Did anything sound worse?
“I’m simply going to have to try not to do this dress justice.” Alex’s tone was filled with resolve. “My mother has her heart set on making my life as dull and boring as she possibly can. I mean…who on earth wants to end up married in Surrey? What a nightmare!” she said to no one in particular.
Ella leaned back against the soft upholstery of her chair and looked up at the ceiling with disdain. “No one. At least, no one with a mind to think for herself.”
“My brothers are all years older than I am—does my mother pester them to settle down and get married?”
Vivi interrupted, “Yes.”
“That’s because my mother enjoys pestering her children. But they don’t listen to her! The only reason they’ve agreed to attend any balls this year is because they want fodder with which to mock their little sister!”
Ella this time: “Well, you can’t blame them. You are exceedingly mockable.”
Vivi chuckled as Alex shot her friend a withering glance and carried on. “It’s atrociously unfair! Men our age aren’t even asked to attend balls. The idea of boys marrying at eighteen is unfathomable for our set. It’s what happens in the country! And yet, we are paraded around like…like…cattle…to be sold…to the highest bidder!”
Ella interrupted again. “Well, to be fair, perhaps it’s best men aren’t married off at eighteen. Have you met the average eigh teen-year-old male?”
Vivi’s dry remark followed. “Mmmm. I’m still trying to avoid taking offense at being compared to livestock. Go on, Alex…”
Alex sighed. “I’m just being silly, I know. But that’s how it feels. Especially when you grow up with three older brothers who seem to have an entirely different set of rules.”
“You’re right,” Ella spoke seriously, “but it seems that we don’t really have a choice. Our options are rather limited.”
And Ella would know. As the eldest in a family of girls, Ella had a familial obligation to marry and marry well, setting the standard for her younger sisters…unless she could figure out a way to take herself out of the running. Ella had considered any number of options to render herself unmarriageable. The girls had discussed every possibility and come to one conclusion: The fastest way to be set “on the shelf” and ignored was to have one’s reputation ruined.
Unfortunately, being ruined was not an option, however tempting it was, for it seemed that ruination was the punishment for anyone daring enough to try something exciting. Girls in London society could have their reputation destroyed in any number of ways, but the biggest offenses were clear: kissing (or something more scandalous) on the lips (or somewhere more scandalous); dancing three or more dances with someone at a ball; or visiting a man at his home unchaperoned.
Ella had considered these options again and again, even going so far as to make lists of the men she felt she could convince to aid her ruin, but she simply couldn’t commit to bringing gossip and criticism down upon her family. After all, ruination didn’t stop at the young lady. Polite society could be devastatingly cruel to her loved ones as well.
“Unless I decide to give my mother a case of hysterics and destroy my sisters’ chances of ever being matched, I have to settle for remaining unnoticed,” Ella said to no one in particular.
Vivi chuckled and shook her head at her friend. “You make it sound so easy! You’re beautiful and come with a sizable dowry. Spinsterhood isn’t exactly guaranteed, Ella.”
“Ah, but you’ve forgotten my most hideous trait. No one wants an intelligent wife.” Ella gave a mock shudder. “Too terrifying a possibility.”
Alex laughed. “Sadly, I think you’re right. Reveal just enough of your intelligence and you’re safe from being courted. Especially by any of the ninnies who will be asking us to take a turn about the room at Almack’s.”
Her friend smiled. “Let’s hope so, because that’s the best plan I’ve got. It’s the only way my novel is ever going to be written.”
It wasn’t simply that Ella found the idea of a proper marriage to a proper man distasteful, it was that she found it in direct opposition to the one thing she had wanted to do for as long as she could remember. Ella had dreams of becoming a great novelist and writing the sort of book that told the story of her time. She read anything she could get her hands on and was rarely seen without her notebooks, which held any ideas and observations she thought would be useful when she finally had a chance to tell her tale.
