Excerpt from Lady Beware A new romance in the Company of Rogues series, love stories set in the time of Jane Austen.
May 1817, London.
L ady Thea Debenham wriggled out of her frothy green gown. "A new gown, Harriet. Now."
"But beetroot, milady!" her maid wailed, gathering the maroon-stained confection as if it were a wounded child.
"I know, I know, but I'm sure you can work some magic. Please. Another gown."
"Which one, milady?"
"I don't care!" But that wasn't true. Thea whirled to check herself in the long mirror. Her underwear always matched her gowns, so she was sea-green from stay-frill to petticoat hem. "Do I have anything else close to this color?"
Thea bit her knuckle -- which made her aware of her green silk gloves. She stripped them off. "Anything, then. Is there something I haven't worn yet?"
Harriet ran to the dressing room next door.
Thea saw her green slippers peeping out. "Matching slippers!" she called.
She bent to take off the slippers but was caught by the stiff busk of her evening cornet. It didn't let her bend at the waist at all. Blast the busk and blast Uffham! She'd felt armored for this difficult evening by the most becoming ensemble in her wardrobe.
In keeping w ith fashion, the green gown had an extremely low bodice, and that had caused disaster.
Pause for comment. The bodices really could be very low. Look at these.
The lady on the right probably needs to cover herself that way! Now read on...
The Marquess of Uffham had been so engaged in ogling her bosom that the pickled beetroot on his tilted plate had slid off and down her gown.
Two ladies had actually shrieked.
Thea had managed not to, but she'd wanted to. Ruined. The gown had to be ruined -- at its first wearing. And tonight of all nights. She paced the room, silk petticoat swishing.
On the surface her mother's ball was to celebrate the betrothal of Thea's brother, Lord Darius Debenham, to Lady Mara St. Bride. Beneath that felicitous froth lurked a deeper purpose. New trouble had surfaced for Dare.
He’d suffered so much. He'd fought at Waterloo, been badly wounded, and been listed among the dead. Thea and her family had believed that for over a year; a long, terrible year. In fact he’d not died, but the woman who’d nursed him had given him too much opium for too long, so that he’d returned to England frail and addicted.
They'd nursed him back to health and now he’d found love. He’d struggled down to a very small daily amount of opium. But now this. As if the fates couldn't bear to see him happy, a horrid rumor had started. Tongues wagged all around London that he hadn't been honorably wounded at Waterloo, but when trying to flee the battlefield.
It wasn't true! Anyone who knew Dare knew it wasn't true, but there was no one to deny the story. Even he didn't remember much about falling in battle or the days after, and fear that the story might be true was dragging him back down into the dark.
They needed a witness. It had been a battle, for heaven's sake. There must have been hundreds of men nearby. But it seemed that smoke hung like fog around a battlefield, action was fragmented, and everyone was intent on their own part.
So all Thea and her family could do at this moment was present a confident front and use every scrap of their immense influence. This hastily-arranged ball was their challenge flung in the teeth of the ton: attend and show you don't believe such drivel; stay away and you are no friend of ours.
Of course, everyone who was anyone had come. The Duke and Duchess of Yeovil were powerful, but they were also universally liked and admired. Everyone had come -- but Thea had sensed, and even sometimes heard, the questions simmering beneath the smiles.
Could the story be true? Lord Darius wasn't a trained soldier, after all, but a gentleman volunteer. Not surprising, perhaps, if such a terrible battle proved too much....
Was that why he took so long to come home? Leaving his poor mother so distraught with grief...?
Is that why he still needs opium -- guilt?
Thea had smiled, danced, and flirted, showing the world that Dare's family held no doubts, but disaster hovered, and here she was, on the other side of the house in her underwear.
"Coming, milady!" The maid ran out of the dressing room, deep red satin trailing from her arms, matching stays and slippers on top.
“Oh,” Thea said. “That.”
On arriving in London for this season, she’d learned she’d been tagged “The Great Untouchable.” Cold, distant, and haughty. It was so unfair! Was it surprising that she'd not thrown herself into frivolity during her first season in 1815, with Napoleon returning to torment Europe and then Dare rushing off to fight?
As for last year... that had been a disaster. They’d still thought Dare dead. Thea had only attempted it to try to distract her mother from her grief. Was it surprising if she'd failed to be all warmth and light? If she'd turned away all suitors?
Hurt by that nick-name, she’d ordered a number of bold gowns. The green had turned out well, but the red had been just a bit too much. She never wore red.
But tonight was a battle of sorts, so perhaps it was just the thing.
“Right.” She grabbed the stays and threw them on the bed. "There's no time to change those."
"But you're wearing green, milady."
"Which will be covered. Hurry."
Harriet muttered, but she raised the gown over Thea's head. Thea put her arms through the short sleeves and the rest slithered down over her like water. Or blood…
Lord! She stared at her reflection. The gown was cut in a new way, making the fabric flow down from the high waist, clinging to her shape. In the mirror, Harriet's eyes were wide.
"It is a bit, isn't it, milady?" Harriet was in her thirties, but she'd only been Thea's maid for two years and rarely presumed to volunteer opinions, so that was significant.
"Lord." Thea said it aloud this time.
"I'll get something else, milady...."
"There's no time." As soon as the gown was fastened, Thea sat on the bench. "The slippers."
Harriet soon had the green slippers off and the red satin ones on, and was crossing and tying the ribbons.
Thea could still see herself in the mirror and she checked for problems. She was wearing pearls. Wrong for a red gown, but all her other good jewels were in her father’s safe. The band of white roses in her hair would have to go. She began to unpin it. As soon as Harriet finished, Thea went to the dressing table. “See what you can do with my hair.”
As Harriet tidied her brown curls, Thea studied her reflection. In red, her pale breasts seemed to dominate, raised high by the corset, the upper halves exposed. Perhaps she should change to something else…
But Harriet was fixing some red rosebuds and ribbons in her curls. Then the clock on her mantelpiece chimed eleven. Eleven! Thea stood, grabbed her mother-of-pearl fan – also inappropriate with red, but at least it went with the pearls -- and headed for the door.
Harriet's shriek made Thea whirl back. "What?"
Harriet was pointing at her, eyes huge.
Thea spun to the long mirror. A narrow frill of green lace was showing garishly at the edge of her deep red neckline.
"The other stays, milady-"
"Changing will take forever." Thea tugged the gown up and pushed the stays down, wriggling to make things settle into place. "There."
“Don't fuss, Harriet. Do what you can for the green."
Thus Thea heads out into the dimly lit corridors of Yeovil House, heading back to the ball, but soon she'll have an alarming encounter.
by Jo Beverley
Released: January 2007
Genre: Fiction - Romance