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The Debutante's Daring Proposal

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Edmund’s first instinct was to get to his feet and set off for London in pursuit. To explain...

What, exactly?

Meanwhile, the young Mr Wickford was sitting down heavily on a pile of curtaining on the chair opposite and spreading his meaty fingers over his knees. ‘Yes, Mrs Wickford senior is going to launch her daughter into society, now they’re out of mourning. Has great hopes for her.’

‘Does she?’ said Edmund, as a matter of form, since he was only half-attending. He was far more concerned with imagining how Georgiana must have felt, having this man and his wife turn her out of doors a matter of hours after he’d so brutally turned down her proposal.

‘Shouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t do very well,’ Mr Wickford was saying. ‘A taking little thing, is Sukey.’


‘Ah, should more properly refer to her as Miss Mead, I suppose, but then she’s such a friendly sort of girl, it’s hard to stand upon form with her. Not a bit like Miss Wickford,’ he said with a shake of his head.

‘What,’ said Edmund, his hackles rising, ‘precisely, do you mean by that?’

‘Oh, well, you know,’ said Mr Wickford, waving his hands.

‘No, I am afraid I don’t.’

‘Of course, you will hardly know her, will you? Well, let us just say that she is a strange, awkward girl. Not that she can help it, I don’t suppose, given the way she was brought up. The mother died in childbirth,’ said Wickford, which was something Edmund already knew. But the reminder jolted him. Was that why Georgiana didn’t want a normal marriage? Could she be afraid of having children? ‘Disappointed my cousin immensely,’ Wickford was droning on. ‘Wanted a boy, d’you see? Well, that’s natural enough, ain’t it? Trouble is, he went and treated the girl as if she was the boy he wanted, instead of facing facts.’

That was not how it had been. Georgie’s father had simply allowed her to act exactly as she wished. Well, Edmund amended, he might have encouraged her love of horse-riding and outdoor pursuits by praising her skills. But he had definitely not attempted to mould her preferences beyond that. If she had shown an interest in...say...dolls and dresses, he was pretty sure the man would have bought her bolts of satin and lace back from the market, rather than new riding boots or a crop.

‘It was only when she got to the age where she really needed a mother,’ said Mr Wickford, leaning forward in a conspiratorial sort of way, and winking, ‘that he saw his mistake. Which was why he married again. Needed a woman to knock the rough edges off. Make her behave like a lady. And, of course, providing her with a sister like Sukey, who could set her a shining example of femininity, was an added bonus.’

Was that what people hereabouts thought had happened?

Was that, in fact, what had happened?

But—why would a man who’d allowed Georgie to run wild for so many years suddenly try to change her? If that even was his motive for remarrying.

‘And Mrs Wickford is the sort of woman who enjoys knocking the rough edges off, I take it,’ said Edmund, feeling his way forward tentatively.

Mr Wickford chuckled. ‘Do you know, whenever anyone says Mrs Wickford, I still think they mean my mother. But there’s my cousin’s widow now, as well as my own wife. Though that is taking some getting used to. Only been married a fortnight.’

‘My felicitations,’ he responded automatically and without enthusiasm.

Mr Wickford beamed at him. ‘Thank you, my lord. I do consider myself most fortunate. Couldn’t think of marriage at all before I came into this property, let alone to a woman like Sylvia Dean. Took some persuading, none the less..


‘Indeed?’ He leaned back and raised one eyebrow, inviting further confidences. Not that he had the slightest interest in this fellow. But he’d already learned far more about what had gone wrong in Georgiana’s life in five minutes with the loquacious fool, than he’d done in ten years.

‘Oh, yes,’ said Mr Wickford, smiling fatuously. ‘Courting her took up pretty near all my time. If it wasn’t for Mrs Wickford senior being so willing to stay on here and keep the place running smoothly, I’m not at all sure I’d have taken the trick.’