Of course, the challenge of being a woman who writes loomed over Ella’s head. Of all the respectable novelists in the past fifty years, few had (at least publicly) admitted to being women. But Ella was well aware that the small odds of her being an unmarried female author were slightly higher than the minuscule odds of being a married one. And she was willing to bet on them.
“That reminds me,” Vivi interjected, “I have an idea for your book that I think might be just perfect.” The girls were always trading concepts and plots to be recorded in Ella’s notebook. “I overheard my father discussing the impending capture of a series of spies—En glish spies—who have been trading secrets to the French.”
Alex leaned back against the chaise and pulled her feet up under her. She loved hearing tales of Vivi’s eavesdropping. “Oooh…go on.”
Vivi leaned forward, a natural storyteller with a gift for making anything sound interesting. “From what I could gather, the Royal Navy have had some trouble with their secret movements being intercepted by the French. It’s apparently quite vexing for the men at the War Office. With Napoleon’s escape from exile last month, they’ve obviously been preparing for a full-scale push to unseat him; they’ve considered a number of possible ways that their coded instructions to naval ships might be intercepted and decoded, but it seems there’s only one conclusion. English spies.”
Alex had a choice and unladylike word for any Englishman who would sell state secrets in wartime. Ella already had her notebook out and was scribbling. Ignoring her friend’s crude language, she spoke without looking up, “Fascinating. Who?”
Vivi shook her head and waved a hand. “They don’t have any idea at this point. It must be someone fairly high up in the War Office who has access to this kind of information. My father was recently placed on the case, along with William.” She made eye contact with Alex at the mention of her friend’s eldest brother. “Between the two of them, I’m sure it will be cleared up soon enough. But I’m certain that if anyone can make it more interesting, it’s you, Ella.”
Ella was lost to them for a moment—focused entirely on the words in her journal. Chewing daintily on the end of her lead pencil, her mind was turning over the story she might weave around such a loose collection of information. Leaving her to her reverie, the conversation turned to Vivi and her own preparations for entering society.
The three girls would attend Almack’s for their official coming-out on Wednesday evening. Vivi, the only one without a mother to pester her, had the least amount of animosity for the event. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel the pressure of society’s will as much as her friends. As the ravishing only daughter of a wealthy and decorated marquess, it was simply expected that she marry and marry well, considering that she couldn’t inherit her father’s title. She’d been hearing this from meddling aunts and the parents of her friends for years, but she had one thing in her favor—her father thought it was a terrible idea to marry for marriage’s sake.
While the ladies of the ton had spent years worrying about Vivi and her twin brother being raised by a widowed father and encouraged the marquess either to deposit his children with any number of female relatives or to quickly remarry, the marquess had flown in the face of convention and flatly refused to do any such thing. Vivi’s parents’ marriage had been a love match (something that would have been considered disgustingly common had the marquess not been just that—a marquess), and he had showered his daughter with the same caring and affection that he’d given her mother, encouraging her to marry for the same reason he had. Love.
“You unbelievably lucky chit!” Alex spoke. “You have parental permission—nay, parental expectation!—to avoid all versions of limp-necked, pasty white, simpering dandies who might come calling for your hand in marriage. Are you sure your father wouldn’t like to assume charge of me as well?”
“I’m not sure my father could handle you.” Vivi laughed. “But, in all honesty, I’m not planning to avoid anyone’s simpering wish for my hand. My plan is to gain as many proposals as possible. I need to hone my flirting skills if I’m going to catch The One.”
The One. Vivi had always been the only girl in the threesome who believed in “The One.” Ella speculated that it was the result of her being the product of a love match. Alex felt she knew better, however, and could never shake the idea that Vivi had already set her sights on the man she wanted. Vivi, ever mysterious, refused to respond to any prodding or cajoling for more information on the subject, leaving her friends with a simple: “Everybody has a One. We just aren’t all willing to wait for Him.”
