Authors: Shana Galen
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Copyright © 2015 by Shana Galen
Cover and internal design © 2015 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover art by Judy York
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410
Fax: (630) 961-2168
For Emily Brabo and Amy Moss,
good friends and boot-camp buddies.
This is the story of how I died.
Don’t close the book! This is actually a fun story, and if you want the truth, it isn’t really my tale to tell. I feature prominently, of course, so you have more of me to look forward to. In all honesty, this is a novel about two women, but it’s also two love stories. Naturally, one of the women falls in love with me. That’s the romantic love story—well, one of them. It’s also a book about the love between a mother and a daughter. I don’t know much about that, so here’s where I make a dashing exit. Before I go, one little hint: pay attention to the dog. She’ll be important later.
“Sit up straight,” the Dowager Countess of Dane hissed at her daughter before turning back to their hostess and smiling stiffly as the marchioness prattled on about bonnet styles this season.
Lady Susanna straightened in her uncomfortable chair. She was wilting in the heat that all the ladies had already remarked upon as being unseasonably warm for June. Susanna fluttered her fan and tried to take an interest in the conversation, but she didn’t care about hats. She didn’t care about garden parties. She didn’t care about finding a husband. If her mother ever heard Susanna admit husband hunting was not her favorite pursuit, she would lock Susanna in her room for days.
Susanna did not mind being locked in her room as much as her mother seemed to think. In her room, she could lose herself in her drawing. She could bring out her pencil or watercolors and sketch until her hand cramped. Sketching was infinitely preferable to spending hours embroidering in the drawing room, listening to her mother’s lectures on decorum and etiquette.
Susanna did not need to be told how to behave. She had been raised to be a perfectly proper young lady. She was the daughter of an earl. She knew what was expected of her.
One: She must marry well.
Two: She must
Three: She must be accomplished, beautiful, fashionable, and witty.
That third expectation was daunting indeed.
Susanna had spent two decades playing the perfect earl’s daughter. She’d had little choice. If she rebelled, even minutely, her mother quickly put her back in her place. At the moment, Susanna wished her place were anywhere but here. She sympathized with her failed sketches, feeling as though it were
tossed in the hearth and browning in the fire. She burned slowly, torturously, gasping for her last breath.
Could no one see she was dying inside? Around her, ladies smiled and laughed and sipped tea. Susanna would not survive much longer.
And no one cared.
Ladies of the
were far too concerned with themselves—what were they speaking of now? Haberdashery?—to notice she was smothering under the weight of the heat, the endless cups of tea, the tinny politeness of the ladies’ laughs, and the interminable talk of bonnets. If she were to sketch her life, she would draw a single horizontal line extending into forever.
Susanna stifled the rising scream—afraid she might wail aloud for once, rather than shriek silently and endlessly. Before she could reconsider what she planned, she gained her feet. She wobbled, shaking with uncertainty and fear, but she must escape or go quietly mad.
Lady Dane cut her a look as pointed as a sharpened blade. “Do sit down, Susanna.”
“E-excuse me,” Susanna murmured.
“What are you doing?”
Susanna staggered under the weight of the stares from the half-dozen women in their circle. She had not thought it possible to feel any heavier, but the addition of the women’s cool gazes on her made her back bow.
“Excuse me. I need to find—”
“Oh, do cease mumbling.” Lady Dane sounded remarkably like a dog barking when she issued orders. “You know I hate it when you mumble.”
“I’m sorry. I need to—”
“Go ahead, my dear,” their hostess said. “One of the footmen will show you the way.”
Susanna’s burst of freedom was short-lived. She’d no more than moved away from her chair when her mother rose to join her. Susanna choked back a small sob. There really was no escape.
“Could you not at least wait until we had finished our conversation?” Lady Dane complained, as though Susanna’s physical needs were the most inconvenient thing in the world.
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
“Why don’t you stay, Dorothea?” the marchioness asked. “Surely Lady Susanna can find her way to the retiring room by herself.”
Susanna’s gaze locked on her mother’s. Inside, she squirmed like one of the insects her brothers used to pin for their collections. Lady Dane would most certainly defy the marchioness. She would never let her disappointing daughter out of her sight.
