Authors: Ella J. Quince
Desperate and Daring
By Ella J. Quince
Marriages were interesting things to Heather. For someone in her position, it was the ultimate goal in life, to marry well, and yet it was such a fleeting moment in time. Hopefully, the search was not long when one reached marriageable age, and then after a brief courtship a wedding would commence and then… and then what? Heather always thought.
And then she would save her family from ruin,
a voice inside her answered. That thought always poked in the back, made her sit up straighter, and refocus her gaze on the present. Ruin was even more interesting. Before now, the notion of ruin had been vague, an invisible entity to fear, but now she knew ruin was the taking of one’s homes by the bank, the tattered hem of a dress you hoped no one noticed, and the rising price of beef when potatoes grew tiresome to eat so very often. Ruin.
Heather blinked and looked around the parlor filled with girls similar to her age. They chattered noisily in breathless high pitched whines. They pecked at passable embroidery with needles, but the real purpose of this gathering was awaiting the arrival of the eligible bachelors to pick the ripest and wealthiest before the season began and set plans in motion to win a proposal.
Heather wanted to laugh maniacally. She wasn’t waiting for some handsome rogue who may or may not be searching for a wife. She was waiting for a duke, a duke to save her and her family from ruin. This might sound exciting to some, but in truth it was awful. He was not some gallant young swain to pine for, but a gentlemen much older than even her father had been, perhaps even old enough to be her grandfather. The Duke of Ablehill, known across England—and Heather was sure Europe as well, for his unsuccessful attempts to garner himself a young wife of respectable breeding. No duke had ever been so eschewed from society for his general unpleasantness. His friends were none, his enemies many. It was wholly unheard of for a man of such wealth to be so alienated from society.
Heather was going to bind herself to him for the rest of her life.
It was the one lure juicy enough to draw him out of hiding. The duke had been reclusive for more than a decade, but with a simple note to his secretary, a crudely bold action on her part, Heather, and the rest of the guests of the Endervale house party, anxiously awaited his arrival. He would be made a spectacle, and so would Heather, when she threw herself in his path, but so be it.
Ruin. What could possibly be worse than ruin?
Heather was sure there must be something, but she desperately hoped it wasn’t marriage to the Duke of Ablehill. Even the title sounded old, and it certainly was. It was a relic, just like the man himself. Heather shuddered.
“Dear, are you cold?” Her mother turned to her and tucked her shawl tighter around her shoulders. “No, Mother.” Heather smiled. Her mother had changed so much in the last year. Fine lines of worry had made permanent residence on her brow, and purple shadows under her eyes told the secret of sleepless nights.
“The other girls are going for a stroll. Will you take your sisters?”
“Of course.” Heather stood as did the other girls. They were almost all the same age, most would be coming out this season with grand balls. Heather collected her younger sisters from the nearby sofa and they trailed the other girls out the terrace doors. The day was fine though a little cool. Heather pulled her shawl tightly around her and kept pace with the cloud of noise that seemed to follow the large group of girls. Her sisters were all smiles and wide eyes, eagerly absorbing what they perceived to be elegance from the older girls in hopes that they too could be part of the festivities. Heather desperately hoped that would be true. She was falling behind the girls, still lost in her morbid thoughts of the future when Lady Anabelle Darling and her sister Lady Hazel fell behind with her.
“Why the long face?” Hazel asked. Her sister sent her a withering glare.
“You are abominably rude, Hazel.” Anabelle sighed.
“Abominably? Do you know the meaning of the word?” Another withering glare was received.
Heather smiled at the twins. They wore identical expressions of annoyance. They shared the same light blue eyes, long dark lashes, and winking dimples in both cheeks, but they differed in personality by leaps and bounds, and the color of Hazel’s hair was a darker blond, almost light brown, with streaks of honey. Anabelle was as blonde as they come and—in Heather’s opinion, the image of perfection. Heather would shamefully dislike her for her perfect looks, but Anabelle was exceedingly kind.
“I thank you for your concern, both of you,” Heather spoke before true sisterly bickering began.
“You looked very solemn. Was that better?” Hazel turned to her sister testily.
“Much. No one wishes to appear long in the face. Not that you do,” Anabelle assured Heather.
“Oh, good,” Heather said with a sigh. Normally, Anabelle and Hazel were entertaining, the sort of friends you could rely on to create the fun instead of having to provide it, but today she didn’t have the energy for it. It felt taxing just to appear banal.
“It’s nothing. I always find it odd sleeping under a new roof during these parties, and of course, sharing a bed with a sister who snores.”
“Oh?” Anabelle said tentatively.
Heather could hear the skepticism in her tone. As much as they wished otherwise, her family’s circumstances must be apparent. How much so she didn’t know? “How are you enjoying your stay thus far?” Heather moved the subject away from herself.
“Well,” Anabelle cut her eyes to her sister. “I, too, have a noisy bed mate, but I suppose it is excitement that kept me awake last night. So many gentlemen will be arriving today, if some haven’t already,” Anabelle said gleefully.
“We should keep watch on the drive,” Hazel added quite seriously.
“That would not do. What would they think of us?” Anabelle laughed.
Heather sighed and looked forward. They were soon joined by other girls falling back from the chorus of giggles. Lucy and Dorothea linked arm in arm, Charlotte and Rose flanking them as they separated from the pack.
“Good day, Lady Lucy, Miss Manton, Miss Owens, and Miss Angelwood,” Heather said in attempted brightness.
