Everyone sees what you appear to be, few feel what you are, and those few do not dare to oppose themselves to the opinion of the many.
London, March 1817
Wincing at the ache in my ribs--I could have sworn I’d heard one of them creak--I sucked in a shallow breath, my fingers white-knuckling the chair as Sally, my lady’s maid and friend, pulled the laces of my stays. Traditional long stays weren’t ever truly laced tight, just enough to underscore the lines of the gown, but I could barely breathe as the stiffly woven twill fabric pinched my upper torso. The pressure in my chest was most likely due to nerves.
I was about to take down the reigning queen and king of this year’s social season, which meant the evening had to be perfect . . . everything had to be perfect. First impressions were a valuable tool, and a person usually had only one chance at them.
“A bit looser, Sally,” I said through my teeth.
She met my gaze in the mirror, her green eyes calm. “Breathe in, count to five, and then release.”
Listening to her sage counsel, I inhaled and exhaled. Panic prickled beneath my skin, but with each gentle tug, I felt it start to ease. Stays were a lady’s battle armor--after all, I was going to war, the glittering ballrooms of London my battlefield.
Tonight wasn’t about finding a match from the marriage mart. Tonight was about claiming what was mine--position, influence, power. Those things had been taken from me without my consent . . . things that were my right as the daughter of a peer.
A splendid come-out. A glittering social season. An impressive suitor.
And I intended to take them back.
It was my very first season . . . my ticket into the ton, the crème de la crème of British high society. From February to midsummer, the elite left their grand country estates and flocked to town for countless balls, dinner parties, and entertainments while parliament was in session. Arguably it was the best time to launch a son or daughter of marriageable age into society and make an excellent match.
Nostalgia gripped me. It would have been nice to come out under the name my parents had given me, but that chance was lost forever now.
My nemesis had taken that from me, too.
The basic tenet of revenge was simple. Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince, had the right of it: If an injury has to be done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared. In other words, crush or be crushed. Revenge was much like chess--a game of positioning and strategy. A game of patience. A game of power.
A game I intended to win.
Poppy Landers was going down.
Breathe. You’ve got this.
Reaching for equanimity, I focused on my plan to take down the queen and checkmate the king. As with any round of chess, the first move would set the tone for an entire game.
The season’s opening ball at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, the so-called seventh heaven of the fashionable world, would be vital to my success. Receiving an invitation voucher to Almack’s was a rite of passage, and one I intended to savor. Luckily for me, my companion and chaperone, Lady Birdie, was dear friends with Lady Sefton, one of the esteemed patronesses of the institution, and once Lady Sefton had confirmed that I was suitably wellborn and in possession of an obscene fortune that would make the eligible gentlemen sit up and take notice, my voucher had been approved.
I sucked in another quick breath as Sally and the other maids lifted over my head the delicate ivory gown that was adorned with fine chikankari embroidery of lotus flowers and vines. For jewelry, I wore my late mama’s nine-strand pearl necklace, which fell in luminous tiers. When she’d been alive, she always used to say that nine was an auspicious number, and that the pearl gemstone ruled by Chandra, the power of the moon, would imbue fearlessness and emotional balance.
I needed both in spades tonight.
The maids cooed and made clucking noises of admiration when the buttons were hooked and my gloves and slippers were fastened into place.
Even Lady Birdie, who was sitting in the corner on a chaise, sniffed, her eyes going glossy. “Goodness, I’ve never seen a prettier girl.”
“Thank you, my lady,” I said. “However, I am sure there will be many lovely young women in attendance tonight.”
“You will outshine them all, my dear, I’m sure of it.”
When Sally and the girls were finished, I walked over to the mirror and stared at my reflection. Every raven-black lock of glossy, freshly dyed hair was in place, coiled around the crown of my head and wound into intricate loops. My brown skin glowed, thanks to my mother’s skin care regimen of sandalwood paste, almond oil, turmeric powder, and rose water. Hazel eyes sparkled from beneath a heavy fringe of thick eyelashes, and my lips were soft and plump.
The image was a far cry from the plain, acne-prone child I used to be.
