Penelope Balfour stood facing the mirror and looked at the eighth ball gown she had tried on today. The modiste her mother Cecilia used had made all eight gowns with an eye toward Penelope’s hourglass figure.
Madame Leduc had raved endlessly about Penelope’s chestnut brown hair and her warm brown eyes. She showed Penelope and Cecilia how well Penelope could wear both pastels and jewel tones. Something not a lot of girls could do.
Cecilia was pleased. Penelope looked beautiful in every gown. Cecilia would take them all, on Penelope’s approval of course.
But Penelope still stood facing the mirror looking at the eighth ball gown she tried on today seeing nothing but the scar on her face. The first seven gowns she tried on she barely noticed either. She would start her first season in two weeks, and all she could think about was her scar.
Penelope had had the scar for four years. Her mother and her older brother, Edward told her they were so used to it they never noticed it anymore. But everyone else noticed it. How could they not? It ran along her hairline from her temple to the bottom of her ear on the left side of her face.
It was most visible next to her ear where the unpleasant white line didn’t have her hair to hide it. She had to wear her hair in the same style day in and day out to help cover it. Her hair swept to the side and in a style where it draped loosely down and forward to cover the unpleasant left side of her face. At least her hair looked good that way.
If she blushed pink, her scar turned a light red, having a life of its own. If she were angry, it turned a deep purplish red. If she cried, it turned dark red. She could no more control it than she could control the blinking of her eyelids.
Cecilia looked at her. “Well, Penelope. How do you like it?”
“It’s beautiful,” Penelope said.
Cecilia let out a sigh of relief. “Yes. Madame Leduc certainly knows her way around the colour palette. We’ll take this one also, Madame.”
Madame Leduc beamed. “Penelope, you are so lucky you can wear almost any colour. I will finish alterations before your first ball. Let me get the fabric swatches.”
Cecilia looked at Penelope, trying to read her thoughts. “Shall we take the swatches to the cobbler? Or go to get matching ribbons? Gloves? Hats?”
Penelope gave her mother a small smile. Her energy was sapped. She needed so much strength just to go out of the townhouse door and into the questioning glances on London’s streets.
“Of course,” Cecilia said. “Let’s go home and have some tea.”
Cecilia, Edward, and Penelope shared a townhouse in London with Cecilia’s brother, Avery Stanton, the Duke of Somerset, and Avery’s son, Henry. Tragically, Cecilia’s husband, Albert, had died suddenly. That was when Avery took in Cecilia’s family.
All, including Avery, were happy with the arrangement. He was admired for the kind gesture, and he liked the admiration. If it weren’t for Avery’s wayward son, Henry, it would be perfect.
Henry was a tall, handsome man with a mean streak. Penelope tried to come up with something that softened the word ‘mean’, but she couldn’t. It seemed such an awful thing to say about her cousin. Menacing, sinister, and disruptive all came to mind, but she somehow always returned to mean. The word fit best. Just looking into Henry’s eyes made Penelope shiver.
Penelope stayed as far away from Henry as she could. Not always an easy thing to do. For a reason Penelope never understood, Henry found pleasure trying to get under her skin.
After arriving home from the modiste, Penelope went up to her bedchamber for a rest. She lay in bed looking up at the fabric that made a canopy overhead. Why was she so tired? And melancholy?
Penelope was about to start her first and hopefully last season. She, as well as all girls her age, had dreamed of this since they were small. Balls, musicals, the theater, rides through the park with gentlemen looking for a wife. All fun.
But the thing that had plagued her for the past four years plagued her now. Her scar. She would be in a crowded ballroom hoping for dance partners – dance partners who would not end up running in the opposite direction when they saw her. The girls would whisper while looking back at her every so often to see if the scar was still there. Did they think it might disappear? She wasn’t sure she was strong enough for the rejection.
Penelope sighed and turned to her side. No wonder she was tired. The season would be very long, she feared.
