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Lady Emma Lindsay looked at herself in the mirror, not out of vanity but simply to assure herself that the gown she wore would pass muster. It was made in pale blue mousseline de soie, with tiny puffed sleeves, a deep boat-shaped neckline edged with a darker blue satin ribbon, and a high waist marked by the same ribbon. The skirt stopped just short of her feet and revealed satin slippers. Her maid had arranged her dark brown hair à la Grecque, held with a coronet of tiny silk flowers.
'There! You look very fine indeed,' Rose said, as she helped Emma on with her velvet cape, handed her a fan decorated with a woodland scene and stood back, smiling at the picture she had helped to create. 'You will have all the eligibles falling at your feet.'
'Too late, Rose, too late. I shall soon be one and twenty, almost at my last prayers.' She was unusually tall, but then all the Lindsays were tall, so it was hardly surprising. What with her height and her age, she despaired of finding a husband, at least not one she could love for himself and who would love her for the woman she was. And that was the problem. It was not finding a husband because her dowry was enough to ensure that, but finding the one to set her heart beating faster. Did such a man exist?
Mama said love did not come into it and she should not consider it, that a fortune and a pleasant temperament were of far more use, which was strange considering Mama had married again less than two years after losing her first husband and Sir George Tasker had neither a fortune nor a pleasant temperament.
Emma had been preparing for her come-out in the spring of 1813, when her father, Earl Lindsay, died suddenly and threw her into deep mourning. Naturally her trip to London had to be cancelled, but in truth Emma, grieving for her dear papa, had been in no mood for frivolity and had been content to spend her time quietly in the country at Pinehill, the family home in Hertfordshire. But one morning a year later, woken by bird song and the sun streaming through her bedroom window, she had suddenly realised that spring had arrived and life was passing her by and she ought to do something about it.
Mama must have had the same thought, because later that day, she had suggested taking Emma to London for her delayed coming out. The Duke of Ranworth, her mother's brother, had offered them the use of Ranworth House in Hanover Square and they had done the rounds, attending balls and tea parties, but in the end it had not been Emma who found a husband but the dowager herself, though calling Mama a dowager was a jest, considering she had not been above forty at the time and still comely.
'Lady Emma, that's just the right age to be,' Rose said, answering her last comment. 'Though you are still young and beautiful, you are past the age of being thought an empty-headed schoolgirl that no one need take seriously. Some gentlemen would value your maturity.'
Emma laughed. 'Thank you, Rose. What would I do without you? It is ridiculous when you think that a lady is not expected to dress herself, to do her own hair, or allowed to go out alone. But it is not only the dressing and looking after my clothes I value you for, it is having someone to talk to. I can say anything I like to you.'
'My lady, I am sure you would manage.' She paused and then took a deep breath before going on. 'My lady, I have to give notice. My mother is having another baby and she needs me to look after the other little ones. There are seven now.'
Emma sank down on to the bed and stared up at her maid, who had been part of her life ever since she could remember. Rose had been a parlour maid at Pinehill, but as soon as Emma had become old enough to have a maid of her own, the girl had been promoted to lady's maid. She was more than a servant, she was a friend. 'Oh, Rose, of course you must go, but I shall miss you terribly. How long do you think you will be away?'
'My lady, my mother is almost past childbearing age and this time she has found it very difficult carrying. I think she will need me to stay. I am sorry, my lady, truly I am. I do not want to leave you, but I must.'
'I understand, Rose, of course I do.' How selfish men were, Emma decided, determined to have their conjugal rights no matter what the consequences to their poor wives, but she did not say it aloud because she knew Rose loved her father besides, it was not considered a suitable subject for a young unmarried lady to air. 'When will you go?'
'At the end of the week if that is convenient to you, my lady.'
'My convenience is not important, Rose, I would never keep you from your mother. Go and look after her, I shall manage.' She stood up. 'Now, I must be off or we shall be late.'
Hurrying downstairs, Emma found her mother and Sir George waiting for her in the drawing room. Her mother, in a becoming gown of rose-pink taffeta, was looking unhappy, her face pale and eyes bright with unshed tears. Sir George, arrayed in a mulberry evening coat, an embroidered waistcoat, white silk breeches and silk stockings, was standing with his back to the hearth, his mouth set in a thin line of annoyance. There was a tension in the air, which immediately communicated itself to Emma.
'About time too!' Sir George said.
'Goodness, child, whatever do you do up there to take so long to dress?' her mother asked more mildly. She had once been upright and sprightly, but age and being cowed by her demanding second husband seemed to have diminished her.
'I'm sorry, Mama, but I was talking to Rose. She wants to leave.'
'Why? Whatever have you done to her?'
'Nothing, Mama. She has to go and look after her brothers and sisters. Her mother is enceinte again.'
'Well, there's nothing to be done about it tonight,' Sir George snapped. 'You can send her packing in the morning.'
'In the morning?' Emma queried. 'She is prepared to stay until the end of the week.'
'No doubt she would like to, but it is my experience that servants under notice are worse than useless; they do no work, undermine the morale of the others and use every opportunity to steal
'Rose is not like that,' Emma protested. 'She is honest and loyal.'
'So you may think, but it is my rule that when a servant expresses a wish to leave, they are turned off immediately.' He turned to his wife. 'You will see she goes tomorrow. Now, the carriage is waiting. If we are not careful, we shall be the last to arrive and I particularly wanted to be there on time. There is someone I wish you to meet.'
'Oh?' Had he tired of waiting for her to accept an offer of marriage and found a husband for her? She waited to be enlightened.
'I do not think I know the gentleman.'
'No, of course you do not or I would not be going to the trouble of introducing you.'
