Lady Felicity Sutton could not stop herself from plucking yet another glass of lemonade from the tray of a passing footman. Her brother had reminded her multiple times that tonight’s mission was to enchant one of the unwed lordlings wending their way about the ballroom before her. She was supposed to be on the hunt for dukes and marquesses, not sweet, delicious lemonade.
Yet no matter how many soirées she attended, or how fine the orchestra played for the dancers, a large part of Felicity could never forget how things had been before. Back when there were no new clothes, much less fancy gowns. Back when the siblings’ only society was each other. Back when the cost of sugar or lemons was so dear, the idea of lemonade was just another unobtainable dream.
Even more than the chandeliers overhead and the elegant revelers surrounding her, nothing reminded her how far they’d come quite like the simple luxury of cold, tart-sweet lemonade any time she wished.
“No wool-gathering,” her brother, now the Duke of Colehaven, murmured into her ear. “Concentrate on earl-gathering. You need to marry well.”
“I know,” she assured him. “I’m planning my attack.”
Cole’s relief was obvious. “Tonight’s the night?”
“This Season is the Season.”
She hoped. Catching a man’s eye was one thing. Convincing the right man to the altar was another.
“I’ll leave you to it.” Cole ceased scolding her like a mother hen and threaded his way back across the ballroom toward his new wife.
Felicity shook her head fondly. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for her brother, and nothing he wouldn’t do for her.
It had been the two of them against the world since as far back as she could remember. Back then, he had been Caleb, and she had more often than not been “Felix.” Now she was Lady Felicity and he was the Duke of Colehaven.
A few short months ago, Cole had fallen in love and taken a wife. He had never been happier, and he wanted the same happiness for his sister. In the form of a duke, ideally. Or, he supposed, an earl, if she absolutely must lower her sights. She’d had six Seasons. The horror! Surely it was time to make a choice.
She strode into the retiring room and made her way to one of the free spaces before the Barkleys’ grand, gilt-edged looking-glass. A mahogany table placed just beneath the edge of the frame brimmed with all the accoutrements a lady exhausted by dancing might require.
Rosewater to reduce the puffiness beneath one’s eyes, spare pins for one’s hair, squares of cloth to dip in a bowl of iced water and press against the back of one’s heated neck. Felicity loved all of it. Other ladies might take such luxuries for granted, but the scent of rosewater or the relief of a cold compress against her neck never failed to make her feel like a princess in a fairy tale.
“I fear I shall vomit,” whispered an ashen debutante to Felicity’s left, followed by a panicked cry of distress. “Oh dear, I promised I wouldn’t say ‘vomit’ at the party! I’m not sick, I’m just… hopeless.”
Felicity turned to the young woman with a smile. “How do you do? I’m Lady Felicity Sutton.”
The girl grew even paler. “I said ‘vomit’ in front of the Duke of Colehaven’s sister?” The young lady buried her face in her hands. “I’m ruined.”
“None of that,” Felicity said with amusement. “I’m not so missish, and besides, if you would like to know a secret… titled people vomit, too. But you won’t, will you? Not in that pretty white gown. You look lovely. I imagine your dance card was filled in seconds.”
“Almost,” the girl admitted. She gave Felicity an abashed smile. “Thank you for being so kind. I’m Alexandra Corning. This is my first Season.”
Felicity returned her smile. “Every lady present here tonight has had a first Season. You’ll get used to it.”
“Not too used to it, I hope,” Miss Corning said fervently. “I daren’t become a spinster.”
The hushed word was spoken in the same tone as one might say leper or pariah or worthless or doomed.
Felicity did not blame Miss Corning for being dramatic. Most marriageable young ladies tended to share that view. Indeed, Felicity’s four-and-twenty years were the reason why her brother despaired of her ever bringing a suitor up to scratch. Felicity had nothing against dukes and earls, but she wanted something more than luxury and a title and wealth.
She wanted to share the riches.
It wasn’t enough to provide for her children and her children’s children. She needed to do everything within her power to improve the lives of the countless impoverished children out in the streets and in the rookeries, struggling to get through each day. Children like she and Cole had once been. Children who desperately needed someone to care about them.
