Mayfair, London, 1815
The maid glanced out of the window, taking a much needed restorative breath as the sun began to set over the familiar streets of Mayfair. The Parsons household was in an uproar, and she felt like she was rushing around like a headless chicken, from upstairs to downstairs, and then back again.
“Jenny!” The lady’s voice was high- pitched, with a frantic edge.
Jenny sighed heavily. She did not have time, to watch the beauty of the sunset, a cacophony of orange and pink, melding in the sky over the houses. She did not have time for anything. She was trying to get her lady ready for the grand ball, at some earl’s townhouse on the other side of Mayfair. A ball that her lady did not want to attend at all.
Jenny took a deep breath. “I am on my way, madam,” she called, placing her hand on the banister of the staircase. Quickly, she walked up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Susan was in a flap. Susan was often in a flap, but this flap was more frantic than usual.
She opened the door to the lady’s chambers. Miss Susan Parsons was sitting at her dressing table, staring at herself in the looking glass, with a stricken expression on her face. It was as if she was being asked to attend a funeral rather than a grand ball, thought Jenny wryly. But then, that was Susan. It was an understatement to say that the lady was dramatic.
Susan turned, her coal brown eyes wide, sparkling with tears, staring at her maid.
“Oh, Jenny,” she said, in a woebegone voice. “I cannot believe it! I simply cannot believe that Papa is making me do this!” Her face crumpled as she placed her head in her hands, weeping copiously.
Jenny’s heart lurched. Susan looked so bereft, sitting there, weeping into her hands. Her honey coloured hair was dishevelled, falling loosely down her back in undulating waves. Her shoulders heaved with the tears. For all the world she reminded Jenny of a street urchin, sitting there in nothing but a thin white chemise.
Her eyes flickered to the gown in her arms. The gown that she had just pressed, downstairs, for the lady. It was one of her favourites; Susan always looked so lovely when she wore it. A flowing Grecian style gown, of rose silk. Carefully, she placed the gown on the bed, making sure to not crease it before turning to Susan, her eyes softening.
Dear Susan. Jenny had been Miss Susan Parsons’ lady’s maid for a little over two years now. And in that time, the young lady – so close in age to her own two and twenty – had amazingly become her closest friend. Something that Jenny had neither anticipated, nor sought.
She had been filled with a quiet pride, and more than a little trepidation, when she had been promoted to the position. It had only been six months since she had started service in the Parsons household as a scullery maid, after all. It had been a combination of hard work and luck which had led her to the coveted position.
Susan’s old lady’s maid, Hettie, had suddenly retired due to ill health, leaving a gap in the household. It had been Susan’s imperious mother, Mrs Laura Parsons, who had sat her down, telling her that she was to become her middle daughter’s maid.
Jenny had, initially, been terrified.
Miss Susan Parsons had a reputation in the household. She was not a pious mouse, like her older sister Mary, or a shy dreamer, like her younger sister Louisa. No, Susan was more like a force of nature; temperamental, mercurial, given to wild bursts of temper and sorrow, as well as equally intense moods of delirious joy.
Jenny knew that she had led Hettie on a merry dance with her demands and sudden switches of mind. The old maid had, quite frankly, been exhausted. Jenny secretly suspected it was the reason she had retired, rather than the gout which she had pleaded. The servants all walked on eggshells around the middle Miss Parsons.
It had been on the tip of Jenny’s tongue to plead with Mrs. Parsons, but the older lady’s mouth had been set in a determined, thin, straight line. No one argued with Mrs. Parsons; particularly not a young maid hoping to do well and climb the ranks of servants in the household. Besides, the new position was a godsend, and Jenny knew it. A raise of two whole shillings, and the increased status of being a lady’s maid, rather than one that merely worked in the kitchen.
Of course, she had accepted. Mrs. Parsons had nodded, in a satisfied way, always knowing what the outcome of the meeting would be.
Jenny still remembered the day she had told her family, when she had gone home to the tiny family house in Lambeth on her one precious day off. The tears of joy and pride in her mother’s eyes, when she had told her of her promotion. The proud smile of her father as he had sat in his shabby chair, in the lounge, his teeth strangely white against his permanently darkened skin, courtesy of the coal dust that constantly surrounded him in his job as a chimney sweep.
The tiny Bamber house had been spic and span, as always. Her mother was a fastidious housekeeper, and proud of it. All the furniture and ornaments were from pawn shops and fairgrounds, but they were loved and well looked after. Just like she and her five siblings had been loved and well looked after, too, even though they had grown up with barely enough food on the table.
“You are a bright girlie, my Jenny, as well as beautiful,” Mr. Bamber had said, smiling. “It does not surprise me that you are doing so well, after such a short time.” He lowered his voice. “Of all my children, you are the one who I always knew would make something of yourself.”