This girl was older, beautiful, and unnervingly confident.
They won’t see you coming.
“You are a vision,” Sally whispered from behind as she handed me a matching satin reticule that was to be attached to my wrist.
“Come along, dear,” Lady Birdie said, as impatient as ever, her eyes narrowing on the clock. “Or we shall be late. You know how the patronesses are with their rules. They’re rather ridiculous, I must admit, but I shouldn’t want us to be locked out if we aren’t there by eleven. Lady Sefton and Lady Jersey are not so bad, but the other ladies are ghastly. Don’t tell them I said that.”
“Of course not, Lady Birdie.” I stifled my giggle at her peeved expression and followed her downstairs. On occasion, she reminded me of my mother. Before her illness, my mother had been a force of nature, bright-eyed, kind, and always wearing her heart on her sleeve.
You used to be like that, too.
I shoved that voice away--being sweet and naïve had won me no favors.
Lady Birdie was correct about the patronesses and their asinine rules. The doors were shut at eleven, and no one was let in after the doors had been closed. As if that weren’t rigid enough, there were also the comportment rules and the dress requirements. Even the most distinguished of dukes had been refused admission upon occasion when they’d arrived late or without the proper wear. I fought an eye roll. God forbid a gentleman wear trousers instead of breeches, or tie his cravat without the required number of starched points.
The tiniest of snickers emerged as I smoothed my palms down the front of my dress. I glowered with envy at Lady Birdie’s choice of clothing--a gorgeous sari made of loose but extravagantly threaded fuchsia silk that left me with longing. I would have loved to don that! Instead I was stuck in this frothy concoction of a gown fit for a doll, although I recognized that looking the part was as critical as playing it.
I was no longer Lady Ela Dalvi, but Miss Lyra Whitley, the enigmatic heiress about to own this season and deliver justice to her enemies.
“Are you nervous?” Lady Birdie asked when we were finally ensconced in the carriage and it lurched into motion.
I shook my head with forced optimism. “Not really. I am merely interested to see what all the fuss is about. Lady Felicity told me that her come-out was a bit uninspiring.”
“She would say that, though she was declared an Original--the season’s loveliest lady--before the end of the ball. It was such a pity she quit London thereafter and never returned.” She sniffled as if the recollection were painful. “Never mind that. It will be a wonderful evening, and you will have a smashing time. There will be tea and lemonade, bread and butter, and cake.”
I knew what to expect from tonight’s event, thanks to my mentor, Lady Felicity--or as she was known to me, Church. Stale cake, weak tea, and warm lemonade.
“I cannot wait.”
Lady Birdie peered at me, her eyes growing more resolute, as if she was determined that I succeed where her previous charge might have failed. “Remember your manners and conduct yourself like a lady. No outward displays of temper or enthusiasm.” I gave a dutiful nod. She didn’t have to worry--I had no intention of failing--but it didn’t hurt to have the reminders.
“Stand straight and tall,” she went on. “If a gentleman asks you to dance after an introduction is made, you may accept, but no more than two times and only if you have a particular interest in said gentleman. Above all, do not find yourself alone with any gentleman, or you will see your reputation shredded to tatters before you can say a single word.”
Good God, the irony was enough to make me huff a suffocated laugh.
I was well acquainted with the kiss of ruination. My reputation had already been exposed to the brutal touch of it and hadn’t survived. Ergo the name change and my current machinations. My younger self, the gullible, green Lady Ela wouldn’t have had a beggar’s hope of taking on the filthy rich and lofty ton.
Or Poppy Landers.
Hence my elaborate and entirely Machiavellian plot for revenge.
In which the first and most crucial step would be to infiltrate Poppy’s circle of friends. Once that was done, I intended to dismantle her inner court, become a diamond of the first water and charm away her suitors--one in particular--then sully her reputation as she’d sullied mine. The fifth and final step would be to have Poppy removed from the ton for good.
There was room for only one queen.
And that would be me.
“I understand, Lady Birdie,” I murmured. “I will not disappoint you.”
Too much was hinging on this--my past, my present, my future. The familiar bubble of resentment and bitterness formed inside me, and I shoved it down. I could not afford to be distracted by feelings. This come-out was my due.
