Authors: Sophie Jordan
A Debutante Files Christmas Novella
For everyone who loves the holidays as much as I do . . .
ood heavens. Violet, sit up straighter, we’re almost there. These aren’t ordinary people, you know. Try to look as though we belong.”
Violet stopped short of rolling her eyes at her mother and pulled back her shoulders. She resisted the urge to peek out the carriage curtains. Mama was already peering through them and she refused to add her face beside her mother’s, gawking like a child and advertising the fact that they did not, in fact, belong here.
Nor would they ever.
“Mama, you’re letting a draft inside.” She buried her hands deeper inside the winter muff in her lap and shivered. The heated bricks had cooled hours ago and she was eager for the warmth of a fire once they stopped.
“Oh, heavens!” Mama exclaimed. “It’s a castle! Look, would you! Just think, Violet, this could all be yours if you play your cards right.”
Violet squeezed her hands together until her knuckles ached inside her muff, refusing to take a look. What did she care about some grim, stuffy old house? Contrary to what her mother hoped—or thought—it would
be hers. A fact she did not give voice to. Not unless she wanted to send her mother into histrionics.
Adelaide Howard was determined that her only child marry a British nobleman. Born to an English merchant who immigrated to America over forty years ago, it was her most fervent wish.
“We’re here!” Mama cried unnecessarily as the carriage jerked to a stop. “Now remember the manners they taught you at Miss Worthington’s Academy. We didn’t send you to that school so you could marry some no-account.”
And by no-account, she meant John Weston, Papa’s man of affairs. Violet had developed a tendre for him. She might have even encouraged him into asking permission to court her. Oh, very well, she had encouraged him, but only after he made his admiration for her known.
Mama had declared the match inappropriate, but that had not deterred Violet. Papa had come to rely on Mr. Weston on almost all matters and credited much of the continued success of Howard Iron Works to the man. She had been certain he would give his blessing. Except Papa, who most usually gave her anything she wanted, had refused. Mama, in turn, had reacted by booking them on board the first ship to England from New York City. To find a proper husband for Violet.
Sighing, she descended the carriage. Where she promptly gasped at the sight before her.
It was, indeed, a castle.
There was nothing grim or stuffy about it, either. The Earl of Merlton’s house was constructed of white brick and stood four stories high, stretching wide against the snow-draped countryside. It was everything light and airy and bright.
“Mrs. Howard, welcome, welcome!”
Lady Peregrine, the Dowager Countess of Merlton, descended the stone steps, extending her hands in warm greeting to Violet’s mother as though they were old friends and not in fact acquaintances of a mere week.
Mama took her hands and bobbed an awkward curtsy that looked dangerously close to bringing Lady Peregrine down. “My lady, so kind of you to have us for the holiday.”
“But of course! So far from home, I could not have you spending Christmas in a hotel. You shall spend Christmas here with us as our most honored guests.” Lady Peregrine turned her bright eyes on Violet. “So nice to see you again, Miss Howard. How lovely you look in that fetching green.”
“And you, too, my lady. Thank you for your gracious invitation.”
There was the slightest pause as she assessed Violet, sizing her up, no doubt wondering if she would suit her son.
For that was why Violet was here, make no mistake. Although she had not met the earl when in Town, she knew Mama and Lady Peregrine had discussed him, and his readiness for a bride, at length.
According to Mama, this visit to Merlton Hall would end in a match between Violet and the earl.
“Come, let us relax with some refreshments in the drawing room.”
The instant the lady turned her back Violet pressed her lips into a mutinous line, vowing that this visit would be no more than that. A
and not preliminary negotiations for the marriage that her mother predicted.
short time later, they were joined in the drawing room by Aurelia, the earl’s younger sister. At twenty years of age, she was unwed. Mama, who had done her research, informed Violet this was partly due to the earl’s strained finances and that he could not provide a healthy enough dowry for his sister, and partly because she was a reputed termagant.