Dad had always encouraged her. So had Mam. She might not have come from the most prosperous home, but she knew her worth. She was Jenny Bamber, and she was determined to make good for herself. And even the temperamental Miss Susan Parsons could not stop her. She would find a way to survive her position, even if it was trying.
Jenny glanced down at the weeping Susan tenderly. All her fears about working so closely with the young lady had evaporated quickly. Straight away, she and Susan had established a rapport. She was closer to Susan’s age than Hettie had been, and they had started to confide in each other, sharing secrets and dreams.
“Here, my dear,” said Jenny, passing a handkerchief to Susan. “You must dry your eyes. We only have an hour before the carriage is ready to take you to the ball…”
Susan dabbed her eyes, gazing at Jenny pleadingly. “How, Jenny? How can I go, knowing what my father has done?” Her face crumpled again.
Sighing heavily, Jenny crouched near her lady, taking her hand. Susan’s hands were so soft and white. A real lady’s hands. Unlike her own, which were hardened from constant work. Although they had improved since she had stopped working in the kitchen, and Susan had given her one of her old hand creams to use every night.
Gently, she stroked her friend’s hand, her heart breaking for her. It had been a difficult afternoon, to say the least.
Susan had always been intending to attend tonight’s ball, and had even been a little excited at the prospect. But an hour ago her father, Mr. Roger Parsons, had called her to his study. Jenny, along with the other servants, had heard the raised voices. They had heard Susan weeping copiously, pleading with her father. Jenny’s heart had dropped. What was going on?
She knew that Susan had a difficult relationship with her father. They were always locking horns. Mr. Parsons did not like the rebellious streak in his middle daughter at all, and was always trying to tame it. He could not understand why she wasn’t more like the pious Mary, or the demure Louisa. Susan was the most difficult of his daughters – the most difficult of all his children, really. Even Susan’s older brothers, Horace and Giles, who no longer lived in the family home, were respectful, even fearful of their father, doing his bidding without a peep.
But Susan was different.
Jenny had watched in trepidation when Susan had emerged from the study, weeping, running to her room. She had attempted to comfort her, but for ten minutes Susan had refused to tell her what was going on. When she had haltingly started to speak, to say what her father had said to her, Jenny’s heart had sunk further, aching for her friend.
Susan looked at her, now. “My father has given Oliver Ramsbury his permission. He will be waiting for me, at that ball, to propose.” Her face crumpled. “Oh, Jenny, what am I to do?”
Jenny sighed again. “I do not know, Susan,” she said, in a quiet voice. “What do you think you should do?”
Susan sat up straighter, gazing at her maid and friend. The sobbing had subsided. Jenny was pleased to note that she was starting to look a little more composed and steady.
“If you had asked me that, only two months ago, my answer would have been obvious,” she whispered slowly. “There is no way in the world, I would have contemplated marriage, with Oliver Ramsbury. With any man, other than the one I love…” She broke off on a sob, clutching the handkerchief to her mouth.
Jenny’s heart twisted. She knew, more than anyone, how hard it had been for Susan over the past year. A year in which she had watched her friend drown in heartache, and grief, over her lost love. A secret love that they had shared together, right from the very start.
Susan had met Mr. Lewis Leeson at Almack’s Assembly Rooms, two years ago. Her lady had been smitten from the start with the dashing, handsome gentleman. But Mr. Leeson had an unfavourable reputation, even though he came from a good family. He had tried to court Susan openly, but Mr. Parsons had violently disapproved, telling the young man to stay away from his daughter in no uncertain terms.
That had not stopped Susan, of course. She and Mr. Leeson had merely gone underground, exchanging secret letters, which she had entrusted Jenny to deliver between them. Jenny had been the one to arrange their secret meetings. Mr. Lewis Leeson had declared his love, in ardent terms, assuring Susan that they would find a way to be together. Susan had even considered eloping to Gretna Green with him.
For a whole year their love had burnt brightly, but covertly. Susan had claimed that he was a changed man – that the vices of his past, such as gambling, and womanising, which had scandalised the ton, were gone. Lewis truly loved her and wanted to make her his wife. They would find a way to be together. They must find a way.
But a year ago, almost to the day, it had abruptly changed. Mr. Lewis Leeson had fled London, to France, with only a hastily scrawled letter to inform Susan of his departure. He had not explained why he’d had to leave so quickly. Nor had he made any promises to her of coming back and resuming their relationship.
Jenny clearly remembered the day that Susan had received that letter, almost as if it were yesterday. It had been delivered to the house; Jenny had recognised Mr. Leeson’s handwriting when she had given the letter to Susan. She still remembered the cry of pain as her friend had read it, almost like the cry of a wounded animal.
Susan had taken to her bed for two whole weeks.
