“I am engaged,” Lottie told her best friend. “Mr Saverney has asked me to marry him!”
Five minutes before this announcement Amelia had been in an excellent mood. She had just put on a ball gown of cream muslin over her carefully arranged black curls and Walker, her maid since birth, exclaimed, “You must be the loveliest lassie ever to have been born.”
Amelia preened a bit at these words and imagined all the men at the forthcoming ball taking one look at her and instantly falling in love. Yes, everything would soon turn out as she had always planned: she would marry a wealthy, powerful man and have all of Scotland at her feet. England too – she could not wait for her first visit to London.
“Now where can Miss Harrington have got to,” Walker said, doing up the buttons at the back of the gown. “It’s not like her to be late.”
“No, it is not,” Amelia said, frowning. Lottie should have been here an hour ago as they had planned to get ready for the ball together. “I hope she is not ill. It would be terrible for her to miss the ball.”
Lady Treeton held some of the best events of the season. It was the start of February and Edinburgh had only had a couple of less selective dances and the odd dinner party. All the best of society should be at the ball tonight and Amelia was keen to meet some new people.
She heard footsteps coming up the stairs then Lottie knocked twice and burst into the bedroom with her grand announcement.
She was glowing with happiness and Amelia could not help but smile in return but her first thought was that Lottie would be married first. Lottie had never done anything before Amelia so it was a considerable shock. But I’m so much prettier… Amelia thought despairingly. And she’ll have such beautiful new clothes…
“Why, there are tears in your eyes,” Lottie said. “You must not think for a moment that this will lessen our friendship because nothing in the world could do that.”
With these words she moved forward to embrace Amelia, who hugged her back. She managed a smile as they drew apart. “This is the most wonderful news. It is an excellent match.”
Their parents were waiting so there was no time for further conversation. Lottie had already dressed for the ball so Walker fixed her hurriedly prepared curls while she and Amelia both put on their gloves, then they were ready to go downstairs and leave in the carriages with their families, Lottie talking about the proposal the entire way.
As soon as they arrived at the ball Mr and Mrs Harrington, Lottie’s parents, joined at once by Mr Saverney and his mother, told everyone about the engagement. After this everyone was so busy congratulating them that Amelia was entirely ignored. It was a new experience for her and not one she liked in the least.
She observed the group as her mother conversed with two other ladies. Lottie’s fiancé was attractive and had charming manners. He also had an easy-going manner which suited Lottie. Amelia herself required a man with political ambition and more of a presence than Saverney possessed but there was no denying that it was the best match imaginable for her. Lottie’s family were highly respectable but had little money whereas Saverney, also from a good family of course, was extremely wealthy. In conclusion, Lottie could scarcely have chosen better, even without factoring love into the matter.
His mother was perhaps his greatest drawback. She was a formidable woman, used to getting her own way, who had an opinion on every subject and was not always tactful in expressing it.
Amelia’s only real concern for Lottie’s future was that if she was unable to stand up to Mrs Saverney she could end up constantly being told what to do, as was currently the case with Lottie’s controlling parents.
If Mrs Saverney insisted on imposing her sense of fashion on Lottie then it would be a sorry thing indeed. The gown and turban her ladyship were wearing of such luridly clashing colours and of such an ugly style that it pained Amelia to look at them.
Amelia realised Mrs Saverney had caught her stare so she had no choice but to approach with her best smile fixed in place and say politely, “We are all so pleased about the engagement, Mrs Saverney. Mr Saverney and Miss Harrington seem to me an ideal couple.”
“Just so, Miss Daventry. I am more than satisfied at the prospect of Miss Harrington as a daughter-in-law.”
What high praise! Amelia wondered if Lottie remotely returned the sentiment.
After a few more minutes of engagement exclamations Amelia was growing irritable. She knew she was being selfish but this was her second season – she was running out of time to marry. Admittedly her first season had been conducted largely as an observer and her father had made it clear he would not consider offers for her hand in marriage as he considered fifteen years of age too young to marry, but that was beside the point. She had not yet met anyone she felt she could love but felt she was practical enough to be willing to lower her expectations sufficiently to consider any man who was wealthy, of good character and family, attractive, devoted to her and had an important political career so they could regularly spend time in London. Surely that was little to ask?
