Lady Cecilia Ramsbury’s eyes widened dramatically, becoming as wide as saucers, as she walked into Irving’s Dressmakers on Regent Street in London. She gripped her best friend’s arm so tightly that Lady Dorothy Gillingham jumped slightly and let out a small cry of alarm.
“Cecilia! Why are you pinching me?” squeaked Dorothy, gazing at Cecilia with a wounded expression upon her face.
Cecilia didn’t answer. She barely heard her best friend. Slowly, she let go of Dorothy’s arm, drifting into the store as if she was on a cloud. Reverently, she picked up some lace gloves, stroking them and peering closely at them. The lace was beautiful, intricately done, and dyed a very pale shade of lavender. Exquisite workmanship.
Cecilia heard her mother, who was trailing them, sigh heavily.
“Do not take offense, Dorothy,” said Lady Ramsbury, in a pained voice. “You know what she is like as soon as she enters a dressmaker’s store. It is as if she goes into some kind of very distressing trance.”
Cecilia ignored her mother, picking up another pair of gloves. These were the softest leather, dove grey, and beautiful as well. But then her eye was distracted by some heavenly crimson silk ribbons. They would look perfect with her indigo blue muslin and silk evening gown. Cecilia liked contrasting as well as complementary colours. There was a time and a place for both, after all.
Mrs Irving, modiste, strolled towards them, her arms wide in welcome.
“Lady Ramsbury!” she cried. “Lady Cecilia, Lady Dorothy. Welcome. How may I help you all today?”
Cecilia hastily put down the ribbons, turning to the modiste. Mrs Irving was nearing forty, which she knew was considered old, but the dressmaker was so elegantly stylish, with such a sharp eye for detail, Cecilia wouldn’t have thought her past thirty if she didn’t know better. She gazed avidly at the dressmaker, taking in every detail of her outfit, absorbing it for future reference.
Mrs Irving was petite, only five foot, and as slender as a reed. Today, she was wearing an elegant peach-coloured muslin gown, with a high empire line beneath the bust and short puffed sleeves. The dress had some dramatic Vandyke point hems along the sleeves and at the bottom of the gown. Her glossy dark brown hair was expertly ringleted, framing her pointed face in fat curls, with the rest swept back into a low lying chignon.
Lady Ramsbury took a deep breath. “We are here to see if we can book a fitting for a new morning gown for Cecelia, Mrs Irving.” She rolled her eyes. “She does not truly need any more, with her wardrobe already crammed, but she did insist. This is her favourite place in the world, after all.”
Mrs Irving laughed, turning to Cecilia. “I am very flattered, Lady Cecilia!” She frowned slightly. “I have half an hour before Lady Bunting’s ballgown fitting. Perhaps we could take advantage of it and take the young lady’s measurements and choose the design?”
“Oh, yes,” breathed Cecilia, her eyes shining with excitement. “Yes, please, Mrs Irving!”
“Thank you, Mrs Irving,” said Lady Ramsbury, nodding with satisfaction. “Lady Dorothy and I might just whip into the milliner’s across the road while you choose a design and do the measurements. We shan’t be long.”
Cecilia watched her mother and best friend leave the store. Mrs Irving turned to her, taking her arm and smiling sweetly at her.
“Come along, Lady Cecilia,” she said. “I shall get Lucy to make you some tea while you peruse the latest journals.”
Within minutes, Cecilia was ensconced on a pink velvet French sofa, with three large ladies’ fashion journals on the table in front of her. Reverently, she picked up the first. It was the Ladies’ Journal, one of the most popular fashion magazines in London. Underneath it was Ackerman’s Repository of Arts, and beneath that she could see Le Beau Monde, which was always very exciting.
Lucy, Mrs Irving’s maid, carefully placed a silver tea service on the table next to the magazines, pouring a cup. She smiled as she handed it to Cecilia before curtseying and drifting away. Cecilia sighed with satisfaction, settling back into the sofa as she sipped her tea and flicked through the pages of the journal.
