Sylvia sighed as she watched the Duke of Russell and other gentlemen leave. Clara did not usually sequester the ladies away from the men when they wanted to talk about business or politics, but there was a greater diversity than usual at this house party. Sylvia’s close friend, Penelope, was occupied speaking to someone else, so she approached Lady Hannah.
“I am surprised to see you, Sylvia,” the lady said after the usual greetings.
“Surely I am not such a stranger to these gatherings.”
“Indeed, you are!” Lady Hannah cried. “Cecilia just said it has been years since she has seen you.”
“I have been busy with the estate,” Sylvia shrugged.
“With your brother’s estate.”
“Are you going to scold me for not being ladylike enough? I do not recall any of our lessons about proper decorum mentioning ladies who wrote novels.”
“Shh,” Hannah said after she stole a look around. “I do not go around announcing that you keep your brother’s books and make all the decisions.”
“Forgive me. I did not mean to expose your secret. Although,” she also looked around the room, “I believe most of the occupants know of your pursuit.”
“You never know who may be listening,” Hannah shrugged. “Or so all the other novels proclaim. If it is so prevalent in fiction, it must be true at some point in reality.”
Sylvia was uncertain she agreed. “As it happens,” she leaned closer as she changed the subject, “I need your assistance. I desire to wed but scare every suitor off. Teach me your ways of pretending to be the docile, empty-headed female.”
Hannah looked at her askance. “I would not act that way with a suitor. It would be awful form for a man to think he was getting a certain type of lady only to realize after the wedding that he did not.”
“That is the beauty of my plan,” Sylvia said. “I shall pick one too stupid to notice the difference.”
“Then why pretend at all?”
“Well, I would not expose it overnight,” Sylvia said. “I need a husband who is not looking for a love match or desires a certain standard of fashion from his wife. He could not be the sort that was always hosting the greatest fetes.”
“How am I to know if they are searching for love or convenience?”
Sylvia laughed. “I did not ask you, my dear. For that, I shall rely upon Clara. Although, if you did not know, the Duke of Gordon most assuredly is not looking for a love match.”
“I could not care less if he were!” Hannah sighed. “He is so stiff and formal. There is no animation about him. I think if he ever found himself in love, he would be so angry with himself he would probably leap from the nearest cliff.”
“Hannah,” Sylvia said seriously, “not everyone is as nonsensical as the heroes in your books. Somehow, I think he would learn to live with the disappointment.”
“I am sure you are correct,” Hannah pouted. “However, it is far more fun to indulge my imagination. Now, the trick to making everyone believe you are the perfect female is to never give your own opinion.”
“Oh, that might be impossible.”
“Bite your tongue if you have to. The added perk to this is that it will be too sore to eat much and then you will have a very fashionable appetite while looking slimmer.”
“Surely it is not worth that!” Sylvia loved eating! She believed in hearty meals to support her work with the tenants.
“How badly do you want this? You did not tell me what has turned your mind toward matrimony.”
“Owen,” Sylvia dropped her voice. “He means to marry, and I will be in the way.”
“He would not think that! He is the kindest of brothers.”
“I would feel in the way. I hate to be of no use. This is the better route.”
“You do not think he would marry a lady who would accept his sister?”
“Not if she is the one who he has selected.”
“He already fancies a lady! Who is she?”
“I shall divulge nothing. Those are his private affairs. Please believe me, living with her would be intolerable and my present reputation will likely hinder his suit.”
Hannah began to nod. “You need a transformation.”
“Meet me before dinner, and I shall have a list drawn up.” She glanced at her friend. “On second thought, I will come to you. The first priority will be your attire and hair. Followed by walking and way of talking.”
Hannah soon scurried off to attend to her list-making, leaving Sylvia alone with her thoughts once more. Eventually, she mingled with some of the other guests before retiring to her chamber to dress for dinner. Hannah met her outside.
“Where have you been?” She tapped her foot. “I have been waiting for you for nearly half an hour! How shall we get you ready in such a short time?”
