The youngest of four daughters, Primrose Ainsworth is used to getting lost in the shuffle. But when her parents decide to delay her debut into English society, Prim hatches a plan to go rogue on the night of her sixteenth birthday.
Donning a mask, Prim escapes to the infamous Vauxhall Gardens for one wild night. When her cover is nearly blown, a mysterious stranger intercedes, and Prim finds an unexpected partner in mischief . . . and romance. But when it’s revealed her new ally isn’t who he says he is, her one night of fun may last past dawn.
In this frothy regency romp perfect for fans of Austen-esque flirtation and Shakespearean hijinks, sometimes a little scandal can be a good thing.
|File size:||9 MB|
|Age Range:||12 - 18 Years|
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Chapter One15 June 1821
Ainsworth House, Belgrave Square
London, EnglandTwelve hours earlier . . .
Primrose Ainsworth had trained all her life for this day.
This training included a long list of do’s and don’ts. To be fair, there was an excessive amount of don’ts on her list, largely due to Lady Druthers’s Guide to Perfect Deportment and Etiquette, the only book Primrose could claim to abhor. As a devoted reader, someone who considered books to be her closest companions, this was saying a great deal.
Alas, Mama valued Lady Druthers’s guide as no other book. It was her bible, a mariner’s compass that directed her through the rearing of her daughters.
Even before Primrose could read its pages, the book had been read to her. Then, once she knew her letters, her governess had been charged with regularly evaluating Primrose to make certain she had the book memorized. Hours of recitation. She could be ignorant of the Battle of Hastings and its significance to British history for all Mama cared. As long as Primrose knew that blasted guide to manners and other torments front to back, her mother was satisfied.
A true optimist, Primrose had always concentrated on the do’s rather than the don’ts in those pages. On the things she would be permitted to do at ten and six: Staying up late and dressing in a manner not suitable for nine-year-old girls. No more loosely fitted frocks and plaited hair in ribbons.
Instead, she could wear her hair in an elegant coiffure, sip champagne, waltz with handsome gentlemen, and attend salons on topics of art, literature, and science. These were but a few of the liberties to be hers—or any lady’s, really—once she came out in Society.
Finally, Prim would no longer be a child consigned to the nursery. No more sneaking out to spy on her older sisters through the balusters as they entertained friends and suitors.
As the youngest of four girls, Primrose always had an abundance to observe, but for the two years since Aster had entered Society, she had been alone in her observations. Not that Aster had ever been one to join her in her forays to spy on their sisters, but these last couple years were especially lonely for Prim in the Ainsworth household. She had been forced to watch and wait her turn, counting first the years, then months, weeks, and days. Like a prisoner stuck in Newgate, she’d counted down the time until her release.
Envy had climbed high in her chest whenever her sisters slipped cloaks over their lustrous gowns to venture out to the theater or a dinner or a ball. They dazzled her, and she’d marveled at the idea that one day it would be her turn.
One day she would be like them.
One day she would know such freedoms.
That day had arrived.
Finally, she would be seen.
At last, she could attend events with her sisters. She could stay out late and partake in all the diversions permitted adults. That would be celebration enough for her.
Prim hastened downstairs to breakfast, eager to see her mother and learn what plans were in place now that she was of suitable age.
Obviously, nothing special was planned for today or she would already know of it. She did not even care that her parents were not hosting a party or dinner in her honor. Prim knew better than to expect that, especially this close to Violet’s long-anticipated wedding. Prim was fine with a quieter debut. Truly.
Her family was of moderate means. Papa often bemoaned how costly it was to bring up four daughters. She knew no grand coming-out ball was in her future. That was for members of the peerage and much too impractical for the Ainsworth family. Prim’s sisters had not received any such fête to commemorate their birthdays, and she knew to expect the same.
Currently, her family’s focus was on her sister’s impending wedding, which would thankfully be over and done in a fortnight. For now, Prim’s expectations were simple. She wanted to be included in all social gatherings her family attended—that meant accompanying her parents and sisters in the evenings. These were not far-fetched hopes. It was reasonable to believe she would be treated as an adult now.