When we arrived at the address on King Street and the liveried groom opened the carriage door, we descended the steps and entered the building. Introductions were made to Lady Sefton--a pale but pretty brunette--and Lady Jersey, with her impeccable coiffure, porcelain skin, and intense stare. Lady Birdie greeted the latter as Silence--a nickname, perhaps--and embraced her warmly before we found our way into the crowded hall.
I took a moment to discreetly gawk at the enormous ballroom, with its huge marble columns and gilded mirrors, already filled with people dressed to the nines. It was a feast for the senses. Elaborate gas lamps illuminated the sprawling space, and clusters of fresh flowers added lovely splashes of color. A small orchestra sat at one end on a balcony, and what looked to be a rousing quadrille was already in progress.
Heart humming with delight, I let my eyes sweep the crowd. It wasn’t long before they stopped and swiveled, and my lungs seized as though grasped by a giant fist. Goose pimples prickled every inch of my skin.
He was here.
Lord Keston Osborn, the Marquess of Ridley, was still the only boy who could make my heart feel like it was caught in a stampede. Though he wasn’t a boy anymore. He was a gentleman now . . . nearly nineteen. Fit, dashing, and sickeningly handsome.
He’s part of the plan, he’s part of the plan, he’s part of the plan.
The chant was pointless--I could barely focus, much less look away.
A broad brow beneath beautifully chaotic dark brown curls led to a strong nose, bold cheekbones, and wide, quirked lips. Even from a distance, his rich brown skin gleamed with health, and that chiseled jaw could have cut glass. He was surrounded by a small group of other young men, but they paled in comparison, especially when those lips parted in a grin.
Sweet merciful heavens . . .
This--my unexpected and entirely too visceral reaction to him--was going to be a problem. I knew it as well as I knew my own heart. I’d foolishly been hoping that time had dimmed my memories of him, but three years had hardly reduced those gut-punching good looks or the effect of that smile. If anything, he was even more magnetic.
I should have hated him. But hate was a useless emotion . . . unless properly directed. Despite the muddle of yearning and nostalgia swirling in my belly, I had purpose, and I gave myself the stern reminder that he was merely one piece in this game. My principal foe--the queen--was somewhere else in this enormous ballroom.
“So what do you think of London, Miss Whitley?” Lady Jersey asked, peering at me down the length of her patrician nose.
Moistening my lips, I looked at her and smiled as though the floor hadn’t been pulled from under my feet. “I love it so far, my lady.”
“A far cry from Cumbria, isn’t it?”
I nodded, casting my eyes down demurely. These patronesses loved flattery. My tone held just the right amount of protracted awe--it wasn’t hard to do. London was in a class of its own. To many of the ton, it was the center of the universe, and Almack’s was its glowing jewel. “Cumbria is certainly not anything like this!”
“Yes, well, we try.” She smiled as she canvassed the room, her mood brightening. “Follow me. I’ve just had the most marvelous idea of introducing your charming ward to my nephew,” Lady Jersey said to Lady Birdie, her calculating stare returning to me. “You’re around the same age, and his set will take you under their wing, I’m sure of it. You seem like the right sort of girl.”
And by “the right sort,” she meant that I had an excellent dowry, which was already a topic of fervent gossip, according to Lady Birdie. Money had a way of opening the tightest, most elite circles. Fortune, connections, beauty, and virtue--the recipe for female accomplishment in the ton. One didn’t even need to be beautiful if one had coin.
To Lady Jersey, I was a fortune with legs.
She cut briskly through the crowd, and we followed. One did not insult a patroness with a refusal, after all. We came to an abrupt stop, and I barely had time to take in my surroundings near the refreshments table before Lady Jersey tugged on my arm. “Here we are,” she said. “Ridley dearest, may I present to you Miss Lyra Whitley. She is Lady Birdie’s ward and new to town. Miss Whitley, this is my nephew, Lord Keston Osborn, the Marquess of Ridley and heir to the Duke of Harbridge.”
Copyright © 2023 by Amalie Howard. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.