A Hand for the Duke Beginning
~March 1, 1806~
Her foster-father wanted to have a word with her.
Tina Rowan could barely breathe. Her legs trembled with every step forward.
How many bruises would she come away with this time?
Most of the time, she managed to stay out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. Throughout her childhood, she’d kept in his good graces, merely by keeping out of the house as much as possible. At first, it had been tutoring with the vicar, who’d been kind enough to not only teach her but allowed her to spend hours in his library reading everything she could. He’d understood her need to stay away from her foster-father and had abetted her in every way possible.
When Mr. Rowan had apprenticed her to the local seamstress, she’d spent her days and sometimes well into the night sewing. He’d been happy because she was earning money, and every penny she earned made him richer.
But now… Now, she wondered, what more did he want from her?
“Sit down,” he said, by way of greeting when she walked into his bedchamber.
She did so immediately, sitting on the edge of his bed—the only place for her to sit.
He paced for a moment before stopping directly in front of her. He smiled.
Tina felt a cold bead of sweat roll down her back between her shoulder blades.
“Congratulations, my dear,” he said, holding the unnatural smile on his face. “You are to be married.”
“What?” she breathed. She’d not heard a word of this—not a whisper from anyone in the household. Had they not known? Or she supposed it was simply that they didn’t care. One would have thought growing up in the household would have endeared her to this family that raised her, but no, they’d only felt contempt for her and hadn’t once felt the need to hide it. She thought her foster-mother held some affection for her. Her four foster-siblings had made it abundantly clear throughout her life that they felt nothing for the illegitimate child who’d been thrust on them.
“You’ll be marrying Caleb,” he said, naming his eldest son.
“But…” She stopped. She didn’t dare argue, or could she? It was merely a question of how badly he’d beat her if she did. But surely there had to be a way out of this. She couldn’t, wouldn’t marry her foster-brother. He was cut from the same cloth as her foster-father.
He was not a nice man.
“When you marry him, your monthly allowance will go to him,” her foster-father said, the smile fading from his lips.
Oh. So that’s what this was. He wanted to keep her allowance—the money her biological mother paid for her upkeep.
“You just want to keep the money in the family,” Tina said to confirm her suspicions.
He stared at her neither confirming nor denying it.
“But if I marry Caleb, he’ll get the money, not you,” she pointed out needlessly, but she was thinking this through, looking for a way out. “What if I could ensure you continued receiving the money?”
She would do anything, anything at all to keep from marrying her brute of a brother.
Her foster-father narrowed his eyes. “And just how would you do that?”
“I could… I could work and—”
“You do work, but you are twenty years old. Lady Norman expects you to marry. If you do, it’s going to be to Caleb.”
“Lady Norman has said she wants me to get married?” Tina asked. Her biological mother hadn’t said anything to her when they’d met just the week before at the seamstress’s shop. Tina had made Lady Norman three gowns. She’d been very happy with them and very happy that Tina had made and designed them. But not a word about marriage had been spoken.
“She hasn’t,” her foster-father conceded, “but it’s just a matter of time. You’re twenty!”
“Perhaps I can forestall her…” Tina suggested.
“You need to marry. You will marry Caleb. End of discussion!” Her foster-father turned to leave. He wasn’t a man of many words, and he was not used to being argued with.
“What if I earned even more money? What if I… I went to London and worked? I could send you the same amount Lady Norman has been paying you… perhaps with an additional ten percent,” Tina said quickly before he left the room.
Slowly he turned back. “And how do you propose to do that? She pays me a good sum.”
“I could work as a journey-woman. A seamstress. I’ve learned a lot in the two years since I’ve been apprenticed to Mrs. Little.”
“You wouldn’t earn that much as a seamstress.” He shook his head. “No, you’ll marry Caleb.”
“I could if I weren’t just a seamstress. I-I design dresses too. I could become a-a modiste. To the noblewomen. To the ladies of London Society,” she said, pulling straws out of thin air.
It was true that she had been designing dresses for a little while. Mrs. Werthing, the vicar’s wife had always allowed Tina to look through her fashion magazines, so she knew something of what the current trends were in London.
“Lady Norman was very happy with the dresses I made for her last week, and I’ve made dresses for quite a few others who’ve all admired my work,” she added for good measure. “Lady Norman paid five guineas for each dress I made her.”
Her foster-father narrowed his eyes at her at the mention of the money.
“If I make enough dresses, I could afford to pay you,” she said.
“Twenty? What? No! I still need to be able to live and living in London is expensive. Ten.” She couldn’t believe she was arguing with this man. Her boldness surprised her.
“Caleb will be happy to take you to wife.”
“Fifteen. It is all I can afford.” To be honest, she had no idea how much she could afford, but it sounded reasonable.
“How will you get started? You’ll need a patron,” he pointed out.
“Lady Norman will help me, I’m sure.”
He nodded. “Fifteen plus what she already pays me. You have two months to start paying. If I don’t get my money on time, I’ll tell the newspapers the truth about you, you little bastard, and who your mother is too.” With that, he walked out of the room.
Tina’s jaw dropped. He would let the world know the truth? That would destroy both her and Lady Norman. She would have no choice but to marry Caleb—she couldn’t imagine anyone else would have her.