She didn’t even require a new wardrobe. She could fit into all of Violet’s old gowns, as her sister was already wearing her wedding trousseau, confident her betrothed would outfit her in new gowns as soon as they were married. Redding was rich enough. Violet reminded everyone of that no fewer than 672 times a week.
When Prim entered the dining room, Mama was already seated at the table, eating and sipping her tea as she browsed the scandal rags beside her like she was Napoleon examining a map of Europe.
Primrose cleared her throat. “Ahem.”
She tried again, declaring rather grandly, “Good morning.”
Mama returned the greeting with a distracted murmur, not glancing up from the day’s gossip holding her rapt attention.
Papa at least looked around the edges of his paper at her. “Good morning, poppet.” He then went back to reading.
Primrose studied them both, her anticipation ebbing over their lackluster reaction to the sight of her. She waited several more moments.
“It’s someone’s birthday,” she called out, hoping that would gain her acknowledgment.
Perhaps they merely sought to surprise her?
The silence stretched and she admitted to herself that it was unlikely given her parents were not demonstrative people and they lacked a sense of humor in general.
Mama finally spoke, not glancing up. “Of course, it is. We have not forgotten.” She took a moment longer, her finger tracking the sentence she was reading. With a sigh, she lowered her paper, and began to generously lather jam onto her toast with single-minded focus.
“Happy birthday, poppet.” Papa looked around the edges of his paper once more. It was recognition, lackluster though it may be.
Mama had not said the words, but Prim now doubted she would. Her mother was not the effusive sort. At least not very often. When her daughters received marriage proposals, then she became quite demonstrative.
Apparently this, the fifteenth day of June, was not to be remarked on in any special way. It was to be treated as an ordinary occasion.
Prim cleared her throat. “I know we haven’t anything planned for today, but—”
“Correct,” Mama said perfunctorily, stabbing her toast once in the air. “I warned you that we haven’t the time or attention to devote to you right now.”
Prim nodded. “Of course. Yes. I know that, but I had hoped that I might join you out this evening since I am now—”
Primrose flinched. The quick denial felt like a slap. She looked back and forth between her parents, instructing herself to stay calm and not panic. Begging or crying or coming at her parents aggressively would reap nothing.
She moistened her lips and took a careful breath. “You promised when I turned ten and six—”
“Yes, well, you should not be such a selfish girl to fling that at me now,” Mama snapped, looking up from her toast to level a hard stare on Primrose. “Have you any notion of the stress involved with arranging Violet’s wedding whilst ushering Aster through the marriage mart?” She rubbed her fingers at the center of her forehead as if the very mention of these things caused her pain.
“And the coin involved,” Papa intoned from behind his paper.
Mama continued as though he had not spoken. It was her modus operandi to ignore all mentions of money.
“Aster is in her third season with no offer in sight.” She wagged three fingers in emphasis, her eyes bulging as though in physical pain. “How can you expect me to allow you to make your entrée into Society? To have two daughters on the marriage mart at the same time? I did that with Violet and Aster. Never again. No, thank you very much. ’Tis madness. I shall not repeat that mistake. You can wait another year.”
She gasped. “At least?”
“Oh do stop parroting me, Primrose.” Mama released another long-suffering sigh. “You grow tedious.”
Prim moved on numb legs toward the dining table and sank down onto a seat. She did not bother fetching herself a plate. She ignored all the tempting smells beckoning from the sideboard. Her stomach rolled. She feared that if she attempted food right now, she would be ill. She began cautiously, knowing it benefited her not to annoy her mother. “You’re saying I might have to wait more than a year before my coming-out in Society?”
“Yes, well, one can hope Aster will have a betrothal by this time next year.” Mama began lathering her second slice of toast. She did not even look up as she delivered this most disastrous news.
Papa was buried in his paper, but Primrose tried appealing to him nonetheless. “Papa?”
He turned a page.
“Papa?” she said more insistently.
