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I yawned for the fourth time, drawing a glare from the seamstress. "Miss Lowell," she said with asperity. "You must stand straight and please pay attention. Your aunt wishes this dress to be ready for the Duchess's party tomorrow night, and I cannot finish it if you fall asleep." She rose from the hem she had been working on and watched me with narrowed eyes and stiff posture, her hands clasped before her.
"I am sorry, Miss Benton," I answered, "truly I am, but you have made me closets full of beautiful dresses and I cannot help but think that one more will make no difference." Her expression did not vary, and I sighed. "I will stand straight, I promise, and we shall finish this afternoon."
Mollified somewhat, she nodded. "This particular shade of deep blue looks marvelous on you, Miss Lowell. It compliments your eyes very well, and the rose we'll work on next brings out the blush in your cheeks."
"You said this was the last one, Miss Benton." I tried to keep the note of despair out of my tone as I looked out the window at a beautiful summer day. The only fair day we'd had in weeks and I was in my sitting room trying on yet another dress.
"You do have many dresses, Miss Lowell," Miss Benton agreed, concentrating on her work once again, "but your fashionable gowns are all black and you are no longer in mourning for your mother. Your aunt has asked me to help get you ready for these last parties. The Season is almost over."
I nodded. And high time, I thought. When I'd first come to London I'd loved the Season, enjoying the parties and the flirtations and the endless rounds of socializing. I'd grown proficient at discussing affairs of both the state and the heart. But when my mother grew ill and I retired with her to our home in Warkwickshire, I'd had a great deal of time to reflect on the shallow nature of London society. I'd found I didn't miss it greatly. Since her death I'd been traveling with Aunt Louisa in Europe, avoiding France, of course, with which England was currently at war. We had returned for Christmas, in time for the liveliest part of the Season.
It was early June now and most of London would be leaving town soon, heading for country estates and the summer visits of friends and family. I turned as Miss Benton gestured, and sighed again. My aunt was paying for these dresses in the hope of a brilliant marriage for me, and since I had no means of my own beyond the small share of the rents on the lands my brother now owned, I could not dictate to the woman Louisa had hired. But it was so boring. Still, I reflected, the days when I was mistress of my time were over. My mother's illness and death had postponed the inevitable. I was to be married. Oh, the groom had not yet been selected and my personal wishes had not been considered, but Robert Campbell was the current front-runner. The freedoms I'd had in my upbringing were long gone now. Even at home at Mountgarden I could no longer do those things I had taken for granted. I smiled to think of the reaction if I were to take my shoes off and help with the haying as I had done as a girl. How I missed my parents. My father, unlike so many men, had considered education important for a girl. "Educate a woman and you educate a family" was a favorite saying of his, and he'd lived it as well, but I'd not had any need lately of my Latin and French nor of my ability to do sums. My brother had recently married Betty Southall and handled the accounts at Mountgarden himself now, badly, but the estate was his and so was the responsibility. I visited less frequently, although when I did I still straightened the accounts out with Will's blessing, taking great joy in their order.
Miss Benton asked me to stand straight again and I did, wondering if I dared send a runner to the library for a book. Perhaps if I could read while she worked I might survive the afternoon. I lifted my head as she requested and stared at my reflection. And frowned. Properly dressed I might pass for fashionable, but I would never be the beauty my Aunt Louisa and my sister-in-law Betty were, both small and dainty women, Louisa with dark curls and Betty with the fair hair of the true Saxon. I was neither small nor dainty, nor beautiful, despite Louisa's kind comments. I knew I needed this dress finished, for without the requisite wardrobe I might never land a husband. But I detested the process. "Do you know what I've done today, Miss Benton?"
"No, Miss Lowell," she murmured, her mouth full of pins.
"I dressed for breakfast, then changed my clothes to accompany Aunt Louisa to the Duchess's to discuss the party. Then I returned home and changed my clothes for luncheon with my brother, Will, and his wife, Betty. Now I am changing my clothes so that you may finish these dresses. And then I will change my clothes to go to the Mayfair Bartletts for dinner."
"A lovely day, Miss Lowell."