After her rest, Penelope found Cecilia in the parlour with the fabric colour swatches on her lap.
“Hello, Mother,” she said with an enthusiasm she didn’t feel.
Without looking up from the swatches, Cecilia said, “Oh, good. You’re here. We need a plan, dear. Maybe, we could go out every other day to shop?”
“If that is what we need to do,” Penelope said. She thought her mother might enjoy shopping more than she would. It might as well be fun for someone.
Penelope sat and poured herself tea. She leaned back in her chair, sipping and watching her mother.
“What’s on your mind, Mother?”
Cecilia looked up at Penelope. “I think we’ll have to host tea for some of the ladies of the ton and their daughters. With Avery’s title, it’s expected of us. He has asked twice if I set the date. Of course, he’ll drop in on the ladies for ten minutes when they have all arrived and chat with them. It’s expected. Do you want to help me choose a date?”
“No, Mother. You can do that. Who are you are inviting? Your card group?”
“Yes. Just the three. Lady Pembroke and her daughter, Kitty. Lady Mowbray and Isabel, Lady Jennings, and her niece, Dinah. Do you know any of them?”
Penelope thought then shook her head. “I vaguely remembered Dinah’s mother dying suddenly, but I know nothing of any of them.”
“Yes, poor Dinah. Her mother’s heart attack was sudden and unexpected. I hope she can enjoy herself now that her mourning period is over.
“So, I’ll send out invitations to the ladies. They will reciprocate, of course. From these engagements, you will get to know Kitty, Isabel, and Dinah well enough once the season starts. We don’t want to look like we know no one at an event.
“And I must insist we begin working on your accessories. We will shop for gloves tomorrow.”
Penelope smiled. “I can see the wheels turning in your head, Mother. I am confident you will have me ready for the first ball.”
Cecilia visibly relaxed. Her daughter’s accessories were well in hand, and the requisite tea socials were about to begin.
Lady Pembroke arrived first with Kitty in tow, followed almost immediately by Lady Mowbray and her daughter, Isabel. It became apparent within minutes of the introductions that Kitty and Isabel were good friends.
They all sat, and while waiting for Lady Jennings and Dinah to come, they took turns getting a good look at Penelope’s scar. Penelope secretly rolled her eyes. They thought themselves discrete,, but Penelope was used to this ritual and pretended to be oblivious.
Kitty and Isabel gave each other looks, and Penelope could almost hear a sigh of relief. She imagined them thinking, ‘Penelope won’t be a rival.’
Each girl starting her season needed to assess her competition. They evaluated each other. By the time the first ball ended, a pecking order would be in place based on looks, manner of dress, and number and quality of dance partners.
Kitty and Isabel were both beautiful young ladies who knew how to dress to their greatest advantage. They perfected radiant smiles and an inflection in their voices that made the people around them feel as if their conversation was the most interesting they had ever heard. How interesting it was that neither could hold any kind of conversation without boring whoever was forced to listen. Penelope had no doubt they practiced facial expressions on each other in the confines of one or another’s chamber. They seemed very pleased with the results of their efforts.
Lady Jennings and Dinah were announced, and Cecilia bade them to sit. Dinah wasn’t as pretty as Kitty or Isabel, but she was far more interesting and educated. Penelope was certain a conversation with her would be far more engaging. She immediately turned to Dinah and began to converse.
Dinah’s eyes flickered over her scar for the briefest time, but she diverted her eyes, being careful to keep Penelope at ease. Penelope liked her already.
Tea was served, and the topic of shopping came up. They compared establishments each patronized for wardrobes and accessories. All of them used many of the same shops, but they also latched on to a new shop or two that might provide something different.
Penelope admired Kitty’s hair comb. Made with dyed stones in green, deep purple, and medium blue, the colours of a peacock, it sparkled in the candlelight every time she moved her head.
“Kitty, I love your hair comb. Do you recall where you purchased it?” Penelope asked.