It had been a slow recovery after that. When her lady had finally arisen, she had still been so maudlin that she would sit in the window seat of her chambers for hours, staring out of the window at nothing. She had not wanted to leave the house. She had not wanted to accompany her mother and sisters to Bond Street, to shop, or to any of the social engagements that good London society offered.
Miss Susan Parsons had become a recluse.
Jenny had patiently nursed her through it. She was the only one, after all, who knew the source of Susan’s melancholy. Her family were at a loss, bewildered, calling doctors, who gave her sniffing salts and bled her, all to no avail. And slowly, she had got better. Better enough to resume her social engagements, and to pursue her leisure activities. But Jenny knew that the wound had not entirely healed; that it was still there, festering, even though Susan was better at hiding it.
Jenny knew that Susan still loved Mr. Lewis Leeson. She had tried hard to expunge that love, to purge it, as if she had drunk from a poisoned chalice. But it lingered. What had happened this afternoon showed that clearly.
“Oh, my dear friend,” said Jenny, patting her arm. “I know how hard this is for you.” She took a deep breath. “When did your father receive Mr. Ramsbury to give his permission? There has been no talk of it amongst the servants.”
Susan sniffled into the handkerchief. “Mr. Ramsbury approached Papa at his club,” she said slowly. “Only this morning. My dear father did not even bother to ask me what I thought of the young man, or if I would be agreeable to the proposition, before he gave him permission…”
“Oh,” said Jenny, biting her lip. “That is quick…”
“It is desperate,” said Susan bitterly. “Papa wants me off his hands. He is sick and tired of how ‘difficult’ I am. I doubt he even found out if Mr. Ramsbury was solvent or knows anything of his character.” She took a deep, ragged breath. “I have met the gentleman on merely five occasions, and barely talked to him! All Papa cares about is that he is not tainted by scandal, like Lewis was…”
Jenny sighed again. Susan’s dark appraisal of her father’s motivation was probably correct. Mr. Parsons was becoming increasingly irritated with his difficult middle daughter. The servants had talked about it often in the kitchen.
“And now, the gentleman will surely propose to me at the ball,” continued Susan. “He has my father’s blessing. I know that he is intending to be there.” Her face twisted. “What am I to tell him, Jenny?”
“Tell him no, if that is what you want,” replied Jenny calmly. “You barely know the man, and you do not love him…”
Susan was silent for a moment, gazing over Jenny’s shoulder.
“At first, I was appalled,” she said quietly. “A knee-jerk reaction, thinking of Lewis. Waiting for Lewis.” Her eyes filled with tears again. “But he is never coming back, is he, Jenny? I will grow into a bitter old maid, and I want a family. I want children of my own…”
Jenny’s heart dropped. It was so terribly sad, listening to Susan talk this way. More and more lately, her friend had started to talk of her wasted youth; the wasted love, that had burnt so fiercely then flickered to nothing.
“He broke my heart,” continued Susan, in a small voice. “I have heard nothing from him, in a year. No letters from France. He has forgotten about me, entirely. He has moved on with his life, and I must move on with my own…”
Jenny was silent. She knew that it was important for Susan to come to her own conclusions about what she should do. It was as if her friend was thinking out loud, as she processed what was now happening. This sudden change in events that she was being forced to respond to.
“Oliver Ramsbury is not a bad man,” Susan said, taking a deep breath. “He comes from a fairly good family and can support me well. He is not offensive, in any way.” She wrinkled her nose. “He is moderately good looking, I suppose, and speaks well…perhaps it is enough, when all is said and done…”
Jenny smiled at her sadly. There was no spark of attraction, and certainly no love, between Susan and this gentleman. It broke her own heart to hear her dear friend talk in such a bloodless way.
But perhaps Susan was being practical. A young lady did have to consider her future, after all. She knew that Susan was getting sick and tired of residing under her father’s rule. She was the type of person who needed her own home, her own servants, her own life. And if Lewis Leeson could not give her that life, then perhaps this gentleman could.
Susan took a deep breath. “I must put aside my feelings for him, once and for all. He is never coming back…and I do not know that I would want him to, anyway, after what he did to me.” She hesitated, staring at Jenny with her liquid brown eyes. “I think that I must accept this proposal, Jenny. It is a quick escape from my father, and I shall have a good life with Mr. Ramsbury after all…”
“If that is what you want, dearest,” replied Jenny, her heart breaking.
Susan blinked back tears again. “I do not know if it is what I want, but it is what life has presented to me,” she said slowly. “I will never love again. So, I must let go of it, even if it kills me.”
She stood up, slowly, taking a deep breath.
“I am ready,” she said. “We must make haste, Jenny, or I shall not make it to the ball on time.” Her voice shook slightly. “And we cannot have that now, can we?”