Susanna had one glimmer of hope. Her brother’s scandalous marriage a few weeks ago had noticeably thinned the pile of invitations the Danes received. The family was not shunned exactly, but they had spent more nights at home than the debutante daughter of an earl should.
Not that she minded.
Her mother patted Susanna on the arm, the stinging pinch delivered under cover of affection.
“Do not dawdle.”
Susanna need not be cut free twice. She practically ran for the house.
“She is perfectly safe here.” The marchioness’s voice carried across the lawn. “I understand why you play the hawk. She must make a good match, and the sooner the better.”
The sooner she escaped this garden party, the better. Every group of ladies she passed bestowed snakelike smiles before raising their fans and whispering. Sometimes the whispers weren’t even whispered.
“Dane introduced a bill to establish a central police force! What next?
A few steps more.
“I heard her brother began a soup kitchen.”
“St. Giles! Can you imagine?”
Susanna ducked into the cool darkness of the town house and flattened herself against the wall. She closed her eyes, swiping at the stinging tears.
Free from the whispers-that-were-not-whispers and the stares and, best of all, her mother, she slouched in smug rebellion.
“May I be of assistance, my lady?”
Susanna’s spine went rigid, and she opened her eyes. A footman bestowed a bemused smile on her. She imagined it was not every day a lady ran away from the marchioness’s garden party and collapsed in relief.
“The ladies’ retiring room. Could you direct me?”
“This way, Lady Susanna.”
She followed him through well-appointed though cold, impersonal rooms until she reached a small room filled with plants, several chairs, two small hand mirrors on stands, a pitcher of fresh water and basin, and screens for privacy. Susanna stepped inside and closed the door. Finally alone. She straightened her white muslin gown with the blue sash at the high waist. Her hat sported matching ribbons. She might have removed it if it would not have been so much trouble to pin in place again. At the basin, she splashed water into the bowl and dabbed at her face. One look in the mirror showed that her cheeks were flushed and her brown eyes too bright. She had the typical coloring of a strawberry blond, and her pale skin reddened easily.
In the mirror, she spotted something move, and a woman in a large, elaborately plumed hat emerged from behind the screen. Susanna’s heart sank.
She willed the woman to return to the party quickly and leave her to her solitude. The screens provided a convenient shield.
“You are Lady Susanna, are you not?”
There would be no hiding. The urge to crumple into a ball on the floor almost overwhelmed her, but she was the daughter of an earl. Susanna pushed her shoulders back.
“Yes, I am. I’m sorry. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
The woman patted her perfect coiffure, which was tucked neatly under her hat, and poured water from the ewer over her hands. “I am Lady Winthorpe.”
The countess’s face brightened with amusement. “I see you have heard of me. Do not worry. All of my children have married.” She bent, baring her teeth in the mirror and examining them closely. “I cannot tell you what a relief it is not to have to push them at every titled man or woman in Town. I imagine your poor mother is at her wits’ end.”
Heat rushed into Susanna’s face, and her cheeks reddened most unbecomingly. Dane’s marriage was indeed scandalous, and because it was, no one mentioned it to her.
“I…” Her tongue lay thick and clumsy in her mouth.
“What came over the earl?” the countess asked, patting the yellow and white plumes of her hat, which matched her gown. “Why would he make such a poor match?”
The countess turned to stare directly at Susanna.
“Lady Elizabeth is the daughter of the Marquess of Lyndon.” She’d said it so often it had become a chant.
The countess flicked open her fan and wafted it. Painted on the fan was an image of a peacock with its feathers spread. “
Elizabeth was raised in a rookery as a thief. Even being the daughter of a marquess cannot redeem her.”
She would not shrink. Susanna forced iron into her spine. “My brother loves her. That is enough for me.”
“Love. How sweet.”
The fan snapped closed, and the countess tapped Susanna’s arm with it. “What does your mother think of this profession of love?”
“I—” Susanna had no idea. She’d never once heard her mother speak the word
, although she railed against her eldest son’s mésalliance often enough.
“She was in love once. Did she ever tell you that?”
Susanna dared not open her mouth for fear she would only babble. Were they still speaking of the Dowager Countess of Dane? Surely, she had never been in love. Her mother did not know the meaning of the word. But perhaps Lady Winthorpe spoke of Susanna’s late father. He had not exactly doted on his children either, especially not on her. But the countess might have mistaken the late earl’s marriage for a love match.