“One hour is far more than I have ever spent on my toilette before—”
“Before you were hoping to ensnare a gentleman.” Hannah pushed Sylvia into her room and settled her into the chair at the dressing table. She unpinned Sylvia’s blonde hair. “Your hair is like your crowning beauty. You should display it to more advantage.”
“It is just hair,” Sylvia shrugged.
“Stay right here,” Hannah insisted. “I am calling in reinforcements.”
“You make it sound like a battle.”
“Oh, it is. It is!”
Hannah scurried off and pulled the cord. A servant promptly arrived, and they whispered for a moment before Hannah returned. She brushed through Sylvia’s tangles with gusto while humming a happy tune. Sylvia attempted to hold her head still as bidden. A knock sounded at the door just as Sylvia’s maid came through the servant’s entrance.
“Who could that be?” Sylvia asked nervously.
“I asked Penelope to assist as soon as she could.”
Letting out a sigh, Sylvia relaxed in the care of her friends. Under so many helpful hands her hair was soon managed and styled in a way which complimented her square looking face. The sharp angles of her cheekbones no longer seemed so severe. Her hair was gathered in loose curls at the crown of her head, giving height, then several long tendrils fell on either side of her cheeks ending at various lengths. Sylvia felt she had never looked so beautiful.
“Now, what are you wearing?” Penelope asked, then gasped when Sylvia pointed at a dress hanging up. “Oh, absolutely not. It is all wrong for you.”
Sylvia’s friends nodded at one another and then her maid who stepped forward with a blue petticoat with a thin white gown of delicate muslin and lace created an overlay. Next, a long white satin bodice in the tunic style with sleeves nearly off her shoulder completed the ensemble. Hannah produced a string of pearls to wear with her usual coral as well as new pearl eardrops.
“Should she add a bracelet?” Penelope asked.
“No, allow her arms to be free of ornament besides her gloves,” Hannah said. “They are one of her best features.”
Sylvia took in the completed look. The high waist dipped in and gave the illusion of more shape than she generally had. She felt nearly naked with so much of her chest and arms bared. The satin tunic laying over the thinner petticoats made them cling to her legs, drawing the outline of them when she moved. It was not indecent, of course. However, for the first time in her life, she looked alluring. At the same time, it was all her. She hated feeling constricted or overly decorated. There was no embroidery, belts, or long sleeves. She could move nearly as freely as she would in one of her brother’s old breeches and shirtsleeves which she favored when doing dirty work around the estate.
Blinking, she realised the real difference she saw in the mirror. She wore it all with confidence. She was not attempting to be someone else. She was not copying a model from a fashion magazine or the advice of a modiste wishing for a massive bill.
“You will dazzle them tonight!” Penelope exclaimed.
“I have amazed myself!” Sylvia laughed.
“Do you truly like it?” Hannah asked? “I had three maids working on that tunic for the last two hours!”
“How did you know my measurements? It fits perfectly!”
“Your maid, of course,” Hannah remarked with a nod to the servant.
Sylvia expressed her thanks to each of the ladies. “I have never felt so comfortable and entirely me since my come out!” She tilted her head in thought before a rueful grin emerged. “To think that all I had to do was decide to be someone I am not!”
“Oh, my dear,” Penelope soothed. “All the gentlemen will fall immediately in love with you. They will not care if you are not the shallow debutantes they have always courted.”
“I would say that I would wish to be loved for my mind, but I suppose that is the opposite of my intent as well.”
“Are you certain you wish to do this?” Penelope asked. “Hannah told me your plan. Surely Owen would make a place for you.”
Sylvia sighed. “I am sure.”
“But to marry someone you do not love—”
“I do not require anyone but myself to form my happiness. I will be able to care for our tenants, and that will be enough for me.”
“What about your promise?”
“Our promise,” Sylvia corrected her friend. “What did we know about the world? We were silly girls then. Clara probably hated our stupidity. I have seen the world since leaving school. My head is no longer full of dreams. Now, enough. My nerves cannot stand waiting any longer. Let us go downstairs.”
