LONDON, AUGUST 1, 1818
THERE was love in the air: delicate music, sweet perfumes, and the rustle of silks, all to be savored by the light of two hundred beeswax candles. Yes, all the trappings of love, at least, what passed for it in London society.
But for Olivia Byrde only one phrase resounded.
This will never do.
She kept her smile firmly in place as she danced a German waltz with William DeLeary. She dipped and swayed and whirled, exasperated by Mr. DeLeary’s besotted smile on her. From the perimeter of the ballroom she also sensed her mother’s pleased one.
But all the while the phrase repeated itself in time to the sprightly melody.
This will never do. Never do. Never do
. To encourage dull Mr. DeLeary would be a grave mistake, for if he did not kill her with compliments, she would surely die from boredom. Consequently, when the set was finished she thanked him, then made a hasty retreat to the company of Clarissa, the nearest friend she could find in the crush.
“Surely they must lock the doors now to prevent anyone else crowding the place,” Clarissa exclaimed, fanning herself in a desultory manner.
“We can only hope,” Olivia replied as she surveyed the Burlingtons’ splendid ballroom, filled to bursting with nearly seven hundred exquisitely tricked-out guests, every one of them there to see and be seen. It was the same at every ball and party and rout. The young ladies preened, hoping to entice
particular young men. The young men postured, struggling to impress particular young ladies. Meanwhile the mamas fluttered around, determined to direct everything to their own satisfaction.
Olivia shook her head in amazement. Three years she’d been subject to this frivolity. Three seasons of just this sort of crush. If it weren’t for her matchmaking projects, she would have long ago gone mad. As it was, she’d grown exceedingly weary of the entire rigmarole.
She consulted her dance card. Three dances still open. She’d already turned two men away, which her mother would not approve. Fortunately her mother, the lively and elegant Lady Dunmore, was presently engaged with one or another of her admirers.
“Did you hear?” Olivia said to Clarissa. “Prinny plans to make an appearance before the breakfast buffet is laid out. Lady Burlington is beside herself with pleasure. ’Tis a pity poor Anne may not be nearly so pleased with the progress of this evening as her mother.”
“And why not?” Clarissa asked, waving to a friend. “Anne has danced every dance. That gold silk overdress she has from Madame Henri’s is stunning, and the family sapphires complement it so well. She is quite the belle of the ball tonight. What could she possibly have to complain of?”
“Lord Dexler,” Olivia answered, though quietly, so no one else would overhear. “Both she and her mother have fixed their attentions on him. Lady Burlington fancies a future earl for a son-in-law. As for Anne, well, I fear she may have also settled her personal affections upon him.”
“But I thought he found her most agreeable. Has he developed a
for someone else? Oh, do tell, Olivia. You always know about such goings-on long before anyone else.”
“It’s nothing I’ve heard, but rather what I observe. The problem is, like his father, he is a legendary pinchpenny. How do you suppose he can feel about a woman who throws such lavish parties as this, and for no particular reason save that she wishes to?”
Clarissa grimaced. “Oh dear. You should have warned her.”
“I did. But Anne is so easily swayed by her mother, and as you well know, Lady Burlington appreciates no one’s opinion but her own.”
Clarissa laughed. “Now, now. You can dispense advice, but you cannot force others to abide by it.”
It was Olivia’s turn to laugh, albeit ruefully. “I suppose my few matchmaking successes have gone to my head—and you and Robert are quite my greatest coup. Anne admires Lord Dexler so. But if she is as extravagant as her mother, then she and he will never suit.”
“As you always say, better to learn that now than later. But tell me,” Clarissa went on. “You keep notes on all the eligible men of the ton and offer sage advice to your friends. But when will you find a husband for yourself, Olivia? Despite all the men who beg for your attention, you seem to favor no particular one. Who’s to make a match for you?”
