven other students, dressed by London’s finest mantua-makers in gowns of dreamy spring pastels, giggled demurely. Their kidskin-sheathed hands settled like wings in their laps. Miss Charlotte Boscastle, the academy’s current headmistress, walked between each table before returning to her place with the four young ladies who would make their debut this season. She nodded her fair head in approval.
From the Paperback edition.