And he only gave her two months! No one could get a business started and profitable in two months! It would take an absolute miracle!
Not only that, but she hadn’t yet asked her biological mother if she would actually help her. She could only pray that Lady Norman would. Otherwise, she was going to have a lifetime of black eyes and tip-toeing around an angry husband.
~March 24, 1806~
Tina was rather happy it was a smaller group. She wasn’t used to a large number of people. Seven or eight women seemed like a reasonable number. If all of them bought dresses this afternoon, Tina’s new business as a modiste would be made—assuming they liked what she created.
Tina stood clasping and unclasping her hands. Even from where she stood in the game room of Lady Norman’s London home, Tina could hear her mother greeting her guests as they came into the drawing room. With merely a collapsible wall separating the two rooms, it was easy to hear everything. Of the twelve who Lady Norman had invited, seven had agreed to come.
This whole past month had been like a dream. Her mother had done so much more than Tina had ever expected of the woman who’d given her up less than a week after she’d been born.
Lady Norman had spent time with her, telling her all about the women of the beau monde, how they expected to be treated, even who the leaders of society were and what they wore for different occasions. Growing up in her little village of Northram Commons, Tina hadn’t experienced any of this, hadn’t even been aware that one needed a different dress to go out for a drive in a carriage than what one wore to visit friends. It was a whole new world for Tina, but she’d studied hard and committed everything her mother had told her to memory. She’d even spent a week studying her mother’s copy of Debrett’s, so she would know that Miss X was the daughter of Lady Y and not to call the daughter of a viscount Lady Firstname, but Miss Lastname, whereas the daughter of a duke was always Lady Firstname.
It was dizzying, the rules and conventions, the names and titles. But she’d spent her time studying it all. And when she wasn’t doing that, she was studying the latest fashions and creating dress designs. Her mother had bought all of the fashion magazines and given her old copies as well, so Tina could learn the designs for the various types of dresses her clients would need and even advise them on the latest fashions.
Now, as the folding wall in front of her was pulled open by the two footmen, she would put all of that hard work to the test. Quickly, she placed what she hoped was a welcoming, confident smile onto her face. She and Lady Norman had worked on that smile for nearly a quarter of an hour, practicing to get it to look as if she were sure of herself rather than dyspeptic.
The guests were all sitting around Lady Norman’s elegant drawing room with its golden sofa, blue brocade chairs, and inlaid wooden accent tables. All the ladies were well dressed, naturally, but it was immediately evident to Tina’s discerning eye that not all were wearing what flattered them the most. There was even one young woman who looked positively ill thanks to her jonquil gown.
“May I present Miss Tina Rowan?” her mother was saying.
Tina was so overwhelmed by all the eyes on her and magnificence of the scene that she almost missed her cue. For a moment it all felt surreal, like a fantasy she had never imagined possible. She recalled herself and dropped into a curtsy before launching into her practiced speech.
“Good afternoon, ladies. I know that Lady Norman has already thanked you for coming, but I would just like to add my thanks as well. I invite you all to come and see the fabrics I have here. You should have already had an opportunity to see some of the fashion plates I have prepared for you, but if there is something that you’ve seen elsewhere, please know that I will do my utmost to recreate what you have in mind. I do hope I have the opportunity to work with you all.” She gave another little bob and a smile.
The ladies all sat staring at her for a breath, and then a few got up to examine the material Tina had laid out on a card table next to her. Lady Norman’s footmen hadn’t removed any of the furniture of the game room but merely rearranged it. The only change to the furnishings had been the addition of the full-length cheval mirror from Lady Norman’s dressing room so that the women could hold the material up and imagine what they would look like in a dress made from it.
Eventually, all of the women joined her in the gaming room. Most were talking amongst themselves, but one young woman about Tina’s age with auburn hair and strikingly pale blue eyes came up and fingered a yellow silk saying, “My father wishes I were more concerned with my attire. It’s one reason why I came today.” She looked up and smiled at Tina. “I’m afraid such things as dresses and fashion just never interested me.”
Tina returned her smile and felt herself relaxing a little. “I can understand. I don’t know that I would have become so interested if I hadn’t been apprenticed to a seamstress from a young age.” She picked up the material the woman had been eying. “If you would permit me, my lady?” Tina asked. She unraveled a swath of it from the bolt. “This yellow would bring out the blue in your eyes and the pink in your cheeks. Just look in the mirror, if you would?” She placed the material over the lady’s shoulder and directed the woman’s gaze to the mirror. It really was a stunning color on her.
“Oh, yes! My goodness, I’ve never worn yellow before. I’m afraid I never really liked the color, but… My, it does do all that you said it would.”
Tina tried to hide a grin of triumph. Her first sale!
She shifted the material so that it stretched across the woman’s slender chest. “If you would imagine this with a square neckline and then caught just below your bosom so the skirt falls elegantly to the floor.” Tina tilted her head seeing the dress already made in her mind’s eye. “Would you consider a small train? This could be a lovely carriage dress or even something you might wear for visiting.”
“I was wondering if it could be a ball gown? I don’t have very many,” the lady said. “I know young ladies are supposed to wear white, but it just makes my hair look horribly red.”
