Behind The Baron's Mask: A Regency Romance (Resolved In Love Book 1), page 1
Behind The Baron’s Mask
Resolved In Love - Book 1
Copyright © 2019 by Penny Fairbanks
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, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Any references to historical events, real people, or real places are used fictitiously. Names, characters, and places are products of the author’s imagination.
Cover design by Victoria Cooper Art
Created with Vellum
For my husband—my real life hero.
About the Author
“Truly, Cecilia, you must not fuss,” Mrs. Edna Richards snapped.
“But Mama, I hardly think such an extravagant gown is necessary,” Cecilia protested, ignoring the warning in her mother’s voice. The small hands at her back stilled over the gown’s ties.
“Continue, Violet. Remember, this is your only new dress this year. We need all the advantage we can get if we are to make a decent match before Season’s end. And you will make a match, one way or another.” Mrs. Richards’s words came out through gritted teeth, cold and harsh.
Cecilia hung her head and clasped her hands in front of her. “Go ahead, Violet.”
Her maid obeyed and tied the back of the gown.
Seemingly satisfied, Cecilia’s mother left the bedroom, her rustling skirts the only announcement of her departure.
“I apologize, Miss Richards,” Violet whispered as her nimble fingers finished the job.
“There’s nothing to be done. I know she is right. Though I doubt a few extra pearls and ruffles will find me a husband.” Cecilia, far too embroiled in her worries to censor herself in front of her maid, knew she sounded as bitter as she felt. Besides, Violet had proven herself to be a loyal and caring servant many times over in her years of service with the family.
“If I may be so bold…” The maid’s voice was quiet as she stepped before Cecilia to continue adjustments.
“Please do.” Cecilia smiled at the young woman. Violet had earned a fond spot in Cecilia’s heart. Though they could never truly be equals, Cecilia always appreciated her maid’s thoughts, which never strayed beyond their respectful boundaries.
“I do hope you find whatever it is you seek.” The words came out rushed and Violet’s head remained low as she fussed over the dress, pinching and prodding at seams and ruffles.
“Thank you, Violet. I do, too. Lord knows Mama and Papa are desperate to rid themselves of me. And I am quite of a mind to be rid of them as well.” She mumbled the last part, thinking back on the incident with her mother just moments before.
The sound of fabric swishing and sliding filled the room as Violet turned Cecilia this way and that to ensure every flounce was in place.
“I should think you won’t have any trouble catching every eye in the room with this dress, Miss Richards.” Violet took a step back to view Cecilia in her brand-new gown, as if she were admiring an exhibit of fine paintings at Somerset House.
A blush prickled under Cecilia’s skin. Indeed, the elegant gown had just been delivered from the modiste that morning. She hated to admit the devilish satisfaction she’d felt as Juliet moaned over the beauty of the dress when it had arrived. Unfortunately for Cecilia’s younger sister, no amount of begging Mrs. Richards for the privilege of wearing the gown had worked.
As their dear mother had put it, Cecilia needed the boost of a beautiful dress far more than Juliet did. And besides, the dress had been painstakingly made to Cecilia’s exact measurements.
Cecilia’s excitement over her new gown had quickly faded, however. It marked simply another of her parents’ many ploys to land her a worthy husband. Their anxiety grew more apparent by the day, as did Cecilia’s.
At the start of her third Season, she could now be considered on her way to spinsterhood. But Cecilia would cling to her hopes until the very last moment. Her growing unease told her that moment would arrive all too soon.
Her sister’s recent presentation had further reduced Cecilia’s chances; everyone considered Juliet the handsomer of the Richards sisters.
And with Juliet out, Mrs. Richards had made it abundantly clear that this gown would be Cecilia’s only new dress of the Season. Her parents had not expected to pay for full ton-worthy wardrobes for both daughters at the same time. Several of Cecilia’s older gowns had now been refurbished.
“I’m afraid you pay me too high a compliment, Violet. I only wish to catch the right pair of eyes…” Wearing the exquisite dress now, Cecilia couldn’t help feeling a little optimistic. The smooth cream satin and delicate embroidery perfectly complimented her dark blonde hair.
She smiled down at her body wrapped in this breathtaking work of art, running her fingers over the fabric of her skirt. Her hopes of finding her perfect match had dwindled to nearly nothing over the last two Seasons yet she refused to simply settle for any man with a title or fortune who might show her a sliver of interest, as her parents hoped she would. Her reputation had suffered somewhat because of it. But perhaps tonight…
“Let’s finish you up now, Miss Richards. It would not do well to keep your family waiting.” Violet’s voice nudged Cecilia out of her thoughts. It was for the best. Cecilia had no business engaging in wishful thinking.