This was one of her very favourite things to do in the world. Cecilia subscribed to all the ladies’ fashion magazines and waited impatiently for the latest editions to arrive. In addition to the ones Mrs Irving had laid out upon the table, Cecilia also received La Belle Assemble, Lady’s Monthly Museum and Gallery of Fashion. She pored over them, getting a thrill from the latest designs and carefully noting their influences.
And those designs influenced her own, for Cecilia’s obsession with fashion didn’t stop at wearing it and taking note of what was in the magazines. She also sketched her own gowns, often scribbling away late into the night, completely absorbed in her work. She had hundreds of designs, all crammed into sketchbooks. She had been doing it for years, since she was only fourteen. And she was one and twenty now.
She took a deep, awed breath and stopped at a page, arrested by the sight of a particularly striking gown. The illustration was meticulous. The gown was different from the current Grecian-inspired fashion in that it had a more medieval sweep to it, in the design of the sleeves and slashes. Cecilia felt a stab of excitement, which she always did when seeing the latest designs.
Mrs Irving swept into the room, sitting down beside her. She smiled as she looked over Cecilia’s shoulder at the design on the page.
“Ah! I should have known you would stop at that one, Lady Cecilia,” said the dressmaker, nodding approvingly. “It is the very latest thing. You have an eye for it, I must say.”
Cecilia smiled at her. She couldn’t be more pleased than if Mrs Irving had called her the most beautiful lady in London. She truly valued Mrs Irving’s opinion—the Regent Street modiste was one of the very best in London. Her designs were world class, in Cecilia’s opinion.
“I adore the detail,” she said slowly, sweeping one hand over the page. “The little touches that make it different to the other designs. Do you see the ruching and the ruffles? Subtle but very effective.”
Mrs Irving nodded. “So, you would like a gown in this style, then?”
Cecilia nodded excitedly. “Oh, yes. Yes, please.”
Mrs Irving laughed. “Well, that is what you shall have, then. Shall we choose the material? I have three new swatches just arrived from my favourite linen draper in London.” She got up, walking to her desk in the corner and picking them up before coming back. “There. What do you think?”
Cecilia stared at the swatches. They were all silk—the finest quality—with embossed patterns upon them. She had never seen anything like them before. Her heart quickened.
“Where does the linen draper find such material?” she breathed, fingering them, feeling the softness of the silk. “I have never seen anything like it.”
Mrs Irving smiled. “He is very creative, my lady. He sources his materials from abroad, seeking out the most unusual and exotic, from Lyons in France to the Ottoman Empire.” She paused. “His name is Joshua Carter. He has recently taken over his father’s business and has expanded it. He is going to go places, I am very sure of it.”
Cecilia nodded. She stared at one silk swatch, embossed with cherries. She suddenly envisioned it on one of her own designs. How perfect it would be. It was as if she had just discovered perfect harmony.
She glanced at Mrs Irving. “I sketch my own designs, you know,” she said hesitantly. “I do it all the time.”
Mrs Irving raised one perfectly painted eyebrow. “Why does that not surprise me, Lady Cecilia? You obviously have an artistic flair.” She hesitated, staring at Cecilia carefully. “Have you ever heard of Madame Lavigne, by any chance?”
Cecilia nodded solemnly. Madame Lavigne was one of the most famous modistes in Paris. She not only ran her own very successful dressmaking business, she also contributed designs to the magazines. She was considered one of the most daring and influential modistes on the continent.
“I thought you probably would have,” laughed Mrs Irving. “Well, my dear, the lady herself is in London and holding a morning tea to talk about her work next Wednesday morning. It is for dressmakers and others in the rag trade.” She paused. “Would you like to attend, as my guest? I am sure you would find it very informative and enlightening.”
