AMFW Chapters 5-8

Chapter 5

The months between when the deBourghs left Perryton and the following Easter passed predictably slowly for Anne. The family had reconvened at Rosings for her seventeenth birthday. Once that soirée was complete, they traveled to Derbyshire. It was Lady Catherine’s fondest wish that Darcy would approach her for Anne’s hand, but he seemed in no hurry to fulfill her fancy. He was, as always, the polite and ever so correct host.

With the female branch of the family, Lady Catherine observed more success. Anne did, at least, enjoy spending more time in the presence of her youngest Darcy cousin. Georgiana was able to cast aside her timidity in the company of Anne and the two young ladies took long rides and drives around the vast estate. Many times, they surprised Georgiana’s brother with the remote locations in which he would often happen upon them.

After saying goodbye to Pemberley, Lady Catherine took Anne to London to begin preparations for her coming out. This consisted of seemingly endless trips to the drapers, modistes and whomever else Lady Catherine deemed essential to the cause of Anne’s triumphal season.

There were also several excursions to the opera and to the theatre. Either the Earl and Lady Perryton served as their escort, or his son, the Viscount, and his wife Lady Newman did the duty. Lady Catherine tried to cajole Darcy and Captain Fitzwilliam into the party, but neither man, noticeably single, would consent. Darcy would receive his family in his home, but he would not help facilitate any rumors by appearing in public with his not-yet-out Cousin deBourgh.

The approach of spring hasted Lady Catherine back to Rosings. Her brother and nephew were expected to join them for their yearly inspection of the estate. Lady Catherine was surprised when her other nephew, Captain Fitzwilliam, joined the pair. He had come at the invitation of Darcy, who wanted a companion closer in age than the Earl.

The three gentlemen arrived in good spirits, fortified in numbers to face Lady Catherine’s sure hints that Darcy would make Anne the best of husbands. That young lady was not inclined to agree. To her mind, her cousin Darcy had never shown her any marked preference. She was just as likely to engage Andrew Fitzwilliam in interesting conversation as she was Fitzwilliam Darcy. Surely this was not the attitude of a potential admirer? To him, she was just his “little cousin Anne” and no more.

Anne could not have been more wrong in her conjecture; her cousin Darcy had noticed her. How could he not? Her form had matured into one a man could not help but notice. She had a natural grace of movement that became more and more pleasing with each meeting.

And then there were her eyes.

Men could drown in them if they were not careful. Her bright, expressive eyes gave a glimpse of the intelligence, humor, and vivaciousness that was uniquely Anne.

Oh yes, Fitzwilliam Darcy had noticed his cousin Anne de Bourgh. How could he not as he watched her mature into a beautiful young lady?

He also remembered his comment five years before that he would allow her to become a woman before he decided if he would pursue her as her mother, and his, desired. Though seventeen and “almost-out”, she was not ready for marriage – let alone courtship – at this time. She needed to be exposed to more of their world. She must face the ton. Only then might he know if they could be happy together.

The woman he married would need to be strong of character as well as strong of body. The duties of the Mistress of Pemberley were not simple, nor were they few. She must be a capable hostess, able to hold her own in the drawing room. Not that he was too enamored with society, but one day his wife would need to bring their children into those same drawing rooms he would rather avoid. She also must be intelligent enough to provide him with companionship and beautifully enough to fire his desires. In short, everything he hoped Anne to be.

Yet there was one more reason why he would wait until the end of the season to consider marriage: Anne deserved a chance to live for herself and explore society without the encumbrance of a declared suitor. She should be free to accept the attentions of men without worry of another’s jealousy. After she had her taste of the world, then she would not wonder what she had missed if they did marry. To win such a woman was worth the wait, and required that he let her go before returning to lay claim to her affections. That was a woman worthy.

~~~//~~~

One night before the men left, Lady Catherine was intent upon securing Anne’s partner for the opening set of her coming out ball.

“Darcy, have you asked Anne for the honor of opening the ball?”

“Aunt Catherine, far be it from me to presume…”

“Catherine, Anne will be dancing with me. I am her nearest male relation and her guardian,” the Earl said as he turned to address his niece. “Of course, this is predicated upon your wishes. Will you dance with your old, decrepit uncle, Anne?”

Anne smiled brilliantly.

“With the risk of scandalizing my two worthless cousins, there is no other I would wish to dance the first time in public with than my scoundrel of an uncle.”

“Anne!” exclaimed Lady Catherine.

“Mother, you know Uncle likes to believe he is a reformed rake who occasionally regresses.”

“Anne!!” her mother repeated, at a slightly louder and more indignant tone.

The deep laughter of Harold Fitzwilliam filled the room.

“Anne, you must not sport with your mother so.”

“Stop encouraging her, Harold.”

“Sister, whether I am encouraging her matters not, for your daughter takes after you; she will have her say in any matter.”

Anne distinctly heard her cousins Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam choke back their laughter. Flashing her male relatives a triumphal grin, she schooled her features into her most innocent look as she turned to face her mother.

“I was just teasing my Uncle, Mama. Truly. He and I had already discussed the matter when we met last. I thought you had been informed.”

“She had been,” the Earl muttered, casting an accusatory look at his sister.

Lady Catherine chose to ignore his comment, instead focusing on her nephews.

“But you must dance with your cousin Darcy.”

“Only her cousin Darcy? I say, what about me, or Martin?” asked the newly minted Major Andrew Fitzwilliam.

Lady Catherine glared at him.

“Stop being ridiculous, Andrew; we were speaking of Fitzwilliam.”

Major Fitzwilliam ignored her implications.

“I would then like to take the opportunity to claim a dance with you Anne. The supper dance?”

That request earned him another glare from his aunt.

“Come now, Aunt Catherine! We all know how unsocial and taciturn Darcy is at a ball. What worse fate could I sentence my dear cousin Anne to than to oblige her to spend dinner having to make Darcy talk?”

Anne laughed and accepted his offer. She glanced over at Darcy; he did not appear upset with losing those particular dances to his relatives.

“Then you must ask Anne for the final set, Fitzwilliam,” Lady Catherine demanded, her machinations in ruins on this occasion.

“I would be very honored if Anne would agree to your proposal, Aunt.”

“Should you not be asking me, Cousin?” Anne challenged.

“Forgive me. Would you save the last set of the evening for me?”

Darcy’s address was very formal. If Anne had been standing, she would have been tempted to drop him a courtesy. Instead she dipped her head.

“Gladly, sir.”

What happened next surprised Anne. Darcy acknowledged her acceptance with a returned dip of the head, all the time holding her gaze. His eyes then darted towards Lady Catherine. When he saw her turn her attention back to the Earl, Darcy looked back at Anne and winked. Anne was so surprised that she thought she had imagined it. She looked at Darcy but he was attending something Lady Catherine had just said. Anne would have sworn she imagined the whole thing had she not glanced over at her other cousin. Andrew was staring at Anne, biting his fist, clearly trying not to laugh. He then winked at her and she knew Andrew had seen their cousin’s gesture.

What in the world was going on?