“It’s because you’re not wearing the correct shade of white.” Tina put down the yellow and unraveled a creamy white silk. She gave the material a twist and draped it across her chest so that the twist fell between her breasts. “Some pleating here to emphasize your lovely shape and a sleeve capping of this material then shifting into a cream lace.” Tina adjusted the gown in her mind.
“When you are finished with Miss Hemshawe,” another young woman said, coming up to them, “I would like to have a dress made.” She had been looking at a bolt of fine sprigged cotton with green and pale purple flowers that would have looked nice on Tina herself because she was blonde and fair, but it absolutely would not work with this young lady’s darker coloring. Tina would recommend another sprigged muslin she had with deep pink and blue flowers instead.
“Yes, of course, Miss,” Tina said. She gave the woman a friendly smile before turning back to her current customer. “Six small buttons going up the back covered in this same material,” she continued. “And pleats below to provide that elegant short train. May I sketch something up for you quickly?”
The woman looked a little dazed but gave a small nod. Tina removed the material and picked up her sketch pad, which she had kept handy for such an occasion.
“Before you wait on Miss Sheffield, Miss Rowan, I would like a gown of that blue cotton in this style,” another woman said. She held up one of the fashion plates Tina had left out, but it was a morning dress intended for a much younger woman. It would require a bit of altering to be appropriate for the middle-aged woman holding the drawing.
“Yes, my lady, I’ll be with you in just a moment,” Tina said, suddenly feeling rather overwhelmed.
Very quickly, she did a rough sketch of the gown that had been in her mind for Miss Hemshawe.
“That’s amazing!” the first young woman exclaimed, looking over Tina’s shoulder. “What an incredible talent you have, Miss Rowan.”
Tina turned and gave the woman a true smile. “Thank you, my lady. Would you be interested in commissioning this gown?”
“Yes, I would, thank you,” the woman said. “But I’m the daughter of a baron, not my lady,” she added with a kind smile.
“I do beg your pardon!” Tina said, quickly. She was already making faux pas. Thank goodness, Miss Hemshawe didn’t seem to mind.
“That is very pretty, Miss Hemshawe,” said an older woman with fair hair in a complicated coiffure and very large brown eyes. She was a larger woman who obviously enjoyed rich food. Making a dress that complemented her figure would be a bit of a challenge, but Tina could do it.
“Do you think so, Your Grace? I know so little about fashion,” Miss Hemshawe said, looking to the older woman for approval.
“Yes. It will be very flattering, and goodness knows you could use a new ball gown. I think I saw you in the same one twice within the past few weeks, did I not?”
“Oh, dear. I do have two gowns that are nearly the same color. Could it be that you mistook the two for the same dress?”
“I suppose that is possible,” the duchess conceded.
A small black and white dog with a feathered tail and long floppy ears nosed over, sniffing at the material.
“Can I interest you in a gown, Your Grace?” Tina asked, so proud of herself for remembering not to say ‘my lady’ to a duchess.
“Me? Oh, goodness, no! I have used the same modiste for the past fifteen years. I am not interested, thank you. However, judging from the dress you made for Lady Norman, you do fine work.” She turned and looked about. “Mrs. Aldridge! Please remove your animal at once, it is getting amongst the fabric!” She called out. “Disgusting creature,” she added under her breath.
Tina picked up the little dog. “Oh, she’s a darling! I don’t think she would hurt anything, would you?” she said, scratching the animal behind her ears.
The pup had slashed pale brown markings that looked like eyebrows over huge brown eyes, making her expression look very worried. She turned and licked Tina’s nose before laying her head on her shoulder. “Oh! How sweet!” Tina said, unable to contain a giggle as the dog’s whiskers tickled her ear.
Another older woman in a violent violet gown bustled over. “Is my little Duchess being a naughty girl?” she said in a baby voice.
The true duchess winced. “Must you call her that?”
“But that’s her name!” Mrs. Aldridge protested, reverting back to her true voice.
Tina laughed. “You named her Duchess?”
“Actually, I didn’t. My husband did. She always expects everyone to wait on her, and she is quite regal in her bearing. Of course, she is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed created ’specially for the royal family. Naturally, she is a duchess.”
The real duchess shook her head in disgust and walked away.
Tina did her best not to laugh, but Mrs. Aldridge and Miss Hemshawe clearly had no such qualms. They both burst into giggles.
“Well, she is adorable,” Tina said as she handed the dog back to her owner.
“Thank you. As soon as you are finished with Miss Hemshawe, I’d like you to take my measurements. I have exactly the sort of dress I want in mind. It’s one that I saw in La Belle Assemblée last month.”
“Oh, I’ve seen the new magazine. It has beautiful and quite forward-thinking gowns. I’d be honored to make one for you, madam,” Tina said. “Although, I’m afraid two other ladies are ahead of you in their requests that I create a gown for them.”
Mrs. Aldridge didn’t look thrilled at having to wait her turn, but nodded and said, “When you’re ready.” She turned and walked over to speak with some of the other ladies who had sat down at one of the card tables. A deck of cards had been produced, and it looked like they were preparing to play a game of some sort.
It was an odd thing to do at a fashion party, but Tina supposed those women had no need of new gowns. It was all right, she thought. She currently had four gowns to make, and there might be more coming as there were still other ladies looking through her fashion plates and the material.
