Chapter OneLady Barbara Whitfeld stood still as Sarah helped her out of the simple, but elegant, white gown she’d worn to the poetry reading.She hardly noticed Sarah’s efforts, her mind still caught up in the rich tones and lovely words Aubrey St. Vincent had offered in his reading. He’d put the rest of the gentlemen to shame.“Your mother should not be having you out so late every night,” Sarah scolded. “You’ll have to sleep well past noon to keep from getting dark circles beneath your eyes, and what then will the young gentlemen say.”Barbara laughed as cloth pooled about her feet. “Sarah, you sound like a woman twice your age. You know full well you’d have been happy at my side. You’re just jealous.” She stepped free and sat at the dressing table.Her best friend and maid softened enough to smile. “Jealous of what? Listening to conceited men talking about lines on paper? I think you’re mistaken.”“Ah, but what lines. To hear them read aloud makes such a difference. Resonate tones, elocution … it makes the poems come alive, I tell you.”Sarah released the last of the pins holding back Barbara’s riot of dark brown curls and ran her fingers through to loosen them further. “He was there, then, was he?”Barbara raised both hands to cover her cheeks, but from Sarah’s knowing glance reflected in the mirror, she knew she’d failed to hide her response. She shrugged as though it were of no consequence, then a grin burst out across her lips. “Aubrey St. Vincent. A better specimen of the male breed I’ve yet to see. Handsome, reasoned, and kind. The perfect gentleman.”“You’d have me believe him a paragon of virtues. The only man to meet such a standard is one still in the cradle, and even then they’re all about demanding attention.” Sarah laid a heavy stroke through Barbara’s hair, and it caught on a tangle.“Not so rough,” Barbara cried. “And he is all that and more.” She raised a hand to count off on her fingers. “He escorts his youngest sister to all manner of gatherings when other young men are off seeking their own pleasures. He doesn’t retire to the card room the moment they arrive at an event. He’s willing to participate when asked like tonight, though he had no plans to read. One of the readers fell ill and could not attend. Then there’s how he considers education in philosophy something even women should be able to strive for.”“Enough, enough,” Sarah wailed, both hands pressed to her ears though the twinkle in her eyes belied her protests. “You’ve made quite a study of the man, but I’ve heard it all before. You marked him as your interest at the very start of the season. So tell me, did you speak with him this time?”All confidence drained from Barbara as she stared at her twisting fingers, no longer raised to count his worth. She’d encountered Aubrey on her first outing when, sitting against the wall unnoticed, she’d overheard him discussing how unsettled the Continent was. His conversation attracted her attention when the other young men spoke only of fashion and horses.Since then, his presence acted like a beacon, calling out to her. She did what she could to be within earshot, and if she succeeded, almost every time she learned something new or had a thought to ponder. Still, she’d never spoken a single word to the man.Sarah tucked a curl back behind Barbara’s ear. “Your mother would be happy to arrange an introduction, I’m sure. He’s a man of good standing, from a good family, and with a title of his own free and clear since he has only sisters. An earl, he’ll be.”Barbara pulled away and rose, though what she intended once upright, she had no idea. “I’ve seen the way mothers bring their daughters up to meet him. He’s surrounded by them too often for me to miss. I can’t come to him as just another young lady in white and expect him to notice.”“Don’t you think that way,” Sarah said, rushing to catch her arm. “You meet with him proper, Barbara, or you’ll do nothing but make yourself out to be a fool, especially when the man in question shows no sign of returning your regard. But then, how could he share your interest when you’ve avoided the chance for an introduction. You want to stand out from the rest. That’s how to do it. Get your introduction and show Lord Aubrey you can put more than two sentences together without dissolving into cloying giggles.”They shared a significant look, remembering the afternoon party Lady Whitfeld had arranged shortly after Barbara’s presentation. Sarah had assisted the staff and so suffered the same babble and attempts to preen Barbara had. A bunch of ninnies with nothing of consequence between their ears, and her mother wanted her to find bosom friends among them.Barbara had Sarah for her companion. None of them had offered an adequate substitute.Her mirth faded as she addressed the flaw in her approach. “But what if I do? What if, when faced with none other than the most perfect Aubrey St. Vincent, my tongue curls up in my mouth and my mind vanishes into the clouds. Sarah, how can I be sure of the impression I’ll give. You’ve heard my mother often enough. She says first impressions are the most important as they form the foundation of everything going forward. I cannot chance this going astray.”Sarah shook her head, but when she met Barbara’s gaze, her own held sympathy. “Better to take that risk than never to chance at all. Trust yourself enough. You’ve certainly studied his habits, read whatever you heard him mention, and even plagued your father about the questions you didn’t understand. You’ve prepared for this moment better than most gentleman study for their examinations. Besides, how could he not be taken in by your combination of beauty and thought? If he isn’t, then he’s not the paragon you seem to think him either.”Barbara laughed at Sarah’s stout support, but knew she’d be hard pressed to put her friend’s advice into effect when faced with the gentleman in question.“Just promise me you’ll try nothing foolish. Tradition has set these ways for presentation to society, and it’s because they prove worthwhile. Hatching some crazy plan will only bring you trouble.”Barbara turned away more to hide her smile than because she disagreed. “You’re sounding old enough to be my mother again, Sarah. Not so long ago, you were happy to join me in whatever adventures I could concoct.”She climbed into bed, pulling the covers up under her chin so she could peek out at her friend.Sarah paused in collecting the discarded clothing. “Fair enough,” she said, her gaze on a distance place, “But that was when you were at your father’s country estate, or your uncle’s farm, not here in London. You’re not to run wild. It will do you a disservice and break your mother’s heart. If sounding old is how I must be to keep you from trouble, then I’ll turn the hag rather than see you receive a reputation you cannot recover from.”Barbara sank lower, no longer playing as she accepted the somber warning. London did have its own standards, and gossip ran rampant. She’d taken many months to adjust when brought up from the country a few years ago, and even now found its strictures confining.“Besides,” Sarah added with a rich chuckle, “If you fail to catch in your season, you’ll be left to live out your days under your mother’s thumb, which means I will too. That’s a sorry end neither of us would prefer.”Though her mother little deserved such a slight, and well Sarah knew it, Barbara appreciated the effort to lighten her mood. She waved her friend off with a smile. “Then I’d best catch some sleep or those black circles will come whether you will them or not.”Arms full with soiled clothing, Sarah paused in the doorway. “I’ll bring you a cup of chamomile tea. That will send you into a deep, soothing rest.”Her friend didn’t wait for Barbara to answer, and from the yawn that split Barbara’s face, she suspected sleep would overtake her long before Sarah returned. At least the tea would not go to waste, and Sarah needed the rest as much as any what with having to manage Barbara’s complicated wardrobe now that she’d been presented.Thoughts full of balls, readings, and theater, Barbara sank into oblivion. At least in her dreams, she could amaze Aubrey with her wit and wisdom.
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