Chloe’s stomach felt like it was in knots as she paced around the orangery, almost bumping into the glass. She stopped in time, but her slipper sunk into the soft dirt. Leaning against the glass with her hands and grimacing, she slipped her foot out and then bent over to pick up the offending footwear. Soil had managed to get inside it, and it looked as if it was clinging to the fabric. It was going to be ruined. Her mother wasn’t going to be impressed.
At least she hadn’t fallen face-first into the soil. That would have been embarrassing if Florian had come along at that moment and found her in a state of disarray.
Chloe shook out the soil, dusting off as much as she could, and wobbled as she put her slipper back on. Then she resumed her pacing. She glanced towards the house, seeing the lights on inside the ballroom and people moving around. The little orchestra her father had hired would be playing about now while everyone ate and danced and was generally quite happy. It should be happy when the occasion was someone’s birthday.
But Chloe wished that she could be happy as well. They were meant to be celebrating her birthday today, after all. She was now sixteen, and coming towards the end of her transition into becoming a woman. That was what her mother had said at breakfast as she told Chloe all about the party they were organising for her. One where their family and a few of Chloe’s friends would be coming to celebrate.
Part of Chloe had wanted to ask what friends she was talking about. As far as she knew, she didn’t have any friends. Not ones she could classify as friends, anyway. Chloe had always been one who preferred her studies and exploring rather than sitting down doing needlework and reading. Of course she loved to read, but she wouldn’t be sitting perfectly on the settee with her back straight and book neatly placed in her hands; she would be curled up in the window seat, often in awkward positions, with the page not far away from her face. Studying things that were more genteel and talking about subjects that, to her, were boring, was not something Chloe was interested in.
Plus, most of the young girls her age were mean to her. They weren’t very kind about Chloe’s likes and dislikes, and they were vocal about how they thought she was odd and out of place. Chloe normally wouldn’t care, but when they spoke to her in such a manner, she was very tempted to snap something cutting in return. However, her parents wouldn’t be impressed; she was meant to be a proper lady, and ladies didn’t act like that.
Chloe often wished she wasn’t a lady. If it wasn’t for Florian…
Her heart started to race again as she thought about Florian. Somehow, she had managed to get a note slipped to him, asking to see him in the orangery away from everyone else. With the help of her maid, that had been accomplished, and now Chloe just had to wait. She was missing her own party for this, but she felt that this was really important.
She would be off to London in a few weeks to finish off the last of the Season before it ended for the summer. Florian would be there himself, but Chloe didn’t think she would get a chance to talk to him as she wanted. According to what she had heard, everything was really formal. She didn’t want that. This had to happen tonight.
She would tell Florian how she felt now. That would be the perfect birthday present for her if it succeeded.
As Chloe turned during her pacing, she caught sight of herself reflected back in the glass. With the darkness outside, the glass of the orangery had turned it into a mirror. Her reflection looked back at her, its expression just as nervous as Chloe felt. Not pretty, either. Well, not classically pretty. She was attractive enough, her black hair thick and long and her smoky grey-blue eyes that were called expressive, but it wasn’t something that anyone would call conventionally pretty. And there were the curves she had developed at the age of twelve and they just seemed to get more pronounced as she got older…
How was she supposed to find a husband when she looked like this?
You don’t need to worry about that. Because Florian is going to say yes and become your husband.
Chloe squared her shoulders. She needed to be confident about this. She wasn’t going to be rejected. Florian was going to accept her love for him and return it. That was what would happen.
It had to happen. Otherwise Chloe knew she couldn’t face anyone back inside the house.
When would Florian get here? Would he arrive soon? Or was she destined to stay out here for the rest of the evening when her birthday party was going on inside? Florian wouldn’t be so cruel as to do that to her. He was her brother’s friend; he always looked after her.
Just as Chloe was turning to pace back along the slabs again, the door to the orangery opened. Chloe tried to turn back immediately, but her foot caught in her dress and she lost her balance. With a gasp, she felt the cold gust of air wrap around her as she fell, the ground coming up to meet her.
“Careful!” A warm, strong hand grabbed her wrist and hauled her upright, causing her to slam into a hard body that knocked the air out of Chloe’s chest. “Honestly, Chloe, I have no idea how you’re able to walk upright most of the time.”