Kitty batted the air with her hand. “Oh, you wouldn’t want to use a hair comb. It would call attention to,” Kitty’s eyes widened, “to your, to your …”
Lady Pembroke jumped in, “It would take away attention from your beautiful warm brown eyes. They are a feature you don’t want to hide.”
“You’re so right, Lady Pembroke,” Lady Mowbray said. “There won’t be another girl in the season who could match those eyes.”
“Thank you,” Penelope said without a hint of upset or annoyance. “That’s very kind of you. Still, could you tell me where you found Kitty’s hair comb, Lady Pembroke?”
After that moment of discomfort, conversation settled in with the expert guidance of Cecilia, having previously settled down groups of dozens of women who put their foot in their mouths. Kitty stayed mercifully quiet, a decision Penelope was grateful to see.
Uncle Avery made his obligatory visit to the ladies, complementing Kitty, Isabel, and Dinah for how beautiful they each looked and how poised they were.
He talked with the ladies and inquired about their husbands, even though he had seen two of them the night before at his gentlemen’s club, White’s.
The ladies excitedly chatted with Avery. Having so much personal attention from a Duke was a treat. And he played his required role to perfection. He wore perfectly tailored clothes, lived in a large townhouse, and was on the guest list of every party. Yes, Avery’s image was intact partly due to meticulous planning of his schedule, designed to be as high profile as possible.
Penelope thought the ladies must believe she lived in an idyllic house with an idyllic family. If she had one advantage over most of the other girls, it was that. Her uncle was a Duke, but it was so little an advantage it was not worth mentioning. Still, out of guilt for her scar, Avery would accompany her to the more important balls.
As soon as Kitty and Isabel were seated in their carriage after tea, the discussion began.
“It’s longer than was rumoured. And, because of its colour, it stood out. Mother, do you know how she got it?”
Lady Pembroke sighed. “I heard she was kidnapped when she was fourteen, and when the Duke balked at the sum they wanted him to pay, the kidnappers told him they would carve up her face. Mind you, it’s just a rumour, and I’m not inclined to believe it. The Duke is an honourable man.”
Lady Mowbray shook her head, “If there is any truth to the whole business, it’s that we can’t believe the rumours. I heard she was jumping from the loft of a barn to the straw mounds below, and there was some sort of tool inside one of the mounds of straw. She fell, and the tool cut her.” She shook her head. “I think it’s odd that whatever happened to her is such a secret.”
Kitty glossed over Lady Mowbray’s remark. “But think of it, Mother. She’s so very beautiful. She would catch the eye of all the most eligible men if not for her scar. But no one will be able to miss it. We will benefit, for certain.”
“Yes, but you must be more careful, Kitty. You must have nothing but sympathy for the girl. Why, if anyone heard you, they would think you unfeeling.”
Kitty sat back for the remainder of the carriage ride. A smug smile she could not help showed on her face. The relief of Penelope’s face swept over her as she relaxed. Yes, Penelope wouldn’t be any competition for her.
Tea at Lady Mowbray’s went similarly to the previous teas. The girls got to know one another better. Cecilia and Lady Mowbray seemed to get along well, which greatly relieved Cecilia. They had always been friendly during their weekly card game, but their friendship had deepened. She feared no one would warm up to her, and she would have no source to hear the chatter about Penelope’s face and the resulting reaction by the eligible men.
Penelope, on the other hand, sized up Kitty and Isabel. She knew she could never trust them. They were like the porcelain dolls Penelope saw in shop windows. Beautiful, but with nothing to offer. The only thing Penelope would want from them was to stand next to them at a ball so she wouldn’t have to stand alone. But she liked Dinah. She was a pleasant girl, not a silly, frivolous package with nothing to offer a man except her beauty. Probably because of the sudden loss of her mother, she was down to earth, thoughtful, practical.
So by the time all four teas had taken place, everyone knew one another well enough to form a unit. A unit that would help one another stand the scrutiny of the gentlemen they wanted to attract. Even Penelope found the worth of the unit. Gentlemen would be attracted to Kitty and Isabel. Standing next to them, Penelope would be introduced to a steady stream of them.
