It had been many years since Sophronia Lattimore had used her fan as a means of flirtatious communication. As a poor relation of eight-and-twenty, she was now too firmly ensconced amongst the chaperones to try to attract a gentleman’s attention, but if one had noticed the frantic waving of her fan he could have no doubt of the message it was sending: Sophie was desperately overheated. And she was not the only lady so afflicted. Odors of perfume and perspiration mingled in the warm air, causing Sophie to feel so stifled she determined she must escape into the cool night if she were to maintain consciousness. Thankfully her cousin had just joined a set, so Sophie had some time before Cecilia would be looking for her.
She made her way around the perimeter of the over-crowded ballroom toward the French doors she’d espied across the room and went through them onto a narrow balcony. She walked to the opposite end, away from the light of the ballroom, and took in some brisk, refreshing breaths. Lost in quiet contemplation of the night sky, she was startled when a couple came out of the ballroom onto the balcony. Before she could make her presence known—as she still stood in the shadows and they had not noticedher—they hurried into speech.
“What exactly are you about, Priscilla?” the gentleman asked.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Do not play games with me. It’s quite obvious you’reencouraging Lord Fitzwalter’s suit. Do your promises mean nothing?”
“Of course they do. And you will always have my heart, Charles, you must believe that! But I was only taking my own feelings into account, and I’ve since come to understand my family must be considered as well.” She put out her hand in a pleading gesture. “Please, Charles, you cannot hold me to those promises. I was too young.”
“Or you’ve begun to envision yourself a countess.”
“You must realize I never expected, or even desired, to capture his notice, but now that I have, my mother—oh,what’s the use of speaking. You cannot possibly understand—”
“I think I understand all too clearly.”
The gentleman turned and left; the lady, whom Sophie had recognized as Miss Priscilla Hammond, followed a moment later.
Alone again on the balcony, Sophie reflected on what she’d unintentionally heard. Miss Hammond’s first London season had been an indubitable success, with Lord Fitzwalter at the forefront of the numerous gentlemen paying her court. That he was on the verge of a proposal was common knowledge, and the lady’s acceptance was also a foregone conclusion. After all, what young woman from an undistinguished family of moderate means would turn down the opportunity to become a wealthy countess? But apparently Charles thought that Miss Hammond might do so, in his favor.
Sophie returned to her seat in the corner, still preoccupied with what she’d discovered. She sympathized with all the parties in this tangled affair. There was even a fourth person she knew to be affected: her cousin’s friend, Lucy Barrett, had confided in Cecilia that she
was enamored of Lord Fitzwalter, and was in despair over his attentions to Miss Hammond. Lucy Barrett, though an attractive young woman, hadn’t enjoyed the popularity that Miss Hammond had. A trifle shy, she tended to become overwhelmed in crowds and hesitated to put herself forward. She’d only come to know Lord Fitzwalter because he was a friend of her brother.
It was a complicated business, this making of matches. And it was none of Sophie’s affair if Lord Fitzwalter chose Miss Hammond over Miss Barrett. But would he really have decided upon Miss Hammond if he knew Miss Hammond and this “Charles” had made promises to each other? Was Miss Hammond merely acceding to the wishes, and perhaps the pressure, of her family?
Sophie watched Miss Hammond for the next half hour and found she did not seem like a young lady delighted by her beloved’s attentions. Though she smiled at Lord Fitzwalter frequently enough, that smile just as instantly faded, replaced by a frown, as soon as his head was turned. The person who looked most pleased by Lord Fitzwalter’s attentions was Mrs. Hammond, who positively gloated at the sight of her daughter with the earl.
Sophie was distracted from her thoughts by her cousin Cecilia’s appearance. “Sophie, Mr. Hartwell has offered to escort me to the refreshment room.”
“Would you like us to bring you a glass of punch, Miss Lattimore?” Mr. Hartwell asked.
“How kind of you. That would be lovely,” Sophie replied. She would have actually preferred to accompany them and escape her uncomfortable seat, but she had no wish to disturb their tête‑à‑tête, even though that was ostensibly one of her responsibilities. However, her aunt really only expected Sophie to insert her unwelcome presence upon unsuitable partis
, which Mr. Hartwell was not.
“That’s a feather in your cousin’s hat,” an elderly lady sitting next to Sophie said in what she apparently thought was a lowered tone of voice, but which caused Sophie to look quickly toward the departing couple in hopes they had not heard. She was relieved to see they were too engrossed in their own conversation to have heard Mrs. Pratt.
“Yes, Mr. Hartwell seems like a pleasant young gentleman,” Sophie said vaguely.
“Pleasant-pheasant. He’s heir to an estate worth five thousand a year. Related to the Duke of Norfolk on the distaff side,” Mrs. Pratt replied.
Sophie was too accustomed to Mrs. Pratt to expect anything less than a recital of a young man’s income and ancestors, and little though Sophie might care about such matters, Cecilia’s mother very much did, so it behooved Sophie to pay attention. And then it occurred to her that she could perhaps use Mrs. Pratt’s encyclopedic knowledge of eligible gentlemen to satisfy her own curiosity. Sophie had seen Charles making his way across the ballroom and nodded her head in his direction.
“Mrs. Pratt, do you know that gentleman? I believe his Christian name is Charles.”
Mrs. Pratt peered myopically across the ballroom in the direction Sophie had indicated, before reaching for the lorgnette hanging from her neck and raising it to her eyes. Sophie instantly repented of her question when Charles turned and looked directly at Mrs. Pratt, who made no secret of the fact that she was not only staring at him but using an apparatus designed to help her get a better look. Sophie started to turn away, but it was too late; Charles had noticed her as well. He looked puzzled at the attention he was receiving from the wallflower contingent but gave both ladies a slight nod before leaving the room.
