Alex sighed again, knowing that she was in for another long stretch while Eliza tamed her long, auburn curls, piling them just so on top of her head and applying the finishing touches prior to her presentation to the Prince. Before she could follow the maid’s instructions, however, Alex caught her reflection in the looking glass next to the wardrobe. She was unable to stop herself from gasping at what she saw.
There she stood, bathed in the golden sunlight that poured through the windows of her bedchamber, hair shining like silk, cheeks rosy from the heat of her bath and the exertion of dressing, in a dress that had been made for her in every way—the cut, the color, the fabric, all of it. For a brief moment, she couldn’t believe her eyes; she was the beauty in the looking glass.
Like it or not, this night was one she would not soon forget.
The Duchess of Worthington placed an elegantly gloved hand on her daughter’s knee and spoke quietly, “We have arrived.”
In the dim light of the large carriage that muffled the sounds of the street beyond, Alex took hold of her mother’s hand. She turned glittering green eyes on the older woman and offered an uncertain smile. “And so it begins.”
“Indeed. You will be wonderful.”
And, as if on cue, the door opened to reveal a livery-clad footman, and the duke climbed down from his seat across from them in the imposing black carriage emblazoned with the Worthington crest. Once on solid ground, he turned back to reach up and hand the duchess down from the transport; she gave Alex’s hand a quick, reassuring squeeze before accepting her husband’s assistance.
Then, it was Alex’s turn. She scooted across the velvetdraped seat, focused on her father’s smiling, pride-filled eyes, and took his hand. His grip was firm and steady as he helped her down to the street, and Alex was encouraged by it—no matter how she felt about this day, making her parents proud couldn’t be such an awful thing, could it? When her feet touched the ground, she found herself assaulted by all the sights and sounds of the legendary Almack’s.
The first thing that Alex registered was the noise. There was a cacophonous din of chatter, louder than anything she’d ever heard out of doors, which enveloped her immediately. She couldn’t make out much of the conversation for the sheer amount of it—punctuated with bursts of laughter and shrieks of recognition from ladies and gentlemen of the ton who were all enjoying this…the first major event of the 1815 season.
The building itself was unimpressive—a simple stone structure that, at most times, provided little indication of being one of the most important locations in the life of London’s high society. Alex had passed this place dozens of times before and had never given it a second thought. It appeared, however, that on Wednesday nights during the season, all that changed.
Looking back at the coach, Alex felt an intense desire to return to it, to clamber inside and swing the door shut behind her and simply wait there until her parents finished making their rounds. Instead, she stood tall, revealing none of her trepidation, and looked down the length of King Street, jammed with carriages and coaches all with a common goal—to deposit the most well-respected members of the ton on the steps of the Assembly Rooms, leaving them to an evening of seeing and being seen. Light from the scores of carriages flooded the sidewalks and steps to the building, lending a dazzling brightness to the moment, as if even the sun couldn’t stay away from the beautiful people who filled the street.
Alex drew a shaky breath, feeling a knot of apprehension twist in her stomach. She hadn’t fully realized until this moment how much she dreaded this, her first official night in society. That afternoon, she had been presented at Buckingham House to the Prince Regent, a charming older man with a reputed eye for the most beautiful women and the best parties in London. And, while the ceremony had been filled with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a visit to the Royal Court, it hadn’t made Alex nearly as uncertain as she felt right now, surrounded by throngs of London’s finest, all pushing madly toward the entrance to the assembly. After all, everyone knew it was really the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s whose opinions were most valued in matters relating to society.
With a sigh, she turned back and caught her father’s quick smile as he leaned down and proffered his arm. “Terrifying, isn’t it?”
“Quite.” She took the offered arm and matched his grin with one of her own. “How do you ever survive it?”
With a brief, almost imperceptible nod toward her mother, who had turned from her position just steps ahead to wait for them, he answered, “‘Tis a duke’s duty to make his duchess happy, moppet.”
