Authors: Julia Tagan
To be or not to beâin loveâ¦
As a ward of the Duchess of Dorset, Harriet can hardly expect more from a match than the ringing endorsement of “from what I've heard, the man is financially secure and his teeth are quite regular.” After all, she's only the lowly daughter of traveling actors, not the actual daughter of the duchess.
William Talbot, Earl of Abingdon is set to marry the duchess's daughter. After his elder brother's scandalous death, his family's reputation is paramount, and he'll allow nothing to damage it again. But when Harriet disappears to save her father from debtor's prison, the scandal threatens William and his intended's family. The simple task of fetching the duchess's runaway ward turns complicated when Harriet insists on traveling with her father's acting company. William's forced to tag along, and finds himself entranced. The stage transforms Harriet into a free-spirited, captivating beauty. But, someone's been sabotaging the theater company, and instead of facing scandal, William and Harriet discover a threat not only to their growing passion, but to their livesâ¦
Books by Julia Tagan
A Question of Class
Stages of Desire
Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation
Stages of Desire
Kensington Publishing Corp.
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First Electronic Edition: January 2015
First Print Edition: January 2015
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To D.D., for her kind words and Zen-like calm in the storm.
“From what I've heard, the man is financially secure and his teeth are quite regular,” announced Eleanor, Duchess of Dorset.
Harriet Farley, the duchess's ward, smiled wanly, trying to be as polite as she could under the circumstances. The ballroom brimmed with young women coiffed and adorned to perfection and men whose gazes darted toward the prettiest. Although normally Harriet preferred lingering along the perimeter, tonight she was to be introduced to a promising suitor, handpicked by the duchess herself. For the first time, she'd take part in the ritual of courtship instead of observing from the duchess's side. Her moment had come.
Then why did she feel like a hare caught in a trap?
The aroma of Pear's soap and perfume wafted through the crowd. Harriet dabbed her handkerchief under the lace trim of the neckline of her gown but stopped when the duchess furrowed her brow. After six years of living under the same roof, Harriet was keenly attuned to the woman's slightest sign of irritation.
“I'm sure he's lovely, Your Grace,” said Harriet. “I trust your judgment when it comes to these matters.”
The duchess shrugged and snapped open her fan, obviously pleased. Harriet's guardian had a regal profile as would befit the wife of the Duke of Dorset, even though his sudden death three years earlier had taken its toll on the duchess's loveliness. The family's recent financial woes had no doubt exacerbated the deep lines etched on her forehead. Harriet could never repay their generosity, taking her in when she was twelve years old, yet now she could do something to help. Or so she hoped.
The duchess scanned the room like a sea captain looking for signs of land. “We'll wait until Marianne's betrothal is settled, and you'll be next.”
“Of course, Your Grace.” Harriet wiggled her toes and winced. The first order of business once she was married would be to buy slippers that fit, not ones intended to make her too-large feet appear dainty.
“You've been an agreeable companion to Lady Marianne, and now, if luck has it, you'll be an agreeable wife to the sixth son of a baron.”
“I'm excited to meet Mr. Hopplehill.” Harriet swayed back slightly, so her heels, not her toes, supported her body weight.
“Act at ease, my girl. You stand so stiffly one would think you're a marble sculpture.”
She shifted her weight forward, trying to comply.
“Now you're slumping. Oh, for heaven's sake. You must have picked up some semblance of proper conduct from Marianne.”
Tears stung her eyes and she took a calming breath. She hadn't been born into the
, and evenings like these only reinforced her sense of inadequacy. The other girls were like lap dogs, brushed and pampered and pirouetting for biscuits, while she was more of the loyal hunting dog, happier loping across fields and braying.
The heat must be affecting her thinking.
Besides, the duchess was a kind-hearted woman under a great deal of pressure. Marianne's expenses during the Season had been enormous, the duchess obligated to keep up appearances until her daughter was successfully married off and someone else was paying her modiste bills. Even though Harriet's expenses weren't nearly as high, she was still a burden. She'd do whatever it took to ease her guardian's financial situation. After all, she owed her dearly.
“There you are.” Marianne glided over and inserted herself between Harriet and the duchess.
Harriet couldn't help but marvel at the beauty of her friend. Marianne was as tiny as Harriet was tall, and her white satin gown, trimmed with gold, showed off her delicate frame. A gold comb studded with diamonds held back her carefully arranged, honey-blonde hair.
