Authors: Caylen McQueen
THE DEMURE DEBUTANTE
By Caylen McQueen
Emilia Harcourt was the definition of a wallflower. As she watched the dancing crowd, she so desperately wished she could join in. The lively cotillion looked like fun, but no one had asked her to dance. It was her third London ball, and she had made the acquaintance of a few gentlemen, but she was not worthy of their prolonged interest. She had the unfortunate distinction of being a debutante who did not take.
It wasn't that she was an antidote. She might have been described as plain, but she certainly wasn't homely. Her hair was a dull blonde, not unlike the color of hay. She was a bit too tall for her own good, and she had a hopelessly long neck. Her towering height had frightened off at least a few romantic prospects, who did not want to look small while standing in her presence. Emilia's eyes were a vibrant green, but one of them was a bit lazy. It was her aunt who pointed out her left eye's tendency to wander. It was beyond her control; Emilia knew her lazy eye was a distraction to some.
Emilia found a quiet corner and stayed there. She tried to locate her aunt in the crowd, which was an easy feat. Her aunt's hair, a fiery copper, had a tendency to stand out. Aunt Sylvia was supposed to be chaperoning her niece, but she had abandoned her shortly after their arrival. Apparently, Sylvia had more pressing matters with which to concern herself.
When Emilia spotted her aunt, she was flanked by two handsome gentlemen. Sylvia was nearly forty, but she was much more adept at flirting than her young niece could ever hope to be. Both of the men looked younger than Sylvia, but they regarded her with marked interest. Emilia wished, from the bottom of her heart, that she possessed even half of her aunt's skill with men. Emilia's timidity, particularly in the presence of men, had her believing she was destined for a life of spinsterhood.
At the moment, Emilia was sharing her corner with another woman, a matronly old maid with humorless eyes and a beak-like nose. When the woman caught Emilia's gaze, she flashed a rigid smile at the younger girl.
“That will be me in forty years,” Emilia whispered to herself. “Old. Alone. Still friendless...”
Fortunately for Emilia, true spinsterhood was a long way off. She was only eighteen, and this year was her first entry into society.
“Good evening,” Emilia tried to greet the older woman standing beside her. “How do you do?”
The woman grumbled something inaudible and shuffled off to find another corner. Crestfallen, Emilia tried to search the room for a friendlier face. Unfortunately, she did not see anyone she recognized.
“Miss Harcourt?” When she heard the tiny female voice, Emilia's heart leapt. The speaker was none other than Jane Abrahms, the most beautiful and popular girl in London.
How does she know my name?
“Good evening, Miss Abrahms,” Emilia greeted her. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“As a matter of fact, there is,” Jane said. “I was looking for your brother.”
“Ed?! Really?!” Emilia could not disguise her shock. Her brother, Edward Harcourt, shared his sister's social ineptitude. It made no sense that Jane Abrahms, the darling of society, would be searching for him. “At the moment, I do not think he is in London, but I am sure I will see him soon enough. Is there some message you wish for me to impart?”
“No, not really,” Jane said, trying to appear aloof. “Actually... if you should happen to see him, tell him I have missed him. No, wait... wait...” Jane seized Emilia's arm and gave it a squeeze. “Do not say anything of the sort! I would not want him to think I am desperate to see him again.”
“So I should say nothing?”
“Well, you could tell him I am thinking of him,” Jane suggested. “No. Wait. No! Come to think of it, you should not mention my name at all. That is probably for the best. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a dance with Mr. Stevens. It was a pleasure speaking with you, Miss Harcourt.”
“It was a pleasure speaking to--” Jane was gone before Emilia had a chance to complete her sentence. Just like that, she was alone again.
The next dance happened to be a waltz. Emilia leaned against the wall and watched as the gentlemen pulled their ladies closer. As the couples swirled around the room, Emilia closed her eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like. What would it be like to be held, to be that close to a man? Her imagination was enough to inflame her cheeks.