She had been hoping to be rescued from the dull conversations with elderly ladies and fate answered her in cruel fashion with the arrival of the Duke of Elborough. He approached her with a predatory smile and bowed. She responded with a polite curtsy, thinking hastily for a way to escape.
“Miss Daventry, how charming you look. May I request the pleasure of your next dance?”
“How kind, Your Grace. Alas, I am already promised for it. Perhaps later in the evening.”
She curtsied again and hurriedly sought out Lottie’s brother who was standing looking tall and wistful, as though imagining himself somewhere he would like better. He was only a year older than Lottie, who had a slight tendency to mother him, so he sometimes seemed more like her younger brother, or he had done a year ago before his growth spurt and before he gave up sulking. Amelia tended to treat him like a brother of her own. He gave a half-hearted bow to Amelia who responded to it then said, “Mr Harrington, you are dancing with me. Now.”
His lip curled. “I do not…”
“… Dance well. Yes, I know. However, it is you or the Duke of Elborough.”
There was no arguing with this so he gave in with bad grace: “Oh, very well.”
They took their places, she in the line of female dancers, he with the men. Lottie moved to her side, Saverney opposite, then the musicians began to play. Mr Harrington was, in fact, a perfectly adequate dancer; he simply disliked the pastime. Amelia found this difficult to understand as she could think of few more fun ways to spend an evening.
When the music finished she accepted invitations from a couple of young gentlemen for later dances then caught Elborough looking in her direction again and moved to join the discussion her father was having with several men. It was a necessary retreat.
The Duke of Elborough whipped his horses to destruction, threatened his friends and had killed any number of men in duels. One shuddered to think how he would treat a wife. He was also, unfortunately, the only gentleman who currently seemed likely to ask for Amelia’s hand and while it was pleasant to have caught the attention of a member of the peerage, she wished he would pay her less interest.
Even her father had asked her into his study to warn her off the Duke the previous year, letting her know about his bad character. She had responded with a few stories she had heard from Lottie’s brother and they had both shaken their heads and agreed that it would be best if no sane woman agreed to marry the Duke.
And speaking of men no sane women should marry. Mr Brightford and his two companions bowed to her and she curtsied prettily, thinking that there had never been a man less aptly named than Mr Brightford. She gathered it was fashionable for men to behave in a sardonic manner but he took the behaviour to extremes, permanently looking either bored or critical. Worse still, many of the younger men, for some inexplicable reason, admired him and copied this behaviour.
After a frowning glance at Amelia, Mr Brightford continued speaking to the group: “I have received a letter informing me that my cousins will visit this summer so I expect they will convince me to hold more balls and dinner parties than usual.”
“More than none, sir?” Amelia said before she could stop herself. “How pleasant.”
His eyes narrowed and he gave her a condescending smile. “In fact I often hold dinner parties. I simply do not invite children to him.”
Her father hastily spoke before she could respond to this gross piece of impertinence. “I do not believe we have had the pleasure of meeting your cousins.”
“They have an estate in England so they do not often have the opportunity to visit.”
“Have they been to London?” Amelia asked eagerly, this information casting the visit in an entirely new and far more favourable light.
He looked down his nose at her with another slight frown. “Yes, of course.”
Unpleasant man. She had met him the previous season and it was the only time society had disappointed her. His expression looked always to find fault and he seemed inexplicably immune to her beauty. Still, there was nothing likeable about him so she told herself it was no loss.
As soon as Lottie was free from her parents and Mr Saverney, Amelia joined her and they went in search of drinks to refresh themselves.
“I am quite embarrassed by so much attention,” Lottie confessed, looking flushed and a little uncomfortable. “But everyone has been so kind in offering their congratulations.”
“It is hardly kindness. You will be a very important member of society as Mrs Saverney.”
Lottie’s eyes widened at the thought and Amelia realised with amazement that this had not occurred to her. It would have been Amelia’s first thought. “I suppose you are right. I hope I can do well. You will help me, will you not?”
Amelia smiled. “In planning balls and grand dinner parties? Nothing could give me greater pleasure.” She caught side of Lottie’s brother and said, “Mr Harrington does not look much entertained this evening. Does he have any new, er, interests?”
