Authors: Joan Smith
Tags: #Regency Romance
“It is the potboilers that keep the publisher solvent,” Montaigne told her. Then he turned to Meg. “Unlike the rest of Society, Sissie doesn’t care for our aunt’s book.”
“I thought it was excellent,” Lady Fairly said, as much from anger as conviction, though she had enjoyed it.
Cicely laughed merrily. “You always had wretched taste in novels, Meg. Do you still read those things from the Minerva Press?”
“Certainly not,” she replied, shoving her current marble cover under a cushion. “And furthermore, you are the one who introduced me to them, Sissie.”
“When we were youngsters,” Sissie said. She saw the familiar marble cover sticking out from behind a cushion. Her instinct was to make fun of Meg. She happened to catch Montaigne’s eye. He was watching her like a hawk. She decided to show him she could be discreet when necessary and said nothing.
The tea tray eventually arrived. As Coddle had brought three cups, they all had tea. Sissie also ate several biscuits and a slice of bread and butter.
“I had best not eat any more or I shall spoil my lunch,” she said, looking hungrily at the bread.
“And your figure,” Meg added playfully.
“True. It’s you who should eat something. You look like a scarecrow.” Then she gasped in shame. “Not an ugly scarecrow, Meg. I just meant you’re so thin. Perhaps that’s why you can’t get pregnant.”
“I’ve only been married two years!”
“You must be at your wits’ end.” When this elicited no reply, Sissie said, “What time do you eat your meals? Do you take dinner at six, or a fashionable seven?”
“Seven or eight, depending on whether we plan to go out, but we shall have some luncheon in a few hours.”
“A few hours! Then I shall have some more bread,” Cicely said and picked up another slice. She looked for cold mutton, but found none. “Anne hoped you might know a coiffeur who could do something with my hair,” was her next comment.
“Yes, I have been thinking I must smarten you up,” Lady Fairly replied, happy to be able to retaliate for earlier slights. “No one would believe my cousin would wear such a gown,” she added.
“Naturally I shan’t wear this to the dinner party. Fortunately, I had just put new bows on my ball gown, and Anne lent me Mama’s diamonds.”
“New bows, eh?” Montaigne said. “That should do the trick.”
He finished up his tea and rose to take his leave. “I leave you in Meg’s capable hands, Sissie. I shall call on you tomorrow.”
“Oh, good. I want to see the slums.”
“Where the poor people live,” Montaigne explained to Meg, with a glint of mischief in his eye. “Perhaps Meg could take you. I am very busy at the House. I meant I would drop in for a moment in the afternoon to arrange details for the evening dinner party.”
Lady Fairly gave him a gimlet glance. “What are you doing this evening, Monty? I’m sure you would like to take Sissie with you.”
“There is an evening sitting in the House,” he lied. “But no doubt Sissie would be happy to do whatever you are doing.”
Sissie looked expectantly to her hostess.
“I thought Sissie and I would have a nice cose this afternoon. I’m attending the theater this evening. The Montagues invited Fairly and me to join them, along with the Wartons.”
This told Montaigne that the six seats in the box would be filled, leaving Sissie alone. It was obviously ineligible to treat a young lady who was doing him a favor so shabbily.
“Ah, just so. I believe I shall skip tonight’s sitting and also attend the theater. Sissie, would you like to come with me?”
Cicely looked uncertain. “Should I not go with Meg?” she asked.
“Meg will have you all to herself until after dinner. I insist you come with me. I shan’t keep you up late.”
“Share and share alike,” Lady Fairly said, happy to have fobbed her guest off for one evening. “We shall expect you around eight, Monty.”
“Until then.” He bowed to the ladies and left.
As soon as the bread and biscuits were gone, the ladies went abovestairs to discuss the important matter of toilette. Cicely gaped in pleasure at her room, which looked like something out of a fairy tale, with its delicate white French furnishings and its gleaming lutestring canopy and drapes in a dusty rose shade.
“How lovely! I feel like a princess.”
“I decorated it myself,” Lady Fairly said. “You know I always liked rose.”
“It’s just as I imagined,” Sissie said, rushing around the room and examining details. Lady Fairly looked at her with something like satisfaction.
