Authors: Christi Caldwell
Tags: #Fiction, #Regency, #Romance, #Historical
Copyright © 2016 by Christi Caldwell
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To Doug: a loving father, an amazing husband, and my best friend. Through appointments, specialists, school meetings, and everything in-between, you are there at our side. Thank you for encouraging me, and allowing me, every day to fulfill my dream.
You are my real-life hero. (And a pretty wonderful cook, too!)
iss Gemma Reed was neither pretty nor talented.
As a young girl she’d attributed her nursemaid’s lamentations to, well,
. At eight and ten years of age when Gemma had made her Come Out, however, the finding had been unequivocally handed down by the
She was ugly.
Or, that is what had been decided and written with regular frequency by Polite Society during her first Season. Now, three Seasons later, the verdict had proven the same. It was all the more bothersome when a young lady was saddled with a name like Gemma, when she was the farthest thing from a Diamond. As the papers had so cleverly, or rather,
-cleverly, pointed out.
Gemma wrinkled her nose. In
estimation, ugly was quite harsh.
The carriage hit a large bump on the old Roman road leading to Somerset and her copy of Georges Cuvier’s
Le Règne Animal
tumbled to the floor. Gemma winced and bent to retrieve it.
She sat up just as her brother’s black barouche bounced once more. With a sigh Gemma abandoned her reading and put aside the small tome.
Blasted carriage ride.
She discreetly rubbed the spot just above her derrière.
Mother glanced over and frowned. “Do stop touching yourself. It is impolite.” Before Gemma could formulate a reply to that admonishment, her mother tipped her chin at the leather volume on the bench. “And be certain to have that hidden before we arrive. It won’t do to be seen carrying around a medical story.”
“It is a science journal,” she muttered, earning another reproachful look from her mama. As her disapproving mama launched into a lecture about appropriate reading material for a young lady, Gemma peeled back the gold curtain and stared at the passing countryside.
No, she’d never be considered conventional
And though she didn’t quite see herself as a raving beauty nor even remotely beautiful, neither did she think she was the
unattractive figure painted by the
. The talented part, well, that particular insult she would have to agree with them, on, however. That is, talents as they pertained to ladylike ventures—needlepoint, singing, fluttering a fan, watercolors. All endeavors she was rubbish at. And that was being generous. Yes, by Society’s standards she was neither pretty nor graceful and certainly not talented. With the exception of archery, the talents she did possess would never be seen as appropriate, proper, and as such, would never be remarked on by the
. She could ride, shoot, and hold an archer’s bow better than the most skilled gentleman. Such a feat would never earn a lady any attention that was good and it would, most assuredly, not land her a husband.
The carriage hit another jarring bump and Gemma slammed against the side of the conveyance. “Bloody hell!” The curse slipped out and then she promptly bit the inside of her cheek.
“Gemma,” Mama scolded, giving her head a disapproving shake. “Do be sure to not speak so in front of His Grace, or the duke’s son, or…”
As her mother proceeded through the list of the distinguished guests who would be attending the Duke of Somerset’s summer party, Gemma redirected her attention out the window. Being the only friend to Lady Beatrice Dennington, the daughter of their host, Gemma well knew who would be in attendance and the very specific reason for this grand summer party. She and the young lady had struck up an unlikely friendship; both on their fourth Seasons and both unwed, except Beatrice was a glorious beauty while Gemma was…well,
. Propping her chin on her hand, she stared longingly out at the rolling green hills and the passing countryside.
Just then, her brother, Emery, Viscount Smithfield, brought his horse alongside the carriage. She eyed his mount with a vicious hungering and her legs twitched with the need for being astride her own horse. She closed her eyes a long moment and imagined racing through the sprawling land with the wind in her face, free of Society’s snide comments, free of her mother’s chastisement, free of all of it. Gemma opened her eyes. Alas, ladies did not ride astride. They sat dutifully in carriages with tedium threatening to be the death of them and dreamed of a grand romance with their best friend’s brother. Her gaze collided with Emery. He gave her a knowing half-grin and a wink. A grin and a wink that said he well knew her love for riding and knew she belonged out there with him…if the world was an altogether different place for polite ladies.
Gemma let the curtain go and it fluttered back into place, swallowing the view of crisp, blue, summer skies and fluffy, white clouds and she, in this moment, felt not unlike a gilded bird trapped in a cage.
“…There are rumors that the marquess will wed Lady Diana,” her mother’s lamentations pulled her back to the moment. Her discourse brought every conversation, as it invariably did, back ’round to the talk of husbands.