Jenny gazed out of the window, watching the carriage roll slowly down Berkeley Square. Against all odds she had completed her task, not only getting Susan ready in time, but surpassing herself. She thought, with satisfaction, that Miss Parsons would be the loveliest lady at the ball tonight.
As she rubbed her aching head with a weary hand, she turned back to the dressing table. Hairpins were scattered along it; she had worked against the clock to do Susan’s hair properly, and had been more careless than usual. It would take her another fifteen minutes, at least, to clean up.
She sighed deeply. All she wanted to do was have her late supper in the kitchen, then retire to her small, monk-like room in the servant’s quarters. She would have to keep an ear out for the return of the carriage, of course, to assist Susan undress when she came home, but the next few hours were blessedly her own. After her final chores were done, of course.
Carefully, she gathered the hairpins, putting them back where they belonged. Then, she packed up the hairbrushes, the little pot of rouge, and the complexion lightening cream. All the things that Susan used to make herself beautiful for an evening out. Jenny didn’t think she needed any of it – Susan was naturally beautiful, with her dark, honey-coloured hair, her big brown eyes, and her peaches and cream complexion – but she was a fashionable young lady, after all, and this was what they did.
Her lady had looked striking in the silk rose gown. The pink pearl sheen of it had complemented Susan’s skin tone perfectly. Jenny had worked hard at her hair, too, arduously curling it, so that it framed her face in a mass of ringlets. The rest she had swept back, into a high bun, securing it with a pair of golden decorative combs before attaching a pink bandeau with a matching pink feather.
She always worked hard to make her friend look lovely, poring over the fashionable ladies’ journals Mrs. Parsons bought for the latest in hairstyles, and ways to wear jewellery and accessories. Sometimes, she had to admit, she became a little envious. What she would not give to be able to dress in such a way!
You are not Cinderella, Jenny. There is no fairy godmother, waiting to take you to the ball.
She smiled slightly, as she packed up the last of the things for the evening. Sometimes she did fantasise about what it would be like, to be a grand lady like Susan. How it would feel to wear those beautiful gowns, to have such things as lovely jewels, pretty accessories and her hair elegantly styled, instead of swept up into a tight bun then tucked beneath a cap.
It wasn’t that she resented Susan, for all her privilege. Jenny was practical – she knew that it was just the way of the world. There were more people living in poverty, or near enough to it, than people who were wealthy. And it was just the luck of the draw which family you were born into, as far as she was concerned.
She thought of Susan and her pinched, unhappy face as she had gone downstairs to get into the carriage and go s to the ball. She had tried to bluff it out, saying that she must let her doomed love for Lewis go, but Jenny could tell she still cared. That she would always care, in some way.
Susan had been born into a very wealthy family. She had everything she needed or desired, in a material sense. But it did not mean that she was any happier than a poor maid like Jenny. Because anyone’s heart could be broken, whether they were rich or poor.
She stepped out of the room, going down the stairs towards the kitchen. Her stomach rumbled slightly. It had been a long time since her snatched luncheon of bread and cheese. She hoped that Mrs. Carlson, the cook, had left her some of the steak and kidney pie she had made for dinner that evening.
She wanted Susan to be happy, she thought. And even though she had seen how happy her dear friend had been when she had been seeing Mr. Lewis Leeson, it had not lasted. Susan was wildly romantic, thinking that love conquered all. She often pored over romantic poetry and plays. Only last week she had finished Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, sobbing her heart out over it. Apparently love hadn’t conquered, in that story, but it had still been worth it, Susan had told her.
She had given it to Jenny to read – she often passed along her books, knowing how much her friend thirsted for knowledge to improve herself – and now Jenny was enthralled as well by the tale of doomed love. She tried to be practical and wise when she talked to Susan, but secretly she was as hopeless a romantic as her friend was. She could even admit to herself that she had spent many nights, as a younger girl, dreaming of the perfect man who would sweep her off her feet.
Jenny had wanted Susan and Lewis’ love to succeed, just as much as her friend had.
She walked into the kitchen. It was empty, but Mrs. Carlson had left a covered plate on the wood stove in the corner. She picked it up with a rag, depositing it on the table. It smelled delectable. Quickly, she started eating, trying not to gulp it down, thinking about Lewis Leeson and what he had done to her friend.
She had gotten to know him quite well, when she had been delivering letters back and forth between the lovers. Their meeting place was a certain bench in Hyde Park, right on the edge of the Serpentine. They had often chatted, in a light way, for a few moments. Lewis had always struck her as charming and agreeable; a man who would never deliberately hurt her friend. He had seemed as head over heels in love with Susan as she was with him.
She had heard all the stories about him, of course. Of how he had caused a scandal, a few years before, when he had eloped with a young lady. Her father had stopped it at the very last minute, but not before the damage had been done. Apparently, the young lady was a maiden no more by the time she returned to the family home.