~~~//~~~

Tired of the odd behavior of her cousins, Anne sought out the housekeeper. Perhaps Mrs. Stuart could help unravel the mystery of those insufferable men. They sat together in the Housekeepers office drinking tea.

“I tell you, Mrs. Stuart, it was almost like they had planned the exchange.”

“Maybe they did. You should be grateful.”

“How so? A lady does not liked to be force-marched into granting the prime dances to partners she does not wish.”

“You do not wish to dance with your uncle or cousins?”

“No, no. I knew I would dance with my uncle as well as with my cousins, but honestly, what if I wished to be escorted to dinner by some one else I met at the ball?”

“I see now. You are imagining being introduced to some handsome stranger and allowing him to sweep you off your feet.”

Maggie looked pointedly at Anne.

“I never said that.”

Anne could deny words unspoken, but she could not deny the blush on her cheeks.

“Hmm. Since you asked me, I will give you my opinion. I think the Earl and the Captain were very clever.”

“Clever?” Anne asked, incredulously.

“Yes. Tell me this, do you want to marry Mr. Darcy?”

“I have no idea that I want to marry at all, let alone him!”

Maggie set her teacup on the table and folded her hands in her lap before focusing her attention slowly on her young friend.

“I have served your mother since before you were born. I know her as well as her closest confidants. Do you honestly believe she has not spoken her wish for you to marry Mr. Darcy to anyone?”

“Oh…”

“My guess is that everyone who will be at the ball will know what her plans are for the two of you. To open with Mr. Darcy, or to go to dinner with him would set tongues to wagging. He must dance with you at least once and it seems to me that the last set was the best choice for you.”

“I had not thought of that.”

“Obviously, but this is why you have me to come to for advice,” she smirked. “Old Maggie has been around long enough to know a thing or two about the ways of the gentry.”

“You have certainly taught me as much about life as my own mother.”

Anne smiled wryly. Maggie patted her hand.

“Try not to be so hard on her, dear. Remember, she loves you in her own way.”

“As long as she gets her way.”

Both smiled.

“Would you care for more tea?”

“No, I have taken enough of your time today.”

“You are always welcome, Miss deBourgh.”

Anne smiled a friendly smile. She knew Mrs. Stuart was sincere and she appreciated the offer. Maggie Stuart may have been a servant, but she was also a valued friend.

~~~//~~~

Faster than Anne would have thought possible the summer before, she was in the deBourgh barouche on the way to London. Mrs. Jenkinsen, had gone on ahead with most of their luggage. Lady Catherine wanted this time alone with her daughter before the maelstrom on the Season began. Since her brother and nephews had left, Lady Catherine had spent hours recalling the past eighteen years.

She remembered her frustrations with her inability to conceive and the feelings of inferiority as other woman married around the same time bore their husbands children. It took all the years between then and now for her to come to understand that her motives for her purloining an heir for Sir Lewis were more than a simple distaste for the marriage bed. No, deep within she had always wanted to be a mother and it had been a long time since she had considered of Anne as anything other than her own progeny. In many ways, she was. She may not have had the Fitzwilliam blood flowing through her veins, but she did have the Fitzwilliam aristocratic manner. She was intelligent and of strong character. Like Lady Catherine before her, Anne held to her convictions and would not be swayed by some weak-minded fool. She was also, thank God, a beautiful woman. She looked nothing like her family, that was too much to wish for, but she was certainly a credit to her adoptive family line.

After leaving the environs of the Park, Lady Catherine began her speech.

“Anne, dear. The day has finally come.”

“So it has, Mama.”

“It seems like only yesterday when you were first placed in my arms and now look at you. Men will find you irresistible.”

Anne smiled at the thought.

“You know my wishes. You will not find many men as eligible as your cousin Darcy.”

“I have told you, I do not wish to marry my cousin!”

“Which is the sole reason we are going to Town now.”

“Would you have denied me my Season?”

“No, but I would have felt safer if you had already come to an understanding with Darcy,” Lady Catherine said with a sigh. “Anne, you will meet many men in the next few months. Most of them will not be worth your notice. They are neither wealthy enough nor as well connected to match your own. They will whisper sweet nonsense in your ear and try to catch you as surely as a spider catches its prey. As Darcy’s intended, you would have been spared most of the unwanted attention you shall receive.”

“I know that I must be wary of fortune hunters.”

“And the same is true of Darcy. Many women have set their cap at him over the past few years and he has steadfastly not allowed himself to be trapped. I know you are not ready to have him, but please, do not reject his protection when in society. Your family will all look after you; nevertheless, you have a responsibility to the family to refrain from knowingly place yourself in compromising positions. I have not spent the last years overseeing your education for you to ruin things now.”

“Mother, I am no child to be put upon see easily by men,” Anne defended herself.

“Nonetheless, those men will try anyhow.”

Lady Catherine grabbed her daughter’s hand, which surprised Anne.

“I want you to enjoy the next few months. It will do no harm to dance and flirt a little. I am not so old that I do not remember the thrill of seeing the admiration of a man. I ask that you remember your duty to me and all the family to bring honor to our houses.”

“You know I will try not to embarrass you.”

“Yes child, I know. But sometimes you are too much like your father, outspoken and hardheaded.”

“Why thank you, Mother,” Anne replied with saucy grin.

“I did not mean it as a compliment.”

Lady Catherine tried to keep a stern look on her face; she failed. Anne’s vivacity had, slowly, over the years, brought out in Lady Catherine the ability to laugh at herself. Of course, it was a trait only exhibited in the presence of her treasured daughter. No one else would believe it possible.

Chapter 6

It was a few days before Anne’s ball and Lady Catherine sat in her study reviewing the list of tasks she wished the staff to accomplish before sundown. She was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Come,” the great lady said with unquestioned authority. She was shocked by the identity of the interloper.

“Close the door, Stuart!” she hissed

Maggie dutifully did as she was requested, though she would have done it anyway. She was in no hurry to undermine her position at Rosings with the gossip of the servants in Town. Calmly, she walked over to the chair facing her mistress’s desk and sat down with her hands folded in her lap.

“I did not give you leave to sit in my presence.”

“I have missed our daily conferences as well, your ladyship.” Maggie said, ignoring Lady Catherine.”

“Why are you here? I did not summon you to Town! What about your duties at Rosings?”

Lady Catherine was working herself into a temper.

“I have closed the house for the duration of your stay in London as instructed. Once I was satisfied that everything was in order and I could afford to be missed, I hurried to assist you here.”

“I have everything firmly under control, as usual. Mrs. Barker has no need of you.”

“As I gathered when I spoke to her. Good! Then I can devote myself to Miss deBourgh’s needs.”

“Mrs. Jenkinsen and her maid are perfectly capable. You are not needed and shall return to Rosings at once. Be gone, before I am of a mind to let you go.”

Maggie unfolded her hands and placed them on her knees as leaned forward.

“We both know you cannot do that without my consent,” she said.

“I have not asked for much these past eighteen years. I have served you faithfully and kept all of your secrets. I have watched over your daughter as a second mother. I am here because she means as much to me as she does to you and I would like to observe her moment of triumph. Do not worry; I will not interfere, nor will I be seen. I have been a servant too long to not know my place. Please, allow me this and I will return to Kent after the ball.”

Throughout the speech, Lady Catherine’s hard visage softened. If she had a weakness, it was Anne. It was obvious that her housekeeper held her daughter in great affection. And she had been very loyal…

“Very well. Speak to Mrs. Barker and apprise her of the situation. Anne will be surprised to see you.”

Maggie stood and curtsied, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“As surprised as you were. Thank you, Ma’am. I will see my counterpart and then go to Miss deBourgh. Thank you.”

Her Ladyship nodded her head and then turned her attention back to her list. Maggie left and as soon as the door was closed, Lady Catherine dropped her pen back on the desktop and began rubbing her temples. Eighteen years ago, she had made a bargain with the devil. For most of those years, the devil had hidden her horns. Yes, Stuart loved Anne as much as she did and Lady Catherine highly doubted she would betray their secrete, Still, leave it to Stuart to pick a perfect time to remind her that, despite the housekeeper’s absolute devotion to Anne, those horns were still sharp and very, very dangerous.