“Emilia! Emilia!” Her eyes snapped open when she heard her aunt squawking her name. “Emilia, what are you doing? Were you sleeping?”
“No.” Emilia's eyes went to the gentleman who was standing beside her aunt. He was handsome, but he was a bit shorter than Emilia—which was a common occurrence, seeing as she was unnaturally tall. “I was woolgathering.”
“Well... gather your wits, girl, for I am about to make an introduction!” her aunt announced. Sylvia slipped an arm around the gentleman's back and gave him a gentle prod, urging him to move closer to Emilia. “This is Riordan O'Malley, from Ireland. Riordan, this is my lovely niece, Emilia Harcourt.”
Emilia immediately bobbed a curtsy. “A pleasure to meet you, Mr. O'Malley.” As demure as she was, she could not force herself to make eye contact with the gentleman in front of her.
“Likewise,” he echoed. “Are you enjoyin' yerself in Lonnon, Miss Harcourt?”
“Very much.” Emilia stared at her feet as she spoke. She watched her toes as they wiggled in her slippers.
“Stand up straight, dear. Don't slump,” her aunt criticized her, so Emilia made an effort to square her shoulders. “You look sickly and wan. Here...” Sylvia gave both of her niece's cheeks a rough pinch. “Why are you not socializing?”
“I... had no one to speak to,” was Emilia's soft response.
“Well, you look pitiful standing over here all by yourself!” her aunt carelessly observed. “That is why I brought Mr. O'Malley over here. Take care not to frighten him off!”
“Aunt Sylvia, I--” Before Emilia could protest, Aunt Sylvia spun on her heel and headed back to her own suitors. Suddenly, she was alone with a stranger, and a gentleman no less. Nothing intimidated her more than discourse with unfamiliar men.
Say something to engage him!
Emilia's mind was begging her.
Capture his interest!
“So, Mr. O'Malley...” Her gaze flickered to his face, then returned to the floor. On her second observation, she decided he wasn't particularly handsome, but his face was pleasant enough. “You are from... Ireland?”
“So you must see a lot of... sheep?” Emilia's question made her wince.
“Ireland is very... green. Is it not?”
“Umm...” His answers were so spiritless, Emilia knew she was already losing his interest. In fact, the next time she dared to look at him, she caught him eyeing a bevy of brunette beauties. “How long have you been in London?”
“I... see.” Emilia watched her hands, which were fidgeting more than ever. How could Aunt Sylvia abandon her in such a way!? Mr. O'Malley obviously had no interest in conversing with her, and she had nothing to say to Mr. O'Malley. The silence was so awkward, Emilia was tempted to slink behind a statue and hide there for the remainder of the night.
When his voice finally ended the silence, she perked up a bit. If there was one positive thing she could say about him, she liked hearing her name in an Irish accent. “Yes?”
“Would you mind if I excused meself, Miss Harcourt?” Mr. O'Malley asked. “I see someone I recognize.”
“Umm... certainly. You are welcome to leave whenever you would like.”
Mr. O' Malley bowed his head and briskly walked away. He didn't even end their conversation with a
pleasure to meet you
I hope to see you again.
His cold dismissal had her feeling more terrible than ever.
Wilomena Worthington and Edward Harcourt were lying in a field of wildflowers, a beautiful oasis not far from her brother's estate. Willow rolled on her stomach and stared at her fiance's face, which was now her favorite sight in the world. Edward lay on his back and watched the superfluous white masses passing overhead.
“That cloud,” Edward observed. “It looks like a h-h-horse.”
Willow pinched her fiance's arm. Edward had a terrible stutter; every time she heard him stumble over a word, she would pinch him. Her ultimate goal was to help him overcome his stammer completely. They had been at it for a couple of weeks now, and while his speech had certainly improved, he would still mince a few words every now and again. “Which one?”
“The one right above us.” Edward pointed at the sky, vibrant and blue. “I can see four legs, a mane...”