Edmund didn’t think he’d reacted, but he was not all that surprised when Lion emitted a low growl. The man had admitted that permitting Georgiana and her stepmother to remain in what was, after all, their own home had not been an act of compassion at all. Instead, it had been very much to his advantage. And as soon as their usefulness had come to an end, he had promptly evicted them. In Georgiana’s case, from the only home she’d ever known. He glanced round the room as Wickford continued to enthuse about his new bride, noting, everywhere, traces of her heritage. Her father might very well have chosen the hunting prints on the walls and most of the furniture looked as though it had been handed down through several generations.

At which point, he saw another reason for the distress which had prompted her to run to him with her outrageous proposal. Not only was she being forced into taking a step which she found abhorrent, she was also losing everything she’d ever called her own. He must have seemed like her last chance to salvage something—a sort of metaphorical clinging to the wreckage of her life in the faint hope of finding a refuge that was at least familiar, if not what she really wanted.

But instead of being man enough to listen to her, really listen with a view to understanding, he’d rubbed salt into what he could now see were very deep and grievous wounds by getting angry with her. Shouting at her. Rebuffing her.

She hadn’t deserved such treatment. Even though she’d hurt him in the past, she’d been scarcely more than a child at the time. The worst she’d been guilty of was thoughtlessness. She had not deliberately set out to hurt him, he would swear to it.

His antagonism for her promptly abated. And as it did so, he could scarcely credit that he’d carried it into his adult life, or nursed it with such devotion. To repay her, as an adult, by standing back and watching her suffer, or even adding to her woes, was out of all proportion to the initial offence.

Sickened at himself, he got to his feet.

‘You will excuse me,’ he said, as a chill swept up his spine and lodged in the region of his stomach. ‘I cannot stay longer.’

‘What? Oh, dear,’ said Mr Wickford, leaping to his feet as well. ‘Mrs Wickford will be desolate to have missed you. The moment she saw your carriage stop at the foot of our drive she ran upstairs to make herself presentable. I’m sure she won’t be but a minute longer...’

‘What a pity,’ he replied mendaciously. He had no wish to meet the cuckoo who’d thrust the true chicks out of this nest. ‘I have urgent business which takes me back to London tomorrow,’ he added truthfully. Because he had to see Georgiana again. Apologise. Tell her he meant to make it up to her, somehow. And London was where she had gone. ‘So I have much to accomplish today.’

Mr Wickford wrung his hands, swallowing and looking nervously in the direction of the stairs as Edmund made his way to the front door. But he didn’t care. He didn’t even wait for the man, or his maid, to open it for him. He just needed to get away from here, so that he could think things through.

Georgiana’s past was looking very different from the way he’d imagined it. He wouldn’t have believed that her father, a man who’d always laughed at her antics, had married a woman specifically to knock her into shape.

Or worse, brought another girl into the house to show her how she ought to behave. She must have been devastated.

He frowned as he stalked down the path, Lion lumbering at his heels. Surely, she would have needed to write to him more than ever? But it had been from his mother that he’d learned of her widowed father’s remarriage. His mother, who, in spite of all her flaws, had written faithfully. Back then, it had been one more sin to lay at Georgie’s door. But now...

She must have been crushed. And since he had no longer been there, she would not have had anybody to turn to. Because, now he came to consider it, not only was she his only friend, but she spent so much time with him that she hadn’t had any other friends either.

So why hadn’t she?

And why hadn’t she run to him, on the few occasions he’d returned to Bartlesham, instead of flouncing out of the shop when he’d walked in, her purchases abandoned?

It had puzzled him from the moment he’d returned, still hurt by her decision not to write to him, but determined to make the best of things, and at least attempt to treat her with courtesy. But then, on his first Sunday in Bartlesham, she’d refused to return his greeting when he’d been magnanimous enough to accord her a nod across the aisle of St. Bartholomew’s. And stalked out with her nose in the air when the tedious service had at length ground to its conclusion.

And so he’d washed his hands of her. He’d really and truly left her behind when he’d gone up to university.