~~~//~~~

Anne was surprised see Mrs. Stuart, and very happy too. The prospect of a ball seemed a little less intimidating with her there. In reality, there was very little for Maggie to do – other than stay out of the way. Anne’s maid and Mrs. Jenkinsen saw to almost everything. The ball gown had been finished and delivered weeks ago. Pieces from both the Fitzwilliam and de Bourgh family jewels had been selected. The only uncertainty seemed to be how the young debutante would wear her hair. Maggie spent an entire day keeping Anne company whilst her maid tried different styles and Lady Catherine was summoned after each one to pronounce judgment.

“I do think that becomes you very well, Miss,” Perkins, Anne’s lady’s maid, commented after she put the final touches on the third attempt.

“I agree.” Maggie turned to the other female in the room. “What do you think, Miss Darcy?”

“I like it,” the girl shyly replied.

“You liked the two before!” Anne teased.

“But you looked beautiful in each style.”

“Have a care, Miss Darcy; flattery will get you everywhere. I may put in a word with your brother to let you spend the night here, after all. I know you want to spy on all the elegant ladies and handsome gentleman.” Georgiana giggled. Anne turned her head from side to side, looking at her reflection in the mirror. “I do like this one the best, though. Shall we summon my mother again?”

“I will bring her,” Maggie volunteered. Before she left the room she looked back at the young woman being primped with as much pride as the lady she was going to see.

Lady Catherine hurried in for what was hoped to be an approval.

“Do not just sit there, stand up and let me take a good look at you.” Anne rolled her eyes, and stood. Lady Catherine walked closer. “Turn around,” she commanded.

Anne complied, with a shake of her head.

“Yes, this is the best by far, it will do nicely one you bring down a strand on the back of her neck,” Lady Catherine said, finally satisfied with the arrangements. “Finish preparing her, Perkins.”

After Lady Catherine had left, Anne sat down and let her maid go to work.

“I must admit to feeling, with my mother circling about as she was, like a prized filly at Tattersall’s!”

~~~//~~~

It was nearly time. The family had arrived before the guests.

The earl, his sons, and Darcy were waiting as Anne practiced coming down the stairs and making her entrance.

Uncle Fitzwilliam met her at the bottom of the steps and offered her his arm. He smiled as she place her hand on his coat sleeve and covered hers with his.

“You look enchanting, my dear. Your father would have been so proud.”

“Thank you, sir.” Her voice was bit unsure. “I only wish he could have been here.”

He patted her hand and steered them towards the other two men. “I look forward to our dance. I will leave you with these two. Try to behave like a gentleman, son.”

Major Fitzwilliam had by that time managed to regain his composure he lost when he first saw Anne, although his appreciation for Anne’s beauty still shown in his eyes.

“Perhaps I should spare you the trial of a season and whisk you away to Gretna Green. As you know, a second son needs to marry very well.”

Anne laughed.

“Oh, I could never marry you.”

“Why not?” he teased, pretending to be affronted.

“Because I like you too well to fall in love with you.”

Major Fitzwilliam threw back his head laughing, then asked, “And what of our cousin Darcy?”

Anne arched her brow.

“My mother likes him too well.”

Even Darcy smirked. Not wishing to be out done by his cousin, Darcy ventured into the exchange, asking, “How about your cousin, Arthur de Bourgh?”

Without hesitation Anne quipped, “I could never accept my cousin Arthur; I am afraid he is already in love… with my estate.”

The man in question had just arrived. He walked over and drew Anne’s hand up for a kiss. Only she saw him wink at her.

“Why Anne, how could you be so cruel? Of course I fell in love with Rosings before I had a chance to fall for you. I have known it longer.”

“Arthur de Bourgh, I believe you know my cousins?”

“It is good to see you again, Captain… I mean Major Fitzwilliam. Always a pleasure, Darcy.” After exchanging the appropriate greetings with the rest of the party, Arthur de Bourgh addressed Anne.

“Have you room left on your card for a poor relation?” he asked.

“The one with a notorious reputation of a rakish fop?” Anne lightly smacked his arm with her fan. He rubbed his arm and executed another bow.

“The very one.”

“Arthur, you are neither poor, nor are you a fop. Rakish, however…”

“Shhh! Ladies are not supposed to know of these things, Cousin,” he said in a stage whisper.

Anne laughed in delight. Her other two cousins watched the exchange with a small amount of alarm, wondering if Anne knew what she was doing. Arthur deBourgh really did have a reputation for being a scoundrel, yet she must dance with him.

“I am free for the second, if you wish it.”

“Which of your cousins has the honor of opening with you?” Arthur de Bourgh glanced at the other men, as if sizing up the competition. Neither looked too happy to see him.

“Neither. My Uncle has engaged the first. Major Fitzwilliam has asked for the dinner dance and Mr. Darcy has claimed the last.”

“Then I shall be happy with the second. Now if you will excuse me, Lady Catherine seems to be coming and I will leave you before she chases me away.”

With that, Mr. de Bourgh left them to face the displeasure of Anne’s mother. Neither Darcy nor the major seemed happy to be left behind to face Lady Catherine’s upcoming diatribe.

“I see my wayward nephew has arrived and wasted no time in seeking you out.”

“He was invited, Mother.”

“I suppose he came to claim a dance?”

“We are holding a ball,” Anne said, just managing not to roll her eyes.

“Anne, be on your guard. I would put nothing past the man. Darcy, Fitzwilliam, see to it that Mr. de Bourgh does not importune Anne. It is your family duty.” Before anyone could respond, she continued. “I should tell the servants to be on the lookout to make sure he does not walk away with some of the silver.”

Certain she had made her point, Lady Catherine left to speak to her butler.

“She conveniently forgets that Arthur is as nearly related to you as we are,” the major said once she was gone.

“Anne, his reputation is not, well, reputable,” Darcy warned.

“Oh I know exactly what kind of a man Arthur is, and he knows I know it. Fear not, for I am certain he has no designs on me. We have always acted this way toward one another. He loves playing the rogue in front of Mother.”

Neither man was completely convinced of Anne’s safety where it came to Arthur de Bourgh, but not wishing to belabor the point, they allowed the conversation to progress to other topics. Lady Perryton came to greet her niece, relieving the two men of the burden of keeping Anne entertained and too distracted to become nervous over the impending crush of people expected on her big night.

