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Authors: Rebecca Connolly

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She winced and looked over at him. “I know, I should never have said something so ridiculous…”

“I think it’s a marvelous idea,” he interrupted with a grin.

“You do?”

He nodded, now turning to face her. “Why not make this a grand season? One last hurrah, if you will. We could make a fine joke out of it all.”

“We?” she asked with a quirked brow.

“Mm-hmm,” he nodded again. “I am assigning myself as your permanent escort for the season.”

She laughed out loud, received murderous glares from numerous people, and clamped her hand over her mouth. When she had quieted herself, she turned to the still snickering Geoff and removed her hand. “You cannot be serious. You won’t catch a wife if you are always with me.”

He scoffed. “Please. As if I have been hunting of late. One season of larking about with you is not going to doom me to a life of bachelordom. And you cannot go gallivanting all around London without a proper escort. Where you will go, I will go, and it will undoubtedly be the best time either of us has had in a long time.”

The opera began in earnest then, and they were forced to be silent, but Mary found herself almost buzzing with a newfound excitement. She leaned closer to Geoff and whispered, “You’d better prepare yourself. Cassandra is forcing me to get new gowns and change my hair and fit myself with all sorts of fine frippery. What do you think of that?”

He leaned away and shook his head. “I’m not going to comment on that. I have nothing to say on the subject of your fashion.”

“No comment from you? Really?” she asked, a bit surprised.

“No comment. Really,” he repeated, still focused on the stage.

“Mary, please!” Cassandra hissed from her other side.

Mary resisted glaring at her, and leaned closer still to Geoff. “Why?” she whispered.

“Because I like you just as you are, you goose,” he replied in a low voice, smiling as he squeezed her hand. He slid a sideways glance at her. “And despite what you might think, I am not a woman, so fashion is not my forte nor my interest.”

She sat back against her chair with a slight huff. “Well, you are no help at all,” she muttered.

He grinned and released her hand. “Never said I was going to be, did I?”

Mary rolled her eyes and pretended to be upset, but that only lasted for so long, and she found herself smiling. Perhaps this would not be so bad after all. Geoff and Cassandra would be with her all the time, so they could keep her sensible when she would be driven mad with the whole project.

She had no doubts at all that she would be completely insane within a week.

She allowed herself to relax and focus on the performance, making sure to whisper comments to Geoff as the situation called for, and grinning to herself with each of his snickers. But really, she had one other secret she had never told him that made this whole evening that much more agreeable.

She actually truly enjoyed opera.

C
hapter
F
ive

 

“I
cannot believe I let you talk me into this. What in the world was I thinking?”

“That you were through imitating wallpaper in both behavior and dress and wanted to be a viable member of Society?”

Mary glared at her sister as the two of them walked briskly towards Cassandra’s favorite dress shop, which was not Mary’s favorite, but according to Cassandra, that was precisely why they were going there.

Some girls no doubt enjoyed being poked and pricked and measured in the most embarrassing ways all for the sake of their own fashion, but Mary was not one of them.

“Why can’t I just pick some ready-made gowns and wear those?” Mary complained as her sister very nearly dragged her along the bustle of Bond Street as they approached.

“Because any woman with any desire to catch any man will dress herself in the most flattering and well-fitted gowns she can so as to bring as much attention to her form and figure that she can.”

“Ah, but I don’t…”

“If you are going to be a debutante, you must at least pretend that you care about what you put on yourself,” Cassandra overrode impatiently. “I know you aren’t trying to catch a man or attract attention, but you must have properly fitted gowns, Mary. No one in this world but me has any idea how tiny that waist of yours is!”

“Cassie, hush!” Mary hissed as they passed some ladies who studiously avoided their gaze.

Cassandra snorted. “Oh, please, they weren’t listening. I am a pox upon the city and you are universally ignored. Why would anybody possibly listen to us?” She quirked a brow and entered the store.

“I haven’t a clue,” Mary muttered as she followed.

“Miss Cassandra!” squealed a buxom, graying-haired woman from the back of the shop before her young assistant could do more than open her mouth in greeting.

Cassandra smiled broadly. “Good morning, Mrs. Farrow.”

Mrs. Farrow trotted over with a beaming grin that rumpled her plump face. “I will take care of this one, Anna. You can finish Mrs. Smythe’s order. Extra yardage on the skirt, remember.”

The girl bobbed a curtsey and slipped into the back of the shop.

“My darling dearest girl,” Mrs. Farrow gushed, taking Cassandra’s hands and kissing her cheeks. “I have missed you ever so much. Tell me you have come back to me for a new gown, I simply love dressing you, child. Nobody wears my gowns as you do! And by the by, I never pay any attention to those horrid people who say such awful things about you. A woman has a right to her own mind, and does not have to accept a man just because he offered, although you and that Lieutenant Wyndham would have made the most exquisitely glorious babies. But pah! No more. Darling girl, what can I do for you?”

Mary stood stock-still and agape as she stared at the woman who had just managed to say a multitude of sentences without taking a single breath. And beyond that, Mary had no idea what she had just said except that this woman was truly glad to see Cassandra, which was such a rarity these days that she could not actually believe she was sincere.

And yet she was.

“Sadly, my dear Mrs. Farrow, I am not here for myself today,” Cassandra said, still smiling. Then she turned and indicated Mary. “I am here for my sister, who wishes to make quite a splash this season.”