Harriet glanced down at her own blue muslin, a dress she'd made herself and considered fetching. Until now. As she did so, one of her curls came loose and flopped down over her right eye.
Marianne reached up and expertly tucked it back into place. “There. I think that will stay put. Keep your head still. Have you seen Mr. Hopplehill yet?”
Harriet shook her head imperceptibly. “Not yet.”
“If you marry him, you'll be Mrs. Harriet Hopplehill.” Marianne opened her fan and giggled from behind it. “That's quite a mouthful.”
The duchess threw her a stony glare. “Enough, Marianne. Where is Lord Abingdon?”
The change of subject was a relief.
“Don't fret, Mama. I saw him a moment ago. He said he had to attend to some arrangements. Isn't this ball a dream? And can you imagine me living here? As the Countess of Abingdon, no less?”
“Get a hold of yourself, dear girl.” The duchess pursed her lips. “You haven't been asked yet.”
Marianne had every reason to expect the world to land at her feet. From her first presentation at court, she'd been considered the quintessential English rose, a woman of charm and beauty. With the tiniest feet Harriet had ever seen.
“Besides, his lordship asked if he could pay a call on me tomorrow, as he had something imperative to discuss. I have no doubt we'll be shopping for my trousseau within the week.”
The duchess smiled, but Harriet sensed the reminder of additional purchases tempered the good news.
Marianne carried on, oblivious to her mother's worry. “I've already decided right after the wedding I will take down the awful red damask on the walls of this room and replace it with yellow, and perhaps frame the paintings with gold. Don't you think, Mama?”
“It would brighten up the place considerably, I'm sure.”
Harriet couldn't imagine changing a thing in the grand salon. The silk damask was more of a soft rose-coral than a red, and the upholstery of the elegantly carved chairs set along the border of the hall echoed the hue. Adding gaudy gold frames would be a shame. But Harriet knew from experience such opinions were better left unsaid. Marianne's life had become full and merry once she'd made her debut. She'd extended her circle of friends dramatically and adopted strong opinions on matters of taste and style. Although at times Harriet missed her company, she was more than a little relieved to be left behind.
“And Mama,” Marianne said. “I'll need a new gown for Almack's next week.”
“But dear, you have dozens of gowns. What about the lavender? It goes so nicely with your skin.”
Marianne's mouth formed a perfect pout. “I've worn it already. If I wear it again so soon I'll attract the wrong sort of attention. We don't want that, do we?”
The duchess's back, always ramrod straight, dipped ever so slightly.
Harriet couldn't help but intervene. “Perhaps I can make some alterations to the lavender gown,” she offered. “As I did with your Spencer last year.”
Now she had the duchess's rapt attention. “What would you do, exactly?”
“I could add a couple of tiers of lace to the bottom of it.”
Marianne tapped her fan on her chin. “Let's say three tiers. And could you change the sleeves as well?”
“I could add lace and trim to match the skirt. It would be quite grand, I believe.”
The duchess gave her a curt nod. “An excellent solution.”
“Could you finish it by next week?” Before Harriet could reply, Marianne continued. “You know I'd help, but you do such finer work than I.”
Marianne's fingers, although pretty, were far from nimble and ill-suited to either needlework or the pianoforte. Her one fault, as far as Harriet could tell. Her aversion to assisting was appreciated, as any work she performed would only have to be redone.
“If I purchase the trimming tomorrow, I believe there will be enough time.”
Marianne squeezed Harriet's arm. “You're lucky, to sew so brilliantly. I suppose your talent comes from being born into a family of actors, no? All those costumes to sew.”
Harriet's smile wavered. She was unsure how to respond. Marianne and the duchess seldom spoke of her family history. The duke had preferred it not be brought up, particularly among callers, as if her dubious background might stain the rest of them.
The duchess's lip twitched and she looked away.
Harriet had to admit, one of her fondest memories was of sitting by a fire with her older brother and sewing gold trim onto a man's frock coat, both of them laughing as their father mimicked an aristocrat who'd wept during King Lear's mad scene at that evening's performance. Her earlier life as a member of a traveling acting company was a far cry from where she stood now, in a room resounding with the strains of violins and flutes, surrounded by women wearing ball gowns bejeweled with pearls and rosettes.
“I believe Mr. Hopplehill has arrived.” Her guardian's voice rang out with relief.