Olivia gave her friend a wry smile but did not answer. She fingered the double strand of pearls at her throat. In truth, she did not object to marrying. But even after three seasons she’d yet to find the right match.
One by one her friends had paired off. Rosa and Merrill, Dorothy and Alfred, and now Clarissa and Robert. She prided herself that she’d helped them find marital bliss. But those successes made her feel more and more like someone’s old maiden aunt. Though she had only recently celebrated her twenty-first birthday, sometimes she felt positively on the shelf.
What purpose did it serve that she wore the stunning aqua sheath her mother had insisted upon? What use was the sheer overdress ornamented with cream-colored bows at the hem and a deep froth of lace edging the low-cut bodice? She knew she looked especially well, but to what end save personal vanity? There was no one here she wanted to impress.
The trouble was, she saw all the same men at all the same parties. She knew which ones danced well, which ones would vanish to the gaming tables, and which ones became morose or silly or belligerent when they imbibed too much. She knew all that and more because she watched and she listened and
she jotted everything down in her journal, the one her friends called her little matchmaker. She observed all the young men of the ton—and the young women as well—and in three seasons she’d become quite adept at matching up appropriate couples.
But she’d yet to meet the right man for herself.
“Well,” Clarissa prodded her. “Is there anyone you favor this year?”
“No. Oh, look,” she added, pointing her fan through the crowd. “Don’t Judith and Mr. Morrison make a handsome couple? He’s nearly as bashful as she, and yet they seem well able to converse between themselves.” Olivia smiled in satisfaction, pleased with the young couple, the latest of the budding romances she’d prompted. Everyone else had thought a pair of shy mice such as they would have nothing whatever to say to one another. But she’d known that what they each needed was a quiet place with no other strident voices or opinions drowning them out. And sure enough, they’d each provided that quiet place for the other.
She sighed, reassured that there truly was a suitable partner for everyone, even her. It just took time to find them.
“Miss Byrde?” A hesitant male voice pulled her from her reverie.
She turned with a smile pasted firmly in place. “Lord Hendricks.”
The beaming fellow bowed over her hand. “I believe this is the dance you promised to me.”
“So it is,” Olivia said, hiding any sign of resignation. At the moment Viscount Hendricks was her mother’s favorite choice for a son-in-law, and she’d given Olivia strict orders to encourage his attentions.
“Have fun, you two,” Clarissa said, giving Olivia a knowing look. Olivia rolled her eyes. But she took Lord Hendricks’s arm and accompanied him to the floor. A true quadrille was her favorite dance and he was a fine dancer, not content to walk through the steps as some gentlemen were wont. Added to that he was well titled, with a more than adequate income,
and he was smart. He’d taken a first at Cambridge, quite an accomplishment.
Even she had to agree they were a superb match, plus he made no secret of his admiration for her. But to her dismay, Olivia could muster no feelings for him beyond friendship.
It was truly baffling, for she was no silly girl searching for a grand passion. All that heart fluttering and breaths coming short was for novels, not for real life, as she well knew. She’d tried very hard to convince herself that she could be content with Lord Hendricks, but it had been no use. She wanted something more from a husband than he was ever likely to provide. What that was, however, remained an utter mystery.
The string quartet struck up the music, and as they began the elaborate figure of the dance, Olivia spied her mother nodding approval at her.
Olivia squared her shoulders. She would have to do something about this soon. She’d turned down three proposals her first season, five her second, and two already this year. She did not relish declining any other man’s kind offer, for she’d rather spare both his feelings and her own. Her mother had sulked for weeks the last time.
Maybe a change of scenery was in order, she thought as they circled around. Her skirts belled out prettily and Lord Hendricks beamed down at her. She smiled back at him, but inside her mind churned. Yes, a change of scenery—if her mother could be convinced.
The next morning Olivia bent over her journal, rereading her latest entry.
Lord S: Dances well. Not known to gamble or drink except in moderation. Excessively devoted to his mother, though, and she is extraordinarily possessive of his time. But he is not a pinchpenny.