Now that they knew there would be a steady stream of men attracted to Kitty and Isabel, Cecilia and Edward sat Penelope down to talk with her.
“How are you feeling about the upcoming balls, Penelope?” Edward asked.
“I’m fine.” She shrugged.
“That was a lukewarm answer. Mother went to a lot of trouble—”
“Edward,” Cecilia admonished.
“… to find girls you can call your friends for the balls.”
“But they’re not my friends,” Penelope protested. “They are beautiful, silly girls whose personalities will be fully exposed as shallow to every gentleman before the end of their first waltz. When a dance partner realizes how vacuous Kitty and Isabel are, do you think they’ll ask me to dance?”
Edward thought for a minute before he answered. He had a wry smile on his face. “If they are so quick to realize how flimsy the brains of your friends are, you underestimate their ability to see you for the powerhouse you are.
“It doesn’t work one way, my dear,” Cecilia said. “Those looking for a Kitty or an Isabel will find one. Those looking for a Penelope will also find one. We are not quite as stupid as we seem, sometimes.”
Penelope laughed. “Sometimes?”
Cecilia laughed too. “Don’t assume men will turn away from you because of your scar. Some will. But others will turn away from you because they are shallow. They are looking for something different from what you have to offer.”
Penelope nodded. She had to admit they had a point. “I understand,” she said. “It’s still not fun to see a vacuous, porcelain doll led onto the dance floor.”
“No accounting for men’s tastes,” Edward said dryly.
Cecilia gave an uncharacteristic snort. “Believe me; you don’t want one of those men anyway.”
“You’re right, Mother. I don’t.”
Penelope’s mother and her mother’s brother, Avery, had a complicated relationship. When Penelope’s father died suddenly, Avery picked up responsibility for Cecilia, Edward, and Penelope. He paid for everything. When in London, they stayed in his large townhouse. They were swallowed up in it, hardly seeing Avery or his son Henry; it was that large.
When at Avery’s country estate, it was the same. A mansion so large Cecilia’s family occupied a small part of a wing while Avery and Henry occupied another. Avery and Henry also used only a small part of it. Days could go by when the families would not see each other, coming and going at different times.
Occasionally, when Avery needed, Cecilia would act as hostess at gatherings and parties. All in all, the arrangement was fine, and Cecilia didn’t feel guilty about taking advantage of her brother’s hospitality. It was of no consequence to him. He was wealthy. His peers approved of his largess.
The only rub in the ointment, and there were always rubs in the ointment, was Cecilia’s nephew, Henry. Henry was twenty-five years old to Edward’s twenty-four years old. As cousins, they should have been close and kept in each other’s company. Instead, Edward wasn’t on speaking terms with him.
Cecilia, Edward, and Penelope gave Henry a wide berth. They all heard stories of his ‘hunting trips’ where he would go to his father’s hunting lodge and hurt animals. His defence was always that he would kill the animals and eat them anyway. So what did it matter?
He did other despicable things that didn’t involve animals. He bullied everyone in the village.
But no one could do anything about it. There were repercussions for talking about him, to anyone. The villagers were afraid they would be banished, and Cecilia was afraid Avery would cut them off financially and throw them out. None were idle threats. Edward could choose not to speak to Henry, but he couldn’t speak against him. Avery protected Henry, the next Duke of Somerset. He wouldn’t allow anyone to tarnish his name or the name of his heir.
At times, Cecilia felt like she made a bargain with the Devil. Of course, her situation was better than she could ever imagine. And Avery was good to her and her children. She was beyond grateful to him.
She walked on eggshells, though. One wrong sentence to anyone outside the family that painted Henry in a bad light was catastrophic. Cecilia found herself thinking she had an anvil over her head that could drop on her at any minute. It was unbearably stressful. She didn’t want Edward or Penelope to know how she felt. She didn’t want them to feel the same.