“Beswick. Youngest son of Baron Fane. He’s from the same parish in Devonshire as our belle of the ball, Miss Hammond,” Mrs. Pratt said finally.
“So, a decent match.”
“Respectable. Not the heir, of course, but he inherited a smallish estate.” Mrs. Pratt dropped the lorgnette to look at her companion. “Who are you asking for? You or your charge?”
“Obviously not myself,” Sophie said, attempting to evade the question.
“Why not? That aunt of yours has made you into a spinster before your time. You’re still young and handsome enough to make a match. And if I were your age I know exactly who I’d set my cap for.”
Now Sophie was regretting more than ever that she’d begun this conversation, because in Mrs. Pratt’s excitement her voice trumpeted even louder, and people were turning to look. One of those who did, a smile on his handsome lips, was the very man to whom Mrs. Pratt referred. And Sophie did not need Mrs. Pratt to point him out to her.
No, she was very aware of Sir Edmund Winslow, as were several other ladies. He was not to be found at every social event of the season, so when he did appear it was as if some rare species of bird had lit near a waddling of ducks. His presence was as invigorating as the fresh air she’d taken on the balcony earlier; but now, meeting his eyes directly, she felt the need to remind herself to breathe.
However, she didn’t cower or shyly bow her head, as she so frequently did when sitting amongst the chaperones, particularly if a gentleman looked her way. If this were her last opportunity to exchange charged glances with a personable gentleman, she decided to throw caution to the winds and take it. She sat up straighter and smiled slightly at him and was sure she saw a gleam of something—some interest, curiosity, even attraction—in his gaze. She forgot all about Mrs. Pratt, the vulture at the feast, who was observing their exchange with interest.
“See there, you’ve caught his eye,” Mrs. Pratt announcedto all and sundry. It was exceedingly awkward, and very decisively nipped any feelings of mutual attraction in the bud. Sophie did drop her eyes, but not before seeing Sir Edmund turn his head away and quicken his step. Mrs. Pratt tut-tutted. “Too bad, he’s gone. I would have introduced you if he’d lingered long enough.”
Sophie was very conscious of the eyes and ears still turned in her direction. London society was like a fox hunt, with every member poised to start chasing at the first whiff of humiliation. Sophie was generally ignored, but if a nonentity such as she dared to aspire to a match above her station, this was a tidbit that could enliven an evening when no meatier prize was in sight. So she was relieved to see Cecilia and her escort returning with her glass of punch, which effectively ended her conversation with Mrs. Pratt.
Sophie would perhaps have forgotten the scene on the balcony, or at least disregarded it, if she hadn’t been thrown into company with three of the principal players in the drama very soon thereafter. Her cousin Cecilia and Lucy Barrett were bosom friends already, and as Miss Hammond was of a similar age and circumstance to the two young ladies, the girls often found themselves invited to the same gatherings, along with Miss Hammond’s suitor, Lord Fitzwalter. Of Charles Beswick, Sophie saw nothing more. She surmised he had left London rather than remain to see the object of his affections courted by another. When Sophie found herself sitting next to Priscilla Hammond at a concert a week later, she sought to assuage her curiosity.
“I wonder, Miss Hammond, if you could tell me about a neighbor of yours, a Mr. Charles Beswick. Is he still in town?”
Priscilla’s eyes widened and her breath caught. “Charles? I mean. . . Mr. Beswick? He is an acquaintance of yours?”
“Not of mine, but of another lady, Mrs. Pratt. She was asking after him and mentioned that you were from the same parish.”
“Oh, I see,” Priscilla said, though she looked understandably confused by Sophie’s interest. Sophie would not have blamed Priscilla for refusing to answer such an impertinent question, but after a moment Priscilla continued: “Mr. Beswick has returned home. I do not expect to see him again.” As Priscilla’s tone and expression was that of a mourner at a funeral, Sophie could only surmise that Priscilla was greatly saddened by this fact. And when she observed Lord Fitzwalter in conversation with Lucy and noticed how much happier he seemed than during his superficial exchanges with Priscilla Hammond (which consisted mostly of compliments on her appearance), she really felt that he was making a grievous mistake. This was confirmed by Cecilia, who ranted about Mrs. Hammond’s manipulations, which were separating her friend Lucy from Lord Fitzwalter and blighting her future.
While Sophie realized that the situation might have been exaggerated by her younger and far more dramatic cousin, the more she observed them the more she grew to believe that Lucy was genuine in her affection for Lord Fitzwalter and that the two had already established a warm friendship, something that Sophie considered, with her limited experience, would provide a sound foundation for marriage. Lucy was of a more serious and quiet nature and did not shine in public like Priscilla Hammond, instead tending to withdraw whenever the other girl flirted with Lord Fitzwalter, so it was not surprising that Priscilla was more successful in gaining and keeping his attention. And since it appeared that Priscilla’s heart was not given to Lord Fitzwalter but to someone else entirely, Sophie did feel that this was an occasion when plain speaking could perhaps avert a sad mistake. However, she really did not feel it was her place to approach Lord Fitzwalter, with whom she’d never exchanged more than pleasantries. How could she inform him that his pursuit of Miss Hammond was an error in judgment? He would rightly tell her that it was none of her affair, and she could find herself repudiated by London society. She could even lose her place with her aunt.
But what if Lord Fitzwalter was unaware of the identity of his adviser? What if she passed him a word of warning anonymously, without him discovering from whence it came? Her conscience would be clear and he would be free to act or not, relying on his own best judgment.
And so Miss Lattimore wrote a letter.
Copyright © 2021 by Suzanne Allain. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.