“Do you know what I see?” Willow asked. “I don't see a horse. I see a man scratching his head, wondering why in the world you're watching the clouds when you should be focusing your attention on your lovely fiance!”
“Come to think of it, I can see that as well!” Edward plucked one of the wildflowers and bopped her on the nose with it. Then he ran the flower along her cheek, tickling her with its soft petals. Giggling, Willow rolled away, putting distance between herself and the offending flower. “Where are you going, Willow?!”
“Away!” Willow shouted. “That tickles!”
Edward tossed the flower over his shoulder and held out his arms. “No more flower. Come back. I want to hold you!”
Willow rolled toward him, right into Edward's arms. He cradled her head against his chest and stroked her hair: her long, ebony tresses. He kissed the top of her head several times, burying his lips in her hair, inhaling the sweet scent of her. “You are so beautiful,” he murmured against her scalp.
“Do you think so?”
“I do,” Edward said. “I
you are beautiful. I swear I must be the luckiest man alive.”
protest, but my mother always said I should accept a compliment whenever it comes my way,” Willow said. “I used to be terrible at accepting compliments.”
“You?! But you don't lack confidence in the l-least!”
Willow pinched her fiance's rear end. Edward looked a bit surprised by her choice of pinching ground, but he did not protest. “I am less confident than you might think, Edward! In fact, there are times when I don't feel like I am good enough for you.”
is madness!” Edward protested. “Why would you feel that way?”
“Because you are chaste and I am not,” Willow said—which was true enough. She was a widow and he was a virgin. “I know I'm not the woman you've always wanted.”
“You're the woman I fell in love with, and that is all that matters to me.”
Willow could feel her smile broadening. For a man who claimed to lack eloquence, Edward could be quite charming. “So...” Willow placed her chin on Edward's chest as she stared into his eyes, those green eyes she loved so much. “When are we to be married?”
“How soon!?” Willow could not hide the eagerness in her voice.
“As soon as I can introduce you to my family,” Edward said. “I have already met your brother, so all that remains is--”
“In that case,” Willow interrupted, “I should meet your family straight away! Will you invite
them to come? My brother said they are more than welcome to stay at Sanborne Hall.”
“Very well. I will write to them as soon as we return!” Edward vowed. “And I should warn you about my sister...”
“Emilia. She's very... timid.”
“Even more timid than you?” Willow asked. It was no secret that her fiance was afflicted with a tremendous shyness.
“Even more timid than me,” he asserted. “I know it is difficult to believe, but it
true. So... be kind to her. Take her under your wing.” Edward leaned forward and brushed a kiss across his fiance's waiting lips. “I believe she could benefit from your guidance, Willow.”
* * *
When he saw the carriage heading in the direction of Sanborne Hall, Edward whispered, “They're here.”
Willow simultaneously touched her hair, nibbled her lips, and stiffened her shoulders. Never in her life had she been so desperate to make a good impression. Edward Harcourt was the first man she had ever loved, not to mention, the first man who had ever truly loved her. If she had her way, his family would love her just as much. “Do I look presentable?”
than presentable,” Edward assured her. “You look lovely.”
“What if your mother is disappointed? What if she hates me? I am sure I am not the sort of wife she would have chosen for her son!”
“Willow... don't fret!” Edward's hand landed on her shoulder, to which he gave a reassuring caress. “My mother is a loving, caring, easy-going woman, and my sister is the definition of polite. As long as you are your usual charming self, I am certain they will adore you.”
Willow cast a desperate look at her brother, Arthur, whose calm countenance gave her comfort. He was standing next to a Bath chair, which they needed for Edward's mother. According to Edward, his mother had been in a carriage accident several years ago, when he was a boy of twelve. The accident had left her paralyzed, and for that reason, Augusta Harcourt rarely ventured outside her house. The woman's journey to Sanborne Hall was likely her first venture in several months.