“My father and mother—”
The countess waved the fan, narrowly missing Susanna’s chin.
“I do not refer to your mother’s marriage. She married him for the title and the money, I imagine. Your mother is no fool. But there were days, in our youth, when I thought she might choose another course.” The woman’s blue eyes had become so unfocused as to look gray. “Handsome young beaux. Picnics in Hyde Park. Nights at Vauxhall Gardens. Long, dark nights.” She winked at Susanna, and Susanna flinched with shock.
The implication…or was it an insinuation…or an intimation…?
The countess was not to be believed.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“No, I see that you don’t. In any case, your mother made her choice.” The woman’s eyes, blue again, narrowed.
The countess stared at her so intently, Susanna actually took a step back.
The countess tapped her chin with the edge of the fan. “I wonder…”
Susanna held her breath, leaning forward to hear each and every syllable. All for naught. The woman didn’t continue. The long silence, coupled with her curiosity, compelled Susanna to prompt Lady Winthorpe.
Voices rose and fell outside the door, and Susanna emitted a weak cry of protest. The door opened, revealing two young women speaking quietly to each other. One look at Susanna and their conversation ceased. The girls shared a look before they disappeared behind the screen and dissolved into giggles. Susanna toed the pale pink carpet with her slipper.
“Good day to you,” the countess said, opening the door and stepping out into the music room.
Susanna stood rooted in place with the giggles behind her and questions swirling like dust motes in her mind. She should not pry further, but she was always doing as she ought. Her slipper dug into the rug, attacking the threads viciously. She caught the door before it could close all the way. The countess whirled when Susanna emerged behind her, and Susanna took advantage of the woman’s surprise.
“I cannot help but ask, my lady. What do you wonder?”
“I think I had better not answer that.” She spoke slowly, enunciating every word. Weighing each one against her tongue before speaking it. “Your mother would not thank me.”
And there was that look again—the pitiful look one gave a pinned insect.
“But I see you, Lady Susanna, with that hair and that nose, and I do wonder.” She sauntered across the music room. “Yes, I do.”
Susanna touched her hair and her nose. What of them? Did the countess mean to deliberately confuse her?
Susanna crumpled onto the piano stool. She’d used every last ounce of bravery in the failed attempt to wheedle information. At this point, bravery hardly mattered. Chasing the countess was not an option, least of all because it would mean returning to the garden party.
Neither did she wish to return to the retiring room.
She wandered to a harp and plucked at one of the strings, feeling the thick wires vibrate through her gloves. She’d always wanted to play the harp, but her mother had not allowed her to learn. Sitting with the instrument between her legs was unseemly. Susanna plucked another string, enjoying the light, airy sound of it.
What had the Countess of Winthorpe meant about her mother being in love? Had her mother fallen in love with a man before she met Susanna’s father? A man her mother met at Hyde Park…no, not Hyde Park. Hyde Park was fashionable, the place to see and be seen. The sunny breezes of Hyde Park chased away any scandal.
But dark, sensuous Vauxhall Gardens…
Susanna had never been. Her mother would not permit it. Her brothers had undoubtedly visited, but Susanna did not possess their freedom.
She should ask her mother what Lady Winthorpe meant. Her mother’s reaction might provide some clue. Of course, her mother might also tell her it was none of her concern, but Susanna was twenty now and would certainly marry in the next year. Lady Dane might relish the opportunity to share stories of her own days as a young debutante.
Susanna almost laughed aloud. Her mother relished nothing except ordering Susanna to sit still and stop slouching. Perhaps she might ask her new sister to take her. Marlowe had promised Susanna an adventure as the forfeit for losing a wager. Susanna would have dearly loved an adventure.
Her mother would never allow it, of course. Proper girls did not run away on adventures. Sometimes Susanna was so weary of acting properly.
The door of the music room swung open, and Lady Litton entered, shutting the door quickly behind her. She was a few years older than Susanna and had become betrothed after her first Season. She’d already given the viscount she’d married two healthy sons.
Susanna rose, and the viscountess, sensing the movement, spun around.
“Oh, it’s you,” she said with a dismissive wave. “Run back to your mama. She will be wanting you to laugh at her bon mots.”