Tina was busy measuring Miss Sheffield when she heard the footman announcing the Earl of Ayres. Why would Lady Norman have invited a gentleman to a party where the focus was on fashion and dresses?
Tina exchanged a look with the young woman who just shrugged. Clearly, she was as confused as Tina.
“Good afternoon, Baroness,” the man said. There was a pause as Tina supposed, the gentleman bowed to the lady. “You did say for me to visit this afternoon?” he asked as if he was reminding Lady Norman of this.
Lord Ayres, what a pleasant surprise.” Tina’s mother could be heard greeting the gentleman.
“I did?” Tina’s mother asked.
“Yes, unless I got the date wrong from your letter, but I’m almost positive you had said today,” he said with a little laugh.
“You received a letter from me? But I never…” she gasped. “I confess I wrote a note, but then I didn’t mean to send it. I, er, I was going to revise it and change the date before I did so. It must have accidentally gotten mixed in with the invitations I sent out for this afternoon. I do so apologize, my lord.”
“Oh, no worries, no worries at all.” There was a pause. “It looks like you’re having quite a lovely gathering.”
Tina continued to measure Miss Sheffield even as she heard the man come closer. “Your Grace, how lovely to see you again. Lady Sorell, Lady Blakemore, Mrs. Aldridge. Goodness, what excellent company!” The man gave a little laugh. “But I seem to be interrupting something that looks distinctly feminine.”
“Yes, it is.” Lady Norman sounded flustered. “I do beg your pardon, Lord Ayres, that letter should never have been posted!”
“Not at all, not at all. And what have we here?”
Tina stood up from where she’d been bending over her sketchbook, making note of Miss Sheffield’s measurements. The gentleman was arrayed in the finest coat of bottle green with tan breeches and Hessians that shone so brilliantly you could almost see your reflection in them. His waistcoat was tan with lovely green, and gold embroidery and his neckcloth was a confection that must have taken him at least an hour to create. He was, in short, the best-dressed gentleman Tina had ever seen.
He also had intensely green eyes and, although his face was beginning to show his age—which had to be somewhere in his forties—he was still a very handsome man with light brown hair only lightly sprinkled with gray. His eyes creased with the smile that spread across his face.
“Miss Sheffield, that blue material will look absolutely stunning on you,” he said. He then turned and took a glance at the drawing Tina had made of the dress she would produce with the material now draped over Miss Sheffield’s shoulder.
“Ah, excellent, excellent,” he nodded. “I like the line, but to be most flattering to the lady, you might want to raise the décolletage just a touch.” He picked up her pencil that had been laying on top of the sketchbook and made a few adjustments. “You see, while it is a little higher—”
“You gave it a scooping shape,” Tina said, looking at how he’d adjusted the sketch.
“Yes. That way it will be more flattering to her lovely figure,” he said, giving her a smile.
“Yes, I see. It doesn’t need to be quite so low since it has that pretty shape.”
“Exactly! Although I do like the underskirt showing there. That’s a very nice touch, Miss…”
“Rowan. Tina Rowan, my lord.” Tina dipped into a curtsy.
“Tina is opening a new modiste shop,” Lady Norman said. She’d been hovering in the background, but now moved forward.
Tina paused as she looked at her mother. She looked oddly pale but had bright spots of color on her cheeks. If Tina didn’t know better, she’d think the woman was nervous or scared, but why would she be afraid of this gentleman? He seemed perfectly nice, and he certainly had an excellent eye for fashion.
“Is she? And you are helping her get started with this little gathering?” he asked, turning to Lady Norman.
“Yes. She lives in the little village near Norman Abbey. She made this dress for me, and I just knew she had to come to London,” Lady Norman said as if it had been her idea that Tina try to start a business for the ton.
Lord Ayres paused and inspected Lady Norman’s dress. “Yes. Yes, I can see a great deal of potential.”
“Potential, my lord?” Tina asked, stepping forward and looking over the dress her mother was wearing.
“Yes. It’s quite fashionable, but maybe not quite right for its wearer?” He stood back and placed a hand to his chin as he thought about it.
Tina took a closer look herself, and then it hit her. She grabbed a box of pins she’d kept on the gaming table and pinched together the back of Lady Norman’s dress, pinning to hold it so that the shoulders of the dress sat closer to the lady’s neck. “And then perhaps letting out the skirt just a touch to create more flow.”
“Yes! Brilliant! That’s exactly it! That will make it flatter her more and stand out as an exceptional gown,” he said, standing back and nodding his approval.
Tina had never really thought too much about using clothing to emphasize the better features of a lady’s figure, but even doing something so simple as what she’d just done with Lady Norman’s dress did just that—and it made all the difference! The dress was no longer hanging on the woman, but actually doing something to make her look more beautiful.
Tina turned to the gentleman. “Thank you, my lord.” She put true gratitude into her words, and clearly he heard it for he nodded his head graciously before taking Lady Norman’s arm and walking with her to the door.
What an incredible man! He had a knowledge of fashion better than many women and dressed himself to advantage as well. Tina could hardly take her eyes off him even as her mother saw him out.
“Miss Rowan, when you are ready,” Miss Sheffield said quietly, startling Tina out of her reverie.
“Oh, I do beg your pardon!” Tina said, returning to her customer.
