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Authors: Judith McNaught

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Romance, #Historical

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BOOK: Almost Heaven
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“My temper,” Lucinda had primly informed her – by way of apology, Elizabeth supposed “is my
only
shortcoming.”

Privately, Elizabeth thought Lucy must bottle up all her emotions inside herself as she sat perfectly still on sofas and chairs, for years at a time, until it finally exploded like one of those mountains she’d read about that poured forth molten rock when the pressure finally reached a peak.

By the time the Camerons, along with Lucinda and the necessary servants, arrived in London for Elizabeth’s debut, Elizabeth had learned all that Mrs. Porter could teach her, and she felt quite capable of meeting the challenges Mrs. Porter described. Actually, other than memorizing the rules of etiquette she was a little baffled over the huge fuss being made. After all, she’d learned to dance in the six months she was being prepared for her debut, and she’d been conversing since she was three years old, and as closely as she could tell, her only duties as a debutante were to converse politely on trivial subjects only, conceal her intelligent at all costs, and dance.

The day after they settled into their rented town house her sponsor into the ranks of the
ton,
Lady Jamison, called on Elizabeth and Robert. With her were two daughters, Valerie and Charise. Valerie was a year older than Elizabeth and had made her debut the year before; Charise was five years older, the young widow of old Lord Dumont who cocked up his toes a month after the nuptials, leaving his new wife wealthy, relieved, and entirely independent.

In the two weeks before the Season began Elizabeth spent considerable time with the wealthy young debutantes who gathered in the Jamison drawing room to gossip happily about everything and anyone. All of them had come to London with the same noble duty and familial objective: to marry, in accordance with their family’s wishes, the wealthiest possible suitor while at the same time increasing their family’s wealth and social standing.

It was in that drawing room that Elizabeth’s education was continued and completed. She discovered to her shock that Mrs. Porter had been right about name-dropping. She also discovered that it was apparently not considered bad manners among the
ton
to discuss another person’s financial status particularly the status and prospects of an unmarried gentleman. The very first day it was all she could do not to betray her ignorance with a horrified gasp at the conversation swirling around her: “Lord Peters is an excellent catch. Why, he has an income of £20,000 and every prospect of being named heir to his uncle’s baronetcy if his uncle dies of his heart ailment, which there’s every reason to expect he will,” one of the girls had announced, and the others chimed in: “Shoreham has that splendid estate in Wiltshire, and Mama is living on tenterhooks waiting to see if he’ll declare himself . . . Think of it, the Shoreham emeralds! Robelsly is driving a splendid blue barouche, but Papa said he’s up to his ears in debt and that I may on no account consider him . . . Elizabeth, wait until you meet Richard Shipley! Do not under any circumstances let his charm fool you; he’s a complete scoundrel, and though he dresses to the nines, he hasn’t a feather to fly with!” That last advice came from Valerie Jamison, whom Elizabeth regarded as her very closest friend among the girls.

Elizabeth had gladly accepted their collective friendship and, outwardly, their advice. However, she felt increasingly uneasy about some of their attitudes toward people they judged as their inferiors, which wasn’t surprising from a young lady who regarded her butler and coachman as
her
equals.

On the other hand, she was in love with London, with its bustling streets, manicured parks, and air of excited expectation, and she adored having friends who, when they weren’t gossiping about someone, were merry companions.

On the night of her first ball, however, much of Elizabeth’s confidence and delight had suddenly vanished. As she walked up the Jamisons’ staircase beside Robert, she felt suddenly more terrified than she’d ever felt in her life. Her head was whirling with all the dos and don’ts she’d not really bothered to memorize, and she was morbidly certain she was going to be the Season’s most notorious wallflower. But when she walked into the ballroom, the sight that greeted her made her forget all her self-conscious terrors and made her eyes shine with wonder. Chandeliers sparkled with hundreds of thousands of candles; handsome men and gorgeously gowned women strolled about in silks and satins.

Oblivious to the young men turning to stare at her, she lifted her shining eyes to her smiling brother. “Robert,” she whispered, her green eyes radiant, “have you ever
imagined
there were such beautiful people and such grand rooms in the entire world?”