Henry had a temper. Cecilia heard once he became furious when he found out he wasn’t invited to a poker weekend hosted by a gentleman his age on a neighbouring estate. Henry knew the man, although not well. Henry wasn’t snubbed – he and this man were not friends and hardly knew one another. But he thought he was snubbed, and that was all that mattered to Henry. Henry had no friends.
While the gentlemen played poker inside, Henry snuck up to the house and found the family dog in the yard. He didn’t hesitate to take the poor creature’s life.
When the neighbour, the Duke of Norfolk, came to pay a visit to Avery, both Avery and Henry pleaded innocent to the crime. The Duke of Norfolk knew it was Henry’s handiwork, but he couldn’t prove it, so he banished Henry from his lands. That only brought out Henry’s thirst for revenge. He vowed to make the Duke of Norfolk regret his accusation.
Penelope woke from her afternoon nap. She saw her ball gown hanging from a high hook on the wall. ‘It is tonight,’ she thought. After all the dreaming of it since the age of twelve and practicing dancing for it since the age of sixteen, it was here. She could curtsy. She could address any nobleman by his proper rank. She could dance every dance the band played, including all the country dances. She knew which topics of conversation were appropriate and which were not. She was ready.
Her maid, Helen, came in with a group of footmen, two carrying the tub and another four with buckets of hot water. Helen put down her towels and soap on the stool she pulled next to the tub.
Penelope got in, and Helen began to clean every inch of her then had her dunk her head and washed her hair. While Penelope leaned back and relaxed in the tub, Helen built up the fire and moved the stool to the front of it.
Penelope groaned before getting out of the tub. “It was wonderful,” she said, to no one in particular. She donned her robe and sat on the stool, her back to the fire. Helen kneeled and began brushing her wet hair until it dried.
Helen called for tea and left Penelope alone by the fire in a big comfortable chair. The tea arrived and Penelope relaxed.
Cecilia knocked then walked in. “How are you, Penelope?”
“Sit, Mother. Tea?” She poured for her mother, and they sat across from one another.
“Are you nervous?” Cecilia asked.
“Yes, but not as much as I thought I would be. Since Uncle Avery will accompany me and dance with me, I think that will break the ice.”
She stretched her hand and put it on top of Penelope’s. “You’ll do fine. It will be fun. We’ll see Kitty, Isabel, and Dinah when we get there. You’ll never be alone.
Helen came back and put Penelope in the vanity chair. She started dressing Penelope’s hair the same way Penelope always wore it – the way it helped minimise how much of the scar people saw. It hung slightly over her left side. Helen powdered the scar lightly.
Then Helen slipped on Penelope’s chemise and her dress overhead. Helen turned Penelope around so she could button every tiny button on the back of the dress and then tie the dress’s bow.
“Sit, My Lady,” she said so she could put on Penelope’s stockings and tie each of them just below the knee with a more serviceable ribbon. And finally, she slid on Penelope’s slippers and buckled them across the top of each foot.
“Stand up, My Lady,” she said. She turned Penelope around in a circle to make sure everything was ready for the ball.
Avery walked into the ball with Penelope on his arm and a wide smile on his face. He waited for them to be announced then stepped down the three steps to the ballroom floor with Cecilia, Edward, and Henry behind him.
The floor cleared for him. Avery nodded to the band, and they began to play a waltz.
“You look lovely, my dear,” Avery said. “All eyes are on you. Gentlemen who would not have noticed you on the sidelines are noticing you now.”
“All because of you, Uncle Avery. Thank you for doing this for me. Because of you, I feel like a princess.”
“As well you should, my dear, as well you should.”
When the music stopped, Penelope curtsied, and Avery bowed in the middle of the empty floor. Then, he took her hand, curled it around his arm, and walked her to Cecilia. The music started again, and guests went onto the dance floor in droves.
