About to make her debut in London society, Charlotte Calverstill, beneath the lavish gowns and manners of a well-brought-up young lady, yearns for a taste of freedom. Pushing propriety aside, one evening she sneaks out with a friend to attend a masked ball, and there meets a devastatingly handsome stranger who relieves her--not against her wishes--of her virtue, then vanishes.
Years later, when they meet again, the rogue does not remember Charlotte. But she certainly remembers him; she has since learned not only his identity, but also a titillating piece of gossip about him that is sure to set society abuzz. The intricate web that a now-wiser Charlotte weaves to exact her due ensures justice for some and great merriment for all.
Taking the Regency historical to fresh new places, with artful smoothness and irrepressible humor, Eloisa James delivers a winsome tale of first love and life's unexpected surprises.
BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from Eloisa James's Paris in Love.
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Charlotte was one week short of seventeen when her life changed, falling into two halves like a shiny child's ball: before and after. In the time before, Charlotte was staying with Julia Brentorton, her dearest friend from school. Julia and she survived boarding school together: the dreary grind of everyday Latin instruction, music instruction, dance instruction, art class, etiquette with the school mistress, Lady Sipperstein. Etiquette was really the only unpleasant class.
"Julia!" Lady Sipperstein would hiss, suddenly appearing behind her left shoulder. "Cross your legs at the ankle when you sit in a low sofa."
"Walk up the stairs again, Charlotte, and do not sway your hips this time! You are wiggling in an inappropriate fashion."
Lady Sipperstein was a terrifying woman with a bosom thatextended forward like the prow of a ship. She knew to a hair how low one must bow to a duchess as opposed to a king, and she drilled her students as if they would do so every day.
She was full of maxims: "One dismisses a servant as if he were a young child: with firmness, brevity, and uninterest. . . . The appropriate gifts for the sick depend on where they live: If they live on your estate, instruct the cook to make bone-marrow jelly and bring it yourself, with fruit; if they live in the village, instruct the servants to deliver an uncooked chicken instead. And of course be sure to ascertain that any illness is not contagious before you enter a house: While it is important to show feeling, one must not be foolish."
Etiquette was an hour of unnerving questions. "Julia! If a footman enters the breakfast room with an obviously swollen jaw, what is the appropriate response?"
"Send him home?" Julia would suggest tentatively.
"No! Information first. Is the swelling the result of a distressed tooth or an improper brawl the night before? If he has been brawling, dismiss him. If not? Julia?"
"Ah, send him to a doctor?" Julia stammered.
"Incorrect. Inform the butler that he should be put on duties that will keep him out of public view. There is no point in mollycoddling servants."
For Charlotte, art class was the focus of the day. She was happiest in the white square room furnished only with twelve easels. They painted the same groupings over and over: two oranges, one lemon; two peaches, one pear. Charlotte didn't mind.
Julia did. "A pumpkin today!" she would chortle, mimicking Miss Frollip's excited tone when she introduced the latest still life.
For Julia, there was dance class--and that not because of dance, but because of Mr. Luskie. He was a rather hairy man, a family man: robust, friendly, not a bit of danger with the girls, the teachers all agreed. But Julia thought his whiskers were dashing, and she read messages in the gentle pressure of his hand as he directed her through the steps of a quadrille. "I adore him," she whispered to Charlotte at night.
Charlotte would wrinkle her nose: "I don't know, Julia, he's rather . . . well, he's not . . . " It was hard to put into words. He was common; but how not to insult Julia? She thought a bit uneasily of Julia's passionate vows of love: She wouldn't do anything, would she? Of course, Mr. Luskie wouldn't . . . but Julia was so beautiful. She was like a peach, Charlotte thought: golden and sweet-smelling and soft-looking. Would Mr. Luskie?
One of Charlotte's governesses had been stridently opinionated about men: "They want one thing, Lady Charlotte!" she would say. "One thing, and don't you forget it and get yourself ruined, now!" Charlotte would nod, wondering what the one thing was.
So she would whisper back, "I don't think he's so handsome, Julia: Did you see that he has red veins in his cheeks?"
"No!" said Julia. "He doesn't!"
"Yes, he does," said Charlotte.
"How do you notice so much?" Julia said crossly.
Finally school drew to a close, and one by one the girls were taken off by titled relatives, or simply by maids: taken off to be fitted and prinked and "tarted up," Julia said, for their debuts. It was time to start a process that would end in settlements and dowries, balls and weddings.
As the daughter of a duke, Charlotte was regarded enviously. Her debut would be magnificent. Her elder sister Violetta had made her bow to society in a ballroom draped from top to bottom with white lilies.
It was only Charlotte who didn't care much. She longed, if the truth be told, to stay in the white square room and paint another apple, or (if the market was particularly exciting that week) even a persimmon. She was good, really good, she knew she was, and Miss Frollip knew she was, but that was the end of it.
She had to debut; Julia had to debut; there would be little time for persimmons.
So when her mother picked her up at Lady Chatterton's School for Girls, Charlotte felt resigned, but not excited. Her mother arrived in full armor, in Charlotte's private opinion: in the ducal coach with four footmen behind, all in livery! The duchess was shy and quailed at the thought of an interview with the formidable Lady Sipperstein. Poor Mama, Charlotte thought. She must have been in a terrible tizzy.
Finally Charlotte and her mother were regally dismissed by Lady Sipperstein and escaped in the coach. The duchess grinned in a most unduchesslike fashion, leaned back against the satin cushions, and said, "Thank goodness, you're finished, Charlotte! I never have to see Lady Sipperstein again! We can be comfortable. How did the last picture go, darling--oranges, wasn't it?" For Charlotte's mama was a devoted parent, who lovingly kept track of her children's latest exploits, even if in Charlotte's case that had simply turned into a long progression of watercolor fruits.
"All right, Mama," Charlotte said. "I'll show you when we get home." Charlotte frowned a bit. Her mama treated all her work the same: with reverence, delight, and a noncritical eye.
"Good," said Adelaide comfortably. "I shall send it off immediately to Saxony. We're doing quite well on that hallway, dearest. Why, two or three more and the walls will be full!"