Valor of Love (Scandalous Scions Book 2), page 3
He took the damp handkerchief, considering her. “You are most welcome,” he said, almost automatically, while his mind worked hard.
What had wounded her? Why was she hiding in plain sight, hoping no one would see her? Why was she just like him?
Life did not return to normal as Lilly desperately wanted it to. With Sharla and Jenny preparing for their coming out, the entire Wardell household was in a state of flux. The organization required to hold a ball the size and magnificence the two of them dreamed about taxed the resources of all three households. Lilly’s mother and Princess Annalies spent much time enclosed in Elisa’s morning room, consulting lists and making preparations. Of the three of them, Lilly’s mother was the only one to have hosted a ball to mark her daughter’s presentation and knew of some of the pitfalls to plan for. Aunt Annalies’ oldest daughter, Sadie, was seventeen, yet had refused to come out until she was older.
Between the three of them, Elisa, Natasha and Annalies smoothed out the bumps and hiccups, while Lilly went on teaching the two younger girls, Blanche and Emma. She also spent a lot of time in her room, trying to read.
That was where Natasha found her the day after the news had been announced in The Times. Natasha closed the bedroom door and came right over to the window where Lilly was sitting on the hassock. Natasha sank down next to her and met her gaze. “There’s no need to be afraid.”
“I’m not,” Lilly lied. “It was all such a long time ago.”
Natasha picked up her hand. “You know we will protect you, but you are right. It was a long time ago. Are you…quite well?”
The delicate prevarication was unlike her mother, who preferred blunt words and direct questions.
“If you are asking if I can withstand the knowledge that he is back in England once more, I dare say I shall. Our paths never need cross. Not anymore. It will be as if he was still in Madras, as far as I am concerned. It was just a shock to read it for the first time, that is all.”
Natasha seemed to be reassured. She got to her feet, her skirts lifting up around her, and settled on the cane chair the hassock was meant to serve.
“Thomsett has been asking direct questions about you,” her mother said. “I think you worried him.”
“Thomsett? Why would he be worried?”
“What is it, Mother?” Lilly prompted her, putting her book down on the floor without bothering to mark her place. She would have to start at the beginning, anyway. She had retained almost nothing about the story, so far.
“I don’t suppose it is speaking out of turn and it isn’t gossip…” her mother said to herself. Then she appeared to make up her mind. “Thomsett was in the military for many years. He was an officer.”
“Thomsett?” Lilly repeated. “An officer?”
Natasha nodded. “He fought in the Crimea War and was decorated. The Victoria Cross.”
“Why on earth would a man of that caliber that accept a post as a butler?”
Natasha brushed down her dress, her gaze on her hand. “I have no more facts about him,” she said coolly.
“Your conjectures, then?” Lilly asked.
Natasha smiled briefly. “They are not my conjectures. They are Raymond’s. He thinks something happened in the war that left some sort of mark on Thomsett. A mental scar, instead of a physical one. Whatever it was that earned him the Cross also made him no longer fit to serve. He retired from the military and prefers the quiet life of service, instead.”
Lilly tried to encompass that Thomsett, the almost silent man who fetched and carried for her family, had such a dramatic past. What had happened to him?
She thought again of the soft linen handkerchief with the perfectly stitched monogram. J.A.T. What a surprise it had been when he had held it out to her. For just a moment, she had forgotten their disparate stations and wondered who he was and what the initials stood for. Normally, a debutante had no need to wonder, for any man of rank’s full name was recorded in Brett’s.
“He’s not of the peerage,” Lilly said slowly. “Or the upper class.”
“I don’t know his story at all,” Natasha said. “I only passed it along because it does go toward explaining the questions he has been carefully asking about you.”
“He wondered whether you were safe.”
Lilly’s heart squeezed. “What did you tell him?”
“Nothing, I assure you,” Natasha said hastily. “It still lies just between you and me and Elisa. Perhaps Vaughn knows, now. I rather doubt Elisa would keep secrets from him. Rhys knows, as he was there and Annalies will know as a result. That is as far as it goes, though.”
“You think it is Thomsett’s experience with the military that made him ask? Does Thomsett know him?” Lilly couldn’t bring herself to speak the man’s name aloud.
“That is a question I had not thought to wonder about,” Natasha admitted. “Although, even if he does know the man, Thomsett doesn’t know who it is that worries you.”
“Except that it was in the paper and I made such a disgrace of myself after reading it. Thomsett is a military man, asking about the only other officer spoken of in that day’s news…I think he may have some idea of who made me behave in such an indecent way.”
“No one thinks badly of you, Lilly,” Natasha said gently.
“I do.” Lilly got to her feet. “I am fine, mother. Thank you for asking.”
Natasha looked up at her, her head tilted just a little as she considered her. Then she got to her feet. “I am late. Anna and Elisa are already halfway through the dance list and I want to make sure there are more waltzes than they prefer.” She smiled, for waltzes were her favorite dance.
Nothing more was said to Lilly about the matter, which relieved her. If Elisa and Vaughn seemed to be watching her with more closeness than usual, it was purely a result of her own imagination. Life for everyone else went back to normal—as much as it could with the ball looming—only not for her.