Penelope gave Sylvia a long look but said nothing else. The friends walked arm in arm to the drawing room. They were among the first to arrive, and Clara came directly to them. She greeted each with a gentle embrace and a kiss to the cheek.
“My dears, I apologize for not spending more time with you today. How was your journey, Sylvia? You look stunning!”
“Thank you,” Sylvia blushed. “Hannah and Penelope assisted me this afternoon. Our journey was as enjoyable as ever; which is to say not very.”
Clara laughed. “You always preferred walking or riding.
Sylvia dipped her head in acknowledgment. If she had been a man, then it would be acceptable for her to ride the distance from Ashwood to the Clifford estate.
“Penelope, do you mind if I steal Sylvia away for a few minutes?”
“Not at all,” the young lady answered. “I see Lord Blithfield is looking at me as to say he has found something to criticize about me so I should allow him to vent his spleen.” Penelope laughed. “My sister would wish me to keep him company. I am certain I will see you both later.”
Penelope left them, and Clara looped her arm through Sylvia’s as she led her to a more secluded area of the drawing room. “This is a new look for you. You look sensational, but how do you feel about it?”
Sylvia squared her shoulders. “I never knew I could look so lovely. I had brought the most fashionable gowns I owned and intended to dress well. Hannah and Penelope’s assistance suits me very well. I had hoped to impress this evening.”
“Indeed you have!” Clara’s eyes covertly scanned the room. “I will tell you that I saw several gentlemen take note of you when you entered.”
“Oh, I am sure they were only admiring Penelope.”
“Their eyes are on you now, and she has left your side.”
“Then it is your beauty which attracts them.”
“Sylvia, you flatter me, but you know it is not true. I am a dozen years older than you. My dear Stephen finds me beautiful, which is all I need, but I know no other young men look at me. Why would they? An old married lady and a mother?” She shook her head, tossing shiny curls to and fro.
Sylvia laughed to herself. Her friend had eyes only for her husband, and he for her, but many gentlemen did appreciate Clara’s gentle beauty. She just could not conceive of men hoping in vain she would be untrue to her husband.
“Now,” Clara whispered furtively as she tilted her head closer. “Tell me who you fancy, and we shall make a match. I have waited years for this!”
“Who says I am interested in finding a husband?”
“Your hair and gown say it as well as your presence at my house party. Come, you know what you are about. What do you require?”
Sylvia demurely covered her chuckle with a gloved hand. She usually preferred to laugh freely and openly, but it would not suit the persona she wanted to erect.
“See!” Clara hissed. “The usual Sylvia would not hide her laughter. Beware, my dear. Do not alter yourself to find a suitor.”
“I thought you had advice on who I could match with?” Sylvia said, impatient to avoid more advice on her tactics.
“If you are interested in continuing certain pursuits,” Clara said with a meaningful look and raised brows, “then I would suggest Lord Brandon. He is more interested in politics in Parliament and situating himself in a high cabinet position than in anything related to his estate. It is rumored he would like to be Prime Minister one day.”
Sylvia frowned. “I do not know that I would enjoy such a public life.”
“No one says a wife must be as interested in politics as her husband. It is perfectly acceptable for her to prefer a private and country life. It will be said you have a frail constitution and conversation will immediately turn to something more salacious.”
Sylvia considered her friend’s words. As a duchess, she would certainly know the London circle far better than Sylvia. “What is he like?”
“Stephen says he can have a hard edge to him. He is ambitious and wants to meet his goals. He has little patience for things which interfere. It reminded me of you and all your lists. As he is so driven, he often does not others around him. I have inquired in his household, though. He is a fair and just master who pays well. His servants respect him. I invited him entirely for you.”
Sylvia looked over Clara’s shoulder again at the gentleman in question and nearly jumped when she saw that he approached.
“Pardon me, Duchess, could you introduce me to your friend?”
Sylvia’s mouth dried and her heart hammered during the subsequent introduction. “I am pleased to meet with you,” she said with a graceful curtsy.
“The pleasure is all mine,” Lord Brandon said as he brought Sylvia’s knuckles to his lips.