~~~//~~~

The ball was finally underway and Anne was being led around by her uncle to greet guests. The music would begin soon and until then, men came forward asking for introductions and a place on her dance card.

One introduction surprised her. Her cousin, Viscount Newman and his wife, approached in company with an unknown gentleman.

“Cousin, may I introduce Lady Newman’s brother Mr. Rupert Harris? Harris, this is my cousin Miss Anne de Bourgh of Rosings Park.”

“We have met before, Newman, but I doubt Miss de Bourgh would remember me. It was at your wedding.”

“Of course, but that was a few years ago.”

“I think I remember you now, Mr. Harris, although I do not believe we spoke more than a few words of greeting then.”

“I should like to speak more than a few words this evening. May I be so bold as to claim a dance?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Thank you. And does my brother dance with you this evening?”

“Martin? No!” Anne laughed. “He has vowed that the only married man I shall dance with tonight is my uncle.”

Mr. Harris clapped the viscount on the back.

“A very noble gesture, sir. On behalf of all the eligible men in attendance, I thank you.”

The earl could not resist.

“Noble? Bah! My son thinks he has found the perfect excuse to spend the night playing cards.”

“My lord will dance with me,” declared Lady Newman.

Her husband brought her hand to his lips.

“As I have promised, my dear.”

Anne was ready for the conversation to end.

“Until our dance, Mr. Harris.”

The earl, able to take a hint, excused them and moved away.

Lady Newman commissioned her husband to bring her a drink. When he was gone, she turned to her brother.

“Anne de Bourgh is not your type, Rupert.”

“What is my type, Matilda? She is rich.”

“True, but she is a bit of a shrew. She thinks very highly of her self and her position in life.”

“She has a right to do so. The heiress of Rosings is quite a catch.”

“And she knows it!”

The tone of her voice spoke as much as her words. He suddenly understood his sister’s words and a look of comprehension came over his face.

“Ah, I see now. You were not good enough for her cousin?”

Lady Newman pursed her lips.

“Worry not,” Harris said with complete self-assurance. “I am very used to people who look down on me because we have made our fortune in trade. Your match has helped tremendously, but father reminds me I need a wife just as connected as your husband. Why not Miss de Bourgh?”

“She is not some simple minded girl, Rupert, and it has long been said that she is intended for Darcy. Since birth, even.”

“The more the challenge, then.”

Lady Newman looked exasperated and she replied, “Do not say I did not warn you.”

Viscount Newman returned then with punch for his wife.

Harris nodded to his sister.

“Understood.”

~~~//~~~

The musicians struck the first chord and the dancers began to form the set. Anne stood at the head of the line opposite her uncle waiting for the steps to begin. Lady Catherine looked on the scene, a tear forming in her eye. It seemed like only yesterday she had held her daughter in her arms for the very first time. Any guilt she may have felt way back then in robbing another family of the joy of a daughter was quickly and conveniently put down with the triumph of success.

A servant walked up and offered her a glass of wine. Her ladyship accepted without ever taking her eyes or musings off her daughter.

She, Catherine Fitzwilliam de Bourgh, had done it. The thought now though, brought an unexpected twinge of remorse. What would Anne’s birth parents have thought if they could see her at that moment? Would they feel as proud of her as she did? She doubted it, for they were not the ones responsible for rearing such an accomplished young woman. Watching Anne smile as she made her way through the dance, Lady Catherine knew there could be no mother in all of England who could have done the same.

Chapter 7

Anne had not sat down all evening and was glad for the last dance before the meal. Her partner and cousin, Major Fitzwilliam, was as gallant as always. She had always enjoyed teasing him and being teased by him in turn. When the set was finished, he led her to her seat. At the same table were her cousin Darcy and a friend he had brought, a Mr. Bingley.

“Our cousin,” Major Fitzwilliam began, “has brought along a friend to keep him company while he stalks the edges of the ballroom. Bingley, is it not?”

“May I introduce my good friend, Charles Bingley?” Darcy would not be baited by his older cousin. “Bingley, this is Miss Anne de Bourgh and our cousin Major Fitzwilliam.”

Mr. Bingley affably greeted them and then the rest of the table as a few more came to take their seats.

“How do you know my cousin, Mr. Bingely?”

“My family if from the north, from near Manchester. Our fathers knew each other as boys.”

“Bingley is attending University in Oxford, I thought he could use a small diversion from his studies and asked him to join me.”

“And your estate, sir?”

Anne asked. He seemed a nice young man.

Bingley colored slightly. Before he answered Arthur de Bourgh joined the group.

“Arthur,” Anne said in mock horror, “Mother allowed you to sit here?”

“I slipped one of the staff an ‘incentive’ to change the arrangements.”

Anne gaily laughed.

“I am all astonishment!”

Arthur was about to respond when he noticed the young man he had just interrupted.

“Charles Bingley, this is a surprise! I did not see who was speaking.”

“Bingley was just going to tell Anne about his estate,” the Major interjected.

Not wishing to embarrass the lad, Arthur explained the situation.

“Anne, Mr Bingley’s father, like mine, was a second son. And like mine he refused to become a soldier, sailor, or sermon maker, preferring instead to seek his fortune through trade. As successful as my father was, his was even more. Unfortunately, Mr. Bingley senior never had the chance to purchase an estate and the task has fallen on his poor son’s shoulders.”

Bingley got rather red in the face.

“I hope, someday, Miss de Bourgh, to find a place to suit my taste. In the mean time, I will finish my education.”

Anne gave him an apologetic look.

“And escort Mr. Darcy to balls?”

Bingley smiled, “Only if I am allowed to dance at the rest.”

“Poor Mr. Bingley!” Anne cried. “You must dance tonight. I would dance with you myself had not my card been full. Surely, cousin, you can spare your shadow for at least part of the evening?”

“Yes, Darcy, let the man dance,” Arthur seconded.

“I am not stopping him.”

“Sure you are. He feels sorry for you all alone staring out the windows,” said the Major.

“I only counted one window.” Mr. de Bourgh added.

Anne laughed again.

“Have pity on the man, gentleman. He has promised to dance at least once tonight.”

Major Fitzwilliam leaned towards Anne and whispered for the whole table to hear, “Take care of your toes!”