"You do not think I should accomplish something more than changing my clothes?" The seamstress did not answer, and I turned as she'd gestured. A woman who made her living dressing people would not be sympathetic to someone who did not want to change her clothes all day long, I told myself, and looked out the window again, resolving to be compliant and let her complete her task. My mind wandered while I tried to keep my back straight. Robert would be home soon and that would start the gossips buzzing again. All of London society assumed that an announcement of our engagement was imminent. Perhaps he'll be delayed, I thought, wincing at my disloyalty. It wasn't that I did not want to see him again, for I was genuinely fond of Robert Campbell, but I was in no hurry to marry him, or anyone for that matter, and he seemed to be of the same opinion. In the last two years Robert and I had grown accustomed to each other's company and London had grown accustomed to seeing us together. Louisa, my mother's sister, had been pleased, sure that a marriage with the Campbell family would be a good alliance for me. She thought I was at a marriageable age, that Robert was a prime catch, and that I was not trying hard enough to catch him, but despite our constant companionship there had been no commitment or declaration of love on either side. Robert was in France with his cousin John, the Duke of Argyll. While I wasn't sure what it was he'd been doing, I knew it concerned the war, though he'd not been in the field lately. When I'd asked Robert what his duties were, I'd been told not to bother about it, as though my understanding what he did would confuse or distress me. Louisa's husband, my uncle Randolph, in France with so many of the other men, had given no direction on the matter and I was content to float along in this limbo, knowing that when the war was over we would have to come to a decision. Until then, Louisa and her friend the Duchess would continue to try to find me a suitable husband and I would resist. I knew Robert was a good man, but I wanted . . . well, more. I looked out the window and tried not to mope.
I was rewarded for my good behavior by the announcement of Rebecca Washburton's arrival and her appearance in the doorway a few moments later. Becca, my dearest friend, and I had known each other since we were babies. Our mothers had been friends as girls, my aunt Louisa with them, and I could not remember a time when Becca and I had not been as sisters. We even looked alike, with dark hair and blue eyes, and although I was much taller we were often confused by strangers. But that would be changing soon. In November she would be marrying Lawrence Pearson, a cousin of the Mayfair Bartletts, and moving with him to his home in the Carolinas. I would miss her terribly.
"Miss Benton." Rebecca nodded to the seamstress. "And Mary, dear." Miss Benton stood stiffly to one side as we embraced. Becca stood back with a smile. "Please continue, Miss Benton. I'll sit out of the way and talk while you finish." Miss Benton returned to her work while I met Becca's merry eyes over the seamstress's bent head. "That dress suits you, Mary," Becca said. "You're tall enough to wear hoops and not have them look silly."
Miss Benton answered. "I'm glad you like it, Miss Washburton."
I must be invisible, I thought, and Rebecca smiled. She knew how I detested these fittings and teased me by telling of her long ride with Lawrence. I made a face at her.
"My dear Mary," she said breezily as she settled herself into a chair by the window, "you must be properly dressed so that the Duchess can find you a husband." With a glance at Miss Benton she continued in the same tone. "Lord Campbell should be home any day." I glared at my friend, knowing that she knew I could not respond freely in front of Miss Benton, for everything I said would be repeated to all who would listen, and in London many were willing to listen. And she knew that Robert was not my favorite topic. "It's a shame," Becca continued, smiling wildly now, "that Lord Campbell won't be home for the Duchess's party, but he may be here for your aunt's evening next week or Lady Wilmington's the following week."
"Yes." I glared at her over Miss Benton's head.
Becca refused to be intimidated. "Actually," she said, glancing out the window, "I've come with my mother to give our apologies to Louisa. We are going with Lawrence's family to Bath on Tuesday, and we'll miss her party."
"Becca!" I cried. "Can you not postpone your trip? Just a day or so? How will I get through the evening without you?"
Miss Benton raised her head before Becca could answer. "Your mother is here with Countess Randolph, Miss Washburton?" She rose, firmly pushing pins into the cushion she wore on her wrist.
"They are in the parlor, Miss Benton," Rebecca said. "Do you wish to speak with her?"
Miss Benton nodded. "I must discuss the fittings for your wedding gown with her, and if you will be away next week we need to schedule them for some other time." She gave me a cursory glance, already moving toward the door. "If you'll excuse me, Miss Lowell, I will return in just a few moments." I nodded, with what Rebecca called my "regal" look, but Miss Benton was already gone and I turned to my friend.