Lilly was restless. The house on Grosvenor Square felt restrictive and confining. She took turns about the Park each morning when Elisa did, to try to ease the tension that seemed to live permanently in her chest, now.
She asked Elisa to let her help with the ball arrangements. She filled her time with sewing bunting and arranging flowers, writing out dance cards and threading them on ribbon, along with many more menial and necessary tasks. The staff of all three households was commissioned to help, too. The number of strange faces in aprons moving about the house increased tenfold.
The air and sounds of industry might have been energizing at any other time. It increased Lilly’s discomfort. The ball would be a major event on the season’s calendar and everyone who could manage to be there would attend.
The strain of orchestrating such a big event increased when Lady Gloria Laceby arrived from India. She had come to see her daughter’s coming out. Lady Laceby was accompanied by twelve trunks, an Indian woman in a delicately embroidered sari who was her maid, Bala, and a rather large hound dog. Lady Laceby, who had spent decades in the Indian heat, stayed wrapped in furs and flannel and tended to stand next to any fire that was burning, or otherwise call for hot tea, which she sipped incessantly.
Upon her arrival at a late hour, Lady Laceby sailed into the drawing room where Elisa and Vaughn had assembled to greet her. Jack and Sharla were standing before their foster parents, both of them with wary expressions, as Lady Laceby walked up to them and examined them. Lilly stood by the wing chair in the corner, where she had been waiting for the portentous arrival.
“Children,” Lady Laceby said, glancing from one to the other of them.
Lilly bit the inside of her cheek. Jack had long ago moved beyond childhood. His height and broad shoulders, his clear-eyed gaze and the way ladies tended to flutter when he was nearby was evidence of that. He towered over both women.
Sharla was sixteen and as it was the eve of her coming out, cou
Lady Laceby hitched the furs more firmly around her shoulders and glanced at Elisa and Vaughn. “Lady Elisa. Farleigh. It is good to see you again. I deeply appreciate you accommodating me and my staff.”
“It would be unreasonable to expect you to stay anywhere else when your children are here,” Vaughn said, not unkindly. “Do you need anything, Lady Laceby? A drink, perhaps?”
“I would have tea sent to my room. I should retire at once. I would prefer to be fully rested for tomorrow’s events.”
Sharla looked surprised, then disappointed, although neither her nor Jack voiced any protest as Lady Laceby turned and marched out of the room once more.
“Different standards, remember,” Vaughn said softly. “Your mother is used to the proper way of doing things.”
“Or she prefers things that way,” Jack said, putting his arm around Sharla’s shoulders. “You’ll be able to speak to her tomorrow, sister. Don’t worry.”
Elisa picked up her hand. “Come along, dear. We should tuck you into bed so you can sleep.”
“I won’t sleep a wink,” Sharla warned, as Lilly followed them upstairs.
Jenny was deeply asleep when they arrived in the room and Sharla edged onto the other side of the bed, still protesting quietly. When Lilly checked on her, twenty minutes later, she was as fast asleep as Jenny.
The day of the ball arrived, which Lilly woke to with a silent sense of dread, while Sharla and Jenny were nearly incoherent with excitement.
The last of the arrangements were put into place, while a vast quantity of food and drink arrived at the door, to supplement the family’s cook’s provisions. Tables were set up in all the public rooms, while the cook presided over the enormous soup pot downstairs, carefully nursing along the soup she had been cooking for several days, starting from two legs of mutton and the produce from the garden.
The aroma of good cooking smells and the lighter scent of flowers permeated the house. After a short nap in the afternoon, everyone rose and prepared for the ball, while the servants ran buckets of hot water upstairs for washing.
Lilly dressed early in her plain brown high-necked and simple long sleeved dress. As she had no intention of dancing, bare shoulders and arms were not necessary. No one would notice her in this dress, which was the point.
She went through to Sharla’s and Jenny’s room, where the two new ladies’ maids were helping the girls dress in their satin and lace. Sharla, with her red locks, had chosen an astonishing deep purple, that played well with her pale skin and vibrant hair. Jenny was a brunette beauty, with clear skin and strong brows. Her blue satin and white lace dress made her eyes glow.
Elisa was also there. Her dress was a restrained golden lace that almost matched her hair and looked lovely. She and Lilly supervised the final preparations and had both girls turn in slow circles, while they minutely examined every inch of them and directed the maids to pin, tack and loop-up as needed.
Then Elisa took Lilly’s arm in hers and they followed the debutantes downstairs to the ballroom where an already large group of people awaited their arrival.
Lilly hovered near the door, her heart jumping at the sight of the large group. She scanned faces and slowly relaxed as she realized that everyone here was known to her.
All the adults of the Great Family who were currently in London were here, as were the staff from the three households. No one had been excluded from this private family moment. Even the servants were holding glasses with wine or champagne or the drink of their choice, as they watched the girls enter.
A soft sigh went up. Everyone pattered their applause at the sight of Sharla and Jenny…except for Lady Laceby, who stood stiff and still, her chin down. Lady Laceby was wearing a multi-colored satin gown of a style that had disappeared from London’s ballrooms years ago. The colors did not flatter her well-tanned and lined face.