~~~//~~~

After the dinners had eaten their fill, the dancing resumed. Anne had the pleasure of being led out by her cousin Arthur de Bourgh

Besides a last name, the two shared a wicked sense of humor and a mutual trust. Anne knew that if she had not been born, or had there been an entail, Arthur would have inherited instead of her. He could have been jealous and resentful, but he was not. Instead he seemed genuinely content with the situation. At dinner he had somewhat dissembled; he was very rich, thanks to the money his father had been bequeathed by his parents, the money his mother had brought into the marriage with her dowry, his father’s very successful career in trade, and a lack of any siblings.

While her Uncle de Bourgh had lived, he brought Arthur to Rosings to visit at least once a year. When Arthur came of age, and Uncle de Bourgh had died, these visits came to a halt. Lady Catherine and Arthur had a heated argument about his reputation as an unrepentant rake. She disapproved of the effect on the family name. Before he left Rosings, he spoke to Anne privately explaining why he had to leave, and why he would likely not return to Rosings for some time. For several years they had corresponded and had met several times in Town. Anne suspected some of what was reported about her cousin was true. She had talked to Mrs. Stuart about the shocking subject. The man whom she wrote to was honest about his faults and frailties. It was this lack of reserve that was the foundation of their friendship. Anne still remembered the young man she knew as a child, and she knew that young man was still a part of Arthur de Bourgh that danced with her then. He knew his position in society, yet did not allow being a son of a tradesman to keep from seeking what he wanted.

Anne’s smile faltered a bit as she pondered her partner.

“Here now, Anne. Why the sad look on your face?” Arthur asked with some concern.

“Reflective, not sad, Arthur.”

“You must only smile and laugh when you dance with me. We would not want to disappoint her ladyship.” Anne shook her head; he was always teasing her about her mother. “She will be happy to see you frowning at me, but nothing short of a slap across my face will satisfy her.”

“I do not understand why you two do not get along.” Arthur gave her a pointed look. “Besides the obvious reason of your notoriousness.”

“Until you are safely married to a rich and well connected man, preferably Darcy, she will continue to be wary of me.”

“But you and I…” Anne’s face showed her consternation. “I try to tell her I am not marrying any of my cousins, but she will not listen.” It was time to change the subject. “Any news of Miss Simpson?”

Arthur’s smile faltered.

“We have not seen each other for over a month. Her father is set against the match.”

“Because of your reputation?”

“He doubts my ability to be a good husband to his only child. Six months ago, I would have agreed,” he conceded.

“And now?” Anne prompted.

“While I have greatly improved, I would give even odds that he is correct. I fear Miss Simpson may have begun to agree with him.” He sounded too resigned to Anne’s ears.

“She doubts you?”

“Do you doubt me?”

“No, but I’ve know you much longer. If her love does not prove to be as constant as yours, perhaps you are better off for Mr. Simpson’s withholding consent.”

“You may be right.” The figure separated them and when they came back together he had regained a smile – strained, but a smile no less. “Why could I not have fallen in love with you?”

“Because you know I would never marry the son of a tradesman.”

Arthur laughed and Anne was glad to see it. “Nor would I wish for Lady Catherine to be my mother-in-law.”

“It is much better to be such good friends than to complicate things with a marriage.”

“I can see you will lead many a suitors on a merry chase, Anne. I look forward to watching.”

“No, Cousin, you look forward to helping,” she corrected

“You have always brought out the devil in me.”

“You needed no encouragement.”

“True.” The mischievous twinkle was back in his eye. Anne rejoiced in her success.

The lively banter continued back and forth as the two finished the set. Anne had such a good time dancing with her cousin that she forgot who her next partner would be.

“Miss de Bourgh.”

Rupert Harris had come to claim his set.

~~~//~~~

One of the things Anne had not considered much before that night was how she would react when she found herself required to dance with a man she had no desire to partner. Unfortunately, the rules of society were absolute. To refuse an offer to dance meant a woman may not dance for the rest of the evening. To this point, her partners had been pleasing. Viscount Harmon was charming and Mr. Saunders so foppish as to humor her weakness for the absurd. A few other very eligible young men, too smooth by the half, had at least the right fortunes and connections to not upset her mother. Her current partner was not so blessed. Mr. Harris was rich, and the brother of a viscountess, but he was also a man of trade and nothing condemned a man in Anne’s circle more than the stench of new money.

Thus her dance with Mr. Harris, a man of trade, presented a new challenge. She greeted him with a cool civility as he led her to the set. The music began and the couple started the pattern but Anne said nothing to her partner for several minutes.

“Are we to spend the entire dance in silence, Miss de Bourgh?”

“As you wish, Mr. Harris,” was her prim reply.

He laughed and waited for her to move close again. “Now I understand why my sister is …” he paused until their steps brought them close again.

“Your sister?”

“You are not close friends despite the close familial relationship.”

“We cannot choose our family.” Anne replied, wary of the intentions of her partner. He seemed too… open and unguarded.

“Nor are we required to like them,” Mr. Harris said.

Their responses continued to be brief, as the intricacies of the dance moved them to and fro.

“Do not look so affronted. You forget I know my sister. She likes to think herself above people. But with you, it is not so. You will not play to her vanity.”

“I will not confirm the truth of your assumptions, sir.” Anne was uncomfortable with the conversation but the man would not desist.

“But you will speak to me?”

“Am I not now?”

That answer brought another laugh from the gentleman, which brought a brief scowl from Anne.

“You are truly charming, Miss de Bourgh. It is no wonder why my sister does not like you.”

“My cousin might call you out if he heard you speak of his wife with such…”

“Forthrightness?”

“I was going to say indelicacy. I was taught that a gentleman should not be so ungenerous.”

“Ah, but I am not a gentleman, only the son of a tradesman.”

“Mr. Harris, you are very blunt.”

“And you find such honesty refreshing.”

Anne did not respond.

“I am not a man you mean to pay any consequence. Like your cousin, Mr. de Bourgh, my fortune was earned, not inherited. Will you give me the same notice as you give him?”

“He is my cousin.”

“I am your cousin’s brother.”

“My cousin’s wife’s brother.”

“It is all the same,” he reasoned.

“Not quite,” she responded.

“I refuse to argue the point, madam. This is a ball and such trifling disagreements ruin the gaiety of the evening.”

Mr. Harris then finally changed the subject of their discussion to safer, more superficial topics. Anne gradually began to relax when the set was over, could say she did somewhat enjoy herself, and that Mr. Harris, so beneath her in consequence, had both infuriated and intrigued her.

