Authors: Lynn Messina - Miss Fellingham's Rebellion
Tags: #Regency Romance
“I am very glad to hear that. Not that you would get thrashed,” she immediately corrected, “but that you’re following protocol.”
Pearson smiled. “I assure you, I thought nothing else.”
They danced the rest of the set in silence, and Catherine enjoyed herself. As she usually stayed close to her mother during balls, she rarely partook of them fully.
“That was lovely, Mr. Pearson,” she said as he returned her to her mother, who was comfortably ensconced along the far wall with the other chaperones. “Thank you.”
“Nothing to it. I enjoyed myself.” They were standing next to her mother now, and Pearson lingered awkwardly. He coughed once, clearing his throat. “I…uh, don’t suppose you would like to go for a drive with me tomorrow in the park.”
Catherine smiled widely at the offer, which she found gracious despite its negative assumptions. “I’d be delighted.”
“You would?” he asked, surprise getting the better of him before he recalled his composure. “I mean, lovely. Shall we say four-thirty?”
Pearson bowed and walked away, slightly flushed from his success.
“There you are, Catherine dear,” her mother said. “Where did you go off to? Well, it doesn’t matter. Lady Lawson and I were just talking about how Lorena Burton is shamelessly throwing herself at Sir Quarles, and I was saying how her sister was exactly the same way before she landed Marsters. She had her come-out the same year as yours. Don’t you remember her? Always a very forward child. The entire family’s that way. Why, I remember when her mother had her debut.…”
As comment from her was neither expected nor necessary, Catherine stopped listening and surveyed the ballroom. Her mother and her cronies rarely paid any attention to her and she passed most balls like this—tucked quietly along the wall, watching the dancers. Tonight, however, she didn’t feel quite so contented with the usual arrangement. Though she could hardly explain it, she felt an odd sort of excitement, as if anything could happen—as if, she admitted reluctantly to herself, she could turn at any moment and find herself face to face with the gentleman from the museum.
It wasn’t only that sense of anticipation that made her feel different; it was also the confidence she’d shown in talking to him. She felt certain that it hinted at something auspicious for her—that she might finally, after all these years, be coming out of her shell. The idea made her happy, and she knew she should test her newfound social ease by striking up a conversation with a gentleman. It was a terrifying thought, but she wouldn’t let that stop her.
She was looking for the right person to approach—someone known to be friendly and not too intimidating, perhaps a gentleman past the first blush of youth whom she’d met before—when a woman’s voice caught her attention.
“My dear,” she said excitedly. “I have hit upon the veriest scheme and you simply must help me with it. I shall wither and die of boredom if you don’t.”
It took Catherine only a moment to recognize the dulcet tones of her mother’s friend Arabella Courtland.
Next, her partner spoke: “You realize, Bella, that you are always making dire threats about your health, and yet I have never seen anything but a pretty blush in your cheeks and a calculating gleam in your eye. If you aren’t careful, I should begin to suspect that you’re a confirmed crier of wolf.”
, thought Catherine, whipping her head around to try to get a glance of the speaker. It sounded like the man she’d met at the museum. Could it be? She thought it was unlikely, even impossible, and yet no two men could have that same beautiful baritone.
“Pooh, Deverill,” Lady Courtland said dismissively. “You do me an injustice. I have never been quite this bored before. I assure you, I am plunging great depths this time. You must promise to help me.”
The man at the museum was Deverill, the horrible, wretched man her sister could not stop enthusing about? The insufferably perfect man who didn’t have a single fault? She could scarcely believe it.
“I cannot do that before you divulge what is required of me,” he responded smoothly.
But Lady Courtland was having none of it. “No, you must give me your word before I reveal all.”
Catherine, who was taller than most women and many men, immediately began to stretch her neck to get a glimpse of the pair, but the ballroom was so crowded with guests that one could barely breathe much less survey the space successfully. They were to her left, that much she could tell, but when she looked in that direction she didn’t see them. Were they around the bend? The room had several alcoves that were ideal for tête-à-têtes.
“Bella, darling, you can’t believe I’d behave so rashly,” he said, sounding every bit the nonpareil Evelyn had described: knowing, sophisticated, worldly. He was not at all the funny, friendly, approachable man she’d met at the museum, and Catherine could not quell her disappointment.
“Of course you would.” Her ladyship’s tone was assured and confident. “You forget. I know you well. Most likely, you are as bored as I.”
There was a moment of silence as the gentleman considered this. “Since you are right on that mark, I will reward you with my word that I will help you with your newest scheme whatever it may be.”
“La, I knew you would,” she cried triumphantly.
Much to Catherine’s annoyance, there were other voices intruding and she had to fight to stay focused on the conversation. The gentleman directly to Catherine’s right was talking loudly about his latest acquisition at Tattersall’s, and a lady in a white crepe gown had a cackling laugh that was so loud it almost drowned out the orchestra.
“Stop crowing,” Deverill ordered, “and tell me what I must do.”
“My dear friend’s daughter is the veriest quiz,” she announced matter-of-factly, “and I want you to bring her into fashion.”
Instantly, Catherine froze, her heart suddenly pounding as she realized Lady Courtland was talking about her.
No, she thought, ordering herself to calm down. It couldn’t be her. It had to be another dear friend’s daughter.
“It’s not like you to be cruel, Bella,” Deverill observed.
It wasn’t her because she couldn’t be described that way—she wasn’t a quiz, was she?
“I’m not being cruel. Far from it,” Arabella insisted. “I want to launch her. I want her to have a dazzling season.”
Even if she was a quiz, she couldn’t possibly be the veriest. Surely, there was at least one quiz among all of London society who was a tiny bit more very than she.