“Cecilia, she is lovely tonight. I thoroughly enjoyed our dance. Now, I must greet my peers before they think I’m snubbing them.” He turned to Penelope, “Thank you for the dance.”
Avery turned away, not to be seen by them for the rest of the evening. No matter, he did what he said he would. It went off without a hitch.
Only after the dance with her uncle did Penelope notice the ballroom. Pink print fabric was draped from the four chandeliers to the corners of the room. Pink and white rose arrangements were everywhere. Swags of pink fabric outlined each of the three French doors leading to the balcony, and large potted plants stood between each door.
Candles burned in the four chandeliers and rose scented candles from France burned in the sconces placed along the walls.
Penelope thought it looked magical. The couples were dancing in step as if dancing on air. The orchestra was able to play so many familiar tunes, and the dance floor was always full. Penelope thought she walked into another world.
Avery’s attention to Penelope had a twofold effect. Avery was commended for his attention to his niece, and men noticed her. A cynic would say that the men noticed her because of her uncle’s standing in nobility and her likelihood to have a large dowry.
Penelope thought Henry was like a bee flying around her head. She could try to swat it away, but it might get angry. She couldn’t understand why he attended the ball, his standing all but guaranteed by his father. His decision to marry after the age of thirty meant he didn’t need to be there. She feared he would attend more balls.
Henry looked the picture of a son of a Duke. He wore all that was super fine. His height along with the perfect tailoring of his expensive clothes made him look like the most eligible of gentlemen. He had a perfectly straight, long nose, and beautiful white teeth he showed often. She thought his stance ridiculous, with his hand inside his jacket like Napoleon. Penelope thought his smile ridiculous also, but she was used to its fake, calculated curve. The girls enjoying their first season saw it as beautiful. They treated him as the catch he seemed to be, but they didn’t have the faintest idea what he was like.
Every time he talked to a girl, Penelope wanted to rush up to her and tell her to run. But of course, she couldn’t do that. She let Henry talk, and soon enough the girl was ready to run of her own volition.
When there was a particularly dense girl or a girl who didn’t care about his personality, only his title, Dinah took great pleasure in telling the girl about Henry’s body rash. Suffice to say, Henry didn’t have much luck with the girls. Penelope warned Dinah more than once to make sure Henry didn’t hear about his ‘body rash.’
Edward stood next to Penelope and Kitty, Isobel, and Dinah. His main job at the ball was to introduce acquaintances of his who had approached his group to the ladies. No gentleman was allowed to approach a lady without proper introduction, and Edward served that purpose. He was, after all, a member of White’s, and most of the gentlemen in any ballroom had a membership there as well.
It was evident when a gentleman approached the group who they were interested in. The gentleman would come to Edward then Edward would introduce his friend to the group. Edward, as the gatekeeper, let everyone through. She, Dinah, Kitty, and Isabel, as a group, attracted gentlemen. They would all chat together until the gentleman asked one of the ladies to dance.
This was the part of the ball where Penelope was usually passed over. She would silently look at her mother and Edward. They would have tight smiles on their faces, pretending that Penelope had not been snubbed.
Penelope stood next to Edward. She came into the ballroom brave but had since lost confidence. One of two things happened to Penelope – either she was not asked to dance, or she was asked, but it didn’t go well. She thought back to Lord Thomas.
“I just got back to London earlier today. I’m so glad I was able to attend this evening. Are you enjoying the ball, Lady Penelope?”
She smiled at him, “Very much, Lord Thomas. Did you travel long to make it back to London?”
“Only a few hours. A few of my colleagues joined me on a hunt. We made some excellent kills. Anyway,” Thomas stopped talking and went stiff.
That was the exact moment Lord Thomas noticed the scar. He had the usual reaction, Penelope mused. First, he forgot what he was saying. Second, he was staring but trying not to stare, so his eyes were jumping from her eyes to her scar. Third, he tried to recover.
She was unfazed by Lord Thomas’ discomfort. “You were saying, My Lord?”
