By a special correspondent

The Four-to-One Fancy by Elizabeth Ellen CarterThe Ladies London Observer has sent your reporter up north to the fair city of York to report on events happening outside of London, renowned for the Season. Yes, Season with a capital ‘S’.

For many of us, there is one Season, but for those young women who are not fortunate enough to make their debut and be selected to have their coming out attended by royalty, some of the regional cities of the Kingdom may yield eligible young men – especially if they happen to be short of a dowry.

This is what leads me today to sit in Lady Clune’s salon to observe the young ladies of quality who have come to her notice.

“I take my role as hostess for the season very seriously, indeed,” said Lady Clune. “Before they receive vouchers for various events under my auspices, the young ladies are required to attend an at-home so I can see their comportment.

“I wish to ensure that as many successful matches will be made as possible. What we lack in numbers, we make up for in enthusiasm!”

I look around and see a dozen young ladies at today’s event, there are precious few young men.

Lady Clune sees the direction of my gaze and is keen to reassure me that there will be plenty of young men of quality from the towns outside York – ah yes, the landed gentry. I ask our hostess who she has the most hopes for

She discreetly points to a couple of local beauties who, I have to admit, wouldn’t be out of place in London. My eye is caught by two young ladies in conversation in a small party. They draw my attention because of how very alike they are and not just in physical appearance – willowy and graceful with auburn hair.

Their mannerisms mirrored each other completely – the raise of a hand to take a cup of tea, the slight tilt to the right as they considered their part in the conversation. It was the most remarkable display.

I discreetly took a step closer as I would listen in on the conversation. One would begin a story or an anecdote and the other would take up the story seamlessly, as thought it was being told by one person.

“Ah, I see you have spotted Lady Ivy and Lady Iris Bigglesworth,” said Lady Clune uncertainly. This  particularly piqued my interest.

The good lady inclined her head and silently indicated that I should follow her a discreet distance away.

“There is something you should know about the girls,” she began.

I told her that I had guessed that Lady Ivy and Lady Iris were twins.

“Yes that is true and of all nine sisters, they and their older sister Josefina have the best chances of making a successful match.”

Nine? All from the same family? All hoping to find husbands?

“Oh! No, I should clarify, three of those girls are still in the school room, cared for by late Earl of Seahaven’s fifth and youngest wife, Lady Patience Bigglesworth.”

Six young women – seven if you include the young widow from the same family all in York for the same purpose. The late Earl must have left a substantial dowry.

Lady Clune shook her head sadly. There is barely enough to make a decent dowry for one, she tells me.

“I don’t care to be quoted on this, but the new Earl of Seahaven has been most dreadful to the girls. They were living quite happily in the family holding and there was enough room for them to do so comfortably but he refused,” she said.

“He tossed the girls out and most of them have had to,” Lady Clune drops her voice to a whisper, “work for a living.

“Mind you, Seahaven’s affairs were in the most dreadful shambles. He so expected a son from each woman he married that he never got around to updating his will.”

Excerpt from the Four-to-One Fancy (previously published in Desperate Daughters). This novella will be released as a standalone on 1 May.

Iris watched her sister shift the heavily laden basket onto another arm.

“Here, let me take it for a while,” she said.

Ivy shot her a grateful look and relinquished the basket.

After a moment Iris spoke. “Are you nervous?” she asked.

“What about?”

“I feel the weight of expectation—on you, me, Josefina—to find a husband this season.”

Ivy nodded. “Patience has expended an enormous sum to give us this opportunity, that to go back to Starbrook without an offer…”

“It’s only because our sisters gave up their portion of the dowry that we have an acceptable sum to offer,” Iris added.

“We have our titles, but they mean little,” said Ivy.

“We may not be pretty enough to attract the eye of a suitable gentleman.”  Iris let out a long, dispirited sigh.

Silence fell between them for good long minutes before Ivy asked. “What kind of gentleman would you like to marry?”

Iris considered the question a moment before shrugging a shoulder.

“He must be kind. I’d like him to be handsome. Most of all, he must love family because I would want you to visit me often.”

“That worries me as much as not finding husbands,” Ivy confessed. “What if we do? We would marry and be apart for the first time in our lives.”

The notion caused Iris to stop. She turned to her sister.

“I… I can’t imagine not seeing you every day,” she said.

They remained there on the pavement, each lost in their own thoughts.

“Do you think there may be brothers in attendance?”

“There might,” said Iris, tilting her head. “We would need to see an invitation list to be sure. Why do you ask?”

Ivy raised her chin in firm resolve. “It is the only way forward. By marrying brothers, we would be sure to see each other more often than if we married anyone else. We have to marry brothers. It is the only way.”