~~~//~~~

It was very early in the morning when the last dance finally began. After her set with Mr. Harris, Anne had stood up with several more partners. None brought the flutter of expectancy that her cousin inspired. At last she faced the man she was expected to marry.

Fitzwilliam Darcy was a very handsome man, and very tall. He was easily the tallest man of her acquaintance. Of course, his father before him was a tall man so it was not surprising that the son should take after the father. It suddenly occurred to Anne that height and looks might not be the only trait Fitzwilliam inherited. Uncle Darcy was a man to be respected and admired; perhaps the same was true of the son? With such disquieting thoughts running through her head, the dance began. Fortunately, practice prevented paralysis and Anne did not miss a step.

A few minutes in the set, Anne realized her cousin had just spoken to her.

“Pardon me, sir. Could you please repeat what you just said? I confess I was not attending to your words.”

“I said, ‘You seem distracted, Cousin.’”

“I was.”

Anne gave him a guilty smile.

“Ah, that is much better.” He returned her smile with a small one of his own. “It would not be prudent to let people think we quarrel. Aunt Catherine, for one, would not be amused and I do not wish to expose you to any censure on this special night.”

Anne looked at her mother and saw she was smiling in her familiar, smug fashion.

“Please do not tell me you are in agreement with my mother?”

“Cousin Anne, this is neither the time nor the place to discuss anything of that nature. There are too many people watching us, looking for signs of confirmation or rebuttal. We do need to speak about it in private, but not now, not tonight. You deserve a chance to experience the season and that, my cousin, is all I will say about our possible futures.”

“You do not wish to become my suitor?” Anne blurted; she was not expecting this. She did not know if she liked this. Anne wanted to have the power to turn him down.

“I have said all I will say on the subject – tonight. Our cousin Andrew will come with me to call on you tomorrow. Then, and only then, will I make my position known.”

“Oh.”

“And Anne?” there was a gentleness to his voice that surprised her.

“Yes?”