“He is quite magnificent, isn’t he?” Miss Sheffield giggled.
“He is! And his knowledge and understanding of clothing is impressive,” Tina agreed.
The Duke of Warwick shuffled the papers on his desk around, but he couldn’t find what he was looking for. He rearranged everything into neat piles, one for each of his six estates, but it still wasn’t there. Finally, he gave up.
“Martin, where is that report from Hanley?”
His secretary looked up from his own desk to Warwick’s right. It was an odd situation, sharing a study with his secretary. At his country estate, Martin had his own room just off of the duke’s study, but here in town there simply wasn’t the space. Luckily, it was a good-sized room they shared.
Martin stood, grabbing a piece of paper from the corner of his desk. “It’s here.” He handed it over.
“Hadn’t you just given this to me?”
“Yes, but then I took it back.”
Warwick looked up at his secretary. He could never tell when the man was fooling with him or when he was being serious. His high, sharp cheekbones and laughing blue eyes always gave the impression of good humor, even when he was serious.
He’d known Martin nearly his entire life—Martin’s father had been secretary to Warwick’s father. They’d grown up together, even sharing a tutor, although when Warwick had gone to Eton and then Oxford, Martin had continued studying under his father and had eventually gone to a smaller university.
“Yes,” Martin said as if reading Warwick’s mind. “I gave it to you, then took it back just so you would have to ask me for it again.”
Warwick frowned at him.
Martin laughed. “I needed it in order to complete the budget you asked for,” he admitted, sitting back down at his desk.
“Ah. Thank you.” Warwick gave a little laugh and a shake of his head. He looked through the report once more, looking for particular indicators that would guide him in his planning for the following year.
The two men lapsed into silence as they both returned to their work until a knock interrupted them.
“Come!” Warwick called out.
His sister, Margaret, slipped into the room, opening the door just wide enough to allow her through.
Warwick gave her a welcoming smile. “What are you up to today?”
“I just… Do you have a minute?” she asked, approaching his desk. “Good afternoon, Martin,” she said, pausing by his secretary’s desk.
The man had risen to his feet. “Good afternoon, Lady Margaret,” he said with a small bow.
“I don’t mean to interrupt your work…” she began. Warwick noticed that her pale blue eyes looked unusually shiny as if there were tears in them threatening to fall.
“You know I will always make time for you. Is there something wrong?” Warwick said, standing up and moving toward the sofa near the fireplace and indicating his sister join him there. The heat of the fire was a little warm for him, but he was certain his sister would be glad of it. He sat at the farther end of the sofa, allowing his sister to take the side closer to the heat.
She folded her hands in her lap. “It’s just…” She paused, blinking rapidly but keeping her gaze fixed on the dark blue carpet at their feet.
“Margaret, whatever it is, you know you can talk to me,” he said gently.
She took in a breath and said, “I think I’d like to return to Warwick.”
“What? But you’re here to make your debut. I’ve already sent in your name to the Lord Chamberlain to be invited to the next drawing room held by the queen. And you only have two more years to find a husband,” he said, confused by her sudden change of heart. They’d discussed this a number of times over the past few months, and finally, he’d gotten Margaret to agree to enter society.
He was still furious at his father for stipulating in his will that Margaret be married by the age of twenty or else forfeit her dowry. The crafty man had even accounted for all the ways Warwick himself could have averted this with the threat that if he even tried, all of the family’s estates but the one property entailed to the dukedom would go to his second cousin and heir. It would leave Warwick with almost no income. He would be, essentially, a duke in name only.
No, Margaret truly had no choice but to make her entrance into society and do her best to find herself a husband. Warwick was determined she would marry no one she didn’t truly care for, ergo the need for her to start looking sooner rather than later. He swore to do everything he could to help her, including escorting her to every social occasion. It was going to be awkward, and a tad unconventional, but for his sister he would do absolutely anything.
“But you haven’t yet received the invitation to the queen’s drawing room, have you?” she asked.
“Well, no, it’s not actually been announced yet, but I imagine it can’t be too far off. And you’ve already made great headway on planning your ball, haven’t you?” he asked.
“Yes,” she hedged. “Cousin Sonora has been a wonderful help in guiding me with that.”
“Then? What’s the problem?”
“I just… I don’t know… I just don’t feel ready, that’s all,” she said to the carpet, now not meeting his eyes and beginning to wring her hands as well.
Warwick placed one of his hands over both of hers, stilling their movement. Her worried gaze flicked up to meet his. She had beautiful, expressive eyes. When he was younger, he’d always wished his had been the same color as hers rather than the dull brown that his eyes were. They did both inherit their mother’s rich brown hair though, complete with its silly curls that looked beautiful on Margaret but ridiculous on himself. He knew carefully tousled curls were all the rage for men; he just didn’t think it made him look as serious and imposing as a duke should be. His father had always bemoaned his curls as well, saying that Robert would have to work even harder to look somber, so as to be taken seriously when he became duke. He’d done his best.
“Why this sudden bout of nerves?” Warwick asked. “Has something happened? Has someone said something?”
“I met with Cousin Sonora’s modiste today,” Margaret said in a near whisper.
“Yes?” Warwick prompted his sister when she fell silent again. “And is she going to make you a beautiful gown for the ball? I suppose you need one for your court appearance as well?”