Cecilia’s eyes bulged. “Oh, yes! I would love it, Mrs Irving! I am so honoured!”
“What are you honoured about?”
The two ladies jumped, turning to the sound of the voice, and Cecilia almost dropped the journal. Her mother was standing there, with Dorothy at her side. She was gazing at them both expectantly.
Cecilia took a deep breath. “Mrs Irving just invited me to a morning tea, Mama. To listen to one of the most famous modistes in Paris talk. I said I would be honoured…”
“Really?” said Lady Ramsbury, raising her eyebrows. “Cecilia, may I talk to you privately for a moment?”
Dorothy and Mrs Irving drifted away. Her mother sat down beside Cecilia, gazing at her steadily.
“Dearest, you cannot attend that morning tea,” said Lady Ramsbury, in a quiet but firm voice. “It is just not the done thing for a lady of your class.” Her nose wrinkled delicately. “It is a trade event, Cecilia.”
Cecilia couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing. If her mother had said that Mrs Irving had invited her to a séance, she couldn’t have been more shocked.
“Oh, Mama,” said Cecilia. “It shall be perfectly respectable! I am sure there will not be white slavers there. I will not end up on a boat to Cathay, you know.” She paused. “I would find it very interesting, that’s all. I greatly admire Madame Lavigne’s work. You know how much I like fashion design and drawing.”
Her mother smiled, in a patronising way. “Cecilia, it makes no difference. Your little hobby in drawing does not mean that you need to attend such an event. You do not work for your living, as these people do. It is not appropriate at all.”
“No, Cecilia,” said her mother, frowning. “I do not want to hear any more about it. Now, shall we get on with this fitting? I want to get to the cobblers before luncheon.”
When they were all in the carriage to go home, Lady Ramsbury suddenly rapped on the top of it, asking the driver to pull over.
“I shall not be long, girls,” she said to Cecilia and Dorothy. “I just saw a divine bonnet in that shop window and simply must have it.” She was out the door before they could even respond.
Cecilia sighed heavily, leaning back in the seat. She felt sullen and out of sorts.
“What’s the bee in your bonnet?” asked Dorothy, gazing at her.
“My bee is Mama,” declared Cecilia darkly, feeling her bottom lip trembling. “I simply must hear Madame Lavigne talk, but she will not let me!”
Dorothy sighed. “Do you wonder why? She does not want you associating with the trade, Cecilia. She thinks you eccentric enough as it is, without encouraging you any further.”
Cecilia poked out her tongue at her friend. “Do you think me eccentric, Dorothy Gillingham?”
“Of course I do,” said Dorothy, in a surprised voice. “You are one of the most eccentric ladies I have ever met, Cecilia. You are not interested a whit in finding a gentleman to marry. All you care about is fashion and scribbling away in those sketchbooks of yours.”
Cecilia wrinkled her nose. “Marriage. Ugh. I cannot abide the thought of it at all.” She sighed mutinously. “I hope I end up as an old maid. Then I can simply be myself and not have to become submerged with a husband and ten squawking children. I truly think I would die.”
Dorothy burst into shocked laughter. “Cecilia… you are scandalous. Do not ever let anyone else be privy to these thoughts of yours. Do you promise me?”
Cecilia stuck out her chin defiantly. What did she care if everyone thought her peculiar? She simply couldn’t care less about marriage or children. All she wanted to do was draw her designs. She gazed out the window, indulging in an old fantasy about owning her own dress shop. She could see it clearly in her mind’s eye. How wonderful it would be. How happy she would be.
But the bubble burst quickly, as it always did. She was a young lady, the daughter of an earl. The daughters of earls didn’t do anything so prosaic as opening their own business. The daughters of earls didn’t do anything except preen themselves for the marriage market. A successful marriage and family were the pinnacles of a young lady’s life. Nothing else was remotely possible.