Lucy rolled her eyes, “I thought we had agreed to dispense with formalities. I insist we call each other by our given names,” she demanded.
The other girls smiled and nodded.
“Oh, all right,” Heather conceded. “Tis not a hill I wish to die on. Are we to be so familiar when the gentlemen arrive?”
Lucy pondered the question, her mahogany curls bouncing with her steps as they strolled. “You may have a point there. Heaven forbid an unwanted suitor take it upon himself to be so familiar.”
Heather felt a bubble of laughter burst from her chest but suppressed it. If only she could have such luck with a suitor. “We will only use each other’s given names when it’s just us then.”
“We should form a club,” Dorothea offered. “And meet once a day to discuss our prospects.” Her eyebrows arched above the thin frames of her glasses excitedly.
“Ooooh, a splendid idea, Thea.” Lucy smiled gleefully. The other girls nodded in agreement.
Heather mulled it over as they came to an open lawn boarded by tall hedges. This is where the lawn bowling would commence when the party officially got underway. A cluster of tree’s filled one corner providing shade over a pair of tables and chairs. As a group, they walked to the tables as the other girls spread out in little groups over the lawn, watching the footmen set up the game. Heather watched as her sisters, Violet and Prim, joined a circle around Lady Karen. Heather narrowed her eyes. Lady Karen was debuting this season and already a crowd favorite for her honey gold hair. She was extremely self-centered and as feather-brained as a down pillow. She was a very poor influence for her sisters.
“What should our club be called? I’ve always been jealous of men and their clubs,” Thea went on excitedly.
“The Wallflower Club?” Charlotte spoke up at last. Heather looked at her and smiled. Charlotte was always so quiet. She shouldn’t be with her dark brown hair and intelligent brown eyes. She could have suitors eating out of her hands if she only spoke out more. Her father was a country squire, but Heather thought Charlotte’s quiet beauty would make up for the lack of station. If only beauty had been on Heather’s side, but her frizzy red hair and dull grey eyes left her looking washed out and bland.
“I beg your pardon, but I am no wallflower,” Lucy scoffed.
“Nor, I,” Anabelle agreed.
Heather watched as Charlotte wilted under the stronger personalities of Lucy and Anabelle. “A novel idea, but we need something that encompasses all of us,” Heather offered.
“The Flower Club. Every day we can meet in the garden,” Hazel broke in.
There was a chorus of nays in response.
“Why don’t we think on it, and we can have a vote tomorrow. We can vote after tea,” Rose responded.
The girls nodded. Heather looked over to her sisters again and they were strolling towards her. Violet had a peeved looked on her face and Primrose looked nervous.
“What’s amiss?” Heather asked as Violet and Prim stepped into the shade.
“Lady Karen is a halfwit trollop,” Violet growled. Half giggles and half gasps erupted from behind Heather.
“Language, Violet,” Heather reprimanded her, though she was pleased her little sister could see through Lady Karen’s shallow depths. “I hope you didn’t say that to her.”
“No, but she deserved it. She said you were to be served up to a doddering duke as sacrificial lamb for the sake of our family.”
Heather clenched her teeth. She could feel the speculative silence behind her. “And what did you say in return?”
“Nothing,” Violet said nervously.
“Violet,” Heather ground out. “What did you say?”
“I said nothing, Heather. I excused us and returned to you. Is it true?” Violet’s eyes glittered angrily as they bore into Heather’s.
Heather was stuck now. There was really no use keeping such a secret. It was impossible. She would only be affirming what everyone already knew. “I would never have put it so ghastly, but essentially, yes. We are here so I can meet the Duke of Ablehill and hopefully, form an alliance.”
“But he is old?” Violet asked flatly.
Heather released an angry and humiliated breath. She took her sister’s arm and pulled her away from the others. Prim followed with wide, sad eyes. Heather felt like she was destroying their hopes and dreams. “Yes, he is old, and yes, I will marry him to save our family. That is why we are here. We have no place to live, Violet. The bank took our home and Mother sold the remainder of our things to fund this last trip to land the duke. If I don’t, we will have to rent a room at a boarding house and go to work. There will be no more parties, no seasons for you. No more pretty dresses, no more Bonbon’s with tea, or chocolate in the mornings. I must marry him so that you two will have futures, and we will have a comfortable place to live.”
“Are we going to have to marry old men?” Prim asked shakily.
Both her sisters looked as if their hearts were crumbling. “No. I’m the sacrificial lamb so you won’t have to be. It’s what big sisters do.” Heather met both her sister’s eyes one at a time. Prim looked relieved, too young to really understand at the tender age of ten and four, but Violet looked mutinous, her eyes wide and glistening, her jaw clenched.
God bless Violet
, Heather thought. She looked exactly how Heather felt, but with grim determination, she would never show it.
Heather looked up and found her new friends staring at her sadly. She did indeed feel like the sacrificial lamb, but they looked at her as if she had been sentenced to death. “It’s not as awful as it seems,” she said to herself and to them. She was saved from having to say anything more by the commotion of carriages and riders on the other side of the hedge and a maid scurrying to Lady Karen. Judging from the looks of the excited faces of the girls around Lady Karen, Heather suspected the gentlemen had arrived.
As a group, they returned to the house and to the drawing room where mothers and daughters waited eagerly. There were twelve eligible girls in all, including Heather, but not her young sisters. The ladies sat prettily as slowly, but surely, gentlemen arrived and were introduced to the room at large.