Cicely’s trunk had been unpacked while she was belowstairs. She went to the clothespress and proudly displayed her Olympian blue ball gown, with the new bows added. Lady Fairly did not gasp in consternation, but she had to work to control her face. She would not be caught dead in a ditch in such an unfashionable gown, nor did she relish any guest of hers being seen in such an outfit. The material, the cut, the surfeit of bows—it fairly shrieked “country.”
Cicely saw her hostess’s dismay and said, “I daresay it’s too fancy for the theater. I had planned to wear it to Mr. Murray’s dinner party, with Mama’s diamond necklace.”
“Much too fancy,” Lady Fairly said. “But it is no matter. My closet is bulging. You must wear something of mine. We are not that different in size. I have lost a little weight, but the gowns from my trousseau will fit you. Come, let us have a look.”
When they went to Lady Fairly’s room, Cicely was momentarily stunned into silence. “Oh, Meg! What a perfectly lavish room!” she cried, when she found tongue. “Anne was right. This trip is very broadening for me. I never would have thought anyone but a princess lived like this, and with a whole cosmetics counter to herself.”
She went to the toilet table and began lifting the chased silver lids on a set of crystal containers to peer and sniff into them. “What are all these enchanting things?”
“Why, they are my scent bottles and powders and rouge.”
“Rouge!” Cicely laughed aloud. “You don’t mean you paint your face!”
“When I am looking peaky. Everyone does it.”
“I shall make a note of that as well. Gracious, you’ve turned into a fine lady, and never writing a word about it to me, while I kept you up to date about every little thing.”
Lady Fairly felt a trifle guilty on this score. She murmured something about being so busy and hastened to find a new distraction. “My gowns are in here,” she said, moving to the side of the room where a matching pair of oversize armoires stood, filling the wall. She drew open one door and gestured at the gowns.
Cicely stared for a long moment before speaking. “I had thought Fairly must be poor when I saw your little house, but now that I have seen how elegant everything is, and how many gowns you have, I believe he must be a millionaire.”
Lady Fairly glowed in pleasure. She was the sort who could take any amount of admiration but very little criticism. She began to look on her old friend more warmly. She rifled through the gowns, finally drawing one out. It was Italian silk, in her favorite pale dusty rose shade, cut very low at the bodice, with a ruched skirt, each ruche fastened with a silk rosebud.
Cicely gazed in wonder, touching the dress lightly with her fingers, as if it might vanish at her touch. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” she said in an awed voice. “I wouldn’t dare to wear it. I would be bound to spill something on it and destroy it.”
“No matter if you do. It’s too large for me nowadays. Come to the mirror and hold it up in front of you.” Cicely did as she was ordered. “There, it will look better on you than it did on me. Your darker hair sets it off. Fairly says my delicate coloring looks best in richer shades for evening wear.”
“I wish I could have my portrait done, to show Anne. She would never believe it. Where did you find such a heavenly gown?”
“I have a French modiste. She’s rather good.”
“She’s a wizard. May I try it on?”
“It will fit. We were the same size when I got married. We should have it pressed. The skirt is a little wrinkled from hanging in the closet for twelve months.”
Meg pulled the bell cord and her dresser, a stern-looking woman of middle years, came in from the adjoining room. “Have this pressed, Perkins, and lay out my blue gown for this evening.”
The dresser took the gown away.
Cicely said, “Do you mind if I go to my room to make a few notes, Meg? I want to jot down all the new things I’ve learned today while they’re fresh in my mind. I should like to make you the heroine of my next novel.”
Meg’s eyes lit up in delight. “Me! Good gracious, what have I ever done to deserve a book about me?”
“I want a new sort of heroine.”
“I am hardly that,” Meg said modestly.
“What I mean is a spoiled, rich beauty who has too much of everything, and idles her life away.” A faraway look seized her lively face as she continued. “She is cold and barren, which will cause her husband to look elsewhere for amusement.”
“Thank you very much!” Meg exclaimed, fire in her eyes.
“Oh, but that is just the beginning. Before the end, I’ll put her through her paces and she’ll come to her senses. I always like a happy ending. And besides, I shan’t call her Meg. No one will know it’s based on you.”
“I don’t see the point of my being the heroine, if no one is to know.” Meg damped down her annoyance. She must be polite to this farouche creature, for Monty’s sake. “I have a megrim. I shall lie down until lunchtime. Make yourself at home, Sissie. I shall send a girl to help you with your toilette for this evening.”
“You don’t have to do that, but if you could help me dress my hair, I should be happy for it.”