"How horrid you are!" I said, lifting the dress high so that I could stalk over to her. "Why did you mention Robert? Did you see her reaction? She stopped working to hear what we would say. She'll repeat every word!"
Rebecca laughed. "Mary, you act as though she isn't always listening to everything. Give them something to talk about."
"Why not you instead of me?" I flounced into a chair.
"I'm old news," she said, arching her eyebrows, "already engaged and the wedding day set. The only thing of interest about me before my marriage would be if Lawrence was found in some dreadful woman's company or if I suddenly started gaining weight."
"Easy for you to say," I answered. "The vigilance has been relaxed. I'm still watched every minute. Really, Becca, I do envy you. Once you are married you will enjoy much more freedom than we do now." It was true. My every moment was observed for signs of appropriateness and propriety. If Robert and I were together we must be under the watchful gaze of a relative or my maid, and the door of the room we were in must be left ajar. I often wondered just what exactly my maid could prevent if Robert chose to misbehave. But, I reflected, Robert would never misbehave.
"Poor Mary," Rebecca teased. "Life is so very difficult."
"You don't have to dine with the Mayfair Bartletts tonight."
"We did last night and survived."
"Let me guess. You discussed politics."
Rebecca nodded. "Queen Anne, King Louis, and the war with France, King Philip and whether Spain will side with us or France next time. Lawrence was spellbound."
I shook my head. "I get so bored with it. Endless discussions of the same things. And don't forget the gossip. Lord Someone spoke to Lady Someone at a party and Miss Someone accepted a sip of punch from Mister Someone. Hours' worth of discussion."
Becca laughed. "You'll survive, and tomorrow is the Duchess's party."
"For which we will prepare all day. And then we'll spend the next week preparing for Louisa's party." I grimaced. "At least Will and Betty are still in London."
"How much longer will they stay?"
"Two weeks, then they're off to Mountgarden. Perhaps I'll go with them," I said, feeling a sudden longing for my childhood home. "But it's not the same with my parents gone. I don't know what I'll do."
"You'll go with them. You know Will enjoys your company."
I nodded. "And I his. But, Becca, it's their home now. I have no home of my own. I live with Louisa or Will and Betty. There is nowhere that is mine, truly mine."
Rebecca patted my hand. "I know," she said, suddenly serious.
I shrugged and smiled at my friend. "What will I do without you to listen to my complaining? What a spoiled child I am, thinking of such things when Will has offered me a home for forever, and Louisa as well. I should be more grateful." But just now I didn't feel grateful. Outside, a cloud passed before the sun. Tomorrow, no doubt, it would rain. And I would change my clothes four times before dinner.
I did survive dinner with the Bartletts, although I amused myself only by counting the number of scandalous stories waspish Edmund Bartlett told. Twelve, I decided at the end of the evening, unless I'd forgotten one. I smiled genuinely as I climbed into the coach with my aunt and Will and Betty. The evening was over.
The Duchess's party the next night was a great success, crowded and happy, and I enjoyed myself much more than I had thought I would. My aunt's dear friends, John and Eloise Barrington, the Duke and Duchess of Fenster, had warmly welcomed me, lavishing compliments on the new blue dress, and I had laughed and bantered with them. Lawrence was very accommodating, and Becca and I had time to talk with our friends Janice and Meg. Even my sister-in-law, Betty, was in great spirits after having been complimented by several men, which meant that Will had a good time as well. The party was over before I'd expected. If I had found the handsome man Becca said had watched me for hours my evening would have been complete, but despite our roaming through all the rooms he was nowhere to be found, and I teased Rebecca about inventing a mystery man for me. The only cloud in the evening was the chilly manner of the few Whigs invited.
The Barringtons were influential Tories--the party that currently dominated the Parliament and vied for Queen Anne's attention--and were considered quite tolerant to invite the opposition to their home, although many Tories were doing that lately. Both political parties were in their infancy, but the Tories generally favored the Anglican church and were considered insular by the Whigs, who favored the dissenters and military involvement in Europe. While the Whigs were polite to me and my aunt, we were both aware that we were mere women and therefore of little consequence. For the most part they ignored us, which suited me. Their behavior and its political ramifications would be discussed endlessly, I knew, in the week before the next event, and I would hear hours of it. There was no need to dwell on it tonight.
