When the Earl Falls in Love
by jessie Clever
Available 21 October 2021
When she looked at her mother, she was reminded of all the things she might have been and wasn’t.
People said it was cruel how it happened. They said other things as well, Audrey knew well enough as she had overheard from time to time in the four seasons she had been out, but she had learned to ignore those things. The bold features of Lady Eugenia D’Arcy had tipped too far when it came to her daughter, and in Audrey, they had become distorted and mismatched. While Audrey had the same wide, expressive eyes, on her they had been rendered rather sunken, which in turn had accentuated her overbite, which she had in place of her mother’s wide smile. And this was without even mentioning her small, pert nose that seemed to go with none of her other features.
Audrey’s hair, mouse-brown, frizzy, and unwilling to form either curl or wave, was never spoken of.
When Grandmother Regina had requested Audrey fetch her handkerchief she had mistakenly left in the pocket of her cloak, Audrey was only too happy to flee to the cloakroom if only to escape the whispers and knowing glances from around the ballroom.
The first three seasons she hadn’t minded. It was nice to sit on the edge of the ballroom with Grandmother Regina and Aunt Verity. Grandmother Regina didn’t talk much since the stroke, but when she did, she said kind things to Audrey and smiled softly. Aunt Verity, who took care of Grandmother, was much the same.
But this was her fourth season. Fourth. And she was rather tired of the quiet smiles and kind words. She was rather tired of all of it.
As she left the bustle of the ballroom behind her and the quiet of the corridor descended upon her, she couldn’t help but wonder.
When could it be assumed that she was firmly on the shelf?
She thought of it. Often, in fact. The word spinsterhood was richer than chocolate on her tongue. To no longer be required to stand at the periphery of ballrooms appearing keen and delighted at any attention given one, to no longer feign interest in the insipid conversation dandies conjured with stunning banality every season, to no longer…
Be reminded every day how she had failed as a lady.
She shivered at the thought and rubbed her hands up her arms.
She hadn’t failed as a woman. At least, she tried to tell herself that. It wasn’t her fault society held standards for women she had somehow not met by magic of her birth. Audrey had other qualities to recommend her. Her brothers were always saying what wit she had, what guile.
But wit and guile did not display themselves well in a ballgown.
This part of the house was quiet now as all the guests had made their way into the ballroom, and she slowed her step, wishing to prolong the time she had in such solitude yet knowing she must hurry to return Grandmother Regina’s handkerchief.
She stepped into the cloakroom only to stop abruptly. There was no maid in attendance, and Audrey wondered if the woman had wandered off as soon as the last of the guests were seen into the ballroom.
For a moment, she stood and blinked at the spot where the maid should have been, and she couldn’t help but allow her thoughts to run wild.
Had the maid slipped away for a daring assignation with a footman? Privacy was likely more easily discovered when the staff and family were engaged in entertaining guests. Or perhaps she’d slipped out the back for a gossip with the other maids and a quick puff on someone’s cheroot.
Audrey wrinkled her nose at this thought. She didn’t care for her father’s pipe, and she knew a puff on a cheroot would make her ill, but the rest of the picture she’d conjured would do nicely.
It would be a far cry more exciting than her own life.
Properly depressed by her rambling thoughts, she eyed the racks and stands of coats, cloaks, and wraps that filled the entirety of the room. The night was incredibly well attended, and the mounds of cloaks she must sift through to find Grandmother Regina’s was daunting to say the least, and she suddenly felt the urge to sit down.
She plunged ahead instead, poking through the first stand she came to. Grandmother Regina wore her amethyst velvet gown that evening, which meant she would have paired it with her emerald and lavender cloak. It should not be difficult to find amongst the more reserved fashions of black wool and brown furs. But after several minutes pawing through other people’s outer garments, she realized the task was going to be a great deal more arduous than expected.
She had reached the back of the first row of stands when she heard the footsteps. It was darker in this part of the room as the only wall sconces lit were near the door, and she stilled, allowing her other senses to take over as she couldn’t see quite well.
She nearly bit her tongue.
The voice was sing-songy and sweet, cloying almost in the way it beckoned this poor Lady Channing.
“Lady Channing, where are you?”
Audrey’s fingers curled reflexively around the cloak still in her hand.
Oh God. She had unwittingly stepped into the middle of an assignation.