Florian. He was here. And it had to be him who saw Chloe looking like a fool. Biting her lip, Chloe removed her hand from his grasp and stepped back.
“You…you surprised me.”
“I noticed.” Florian tilted his head to one side, an amused smile on his face as he watched her. “Then again, you don’t need anyone surprising you. You will just trip over your own feet regardless.”
Chloe glared at him.
“That’s not fair, Florian.”
Although he did have a point. Chloe seemed to be blessed with the ability to be clumsy. It didn’t help when she was really scared about making a fool of herself, which spilled over into spilling things, stumbling at the wrong moment or saying the wrong thing. Her parents were not sure how to handle this, believing that their daughter would grow out of it.
Chloe hoped that was the case; she was constantly mocked for that as well. She wasn’t someone who could blend in with everyone else. Everything about her stood out, and Chloe didn’t like it.
“Forgive me for taking a while to get out here,” Florian said, running a hand through his blond hair. He had been wearing it a little longer recently, and strands of those thick locks fell over his forehead. Chloe really wanted to reach up and brush those away for him. “But Lady Helen waylaid me while I was on my way to meet you. She seemed very keen to talk to me.”
Chloe sighed. Why was she not surprised that it was Lady Helen Knott who had cornered Florian?
“She must have noticed something.”
“Can I ask why did you invite her here, Chloe? I know you two don’t get along at all. So I was surprised when I saw her here.”
Chloe glanced at the house. Even though there weren’t many people at the party, nobody seemed to have noticed that she wasn’t there. No one had come looking for her. She wondered if that would last for much longer.
Not until after she had done what she needed to do, that is. It wouldn’t matter if she was scolded for being elsewhere.
“Her father and my father are friends. So we have to spend time together.” She pursed her lips together. “She’s not very nice to me, if I’m being honest. When it comes to all those who goad me, Lady Helen is the worst.”
Florian frowned. He folded his arms.
“Have you not told your father about it? Surely, he should know what…”
“I would just be told to stop being silly and get on with her regardless. That’s what he said the first time I told him about how Lady Helen called me ugly and plain and I should give up before I was old enough to have a Season because I would just be wasting my time.”
“She said what?”
“Let’s just say I try to keep away from her. Which is easier said than done.”
“And that’s why you’re out here? So she doesn’t upset you on your birthday?”
Chloe was tempted to tell him that Lady Helen had already done that, saying as soon as she came into the room that she was surprised anyone would throw something so extravagant for someone like Chloe. It had had a light tone, but the look she had shot in Chloe’s direction had told her everything.
But she had something more important to deal with. Like telling Florian the reason she had asked him to meet her away from everyone else. It was the reason her stomach was done up in knots and she felt like she was going to be sick.
Was admitting your feelings to people always like this? Chloe wasn’t sure she liked it.
“Chloe?” Florian was now staring at her oddly. “Are you alright?”
“I…oh.” Chloe cleared her throat. “Actually, I asked you out here for another reason. It’s something I couldn’t do around everyone else.”
Here it came. Chloe hoped that she didn’t mess up and that her words didn’t fall over themselves. She began to twist her fingers together to stop herself from reaching out to him.
“The thing is, Florian…I…well, there is something…”
“Chloe, take a breath.”
Florian smiled and approached her. He took her hands, untwisting them and holding them in his warmth.
“Take a breath and get things out a little slower. I know you want to get it out all at once, but you need to take your time.”
He was right. He always knew how to calm her down. Chloe managed a small smile. If only she could lean into him, feel his arms around her for the first time.
“So?” Florian peered at her. “What is it? What did you want to talk to me about?”
“Well, it might be easier that I show you, actually.”
“Show me? Show me what?”
Chloe licked her lips. This was when she would have to be brave. If she couldn’t get the words out, she could do it another way.
She moved closer and rose up on her tiptoes. Florian was pretty much a foot taller than her, and she barely came up to his chin. But she strained upwards, hoping that Florian would know what she was doing and meet her halfway. However, he didn’t move, and Chloe managed to press a kiss on his chin, very close to his mouth.
Florian dropped her hands and jumped back. He looked stunned.
“Chloe? What are you doing?”