The next week flew by, a kaleidoscope of preparations for Louisa's party. I trailed behind her in awe as always of her effortless abilities. She managed household and servants with the ease of a born commander, and I watched and learned. Serene at all times, Louisa dispensed orders to her staff and instructions to me in one breath, and we hurried to do her bidding. By early afternoon the day of the party, all was in place. Louisa was resting and I was in my bedroom with my maid, debating which new dress to wear. Louisa had strongly suggested the rose gown, and in the end that was what I wore, with my mother's simple jewelry and a white rose from Louisa's garden tucked in my sash. Becca had left for Bath with Lawrence, the Pearsons, and her parents. Janice and Meg were both already gone from London, and Robert had not returned from France. I expected a lonely evening.
I noticed him the moment he stepped into view in the doorway of Louisa's ballroom. He was waiting to be announced, but I knew who he was immediately. I did not know his name, but surely this was the man Becca had talked about. He certainly fit the description she'd given and was as memorable as she'd hinted. He wore traditional Scottish Highland clothing while everyone else was dressed in the latest London style. Taller than most of the men in the room, he was simply groomed with no wig, his blond hair pulled into a queue at the nape of his neck. He wore a very white shirt under a muted green jacket that topped a plaided kilt. Over his shoulder was the rest of the plaid, fastened with a simple gold brooch. He was lean and graceful, his shoulders wide, his legs long, the muscles visible under dark socks below the kilt. The other men in the room suddenly seemed overdressed.
My interest heightened as the Earl of Kilgannon was announced and walked down the stairs. I watched as my aunt approached him with a welcoming smile, and I admired her easy grace. Louisa, the Countess Randolph, married to the Earl Randolph, was accustomed to greeting nobility, for she moved in titled circles. The Duchess, at her side as usual, also greeted the newcomer warmly. Behind me I could hear the murmuring of two men who were not pleased that a "damned Scot" was among us. I recognized the voices and turned to find my suspicions confirmed: the men were the Whigs who had ignored me at the Duchess's party. I turned back to watch the Scotsman.
"Not only a Scot, but a Highlander," growled one of the Whigs. "He'll likely stab someone before the night is out. They have the manners of pigs. Barbarians. What is the matter with the Countess Randolph that she has him here? Damned inconsiderate."
His friend laughed. "I believe he's some sort of relative. She was married to a Scot, remember. She says he makes her laugh."
"So does my dog, but I don't invite him to dinner."
They continued, but I was only half-listening now, my attention focused on the blond man as he bowed over my aunt's hand and said something that had her laughing and playfully smacking his arm with her fan. Why had Louisa not mentioned him before? He was certainly more interesting than any man I'd seen in London. Well, at least more handsome. I lost sight of them as people moved between us, then I saw the Scot standing alone, scanning the room as though looking for someone. Our eyes met and he smiled. Without thinking, I smiled in return. He began to walk toward me, but Lady Wilmington stopped him, tilting her head and laying one fleshy hand on his arm. He looked at her hand, then at me, and then smiled at her. Will said something to me then and I gave him my attention. When he and Betty left me a few moments later to dance, I turned to look again for the stranger. And found him standing in front of me.
My eye level was at his collarbone, and I looked at his silver buttons and lace collar before I met his gaze, aware of the curious stares directed our way. I tried in vain to control the flush that stole into my cheeks and wondered if I was now the same color as my gown. His hair was a golden blond, thick and shining. Prominent cheekbones and jawline and a straight nose complemented a well-defined mouth. His eyes, surrounded by dark lashes, were a midsummer's sky blue, his expression pleasant as he spoke.
"Miss Lowell? I am Alexander MacGannon of Kilgannon. Yer aunt suggested I make yer acquaintance." His accent was noticeable, his tone light. He did not sound like a madman. I offered my hand and he bowed over it. As he straightened, a lock of his hair slipped out of the band that held it and framed his face, and I had the ridiculous urge to brush it away from his cheek. I pulled back from him more strongly than I had intended. He brushed his hair back while he looked at me intently, but something had flickered in his eyes and I knew he had seen me flinch.
"It is customary, Kilgannon, to have a third person introduce you," laughed the Duchess, suddenly at his side. The small plump woman looked up at him affectionately.