“Primrose,” Mama chided. “Mind your tone. A lady does not shout.”
Prim resisted the urge to argue that she wasn’t shouting. It would be for naught. That would only bring forth another reprimand. As far as Mama was concerned, anything above a whisper was considered excessive. Unless it was Mama doing the shouting, of course.
Papa lowered the paper with a mild grunt, peering at Prim and Mama blandly through his spectacles. “Yes, m’dears?”
“I’m ten and six, Papa. Today,” she said, putting weight on the final word, hoping it would affect him in some way. She knew she could not reach her mother. Papa was her only hope. “Mama says I must wait to come out at least another year.”
Prim held her breath, searching his face, hoping Papa might intervene on her behalf.
Mama took a crunchy bite of toast and spoke with great agitation through a mouthful, bits of crumbs flying from her lips. “Do not try to appeal to your father. It will do no good. He and I are in accord on this. I’ll not have two daughters competing for suitors again. Aster is enough of an ordeal on her own.” She shuddered and took another angry bite.
Primrose shook her head, bewildered. Most assuredly, Mama had made her mind up long ago. She had simply not seen fit to inform Prim. If only she had told Prim this months ago, weeks even, then she would not now face such crushing disappointment . . . and such a keen sense of betrayal at this moment.
Mama went on, “Once Aster is betrothed, you will then have your turn, Primrose.”
Prim’s shoulders slumped.
When her mother said it like that, it sounded so annoyingly reasonable.
Last born, last daughter remembered.
Mama choosing Aster over Prim was nothing out of the ordinary. Mama was always choosing one of her three elder daughters over Prim. It was the condition of her life.
Papa nodded. “A sound plan, Primrose. I am certain you see the sense in that. Once Aster is betrothed, you will have your mother’s most dedicated attentions on you.”
Truth be told, to be out in Society without Mama’s full attention sounded like a blessing, but Prim dared not say that.
As she slumped in her chair, Aster and Violet entered the room and made their way to the sideboard, where breakfast awaited their selection.
Aster and Violet bore the same coloring, with their deep chestnut hair and milk-and-roses complexions, but there the similarity ended.
Violet was curvaceous and moved as gracefully as a floating snowflake. Many a suitor had written odes to her grace and beauty. She received no fewer than four proposals during her first season, and three in her second, but Violet had waited, claiming a bigger and better fish was coming. That fish had arrived in her third season in the form of Redding. She had finally accepted him, to Mama’s great joy.
Contrariwise, Aster was somewhat boxlike. She did not float when she walked like Violet. Rather, she charged ahead with jarring steps as though in a rush to reach her destination. Mama once claimed she was shaped like a tree stump—this was after a frustrating morning spent at the dressmaker’s when nothing poor Aster tried on appeased Mama.
Violet seated herself first.
Aster soon followed, her plate piled high with food, quite ready to enjoy her meal.
Mama frowned. “Aster, what have I said about daintier, ladylike portions?”
Aster shrugged and took a bite of her kipper with an almost defiant air. She didn’t care. She enjoyed food and ate with gusto.
Prim sat in silence as the conversation moved from tonight’s diversion to events beyond that, namely Violet’s upcoming wedding.
“And what are your plans for the day, Primrose?” Mama asked, finally turning her attention back to her youngest daughter.
She looked up warily at the question, feeling as though she were facing a firing squad. The inquiry felt like a trap. Since Prim was not preparing for an evening out, she would be doing nothing extraordinary or particularly diverting. Mama must know that. She rarely inquired after Prim’s day, as her options were obviously limited. Prim was not allowed to leave the house without a chaperone, after all.
Most girls not yet out in Society spent their days working through their lessons with their governess. Occasionally they strolled the park or the halls of a museum. They had tutors, too, in dance or voice or pianoforte.
Not Primrose though.
Mama had deemed her finished over two years ago, around the time that Aster entered Society. Even though Prim could not carry a tune. Even though her skill at the pianoforte was abysmal.