Mr Harrington had the habit of developing romantic crushes on men. The subject was utterly unspeakable, therefore Amelia and Lottie conversed upon it frequently and at length.
“Luckily, no, although I fear Mr Duneton may be here with his new fiancée.”
“Is he still not speaking to Mr Harrington?”
“No. Benjy is heart-broken. He will not say exactly what happened but he clearly gave away his feelings and, as always, lost another friend.”
When Mr Harrington had a crush it was unfortunately obvious: he tended to blush, stutter and gaze at the object of his affection with puppy-like adoration. “There must be a man somewhere who could return his feelings.”
Lottie bit her lip. “Father desires him to marry.”
“No! I thought it had always been understood that he would remain a bachelor and adopt your first child as his heir?”
“I think he would prefer that – he considers that it would be too unfair on any woman to marry her. Our father, however, insists that it is his duty to do so and to find someone quickly. Poor Benjy does not seem to appeal to women, though.”
They both turned to look at Mr Harrington who was standing with several young women and their mothers, looking bored and a bit disdainful, an expression Amelia felt sure he had adopted from Mr Brightford. “Inexplicable,” she said with fond amusement. “Still, I imagine there are women who would accept such a situation. Not ladies like us, of course, who sensibly expect to be showered with adoration and gifts by the men fortunate enough to be our husbands…”
“I expect no such thing!”
“… but a less wealthy, less discriminating woman might be glad to marry Mr Harrington. I do think he must tell her the truth about himself, though, however awkward the conversation, so that she might make an informed decision.”
Lottie played with the lace on her fan, frowning. “My father would not agree but I think you are right. It would be cruel not to let her know the truth before they married.”
Their conversation ended abruptly at the announcement of the – albeit late – arrival of His Royal Highness Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh. The attendance of so grand a figure ensured that Lady Treeton’s ball would be admiringly talked about for months. His Royal Highness was wearing his bright army clothes and while his excessive weight and protruding eyes made him far from attractive, Amelia approved of his well-known opinions on the abolition of slavery and very much wanted to meet him. Not half an hour later her father approached to say that the prince wished to be introduced to her. She felt a little nervous meeting a member of the royal family but he responded to her father’s introduction by saying warmly, “I see Scotland has enough beauty to rival England.”
She ventured to say that she agreed with his public views against slavery and he seemed delighted and spoke to her for some while about his political beliefs and about the war against Napoleon. Lady Treeton then led him away to make further introductions but Amelia could not help but feel flattered at the meeting.
“His Royal Highness is usually not much of a ladies’ man,” Mr Brightford commented, appearing from nowhere at her side, “but you seem to have won him over.”
Although the words should have been a compliment he said them in an insulting manner she took exception to. “Contrary to your own endeavours, sir, I do my best to be likeable.”
She watched that barb sink in then turned and sauntered away.
The rest of the evening passed pleasantly with plenty of dancing, yet even after the great victory of her meeting with His Highness, Prince William, Amelia began to feel despondent when she had returned home. As Walker helped her change out of her ball gown, she said, “Why has no man asked me to marry him yet? What is wrong with them all?”
“You have put off a couple of gentlemen who showed an interest in you last year,” her maid reminded her.
Amelia snorted at this. “They do not count. They had little wealth, no ambition and were not even particularly interesting. Even the Duke of Elborough would seem attractive compared to any of them.”
“Don’t even jest about such a thing, Miss Amy. That man is a monster.”
Elborough was coarse, brutish and unpleasing to the eye, but he was at least a Duke… No, even in a daydream he was not someone she could consider but it was just wrong that Charlotte Harrington was engaged. No, that was unfair. Lottie was pretty, demure and kind as well as being the most loyal and constant of friends. She deserved the best of husbands. It was just that Amelia should have been engaged first. With her black hair and blue eyes, Amelia had always caught the attention of men and it should have been easy to make one of them fall in love with her. Amelia had planned her entire future – including how to find and captivate the right gentleman – so how had Lottie, who planned nothing, fallen into such an excellent match?
As Amelia settled down in her bed she told herself that no one else in Edinburgh that evening had drawn the interest of a prince. And it was just like Mr Brightford to try to ruin her moment of glory!