Butterflies filled her stomach at his actions. His brown eyes met hers over her gloved hand, and blood rushed in her veins. For the next few minutes, the three fell into easy conversation about Essex and London. Clara slowly extracted herself from the discussion.
“I believe you recently accompanied the Duchess on a visit to the British Museum.”
“Indeed,” Sylvia smiled. “It is a favorite of mine, although I do not visit as often as I would like. It seems there are so many things to do in town and our visits are never for very long.”
“Do you prefer the country to town then? I believe I heard your estate is in ___?”
“It is, and I do prefer the country. I enjoy my visits to town but would not wish to spend the entire season there.”
“That would explain why I have not seen you before.”
Swallowing her pride, Sylvia smiled demurely. Were all men so fickle and shallow? She did not need to love or respect her husband, she reminded herself. “How about yourself? Do you prefer London or the country?”
“I do not know a man of action who does not prefer town. There is no shortage of activity to entertain. I am very active in Parliament—of course, you may not have heard since you are a lady. However, your brother has surely heard of me.”
“Would you tell me about it?” Lord Brandon frowned, and Sylvia hastened to add, “I would much prefer to hear it from you than my brother.”
Dinner was called just then. Brandon extended an arm. “I would be most pleased to educate you if you would be my dinner partner.”
“I would enjoy nothing more,” she said with fluttering lashes. If it were not so effortless to impress the man, Sylvia would take some enjoyment from her ability to enthrall him.
In the dining room, she listened as Brandon droned on and on about his seat in Parliament. He would soon be appointed to an important Cabinet position, he was sure. He took the responsibilities very seriously, he said. However, from all Sylvia heard him say, he only wished to be praised and have his name revered before men. He had no sincere opinions on any of the weighty subjects discussed in session—although she did not venture to ask more than twice given his apparent displeasure. He could just as easily be a Whig as he was a Tory. It only mattered to him as to who held the most power.
Fortunately for Sylvia, he asked next to nothing about her. All she had to do was smile and nod to please him. Something concerned her as the evening wore on. Surely any number of ladies would be willing to do the same as her for a title and money. What was it about her that captured his attention? Was it all a new gown? Perhaps he had not had a mind to marry until recently. She determined to inquire.
“I have often heard it said,” with a glance at her brother to disguise the intentions of her words, “that a gentleman might spend more time at his estate after he weds.”
“I suppose that depends on the man,” he answered, then followed her eyes. “Your brother is quite young. I would doubt he has any serious intention to marry. I have only just turned my mind to it, and I have several years on him.”
“You have mentioned preferring many activities while in town, but you have also said you are very devoted to your work in Parliament. Is this your first house party of the Season?”
“Indeed,” he nodded. “I have had many offers, of course, but could not justify the time. However, the Cliffords are close to town, and I can be reached in hours should an important vote be called.” He paused and looked intently at Sylvia. “Clifford assured me there was a very particular reason why I should attend. His wife seems to be something of a notorious matchmaker. I confess, I doubted the reports of her skill until I met you.”
Sylvia did not need to affect the blush which overspread her features. She reached for her wine to offer her something to do rather than reply.
Brandon leaned his head toward hers and said in a whisper. “Some might call me forward, but I have never sat back and waited when I saw something I wanted. I intend to court you during this party with the hope of speaking with your brother before we leave.”
Sylvia had been mid-sip during his words, and they shocked her they threw her into a coughing fit. She drew the attention of the entire table and in the end could only be thankful that she had not spewed her wine all over the place. When she finally recovered from the unladylike incident, Brandon smiled at her.
“Never fear, I will not hold that display against you, my dear. It is only natural, after all, to be in such surprise and awe that a man like me would approach you. Your modesty only makes you more attractive.”
Sylvia attempted to smile and remained silent as the meal finished. As the ladies separated from the gentlemen, she felt as though a pair of eyes followed her. Glancing around, she was unsurprised to see Lord Brandon’s leer. However, for a fleeting moment, her eyes connected with the Duke of Russell’s. Why should he be watching her?