The Barefoot Baroness
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by Joan Smith
Category: Romance/Historical Fiction
Description: Laura Harwood reluctantly agreed to accompany her cousin Olivia, Baroness Pilmore, to London for the season. What did she know about nabbing a husband? But Olivia caught the attention of the famous artist Lord Hyatt, who decided to paint her barefoot. And Laura came along as chaperone. When his lordship's attention shifted to Laura, she feared he would soon discover what a provincial miss she really was. Regency Romance by Joan Smith; originally published by Fawcett Crest
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1992
eBookwise Release Date: December 2010
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [251 KB]
Reading time: 161-226 min.
"You'll never guess what, Laura!" Mrs. Harwood exclaimed, glancing up from her letter. The ladies sat in the morning parlor at Oakdene Hall, just finishing their breakfast. A letter was an exciting thing in their placid lives, and Laura was on thorns to hear what news it contained. "Hettie Traemore is taking Cousin Olivia to London to make her bows."
This news had been anticipated forever and did not cause the stir Mrs. Harwood hoped for. Naturally Olivia, formally known as Baroness Pilmore, who had inherited the barony in the female line from her mother, and who was the owner of a tin mine among other vast holdings in Cornwall, would go to London to make a match. Olivia was the sole noble relation of the Harwoods, and was, of course, an object of great pride and curiosity in the family.
"It seems impossible little Olivia is grown up already," Laura replied. "We have not seen her for five years. It was the year I made my bows in London that they visited us."
The object of greater interest on that visit had been Olivia's mother, since dead, but Laura had vague memories of a hoydenish girl with red hair. Olivia would have grown into a proper lady by now.
Mrs. Harwood spoke on excitedly, sure that the next paragraph would wipe that calm smile off her daughter's lips. "There is more in the letter, Laura," she said, glancing at the page. "Her aunt is to be her chaperone. Hettie Traemore is the most indolent creature in Christendom. She wants you to go to London with Olivia, to show her the ropes. What do you think of that, eh?" Her smile suggested this was a treat of no ordinary degree.
Laura heard the news with an inward groan. Her Season in London had been the one dark patch in an otherwise sunny existence. Raised in the provincial quiet of Wiltshire, she had neither wanted the Season nor enjoyed it. And in some devious manner, it was all connected with the baroness. Some envy or competitiveness existed in the family. Laura's mama wanted Laura to snag a title, to catch up with her cousin. It was clearly a case of the sin of the parent being visited on the child, for Laura had no such ambition.
"I show her the ropes?" Laura exclaimed, starting at the absurdity of it. "That would be the blind leading the blind, Mama. Mrs. Traemore knows I did not receive a single offer during my Season. How am I to show Olivia anything? She will need no help in any case. An heiress, and pretty to boot, unless she has changed greatly in five years."
"You must go, Laura," her mother said urgently. "It will be different this time. Last time, we were regular greenhorns. We didn't know a soul. With Olivia to draw the gentlemen, you are bound to meet someone."
"And am I bound to get an offer from some buck who is dangling after a beautiful, rich, young baroness?" Laura asked, dampingly. "Such close proximity to what I am sure will be the star of the Season can only make me appear even less appealing than before, Mama. I will not place my poor candle against the sun of Baroness Pilmore."
"Hettie has invited me as well," Mrs. Harwood added, peering from the corner of her eye. Life was dull in Whitchurch since Mr. Harwood's passing. Mrs. Harwood had no notion of angling for a husband herself, but she looked forward to the excitement of London. "Hettie's back is acting up on her. She will go with Olivia to London but fears she will not be able to keep the pace. She hoped that I would help her chaperone you and Olivia. It could be interesting."
It was plain as a pikestaff that Mrs. Harwood was longing to go to London. Laura admitted to some stirring of interest herself, but it was all colored by the degradation of putting herself back on the marital market. She had failed at seventeen; the only thing that had changed in five years was that she had lost that first sheen of youth. Her chances now were even fewer than before. It would be ideal if she could go to London and just enjoy the pleasures of the city--the plays, the concerts, the drives, and dinners--without worrying about nabbing a husband.
Mrs. Harwood continued perusing the letter, adding tidbits to entice her daughter. "Hettie has hired Lord Montford's mansion. It is that huge house on the corner of Charles Street. She plans to get a season ticket to both theaters--you recall how we could never get a ticket on opening nights--and will be having a large ball for Olivia. All that without our having to spend a penny. You see, she says, 'Naturally I--[meaning Olivia]--shall bear all expenses, if only you will assist me with the chaperoning chores, and dear Laura will show Olivia the ropes.' I daresay you remember a few things that would help Olivia. You cannot know less than Hettie Traemore in any case. I don't believe she was ever east of Wiltshire, and she was only here once. Poor soul. How she must be dreading this ordeal. It hardly seems Christian to refuse."