Alex’s smile broadened at his answer. Her mother spoke quietly as they reached her, her voice traveling only far enough to be heard by the two of them. “To your right, Alexandra, is Lady Jersey.” Alex turned her head to get a look at the petite, rather unattractive woman who was nicknamed The Queen of London for her position as the most discerning of Almack’s patronesses, before her mother added in exasperation, “Do attempt to be discreet, Alexandra. Ladies do not stare.”
Alex snapped her head back and offered a sheepish apology to her mother, then lowering her voice to a whisper and speaking close to the duchess’s ear, “That woman turned away the Duke of Wellington?” referencing the legendary piece of gossip that would certainly afford Lady Sarah Jersey a place in the annals of London’s aristocratic history. The Duke of Wellington—a war hero of the first water and a duke no less—had been set down by this wisp of a woman? Denied entry to Almack’s? A place made famous by satin flounces and weak lemonade? What kind of rules was this society perpetuating?
“Indeed. He arrived wearing trousers instead of knee breeches.”
Alex couldn’t help rolling her eyes at the ridiculousness of such a perceived infraction. Her father noticed and spoke drily, “Never fear, moppet. My understanding is that Lady Jersey’s lesson has served him well in battle. He wouldn’t dream of meeting Napoleon in anything less than the most current of fashions.”
“And thank goodness for that,” Alex responded, her feigned seriousness drawing a bark of laughter from her father.
“I do wish you wouldn’t encourage her,” the duchess said to him, covering her obvious amusement with an exasperated sigh before turning back to her daughter. “Are you ready for your debut, Alexandra?”
“Do I have the option of saying no?” she asked, the hint of sarcasm in her voice drawing a quelling look from her mother.
“Not in the least. I’ve been waiting for this moment for far too long. You are going to…”
“Yes, yes. Set the ton on its ear.” Alex interrupted, taking a deep breath and shoring up her confidence. It was time, whether she liked it or not. “Well, then. I rather think we should get started, don’t you?”
“What a crush!”
Alex took hold of Ella’s hand and pulled her friend into an alcove off the main ballroom of Almack’s, away from the mass of London’s nobility. “And people do this every week?” Making sure they were tucked away behind a significantly sized potted fern, Alex leaned against a marble column. “I’m never coming here again if I can help it.”
Ella chuckled and leaned close to her friend with an impish gleam in her eye. “And now I am at Almack’s, the more fool I; when I was at home, I was in a better place!”
Laughing at her friend’s rendition of a line from her favorite Shakespearean play, Alex then completed it. “But travelers must be content! Oh…what I wouldn’t give to be in a forest far away from titles of any kind!” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “If I am cornered by Lord Waring one more time, I shall have to feign sickness. I may counterfeit a swoon to avoid having to speak to him again!”
“I shall keep my smelling salts at the ready.” Ella peeked through the plant to be certain no one was listening to them. “I noticed him mincing after you. Your mother must have been happy to see it. He is, after all, a marquess.”
“Indeed. The Marquess of Excruciating Dullness. Lord ‘Waring’ is right. He’s wearing on my patience.”
The girls laughed a touch too loudly, checked themselves, and grinned. Ella spoke. “You shall see us both into a grip of trouble if you keep on like that, Alex. What will our mothers say if we are discovered laughing too loudly! And mere hours after being presented to the Prince Regent!”
“I thought I heard you two laughing!” Vivi poked her head around the plant. “I was wondering where you were hiding.” Taking note of the nook, she tilted her head in approval. She tucked herself into the small space and gave a mock appraisal. “Very nice. Quite spacious!”
“There is still more room than out there,” Alex said with an unladylike c**k of her head. “Is it getting any better?”
“Not remotely. But it’s just eleven, which means no one else can enter—so that’s something.” Vivi peered through the leaves of the palm, scanning the room. “Why anyone would look forward to an evening at Almack’s is beyond me. I’ve had my toes stepped on twice, the Dowager Duchess of Lockwood poked me with her walking stick—on purpose—and I narrowly avoided a lemonade mishap at the hands of Lord Waring.” She sighed and looked back at her friends. “You don’t appear to have been doing much better!”