“Don’t worry about becoming a spinster,” she told Miss Corning. “Try to relax.”
“I can’t,” Miss Corning said miserably. “My parents expect perfection.”
“Everyone has a different definition of ‘perfect,’” Felicity responded.
It had taken every minute of her six Seasons to find a man who fit Cole’s requirements and hers.
To most men, Felicity’s dowry alone was reason to wed her. The key was finding a man who didn’t need it. Someone whose own fortune was vast enough that Felicity’s dowry would be a sweet, if unnecessary, gesture.
Lord Raymore fit the bill perfectly.
He was not a duke, but a marquess—and two decades older—but even Cole could find no other flaws. Raymore was dizzyingly wealthy. Three of his six properties were entailed to the title, meaning no one could ever take their home away. Neither Felicity nor her children need ever fear a future living on the streets. But grand possessions weren’t enough.
What was the point of marrying privilege and power if she couldn’t use any of it to help the people who needed it most?
“When I’m married,” Miss Corning said with a sigh, “I’ll never have to lift a finger again. My husband will take care of everything.”
He certainly would if she let him.
Felicity had coaxed Cole into placing “permission for wife to contribute to charitable causes as she sees fit” in her betrothal contract, but neither of them had been able to persuade any of her suitors over the years to sign such a statement.
Men control money, some insisted. Every penny of it. Others were happy to give her a bottomless purse, with the stipulation that her husband’s money was only to be spent on accoutrements that improved the family image: jewels, elaborate gowns. Under no circumstances was she to waste their assets on other people.
“Do you have your eye on anyone in particular?” Felicity asked.
“My eye is on every man with a title,” Miss Corning replied with a little laugh. “Just like everyone else.”
Felicity wasn’t “everyone else.” Neither was Lord Raymore.
Not only was the older gentleman on the House of Lords’ committee to reform child labor, he and Cole were the only peers on that committee. Raymore was the one bachelor in this ballroom who would be delighted to wed a bride who shared his passion to improve the lives of the less fortunate.
And in less than an hour, Felicity’s hand was promised to the marquess in a waltz.
It was a good sign, but a would-be bride required more than signs. Lord Raymore danced with Felicity regularly enough to raise eyebrows, but never sought her company outside of a ballroom. If she intended to change that, she needed to look and act the part of a future marchioness.
“Your dress is beautiful,” Miss Corning said shyly. “I love the tiny rosebuds on your demi-train.”
“Thank you,” Felicity answered with pride. The selection hadn’t been easy.
She’d spent countless hours poring over fashion plates to find exactly the right styles to communicate the impression she was hoping to make.
More mature than blushing, fresh-from-the-schoolroom girls, but young enough to still be a fine catch for any discerning gentleman. Intelligent enough to run any household, yet not so managing or bossy as to be tiresome. Elegant, not gaudy. Attractive, not bawdy.
Duchess, not desperate.
It was a very fine line. Then again, controlling her outward appearance had been the sole tool in Felicity’s arsenal for most of her life. She had always had to pretend to be someone else in order to be seen, or to get what she needed. It no longer felt like giving up part of herself.
She straightened her bodice. The right clothes made her feel safe. They let her be—or at least appear to be—whatever she chose. Before her brother had inherited a title, the boys’ clothes she donned determined whether she would be accepted. Whether she would eat. Whether she could stay with her brother.
Now that Cole was a duke… nothing had changed. Her ability to mimic the right look would determine the rest of her life.
She understood exactly why a debutante like Miss Corning felt like she might vomit. Lord Raymore had to be the one. He was the only hope she had left.
Felicity squared her shoulders in determination. This was the night she’d be on her way to her own happy ending.
Miss Corning’s shoulders slumped as she stared into the looking-glass. “My hair is hopeless.”
“This will help.” Using pins from the provided dish, Felicity rearranged Miss Corning’s flyaway locks into a style she’d seen in La Belle Assemblée. She and her lady’s maid had practiced this look a hundred times. Just one more pin, and… “There.”