Prim had been on her own for quite some time without a governess or tutor. There had been no dancing instructor, but Prim enjoyed dancing and was passable at it. Aster had no interest and made no effort to master her steps, so Violet had skipped right to Primrose to practice. For that reason alone, Primrose knew all the dances: the quadrille, the cotillion, and even the most scandalous waltz.
And yet, since Violet had become betrothed, she’d had little need for dance practice, so Prim’s days were spent in rather dull occupation. If she did not have plans with Olympia, she usually engaged herself in reading.
“My plans?” she echoed.
“Yes. What do you have planned for your day?”
Prim swallowed. Dread worked a slow churn in her belly. “I have plans to meet Olympia at Gunter’s. I thought I mentioned that last week.”
She had not mentioned any such thing to her mother, but sometimes subterfuge worked. Mama was less than attentive when Prim spoke. Prim often claimed she’d gotten permission when she in fact had not. Fortunately for her, Mama could never remember.
Mama pursed her lips. It was her usual expression when Olympia’s name entered any conversation.
As far as Mama was concerned, Olympia was ill-bred. Her mother was a performer—a word tantamount to peasant in Mama’s mind. If Olympia’s mother were not world renowned and fêted by all of London society, Mama would have forbidden their friendship from the start.
Approval aside, however reluctantly given, Mama looked as though she had sucked a lemon at the notion of Primrose taking tea at Gunter’s with Olympia.
“I trust you can be chaperoned by her maid. Goodness knows they have more staff than they require. Your sisters and I are venturing to Bond Street and we shall have need of Gertie.”
Of course Prim was not included in their shopping trip. Not even on her birthday, when Mama might make a special treat out of it for her.
“I am certain one of Olympia’s maids will accompany us,” Prim assured her mother, determined to keep her outing with her friend.
Papa lowered his paper with a scowl. He was no doubt alarmed at the mention of Bond Street, the location of the finest and most popular shops in London. If Mama required two servants, there would be quite a few packages to carry.
“Bond Street?” Papa’s tone conveyed his concern.
“Now, now. Do not look at me that way, my dear Mr. Ainsworth. You haven’t any notion of how difficult it is to keep two daughters properly outfitted for the height of the season.” She wagged two fingers in the air as though the gesture were necessary for emphasis. “Aster is yet unwed and in dire need of a suitor, and you know what a challenge she is. She never likes anything that is in vogue. I think she’d be happier wearing a burlap sack than one of Madame Brigitte’s splendid creations.”
Aster paused as she was delicately cracking at a soft-boiled egg with her spoon. “I am right here, Mama,” she pointed out wryly, her gaze lifting from beneath her arched eyebrows.
Mama continued addressing Papa as though she had not spoken. “However will she ensnare an eligible gentleman if she’s not adequately attired? Count your blessings Begonia is at least wed already.” She sighed heartily.
“I am betrothed, Mama,” Violet loftily reminded her as she nibbled at a piece of fruit. “You needn’t outfit me for much longer. In a fortnight, I shall have all the dresses I desire. Redding has accounts at all the very best shops in town. I shall never want for anything.” Reminder 541 this week. Prim and Aster locked eyes across the table and shared a knowing smirk.
Mama nodded and took another bite, speaking around a mouthful. “Indeed, my dear. You have far outshone Begonia. You are a credit to our family with the fine match you have made.”
Aster swung her spoon too hard then, loudly cracking her soft-boiled egg and sending shards of shell inside the tasty goodness.
Prim shook her head ruefully. Mama’s remarks had ceased to surprise.
“But, oh!” Mama sank back against her chair and fanned herself with her napkin. “A wedding in a fortnight. I’m all agitation.”
Primrose and Aster exchanged looks. Aster rolled her eyes in dramatic fashion.
“Aster,” Violet added, “You can have all my old dresses as I will have so many new ones. Of course, you shall have to let out all the stays to fit you.”