He made sure he looked straight into her eyes. “Have I told you how beautiful you look tonight?” Anne blushed at his honestly spoken praise. She knew her cousin well enough to know he was not trying to flatter her. “It is only right that you should outshine every lady in the room,” he continued, “this ball is given in your honor after all.”

~~~//~~~

Lady Catherine walked her daughter to her chambers and gave her a kiss on the check before departing.

“Sleep well, dear. You have had a long evening.”

Anne yawned. “I do believe I danced almost every set.”

“Did you enjoy yourself?”

“I did. Thank you, Mother.”

“Go and get some rest.”

“Goodnight.” Anne kissed her mother on her cheek.

“Goodnight, Anne.”

Anne closed the door and called for her maid to assist her to undress for bed. Instead of her maid, Maggie Stuart was waiting.

“Mrs. Stuart!”

“Good evening, Miss Anne… Miss de Bourgh. I really should not call you Miss Anne any more. You are a woman now.”

“Where is Perkins?”

“I am here, ma’am.” The maid replied as she stepped into the room.

“I will assist the lady,” Maggie said to the maid and then turned to offer Anne an explanation. “I was once your mother’s lady’s maid. I have not forgotten how to attend to those duties.”

An amused Anne laughed at the two stubborn women. “Perkins will assist me, but please stay, Mrs. Stuart.”

The maid gave Maggie an icy glare and started on her duties.

“You looked so very elegant when you were dancing tonight, Miss de Bourgh,” Perkins said.

“You saw me dancing?”

Maggie laughed. “We were both present much of the time. Your maid was never far. If you had needed anything she would have known immediately.”

“I do not recall seeing either of you.”

“Miss Anne, you should know by now that the best place to hide and object is to place it disguised in plain sight. There is nothing more invisible than a servant being discreet.”

“Forgive me for my obtuseness,” a chagrined Anne de Bourgh said in apology.

“I dare say your attention was required elsewhere,” Maggie quipped.

Anne closed her eyes, leaned her head back, and sighed.

“ ‘Tis a wondrous thing to be admired.”

“Not to mention flattered, pampered and generally told a bunch of nonsense,” Maggie countered.

“Was there any doubt it would be so? Allow me the luxury of vanity for one night.”

Maggie laughed. “And with such a comment I will leave you to Perkins’ expert care. It is a good thing that the very first thing your maid removed was your gown. I fear the night has gone to your head and made it grow two sizes too large to undress you now.”

Anne fought the urge to stick out her tongue. Instead, she smirked at her old friend. “Goodnight, Mrs. Stuart,” she said, fondness obvious in her tone .

Maggie stood at the servant’s entrance, ready to leave. She held the door handle in her hand and looked back into the room. “Goodnight, Miss de Bourgh. You have shown yourself to be a credit to your family’s honor. We, who have had the privilege to watch you grow from a child to a woman, are very proud to call you our Mistress.”

Chapter 8

As promised, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Major Andrew Fitzwilliam called the following evening. After exchanging pleasantries, Darcy asked to speak with Anne alone. Lady Catherine was only too happy to accede to the request.

Darcy stood near the fireplace while Anne sat on the settee.

“You have me alone, Cousin,” Anne said with trepidation.

“I have come to make you an offer.”

“You really do want to marry me?”

Darcy laughed. “I said an offer, not a proposal of marriage.”

Anne visibly relaxed. She was not looking forward to the strife that would have ensued with a refusal of marriage. Darcy came and sat down next to her, gently holding her hand.

“Anne, have I ever given you the appearance that I was courting you?”

“No, but Mother…”

“… has made it very clear that she expects a match between us. I know. But I do not think you agree.”

“No!” A hand flew over her mouth as Anne suddenly realized what she had said. “I mean no offense, Cousin.”

Darcy squeezed her hand and let it go.

“No offense was taken. Yet you have proven the reasonableness of my motives for speaking with you today. Anne, you are not yet eighteen and only just out. This must be a very exciting time for you. It is a time to be admired and pursued and to discover just what it is that you seek in life and in a partner. Even if you and I were prepared to come to an agreement, if you did not have this Season, I believe you would come to regret our union.

“Cousin Anne, I want you to spend these next several months enjoying yourself. See what London and the ton have to offer. If you find someone you wish to marry, I will do all I can to help the match along. However, if you come to the end and are not attached, then we will talk again to see if a courtship is something both of us desire. This is my offer.”

Anne was shocked. This is exactly what she had wanted! A season unencumbered by any promises.

“Have you nothing to say?”

“I am amazed you have come up with an arrangement that exactly matches my desires! I accept, though my vanity is somewhat stung by your failure to fall hopelessly in love with me without any encouragement on my part.”

To this impertinent reply, Darcy laughed heartily.

“You will not be totally rid of me. I will remain in Town and attend some of the same events you will. It is expected of me and I cannot escape this responsibility. I am afraid you will occasionally be forced to dance with me and bear my disinterested looks. We, each of us, have a role to play.” He stood. “Come, let us call your mother and explain our understanding.”

“She will not consider it an understanding.”

And she most certainly did not!

“I am not happy with this decision. You two were formed for each other,” Lady Catherine responded when they returned to the parlor and informed her of their agreement.

“Nevertheless, Aunt, Cousin Anne and I have agreed. We will discuss the possibility of a courtship after the Season, and only if my cousin is so inclined.”

“So much can happen. Who will protect Anne from unscrupulous fortune hunters and rakes?!”

“I thank you for such little confidence in my abilities to judge the character of men.”

“You have no experience in these matters.”

“I may not, but how else will I gain it if I am not allowed to try?”

“Anne will not be left alone. The Earl, Martin, Andrew and I will not just disappear and leave Anne to fend for herself alone. Neither will you, Aunt.”

“As my duties allow, I will be happy to attend events with my cousin,” Major Fitzwilliam volunteered.

“There, it is settled. Anne shall have her Season and her family will see to it that she is protected.” Darcy knew the battle had been won when Lady Catherine rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“I would still prefer you were formally courting her, Darcy, but it seems I have no choice. Very well, it shall be as you wish.”

Anne beamed at her cousins and then at her mother. “Thank you, Mama!”

“It remains to be seen whether you will feel the same way in a couple of months.”

It was not until later that Anne realized the full import of her cousin’s offer.

He is amenable entering a courtship and has given me the Season to decide if I am as well! But I had decided I did not wish to marry him, let alone anyone.

Then the words of her Aunt Anne, spoken on her twelfth birthday, came to mind.

“Never say never, Anne. I did once.”

I have not agreed to anything other than to discuss a courtship in the future if I am not attached. Before then, there will be plenty of men to meet and to fall in love. Almacks awaits!

~~~//~~~

Unfortunately for Anne, the next morning she awoke to the unpleasant task to saying goodbye to Mrs. Stuart.

“Must you leave?” Anne whined. Maggie laughed.

“There is no reason for me to stay any longer. I came to see you through your ball. Now it is time for this old housekeeper to return to Kent where I belong. Besides, I would only be in the way here. Mrs. Barker has been very gracious in tolerating my presence this long. If I should stay any longer, I might forget this is not Rosings and start giving her suggestions on how to run her household. And as you know, that is her Ladyship’s favorite prerogative. I dare not infringe on my mistress’s need to be useful.”

Anne would not give up so easily.

“I wish you could stay. You are the only person I can talk to.”

“You do remember you have a companion.”

“Mrs. Jenkinson? Surely you jest. I could never tell her all I tell you.”

Maggie raised an eyebrow in question.

“Oh, I do not dislike her, but neither does she inspire any desire for me to confide in her. How can I say this? She is … she lacks a certain liveliness and I find her perfectly boring.”

Maggie could not help herself; she laughed.

“Oh, Miss de Bourgh. I will take that as a compliment to my ‘liveliness’, as you so charmingly put it. Even so, not everyone is the same. Mrs. Jenkinson is a very conscientious woman. She does have your best interests at heart, you know.”

“I suppose. But I wonder if she discovered I had done something dreadful, not that there is anything dreadful to discover, but if there were, would she keep the confidence or would she run to tell my mother?”

“Miss de Bourgh, if she were worried about your safety or reputation, she would tell Lady Catherine as, I would add, would I. Do not underestimate her value. She can be a great ally if you would just allow it. Besides, as your companion, it is her duty to protect you, especially when you are in the company of eligible young men.”

“Yes, that is another matter that concerns me.” Anne furrowed her brow. “How is it that I have said I do not wish to marry and here I am entering into Society, which is tantamount to entering the marriage market?”

Maggie laughed again; her little Miss Anne could look so adorable when she did not get her way.

“Have you only just now realized this?”

Anne looked at her sheepishly and added, “I supposed I was so enthralled with the idea of parties and balls and dancing that I failed to comprehend the natural consequences of a Season.”

“The main object being to match eligible females with equally eligible gentlemen.”

Anne groaned.

“What have I done?”

Maggie grew serious. “You have done what every gently bred young lady has done. You have accepted your place in the world into which you were born. Is it so onerous to be pampered and admired? You enjoyed it at your ball.”

“You know me well enough to know I am too vain to refuse such attentions. Do you not see, this is why I need you to stay in Town, to talk sense into me! I still must make my curtsey at St. James’s. Not to mention Almack’s!”

Maggie sighed.

“My dear, my place is at Rosings. I have long accepted my lot in life.” Maggie paused to gather her thoughts. “You will be perfectly fine without me. We both know I know nothing of Court or of the assemblies at Almack’s. Your family will guide you through and you will scarce have time to waste any thoughts on me.

“Miss de Bourgh, I must return to Kent where I belong.”

Anne knew her oldest and most loyal friend would not be swayed from her decision, but she could not let her go without telling her how important she really was. She returned Maggie’s conclusive statement with a seriousness to match.