Miss Corning let out a shaky breath. “It looks beautiful. Thank you so much. I suppose I’m now as primped as I’ll ever be.”
“You look stunning,” Felicity assured her. “Are you enjoying the ball?”
“It feels like every minuet is my one and only chance with each gentleman.” Miss Corning blushed. “It must be lovely to be the sister of a duke, and not have to worry about such things.”
Felicity hadn’t always been the sister of a duke, and she had never stopped worrying about things.
“Come along,” she told Miss Corning with what she hoped was a confident smile. “Let’s return to the ball, shall we? Perhaps we’ll fill the rest of your card while we wait for the next set to begin.”
Miss Corning nodded. She stuck to Felicity’s side as they exited the retiring room and returned to the loud, bright whirl of the ballroom.
“There’s my mother,” Miss Corning said. “Oh dear, she looks vexed. Did I tarry too long?”
“Go to her,” Felicity said. “Vexed or not, mothers are a precious thing to cherish.”
She could not even remember hers.
“Thank you for everything.” Miss Corning curtsied and hurried off.
Felicity made her way toward her acquaintance Hester Donnell.
Like Felicity, this was not Hester’s first Season. Unlike Felicity, Hester had been born into this world. She did not have to pretend to belong or worry about being unmasked as inferior. To Hester, all of this grandeur was normal.
More importantly, Hester was a leader of fashion. Their amicable association had eased Felicity’s entrée into Society back when Felicity had made her debut. For that, Felicity would always be grateful.
“Did you try the lemon tarts?” Hester asked as she approached.
“You know I tried the lemon tarts,” Felicity responded. “I tried all the lemon tarts. I would have cleaned up the lemon tart crumbs, too, had I not been forcibly restrained by eagle-eyed footmen.”
Hester smirked. “I wish that were true. A little lemon tart drama would liven up this soirée.”
Even after years of running into each other at ballrooms just like this one, Felicity still struggled to understand how other people could tire of being surrounded by so much beauty and riches and food and music.
“How are you managing to pass the time?” she asked dryly.
Hester tilted the edge of her painted fan toward a well-dressed couple locking elbows in a country-dance. “I’m watching Lady Penelope Wakefield captivate the Earl of Findon. Some say his eye wanders too much for him to select a bride, but he has saved a dance for Lady Penelope at least once a fortnight. Mark my words, that man is thinking of marriage.”
Felicity certainly hoped so. Not because she had any insight into whatever designs Lady Penelope and the earl might or might not have for each other. But because Felicity and Lord Raymore had also shared a set every single week this Season, without fail.
If fortnightly attentions meant a proposal was forthcoming for Lady Penelope, surely a weekly waltz or minuet strongly indicated Lord Raymore’s matrimonial intentions toward Felicity. She just needed to coax him to take the next step.
“When do you think he’ll ask for her hand?” she murmured.
“Any day now,” Hester replied with confidence. “Next year at this time, they’ll be the hosts of the Season’s biggest crush.” She swirled an inch of golden liquid in her glass and muttered, “I hope they’ll have better sherry.”
Felicity made no response. She thought the refreshments perfectly delicious, and tonight’s party positively brilliant.
“I’m rarely caught off guard in such matters,” Hester continued. “I knew Lady Diana was meant for your brother the first time I saw them together.”
Felicity frowned. “Did they even dance together before they were wed?”
“They did not,” Hester said with portent, “and he wanted to. Of course they were destined to marry. Everyone wants who they cannot have.”
Felicity’s stomach clenched. Was there some truth to what Hester was saying? Was the real reason Lord Raymore had yet to ask for Felicity’s hand because she said yes to every dance instead of limiting her availability?
She gritted her teeth in frustration. Courtship rules were so arbitrary! Why must it be a game of winners and losers instead of frank conversations where everyone simply said exactly what they meant?
I like you.
I like you, too.
Let’s get married.
Wouldn’t that be much easier than making the proper hand signs to flirt with one’s fan, whilst rationing out minuets and pinching one’s cheeks in the retiring room between each set in order to keep up the appearance of a youthful glow?