She tapped her quill pen against her chin. In addition Lord Simington was as boring as a fence post, and not much better to look at. From her observation, he held no opinions of his
own, only those of his autocratic parents. But he was neither a sot nor a womanizer, and that counted for quite a bit. She could think of three suitable young ladies for him, though Charlotte would no doubt quake beneath his mother’s stern gaze.
Oh well, she’d known from the first that finding the right man for Charlotte Littleton would not be an easy task. “Mother,” she called. “Is the Littletons’ reception this Thursday or next?”
Augusta Lindford Byrde Palmer, Viscountess Dunmore, sat at her own desk prettily framed by two massive potted palms. As they had the previous two seasons, they’d taken up residence in Farley House, and they sat now in the morning room, Lady Augusta reviewing their invitations, Olivia making notations about last night’s soiree, and twelve-year-old Sarah embroidering. Olivia’s older brother, James Lindford, the young and eminently eligible Viscount Farley, had not yet arisen. No doubt another late night carousing with his dashing friends. He seemed in no hurry to marry.
Olivia flicked the feather quill back and forth beneath her chin. If only she had even a quarter of the freedom allowed him. “Mother,” she prompted. “The Littletons?”
“Oh yes. The Littletons’ reception.” Lady Augusta shuffled through the invitations, a delicate frown on her still youthful brow. “I don’t see the invitation on my desk, dear. Are you certain—”
“’Tis Thursday next,” the housekeeper, Mrs. McCaffery, stated as she carried in a salver of fresh calling cards. “And your mum’s making other plans.” The woman gave Olivia a meaningful glance but said no more.
Lady Augusta scowled at her longtime servant, a sure sign that something was up. But Mrs. McCaffery appeared supremely unconcerned. She’d been with Lady Augusta since her first marriage to the much older George Lindford, James’s father, and had remained with her throughout the next two as well. She’d propped a devastated Augusta up through the funerals of all three of those husbands, and made no bones about the fact that she thought young Sarah’s father the best of the
lot, nor that she remained doubtful about Augusta’s plans to capture husband number four.
Olivia blotted the page, then closed the cream-colored leather journal. “You’re not going? I thought you and old lady Littleton were famous friends.”
Augusta sent Olivia an aggrieved look. “There’s no need to be rude, Olivia. Mildred Littleton is no more an old lady than am I. You young girls think anyone past five-and-twenty is an ancient drudge. Well, does your mother look like an ancient drudge to you?”
Olivia grinned. “You know you do not. But Mildred Littleton does.”
A reluctant smile curved the corners of Augusta’s lips. “Perhaps she does,” she conceded. “But it is only that she neglects her figure and then—horrors!—allows that awful Madame LaNasa to dress her in puce and olive, colors that do nothing for her complexion.”
“Or her disposition,” young Sarah threw in.
“Don’t you be rude either,” Augusta admonished her youngest child.
“You still haven’t explained why you will not be at the Littletons’ next Thursday,” Olivia pointed out.
Augusta glanced at Olivia, then away. “I’m thinking of taking a jaunt up to Yorkshire.” She waved one perfectly manicured hand. “I do so need a change of atmosphere, and Penelope Cummings has invited me to stay a week or two with her. Mrs. Mac will remain in town with you and Sarah.”
It was just the opportunity Olivia had been waiting for. “Actually, Mother, I too grow weary of London. How I would welcome a country sojourn, as I’m certain would Sarah.” She pressed on. “I’m certain Penny would not object if we accompany you. But tell me, what is it about Yorkshire that interests you? I cannot believe it merely the country air.”
“’Tis Archie.” Sarah stretched out the name and rolled her eyes.
Augusta stiffened and glared at her youngest child. “I’ll thank you to be more respectful of your elders.”
Sarah threw down her handiwork. “He may be my elder, but he’s not yours, is he?”