“Did you ask me out here to offer…?”
Then Chloe realised what he meant. She gasped and shook her head.
“No! Of course not, that’s not what I wanted!”
“I like you, Florian,” Chloe blurted out. “I really like you. In fact, I…”
Florian held up a hand. Chloe faltered.
“It’s best that you don’t say anything more, Chloe.”
The words sank in, and Chloe could feel the cold seeping through her coat. Her hands felt like ice.
“But…don’t you…don’t you like me?”
“Of course I like you. You don’t need to ask that.” Florian sighed. “But that’s not what you’re talking about, I’m guessing.”
Chloe was beginning to shiver. God, this was going really wrong. What she had been fearing was actually happening now? She swallowed.
“I’ve been having these feelings for some time now, Florian. And I wanted you to know that. I…I thought…”
Florian looked uncomfortable.
“I really wish I didn’t have to do it, Chloe. You’re a sweet girl, and anyone who had your love would be really lucky to have you in their lives. But it’s not meant to be me. I hope you can…”
He was so nice about it, so polite. But it just felt like Chloe was being cut with a knife, and her chest was hurting. She was struggling to breathe now. Rejection was meant to happen now and then, but it shouldn’t hurt like this.
Florian started to reach for her, but Chloe backed away, tripping and stumbling before catching herself.
“Don’t touch me.”
“I didn’t mean…”
“No, you had every right to reject me. It’s not like you and I have anything to do with each other beyond you being Richard’s friend. I mean, look at me compared to you.” Chloe gestured at him and then at herself. “I’m just plain, ugly and fat, aren’t I? You’re the Marquess of Atterbury, and I’m not exactly what you would need in a wife, am I?”
Florian actually looked pained.
“Don’t talk like that, Chloe…”
“How else would you want me to talk? Don’t try and soothe my feelings after you hurt them. I can’t…” Chloe managed to step around Florian without touching him, although she had to step into the soil to do so. “Just…I need to go back inside. My parents are going to be looking for me.”
Chloe could hear Florian calling after her, but she dashed out of the orangery, colliding her shoulder with the door as she tried to get it open and go through it at the same time. Gritting her teeth at the pain throbbing in her arm, she managed to get out and dashed across the grass towards the house, the soggy grass making her feet sink. It was bitingly cold, even more so than it had been when she came out earlier. It was stinging the tears that were now streaking her cheeks.
She hoped to God that Lady Helen didn’t see her before she was able to regain some of her composure. If she managed at all.
This was not how she expected her sixteenth birthday to go. Now she just wanted it to end.
Lady Helen was right when she had been cruel earlier that evening. She was such a failure.
Three Years Later
Chloe looked out of the window and saw the landscape go from the rolling hills to finally seeing some civilisation. They were reaching the outskirts of London. Well, they had to be, given how long they had been travelling. Wales was a very long way.
It would be nice to sleep in a soft bed. The beds at the hotels Chloe and her servants had stopped at on the way from Tenby had been decent, but not what she was used to. It had been a very long four days of travelling.
Her mother had said it would be the right time to come to London, but Chloe wasn’t so sure. She would rather be back in Tenby with her grandparents, but she couldn’t hide there forever. This had to be done.
And Chloe felt like she was ready. For the first time in years, she felt ready.
“So, how long are we going to be in London?” Emma asked, looking out with wide eyes, her mouth agape as she stared out at the new scenery. “The countess said we would be here for the rest of the Season, didn’t she?”
“Yes. Until some point in June, I believe.” Chloe absently picked at a stitch on her skirt. “It’s something to do with parliament being in session. It’s from October until June.”
“And they have to bring their families along with them?” Emma arched an eyebrow at her mistress. “Are they unable to function on their own? Then again, people who sit in parliament are men…”
Chloe couldn’t help but giggle at her maid’s obvious comment about the opposite sex.
“Emma! You shouldn’t say something like that!”
“It’s just us two, my lady. Nobody’s going to scold me for that.”
She did have a point. Chloe knew she should be doing it herself, yet she couldn’t bring herself to do it. Emma Holley was a servant, but she was also Chloe’s closest friend. She was the only one Chloe talked to about things she didn’t think she could bring up with her parents and grandparents, especially her parents. While her grandmother and grandfather were loving and gave her what Chloe needed so she could function in the ton when the time was right, there were things that Chloe couldn’t even tell them. Emma was her confidante, just what she needed when she didn’t really have any friends.