“The expression on your face,” Hester said with a laugh. “It’s as if you just tried the Barkleys’ dreadful sherry for the first time. What on earth are you thinking about?”
“Marriage,” Felicity replied honestly.
“Believe me,” Hester said, lowering her voice. “If there was a better crop to choose from, I would introduce you. I’m afraid this is it. You’re looking at the best of the best.”
Felicity nodded. “I know.”
The truth was, marrying anyone in this ballroom would have seemed like a dream come true to the eight-year-old version of herself. Even being the wife of a footman would have been unthinkable. For most of her childhood, Felicity hadn’t belonged anywhere. She and Cole had been lucky enough not to be alone, but love couldn’t fill one’s belly.
Because she and her brother weren’t a part of the original duke and heirs’ lives, there was little to no gossip about the dark years before Cole inherited. The people in this ballroom did not know the truth about their past, and God willing, they never would.
Felicity wasn’t ashamed of anything she’d done to survive, but the truth would make her an outcast right when she was closest to finally being in.
That was, if she could bring Lord Raymore up to scratch.
Hester raised her brows. “I don’t think you have to worry about marriage anymore.”
Because of the marquess? Felicity perked up. Perhaps Hester had heard something interesting.
“What do you mean?” she asked carefully.
“You must know by now,” Hester said in surprise. “This is your fifth Season.”
Felicity swallowed. “Sixth.”
“Exactly,” Hester said dryly and returned her gaze to the dance floor.
Felicity’s stomach twisted. Hester wasn’t suggesting a marriage proposal was on the horizon. She was saying it was too late.
“I’m four-and-twenty,” Felicity whispered.
“Mm-hmm,” Hester said absently. “I’m almost two-and-twenty. This is my last year.”
Felicity drew back in horror. “Two-and-twenty is not the end!”
“Oh, of course not,” Hester agreed. “Not for me. I’ve always known who I’ll marry. Our fathers made a pact when we were children. Titus and I made our own pact to enjoy three Seasons of independence before joining in marriage. He’s got the license. We’ll marry next month.”
Felicity stared at her before managing a faint, “Congratulations.”
She’d known she was tempting the devil by waiting this long to marry, but she hadn’t considered the possibility that things were already dire. Felicity’s chest tightened. She’d promised her brother she’d be betrothed before the end of the Season. She promised herself she’d make measurable progress with Lord Raymore before the end of the night.
This was her best opportunity.
The orchestra lowered their bows and dancers dispersed from the polished floor. One of the gentlemen made his way in their direction. Tall, sandy hair, dark eyes… the Earl of Thistlebury.
Felicity straightened. She had one more set free before her promised dance with Lord Raymore.
The earl bowed to them both before extending his elbow toward Hester. “I believe this is my dance?”
Hester winked at Felicity over her shoulder as if to imply she was very much enjoying her last month of freedom.
Felicity wished she were enjoying the evening, too. Not standing around awkwardly next to an empty spot where her already betrothed friend had just waltzed off with an earl.
She accepted a glass of sherry from a passing footman just to have something to do with her hands.
Out of habit, she scanned the ballroom for Lord Raymore. Theirs was the following set. Felicity would not be so forward as to approach him before it was time, but she was standing about with a cup of delicious, allegedly subpar sherry, and it wouldn’t hurt to have someone to converse with.
There. Lord Raymore’s shock of salt-and-pepper hair caught her eye.
The marquess was not standing about with no company save for a glass of sherry in one hand. He was in the center of the dance floor, enjoying a minuet with none other than Miss Corning.
The shy debutante was gazing up at the marquess with high color on the apples of her youthful cheeks, her hair resplendent in the style Felicity had crafted with her bare hands.
Felicity set her unfinished sherry behind a potted plant. All was not lost, but she needed a clear mind when she danced with Lord Raymore if she wished to have any hope of impressing him as a better option than the blushing cherub currently in his arms.