And then, as he was lifting a wheezing Lion into the carriage, he recalled her accusation, that out of sight meant out of mind, for him. As if she was the one who hadn’t received any letters.

Good Lord...could it be...if the stepmother had seen it as her duty to knock Georgie into shape—in other words, to turn her into the proper young lady she appeared to be nowadays—then she would not have approved of them corresponding. Single females were not, strictly speaking, supposed to write to single men to whom they were not related.

Yes, that would explain why he hadn’t received any letters from her, in spite of her promise to write.

But...he shook his head. It didn’t explain why she’d been so angry with him when he’d returned for a visit, briefly, before going up to Oxford.


What must she have felt, when he’d given up writing to her? Had she felt as betrayed as he had, when he hadn’t heard at all?

She might have done.

It was certainly the first hypothesis to explain her behaviour over the past ten years that made any kind of sense.

He sat bolt upright as a frisson of insight flickered in the depths of his brain.

The stepmother.

Could she have been the one to fill Georgiana’s head with the kind of stories that resulted in her now regarding the act of conceiving children as nasty and brutish?

Who else could it possibly have been?

Georgiana definitely hadn’t known anything about that side of life when he’d left Bartlesham. And he couldn’t imagine her father describing marital relations to her in such a way that...actually, not in any way at all. It wasn’t within a father’s remit to educate his daughters about that sort of thing.

But...he blinked, taking in his surroundings for the first time since he’d left Six Chimneys and saw that he was almost halfway home.

‘Dear God, what a fool,’ he groaned. He’d been in such a hurry to get away from Georgiana’s repulsive cousin that he hadn’t ascertained where exactly, in London, she was staying. And there was no way he was going to turn back now and ask him.

* * *

‘But, Mama,’ said Sukey, holding a length of blue ribbon up to the side of her face, ‘don’t you think this would bring out the colour of my eyes?’

As if to emphasise her point, Sukey widened those cornflower-blue eyes in appeal. The pleading expression would have melted the hearts of any of the young men of Bartlesham—indeed, Georgiana had witnessed its devastating effectiveness on many occasions. Unfortunately for her, Stepmama not only had the same kind of blue eyes, but had also been the one to teach Sukey how to wield them.

‘The blue ribbon may be very flattering,’ said Stepmama distractedly, merely glancing up from her perusal of the latest box to arrive from the modistes, ‘but tonight you will be wearing white. All white. That’s what proper young ladies of the ton wear for their first Season, and as we are finally going to attend a ton event I won’t have either of you doing anything to set tongues wagging.’

She’d certainly worked hard enough to get them this far. For the past two weeks they’d toadied to people Stepmama said were essential to their chances of being accepted in society. They’d invited those same matrons to their rented house and plied them with tea and sandwiches, while Stepmama had extolled Sukey’s prettiness, and Georgie’s pedigree, in the hopes of getting invitations in return.

All to no avail.

Until she’d discovered that some girls who lived two streets over, and one across, who they kept on bumping into at the shops, or crossing the square, had a connection to a viscount. And then, all of a sudden, Stepmama declared they were Sukey’s best friends and would never go shopping without inviting them along. And since they were as keen as Sukey to shop, and pore over the fashion magazines, and all the other rigmarole to do with the snaring of husbands, they’d grown inexorably more intertwined.

Resulting in tonight’s invitation to Durant House. Home of said viscount.

Where Sukey was hoping to captivate a man with a title and lots of money.

Whereas she... Georgiana tugged at the bodice of the gown she was wearing with utter mortification. And plucked up the courage to voice a protest.

‘If we are not to set tongues wagging on our first appearance at a tonnish event, don’t you think I ought to wear something a bit more...modest?’

‘There is nothing immodest about your gown, Georgiana,’ said Stepmama. ‘I have told you before, ladies do reveal a little more of their shoulders and bosom in the evening than they would do by day. I have seen girls much younger than you showing a lot more of themselves than that,’ she said, indicating the upper curves of Georgiana’s bosom which were thrusting proudly from the closely clinging bodice.