Lord Thomas looked at her, his expression blank. “I beg your pardon?”
Penelope smiled even brighter. She thought it was unfortunate that this was her only form of entertainment tonight. ‘You have to take your entertainment where you can find it,’ she thought.
“Your hunting trip?”
Thomas looked like his brain was about to explode. His eyes rolled up to the ceiling trying to conjure the missing conversation he knew he was having. He blew out short spurts of breath and looked around the ballroom. Looking for a lifeline?
“No matter,” Penelope said brightly. “We’ll just start a new conversation. Are you enjoying the ball?”
Lord Thomas shut his eyes a moment. When he opened them, he said, “If I may ask, what happened?”
Penelope looked perplexed. “What happened?”
“Yes,” he said, in a tone he thought sensitive. “What happened?”
She did her best to look confused. “Can you be more specific, Lord Thomas? What happened to what?”
Lord Thomas had the grace to look uncomfortable. Even so, he persisted. “What happened to your face?”
Penelope grimaced. “Do you mean the scar on my face?”
Lord Thomas looked like he could finally stop being so uncomfortable. “Yes.”
Penelope gave a short laugh. “That is from an accident.”
Lord Thomas gave Penelope a look that showed her he thought she was somehow responsible for his social ineptitude.
When the dance was over, she never saw him again. Good riddance.
“What was that about?” Edward asked.
Penelope snorted, “The usual.”
Henry thought Father was such a pompous ass. He waited until the ballroom was full to escort Penelope to the middle of the dance floor for their ‘special dance.’
Henry snorted. ‘Special dance’ meant all his father’s friends would say nice things to him about what a giving man he was.
At least, Penelope looked passable. Henry had thought she was going to be a complete embarrassment to him and his father.
At least she knew how to dance. His father took a big gamble bringing her out here not knowing what she would wear or how she could dance. He supposed his friends would feel sympathy for him if she were an embarrassment.
‘Time for fun,’ he thought. ‘These balls can be boring events unless spiced up.’
Henry stood next to Edward and Penelope, but they ignored him. He continued to listen to them, look over their shoulder, throw in comments, but he continued to be ignored. He was trying to decide if he should be amused or angry by this. Time would tell.
“Edward, are you going to find your manners and introduce me to the three lovely ladies here?” he said growing impatient.
Edward gave Henry a quizzical look. ‘Yes, I’m here, and yes, I’m staying, so introduce me,’ Henry thought.
Edward glanced at Penelope then back at Henry. “Come with me,” he finally said, looking down his nose at Henry.
Edward stopped in front of the three girls. “Ladies, I would like to introduce you to Lord Henry Stanton. Henry, this is Lady Kitty Pembroke, Lady Isabel Mowbray, and Lady Dinah Jennings.”
The three girls curtsied, and Henry bowed to them all. He looked at them closely. The first two looked like they might be fun, but the third one he would definitely stay away from.
“Some of you ladies are very pretty and no doubt get asked to dance often. Although I have no plans at the moment to dance, I will watch you and make a decision about who to ask later,” Henry said.
He turned and went back to stand near Penelope and Edward. Cecilia moved to stand next to him, but Henry said nothing.
Penelope ploughed through the next part of her evening wearily dancing and being passed over by almost every gentleman introduced to the group.
She also had to put up with Henry hovering over the group, commenting on all that happened. Every once in a while, he would give the group a reprieve and cause his disruptions elsewhere. But inevitably, he would come back.
“Mother, I don’t believe this is the proper venue for me. Maybe tea. In a parlour, perhaps? Somewhere where they can’t make such a quick escape.”
“I think you’re right. Once gentlemen know you, dancing will be more to their liking. I’ll talk with some of the more experienced mothers and get suggestions.”
“Or maybe you should run back to Somerset knowing you are never going to succeed here. I can’t think of a single gentleman wasting his time with the likes of you. I certainly wouldn’t be seen with you. It would scream ‘I’m a loser and can’t get a real girl’ to everyone in the ballroom,” Henry said, back from making someone else miserable.