There had been minor scandals, too, with his gambling. Once, he had gambled with the deeds to his family home. His father had bailed him out of that scrape. All of it had been enough to tarnish his reputation, which is why Mr. Parsons would not have anything to do with him and forbade his daughter from it. But Lewis seemed to have turned over a new leaf when he was secretly seeing Susan. He no longer gambled, nor did he carouse with his friends. It had genuinely shocked Jenny when he had disappeared to France, with only a carelessly scrawled letter as his farewell.
Jenny finished her meal. It seemed they had all been wrong about Lewis Leeson. He had not turned over a new leaf. He had hurt her friend abominably, breaking her heart. He had lied to Susan. How could she ever trust him again? Perhaps she was right in her resolve to accept this Oliver Ramsbury. Perhaps it was safer.
But still, her heart ached at the thought of her friend in a loveless marriage.
She stood up, taking her plate to the sink, when she saw a man walking quickly across the courtyard towards the back door. He held a letter in his hand.
Frowning, she walked to the door, opening it before he had a chance to even knock.
“Yes?” She stared at him. “Can I help you?”
He tipped his hat. “Begging your pardon for the late call, miss. But I have an urgent letter, addressed to Miss Susan Parsons.”
Jenny wiped her hands on her apron. “You can give it to me,” she said, holding out a hand. “I am Miss Parsons’ maid.”
The man nodded, passing it to Jenny, before vanishing back the way he had come.
Jenny watched him for a moment, her frown deepening. She was familiar with all the messengers who came to the Parsons household, and she had never seen him before.
She closed the door slowly, staring down at the letter. Susan’s name was scrawled across it. Her heart began to thump painfully in her chest.
She recognised the handwriting.
For a moment she leant against the closed door, feeling as if her feet were about to slip out from underneath her.
It was from Lewis Leeson.
Her hand shook as she stared down at the letter, appalled. How could this be happening, on this very evening? She knew that Susan had not received any correspondence from him in an entire year. And tonight, of all nights, he had decided to reach out to her. On the night when she was determined to accept another man’s hand in marriage.
Almost in a trance, she walked back into the kitchen, sinking down into a seat. She stared at the letter, almost imploringly. What was she going to do?
Her friend might be about to make a huge mistake in accepting Mr. Ramsbury’s proposal. And Susan would want to know what was in this letter before she did anything. Before she made a decision that would affect her future. Before she made a decision that would permanently change her life in so many ways.
There was a wax seal at the back. Without another thought Jenny broke it, her heart pounding, while she opened the letter and read quickly.
17th August, in the Year of our Lord, 1815
My Dearest Susan,
My love. My dearest love. I barely know what to say to you. I know that you probably do not want to hear anything from me ever again. I know that you have probably tried to forget all about me, after my sudden disappearance from your life, but I must put my heart on the line and tell you what you mean to me before it is too late.
I am so sorry, my Susan, for what I did to you. My father decided, out of the blue, to secure an apprenticeship of sorts for me with an old friend of his in Rennes, a city in Brittany, France. He told me he wanted to straighten me out, once and for all, before it was too late. He wanted to make a man out of me. He did not tell me until the last minute, and threatened me with disinheritance if I did not obey him.
I did not know until the last day that I was even leaving England. And then, I had a choice to make. Even though it broke my heart, I decided to leave. I could not elope with you, or offer you anything with no money. But at that stage, when I wrote to you to tell you I was leaving, I thought it best anyway that you forget about me entirely. That perhaps it was the best thing for you. I have regretted it ever since.
I have worked hard with my father’s friend, Monsieur Descartes, and done well for myself. I have even managed to save a little money. I have kept my head down, and avoided the gambling dens and taverns. I have avoided everything. But I have not been able to stop thinking about you, my love. You alone are the reason that I have returned to England.
I have lived without you for a long time now. I could have asked you to wait for me, when I left. I realise now that I was scared to commit, even though I knew I loved you more than anyone in this world. I realise now how foolish I was to not write to you. I can only hope and pray that I have not missed my chance entirely.
I love you, Susan, and I want us to be together forever. Please, will you give me another chance to show you how sincere I am, and that I am a changed man? I am committed to you, my love, and I want to make you the happiest woman in the world, if you will only let me.
I remain, your faithful servant,
Jenny folded the letter. This was a disaster.
She had no idea if Lewis Leeson was sincere in what he wrote. She had no idea if Susan should give him another chance, or even wanted to. She had said this evening that she did not know if she ever would, as he had broken her trust.
But she also knew how deeply Susan loved him, and that if she did not get this letter in time she might commit to another man. A man she did not love.