Aster’s eyes shot daggers. “Are you certain you want to give me all your dresses, Violet? You may need them. You know how the servants talk . . . I overheard that your clever Redding is all thumbs and cannot quite manage to undo his buttons. He’s constantly rending them and ruining his garments. You cannot be certain he won’t reduce your gowns to shreds on your wedding night.”
Violet slammed a hand on the table, rattling the dishes. “What rubbish! Redding can undo buttons! You’re trying to nettle me with these fabrications.”
Aster shrugged as though she could possibly be lying. She was expert at aggravating Violet, after all. Prim did not put it past her to fabricate something merely to irritate Violet.
“Aster, enough,” Mama chided and then reached for her smelling salts. “I vow, you girls will put me in an early grave.” She took a deep sniff, and then settled back in her chair, seemingly revived.
Papa harrumphed, rustling his paper. “You do understand we are expected to provide dowries for these gels?” Clearly, he was still stuck on the subject of their impending trip to Bond Street. “Dowries for the three we have left? Violet’s might have already been negotiated, but I haven’t had to pay it yet.” He swept a hand encompassing Aster, Violet, and Primrose. “Consider that as you are loading packages upon Gertie during your shopping expedition today.” With a rattle of his paper, he returned his attention to the day’s news.
As much as Papa disapproved of their shopping jaunt, Prim knew Gertie, a woman hired years ago to be the family governess, would not look forward to it more. Gertie’s governess days were over. At least in the Ainsworth household.
Gertie had ushered all four of them through lessons in Latin, French, literature, mathematics, science, history, geography, and basic comportment. Oh, and rudimentary dance, as Papa refused to pay for a dancing instructor.
That was, until two years ago. A few days prior to Prim’s fourteenth birthday, Gertie announced that she had reached the limits of her knowledge and could no longer properly instruct Primrose.
When she explained this to Prim’s parents, instead of acquiring a new governess to meet Prim’s needs, Mama declared her formal education at an end. After all, Prim had been successfully tutored in all matters of significance as far as Mama and Papa were concerned.
No one wants a wife too clever. Mama had been quick to offer that opinion then and several times since. Besides . . . she had such significant plans for Prim’s older sisters marrying well, she did not see the need to squander money on Prim.
“Mama?” Violet frowned as though suddenly struck with a thought. “Are you certain Gertie will be enough help?”
Mama had kept Gertie on to serve as a lady’s maid and companion among them. The former governess now helped with their hair and dress, served as a chaperone, and generally ran whatever errands Mama required.
“Perhaps we should drag Cook from the kitchens to carry packages, too?” Aster grumbled.
Violet glared at Aster across the table.
Aster smiled sweetly. “Is something amiss, Violent?”
Primrose lowered her head to hide her smile. Aster loved to warp Violet’s name, and Prim found it vastly entertaining.
“Aster,” Mama reprimanded, “Stop that. You know your sister’s name.” She held a finger aloft. “But you do pose a valid question. Is Gertie enough?” Her gaze narrowed in contemplation. “Perhaps we should bring a groom too.”
Primrose set her napkin on the table and pushed up to her feet. She wasn’t needed here. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Mama gave a distracted nod, her attention on Aster and Violet as she continued to strategize their shopping venture.
Prim had almost reached the doors when her mother’s voice stopped her. “Oh, and you can plan to dine with Gertie this evening. We will all be at Mrs. Simeon’s soirée and her affairs always run long. She hosts the most brilliant occasions though. No need to wait up for us.”
They would be out and Primrose left home alone. No surprise there.
“That old windbag?” Aster muttered.
“Aster!” Mama chided. “Mrs. Simeon has great influence. All the most eligible gentlemen attend her functions, and you should take heed of her. One word of endorsement from her can go very far for a young lady.”
Prim lingered. She could not help herself. Ton gossip did intrigue her. Anything that had to do with the world outside this house interested her. Naturally. She wasn’t immune to High Society’s gossip.
Papa peered around his paper. “Is my presence really required? Might I not dine with Gertie, too?”
“Mr. Ainsworth! Mrs. Simeon is cousin to the Dowager Duchess of Hampstead.” Mama practically quivered with indignation.