Edward’s face was red and his eyes piercing. “May we step away for a moment Henry?”
Henry opened his mouth to object, but Edward grabbed his arm, to what seemed to Penelope a very tight grip, given the wince on Henry’s face. They walked out of hearing distance but came back a moment later, Henry excusing himself and disappearing.
“That was successful,” Penelope said to Edward. “What did you say?”
“I threatened to make him the laughing stock of the ton, spreading a rumour of his unfortunate rash.”
Penelope laughed. “Oh, Edward. That’s awful.”
A gentleman approached Edward, cutting off any more talk of rashes.
He bowed. “Lord Balfour?”
Edward gave him a welcoming smile even though the young gentleman looked nervous and awkward. “Yes. To whom do I have the pleasure of meeting?”
“I am Lord Alfred. I would like to ask for a dance with your sister.”
Edward wasn’t sure if he heard Alfred or Hapless but saw no reason to turn the young man down. Lord Alfred was of medium height with a very round, boyish face. His hair was auburn, a shade that on him made him look even younger. His pale skin lit up with red blotches most of the time he was talking with anyone. He had a sheen of sweat on his brow and a blotchy red stain on both his cheeks, no doubt from nerves. Thank God Penelope was wearing gloves because Edward was sure Lord Hapless had sweating, clammy hands.
“Certainly.” He turned to Penelope, the look on her face designed to melt his skin. “Lady Penelope, may I introduce Lord Alfred?”
Penelope curtsied, and Lord Alfred bowed. He held her hand to lead her to the dance floor. Edward watched on knowing he would have hell to pay.
Cecilia came and stood next to Edward. “I’m not sure your sister will forgive you. I’m not sure it was wise to show her to the entire ballroom as desperate. We all know he’s practicing on her. An untried young buck such as he could bring her down a notch.”
Edward sighed. “I thought of that too. Should she be on the sidelines or out on the dance floor dancing, making conversation? Alfred might spread the good word about how charming she is.”
“Yes, Edward. To his equally unfortunate friends.”
Edward looked at his mother. “Who is to say they are all unsuitable? Are we doing to Alfred what others in this ballroom are doing to Penelope? He may have a handsome, intelligent friend meant for Penelope.”
Cecilia sighed, “You’re right. Appearances are quite powerful.”
“Yes, Mother, they are.”
Cecilia eyed Henry. He stood too close to the girls, and they politely leaned back. She thought he was scaring off the gentlemen who would otherwise want to approach the girls. When she looked at Henry, she saw the same thing she always saw, a man with little regard for life and a potential wife beater. Cecilia wasn’t overly fond of Kitty Pembroke, but she would have a talk with Lady Pembroke about Henry’s inclinations without somehow putting herself in jeopardy with Avery.
Cecilia put her hand on Edward’s arm and smiled. He looked around then and nodded. He managed to extricate the girls from Henry and increase their visibility by walking them to the lemonade table. Standing slightly to the side of the table, they summarised their night so far.
Isabel was the fortunate one to have danced with four gentlemen. All were to her liking. Kitty danced three times and liked two of the gentlemen she met. Penelope and Dinah both danced twice. Dinah shrugged her shoulders, indifferent to her dance partners. Penelope was just happy to be asked.
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Penelope is beginning her season in London as an underdog. She will compete for the attention of marriageable gentlemen along with beautiful girls with flawless beauty while she has a large scar marring hers.
Nash met Penelope years ago and experienced an instant connection with her. Defying the odds, Nash and Penelope meet and connect again. But Penelope’s cousin Henry works relentlessly to break them up. He is fearful his secret will become common knowledge if she marries Nash because Henry will no longer have leverage over her.
As the only son and heir to the Duke of Somerset, Henry’s future depends on the course of this relationship, a relationship he is determined to end.
“Loving a Fearless Duchess” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.