Violet and Aurelia eyed each other as they sipped tea and munched on iced biscuits. In truth, little was required from either of them as Lady Peregrine and Mama filled the conversation with very few breaks.
It was in one of these brief gaps in conversation that Aurelia finally spoke. “Tell me, Miss Howard, did you always know that you wanted to be a countess?”
Violet blinked. Mama gasped.
Lady Peregrine set her teacup down with a decided clack. “Aurelia!” she said in affronted tones.
“What, Mama?” She blinked innocently. “I’m merely curious if this has been a lifelong ambition of Miss Howard or merely something recent.”
Violet squared her shoulders. “I confess it has never been a particularly important mission of mine, no.”
“Indeed? Then how do you come to be in England, on the marriage mart, touted as one of the wealthiest heiresses of the Season?”
“Oh, Aurelia,” Lady Peregrine collapsed back on the settee. “Must you say these things?”
Mama still sat there, unspeaking, her mouth agape.
“How does anything come to be?” Violet fluttered a hand in the air philosophically. “A good many things happen without planning or consent. I wager no one consulted you before dubbing you a termagant.”
Silence descended on the room. Only the clock on the marbled mantle could be heard issuing its barest ticks. Mama’s eyes were enormous in her face. That wide-eyed stare darted toward the door as though anticipating they would soon be booted through it.
Then, all at once, Aurelia arched her neck and laughed. “Oh, she would be a brilliant match for Will.”
Lady Peregrine released a sigh and nodded. “I thought as much.”
Mama grinned like a madwoman. “Indeed! You think so? Truly?”
“Oh, indeed.” Aurelia nodded, her dark chestnut curls bouncing.
Violet sipped from her cup, muttering in a low breath, “Is everyone in this room stark raving mad with the exception of myself?”
Apparently her words did not go completely unheard. Aurelia only laughed harder. “Oh, I cannot wait for Will to meet you. Remember to be yourself.”
Could I be anyone else?
Shaking her head, she resisted arguing that it would not matter. They would not be a
match. She would not live in England. She would not marry some stuffy nobleman who thought he was better than everyone else simply because he was born with a title. She was going back to America. Back to her Mr. Weston.
he rest of the day passed in a blur. They were shown to their rooms and permitted to rest before dinner. Violet allowed her maid, Josie, to dress her in a gown Mama selected. An elaborate deep gold confection that Mama swore made her hair appear more blond than brown. She stared at herself in the mirror, not seeing that it made much difference. Everything about Violet was just in between. Hair in between brown and blond. Eyes not quite green or brown. Just a muddy hazel. Not quite tall nor short. Neither beautiful nor ugly. Just in between.
Before venturing down to dinner, Violet stood before the double doors of her bedchamber and admired the landscape. The moon was bright tonight and seemed to reflect light off the pristine white landscape. She had a perfect view of the stables and itched to go down and examine the horseflesh. Lady Peregrine mentioned they possessed a vast stable. Perhaps in the morning, she could beg a tour.
Another sigh escaped her lips. The house really was lovely. As was Lady Peregrine. Even Aurelia had turned out to be quite friendly. It would not be so bad a place to spend the holiday, she decided. She merely had to keep the earl at arm’s distance and in no way encourage him. Hopefully, he would not be so desperate for her dowry that he proposed on the first night. That would make for an awkward visit. She could visualize him so well in her mind. Like so many noblemen she had met upon arriving in England. Pasty-white and soft all over. Palms that perspired when they danced and breath that reeked of garlic. She winced. Perhaps this would be an unbearable holiday after all.
o her relief, the earl did not make an appearance at dinner. Lady Peregrine could not hide her consternation. Even Aurelia looked annoyed.
“I was hoping to witness his reaction upon meeting you,” Aurelia grumbled as they walked together down the corridor on the way to their bedchambers. “It would have been entertaining to say the least.”