Lady Laceby had not approved of Sharla’s gown, either. There had been a fuss in Elisa’s morning room shortly after breakfast, which Lilly could hear from the school room on the top floor. Sharla’s temper had been prodded into life, for most of the shouting was hers, although Lady Laceby’s deep voice was also audible.
As it was the day of the coming out ball, nothing could be done about the color that Lady Laceby objected to, which Lilly considered to be a small blessing in disguise, for Sharla looked wonderful as she smiled and laughed, her cheeks tinged pink, as she turned for everyone in the family to see her properly, while Jenny twirled beside her.
Paulson handed Lilly a glass of champagne from the tray the footman behind him was carrying carefully on his shoulder.
Vaughn stepped forward and held up his champagne glass. “Family and friends, everyone has worked hard and I thank you for your efforts. I also thank God in his heavens that we will not have to face another such evening for a good few years yet.”
Blanche pouted, while Peter, freshly back from his last year at Eton, nudged her with his elbow, laughing at her, which made her pout harder.
Around them, everyone else laughed, too.
Vaughn waited for the amusement to fade. “I would like everyone to raise their glasses in toast. To The Lady Patricia Mayes. And The Lady Gwendolyn Wardell.”
“The ladies,” everyone responded and drank.
Lilly sipped the champagne. It had been sitting in ice for two days and was cool and refreshing.
Thomsett was on the other side of the ballroom. He stood out from amongst the other servants, his head higher than all of them. He was not drinking, while everyone around him drained their glasses dry.
Lilly watched him move over to the nearest table and put his glass down.
What man did not drink? She didn’t know of any, except for perhaps the most deeply religious people who believed that drinking was a sin. There were few of those and Lilly couldn’t recall ever meeting one. She had only heard about them and most of them seemed to be American.
What would make a man choose not to drink?
It was a question that lingered in the back of her mind for the rest of the night.
* * * * *
The Coming Out ball was considered a success even as the first guests arrived. The rooms filled up with the elegantly dressed aristocracy and the heat in the room rose, too. The warmth encouraged drinking, which encouraged more dancing.
Lilly stayed in the corner. She couldn’t leave this early, for the first set of dances had not been completed yet. It would be an insult to retire so early, although all she wanted to do was creep into her room, sit at the open window with the cool air bathing her face and listen to the strains of the orchestra from there.
The Princess Annalies, wearing a vibrant cerise gown with black lace, was walking around the edges of the dancing, talking to her oldest daughter, Sadie. Sadie was seventeen and had the family still had not announced her coming out. It was unusual for Sadie to be at a public ball. She was wearing a walking suit, not a ball gown, which looked odd in this room of lace, satin and silk. Her height further marked her. She was half a head taller than Annalies, yet just as golden blonde as her mother, which made it look as though Sadie was her natural daughter, which she was not.
Lilly had always marveled over how much Sadie looked like Anna and how similarly she behaved. The constraints of society irked Sadie. She had grown up in the company of Lilly’s father, Seth, preferring to muck about with boats and horses than the sedate occupations of girls. Seth had taken her under his wing, sliding in history lessons and mathematics while teaching her to knot ropes and sew sails, plus geography lessons while learning to read a compass.
Sadie had been as distraught as any of the Williams family when Seth died. Lilly had liked that about her and even though Lilly was several years older, she and Sadie got along well.
It was typical of Sadie to flout con
The pair of them came directly over to Lilly’s corner and the Princess smiled at Lilly. “Please help me out, Lilly,” she said, sounding vexed. “Will you explain to Sadie that you were, indeed, presented to the Queen and had a season?”
Lilly’s heart squeezed.
Sadie put her hand on her waist and raised her brow. “You are in service. Why would you have a season if you wanted to go straight into service?”
“I am a governess,” Lilly corrected. “It is a complicated story to explain,” she began awkwardly, her heart working even harder.
“In other words, Lilly was a debutante,” Annalies told her daughter, sparing Lilly from having to say anything else. It was a deft deflection and Sadie didn’t notice it.
“What use is a season to me, when I intend to go to university?” Sadie demanded
“What use is an education in a world that won’t acknowledge it?” Anna asked. “You would be better spending your time reading whatever you want—you know your father and I will not censor anything you chose to read. You can read more widely and deeply sitting in our library than you will at Cambridge. Besides, neither Cambridge nor Oxford allow women to study.”
“Not formally, no,” Sadie replied. “I’ve heard that Cambridge is considering opening a college for women, though.”
“Sometime in the future,” Anna added.
“I want to study!” Sadie cried. Several heads turned, for her voice had lifted up above the music.
Lilly touched Sadie’s arm. “Perhaps you could do both.”
Annalies’ eyes narrowed. “What do you mean, Lilly?”
Lilly lifted her hand up. “Do what I did,” she told Sadie. “Have a coming out and a season or two and take your place in society, as your parents wish.” Carefully, she avoided mentioning being presented at court, for that was not something Sadie could ever do, as an adopted child of unknown parentage. “Then perhaps Cambridge will be open to women students by then. If your mother is correct and an education does not serve you, you can still return to society.”
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