Harriet straightened her shoulders, patted her unruly hair, and took a deep breath. She scanned the sea of faces. A pleasant-looking fellow with a lopsided smile and dark curls headed toward them, and a lump caught in her throat. He seemed kind and funny, the sort of person who wouldn't take life too seriously.
A nudge from the duchess broke Harriet's reverie.
“Not him.” She nodded over to the right. “Him.”
A middle-aged man, old enough to be Harriet's father, trundled their way. He was about six inches shorter than she, and what was left of his thin blond hair was plastered across his balding head. The man perspired profusely, and Harriet found herself captivated by a single bead of sweat making its way down his forehead. She wondered if he was going to wipe it away or if it would glide all the way down his nose.
He bowed to the duchess. “Your Grace.”
“How delightful to see you again.” She drew Harriet forward. “Lady Marianne, Miss Farley, may I present Mr. Hopplehill. Sir, my daughter and my ward.”
Mr. Hopplehill nodded politely to them, then took Harriet's gloved hand in his and bowed over it. The bead of sweat broke loose and fell onto her wrist.
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Farley.”
“And you, Mr. Hopplehill,” Harriet stammered.
She wasn't quite sure how to proceed. She had no right to be choosy, but had hoped for a suitor closer in age. Her expression must have given away her dismay, as the duchess stared at her with a pained look. Marianne, meanwhile, seemed quite amused.
“I do hope your mother is feeling better, Mr. Hopplehill,” the duchess finally offered.
He nodded his head several times. “She is, thank you very much. Gout runs in the family, I'm afraid.”
“I see. Harriet, Mr. Hopplehill holds a position at the Barings Bank of London.”
He flashed a toothy smile. “As the youngest of six brothers, I could have joined the circus and no one would have cared, but I've always loved sums, so there you are.”
No one spoke for a moment.
“With Your Grace's permission, I wonder if I might request that Miss Farley dance with me?”
“You have my permission.” The duchess cut Harriet a look. “I believe this set is not yet spoken for.”
Harriet nodded. At least he hadn't seen that her dance card was empty. She allowed Mr. Hopplehill to take her hand and escort her onto the dance floor. His fingers were almost as small as a woman's. Panic rose in her throat. Was this the man she was destined to marry?
The musicians struck up a country dance and Harriet gamely followed along.
Mr. Hopplehill gazed up at her. “You're a big girl.”
“I am quite tall, yes.” She wished she could shrink down and become as petite as Marianne. Instead, her feet seemed enormously heavy, as if they were made of stone, and she was sure everyone in the room was laughing at her.
“I happen to own a barouche-landau, did the duchess mention that?” he asked.
“I don't believe she did.”
“Oh yes, and the four horses are perfectly matched. Not easy to come by. Not even Lord Abingdon has such a carriage as I.”
How to respond? “I'm sure he's quite unhappy about that.”
“Oh, yes indeed.”
She welcomed the brief exchange of partners, where she wouldn't have to talk, but all too soon Mr. Hopplehill pranced back toward her, lifting his feet high in a manner that made her worry for his balance.
“Do you want to know what color the barouche-landau is, Miss Farley?” His forehead glistened.
He seemed baffled for a moment. “Of course not. It's yellow.”
Harriet widened her eyes in what she hoped was a look of enthrallment. “Yellow. Does that mean you're a member of the Four-Horse Club?”
His countenance brightened considerably. “I see you've been reading the papers, Miss Farley. As a matter of fact, I hope to be invited to join soon.”
“I understand the rules for admittance are strict.”
“Of course, they don't want just anyone becoming a member. The barouches must be yellow, the horses bays, and the harnesses made of silver. I'm having the requisite blue and yellow striped waistcoat made this month. To be at the ready.”
She'd seen the procession of carriages the past week, while out with Marianne. The men had looked quite dashing, and she couldn't quite picture the rotund Mr. Hopplehill fitting in.
But they'd found a subject in common. She attempted a coy smile, like the one Marianne had practiced in the looking glass earlier that evening. “Perhaps you'll invite me to join you on a drive one afternoon?”
“Well, no,” he said in a small voice.
“There isn't enough room. For me and you and my groom.”
“Doesn't it seat four?”
“And Mother and her companion.”
“I see.” She longed to change the subject, but had no other topics at the ready. “Are four horses very difficult to manage?”
His face fell. “At the moment, my groom takes the reins.”
“You don't drive the carriage?”
“Not yet. It's quite difficult, you see. I can manage a pair, but four is quite another story. I have to practice.”