Quickly, she circumnavigated the dance floor toward her brother and his wife, careful not to stray too near to the dancers. The last thing Felicity needed was for Lord Raymore to catch sight of her alone and partnerless, and develop second thoughts about his own interest.
When she reached her brother and his wife, they were no longer alone.
Arrogant blowhard Silas Wiltchurch was bending Cole’s ear on some matter or another. Wiltchurch was the nephew of one of the patronesses of Almack’s. No matter how unbearable he might be, no one dared gainsay him unless they wished to be barred for life. Wiltchurch never let anyone forget the danger of crossing him.
“Am I interrupting something important?” Felicity asked her sister-in-law in a low voice.
Diana rolled her eyes. “Racing is not important. Interrupt all you like.”
Felicity returned Diana’s smile, but her interest was piqued. Racing might not be important to Diana, but it interested Felicity very much indeed. Particularly if the race in question involved mechanical conveyances. The only thing Felicity loved more than horses were carriages.
“What are we racing?” she asked lightly.
Before Cole could reply, Silas Wiltchurch let out a huff. “You are not racing anything. Ladies do not race. We means Colehaven and me, and a few other men.”
Cole turned to Felicity as if Wiltchurch had not spoken. “Carriages. Curricles, specifically. You might be interested to know that—”
She shook her head slightly before he could continue.
Although she knew her brother would never say anything truly scandalous—like, I’ll be racing the carriage you modified for me—Silas Wiltchurch was right.
Even the most superficial interest in “manly matters” displayed on her part might be enough to dissuade a conservative older gentleman like Lord Raymore from considering her as a future bride. She could not take the risk.
Unfortunately, Wiltchurch had noticed Felicity’s little shake of the head.
“Ohhh,” he said with exaggerated impatience. “First you interrupt a conversation that has nothing to do with you to ask what it’s about, and then you attempt to silence us when your brother tries to answer your impertinent question.” He turned back to Cole. “It’s not your fault. Inferior female brains aren’t capable of comprehending anything more substantial than ostrich feathers and French lace.”
Cole looked like he was about to put his fist through Wiltchurch’s face.
“You’re so right.” Felicity infused her voice with cloying saccharine, hoping to diffuse the tension before she drew all the wrong sort of attention. She gave her brother a pointed look. “Ladies rarely even enter a carriage without the aid of a gentleman. What could we possibly know about the art of racing one?”
“Precisely.” His pride restored, Wiltchurch turned his back to Felicity and resumed his conversation as if he had never noticed her arrival.
“Insufferable prig,” she muttered beneath her breath.
Diana grinned in solidarity. “He wouldn’t recognize sarcasm if it hit him.”
“I thought Cole was going to hit him,” Felicity admitted.
“He was definitely going to hit him,” Diana assured her. “And I was going to let him.”
“My peacekeeping will haunt me to my dying day,” Felicity said with a sigh.
Diana’s eyes twinkled. “We both know which one of them owns the superior curricle… and why.”
The thought should have warmed Felicity’s heart. Diana’s inclusion into the family had doubled the number of people who knew Felicity’s secret.
Today, it just made her sad.
She was tired of having to hide her mechanical capabilities. Tired of having to pretend she was too clueless to follow along, too “proper” to be part of the conversation.
Her brother didn’t miss the old days. Felicity… well, she didn’t miss the hunger pangs or the cold nights or the endless uncertainty, but the day that the more knowledgeable lads at the forge stopped seeing her as a worthless hanger-on and started treating her as an equal?
Of course she missed that.
For a moment, what she wanted most was not to blend in with the other ladies, but to challenge Silas Wiltchurch to a curricle race in front of all and sundry. She could beat a slug like him blindfolded.
But she would never have the chance.
“Snare your big fish yet?” Diana asked, meaning Lord Raymore.
“Next set,” Felicity murmured back. “God willing.”
She was grateful down to her bones for every advantage she possessed, and she knew what she had to do to keep it.
A match with the marquess was far more than a way to ensure her children’s futures. Felicity did not want any child to go through the hell she and her brother had. It wasn’t living. It was barely surviving. And even so, others hadn’t been so lucky.