Violet fluttered about Cecilia as she administered the final touches, ensuring that every bead and curl maintained its proper place. Violet’s beaming smile surprised Cecilia. She hesitantly stepped toward the long looking glass in the corner of her room. The reflection showed someone quite unlike her true self.
The gown itself was of course perfect and far more extravagant than she was used to, yet somehow Cecilia felt that it became her. The charming ringlets of hair that framed her face, the sparkling headdress, the jewels that graced her neck all aided in transforming her into a truly elegant young woman. An unfamiliar grip of excitement caused Cecilia’s heart to leap in her chest.
“Y-You’ve outdone yourself, my dear Violet,” Cecilia mumbled, unable to take her eyes from the looking glass.
“You do yourself a great disservice, Miss Richards. The hard work is all yours. I merely dress up your charm and beauty.” Violet’s green eyes danced with mirth and pride. If Cecilia hadn’t known better, she could have sworn that Violet stood before the looking glass admiring her own reflection.
“My, my, Violet. With such a silver tongue you could very well be a poet,” Cecilia giggled.
The maid blushed and cast her eyes to the floor. “You are too kind. Shall we present you to the master and mistress?”
Cecilia took one last lingering look at herself and nodded. No doubt her parents would be eagerly waiting to see if the expense of this gown had paid off. She crossed the room and was at the door when a cry from Violet caused her to jump nearly out of her gloves.
“One last thing, Miss Richards! You mustn’t forget this.” Vio
“Ah yes, it would be a shame to be turned away from Lady Henshell’s door after all the effort Mama and Papa took to secure us tickets.” Cecilia nearly scoffed at the idea.
Her parents had made a great fuss about the many connections they’d pressed in the hopes of gaining entrance to the first fancy dress ball to welcome the new Season, hosted every year by the much-loved Lady Henshell. For her own petty satisfaction, Cecilia allowed them to sail about London, begging scraps from the ton, knowing full well that her dear friend Rosamund, Lady Henshell’s daughter, had already insisted upon Cecilia’s attendance along with the rest of the Richards family.
At the present moment, Cecilia could only shake her head at their ridiculous behavior, retrieve the mask from Violet, and make her way downstairs to the drawing room.
“Sissy!” A flurry of pale pink fabric rushed across the room and smothered Cecilia in a hug before she could fully enter the room.
She wrapped her arms around her younger sister, chuckling at the longstanding nickname. Cecilia had been too difficult of a name for little Juliet, so she’d been Sissy ever since.
“You look absolutely stunning!” Juliet pulled back to take in Cecilia’s ensemble.
“As do you, Jules.” Now that Cecilia had a better view, she could see just how well her little sister had grown into a breathtaking young woman. Her sweet pink gown, dotted with pretty rosettes, brought out a touch of color in her pale skin and perfectly suited her white blonde hair.
“Oh don’t you just adore this dress?” Juliet broke free and twirled before Cecilia, allowing her skirt to flutter about her.
Cecilia laughed at the display. In many ways Juliet would always be the same silly girl she’d grown up with.
“Still, I do wish Mama would have let me steal your dress. It’s an absolute dream.” Juliet pouted and crossed her arms, but she couldn’t keep the playful gleam out of her blue eyes.
“Perhaps you can wear it later in the Season, with some alterations of course,” Cecilia offered, gesturing to Juliet’s clearly shorter frame.
“How lovely are my dear girls!” Both young women turned to see their father approach, arms outstretched as if to proudly display his daughters though no guests were in the room.
The uncomfortable pit of resentment that had been eating away at her stomach for months retreated just a bit. As frustrated as she’d been with both her parents’ treatment of her and their antics about town, Cecilia knew that James Richards simply wanted to secure a better future for his family and the generations to come. Unfortunately for Cecilia as the eldest child, much of that burden fell to her shoulders.
“Neither of you will want for a single dance tonight, I wager.” The obvious pride in his voice told Cecilia he genuinely meant it. Even still, she wished that the conversation need not always turn to making matches or finding partners on the dance floor. She knew the grand goal well enough.
“Thank you, Papa! And you look very dashing yourself.” Juliet quickly returned the compliment.
“Please, dear, do save your flattery for the ball.” Mrs. Richards’s voice sliced through their companionable chatter, shooting an unpleasant glare at her husband.
Cecilia pursed her lips when she saw her father’s face fall ever so slightly. Their mother’s disdain for their father had been a fact of life for Cecilia and Juliet, but Cecilia still hated to see her well-meaning father looked at with such scorn. Though she knew almost nothing of their courtship story and had no contact with their relatives, Cecilia knew her mother’s family had been notably wealthier than her father’s family. Cecilia suspected that Mrs. Richards felt herself to be above her husband in any number of qualities.
Mrs. Richards’s eyes slid up and down each girl’s dress. “You both look very well. Cecilia, the gown suits you.” She swept out of the room after administering her assessments, not looking back to see if her family followed.