“You will always be more than just a servant in my eyes. I value your friendship and will see that you will always receive what is your due for all the years you have faithfully served my family and me.”

Maggie gripped her charge’s hand, for once unwilling to meet her eyes. Anne thought it was due to emotion. She had no idea it was due to Maggie’s guilt, fear and shame.

~~~//~~~

One morning when the de Bourgh ladies were at home to receive callers, a Mrs. and Miss Simpson were announced. Anne immediately looked at the daughter. She recognized the name and wondered if the creature in front of her was her Cousin de Bourgh’s would-be bride. Neither young woman was comfortable. Each was curious about the other; Miss Simpson was wary.

Anne decided to draw Miss Simpson into innocent conversation; it was not yet time for more direct questioning.

“Do you play, Miss Simpson?”

“Yes, I do, Miss de Bourgh. Do you?”

“My mother would not allow me not to play.”

“Perhaps one day I shall have the chance to hear you.”

“I have no doubt Mama will insist I take every chance to exhibit.” Anne laughed lightly. “She is a great lover of music and provided the masters to teach me. I was not allowed to sit idle and follow my inclinations to not practice. She grew tired of how I would fudge and slur my way through pieces and I was told that was unacceptable. Thenceforth I was forced to apply myself and I can now say that I play tolerably well.”

“My experience mirrors your own.”

Both ladies relaxed in the discovery of their shared trials of a gentlewoman’s musical education. The conversation became friendlier as they compared the methods of their teachers.

Anne asked Miss Simpson about her experiences in London. Being older, she had much to relate to Anne.

“Surely you have had many men admire you?” Anne probed after a while.

“Enough to know what it is like to enjoy their attentions.”

It was time for Anne to broach the subject both knew was coming.

“By any chance, Miss Simpson, do you know my cousin Arthur de Bourgh?”

“We are acquainted.” Anne noted a tinge of a blush on Miss Simpson’s cheeks. The poor thing could not look her in the eye. Anne decided a little sympathy was in order.

“So you really are the Helena Simpson. I’ve heard much about you from my cousin.”

“Mr. de Bourgh was all kindness, I am sure.”

“My cousin admires you very much.” Anne leaned forward and spoke quietly. “Arthur and I have always got on famously. People misconstrue it to mean something that it does not. You have nothing to fear from me. I have always considered him the closest thing to a brother I will ever have. He certainly feels it his duty to tease me like a younger sister.”

“He does like to tease,” Miss Simpson agreed, visibly relieved by Anne’s words of consideration.

“I have always observed that they who like to tease their helpless younger cousins as children are bound to become hopeless flirts as adults.”

“He does like to flirt.” Miss Simpson was smiling by then.

“That he does,” Anne agreed.

From that moment, the young ladies were on their way to forming a lasting friendship. Anne found her first impression of the object of her cousin’s affections was accurate. Miss Simpson was an educated, intelligent woman and would be well matched with Arthur, should he ever gain her hand. Therefore, Anne gave in to her predisposition to like the woman and determined to further the acquaintance. Perhaps she might even be of use to the would-be couple.

~~~//~~~

Before her first appearance at Almack’s, Anne de Bourgh had a more pressing engagement on Thursday afternoon in the drawing rooms of St James’s Palace. It was only the trifling matter of being presented at Court, a watershed moment for every young lady of the English upper classes, all of whom braved the hoops, trains and feathers of the required apparel demanded by the Queen. For all the time and energy devoted to this singular event, Anne was ever so relieved when it was over! Her curtsey accomplished, it was time to enter Society.

Then again, Society had a way of finding her. Anne was surprised at how busy her days became. When she was not out with her mother returning calls, visiting shops, or being seen at one of the various parks Lady Catherine deemed acceptable, she was at home receiving callers. She knew many of the older women who came to visit; they were longtime friends of her mother’s that she had met in previous visits to London or in Kent. Only now they came with daughters, nephews, nieces, and most especially – sons. Anne was slightly surprised at the number of young, single women who came to make her acquaintance. She had expected the gentlemen, but not the ladies.

After one particularly tiring day, she spent the time preparing for bed thinking on all her new acquaintances and comparing their various situations. While she sat and brushed her hair, it dawned on her that her wealth and status made her a desirable connection to women seeking to augment their places in society. Such a realization could have made Anne cynical, but she reasoned that she should not be too surprised; after all, she had seen such behavior towards her mother for most of her life. Fortunately, her disposition would not allow her to resent such fawning social climbers; instead, she chose to laugh at their transparency – though never to their faces – and to befriend those women of like-mindedness, intelligence, and wit who did find their way into her drawing room.

~~~//~~~

Miss Anne de Bourgh had arrived at Almack’s with her mother and her aunt and uncle in good time to be allowed admittance. She had met a couple of the Ladies Patronesses of the establishment. She had been introduced to men of the highest quality and had danced with many of them. She found the conversation was stilted, especially since so many subjects were taboo. Gossip seemed the most suitable topic. The food and refreshments were utterly forgettable. In short, the reality of the insipidness of Almack’s could not compare to the fantasy of the place. Social respectability must be maintained and she must return, but that was no longer something she looked to with eager anticipation.

Unfortunately for Anne, there was one acquaintance from the evening who looked forward to calling on her at his earliest convenience.

His name was Sir John Whitby, a baronet from Surrey, and as besotted a young man as could be after so brief an acquaintance.

He had all the qualifications to be a suitable match; he was wealthy and held a large estate of seven thousand pounds a year. Furthermore, both of his parents were obliging enough to have passed away, leaving him in possession of his inheritance without the interference of a scheming mother. He was in the bloom of life, and while not overly handsome, his features were not displeasing.

For all these advantages, Sir John had one small thing not in his favor – no, make it two. First, he was, well, small. Anne had never in her life met a man of such short stature. She would not have held this against him had he not taken measures to increase his height. Instead, he wore the strangest shoes she had ever seen. The soles looked as thick as part one of the three-volume novel she was currently reading. This would not have been so bad had it not affected the man’s balance. Several times he had stepped on her toes while they were dancing. Her last outburst of pain brought embarrassment.

His second disadvantage was that his breath smelled truly horrid. Anne had a hard time breathing normally when he spoke to her. She had to concentrate on inhaling and exhaling though her mouth rather than her nose. This in turn made her thirsty and she was forced to quench it with the tasteless concoction that Almack’s called lemonade. She was more than relieved when she was able to escape his company.

The next morning, then, to Anne’s great horror, the butler announced the first caller.

“Sir John Whitby of Slaton Manor.”

When Lady Catherine and Anne rose from their curtseys, they were still looking down.

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