The Determined Debutante

Winning isn’t everything when love is on the line.

Clarissa Ellison is your typical Aries: everything is a competition. So, when she makes her debut into Regency London Society, she determines that in order to “win” the Season, she must get a proposal from the Duke of Drayton. The only problem is that his closest friend, the handsome and thoughtful Lord Uxbridge, is quickly becoming someone she can’t live without.

Jonathan, Lord Uxbridge, has always been called “Ox” for the obvious reason—he’s big. But, as a true Gemini, there are two sides to this man. To the world, he’s outgoing, but in private, he relaxes by painting beautiful miniatures. Because his size generally puts fear into the eyes of young ladies, Ox had planned on never marrying. But a large bequest to be given on his wedding day makes him decide otherwise. He sets his mind to winning Miss Buttery-Clements, who can match him for size, but his heart has decided on another—the fascinating and delicate Miss Ellison.

The two decide to be just friends, setting aside the advice of their friend and astrological scholar Lady Preston, but the stars—or is it destiny? —will ensure this is a match made in the heavens.

Chapter One

 

“Ooof!” The pile of books Lady Rebecca Preston had been carrying dropped to the floor with a flutter of paper and one very loud thud.

“Oh! I do beg your pardon,” a young woman said, immediately squatting down to pick up the fallen books.

“No, not at all,” Rebecca said, joining her. “I’m not entirely certain it wasn’t my fault. I’m afraid I wasn’t looking where I was going.”

The girl laughed. “I had my nose in a book and wasn’t watching either.”

Rebecca smiled at the pretty young lady. Her auburn hair was pulled up, but a few strands of wavy hair had escaped, and Rebecca could see that one of her hairpins was about to fall out. She reached out and shoved it back into place before smiling into the girl’s surprised blue eyes.

“I do beg your pardon. Your hairpin was about to fall out, and I, well, I couldn’t help myself.”

The girl’s cheeks flushed delicately. “I’m afraid my maid isn’t very good at putting up my hair, but she’s learning,” she said, reaching to the back of her head to ensure her other pins were secure.

“It can be difficult to find someone experienced,” Rebecca agreed.

“Er, yes,” the girl said with hesitation.

They both stood up, now each holding a pile of books. Rebecca was surprised when the girl stood at her full height. She was extremely tall, taller than a number of men Rebecca knew. She was also, unfortunately, stick thin. Her gown hung on her like a sack—a sack made of good material and edged with lace, but a sack, nonetheless.

“I am Clarissa Ellison,” the girl said.

“Lady Preston,” Rebecca replied. “But you do know you shouldn’t introduce yourself?”

“Oh!” The girl turned a deeper shade of pink. “Uh, yes, of course. It, er, just seemed the thing to do,” she explained.

Rebecca smiled at her. Her eyes fell to the book at the top of the pile in her hands. “The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness,” she read out loud.

“I believe that one’s mine,” the young lady said, snatching it back.

Rebecca gave a little laugh. “Yes, obviously.” She could practically hear the girl swallow with embarrassment. “You wouldn’t happen to be new to Town?”

She gave a little nod and lowered her gaze to the books in her hands.

“It’s perfectly all right. I am not a such stickler for propriety,” Rebecca reassured her.

Miss Ellison lifted her gaze with a grateful expression. “Thank you. My aunt would be mortified if she knew…”

“No need to tell her. This will be our little secret.” Rebecca looked around. “Is she here, your aunt?”

“Oh, er, no. I snuck out of the house to come and purchase these books, I’m afraid. I do have my maid with me, though!” the girl added quickly. “I remembered to bring her.”

Rebecca nodded slowly, trying her hardest not to laugh. “That’s very good. You should never venture out without either your maid or a footman.”

“Yes, I was warned of that.”

Rebecca spied one of her own books in the pile the girl was holding. “I believe the Hutchins Almanack is mine.”

Miss Ellison moved the top book to the bottom of the pile and opened the book that was now on top, as it had nothing on the front cover. “Hutchins Improved: Being an Almanack and Ephemeris of the Motions of the Sun and Moon for the Year of Our Lord 1809.” She looked up with her eyebrows drawn down. “What is that—if you will excuse me for asking?”

Rebecca took the book and added it to her pile. “It’s a book to help me calculate horoscopes.”

She shook her head, not understanding.

“Have you heard of the Zodiac?” Rebecca asked.

“No, what is it?” Miss Ellison asked, clearly very curious.

“The position of the stars at your birth. They determine what sort of person you are and, some believe, can even be used to predict times when good things will happen and bad,” Rebecca explained.

“Really? I’ve never heard of such a thing.” The girl was clearly fascinated, which made Rebecca happier than it ought.

“Oh yes, it is something people have studied since biblical times. The Greeks studied it extensively, as have the Arabs, Chinese, and Indians.”

“Goodness! And it is something you study as well?”