Marrying well wasn’t just for her. It was for everyone who didn’t have a way out. The better Felicity was set up, the more she could help others. That was worth any sacrifice.
The first act she intended to take as Lady Raymore was to sponsor opportunities and housing for homeless or impoverished children like she and her brother once were. Cole donated handsomely, but he was one person. Felicity and her husband would be two more. Hester Donnell had agreed to support Felicity’s future foundation, and spread the word to her friends as well. With luck and hard work, Felicity and her powerful husband could start a movement.
It might be impossible to save all the children, but she would bloody well die trying.
Even if it meant putting up with unconscionable self-important prigs like Silas Wiltchurch.
“Thank God,” Diana muttered when Wiltchurch at last flounced away. “I got tired of not throttling him.”
“Agreed,” Felicity said with feeling, then turned to her brother. “When’s the big race?”
“Never,” Diana interrupted before Cole could reply. “I don’t trust Wiltchurch as far as I can throw him, and believe me, I’d very much like to throw him. Let him race other madmen. I want you to stay in one piece.”
“I already gave my word as a gentleman,” Cole protested. “Last night at the Wicked Duke, I was boasting about the curricle that a certain master mechanic has been conditioning for me—”
“You’re welcome,” Felicity murmured.
“—and the next thing I knew, six of us were scheduled for a curricle race at dawn, two weeks from Saturday.”
“It’s like you can’t hear me,” Diana said. “Allow me to summarize. The key word was ‘No.’”
“I heard you,” Cole assured her. “And I have the perfect solution. My carriage is obliged to present itself at Hyde Park on the appointed hour, but I am not required to be the man at the reins. The Curricle King does this sort of thing all the time. I’m certain he’ll be delighted to thrash Silas Wiltchurch yet again.”
Felicity’s heart skipped. The “Curricle King” was Giles Langford.
Talented and clever, reckless and dangerous, Langford was a notorious whip and a god among coach smiths. There were rumors that women with dampened bodices crowded Hyde Park at dawn to glimpse the handsome daredevil winning another race, only to swoon at the mere sight of him.
Not proper ladies, of course. Much as she wished to, Felicity had never laid eyes on the Curricle King. Nonetheless, his reputation spoke for itself.
“Langford could win with one hand tied behind his back,” she agreed in satisfaction. “With him as your driver and me as your—”
“I believe this is my dance?” came a bemused voice from just behind her.
Felicity whirled around to see Lord Raymore patiently waiting with one arm extended… and the rest of the dance floor already filled with new couples.
“Of course,” she stammered.
Her face heated as she took his arm. Had she really almost said with me as your mechanic out loud in the middle of a ballroom? Good God. She had to do better than that.
She took a deep, calming breath as Raymore led her to join the others for the first waltz of the evening. This Season might be her last opportunity. She had to do everything right.
“Thank you for this dance,” she murmured.
The marquess smiled. “I always enjoy dancing with you.”
That was something, wasn’t it? A step in the right direction.
The problem was, they’d been making the same rhythmic steps once a week all Season long. They needed to see each other outside of the occasional ballroom if their courtship had any hope of blossoming into marriage.
He wasn’t Felicity’s best chance. He was her only chance.
If it meant hinting at her willingness to turn their weekly half-hour intervals into something more substantial, then so be it.
She peered up at him through her lashes and offered her sweetest, most biddable smile.
“I always look forward to sharing a set with you,” she responded. “I’d be amenable to seeing each other more often. If the weather holds tomorrow, it should be a lovely day to enjoy the park.”
There. Forward, but hopefully not too forward. In any case, the words were out. Where they took them was up to Lord Raymore.
“Oh,” the marquess said with an embarrassed wince. “Not tomorrow, I’m afraid. I’ve promised to take Miss Corning for ices, and then a visit to the theatre.”
A public appearance in Raymore’s theatre box.
Young, pretty, first-Season-debutante Miss Corning. Not Felicity. Her stomach sank.
“Of course,” she murmured. “I understand.”
There went the one man who could provide everything she dreamed.Return to One Night to Remember