‘Yes, but Sukey is dressed far more demurely...’ she began, plucking at her bodice again. Only to have Stepmama step up, slap her hands away and ruthlessly tug it back into place.

‘Sukey is pretty,’ she said. ‘Men already take notice of her.’

‘Oh, Mama!’ Sukey dropped her ribbon on to the dressing table. ‘Georgiana is pretty, too. In her own way. I mean, that is, there are sure to be some men who prefer larger girls, with thick black hair and brown eyes,’ she said staunchly, in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

For not one of the youths of Bartlesham, or any of the nearest towns, had ever shown the slightest bit of interest in her. Even though Stepmama had taught her to behave like a lady, the manners and the clothes were all only a thin layer of top dressing. No matter how hard she tried, she was always going to look big and clumsy in comparison to her dainty little stepsister and rouse entirely different feelings from the males of the population.

Stepmama sighed. ‘Men who prefer larger girls will want to get a glimpse of her best assets, then, won’t they? I wouldn’t have thought I’d need to remind you, Sukey, that all women have to make the best of what God has given them, if we are to survive in this harsh world.’ She waved her hand at the wads of tissue paper, lidless boxes, gloves and shoes littering every flat surface of the dressing room the two girls shared.

And Georgiana’s protests died on her lips. She knew, deep down, that Stepmama was doing what she saw as her best. It was just...well, she hadn’t wanted to come to London in the first place. And, as she’d feared, it was proving to be like living in a desert.

There were no fields, no woods, no streams. Nowhere suitable to gallop, except a stingy little formal bit of parkland. Not that ladies were permitted to gallop even there.

Not that she could, anyway, not now Stepmama had sold Whitesocks. Her lower lip wobbled. Whitesocks had been Papa’s last gift to her. The last horse in the stables over which they had any legal rights. According to Stepmama, it made far more sense to sell the animal they couldn’t afford to stable in London anyway and put the money towards meeting the expenses they wouldn’t be able to escape.

Georgiana had hoped, right up until the last minute that something would happen to prevent the sale. That she’d be able to keep that one last link to Papa—but, no. Even her last-ditch appeal to Edmund had come to nothing. Not that he’d heard the whole story.

Which was, she’d eventually decided, her own fault.

She should have kept a cool head and explained her reasons for asking him for help in a rational manner. That’s what she should have done. Perhaps even presented him with a written statement, in which she’d listed all the points she wished to make in alphabetical order, which he could have taken away and considered at his leisure. At least he would have treated that kind of appeal with respect. And then he might have been a bit more amenable to making some kind of deal.

She might, at the very least, have persuaded him to buy Whitesocks so that she would have known he would have a good home.

Instead, she’d spent the time waiting for him brooding over past hurts and present problems, so that by the time he arrived she’d been ready to explode. And had done so. Acted in a way that was practically guaranteed to alienate him.

If it was even possible to alienate someone who’d become a stranger. A cold, unapproachable stranger who merely happened to look a bit like the boy who’d been her favourite person in all the world. A stranger who had never once attempted to renew their friendship, as adults. Who had, on the contrary, occasionally even cut her in the street.

She pulled out a handkerchief and blew her nose.

‘Oh, please don’t cry, Georgiana,’ said Sukey, rushing to her side to give her a hug. ‘Mama, could we not let her tuck a fichu into the neckline, or something?’

Georgiana slipped her arm round Sukey’s waist, and returned her hug. Dear Sukey. She was so sweet-natured. Every time Georgiana was upset, over anything at all, Sukey would shed sympathetic tears. Indeed, she’d been more upset over the frequent beatings Georgiana had received when Stepmama first took her place as Papa’s bride than Georgiana had herself. She’d come and sit at her bedside, and hold her hand, and plead with her to just try and be good, because she couldn’t bear to think of her being beaten so very often. Until in the end, it felt as if every time she misbehaved, it was Sukey who got punished.