She had acquaintances, but no one she could truly confide in. Even three years away from the embarrassment and feeling like a failure, Chloe still hadn’t been able to let anyone past her defences. The last time she did that, she had been rejected. That pain hadn’t left for quite a while.
God, why did she have to think about Florian again? Chloe closed her eyes and saw him in those last moments before she ran away from him, hearing his words as he turned her down again. Time hadn’t eased the ache in her chest whenever she thought about that. It had become far and few between in recent months, but it was still there.
Emma leaned forward and touched Chloe’s knee.
“Are you alright? You went off somewhere just then.”
“Oh. Right.” Chloe managed a smile. “It’s been a long time in this carriage. I can’t wait to get to London and get out. I really need to stretch my legs.”
“I know what you mean,” Emma said with a smile as she sat back. “I will not be surprised if I collapse when I get out because my legs aren’t working probably.”
“You just want Jenson to pick you up, don’t you?”
Emma didn’t respond, but the cheeky glint in her eye said everything. Chloe was aware of her maid’s fancy for the carriage driver, and from what she had seen the feeling was mutual. Emma would do anything to get Jenson’s attention, even if it made her look like a fool. She was confident enough to do that.
It had been a very long time since Chloe had been to London – she had spent Christmas in London as a small child before – but things were beginning to look very familiar as they began to see more elegant houses in the suburbs. Of course, the last time she had been here everything had been covered in snow. It looked just as pretty during the spring as it was in the winter.
Chloe wondered what it would have looked like if she had come down when she had been supposed to months ago. Would it look like Tenby did during autumn when the leaves were changing colour and falling? Would there be lots of leaves to crunch through?
There were times when she wished she wasn’t a grown woman now. She wanted to behave like a little girl dancing through leaves as she used to years ago.
Who was she trying to fool? She had been doing that just recently despite being really unwell. It was probably what made her feel worse afterwards, but Chloe didn’t regret it.
There wouldn’t be leaves to dance in at this time of year. But the gardens were vast, and she knew there would be time to explore. Hopefully, she would have time to do that; her parents had spoken about making sure her social calendar was filled once she arrived. It sounded like they wouldn’t give her time to breathe.
Being the only daughter of the Earl and Countess of Fairclaugh, she needed to find herself a husband sooner rather than later. It wouldn’t do to get to a certain age and still not have any marriage prospects. At nineteen, Chloe was pushing it, so she really needed to come back to Society and introduce herself properly to the ton.
With any luck, her lessons in how to be a proper lady that she had taken over the last few years would come to fruition.
The carriage eased around a corner, and then Chloe saw her father’s London estate down a gentle slope, its grounds spread out behind it. Even on the outskirts of the city, it still felt like they were still out in the middle of the countryside. But it was just a stone’s throw away from the bustling streets. Close enough to the centre, but far enough out that there was some privacy. Chloe liked that.
Fairclough Estate was certainly looking grander than she remembered. Had her father had some renovations done?
“Oh, it’s lovely,” Emma breathed as she gazed out.
“I can’t argue with that.”
“And this is where we’ll be until…June, did you say? Then we can go back to Tenby?”
“Mother and Father might want me to return to Somerset instead. I should return to the family estate, after all. Or even Brighton.”
“Not back to your grandparents?”
“I can’t stay there forever. And they were getting on in age. It’s not fair on them.”
Even though Lord and Lady Griffiths had told Chloe that she was more than welcome to stay no matter what was happening. They would be happy for her to live with them on a more permanent basis. Chloe wanted to take them up on that offer, but it wouldn’t do for a duke’s daughter to hide away when she should be finding herself a husband.
Finding a husband. Chloe was not looking forward to that. Who would accept her, even in her new state where she had been trained into becoming the consummate lady in the ton? There was only one person Chloe could think of who would accept her as she was without the hard work, and he had rejected her. The one man in her life who hadn’t been cruel to her and treated her as Chloe wanted to be treated.
Only he turned her down. That felt like the cruellest thing Chloe could go through.