Margaret shook her head. “Florence had to ask her to leave.”
Florence was Margaret’s maid. “That was very bold of her. Why did she do this?”
“She… she…” Margaret started to blink rapidly.
“You can tell me, Margaret,” Warwick said, trying to sound as encouraging as possible while not allowing the sudden fury that had ignited in his chest to show through his words.
“She said that it would be difficult to dress me seeing as how I was so skinny. She said she would need to pad the bosom, and I might have problems managing the panniers of my court gown. Oh, and she thought I should wear the same gown to my ball as I did to court! Panniers, Warwick! To a ball!”
He shook his head. “I’m an ignorant fool, my sweet. What are panniers?”
“They’re the frame that holds a lady’s dress out to either side. They were fashionable fifty years ago. Mrs. DuBois thinks they’re still worn at court.”
“Oh! That! Good God, no! I mean, I don’t know what ladies wear to court, but they certainly don’t wear, what are they? Panniers to a ball,” he said, thinking about this. He’d had to be presented to the king after his father died and he’d taken over his duties as duke, but that wasn’t the same thing as a young lady’s court presentation.
“Feathers,” Martin added. “Ostrich feathers, I believe it is.”
“What is ostrich feathers?” Warwick asked.
“What women have to wear to court,” Margaret answered for him. “They have to wear them in their hair. Cousin Sonora says the queen is very particular about what one wears, but no one, absolutely no one, wears her court dress anywhere else but at court. Even I know that!” Margaret said becoming more forceful. Warwick took this as a good sign.
“It’s been nearly thirty years since Cousin Sonora made her debut. Clearly, this modiste didn’t know what she was talking about,” Warwick agreed.
“Not to mention that you aren’t skinny,” Martin added.
“What? No! Of course she isn’t,” Warwick agreed immediately. “You say Florence threw the woman out?”
“Yes. I was so surprised at her nerve, but after the mantua-maker had gone on for a good five minutes or more about my atrocious figure, Florence got up and apologized before saying she was afraid the lady would have to leave. Can you believe it? She told her to leave!”
“Good for her. Martin, have we given this woman a raise recently?” Warwick said, turning around to address his secretary.
“I don’t know, but I’ll be certain that she receives one,” he answered making a note on a piece of paper off one side of his desk.
“I fully support giving Florence more money. She is truly a gem. But I still wish to return to Warwick. I… I don’t think I could face coming out now. And who would want to marry a scrawny young woman such as myself? Maybe in another year I can put on some weight or, or exercise more, or—” Margaret began to flounder as her eyes filled once more with tears.
Margaret accepted it from him and then swiped at her tear. She proceeded to twist and turn the piece of cloth in her hands. “But she said—”
Margaret, don’t you dare! You have a lovely figure, but more than that, you are a sweet, intelligent person. Any gentleman would jump at the chance to marry you—and not just for your dowry. That woman was wrong. Don’t give her another thought,” Warwick said, pulling out his handkerchief as one tear began to make its way down her cheek.
“Where did you find this awful mantua-maker?” Warwick asked, cutting her off.
Margaret blinked a few times while looking up at him. “Cousin Sonora has used her for years.”
“Well, it sounds as if the woman ought to retire. She is out of date, and rude as well. No, you need to find someone else.”
“But I don’t know anyone else,” his sister cried.
“We’ll find someone for you,” Martin said.
“Yes. Martin will find someone for you. Someone young who knows the proper fashion for both court and ballroom.”
“Wait, I’m going to find someone?” Martin asked, clearly not happy with this turnaround.
“Yes. You did just say that you would,” Warwick said.
“No, I said we, meaning you,” Martin argued.
“Me? I don’t know any mantua-makers.” Warwick didn’t even bother to turn around to address the man. Instead, he gave his sister’s hands a squeeze. “Martin will find someone for you. Don’t you worry. There is no need for you to return to Warwick. You’ll do just fine with the right woman.”
“Cousin Sonora would be a lot happier—” Margaret started.
“I don’t care what Cousin Sonora wants. She is here to chaperone you, and so she will.” That came out a little more strongly than he intended, but their cousin was turning out to be a lot less useful than he’d hoped.
“She truly dislikes being out in public. It makes her itchy, she says.” A twinge of humor lit Margaret’s eyes, much to Warwick’s relief.
She nodded. “She even begins to scratch at her arms if we’re out of the house for more than a few minutes.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Warwick said.
“It’s actually sort of funny. Oh, I know I shouldn’t laugh at her affliction, but honestly, have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“Never. I think she’s making it up. She just doesn’t like being in public,” Warwick said, shaking his head ruefully. If there were anyone else who could chaperone his sister, he would happily call on them, but there was no one. His father’s sister had passed away a number of years ago, and his mother hadn’t had any close female relatives.
“It’s quite possible. I can’t blame her. I don’t love being out in public either, and now I’m going to be the very center of attention at this ball,” his sister said, beginning to look worried once more.
“I know you don’t like so much attention, but you do love to dance. Just think of all the fun you’re going to have,” he offered.
“I don’t—” she started.
“Now who is being silly? You love to dance! I’ve seen you do so any number of times when Mama invited people over,” he argued. True, they’d been very small gatherings, and only close friends had been invited, but he distinctly remembered watching his sister laugh and have fun as she danced. It had made him happy just to see her begin to come out of her shell.