Lady Ramsbury climbed back into the carriage, a little breathless. Cecilia didn’t speak to her. She kept gazing sullenly out the window. She must obey her mother, but she wanted to go to that morning tea so much, more than any high society ball or soiree. Life simply wasn’t fair at all.
Joshua Carter, linen draper, glanced up from his desk. A petite woman had just walked into the shop. He recognised her as Mrs Irving, a modiste on Regent Street. Quickly, he put down his quill, walking towards her.
“Mrs Irving,” he said, smiling broadly. “What a pleasure.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr Carter,” said the dressmaker, gazing around approvingly. “I am here to order some of your fine material. The swatches you gave me have been a runaway success. All the young ladies are requesting gowns made from your materials.”
Joshua’s heart swelled with pride. This modiste serviced the highest ladies in London. This was no small feat. “How wonderful. Of course, Mrs Irving. This way.”
After the order was completed, Mrs Irving seemed inclined to chat. “You have heard, I suppose, that Madame Lavigne is holding a morning tea next Wednesday morning?”
Joshua shook his head. “No, I have not.” Madame Lavigne was one of the most famous modistes in Paris. A very influential figure in the fashion world. “Where?”
“In the parlour of the Savoy hotel,” said Mrs Irving. “She is in London for only a week. The crème de la crème of the rag trade will be there.” She paused. “You should go, Mr Carter. Not only would it be beneficial to you if you could supply Madame, there will be other modistes there, as well. A good opportunity for you to circulate.”
Joshua felt his heart start thumping. This could be just the break he needed to expand the business further. “Yes. I will put it in my diary. Thank you, Mrs Irving.”
“My pleasure,” said the dressmaker. She said her farewells and left.
Joshua gazed after her thoughtfully. Then he returned to his desk, writing out her order. Only once that was done did he sit back, gazing around his store, taking stock of all that he had achieved in the last six months.
Carter’s Linen Drapers had been established in Cheapside for over ten years. His father had bought the business, content to service the same dress shops. It had done modestly well—enough to keep running and keep a roof over Charlie Carter’s family’s head. But his father had never been an ambitious man. As long as the business wasn’t running into debt, he was satisfied. He had asked no more out of life.
It had all changed six months ago, when his father had suffered a sudden and severe apoplexy, collapsing at the family dining table and upsetting the morning breakfast service. His father had lingered for nine agonising days before breathing his last breath. And then, Carter’s Linen Drapers had fallen—abruptly and unexpectedly—into Joshua’s hands.
He had always known it was going to happen one day, but had never thought about it. He supposed he had believed that his father would live forever. He had walked into a modestly successful business, a linen drapery much the same as every other. And in those few short months, Joshua had steadily built it, to the point that it was on the verge of becoming the most sought-after linen drapery in London.
He had travelled wide, finding different suppliers who produced the most beautiful and unusual materials. His reputation had grown. More dressmakers, from all over London and beyond, sought him out. He had just taken on two more staff. Life was exciting, indeed.
Joshua smiled. It could become even more exciting, if he went to this morning tea. Madame Lavigne’s influence was extensive. The whole of Paris was potentially at his feet. And then there would be all the other dressmakers there. Another opportunity to spruik his wares and find more customers.
He sat back in the chair. He felt exhausted as well as elated. The business had become his life. He lived and breathed Carter’s Linen Drapers. His workday started at seven in the morning and he was still here often into the night. He had rarely taken a day off in all that time.
He knew his mother worried about him; she wanted him to get on with the serious business of finding a wife and siring some children. He was six and twenty, after all. Not getting any younger. And sometimes, he did get lonely. It would be nice to have a wife to warm his bed and keep his home, even if he had never found a woman he envisaged doing both. But the business must come first, at this stage.
He knew he probably couldn’t sustain the pace forever. But he truly felt he was on the cusp of something big, if he could only push through. He had always been ambitious… it had just never before had a place to roost.