Mrs. Farrow’s eyebrows shot up and her lips pursed. “Oh,” she said after a long pause, which was not exactly the sort of encouragement that Mary would have liked at this moment.

She looked over to Cassandra with a pleading expression, and not a touch of “I told you so” in her eyes, but Cassandra merely smiled and put her arm through Mrs. Farrow’s and said, “I think she has great potential, don’t you, Mrs. Farrow? She is like a blank canvas, awaiting your artistic touch.”

At those words, Mrs. Farrow’s brows snapped back down, her lips formed a smile Mary had seen on many cats, and her free hand tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Why, yes, I think she has potential indeed.” She nodded as if just coming to this decision herself, then whirled around. “Anna! I need you after all!”

Cassandra took Mary’s hand, grinning, and pulled her along to follow Mrs. Farrow as she waved them towards the back.

“This is a very bad idea,” Mary whispered, wiping her now clammy palms on her dress. “She is going to put me in some awful feathery hat and a dress I cannot breathe in. This is a very, very bad idea.”

“No, this is a very good idea,” Cassandra corrected, squeezing her arm. “Mrs. Farrow will not put you in feathers, she has more taste than that. And breathing will not be restricted at all, I promise. You can have your own input, you know.”

“Why bother? You will override my protests anyway.”

Her sister smiled wickedly. “This is true. But I won’t be completely tyrannical. It could be fun, Mary.”

“Not likely.”

Cassandra sighed and rolled her eyes. “Well, cheer up anyway. I have a surprise or two for you, and you had better enjoy them.”

“Again, not likely,” Mary replied. Really, she was beginning to feel slightly nauseated and overheated. Surely that was not normal.

For the next several minutes, which felt like hours, Mary endured the sheer embarrassment of being forced to strip to her undergarments before this woman and measured where she knew she had never been measured before. She could feel her cheeks flaming, but opted to keep her mouth shut. As Mrs. Farrow was such an admirer of her sister’s, perhaps the price of these gowns would be less than previously anticipated.

Provided Mary managed to not insult the woman before the appointment was over.

“Now, this dress over here is already made up, but I think it will suit you very well,” Mrs. Farrow was saying as she helped Mary step into it.

“Oh, Mary would love to try any ready-made dresses you have, Mrs. Farrow,” Cassandra broke in kindly. “She is so thoughtful, she would hate to make you fuss so much just over her specialty gowns. And all your gowns are so exquisite, I know any of them will be perfect.”

Cassandra had a gift, Mary decided, and she shot her sister a grateful smile, to which she replied with a wink.

Mrs. Farrow’s cheeks colored, and her smile grew more satisfied. “What a kind thing to say, Miss Cassandra! You are always so kind. And Miss Hamilton is too gracious, but it is no trouble at all to make her full new gowns. Let us try this one, and then I will show you some of the others that are ready, and we can alter them for you right here and now, so you may take some home with you. Oh, you sweet girls, I adore you both!”

Mary managed to smile, but her tongue was aching from biting it so hard. At least she would be getting some dresses already made. That should cut down on the number of fittings she would have to come in for.

She glanced down at the dress she was currently wearing, a very pretty pale green muslin, and she found herself smiling just a little. It was neither audacious nor ridiculous. In fact, it was quite simple in cut and color, and she would be comfortable wearing this on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, her smile was caught.

“Ah! She adores it!” Mrs. Farrow cried jubilantly, clapping her hands. “Come, let us take you out to the mirrors.” She seized Mary’s hand and pulled, and Mary, try as she might, lacked the strength to resist.

“But, Mrs. Farrow,” she panted, “I don’t wish to be seen.”

“Oh, you sweet girl, don’t worry! It is all arranged, there are better mirrors in the back, away from the windows. No one will see you but us,” Mrs. Farrow soothed, patting her hand.

Well, there was that, at least. She breathed a little easier and stopped resisting so much. She was already dreading her first appearance as this new version of herself. What in the world would people think?

“There now, Miss Hamilton, just step on up there and take a good look at yourself,” Mrs. Farrow ordered as they reached the mirrors.

With an inaudible sigh, Mary did so, and felt her breath catch ever so slightly. Not that she looked especially stunning or that she had been magically transformed, for she was still herself, which was neither stunning nor magical. But she looked…

“That suits you very well, Mary.”

Her cheeks paled and she turned towards that voice she knew so well. Taking a seat with a perfect view of her was Geoff, and he was smiling broadly.

“What in the world are you doing here?” Mary barked, placing her hands on her hips.

“Erm, surprise?” Cassandra said with a giggle as she came into view.

Mary whirled to face her. “This is your surprise?”

“A rather grand one, I should think,” Geoff mused as he set his hat down on the floor and removed his gloves.

“Hardly,” Mary snorted, not turning towards him. “Cassie, I don’t want to be seen by anyone!” Least of all by him, she thought.

“Geoff is hardly anyone!” Cassandra protested, mirroring Mary’s pose. “He is your best friend and an objective set of eyes and he will tell you exactly what he thinks.”

“I will indeed,” Geoffrey broke in, still smiling, “but only insofar as it matters. I won’t tell you what you should or should not do.”

“Then what good are you, Geoffrey?” Cassandra asked in exasperation, flinging her hands in the air. “She won’t do anything of her own volition.”

BOOK: Secrets of a Spinster
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