Suddenly she stood up, placing the letter in the pocket of her apron. She felt strangely alert, coursing with a pulsing energy.
She had to get this letter to Susan. She had to do it now, before it was too late.
Quickly, she ran back up the stairs, towards her lady’s chambers. A plan was forming in her mind. An audacious plan that would probably not work, but she had to try at least.
She was going to become a lady, just for the evening. She was going to the ball.
With a racing heart, she quickly assessed all of Susan’s gowns. The ones that she wore to evening social events: balls, dinner parties, soirees. Her wardrobe was jam packed with them.
Her eyes stopped, resting on a cream silk and muslin gown edged in cream lace. It was simple, but elegant. If she wore this, no one would think she was anything but a proper lady. But it was also understated, so she would not draw any attention to herself.
She took it out of the wardrobe, biting her lip as she contemplated it. If she had been preparing this gown for Susan she would have pressed it, but she had no time now. Carefully, she shook out the creases. It was not so bad, and besides, no one would be scrutinising her or the gown she wore that closely.
She took a deep breath. Was she mad? But it was the only way. She must gain entry to that ball, and find Susan before she accepted Mr. Ramsbury’s proposal. She knew that they would not let her in if she was dressed as Jenny Bamber, lady’s maid. It was the only way.
Quickly, she shed her maid’s gown and apron, shivering as she slipped the cream silk gown over her head. It fell to the ground in undulating waves, seeming to whisper around her legs. Then she turned, gazing at herself in the full-length mirror, turning around slowly to see the gown from all angles.
She gasped. She did not recognise herself at all.
The dress was slightly loose on her, but not enough to draw attention. She was lucky that she and Susan had similar figures. With shaking hands, she adjusted the bodice so that it sat right.
I look like a princess, she thought in wonder. A fairy tale princess, from a story book.
She bit her lip again. Would Susan be angry that she had taken her gown and worn it, seeking entry to the ball? But slowly her doubts faded. She knew her friend. Susan would think it was a great lark, but besides that, she would approve of Jenny trying to help her in this way. Susan would want to know about the letter, straight away.
Suddenly she clicked into action, breaking the spell of the vision of herself in the gown.
She raced around the room, gathering the accessories that she needed. A pair of long gloves. Dainty shoes that a lady would wear to a ball. A shawl, in a matching shade. A hair ribbon, to wind around her head for added effect.
Quickly, she sat down at Susan’s dressing table. There was no time to curl her hair in the elaborate style that was fashionable. She would have to make do with a chignon at the nape of her neck. With shaking hands she twisted her hair into the style, securing it with hairpins before adding the cream silk ribbon.
Her eyes raced along the length of the dressing table. She needed jewellery.
She agonised for a moment, before selecting a necklace. It was simple – a red gemstone in the shape of a teardrop, on a golden chain – but it would do. She also knew that it wasn’t worth very much. The last thing she wanted to do was to lose something of great value.
Her hand slipped slightly as she secured the necklace. At last, she was ready.
She stood up, pulling on the shoes and gloves. She placed the letter in a small gold tasselled tote bag, that all ladies took to such functions.
She was ready to go to the ball.
She didn’t stop to look at herself in the mirror again. She knew that she would pass as a lady. At least for a little while. She wasn’t going to be there for very long, after all. She needed just enough time to locate Susan and give her the letter.
She smiled grimly. Cinderella needed a carriage to get to the ball. And she did not have a pumpkin, or a fairy godmother. Should she walk? It wasn’t so very far.
But then, she thought of Barnes. A footman, who filled in as coachman from time to time. There was a secondary carriage, at the back.
Barnes was a good sort. He would do her a favour, and not ask questions. She would have to pay him back in some way, of course, but she could figure that out later.
Quickly, she left the room, running down the stairs. She had no time to lose.
Jenny gazed out at the darkened streets of London through the carriage window. There were a few street gaslights, here and there, but the streets were fairly deserted. A light mist was just beginning to creep over the road.
She took a deep breath, for courage. Now that she was in the carriage, going to the ball, doubts assailed her. How on earth was she going to pull this charade off?
At least her plan had proceeded without a hitch so far. Barnes had been shocked by her request, but he had agreed. He would drop her at the townhouse, then come back to the Parsons residence immediately before the missing carriage was noticed. It wasn’t so very far, and Mr. and Mrs. Parsons were already abed and wouldn’t notice. She would just have to figure a way back, when the time came.
Now, she needed to figure out how to get into the place.
She frowned. She knew, from what Susan had told her, that ladies and gentlemen were formally announced as they went in. There were guest lists, and it was all done very properly. She could hardly land on the front doorstep, expecting that they would let her in, even if she was dressed as a proper lady. How would she request to be announced, after all? ‘Jenny Bamber, lady’s maid’? They would turn her away before she even put one toe over the threshold.