The summons came after dinner. Cecilia had already retired to her chambers for the night. She had barely spoken a word to her parents, still sore over Mama’s refusal to let her go to Madame Lavigne’s morning tea.
Her parents were sitting on the sofa in the parlour. Papa was holding a glass of port in his hand. Mama was sitting upright, as if she was waiting for something. They both looked tense.
“Ah, Cecilia,” said her father, taking a quick swig of his port. “There you are. Sit down, my dear.”
Cecilia did as she was bid, sitting opposite them. She hoped they wouldn’t keep her long. All she wanted to do was sit in her room and pore over her latest fashion journals. She wasn’t in the mood for drawing. The creative impulse was flighty. Sometimes, it swept over her, consuming her for days. And other times, it was elusive. She had learned to just trust it. Even when she wasn’t drawing, she was absorbing ideas and inspiration, sometimes from the unlikeliest sources.
“What a lovely young lady you have grown into,” said her father, smiling. “I sometimes forget how old you are now, Cecilia! It is strange to me that I have a daughter who is grown up.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “But grown up you are. And as such, you are old enough to marry.”
Cecilia tensed. She didn’t like where this was conversation was going already. Her parents were always talking of her future marriage—what a great match she must make.
“We have had an offer for your hand, Cecilia,” he continued. “A very good offer, indeed. And I have accepted it.”
Cecilia felt all the blood drain from her face. “What?” she stammered. “What did you say?”
Her mother bit her lip, twisting the lace handkerchief in her hand, staring down at the floor. Her father cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable.
“You are officially engaged, Cecilia,” he continued. “To the Marquess of Snowden. A very upstanding gentleman, with considerable wealth and influence—”
“The Marquess of Snowden?” cried Cecilia, her blood turning to ice. “But… he is so old! And he is so very unpleasant!”
She gaped at her parents, waiting for them to tell her they were joking. But they didn’t. Papa just gazed at her and her mother kept looking at the floor. Cecilia felt her head start to spin, in the most sickening way.
They cannot be doing this to me.
But it seemed that they were. They were deadly serious. Her parents had just betrothed her—without her knowledge or approval—to the Marquess of Snowden. A gentleman she knew vaguely but had never even spoken to. A gentleman who had a reputation as a gruff, odious man. Yes, he was wealthy and titled, but he was a horrible person. And this was her whole life they were talking about.
She had never thought they would do this to her. And yet, they were.
“Is it not precipitous?” she asked, her voice shaking. “I do not even know the marquess. Could you at least give me the choice of my husband? Why must you betroth me like this without even asking me if I like the gentleman?”
Her father frowned. “Cecilia, it is the way of it in our world. Marriage is a business. The marquess put in a very good offer and it would be churlish to refuse it, just based on sentiment—”
“Churlish?” Cecilia couldn’t believe her ears. “What happened to romance? What happened to love, or even mere affection? How can you treat me so brutally?”
“Enough,” growled her father, his frown deepening. “There is nothing brutal about it, my girl. You are one and twenty. Old enough to marry. We have waited patiently since your debut for you to find an eligible suitor of your own, but it seems you have no interest in the matter. You never encourage anyone. The gentlemen we have suggested, you have spurned. It was time to take matters into our own hands.”
“You do not wish to end up a spinster, dearest,” said her mother, in a faint voice, speaking for the first time. “And that is where you were heading, the way you are behaving.” She paused. “It is not proper for a young lady to be so obsessed with drawing the way you are. You refuse social invitations and never dance or chat with young gentlemen when you are forced to go to any. It is unnatural, Cecilia.”
“Yes, it is,” her father barked. “A young lady’s duty is to marry well. That is her only aim in life. And you do not seem interested in doing your duty by this family at all, Cecilia.”
Cecilia couldn’t stand it any longer. She jumped to her feet, her heart racing. She was sickened to her stomach by what her parents had done. They had treated her as if she wasn’t even a person with thoughts or feelings. As if she were mere chattel, to sell as they wished.