Between the pair of them, these two women had crushed her desire to rebel against all the rules and regulations that governed the behaviour of young ladies. Besides, what had been the point of carrying on the way she’d done before Papa remarried? Edmund had gone, so there was nobody to box or fence or fish with. The local boys might have stopped teasing and tormenting her for being different to the other girls, once she’d knocked a couple of the biggest of them down, but that didn’t mean they would allow her into their ranks. At that time, Sukey had been the only person who appeared to want to spend time with her. In fact, Sukey had followed her round like a little puppy, declaring that she’d always wished for a sister.

‘A fichu? And have her look like a dowd? Absolutely not! If we are going to find a husband for Georgiana, we are going to have to make men look at her.’

‘But,’ Georgiana said, plucking up all her courage, ‘I don’t really want to find a husband.’

‘Oh, heavens, not this again,’ said Stepmama wearily. ‘Respectable women have to marry, unless they have family who will take them in and care for them, that’s all there is to it.’

‘I know, but—’

Stepmama held up her hand to silence her. ‘I promised your father I would find you a good husband and that is exactly what I will do.’

Georgiana sank on to one of the dressing stools, the impossibility of protesting about her father’s last wishes completely silencing her.

‘A Corinthian, hopefully. Isn’t that what your papa always said? That only a notable Corinthian would do for you? Someone who could match your energy and horsemanship?’

‘Yes, Papa did say that,’ she admitted glumly. Though what he’d actually meant was that he hoped that was the kind of son-in-law she’d bring home one day. If she couldn’t be a boy, the next best thing would be for her to marry someone who was exactly the sort of son he’d always wanted.

And that wasn’t the sort of man she wanted to marry, if she had to marry anyone. Men who liked sport, and horses, always smelled of the stable—which invariably put her in mind of that disgusting scene she’d witnessed. Which she could never think of without remembering Liza’s tears when she lost her job and home as a result.

And it was all very well Stepmama saying that Liza should not have let him do what they did until they were married, but Wilkins had been doing it as well. In fact, he’d been doing all the work, from the look of things. And not only had he entirely escaped any form of punishment, but he hadn’t shown the slightest bit of remorse when Liza had been sent packing, either.

‘Besides, you want to have children, don’t you? Of course you do,’ Stepmama continued ruthlessly, before Georgiana could say a word. ‘It is in our nature.’

‘Then I must be a most unnatural sort of female.’ She sighed, because the way a man got a woman with child had to be the way she’d seen Wilkins treat Liza and it had looked perfectly revolting. She didn’t ever want to let any man do...that to her. The very thought made her feel sick.

‘You will feel differently once you meet the right man,’ said Stepmama. ‘In fact, I shouldn’t be surprised if you met someone tonight who overturns all your silly girlish fears and fancies with one look.’

‘I should,’ said Georgiana gloomily. ‘Because the kind of men who will be attending a tonnish event will only want to marry girls with a title, or a dowry. And I don’t have either.’

Stepmama froze. ‘Georgiana! I thought you understood about the way I have spent what money your papa left for your future. It was his dearest wish to have you presented at court. And had he lived, I am sure he would have arranged things himself.’

Georgiana wasn’t convinced. If he’d wanted her presented at court, surely he would have mentioned it? When she was at an age to have a come-out? Instead of only imparting his wishes to his wife, so that the first she’d heard of it was after his death.

‘I...I admit, I did not quite foresee how very much it would cost. What with having to hire that woman, instead of...well—’ Stepmama shut her mouth with a snap. ‘I hadn’t budgeted for that. Not to mention the hoops and the feathers, and the jewels to make you both at least look as though you had every right to be there...’

Sukey shot Georgiana a pleading look.

Georgiana, yet again, stifled any resentment she felt and said what she knew was expected of her. ‘I know, Stepmama. I know you are doing your best in...trying circumstances...’

‘Trying? If only you knew the half. It is bad enough that imbecile cousin of your father’s rented us a house out here, in Bloomsbury for heaven’s sake, when I specifically requested a fashionable address...’