“Yes. It’s a fun hobby of mine.” Rebecca paused and then cocked her head a little. “Tell me when you were born, and I can tell you a little about yourself.”

Miss Ellison’s eyes widened. “March 27th.”

Rebecca nodded. “You were born under the astrological sign of Aries. It means that you are very energetic and competitive. You’re also very caring and an excellent leader. But you can be impulsive and not think things through before you act.”

Her mouth dropped open.

Rebecca chuckled. “I see that I am right.”

Miss Ellison just nodded.

“Are you in Town to make your debut, Miss Ellison?” Rebecca asked.

“Er, yes, yes, I am,” she answered with a quick shake of her head as if to clear it for the change in topic.

Rebecca nodded. “Well, I should warn you, then, to try to wait until you have met a good number of gentlemen before choosing one to marry. I do hope your aunt is very levelheaded.”

Miss Ellison frowned. “I suppose you could call her that. Uninterested would probably be more accurate.”

The little snort of air escaped Rebecca as she tried to hold back her laughter. “Oh, dear. Well, if you need any assistance, please do not hesitate to call. I go to all the best engagements and know a great many people.” She fished a calling card from her reticule. “If you’ll accompany me to the counter, I’ll write my direction on the back.”

“Thank you! You are so very kind, ma’am,” the girl said as she followed in Rebecca’s wake.

Clarissa was let into her uncle’s town house by Tom, the footman. “Lady Morley has requested your presence in the drawing room, Miss Ellison,” he told her in ominous tones.

“Oh, dear.” She quickly handed off the books she was carrying to her maid Annie. The bookseller had been kind enough to wrap them in brown paper so no one could read the titles as Clarissa walked home. “Please take these up to my room,” she said, handing over her hat as well.

She started to jog up the stairs and then remembered that proper young ladies only walked with decorum, no matter what—or so said her aunt. She slowed and walked the rest of the way, her back held straight and her chin high just as she’d been taught.

“Good morning, Aunt Lily,” Clarissa said as she breezed through the door to the drawing room.

Her aunt simply scowled at her as she looked up from her embroidery. Her hair was still the same wheat-blonde it had always been, but the lines on her face told their own story. “Where have you been, Miss?”

“At the bookseller’s,” Clarissa told her. She eyed the sofa and then remembered that she should probably wait to be invited to sit down before doing so. She stood in front of her aunt, trying her best to look innocent and demure with her hands clasped at her waist.

“And who gave you permission to go out on your own?” the woman asked.

Clarissa opened her mouth but had nothing to say to that.

“Did your uncle say that you could go out? I certainly did not,” Lady Morley prodded further.

“No, ma’am. I took Annie with me,” Clarissa put in for good measure.

“You may not leave the house without permission.” It was a statement. A law. A command, even.

Clarissa clenched her jaw but nodded. “Yes, ma’am. I will not do so again.” She hoped that sounded sincere despite the fact that inside her head she was screaming with rage. She’d never had to ask permission of anyone to do something so innocuous as going to a shop with her maid at home. No, at home, everyone asked her for permission to do things. But Clarissa wasn’t the mistress of this house, she reminded herself for probably the one-hundredth time since she’d come to London a week ago.

She was not only not the mistress of the house, but she was a guest—one who was not appreciated by the mistress. Clarissa was well aware of this since her aunt had not hesitated to inform her. She was here by the kindness of Clarissa’s uncle, the Baron Morley, who had been so generous to give her a Season—just one, as her aunt reminded her. And if Clarissa’s father hadn’t been a viscount, Aunt Lily had assured her, she would not even have been given that opportunity, for surely no one would deign to marry an ignorant girl who’d grown up in seclusion on her father’s estate. Clarissa wouldn’t have called being in the company of her eight siblings, her father, and a good number of tenants seclusion, but it was true that she had not exactly mingled among what society there was in Salisbury.

Her father, much to her uncle’s chagrin, cared little for society. Instead, he devoted himself to the upkeep of his estate, which was quite large, to be sure. He did all he could, he informed his children, to keep the estate as profitable as possible so as to rebuild the family coffers. He would not leave Frederick, his heir, with nothing but an empty title. In other words, he was a miser and a bit of a hermit. He didn’t believe in spending more than was absolutely necessary on himself or his children. Everything went into the estate.

If it hadn’t been for the generosity of her uncle, Clarissa would never have been given the opportunity to have a Season—and her aunt reminded her of this daily.

Aunt Lily seemed satisfied with this response. She had just opened her mouth, probably to remind Clarissa that her presence was being suffered only because of Lord Morley’s generosity, when the gentleman himself strolled into the room.

“Ah, here are my two lovely ladies,” he said with a broad smile covering his cherubic face. His brown hair had only a few silver strands lacing through it, and his blue eyes twinkled as happily as they ever had. Although he was middle-aged, his height allowed him to carry his extra pounds well.

