When I was little girl, I wanted to be a boy scout.
Not a boy, mind. Just a boy scout. After all, they got to go camping and learn to tie knots and all that fun stuff. All we girl scouts got to do was sell those stupid cookies.
The heroine in my new Regency romance, Lady Caroline Lovell, feels a little bit the same. Her brothers all get to complete their educations by going on a Grand Tour. She gets to be “finished” and is trotted out for a Season or two where she’s expected to snag an eligible husband, marry and produce a gaggle of heirs for him.
Caroline, however, has other plans…
Is there a more alluring sight in all the world than the sun rising over an unknown sea?
~from the diary of Lady Caroline Lovell, daughter of the Earl of Chatham, who has never in her life set foot on a water craft larger than a row boat.
London, The Ides of March, 1818
“And then, because Lord Ware arrived late,” Horatia Englewood said, pausing for effect, “Lady Jersey ordered him to remove from the premises forthwith.” When this bit of information was met with a shocked gasp from Frederica Tilbury, Horatia added, “Politely, of course.”
The breath of minor scandal was almost enough to pull Caroline away from the parlor window and back into her friends’ gossipy patter. But there were so many carriages moving past her family’s town house in St. James Square, she couldn’t look away. It was too delicious to imagine where they might be going.
Granted, most of the travelers were bound for parlors like hers, where dainties would be offered, both in the form of petit fours and in juicy tidbits about the ton. It was the time of day reserved for calls, after all, and Polite Society lived to see and be seen.
But surely some of the carriages rolling by were headed for the docks. And perhaps a fortunate few of the passengers would board ships.
Bound for far off Zanzibar or Madagascar or . . . some other exotic place ending in “–ar.” The colors would be brighter there, I’ll be bound, and even birdsong would sound deliciously foreign. Best of all, when I went to the beach, I’d feel warm sand beneath my feet instead of those horrid pebbles at Brighton.
Caroline sighed, wiggling her toes inside her slippers, dreaming about what that mysterious sand must feel like. She squeezed her eyes shut and, for a heartbeat or two, she actually thought she felt a soft breeze drift past her.
When she opened her eyes, the gossamer curtains were swaying a bit. One of the parlor windows had not been locked down tight when the maids dusted last.
Caroline sighed again. She wished it’d been a trade wind that caressed her cheek. Her imagination was almost always more interesting than what was actually happening around her.
However, her friend Frederica, who, it must be admitted, did not suffer from an abundance of imagination, was riveted by Horatia’s story about Lord Ware. The girl giggled loudly over the tale, mostly out of nervousness.
It was a bad habit from which Caroline was trying to wean her. Freddie was pretty enough and her dowry several notches above adequate, but more than a few young bucks might scamper away from that giggle.
“Surely, Lady Jersey never did such a thing,” Frederica said, her words tumbling over each other instead of flowing gently in a calm, ladylike stream. It was yet another thing Caroline was trying to improve about her friend. The rapid delivery betrayed a lack of confidence, Caroline insisted, and Frederica was making some progress. But when excited, dear Freddie reverted to her jack-rabbit manner of speaking. Now she rattled on, “Not even a lady patroness would dare turn Lord Ware away from Almack’s. Indeed, she wouldn’t.”
“Oh, yes, indeed, she did. As I live and breathe.” Horatia straightened her spine to ramrod uprightness. Then she looked down her nose in a surprisingly good imitation of Lady Jersey at her imperious best. “She said, ‘If we turned away Lord Wellington for neglecting to honor the rules of dress, do not think for one moment we will not refuse to admit you, Lord Ware, since you have the temerity to arrive late to supper.’”
“Not that supper at Almack’s inspires punctuality,” Caroline murmured. To call the meager refreshments served promptly at eleven ‘supper,’ was charitable in the extreme. The weak punch and thinly sliced bread were famous for their awfulness.
“Still,” Frederica said with a shiver, “imagine having the courage to snub Lord Ware?”
“Oh, Freddie, you little goose. Lady Jersey doesn’t need courage. She has the rules on her side.” Horatia raised her teacup and sipped delicately, pinky properly out.
She was right. Lady Jersey had the power of revoking Lord Ware’s voucher to Almack’s permanently. It was acceptable not to have that coveted ticket because one had not applied for a voucher. It was quite another to have been awarded one and then have it stripped away for behavior judged to be déclassé. No matter how wealthy, how influential, or how important the Earl of Ware might be in the House of Lords, Lady Jersey wielded an even heavier club in matters of Polite Society.
Frederica shivered again.
Like a wren fluffing out its feathers. There’s another thing I need to correct before the Season starts in earnest.
Since traffic had dwindled, Caroline left the window and rejoined her friends. She settled into the Sheridan chair opposite the settee and helped herself to a biscuit. “Horatia, tell me. Did you see this astonishing exchange between Lady Jersey and Lord Ware with your own eyes?”
Her friend’s lips pursed into a disgruntled moue. “Well, no, but—”
“Then, may I ask how you happened upon this extraordinary bit of intelligence?”
“You see, my cousin Violet’s bosom friend, Amelia, heard it from—”
“So neither your cousin nor her bosom friend witnessed Lord Ware’s humiliation?”
“You didn’t let me finish,” Horatia complained. “Amelia got it straight from her Aunt Harriet, whom she swears is the soul of discretion. And Amelia’s aunt heard about the incident from Penelope Braithwaite, who was there.”
“Penelope Braithwaite,” Caroline cast about through the myriad of introductions she’d suffered through during the last two Seasons, trying to remember the lady.
“Didn’t we attend one of her recitals?” Freddie prompted.
Suffered through one was more like almost escaped Caroline’s lips, but she held it back. Her dear mother always warned that speaking ill of others was a prayer to the devil. Caroline wasn’t sure she believed it, but it didn’t do to take chances.
“Yes, now I remember,” Caroline said. “You and I have heard her perform.”
“As have I, but only once,” Horatia said with a snicker. “She abused the Mozart Alleluia with such gusto, one hearing was more than enough.” Horatia shook her head. “And she fancies herself a lyric soprano.”
“Yes, I believe she does,” Freddie said innocently.
Dear Freddie. If Horatia said Miss Braithwaite fancied herself a trained chimp in a Parisian frock you’d be tempted to agree.
Caroline recommitted herself to shepherding her suggestible friend through the coming Season. She had no doubts that fair-haired Frederica would turn heads. She was as pale and dimpled as the prevailing standards for beauty required. But fashionably pretty girls possessed of large dowries and small imaginations might easily fall prey to all manner of deception.
It was no trouble for her to guard Frederica’s interests. After all, this would be Caroline’s third Season. She was clearly on the shelf and not likely to be plucked down from it. Not since she’d turned down half a dozen proposals and avoided a few more by tactfully discouraging her admirers.
Which upset her parents no end, but suited her just fine. The sooner they realized she was unmarriageable, the sooner she’d be on her way to being her own mistress. Once she reached the magical age of twenty-one, she’d have access to the minor fortune bequeathed to her by her grandmother. Alas! She lacked another year before she attained this great age.
Caroline only needed to remain unmarried until then to retain control of the means to her freedom.
Then Zanzibar, here I come!