The carriage rounded a corner quite quickly, sending her sliding to the opposite side. Barnes was nervous; his driving was a bit erratic. He obviously wanted to get her there as quickly as possible, then get the carriage back. A sharp stab of guilt tore through her. If he was discovered doing this, he would be in as much trouble as she would be. Both of them could lose their positions.
Blessedly, the townhouse was looming. She knew it was the destination, by the sight of all the carriages lined up outside, and the grand ladies and gentlemen entering dressed in their finest. Barnes pulled over, a few houses up, jumping down to open the door for her.
“This had better be worth it, Jenny,” he whispered, his face grim as he took her hand to help her down. “I hope Miss Susan is appreciative of all the trouble you have gone to…”
Jenny stared into the pockmarked face of the middle-aged man. Barnes had been like a second father to her since she had come to work at the Parsons residence, always looking out for her and the other servants. He had been with the family for years and was well respected.
“Miss Susan will be very grateful,” she whispered back, her eyes wide. “I know it. And I also know that she will pay you handsomely for what you have done this evening.” She took a deep breath. “Do not worry, Barnes. Your position is safe, and the Parsons will never know.”
“It is you I am worried about, Jenny,” he said, his lips thinning. “If they discover that you came here, impersonating a lady, in their daughter’s clothes and jewellery…well, at the very least you will be dismissed. It could be even worse than that…”
Jenny shivered, clutching the shawl tighter around her shoulders. She did not need to hear that at the moment. She knew all the terrible things that could happen.
Mr. and Mrs. Parsons might accuse her of theft. She was wearing an expensive gown, accessories, and jewellery, which belonged to their daughter. She could plead her case – tell them she was always intending to return them – but if they would not listen to her, or believe her, then she might end up in a gaol or transported to the colonies.
The mere thought of it struck terror into her soul.
She took another deep breath. Susan would never let it get to that stage. Susan would protect her, she was sure of it. Her friend was formidable, and she was determined. And she knew that Susan loved her.
“I will be fine,” she said, trying to keep the tremor out of her voice. “I shall not be gone very long. I will be back before they are even aware that I was missing.” She frowned slightly, glancing up the street. “I am just not sure how to gain entry…”
Barnes sighed heavily. “Go around to the servants’ entrance,” he said quickly. “It will be busy with the ball. People will be going in and out. When you get a chance, sneak in. It should be fairly easy to find your way to the main part of the house when you are in there.”
Jenny smiled. “Thank you, Barnes. I will make this up to you…”
He smiled grimly. “Just make sure that you do,” he said. “And be careful, Jenny Bamber. No high class lady is worth losing your position, or even your life, for. Remember that.”
Her heart was frantically racing as she ducked behind the house, entering the back courtyard via the mews. So far, no one had noticed her. She was safe.
Barnes’ advice was perfect. The back door to the house was wide open, teeming with light, and there were servants everywhere, going in and out. Some were carrying crates of champagne and wine. It was a hive of activity, and if she was very careful she could duck in without being noticed.
Suddenly, her chance arrived. A lull. Taking a deep breath, she quickly walked out of the shadows, ducking through the narrow door.
It was a small passageway, leading towards a large kitchen. She kept walking briskly, her head down. She would find a staircase eventually.
She could hear muffled laughter and chatter just above her. Footsteps were stomping through the ceiling, sounding like a herd of elephants. The ball was obviously in full swing.
Her heart leapt. There was a narrow staircase just ahead of her. It would surely lead to the main part of the house.
But just as she had her hand on the bannister, ready to ascend, there was movement from above. A servant, with his hands full, chatting to another as they made their way down the staircase.
Jenny sprung back, looking around. But there was nowhere to hide, and besides, it was already too late. They had seen her.
Her heart started thumping wildly. She squared her shoulders, raising her chin. She was a lady, now, and she must remember that.
The two servants descended, gazing at her with open curiosity. They were probably not used to the family they served coming down here, let alone one of the family’s guests.
“Can I help you, miss?” asked the first servant, a small, wiry chap with wild red hair.
Jenny took a deep breath. “I am afraid I lost my way,” she laughed, trying to imitate Susan’s accent and tone. “If you could just direct me back to the ball…?”
The servant nodded. “Up the staircase and to your right, miss.” He gazed at her steadily. “Would you like me to lead you?”
Jenny shook her head quickly. “Oh, no, that it quite alright,” she replied, taking another deep breath. “Thank you for your trouble!”
She didn’t look at them again. Quickly, she ascended the staircase, her heart still pounding in her chest. She knew that members of the gentry and nobility would not stop to chat with unknown servants. The two servants would not see anything amiss with how she had acted. But still, it had shaken her.
She took a deep breath. She could see ladies and gentlemen milling around at the far end of the hallway. There was no backing out now.