Stepmama glared round the cluttered little room the two girls were being obliged to share, with loathing. It was almost enough to lift Georgiana’s spirits. So much for Stepmama’s insistence that men were much better at handling that sort of thing. She’d been obliged to eat her words the moment their carriage, and the wagon containing all their worldly goods, had drawn up outside. For Bloomsbury was not the slightest bit fashionable. Their neighbours were retired admirals and captains of industry, not marquesses and earls. Stepmama might have forgiven the address if the house had been bigger, but upon inspection they’d discovered that although the reception rooms were generously proportioned, the rooms on the upper floor, where they were going to have to sleep, were so small they could have served as cells for monks.

Georgiana hadn’t minded that at all. On the contrary, it meant that for the first time since Papa had remarried, she was going to have a bedroom to herself. There was no alternative. Nobody could squeeze two beds into any of the rooms on the upper floor. Let alone cupboards and dressers and shelves for all the fripperies they were buying.

But Stepmama had been livid. She was banking on Sukey landing a peer of the realm. A peer who would be so smitten by her beauty and charm, and so rich, that he would think nothing of providing for both Georgiana and herself, as long as he could get his ring on Sukey’s finger.

But the chances of accomplishing anything so ambitious from an address in Bloomsbury were as slender as their box-like bedrooms.

‘Now,’ said Stepmama briskly. ‘I want no more nonsense from either of you. Sukey, you will be wearing unbroken white, as befits a debutante in her first Season. And, Georgiana, you are old enough to get away with revealing your charms so as to attract gentlemen who prefer someone a little more...’ She made a gesture outlining Georgiana’s fuller figure. ‘More.’

With that, she bustled out of the girls’ dressing room to prepare herself for tonight’s outing.

There was a moment of silence, during which Sukey touched the blue ribbon with the tip of her finger, wistfully. And Georgiana stared at her own reflection with disquiet.

‘Aren’t you the least bit excited,’ said Sukey, who must have noticed the expression on Georgiana’s face, ‘about attending our very first ton party?’

‘No,’ she replied bluntly. ‘I am dreading it.’ Nausea had been swimming in her stomach ever since Edmund had turned her down. She’d known it was a forlorn hope, attempting to breach his walls and enter the citadel which would have provided her with sanctuary. And sure enough, like so many soldiers in charge of such an endeavour, she’d been cut down before she’d got anywhere near her objective. Brutally.

‘Besides...’ She turned to concentrate on Sukey and a new worry that had taken up residence of late.

‘Oh, Georgiana, not this again!’ Sukey pouted.

‘I’m sorry, Sukey. I know that you get on like a house on fire with Dotty and Lotty, now. But I still feel horridly guilty for the way Stepmama practically stalked the Pargetters after she learned that some cousin or other of theirs recently had the good fortune to marry a viscount.’

‘She did not stalk anybody.’

‘We never became so friendly until your mama discovered the viscount in their background.’

Sukey giggled. ‘I suppose it was a little...’

Ruthless, Georgiana thought, but didn’t say. ‘And haven’t you ever wondered what will happen if the three of you all fall for the same man?’

Sukey shook her head, adopting an expression so very like her mother’s that for a moment Georgiana half-expected to get a scold.

‘We will all wish each other well and do our best to be the winner. Heavens, Georgiana, don’t huntsmen do the same sort of thing in the field? And nobody expects them to fall out over a bit of sporting rivalry.’

Now it was Georgiana’s turn to be shocked. ‘You regard men as your quarry?’

Sukey giggled again. ‘At the moment, yes, why not? It’s fun, Georgiana, taking part in this sort of game.’

‘It’s not a game, though, is it? It is...our life.’ Dread at what she was about to face squeezed at her heart, making it hard to breathe.

‘Exactly. And we ought to enjoy it to the full.’