Her eyes burnt with tears. She thought they loved and respected her. She knew they were obsessed with marriage, but she had truly never believed they would stoop to this level. And they had poured salt into the wound by choosing an odious man she could never learn to respect or love. Not in a hundred years.
She had heard about the Marquess of Snowden. He had a murky reputation. There were rumours of a broken engagement, from years ago. He gambled with impunity. He was cruel to his servants. The list went on and on. He was the type of man who could buy friends with his considerable wealth, and she knew he was ambitious. There was talk he had tipped his hat at one of the royal princesses, no less.
None of this meant anything to her parents, of course. They were the Earl and Countess of Ramsbury and ran in exclusive, noble circles. The nobility protected each other, turning a blind eye to the foibles of their flock. The Marquess of Snowden could be a degenerate and a rake, but all they saw was his noble rank and his high standing in society. As far as they were concerned, that was all that mattered. Even wealth came a poor second in comparison. But the marquess had no issues on that score, either. He was obscenely wealthy, with at least three grand estates scattered across the country.
“I refuse,” she cried, stamping her foot. “I shall not marry him! You cannot make me!”
“Sit down, Cecilia,” thundered her father, his eyes like ice. “You are disgracing yourself with this unseemly and hysterical reaction. You are my daughter, and by God, you shall marry the Marquess of Snowden, even if I must drag you to the altar by your hair.”
Cecilia turned to her mother. “Mama. Please. You must intercede on my behalf. Do not make me marry a man I do not wish to. You shall be condemning me to a life of misery. Do you not want me to be happy?”
Lady Ramsbury gazed at her shamefaced. Her mother was a kind woman, when all was said and done, and probably did wish for Cecilia to be happy in her marriage. But unfortunately, Lady Ramsbury was also timid and completely under the thumb of her overbearing husband. She would never defy him in anything, not even the smallest domestic matter.
Her father was a patriarch. He was the absolute leader of the household, in every way. Cecilia knew he wasn’t a bad man. He was just used to getting his own way and couldn’t abide dissent. He had been a kind, albeit distant, father to her up until now. Stern, but fair. This was the first time Cecilia had locked horns with him and was utterly dismayed by his obstinacy, his utter refusal to even discuss the matter.
The Earl of Ramsbury’s word was law.
“Mama?” she pleaded, trying to sway her mother.
The countess turned her face away. Cecilia saw tears swimming in her eyes, but she wasn’t going to speak up on Cecilia’s behalf.
“You shall become used to your fiancé, dearest,” she said, in a tremorous voice. “It is not as bad as you believe it shall be. You just need to get used to the idea, that is all.”
Cecilia couldn’t stand it for a minute longer. With a cry of distress, she rushed out of the room.
She heard her father’s cry behind her, but she ignored it. She hurtled past a startled maid carrying a pile of linen, almost knocking her over. She rushed up the stairs and into her chambers, slamming the door behind her before collapsing across the bed in a fit of sobs.
Her life was over. And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
Cecilia was pale and weepy the next day, unable to concentrate on anything. Her mother was avoiding her, walking on eggshells around her. Her father had left the house before she came down to breakfast. She would still be abed, sobbing her heart out, but for the fact that Dorothy was due to call.
Her friend looked alarmed when she eventually walked into the parlour after luncheon, as soon as she spied Cecilia on the sofa. Cecilia knew she must look a sorry sight. Her eyes were red from crying. For the very first time, she hadn’t cared what gown she put on that day. Her lady’s maid, Molly, had been worried, but Cecilia hadn’t had the heart to explain.
“Dearest,” said Dorothy, her eyes wide. “What on earth has happened? Why are you so distraught?”
“Sit down,” whispered Cecilia, wiping her eyes with the back of her hand. “I will explain everything.”