Clad in a filmy, gold-spangled white gauze gown with white roses entwined in her golden hair and her green eyes sparkling, Elizabeth Cameron looked like a fairy-tale princess.

She was enchanted, and her enchantment lent her an almost ethereal glow as she finally recovered herself enough to smile and acknowledge Valerie and her friends.

By the end of the evening Elizabeth
felt
as if she were in a fairy tale. Young men had flocked around her, begging for introductions and dances and for the opportunity to bring her punch. She smiled and danced, but she never resorted to the flirtatious contrivances used by some of the other girls; instead she listened with genuine interest and a warm smile to the beaux who spoke to her; she made them comfortable and drew them out as they led her to the dance floor. In truth, she was thrilled by the contagious gaiety, beguiled by the wondrous music, dazzled by so much attention, and all those emotions were displayed in her shining eyes and winsome smile. She was a mythical princess at her first ball, bewitching, entrancing, twirling around and around on the dance floor beneath glittering chandeliers, surrounded by charming princes, with no thought that it would ever end. Elizabeth Cameron, with her angelic beauty, golden hair, and shining green eyes, had taken London by storm. She was not a rage. She was
the
rage.

The callers began arriving at her house the next morning in an endless stream, and it was there, not in the ballrooms, where Elizabeth made her greatest conquests, for she was not merely lovely to look at, she was even easier to be with than she had been at the ball. Within three weeks fourteen gentlemen had offered for her, and London was abuzz with such an unprecedented occurrence. Not even Miss Mary Gladstone, the reigning beauty for two consecutive seasons, had received so many offers as that.

Twelve of Elizabeth’s suitors were young, besotted, and eligible; two were much older and equally besotted. Robert, with great pride and equal lack of tact, boasted of her suitors and ruthlessly rejected them as unsuitable and inadequate. He waited, faithfully keeping his promise to Elizabeth to choose for her an
ideal
husband with whom she could be happy.

The fifteenth applicant for her hand filled all his requirements. Extremely wealthy, handsome, and personable, Viscount Mondevale, at twenty-five, was unquestionably one of the season’s best catches. Robert knew it, and as he told Elizabeth that evening, he’d been so excited that he had nearly forgotten himself and leapt across his desk to congratulate the young viscount on his impending nuptials.

Elizabeth had been very pleased and touched that the gentleman she had most particularly admired was the very one who had offered for her and been chosen. “Oh, Robert, he’s excessively nice. I-I wasn’t entirely certain he liked me enough to offer for me.”

Robert had pressed an affectionate kiss on her forehead. “Princess,” he’d teased, “any man who takes a look at you loses his head entirely. It’s only a matter of time.”

Elizabeth had given him a brief smile and shrugged. She was heartily sick of people talking about her face as if there were no mind behind it. Moreover, all the frantic activities and brittle gaiety of the season, which had originally enthralled her, were rapidly beginning to pall. In fact, the strongest emotion she felt at Robert’s announcement was relief that her marriage was settled.

“Mondevale plans to call on you this afternoon,” Robert had continued, “but I don’t mean to give him my answer for a week or two. Waiting will only strengthen his resolve, and besides, you deserve another few days of freedom before you become an engaged woman.”

An engaged woman. Elizabeth felt an oddly queasy and distinctly uneasy feeling at the sound of that, though she realized she was being very foolish.

“I confess I dreaded telling him that your dowry is only £5,000, but he didn’t seem to care. Said as much. Said all he wanted was you. Told me he meant to shower you with rubies the size of your palm.”

“That’s . . . wonderful,” Elizabeth said weakly, trying very hard to feel something more than relief and an inexplicable twinge of apprehension.

“You’re
wonderful,” he said, rumpling her hair. “You’ve pulled Father, me, and Havenhurst out of the briars.”

At three o’clock Viscount Mondevale arrived. Elizabeth met with him in the yellow salon. He walked in, glanced around the room, then took her hands in his and smiled warmly into her eyes. “The answer is yes, isn’t it?” he said, but it was more a statement than a question.

“You’ve already spoken to my brother?” Elizabeth said in surprise.

“No, I haven’t.”

Then how do you know the answer is yes?” she asked, smiling and mystified.