“Yes, but Mama’s not…” Tears filled his sister’s eyes once more.
It had merely been two years since their parents had succumbed one after the other to influenza. A more difficult winter they’d not had in years. Margaret herself had gotten sick, but thankfully recovered, being young and in excellent health. Their parents had not.
“I’m here with you, Margaret. I promised you that I’d be here, didn’t I? And have I ever not kept a promise?”
“You’ve always been wonderful,” she admitted.
“Then you’ve got nothing to worry about. You continue on with your preparations, Martin will find you a mantua-maker, and everything will be fine.”
“You know, I don’t think I’ve got time to go about searching for the right woman. I’ve got—” his secretary started.
“The budget can wait, Martin. We only have two weeks before the ball,” Warwick reminded him. “You will find a modiste today.”
“Wie Sie wünschen, Mein Herr,” Martin said, standing and clicking his heels together as he bowed low.
Warwick just frowned at his man, but Margaret began to giggle. “I do love it when you do that. Do you still remember your German, Martin?”
“Natürlich, Ich werde meine Mutterspache nie vergessen, Lady Margaret,” he answered, giving her a little wink.
“Ausgezeichnet. Ich hoffe, Sie tun es nie,” she answered.
“I have no idea what you two are saying, you do know that?” Warwick interrupted.
Margaret giggled, and Martin gave her a conspiratorial wink.
“You know I learned the language myself just so you would have someone to speak with, aside from your father. Especially since someone,” she turned and looked at Warwick, “refused to do so.”
“I was learning French, Latin, Greek, and Italian! I refused to learn yet another language,” Warwick protested.
“But you could have spoken it with Martin, and no one but the two of you would have understood each other, like we just did,” she argued.
“And you,” he pointed out. “You would have understood us.”
“Well, yes, and me.” She gave him a broad smile. “But that means Martin and I have a secret language you will never understand.”
Warwick sighed. “So, what did you two say to each other?”
“Oh, nothing,” his sister said, clearly pleased with herself.
Martin laughed. “I will do my utmost to find you the best modiste in London, meine Dame.”
Margaret lost a little of the happiness in her eyes at the reminder but accepted his words with a nod of her head. She gave Warwick a little kiss on his cheek, then left the room.
As soon as she was gone, Martin turned back to Warwick. “Where the hell am I going to find a mantua-maker? I haven’t the least notion about ladies’…” he waved his hands ineffectually in the air, “things.”
Warwick stood. “I haven’t the foggiest. What did you and Margaret say to each other?”
Martin sighed. “Nothing of import, but I know you, and you’re not going to stop asking until I tell you.”
“No.” Warwick waited for an answer.
“I told her that I would never forget how to speak German, and she said she hoped I never would. Are you happy?”
“Yes.” He sat down at his desk.
“Wait, I’ve answered you, now how am I supposed to find a modiste?”
“I told you. I have absolutely no idea. I don’t know about these things either. You figure it out.” Warwick went to go back to his work. This was why he had a secretary, to do that which he simply didn’t have time to handle—like finding a modiste for Margaret.
“But she’s your sister!” Martin protested.
“Yes, and I’m your employer.”
Christianne stepped down from her coach outside of Layton’s drapery shop at Covent Garden. Unlike most ladies, she wasn’t at all tempted to go into the shop to peruse the latest poplins. Unlike her daughter, sadly, she had no interest in fabrics and fashions. No, she was more of a people person, and in particular, people who she cared about.
She, therefore, proceeded next door and climbed the stairs to the first-floor flat above the bank where she’d managed to secure lodgings for her daughter. Tina herself answered on the first knock.
“Don’t you have someone to answer the door for you?” Christianne asked after they’d gotten through the regular pleasantries and she’d been admitted into the drawing room. The room smelled like cotton, and it was no wonder—aside from the small seating area, most of the room was taken up by a large table covered with bolts of material. More stood against the walls, carefully arranged by color.
“No. But that’s all right, I don’t need anyone. I’ve hired a daily to clean and cook in the afternoons,” Tina said, sitting on the lovely new pale green sofa Christianne had insisted on buying for her. Tina indicated she should take the comfortable matching chair.
“You will tell me if you need any funds,” Christianne said, giving her a warm and, she hoped, motherly smile.
Tina smiled back at her indulgently. “I think you’ve done more than enough already.”
“I could never do enough. You’re my daughter,” Christianne said, wanting to reach out and touch her. She was too far away, however, so she simply had to convey her love through her eyes and hope that Tina would recognize it. They had only just begun to get to know each other, and Christianne wanted so much to have the opportunity to continue to do so.
The problem was that Tina was still so reserved around her. Christianne was doing everything she could to make her feel more comfortable. She had lavished time and money on the girl, and now, she supposed, she just had to be patient and allow for all that she’d done to take root in her daughter’s heart.
Tina’s gaze dropped to the bare wooden floor at her feet. “I appreciate all that you’ve done.”
“Stop. We agreed that you were not going to continue to thank me, didn’t we?” Christianne reminded her.