‘Be sensible, Georgiana. All women have to marry—’

‘Which is the problem, in a nutshell. If only I were a man, I wouldn’t have to rely on a husband.’

Sukey shrieked with laughter. ‘I should hope not!’

‘Oh, you know what I mean,’ said Georgiana, though unbelievably she couldn’t help smiling at the way Sukey had deliberately misinterpreted her. That was the thing about Sukey. Even when Georgiana was at her most despondent, her vivacious little stepsister could nearly always manage to raise her spirits. It was how, in some ways, she’d managed to fill the void left by Edmund’s defection. Though Edmund, she reflected wistfully, had never been shocked by her behaviour, or puzzled by her opinions.

‘If I were a man,’ she continued, though she knew it was hopeless to say so, ‘I could learn a trade and earn my own living, and run my own household...’ In fact, that was what she’d hoped to be able to do with the money her father had left her. Buy a little cottage somewhere and live simply. Just the three of them. Without having any men at all complicating everything.

But Stepmama wouldn’t hear of it. She had an ingrained belief that women needed men to take care of them, which nothing could shake. Not even the house in Bloomsbury.

‘Georgiana, really! If Mama were to hear you say that...’

‘I know. She’d say I wasn’t too old for the switch.’ Georgiana sighed.

‘No, she wouldn’t,’ said Sukey. ‘Because you are too sensible to say anything so silly within her hearing.’ She shot her stepsister a knowing look.

Fortunately, Sukey wasn’t the kind of girl who told tales, either. Even so, Georgiana sighed heavily. ‘I am sorry, Sukey. I know you are very excited about getting an invitation to such an exclusive party and I have no wish to ruin your evening with my fit of the dismals.’

‘You’re just nervous, I expect,’ said Sukey charitably. ‘Heavens, I’m nervous myself. I cannot believe that Mrs Pargetter somehow managed to get our names on her niece’s guest list, when everyone knows it’s supposed to be just family and close friends. I hear there’s going to be at least two viscounts there and heaven alone knows who else besides.’ She gave the bunch of blue ribbon one last regretful look, then turned her gaze upon Georgiana.

‘I suppose at least if we are both all in white, we shall match.’

‘It’s very kind of you to say so, Sukey.’ It was her way of showing solidarity. ‘But nobody looking at us standing side by side could ever mistake us for sisters. Not that there will be much standing side by side. You will get swept away from me on a tide of chatter and giggles as soon as we arrive and will end up at the centre of the liveliest crowd in the room. While I will be looking about for the quietest, most secluded corner in which to hide. I hope the Durants go in for potted palms.’

‘Hide? You cannot possibly waste the opportunity Mama has worked so hard to procure for us, hiding away behind a potted palm.’

‘It’s all very well for you,’ Georgiana protested. ‘But you aren’t going to have every man in the place addressing every single remark to your breasts. Men actually remember what your face looks like—even what colour eyes you have, I shouldn’t wonder. But not one of them has ever looked at anything above my neck since I grew these.’ She gestured in despair to the front of her low-cut gown.

Sukey clapped her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle.

‘I am sure that is not true, but anyway, if they do attract a man’s notice, that is all to the good, surely?’

‘There is nothing good about them. They are too big and too heavy. And, and...downright uncomfortable when I go out riding.’

‘Well, only because you will go everywhere at full gallop. I’m sure if you rode in a more decorous manner...’

‘Why should I ride in a decorous manner, just because I sprouted these on my thirteenth birthday?’

‘Because it is the ladylike thing to do,’ said Sukey with a puzzled shake of her head before walking back to the mirror to admire her reflection.

Leaving Georgiana convinced of only one thing. No matter how lovely and feminine and sweet Sukey was, deep down, she held the same convictions as Stepmama. Which was why, in spite of feeling a great deal of affection for her, she had never seen the point in confiding in her.

Not the way she’d been able to confide in Edmund.

But then he’d been the only person, apart from Papa, who’d accepted her as she was.

Until he’d been sent away.

Which had changed everything.



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