32 Leicester Square
10 April 1806
“There is a young lady to see you, miss. I believe she gave her name as Miss Fallon.”
“Frederica? She must have finished early at the modiste’s, then. I’ll go down, Brown.” Cornelia placed a ribbon in the book she was reading and placed it on the table next to her. “The blue parlor?”
“Yes, miss.” He held the door open for her as she sprang up and dashed through the door before she recalled her mother’s warnings and slowed her pace No need to rush. Ladies carry themselves with dignity and grace at all times.
Ladylike behavior did not come naturally to her. From the day she was born she was her papa’s favorite, and the two of them had romped and sported together everywhere, even after her brother was born. At least whenever he was home, which wasn’t often, seeing that he was a naval officer. After she turned sixteen, however, her mother had taken her in hand and set about transforming her hoyden daughter into a young lady, and Cornelia complied, reluctantly at first, but with time and maturity, she settled peacefully into young womanhood.
Her descent down the stairs was far from ladylike, however. When she reached the landing, a door opened and her friend rushed to embrace her.
“Cornelia! Wait until you see it! It’s the most beautiful gown that ever was!”
“Did you bring it?” Cornelia glanced around in search of a dress box.
Frederica shook her head. “No, there are minor alterations to be done, but Miss Gill promised it would be delivered tomorrow. It’s white crape over white satin, with rows of pearls on the bodice. You must come over and see me in it. Mama says it becomes me well.” She clutched at Cornelia’s arm. “But what about yours? It came yesterday, did it not?”
Cornelia grinned. “Indeed it did. Come up and I’ll show you. Mine is the very lightest peach color. I wished for coquelicot, but Mama said it was too dark for a girl my age.”
Frederica’s eyes sparkled. “We two shall be the belles of the ball.”
Cornelia smiled. “At our own balls, I should hope. I should not like to be a wallflower at my own presentation ball.”
The two girls made their way upstairs to Cornelia’s bedchamber, and Cornelia opened the door of her wardrobe and sifted through the garments. “That’s odd. It was here this morning. Norton!”
A short time later, her maid appeared. “Yes, Miss Hardcastle?”
“My gown. The peach one? It’s not here.”
“Oh yes. I believe your mother has it. She had some lace and ribbon she wanted to match with it.” Her eyes narrowed. “I laid it out on her bed. But then she had to go out…”
“Very well. Come, Freddy. We shall go there to find it.”
Frederica hesitated. “She won’t mind?”
Already out the door, Cornelia threw back. “Of course not. I do it all the time.”
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. She might be sent to her mother’s room to fetch something, but she didn’t usually go in there by herself when her mother was not present. But her mama wasn’t the sort to take exception to such things, and seeing as it was Cornelia’s own gown they wished to see, it seemed only natural that they go there to find it.
The gown was a peach crape robe over white satin, with long sleeves ornamented with simple bows of ribbon and pearls crossing the bodice.
Freddie’s mouth formed an O.
“You must see it on. It truly does become me. Undo my dress, if you please.”
Cornelia turned her back, and soon the two of them had her day dress off and began to slide the elegant gown over her head. But before the operation was completed, there were footsteps down the hall and Freddie jerked at just the wrong time, sending Cornelia crashing into her mother’s nightstand.
The footsteps continued on past.
Freddie rushed to pull it off so they could assess the damage. Other than a few wrinkles, it appeared to be unharmed. Cornelia let out a huge breath, and turned to right the nightstand that had been knocked over in the shuffle and replace the items that had spilled out from the drawer. Her eyes lit on the pages of a small brown book that had opened. The writing was her mother’s, and it was dated about the time her parents had met, when her father’s ship had taken on French royalists being pursued by the vicious Republican army, and they had fallen in love at first sight.
“What is that?”
Cornelia picked it up and turned the pages. “My mother’s journal. I never knew she had one.”
A pale Freddie made a move to take it from her, but Cornelia waved her away. “I know. I should not read it. But I’ve always been curious… Was it fate that they met, or mere coincidence? I should like to know more. Mama doesn’t talk about that time much, at least not before they were married.”
Freddie shook her head. “There must be a reason for that, Cornelia. Put the journal back in the drawer and let’s get out of this place. I have a bad feeling about it. And your mother could return at any moment.”
Cornelia grimaced and reluctantly returned the book to the drawer.
But she couldn’t stop thinking about it. It haunted her thoughts for several days until she couldn’t bear it any longer. She had to read that book. And as soon as the opportunity presented itself, she did.
And that’s when her world exploded. If only she had not read the journal. But now that she had… nothing would ever be the same.
About The Marriage Obligation
Confirmed spinster meets thrill-seeking former British spy. A match made in heaven?