Dorothy did as she was bid. Her eyes were full of pity as well as alarm. Cecilia knew she was genuinely worried. It was unlike Cecilia to be melancholy or hysterical.
She drew a deep, shuddering breath. “They are forcing me into marriage, Dorothy. To the most abominable man.”
“What?” gasped Dorothy, looking horrified. “Who?”
“The Marquess of Snowden,” she said, shuddering anew. “You have heard about him. Everyone has. He has an evil reputation, but my parents do not care a whit about it. As far as they are concerned, he is titled, wealthy and influential.” She let out a whimper of distress. “I am doomed.”
Dorothy gasped again, pressing her frilly lace handkerchief to her mouth. “No! Lord Snowden is infamous amongst the ton. A thoroughly detestable man! I am shocked, Cecilia. I knew your parents were pressuring you to marry, but I never thought they would stoop to this.”
Cecilia started crying again. Dorothy put her arms around her. They clung together.
Dear Dorothy, thought Cecilia. She was so very understanding. They had been the very best of friends since girlhood. Cecilia knew her friend looked up to her, admiring her fearlessness and unconventional spirit. Dorothy was far more conventional and was often shocked by Cecilia’s antics, but Cecilia also longed to have more of her spirit. Dorothy stoutly defended her wherever they went. She was the most loyal friend in the world.
Eventually, her sobs petered out. She pulled back from Dorothy, gazing at her.
“What am I to do?” she whispered. “I pleaded with them to no avail.”
Dorothy sighed heavily. “I do not think there is anything you can do, dearest. We are the property of our fathers. They can sell us off to anyone they like and we have no say in it.” She hesitated. “I know it is hard, but you might have to resign yourself to it.”
Cecilia bit her lip. How could she?
“I could run away,” she said, in a woebegone voice. “I could stowaway on a ship sailing to the Americas or the Antipodes. No one would ever find me again.”
Dorothy laughed. “You will not do any such thing, Cecilia Ramsbury! I would miss you far too much.” Her face turned solemn. “But seriously, do not ever consider such a thing. A lady alone out in the world, with no funds to support her? It would be a fate worse than death. What would you do to survive? Become a governess?”
Cecilia pondered this. “I could try to sell my designs,” he whispered, her heart thumping. “I could open my own dressmaking business…”
“Without funds?” Dorothy’s voice was droll. “The best you would be able to do is become a seamstress, slaving all day and half the night, for a pittance. A very far cry from your dream, would you not agree?”
Cecilia sighed heavily. It was true. And besides, she wouldn’t even be able to get work as a seamstress, anyway. She had been brought up to embroider, but lacked the skills for more complex work. Her talent lay in her designs. It was as simple as that.
Suddenly, she thought about the morning tea with Madame Lavigne that Mrs Irving had invited her to. In all the drama of her sudden, unwelcome betrothal, she had quite forgotten about it. But if she managed to go to it, she could talk to people in the rag trade business. She might be able to forge connections. She could even bring along some of her best sketches and ask for advice…
She took a deep breath. “Dorothy, I must go to Madame Lavigne’s morning tea next week. It is imperative.”
“Why?” asked Dorothy, in a curious voice.
“Because it could be my gateway to independence,” she said slowly, her heart thumping hard. “It could lead me to a whole other life, if I am clever about it.” She took another deep breath. “At the very least, it would be a welcome distraction from all of this. Something that could raise my spirits and give me hope.”
Dorothy nodded slowly. “I can see that…”
“Will you help me?” whispered Cecilia, her eyes wide. “I cannot tell Mama. She was adamant I cannot attend it. I shall have to go behind her back.” She hesitated. “Perhaps we could pretend we are just going shopping? We could take your doddering Aunt Judith as chaperone.”
“Aunt Judith?” Dorothy looked sceptical. “It would take some work to rope her into it. She leads a very quiet life nowadays. She rarely goes out at all…”
“Appeal to her,” said Cecilia, feeling a stab of excitement. “Tell her you want to spend more time with her; anything to get her to agree. It is only for a morning, after all. Oh, please, say you will try, Dorothy. For my sake. I am bereft.”