'And what am I to make of this gentleman?' She spoke coolly because she would not let him intimidate her as he intimidated her mother; if he expected her to fall into the arms of one of his disreputable friends, then he was going to be disappointed. She was not so desperate to marry that she would accept anyone in breeches. In fact, she was not desperate at all. Her mother's miserable second marriage was enough to put anyone off.
'You may make of him what you will, miss. What is more to the point is what he makes of you. Come, now, the horses will be growing restive.' Followed meekly by his wife and an exasperated Emma, he set off down the hall, where the front door was opened by a liveried footman. A few short steps and he was at the carriage where he stood to one side as one of the grooms opened the door for the ladies to enter. Sir George seated himself opposite them and gave the order to proceed.
Although Almack's was almost certainly the most exclusive club in London, it could hardly be called grand. Lit by gas, the ballroom was enormous, made to look even larger by the huge mirrors and a series of gilt columns. Other smaller rooms were used for supper and cards. The Patronesses who presided over the weekly balls during the Season made sure only the best people attended and that everyone behaved themselves. It was here young ladies were paraded before the eligible bachelors in the hope of finding a husband. Emma thought it unbearably boring and could not understand why her stepfather should suddenly take it into his head to attend. Except for that hint about someone he wanted her to meet. She was curious, but not hopeful.
As soon as they arrived Sir George disappeared in the direction of the card room and Emma and her mother wandered into the ballroom, where the sumptuous gowns of the ladies and the richness of the gentlemen's coats formed a shifting rainbow of colour as they walked and gesticulated and preened themselves between dances. Spotting Lady Standon and her daughter, Harriet, they crossed the room to join them.
Harriet, a year younger than Emma, had recently become engaged to Frederick Graysmith, lawyer and Member of Parliament. He was likeable enough, but there seemed to be no fire in him. He would be safe but dull as a husband. Emma decided she wanted more than that. She wanted excitement and passion and a little something extra, though she could not define it. All she knew was that she would recognise it when it came. If it came. And if it did not, would she be able to settle for second best? She had a dreadful feeling that her stepfather was about to try to force a match on her and, if Lord Bent-water was anything like Sir George, she knew she would not like him.
'Emma, I had no idea you would be coming tonight,' Harriet said, her brown eyes bright with excitement. She was dressed in buttercup yellow, which contrasted well with her dark hair.
'It was Sir George's idea,' she said. 'He says there's someone he wants me to meet and it must be important, for he insisted on buying me a new gown for the occasion.' She looked round to see her mother deep in conversation with Lady Standon and lowered her voice. 'We had such a rush to find something in the time available.'
'It is very becoming,' Harriet said, stepping back to appraise her friend. 'You mean he is matchmaking?'
'If he is, I cannot think what is behind it. I'm not sure I shall like it.'
'Being married? Oh, surely you do not mean to be an old maid.'
'It would be better than enduring an unhappy marriage, don't you think? Once the deed is done, there's no going back on it.'
'I know that. But why should your marriage be unhappy? I set my heart on Freddie from the moment I met him and I know we shall deal well together.'
'Then I wish you happy.'
'Oh, I am sure I will be. The wedding is to be in June. I know it is very soon, but we have to be back from our wedding tour by the time Parliament reconvenes after the summer recess. You will be one of my attendants, won't you?'
'I shall be delighted, if Mama says I may.'
'I would be even happier if I thought you were suited too. Do take advantage of the dancing. Almost every eligible in town is here. I am sure if you tried you could find someone.'
Emma laughed. That seemed to be all that mattered: the thrill of the chase, the announcement of the engagement and later the wedding with half the haut monde in attendance. But that was only one yearwhat about all the years afterwards, the children, the problems of motherhood, the steadily growing older? If the man you had married was the wrong one, it would be purgatory. 'Oh, I am sure I could, but how would I know he was not after my fortune?'
'Does that matter, if he is in every other way suitable?'
'Tall, you mean.' It was said with a laugh.
'Yes, but more than that, surely? He must be amiable and considerate and have no bad vices, like womanising and gambling.'
'How right you are, especially about the gambling. I could never marry a man who gambled, however suitable he might otherwise be.' It was Sir George's gambling that was the cause of most of her mother's distress and that had entrenched in her a deep abhorrence of the vice, for vice it was. 'But do you know of such a paragon?'
'No, except Freddie, of course. But no doubt he has a friend
'Don't you dare!'
'I was only trying to help.'
'I know you were.' Emma was contrite. 'I did not mean to hurt your feelings, but I am not going to allow myself to be thrown to the wolves without a fight.' She wasn't thinking of Freddie's friend so much as her stepfather. Just what was his game? He had never shown the slightest interest in her before, except to complain to her mother that she was too lenient with her.
'Why must you fight?'
'Because that's my nature. Give me a challenge and I will rise to it. Tell me I must do something and I will refuse, tell me I cannot and I will most decidedly attempt it.'
'Then I pity any husband of yours and perhaps I shan't ask Freddie to introduce you to his friend after all. He would not thank me.' She paused and nodded towards a young man making his way towards them. 'Here comes Freddie, so I'll leave you to enjoy yourself.'
Emma danced with several young gentlemen, none of whom set her heart racing, but she was honest enough to admit she did nothing to encourage them and they must have found her extremely dull. It was not like her to be so ungracious, but she could not concentrate on her partners when her mind was filled with the prospect of meeting Lord Bentwa-ter. Who was he? What was he like? What was to be done if she took him in aversion? Perhaps, after all, he would be young and attractive and she was worrying for nothing. Or perhaps he would not turn up.
Her latest partner took her back to where her mother sat, bowed to them both and disappeared. 'Who was that?' her mother asked. 'It was not Lord Bentwater, was it?'