Cecilia glanced to Juliet who looked just as surprised at the high praise from their mother. Mr. Richards ushered them out of the drawing room, motioning for them to don their masks, and to the front door where Mrs. Richards already waited, the tapping of her gloved finger against her skirt the only indication of her impatience.
A footman held the door open for them and assisted the family into the coach. The young ladies were careful not to crush their gowns in the crowded carriage. Cecilia peered out the small window as their coachmen expertly guided them through the London streets until they arrived at Berkley Square.
She sighed wistfully as they pulled up to the beautiful town home of Baron Henshell. The Richards’s home was certainly nothing to scoff at, but there was no denying the fact that her family lacked the true mark of elite Society—a fact that never went unnoticed by her parents.
The sounds of merriment sent a thrill through Cecilia’s chest as the coachman opened the doors and assisted them out onto the street. Despite her many growing concerns, she’d been looking forward to this event. She adored dancing in all its forms, but a masked dance added an extra layer of intrigue and excitement.
The Henshell family hosted this masked ball every year at the earliest sign of spring in London, when most families had settled into their town homes and dusted off the drowsy country lifestyle. It was a truly grand event, designed to welcome the ton back to London and bring the Season into full swing.
Cecilia also knew there would be a good chance she would be asked to play. Her pianoforte skills were quite known and she was often asked to play at events, but the nerves still overcame her and caused her fingers to stiffen over the keys. She had to work harder for an audience than she did when practicing at home, though she could typically keep her listeners from realizing this fact. Perhaps her mask would aid in relieving some of the nerves.
Immaculately dressed servants led the Richards family into the Henshell home. Though they were not late by any stretch, the ballroom already held more than two hundred of Society’s best. Chandeliers illuminated the grand space and dancers spread out along the shining floor, dresses of many lovely shades swirling with grace. Cecilia’s heart thumped to the sound of the music, aching to join.
“Come, let us make our rounds,” Mrs. Richards announced, snapping Cecilia out of the beauty of the scene. She nearly protested but her mother looked even more severe than usual with a black domino sweeping over her dress and a matching mask. If she did her duty now without any fuss, hopefully she would be able to take her place on the dance floor sooner rather than later.
“My dears, I will be in the card room.” Mr. Richards quickly excused himself from their company, as he usually did.
“But Mama, how can you introduce me to anyone if we don’t know who they are?” A hint of a whine threaded through Juliet’s voice and her eyes behind her half mask darted eagerly to the dancers enjoying a lively cotillion. Cecilia noticed that many eyes, of both men and women, snapped to Juliet. A few, it seemed, even glanced her way as well.
“Hush now. It is simple. We need not know identities. We may simply strike up conversation with suitable ladies and perhaps discover acquaintances or make new connections.” Of course, Mrs. Richards was adept at forging valuable relationships with all the right people.
Juliet couldn’t hide her pout and Cecilia tried to covertly elbow her sister in the side. But it did not escape their mother’s notice. Most things did not.
Mrs. Richards sighed, her exasperation clear. “You will both dance, I promise you. As many dances as your feet can manage. But we must first make our presence known amongst these fine ladies.”
Juliet followed behind their mother reluctantly but obediently and Cecilia brought up the rear. She scanned the crowds, both those on the dance floor and those standing to the side conversing and enjoying refreshments. Though she thought she saw some familiar dresses or figures, the disguises truly muddled her senses.
Mrs. Richards led the young ladies about the room in a succession of curtsies, floati
They did indeed discover several acquaintances beneath the masks of all varieties, who naturally asked after Juliet’s debut and subtly inquired about Cecilia’s prospects. Though Juliet was thrilled to share her experience as a young woman officially out in Society, Cecilia shrunk away from any questions directed at herself.
Once, she too had been thrilled to finally attend the glamorous balls and dinners she’d heard so much about and to have gentlemen call upon her for carriage rides or walks in the park.
But with two years of balls and dinners and rides and walks with nothing to show for it—and seemingly all of Society’s eyes waiting to see who she might turn down next—Cecilia now preferred to give a quick but gracious response and turn attention back to Juliet’s lovely dress, her many accomplishments, her unending charms. She hoped her sister’s first Season would be far more successful than her own had been. In any case, she was determined to do her part to make it so.
“Cecilia, is that you?” A bright, melodic voice called out to Cecilia from somewhere behind her. She turned to see a tall young woman in an elegant pale green gown and white full-face mask making her way through the crowd.
“Rosamund?” Cecilia hazarded a guess, squinting as if she might be able to see through the mask. But the woman’s voice and graceful bearing all but revealed her identity.
“My dear, you are positively radiant!” Rosamund declared, confirming herself to Cecilia.
“And you are most stunning,” Cecilia returned as she curtsied.