“Yes, we did.” Tina looked up and gave her a timid smile. “However, I cannot not thank you once again for hosting that party for me. Four dresses were ordered and not one of the ladies who ordered them asked how much they would cost!”
Christianne laughed. “No, naturally, they would not. I only invited those who I knew could easily afford the most expensive gowns. You should feel free to charge them handsomely.”
“Oh no, I couldn’t!”
“No, truly, you must. If you charge too little, they’ll think that the quality isn’t good.”
“But if I charge too much, they won’t come back and order more or recommend me to others,” Tina argued.
“That’s true. You should charge just a little higher than average so that they feel they’re getting something special. I should think about twice what I paid for the gowns you made for me,” Christianne said, thinking it through.
“Seriously? Twice?” Tina asked, shocked.
“Oh, absolutely! Those were ordered from a little village seamstress. These gowns were ordered from a London modiste. It’s completely different.”
“But I made your gowns the same way I’m going to make these. Although, I will go to these ladies’ homes for their fittings rather than ask them to come to me.”
Christianne shook her head. “That makes no difference. The point is where you are and the fact that your services are exclusive to only the best of the haute ton.”
“But they aren’t—”
“Yes, they are. You be sure to tell your clients so. Everyone likes to be thought the best of the best.” Christianne lifted her chin to emphasize her point.
Tina laughed. “I think I’m beginning to understand. No matter whether it’s true or not, I will tell my clients that the dresses I make are exclusive to only the best, the highest members of society.”
“Exactly! Now, do you think you’ll be able to finish the dresses you have orders for within two weeks, by the start of the season?”
“Oh yes, without any problems. I should be able to contact the ladies who ordered them and arrange to go to them for fittings in a week.”
“Excellent. I’m still quite thrilled you got so many orders,” Christianne admitted.
Tina gave her a smile and a little shrug. “I was actually hoping that with seven ladies present, I would get more.”
“Well, these things always start off slow. Truly, these women are taking a chance on a complete unknown merely on my word.”
“Yes,” Tina said slowly. She kept her eyes lowered, but Christianne could see a frown was creasing her forehead.
“Is there something on your mind, Tina?” Christianne asked. She couldn’t help feeling as if there was something her daughter wasn’t telling her. She’d gotten this sensation a number of times over the past few weeks as she’d helped Tina prepare for her London debut, but so far she hadn’t had the nerve to ask.
When her daughter looked up, her eyes were glassy with tears. She quickly blinked them away and started to shake her head.
“There is something! I knew it, and I’ve known it ever since you came and asked me to bring you to London. Tina, you can tell me anything! I know I’ve told you that before. Please, trust me,” she said, practically pleading.
Tina closed her eyes for a moment. “I’d hoped to sell more gowns. I need to.”
“Need to? I don’t understand. If it’s the money I’ve advanced to you…”
“It’s not the money. At least, it’s not I who needs it or…or wants it.”
“Is there someone else?”
Tina sniffed and looked away. “My foster-father,” she said very quietly.
“Mr. Rowan? What need does he have for money? I’ve paid him well every month since you were born.”
“Yes, but he wants more, or at the very least not to lose that to which he’s become accustomed. Apparently, you told him when you handed me over to him that the money wasn’t for him, it was for me, to pay for my upkeep.”
“That’s right. I didn’t want him to think of the money as his, but as yours,” Christianne agreed.
“And you said that you would go on giving me this money for the rest of my life.”
“Yes. I’ve always planned on supporting you.”
“Well, he wants to continue receiving that money. The only way for him to do so is for me to be his responsibility,” Tina explained.
“Well, yes, but you aren’t any longer. You’re an adult and therefore your own responsibility,” Christianne said.
“Right, which is why unless I pay him as much as you gave me, plus another fifteen percent, which he figured I would earn from my business, he’s going to force me to marry his son, Caleb, who will then get the money as my husband.” A tear slid down Tina’s cheek, but Christianne could barely breathe.
“The nerve of that man!” she finally managed. “But he couldn’t possibly force you to do that.”
“He can. He threatened to write to every paper in London telling them of my parentage if I didn’t. We’d both be ruined!”
“Blackmail!” Christianne nearly screeched.
Tina could only nod sadly. “Now you see why I need to earn more money, why I need to get more business. He gave me two months to make my business profitable enough to give him what he wants. If I can’t, he’ll come and drag me back to Northram Commons to marry Caleb.”
“Two months! But that’s not nearly enough time!”
“I know, but he didn’t give me the opportunity to argue with him.”
Christianne collapsed back against the sofa. “What are we going to do?”
“Get me some more clients.”
Christianne was silent while she furiously tried to think of how to do that. Perhaps another party? But no, she’d already tapped out the meager store of ladies she could possibly ask. This was what came from keeping apart from society for too long.
“I’ve already made friends with the shop girls and the owner at the drapers next door. They’ve agreed to recommend me to any customers who ask.”
“But that’s wonderful!” Christianne said, sitting up again.
“I hope so.”
“And word is bound to spread as more and more people come to town and see your beautiful work,” Christianne offered.
Tina managed a little smile, the brave girl. “Quickly, I hope.” She paused for a moment. “Can I ask you a question on a different topic, something that’s been nagging at me?”
“Of course!” To be honest, Christianne had had more than enough of the current one.
“Who was that man who joined us at the party?”