Resuming her overview of the ballroom, Vivi took note of a tall, handsome young man and lifted an eyebrow at Alex. “However, I did happen to see you laughing with Lord Stanhope during a quadrille. Is there something you would like to tell your dearest friends?”
Alex shook her head. “I’m afraid nothing of note. I’ve known Freddie for years. He and Will were at school together. He was just being kind and making certain that I had my dance card filled.” She peered over her friend’s shoulder through the plant to see the object of their conversation offer one of the grande dames of the ton a glass of lemonade, with a bold grin. “He is charming, though.” She paused. “And fun.”
“And quite attractive,” Ella chimed in.
Alex turned to her friends. “And an inveterate rake.”
Vivi nodded. “Truer words were never spoken.” The young Earl of Stanhope’s reputation preceded him. “But if anyone’s safe with Stanhope, it’s you, Alex. Your brothers would have his head if he overstepped his bounds.”
“Speaking of…” Ella was peering through the fern, “Your brothers have arrived. All of them.” Laughter edged into her voice. “And they’re being swarmed.”
“Really?” Alex turned and joined Ella at her lookout post. And there they were, all three of her brothers surrounded by a gaggle of cloying mothers and decorated daughters, all clamoring for an introduction.
Nick, ever the gentleman, was doing his best to appear interested. Kit was looking terrified, eyes darting this way and that, obviously desperate to escape. It was Will, however, who caused a giggle to escape Alex. As the future duke, he was surrounded on all sides by eager females. But the eldest Stafford wasn’t the young star of the War Office for nothing. Alex could see him working out a strategy for retreat even as he was enchantée-ing his way through the crowd. Within seconds, he had backed up to another gentleman, deftly shifted the attention from himself to his unsuspecting mark, and moved away toward their mother, who was waving him over.
“Remarkable,” Alex whispered. It was a tactical disengagement that would have made Wellington proud. Taking a moment to admire her brother’s skill at dealing with the ton, Alex made a mental note to ask him for a tutorial when next she saw him. Redirecting her gaze to the mass of femininity he had escaped, Alex waited for Will’s replacement to turn his face toward her. She wondered who could so easily capture the attentions originally directed at an heir to a dukedom—or was Will just that skilled with such evasive maneuvers? Whoever it was stood at the same height as Nick and Kit, towering above the women around him. The way he was positioned made him impossible to recognize, but Alex couldn’t help but notice his broad shoulders and blond hair falling attractively over the collar of his waistcoat.
Alex checked herself. Since when did hair fall attractively? Irritated with herself for noting something so inane, she turned away from her spying to resume her conversation with Ella and Vivi, who were consulting their dance cards.
“Are you ready to reenter the fray?” She asked a touch too quickly—hoping that her friends wouldn’t notice.
The girls agreed it was time to come out of hiding, for fear someone might find their spot and ruin it for future nights. As casually as possible, Vivi exited the alcove, followed by Ella, with Alex bringing up the rear.
The madness began immediately.
“Lady Vivian! I thought perhaps you had left! I was nigh perishing at the thought.” Vivi was virtually accosted by the eldest, and one would hope most dramatic, son of Viscount Sudberry.
Ella found herself instantly distracted by Lord Sumner. “My dear Lady Eleanor, I have been searching for you everywhere. Never say you haven’t a free dance on your card?”
“Lady Alexandra! I believe this is my dance!” Alex turned toward the nasal voice and, hiding her grimace, pasted a bright smile on her face. “Why, Lord Waring, I believe you are right.” Turning back to her friends, she mouthed, Rescue me! Vivi leaned in close and whispered, “Meet us on the other side of the room after the cotillion.” With no time to respond, Alex was escorted to the dance floor.
For the next few minutes, she gave special thanks to her maker that country dances were the rage in London this year—the cotillion involved multiple sets of paired partners, so she was able to, for the most part, avoid tedious conversation with Lord Waring. When, at the end of the dance, he suggested that they take a turn about the ballroom, she swallowed a quick NO! and instead replied, “That sounds lovely. However, I find that I am quite parched. Would you mind terribly escorting me to the refreshment rooms?”