Clarissa turned and curtsied to her uncle. “Good morning, Uncle. I hope you are faring well today?”

“I am! I am indeed,” he said, giving Clarissa a chuck under the chin. “But haven’t I told you, you don’t need to curtsy every time I walk into a room, my dear. We are family.” He said the last word with a great deal of emphasis, as if it were the most wonderful thing in the world—and to Clarissa, it truly was.

She smiled at the sweet old man. “Yes, my… Uncle, I’m sorry, I forgot.”

“That’s a girl. Well, certainly no harm done.” He turned to his wife. “And what are your plans for the day, madam? Taking our dear little Clarissa to your modiste?”

The woman scowled at her husband. “Yes,” she snapped. “We’ve already ordered some day dresses. Today we’ll see about a ballgown or two.”

“Do make it three,” her uncle interrupted. “Or even four!”

Lady Morley looked astounded. “My lord, the cost!”

He waved a hand in the air, as if he were brushing aside a foul smell.

The woman pinched her lips together for a moment before continuing, “We’ll see if anything can be done for the girl. She is so skinny I worry that anything Madam Celeste makes will hang on her like that.” She indicated the gown, which Clarissa had made herself.

Clarissa knew it wasn’t the most flattering dress, but she only had three, and this was one of the better ones.

“Oh, I’m sure she will. I’m sure she will,” Uncle Lawrence said with a chuckle. “We will see her transform into a real beauty once she is out of her chrysalis.”

His wife snorted. “Chrysalis, indeed,” she said softly. “Sack is more like it.”

“Well then, I shall leave you to it. I simply came in to inform you that I was going out to my club. I shall be home later in the afternoon.” He gave Clarissa’s cheek another little tap and an encouraging smile before leaving the room.

Aunt Lily shook her head after he’d closed the door behind himself. “He goes to his club every morning, comes home every afternoon, and still, he informs me of it.” She turned to glare at Clarissa. “You see? Even your uncle tells me when he is going out.”

Clarissa lowered her gaze to the floor. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, don’t just stand there, girl. Go and take off your pelisse and then rejoin me here. We’ll go through the magazines and see if we can’t find some designs that will make you look less like a stick and more like a young lady who a gentleman would want to marry.”

***

Jonathan, the Earl of Uxbridge, turned slightly to one side so he could eye the steep steps going down from the attic before he began to descend them.

“Do be careful, Jonathan,” his mother said from below.

He paused to make sure of his footing.

“I wouldn’t want anything to happen to that chest,” she continued.

He chuckled. “And here I thought you were concerned for my safety. No, it is the safety of this chest that concerns you,” he said as he reached the bottom.

His mother laughed. “Your bones are not nearly as fragile as a one-hundred-year-old chest.”

He started down the next flight of stairs with his mother following as quickly as her bad knees would allow. His mother had always been a well-padded woman. Sadly, age, and perhaps a little too much added weight, made walking difficult for her. “I suppose you are right. I have never broken a bone, and this chest looks like it’s ready to collapse in on itself.”

“Oh, no! Do not say so,” his mother said, sounding truly worried.

“Well, all right, perhaps it’s not quite that bad, but mold is definitely  growing on the sides and most likely the bottom as well. I shall have to see if there is a leak in the roof.”

“Oh dear, I certainly hope not.” She then called out, “Robert, is the door to my sitting room open?”

“Yes, my lady,” the footman called back.

Jonathan, or Ox, as most everybody called him except for his mother, carried the chest into the room and set it down carefully next to the settee.

His mother hurried in after him. He took out his handkerchief and was wiping the cobwebs and mold from his hands when she said, “Hmm, no. I’ve changed my mind. Robert, can you take it into my bedchamber? I think it would be better to go through it there.”

The footman, nearly as tall as Ox and quite broad in the shoulder, situated himself in front of the trunk so he could lift it up. But the thing didn’t budge. The man stood up and tried to lift just one handle, perhaps to drag it into the other room, but he could barely lift it an inch off the floor.

Laughing, Ox pocketed his handkerchief and lifted the chest once again to take it into his mother’s bedroom. He could hear her chuckle and say consolingly to the footman, “It’s all right, Robert. There are few men as strong as his lordship.”

“Yes, my lady. It is quite, er, remarkable,” he said tactfully.

Unnatural was what many had called him, but he rather liked remarkable. Ox had earned his nickname not because he was stubborn or bullheaded, but due to his size. He’d always towered over all the other boys in school and had the strength of a full-grown man by the time he was eleven—and it had only increased from there.

“I beg your pardon, my lord,” said Andrews, their butler, stepping into the open doorway.

Ox put down the trunk once again, this time at the foot of his mother’s bed. He looked toward the man as he straightened up.

“The Duke of Drayton is here, sir. I’ve shown him into your study.”

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