“But if she is the veriest quiz…”
Despite her attempts to exonerate herself, Catherine knew they were talking about her. It couldn’t be anyone else—she fit the description too well—and hearing Julian, the wonderful man from the museum, call her the veriest quiz hurt like a little pin pricking her heart.
“She has countenance,” Arabella announced.
Deverill’s laugh was cynical. “That’s precisely the thing one says when a woman doesn’t have countenance.”
Lady Courtland conceded the truth of this statement but insisted that this time it was actually true. “Trust me. She’s unusual. Not in your line, of course, but definitely an original.”
Catherine, her feet glued to the spot despite how strongly she longed to run away, took little comfort in her claim to countenance. Countenance didn’t mean much if one was a quiz.
“Countenance doesn’t hold water when one is a quiz,” Deverill said, in perfect echo of her thoughts.
“Regardless,” Arabella said, “you’ve promised to help me.”
He sighed resignedly. “Very well, what would you have me do?”
“Be attentive—dance with her, take her riding in the park, look engrossed when she speaks. You don’t need me to tell you how to do the pretty. If you lavish attention on her, I guarantee the
“Who’s the chit?” he asked.
“Fellingham’s daughter,” she said.
The crepe-covered woman laughed and Catherine silently cursed her piercing cackle.
“Her?” Deverill’s surprise was evident. “But she’s a diamond of the first water. You don’t need my help. Half the bucks are already dangling after her.”
“Not that daughter, the other one,” Arabella explained.
“He has another one?”
“Two, in fact, but we are discussing the eldest.”
“The eldest? Have I ever met her?” he asked.
“I should say so. She had her come out more than six years ago.”
“Good God,” he said, sounding properly appalled. “You want me to bring into fashion a woman who has been out for
years? I might be a leader of the
but I am not a magician. Even I cannot make gold out of dross.”
There was so much horror in his voice, so much conviction that the task was impossible, that Catherine felt tears form in the back of her throat. She knew she was beyond the pale, had known it for years, but it was still jarring to hear someone else say it. The comfortable truths of one’s life sounded bewildering and stark when uttered by an unseen stranger in a crowded ballroom.
How dare Lady Courtland do this to her—bandy about her name at a crowded affair where anyone in the world could hear. Had she no sense of propriety or even humanity? Humiliating conversations like this one belonged in the privacy of a drawing room.
“I have every faith in your consequence, my friend,” Arabella assured him, not the least bit perturbed by his attitude.
“To what end are we playing this game, Bella?”
“It is not a game,” she said. “I sincerely hope to see her engaged by the end of the season.”
“You have a kind heart, but no man marries an ape leader long on the shelf. Tell me, is she pretty?”
“Pretty?” Lady Courtland repeated thoughtfully. “She could be, of course, if she did the right things.”
“My dear Bella, if she is not an Incomparable, there’s no point to this exercise. Surely you realize that only superior looks could compensate for her advanced age,” Deverill said reasonably.
“There are other men among the
who are not so unyielding in their requirements as you. Of course, I know she would never do for someone like you. You need a woman who is a great beauty.”
“Dash it, Bella, I’m not that bad.”
The lady emitted a trilling laugh of genuine humor. “Save the whiskers for your mama, Deverill. You can’t so easily hoodwink me. I know you too well for the spoiled aesthete you are.”
“If you think so little of me, I fail to see why you want my help at all,” Deverill said, sounding miffed.
As distraught as she was, Miss Fellingham couldn’t help smiling at the annoyance in his voice. The irony of poor Lord Deverill taking offense at an unflattering opinion of his character was too good to resist.
“Deverill, you know that I hold you in the highest esteem,” Arabella insisted. “It is simply that I have no illusions. Surely you appreciate that I see you clearly?”
The woman in white crepe laughed again, drowning out his response, and it was all Catherine could do not to walk over and clamp her hand over the lady’s mouth.
“Yes, but that is neither here nor there, my dear,” Lady Courtland explained. “As I said, she has countenance. I assure you, that’s enough. You need only to make sure that other men notice her. She will do the rest. Of that I am certain.”
“I am afraid, my dear, that you give us men too much credit.”
“And I am afraid, my dear, that you give Catherine too little.”
Shocked, Catherine looked up, convinced for a moment that her victims had discovered she was eavesdropping on them, but she realized almost immediately that it was her mother calling. Taking a few seconds to compose herself, she wiped delicately at her eyes to make sure they were dry and breathed in deeply. Then she plastered a wide, fake smile on her face.
“Yes, Mama?” she said.
“I asked you what you thought of Margaret Dumplemeyer’s dress. I think it is entirely the wrong color for her. With her orange hair, she shouldn’t be wearing red. She should be wearing…hmm, I don’t know what color goes with orange hair. Green, perhaps?”
“She doesn’t have orange hair,” Catherine muttered under her breath in defense of the beautiful redhead who had as many beaux as her sister.
“What’s that you say? Do speak up, girl,” her mama ordered.
“Please excuse me, I need some air.” Then, without waiting for her mother to comment, she strolled across the room to the balcony, which, although less crowded than the ballroom, was not quite the haven she was looking for. She found a deserted corner and looked out at a garden that was all aglow with hundreds of translucent candles. How beautiful, she thought, before closing her eyes.
She had to regain her composure. Nothing tragic had happened, she told herself. Nobody had been hurt, nobody mortally wounded. Only a few unkind words had been spoken, and they were not even words she had never heard before. She had already known she was an ape leader—not the veriest quiz, of course, but an ape leader nonetheless. Evelyn was always reminding her of her failure to wed, and her mother, who most probably loved her, frequently called her a spinster to her face.