Dorothy bit her lip. Her doubt was clear on her face. Cecilia held her breath. She knew she was asking a lot of her best friend, but she didn’t know how else she could get to the morning tea. She couldn’t take the carriage and set off by herself. She needed a cover, and a shopping trip with Dorothy and her aged aunt was the best she could think of.
Dorothy’s Aunt Judith was perfect, she thought feverishly. A thoroughly respectable lady, suitable as a chaperone, but who was confused with old age and so wouldn’t question them.
“I will try,” said Dorothy eventually. “I cannot promise anything more.”
“Oh, thank you!” cried Cecilia, throwing her arms around her friend. “It shall all work out splendidly! I shall plan it to a tee, and Mama shall never suspect a thing.”
Dorothy extracted herself. She still looked doubtful, but she also looked pleased that Cecilia was happier than she had been.
“You know it is only a diversion, dearest,” she said slowly. “You shall still have to marry the marquess, regardless of this morning tea with the French modiste.”
Cecilia nodded. “I shall try to resign myself to it, dear Dorothy. But doing something just for me shall help me accept it.”
She didn’t believe a word that she had just uttered. She had no intention of accepting her engagement. But it mollified Dorothy, and that was all that was needed for the time being. Once she had worked out how to be independent with her designs, then the rest would follow. She would just have to go along with her parents so they did not suspect a thing.
She took a deep breath. She knew she couldn’t just run away with no funds, however tempting the thought was. She needed a solid plan to extricate herself from it all. And until that plan worked itself out, she would pretend to be a compliant fiancée. How hard could it be?
Dorothy smiled. “Well, as long as you are not in danger from white slavers, then I think that it can be arranged.” She paused. “I will go and visit Aunt Judith tomorrow and set the wheels in motion. Wish me luck. She shall launch into one of her convoluted stories that I cannot make head nor tail of.”
Cecilia laughed. “Dear Aunt Judith. She does ramble quite a bit. But I am quite prepared to listen to her stories if she agrees to accompany us. I would listen to a hundred of her anecdotes, from beginning to end, and recite them verbatim if needed!”
Dorothy laughed. “That will not be necessary. Just make sure she gets cream buns by the dozen. She loves them.”
“Cream buns she shall have, then,” said Cecilia, her eyes sparking. “We shall find a cosy tearoom close to this morning tea, where you can both sit while you wait for me. How does that sound?”
“It sounds perfect,” said Dorothy, smiling widely. “It is nice to see you smiling again, dearest. All shall be well. I just know it.”
Cecilia nodded. All would be well. Just not in the way that Dorothy envisaged.
“A Merchant’s Scheme of Desire” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Being an Earl’s daughter, Lady Cecilia Ramsbury knew that pursuing her real passion to become a gown’s designer would be impossible. However, when her parents decide to betroth her to a horrible gentleman, Cecilia realises that this is her last chance to follow her heart. After accepting an invitation to meet a very influential designer, Cecilia will come across a tempting man, eager to help her out…
Could this mysterious merchant be the key to Cecilia’s success?
The vigorous Joshua Carter is an ambitious merchant who plans to expand his family linen drapery business. Even though he has his way with women, his one true love is his job. However, when a business meeting with a famous French modiste brings him close to the seductive Cecilia, he can’t help but offer her a place to work.
Little did he know that this offer could lead to so much more…
While Cecilia’s fashion show proceeds, so does the revelation of her little workshop by her evil husband-to-be… Unable to resist their flaming feelings, Joshua and Cecilia find themselves trapped in their own scheme. Will they choose to risk it all for a lust too overwhelming to resist, or will their passionate affair die along with their dreams?
“A Merchant’s Scheme of Desire” is a historical romance novel of approximately 90,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.