“Because,” he said, “the ever-present, eagle-eyed Miss Lucinda Throckmorton-Jones is absent from your side for the first time in a month!” He pressed a brief kiss to her forehead, which caught her off-guard, and she blushed. “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” he asked.

Elizabeth had a vague idea since everyone was always telling her, and she suppressed a worried impulse to reply, “Do you have any idea how
intelligent
I am?” It wasn’t that she was an intellectual by any stretch of the imagination, but she
did
like to read and think and even debate issues, and she wasn’t at all certain he would like that in her. He never expressed an opinion on anything except the most trivial generalities and he never asked for hers.

“You’re enchanting.” he whispered, and Elizabeth wondered, very seriously,
why
he thought that. He didn’t know how much she loved to fish, or to laugh, or that she could shoot a pistol so well she was almost a marksman. He didn’t know she’d once had chariot races across the yard at Havenhurst, or that flowers seemed to bloom especially well for her. She didn’t even know if he’d like to hear all the wonderful tales of Havenhurst and its colorful former inhabitants. He knew so little of her; she knew even less about him,

She wished she could ask Lucinda’s advice, but Lucinda was ill with a high fever, raw throat, and bad digestion that had kept her in her chamber since the day before.

Elizabeth was still a little worried about all those things late the next afternoon when she left to attend the weekend party that would put her in the way of Ian Thornton and change her life. The party took place at the lovely country house belonging to Valerie’s older sister, Lady Charise Dumont. By the time Elizabeth arrived the grounds of the estate were already filled with guests who were flirting and laughing and drinking liberal quantities of the champagne that gurgled forth from crystal fountains in the garden. By London standards, the gathering at this party was small; no more than one hundred fifty guests were present, and only twenty-five of them, including Elizabeth and her three friends, were actually staying the full weekend. If she hadn’t been so sheltered and so naive, she’d have recognized “the fast set” when she saw it that evening; she’d have realized at a glance that the guests at this party were much older, more experienced, and far more freewheeling than any she’d ever been around. And she’d have left.

Now, as Elizabeth sat in the salon at Havenhurst, reflecting on her disastrous folly that weekend, she marveled at her gullibility and naiveté.

Leaning her head back against the sofa, she closed her eyes, swallowing against the painful lump of humiliation that swelled in her throat. Why, she wondered despairingly, did happy memories fade and blur until one could scarcely recall them at all, while horrible memories seemed to retain their blinding clarity and painful sharpness? Even now she could remember that night – see it, hear it, smell it.

Flowers had been blooming riotously in the formal gardens when she walked outside looking for her friends. Roses. Everywhere there had been the intoxicating fragrance of roses. In the ballroom the orchestra was tuning up, and suddenly the opening strains of a lovely waltz drifted into the garden, filling it with music. Twilight was descending, and servants moved about the terraced garden paths lighting gay torches. Not all the paths would be lit, of course – those below the terraced steps would be left in convenient darkness for couples who later wished for intimacy in the hedge maze or the greenhouse, but Elizabeth hadn’t realized that until later.

It had taken her nearly a half hour to find her friends, because they had gathered for a gay gossip at the far end of the garden where they were partially concealed from view by a high, clipped hedge. As she neared the girls she realized they weren’t standing by the hedge, they were peeking through it, chattering excitedly about someone they were watching – someone who seemed to be sending them into raptures of excitement and speculation. “Now that,” Valerie giggled, peering through the hedge, “is what my sister calls ‘manly allure’!” In brief, reverent silence all three of the girls studied this paragon of masculinity who had earned such high praise from Valerie’s gorgeous and very discerning sister, Charise. Elizabeth had just noticed a grass stain on her lavender slipper and was unhappily contemplating the exorbitant cost of a new pair while wondering if it was possible to buy only
one
shoe. “I still can’t believe it’s him!” Valerie whispered. “Charise said he might be here, but I wouldn’t credit it. Won’t everyone simply die when we return to London and tell them we’ve seen him?” Valerie added, then she noticed Elizabeth and beckoned her to the hedge. “Look, Elizabeth, isn’t he
divine’
in a sort of mysterious,
wicked
way?”

BOOK: Almost Heaven
3.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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