Laura intercepted another of those hopeful glances, and she knew she must go. Her mama ruled her, not with an iron hand but a moist eye. She could be quite ruthless in her tactics. Now she was using the big cannon: guilt. Next she would start ruing her lack of grandchildren, and the unlikelihood of ever having any, when Whitchurch was so sparse of partis.
Very well, then, she would go. But she would not go with high hopes this time. Her tender heart had hardened--it would not be bruised by heedless gentlemen. Perhaps she could be of some small help to Olivia. She was older and more objective. She would recognize a fortune-hunter, at least.
"Very well, Mama. We shall go, but I want it clearly understood, you are not to hound me into trying to make a match. This time I plan to enjoy myself."
Her mother looked at her as if she were a moonling. "Why, Laura, would you not like to make a match?"
"Indeed I would, and as soon as we return, I shall look sharply about me for some local gentleman requiring a chatelaine for his castle."
Mrs. Harwood paid no heed to this assertion. There were no gentlemen for Laura to marry in Wiltshire, and her daughter would not lift a finger to nab them if there were. She wondered at times if Laura was not a changeling.
She hopped up from the sofa. "I'll get the fashion magazines. We shall require new gowns. And your hair, Laura. You must do something with that haystack."
She was gone, and Laura sat on, thinking. It seemed willful and perverse to return to the scene of her humiliation. She went warm all over when she remembered that Season in London. The endless hours at the balls, where she had sat against the wall, watching the other girls dancing, or stood up with the less desirable gentlemen. She hadn't the knack of putting herself forward. She felt awkward and naive. Her gowns looked provincial. The wine tasted horrid and gave her a headache. On those rare occasions when one of the more dashing bucks took notice of her, she became tongue-tied.
Mama had failed to get vouchers for Almack's. Really, it had been the worst six weeks of her life. When they left London at the end of the Season, she had breathed a deep sigh of relief and vowed never to repeat that humiliating experience.
Well, she would not repeat it. This time it would be different. At least she knew enough not to get her gowns made by Mrs. Eggerton in the village. She would make the short trip to Andover and have that French modiste tend to her needs. She and Mama would go to London a week early, to add those elegant accessories a Season required. The black-jacketed gentlemen who had looked at her and quickly looked away would be dangling after Olivia; they would not treat Olivia's friend and cousin with their former derision.
But really her best defense was that she no longer cared for any of that. She was going as a spectator, to enjoy the show. Even a spectator at the greatest show in England required a touch of town bronze, however, and Laura turned her mind to her toilette. Her toilette soon led her to the mirror to assess her appearance.
She gazed at the reflection of a bemused young lady wearing a slightly ironical smile. She had seen the expression on matrons during that infamous Season, and envied their detachment. When her mother called her hair a haystack, she referred to its style, not its color. It was a deep chestnut, but it did sit rather amorphously on her head. Its natural curl was hard to control at its present length. She would have a London coiffeur do it a la cheribime, with short curls playing wantonly about her forehead and ears.
Her eyes were not possible of changing. Eyes were eyes, hazel and not squinty or crossed in her case. That smattering of freckles across her nose must be bleached away by lemon juice. As she matured, the bone structure of her face became more prominent, showing high cheekbones and a strong chin. She meant to carry that chin in the air, to show her disdain. Her slender figure would be best enhanced by more sophisticated gowns than a deb wore. Bows and ruffles had never become her. As this was not her first Season, she need not limit herself to maidenly white.
Some vestige of excitement began to coil in her. The humiliation of her first Season had never been quite laid to rest. Perhaps this was her chance to squash it.
Over the next weeks, life became a busy round of studying fashion magazines, searching out materials and patterns, dashing to Andover to consult with Madame LaRue, and writing letters to Cornwall to confer with Hettie Traemore in preparation for the trip. Hettie and Olivia would stop at Whitchurch en route to London to pick up the Harwoods. Laura suggested going to London at least a week before the Season opened, to begin preparations. Her greatest regret was that she had not a single friend from her first Season to look up. The few girls she had known more than superficially had all made good but not grand marriages and moved back to the provinces. They had corresponded for a year; then as their families began to grow, the letters waned and finally stopped.
Laura decided that was all to the good. There would be no reminders of her former disgrace. She would begin this Season with a clean slate. The ace in her hand was that her expectations were not high. So long as Olivia made a good match, the Season would be called a success. And there was not a doubt in the world that Baroness Pilmore could have her pick of the partis.