Alex snorted indecorously. “I don’t think it is unwillingness to wait, Viv…I’m more than willing to wait. Years! Decades even!” Her eyes twinkled with laughter.
Ella chimed in with, “Centuries! Millennia!”
“There is just one problem.” Alex leaned forward and, with a wink to Ella, she spoke with grave seriousness, “Mothers.” All three girls burst out in giggles.
“ALEXANDRA ELIZABETH STAFFORD! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?”
“Speaking of…” Ella said drily.
Alex’s feet came off the chaise and she sat up. “Mother…”
For a petite woman, the duchess could appear as regal and enormous as her title suggested. “What did I tell you about that dress? What would possess you to come down here and lie about in it as if it were your nightgown and this your bedchamber? Leaving aside your unladylike behavior for the moment…do you have any idea how long it took Madame Fernaud and her assistants to turn that dress into something worthy of your coming-out? It is a ball gown…not a riding habit!”
“But…” Alex tried to get a word in.
The duchess was not in the mood to hear her daughter’s feeble explanations. “No buts, young lady. March up to your chamber, apologize to Eliza for her having to bother with you at this hour of the day, and Remove. That. Dress.”
Ella was suddenly and vastly interested in the weave of the upholstery on the armchair in which she was seated. Vivi could have been searching for treasure in her tiny reticule for the amount of attention she was giving to the contents of the bag, likely a handkerchief, some lip rouge, and a traveling comb. Neither girl wanted to be the next recipient of the duchess’s wrath.
“And you two.” The two in question looked up, then stood. “Do you think I haven’t noticed that you were both encouraging her ridiculous behavior?”
Vivi’s mouth opened. She thought better of it. It closed.
“Excellent choice, Vivian. I rely on the two of you to keep Alex from losing hold of all of her decorum. I do not expect to be disappointed by you.”
Ella risked speech. “Yes, Your Grace.”
“I feel confident that I will not be disappointed in you again…especially during your first season.” Contrary to the wording, this was not a theory the duchess had shared, but rather an order she had decreed.
Vivi spoke this time. “No, Your Grace.”
From behind her mother’s back, Alex gaped at her friends. “Traitors!”
The duchess did not turn to look at her daughter. “Good friends know not to cross mothers, Alexandra.” There was a merry glint in her eye as she studied her daughter’s closest confidantes.
Vivi knew the storm had passed. “Especially when the mother in question is a duchess.”
Alex groaned. The duchess smiled.
“Are you girls staying for tea?”
When Alex returned to the drawing room, she was in more suitable attire for an afternoon with her friends. The Empire gown she wore was a lovely shade of pale blue, falling to her matching slippers. It was comfortable and fashionable—another one of her new gowns, designed to make her seem more adult and less ungainly.
Of course…no dress could actually make Alex more ladylike—she burst through the door of the room with a “What did I miss?”…only to realize that her friends were no longer alone.
And they were outnumbered.
Alex’s brothers had arrived. Towering well over six feet—all broad shoulders and long legs—the boys never failed to dwarf even this larger-than-average room.
With satin-covered chairs and dainty chaises, the room was designed in the most fashionable of ways; which, of course, meant it was designed for a more foppish and less…enormous group of men. Not that the men in question seemed to care. They were sprawled out, long legs extended, leaning back on the petite furniture with no notice of its size—or their own.
For generations, the Stafford men had been known throughout the ton for their appearance—the epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. Alex’s father was a mere six feet tall, and was teased relentlessly by his brothers and cousins as “the diminutive duke.” His sons did not suffer the same fate—all standing taller than six feet, four inches, proving that the next crop of Staffords would reclaim their statuesque heritage. The sons in question—William, twenty-three, Nicholas, twenty-one, and Christopher, nineteen—shared other familial qualities with their father, however: They were devilishly handsome, with the dark-as-midnight hair, strong jaws, regal noses, and full lips that had made the Staffords legendary since the early days of the kingdom.