The muscles of her stomach clenched. There was no doubt just which marquess her mother referred to. All the
spoke of or cared about was the gentleman’s rank and wealth. And it was well known about town that the Duke of Somerset was suffering a wasting illness and this summer event had been designed and carefully arranged with the specific purpose of seeing his unwed daughter, Lady Beatrice,
approaching her fourth Season, as well as his son, Robert, the Marquess of Westfield, married.
“But I say if the son’s match was already determined, then the duke would not be hosting this summer party.”
Gemma resisted the urge to jam her fingertips against her temples and rub the growing ache caused by her mother’s prattling. As her grasping parent continued on about the marquess’ marital prospects, Gemma again yanked back the curtain and stared intently out the lead window.
The ladies invited to attend the duke’s summer party would all do so with the intent purpose of making a match—ideally with the Marquess of Westfield. Tall, broad-shouldered, and ruggedly handsome, he was a glorious specimen of masculine perfection…and a smidge below royalty, given his future title, every lady’s not so secret wish in her bridegroom.
And Gemma didn’t give a jot about any of it—his wealth, his male beauty, his title of marquess and eventual duke. She’d been in love with the man for three years now. Since her partnerless first Season, when he’d offered her a quadrille on the disastrous day of her Come Out. Oh, she wasn’t so naïve that she’d give a man her heart for one small, though heroic, act. He’d been the only gentleman to partner her in a set at whatever event he was in attendance. Never two dances together to signify anything more, but those single dances mattered to her.
“…Tell me you will have a care at the duke’s party.”
Silence registered and, blinking several times, Gemma shifted her attention from the passing countryside to her mother. With her perfect golden curls and sapphire blue eyes, could not a single speck of that beauty have passed to Gemma? Not that she minded being…well, plain, it was just that…
“Well?” Mama prodded, favoring Gemma with an entreating look.
Her mind raced. What were they speaking on? Ah, right. In a roundabout way, Mama was pleading with her to watch her tongue and avoid embarrassment. “I promise to be nothing but myself,” she pledged.
That, thankfully, led to an endless speech on the perils in Gemma attending the most coveted summer event. She’d long been an oddity in her own family. Emery, with his blond locks and captivating demeanor, charmed young ladies and dowagers alike. Her flawlessly beautiful mother was a leading hostess and matron. And then there was Gemma; who was everything…well,
. Limp, brown hair that could not curl with a prayer and a magical brush. Plain brown eyes. Not even the type of brown with flecks of gold or green in them. Just brown. At five feet four inches, she was not too tall, not too short.
She startled as a hand touched her knee and she lifted her gaze.
Her mother gave her a gentle look. “There is no reason you cannot make a match with the marquess.” The softly spoken words were said with a mother’s pride and love.
She mustered a smile. “I know,” she replied automatically. There was no
reason. Rather, there were all number of reasons she couldn’t.
Mama leaned closer. “Even if it is not the marquess, you will find the gentleman who will appreciate you and love you for who you are.”
What her mother could not know was that Gemma had already found the gentleman she would spend her days with. For now, she loved him and appreciated him, and it was merely a matter of bringing the gentleman around to the truth that all of those quadrilles, waltzes, and reels were more than mere polite dances.
The carriage rumbled down a drive, on through the park-like grounds of an opulent estate. Fountains lined the graveled drive; the stone adornments at odds with the tucked away corner of Somerset owned by the duke.
They had arrived.
Gemma’s heart pounded hard and fast, and where her mother’s ramblings had previously aggravated, now she welcomed the distracted prattling about proper summer party etiquette. Welcomed the diversion away from the very sudden realness of her planned meeting with Lord Westfield where she would, at last, confess all that was in her heart to him.
And what had
so very simple, now seemed the manner of failed tasks assigned laughingly by the gods to watch a mere mortal fail.
As soon as the cowardly thought slid in, Gemma firmed her jaw. Failure was not an option. For if she didn’t, at the very least, confess her feelings to Lord Westfield then she would forever harbor regret of what might have been and what should have been, if she’d not been a coward. Yes, she’d been labeled unattractive, ungainly, and untalented, in her two and twenty years, but not once had she been called a coward.
The carriage dipped as their driver climbed from the box. A moment later, the door was pulled open and the liveried servant held a hand out to assist the viscountess from the carriage.
Relishing the momentary quiet, Gemma collected her book and then reluctantly placed her fingers in the young man’s hand. She offered him a smile. “Thank you, Connor.”
He inclined his head. “Miss Reed.”
Gemma’s feet settled on the ground and she moved her legs experimentally, willing movement back into them after countless hours of uninterrupted sitting. She placed one hand on the small of her back and arched—
“Never let Mother see you doing something as scandalous as stretching.”
At the unexpected drawl, Gemma spun and promptly lost her balance. Her small, leather tome fell indignantly to the earth.
Emery shot his hands out and steadied her at the shoulders.