It was time to join the ball.
No one seemed to notice her as she walked through the throng of people into the main ballroom. A dance was happening in the centre of the room. Jenny knew it was a quadrille. Susan had showed her the steps to it, one rainy day when she had been bored.
As the ladies and gentlemen went through the steps of the dance, and others mingled on the sidelines, clutching champagne glasses, Jenny weaved her way through the crowd, searching anxiously for Susan. The sooner she could find her, and get out of this place, the better.
She gazed around the room, feeling awed; almost star-struck. It was the biggest ballroom that she had ever seen, and it was beautifully decorated. Large blooms of gladioli and lilies were interspersed around the space, in elegant crystal vases. The small orchestra in the corner were impressive, too. She could almost close her eyes and imagine that this was real. That she truly was here to dance and talk, like a real lady.
Wake up, Jenny, she told herself fiercely. This is not your world, and never will be. Stop idling, and find Susan before it is too late.
Suddenly, she was conscious that a few gentlemen were staring at her in a curious way. She blushed to the roots of her hair, opening Susan’s fan that she had brought with her, trying to hide her face behind it. It was imperative that they did not remember her. She had to be as invisible as she usually was, when she was a maid.
There were ladies gazing at her now, with stony looks on their faces, tittering behind their fans. Jenny’s blush intensified. Why were they noticing her? She had taken such pains to choose a gown and accessories that would blend in here, but not draw attention. Had she got something wrong? Was there some indiscernible detail that she had missed? It was as if they could smell that she was not of their class, like bloodhounds.
Susan, she thought desperately. Where are you?
Suddenly, she spotted her through the crowd. She was on the far side of the room, sipping from a glass of champagne as she chatted to a man who seemed to be dressed all in brown. Brown jacket and britches. Brown shoes. He even had brown hair. Somehow, the drab colour made him appear more nondescript than he might have been. A far cry from the golden, rugged handsomeness of Lewis Leeson.
Jenny studied them for a moment. This must be Mr. Oliver Ramsbury. He wasn’t a particularly good looking man; plain was probably the word she would use to describe his appearance. She could tell that the man admired Susan, by the way he leaned towards her with shining eyes. Susan, in contrast, was reserved. Jenny could tell, just at a glance, that her friend was not charmed by the gentleman. Not at all.
And if she did not intervene now, Susan might tell him that she would marry him.
Quickly, she pushed her way through the crowd towards them, her heart thumping.
Suddenly, she was conscious of a gentleman, leaning against a pillar, as she passed by. Jenny couldn’t help herself. She stared, quite openly.
He was simply the handsomest man she had ever seen in her life. And the most impressive.
He was tall, at least a head taller than most other gentlemen in the room. His hair was jet black, as black as ebony, curling slightly at the nape of his neck. But his skin was pale. As she passed by he turned, locking eyes with her. Intense blue eyes, the colour of the sky on a perfect summer’s day.
Jenny felt herself tingling all over. That blue gaze…it felt like it was reaching into the depths of her soul. For a moment she halted in her tracks, transfixed. She could barely breathe.
The gentleman’s face changed. Almost transformed. He gazed at her, looking stupefied.
Jenny shook herself out of the spell with difficulty. She turned her head and kept walking, her heart beating wildly in her chest.
Yes, he was the handsomest man she had ever seen. But he was a guest at this ball, which meant he was also way out of her league in every way. And she had a job to do, after all. She wasn’t here to socialise. Determinedly, she kept walking towards Susan, ignoring the frantic beating of her heart.
“How to Fool a Dashing Duke” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
The last thing Jenny Bamber expected when she became Susan Parsons’ maid was to become her closest friend and support her scandalous secret romance. One fateful night, when Susan attends a ball, a letter arrives from her lost love. Jenny knows that the only way to stop her lady from making a terrible mistake is to risk it all and go to the ball herself. Trying to sneak in without being recognised, she catches the eye of a tempting Duke, who thinks she is a proper Lady. What kind of games will fate play?
Benjamin Dowding, the Duke of Beaufort, was never fond of balls. He is sick of society events, and all the ladies trying to impress him. Up until he sees a dashing lady…one that he has never seen before; a lady so smart and alluring, that he is willing to gamble his empire on her love. But the elusive Miss Jenny Burton proves harder to catch than he imagined. Who is this mysterious Lady, and why is there so much darkness around her? Will he eventually find the key to unlock her heart?
A risky game, a fateful attraction, and a masquerade that blurs the lines between two classes. An unorthodox match that wouldn’t exist in the first place if it wasn’t for the unexpected game of fate. Will Jenny and Benjamin manage to defy everything and make their two worlds one? Or will this romance be doomed forever?
“How to Fool a Dashing Duke” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.