“And what does that have to do with my attendance at tonight’s soirée, m’dear?”
“You never know when the dowager duchess might appear at one of Mrs. Simeon’s fêtes.”
“The old dame has not graced any of Mrs. Simeon’s parties with her presence yet,” Aster reminded them as she cut into a juicy kipper, her ruined soft-boiled egg pushed to the side. “They might be blood kin, but apparently that does not obligate her to attend her cousin’s gatherings. Heaven knows I would not be inclined to attend of any of Violet’s.”
“Good,” Violet retorted. “Because I shan’t invite you.”
“Girls, stop your bickering.” Mama glared at Aster, clearly unappreciative of her input. “You never know when yet the dowager will show—or even better—when her son, the young Duke of Hampstead, might make an appearance.”
“Young Hampstead eschews all polite Society,” Violet announced with an air of authority. Ever since her betrothal to Redding, she had turned into an expert on all matters of Society. “Everyone knows he has a small set of friends and prefers them to ballrooms.”
“One day he shall give that up. He will need to wed and produce an heir.”
“I’ve seen this young duke at my club,” Papa commented mildly through the barrier of his paper.
Mama gaped. “Mr. Ainsworth! You’ve never said as such. What is he like?”
“He’s a bit of a wild buck,” Papa mused as he turned his paper to the next page.
Mama looked almost affronted at the remark. “He’s young, only but ten and nine, I believe. Newly minted. That’s to be expected. He is the most eligible nobleman in the realm. Handsome and rich as Croesus.”
“Is it no wonder he spends so little time at the ton’s approved venues, with all you marriage-minded mamas slavering after him.”
It was a bit of irony, Primrose supposed, thinking of this unknown, faceless duke. She wanted so desperately to be seen and treated as an adult—to be let out of the nursery, for goodness sake—whilst this duke, this man, a mere lad, from all accounts, not so very much older than herself, had all the freedom in the world. He had wealth and opportunity. Every door was open to him, and he chose not to cross the threshold of any of them.
She didn’t even know him, but she hated him a little.
“The lad has to marry someday and he has no need of a dowry. He can wed whomever he wants. So why not one of our . . .” Mama’s voice faded as she alternated her gaze on Aster and then Primrose. Whatever she saw in the two of them made the excitement dim from her eyes. Her shoulders slumped in defeat. “That’s neither here nor there, I suppose.”
The insult was thinly veiled, and Primrose saw right through it. As far as Mama was concerned, the two most attractive Ainsworth daughters had already been matched. Mama did not expect the less appealing two to fare better.
Mama resumed with a beleaguered sigh. “In any event, it is quite a coup to be invited to Mrs. Simeon’s events. We are among the privileged chosen.”
Except for Primrose. She was not chosen. Even today, on her birthday. The vast unfairness of it all weighed down on her and pushed her to move.
Snapping back to action, she departed the room, glad to leave them to talk about all the things they would do without her.
Once in her bedchamber, she checked her reflection in her cheval mirror, looking herself over carefully. She pinched her cheeks for a bit of color. Cringing at the hopeless sight of her hair, she attempted to smooth down the tendrils that sprang from her coronet of plaits. Her hair was perpetually untidy. It would take more time than she had to tame the fiery strands.
She paced the length of her chamber, biding her time as patiently as she could until she needed to leave for her meeting with Olympia. A challenging task. Patience was the least of her virtues.
When she could wait no longer, she snatched up her reticule and fled her room.
In the foyer, she grabbed her bonnet and arranged it on her head. There. That would hide her less-than-perfect hair. She turned in a small circle, as though expecting to see someone in the entrance hall to bid her farewell, to inquire when she might return. Her mother or her father. Her sisters. Gertie or the housekeeper.
No one was about. She turned for the door. No one made note of her leaving the house, which wasn’t as much of a surprise as it should have been.
She was the forgotten daughter, after all. Mama might keep tabs on her, but that was only superficially. Invisibility was the proven condition of her life.