“I do not dress hair. We ‘spoiled beauties’ have a woman to do that for us. I’ll send Perkins to you. Lunch is at two. If you’re hungry in the meanwhile, you must feel free to ask for a snack,” she said rather tartly. “And now I shall leave you.”
“I’m sorry if I offended you, Meg,” Cicely said in a small voice.
“You didn’t offend me. You know nothing about how the ton live,” she said, and bowed her guest stiffly out of the door. She then threw herself on the bed and reviewed the insults she had endured from Sissie Caldwell. Calling her a scarecrow, denigrating one of the finest mansions in London! Really, the chit was impossible! Sissie had always been outspoken, of course.
Meg rose from the bed and went to her mirror. She
looking rather hagged. She remembered Sissie’s vibrant cheeks and sparkling eyes. Was it her diet that was preventing Meg from giving Fairly a pledge of her love? It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying in the beginning, but lately Fairly’s ardor had cooled.
Cicely realized she had gotten off on a bad foot and was sorry for it, but overall she was satisfied with the visit thus far. She had found her new heroine and was already envisaging sending her to the slums of London to learn a few things about real life.
Meg was quite right: Cicely knew nothing about how the ton lived, but she was fast learning. She knew that her old friend had changed, and for the worse. She looked hagged, despite her rouge pot. She obviously squandered a fortune on her clothes. It was odd that a young bride had not given her husband of two years a single baby yet. How had Meg changed so much in two short years? There were mysteries to be plumbed in wicked London, and Cicely could hardly wait to begin plumbing.
“I cannot be seen in public in this gown! I’m half naked!” Cicely exclaimed when Meg stopped at her room to take her down to dinner. Cicely lifted her hands to her bodice to cover her shame. But as she looked to Meg, she saw that her hostess’s gown was of the same cut. Meg’s bosoms were not so full as her own, however. Hers seemed to be rising out of the gown like yeast bread rising in the pan.
“It is what everyone will be wearing,” Meg said, casting a jealous eye on those full young breasts. “If you’re not comfortable, wear a shawl.”
Cicely snatched up Meg’s white woolen shawl.
“Good God, not that blanket! I brought you this one that goes with the rose gown.” She handed Cicely an elegant paisley shawl with a silk fringe.
Cicely draped it around her shoulders and folded it over the top of her gown. “I don’t see how I can eat with this on.”
“I’m sure you’ll manage,” Meg said rather astringently. Cicely had certainly put away a good luncheon. “I see Perkins has fixed up your hair. Very nice.” She peered to see how that cluster of curls had been arranged. It looked quite striking. Sissie had rich, glossy hair the color of a peeled chestnut.
“We practiced while you paid that duty visit to Fairly’s aunt this afternoon. Perkins had to use eight pins and two combs. I’ll have the megrims before the evening is over.”
“Beauty does not come cheap. The price includes suffering. You might put that in your book, Sissie.” The price also included a quick visit to the chemist’s shop that afternoon for a bottle of tonic guaranteed to put the roses back in Meg’s cheeks. The visit to Aunt Fairly was merely the pretext.
“It’s a good thing beauty is a luxury,” Sissie said. “A lady need only suffer as much as she wants to. For myself, I’d as lief be plain. But not in London, of course,” she added.
Lord Fairly was waiting on nettles to greet Miss Cicely. There was little of more interest to him than a young lady. He had met Sissie at his wedding at the abbey. Wildly infatuated with his bride at the time, he had not paid much heed to the local beauties. His practiced eye now told him he had missed out on a prime chick. Miss Cicely was something special. Her luxuriant curls, arranged in a fashionable flounce on top of her head, provided a dramatic contrast to her peaches-and-cream complexion. And the eyes! Lord, they were like stormy lakes. He suspected there might be an interesting body as well beneath the shawl she clutched around her.
“So this is little Sissie Caldwell!” he said, deciding to call her Sissie from the beginning, to hasten things along. “A pleasure to see you again, Sissie. By Jove, you look splendid. You will take the shine out of them all. Kind of you to spare us a few days.”
Sissie had already been warned that Lord Fairly did not know the whole of why she was in London. He thought she had actually written
Chaos Is Come Again,
and while he had not read it, he knew it was a great success. It seemed strange to Cicely that Meg should keep secrets from her husband, but Meg made little of it.