What if I encounter him again? He and Richard would still be friends. What if…?
Don’t think like that. Focus on yourself and what you need to do. Not him. He’s not worth it if he can’t accept you.
Finally, the carriage pulled up outside the manor house, Chloe relieved that she would be able to get out and stretch her legs. Maybe she could take a walk around the garden so her legs didn’t feel so weak and she could build on her composure. Chloe was too tired to engage in decent conversation with anyone. Despite it being mid-afternoon, she wanted to retire and fall asleep.
Her parents probably wouldn’t let her, though. If she was lucky, they didn’t have any guests, so maybe she could escape to her bedchamber.
The door opened and Jenson looked in with a smile directed at Emma.
With her cheeks now a bright red, Emma slipped towards the door and took the hand Jenson held out for her. Rolling her eyes with a smile, Chloe followed them. As she got used to standing without wobbling, the front door opened and the Countess of Fairclough came out. She looked as splendid as ever in a dark blue gown with her hair delicately pinned up. Chloe didn’t think she would meet anyone as elegant as Lady Fairclough. The countess was approaching fifty, and she looked remarkable. She hoped that she would look as good as that when she was that age.
Then again, she would have to figure out how to change her body shape. Curves did not disappear on their own.
God, she was doing it again. She had been told by her grandparents that she didn’t need to worry about what her body looked like as long as the person inside was good. Chloe liked that mentality, but in a world when appearances meant everything that didn’t help.
Lady Fairclough smiled warmly at her daughter.
“Chloe. I’m glad you managed to get here in one piece.”
“Mother.” Chloe clasped the woman’s hands, and then accepted a strong embrace. “It was not too bad a journey. Although my legs are probably saying otherwise.”
“Tenby is a very long way indeed.” Lady Fairclough pulled back and smiled. “I’m glad you’re here, anyway. You don’t have any social events until Sunday, so you’ve got a few days to get your bearings and be used to your new surroundings.”
Chloe had missed hearing her mother’s voice. She still had the Welsh lilt to her accent, and it was really soothing to listen to. Much like her parents, who had a thicker accent. Chloe had fallen asleep listening to her mother reading stories to her, even as she got older. It made her feel like she was warm and safe. When she was sick in recent months, it was Lady Fairclough and her reading that made Chloe feel better despite her chest feeling like it was constricting and she struggled to breathe.
She tried not to show her relief as she returned her mother’s smile.
“I hope you’re not expecting me to go to every social gathering possible, Mother. There is only so much I can do before I say no more. And this is my first time entering the ton.”
“Don’t worry. Your father and I have it all sorted, and we know what we’re doing. Just trust us on this.”
Chloe really wanted to, but after what happened with Florian three years ago, she found that she was less trusting of those she loved, even her own parents. That was not fair, but she couldn’t help herself.
Hopefully, her parents would do nothing to abuse that trust. Chloe didn’t want to go back to her old self and hide away from everyone. She would not be put in a position where she was humiliated just by a few immature brats.
Like Lady Helen Knott. If she managed to get away with barely seeing that woman, if at all, then Chloe would be very happy. That woman had been the bane of her life. Chloe didn’t want to interact with her at all, if she could help it.
“Is Father home?” she asked, trying not to look at Emma and Jenson still talking by the carriage. “I’d like to see him.”
“He’s in the study at the moment, but he will be out presently.” Lady Fairclough looked past her daughter towards Emma, raising her voice a little. “Maybe if Lady Chloe’s room is prepared presently…”
Emma bit her lip and dropped a quick curtsy.
“Yes, my lady,” she mumbled.
“Marley will show you where Lady Chloe’s bedchamber is and where you’ll be sleeping. Don’t take too long, though. There’s plenty for you to do once you’re finished.” Lady Fairclough turned back to Chloe and fixed her with a warm smile. “Come on in, darling. How are Mother and Father? They’re letters say they’re still in good health. I’m looking at going to visit during the summer.”
“They’re still going strong. I think they’re healthier than I am, if I’m honest.” Chloe absently rubbed at her chest. “Then again, given the last year, I’m not surprised that they’re healthier.”
“Nobody expected you to get so unwell, Chloe. You certainly scared everyone.”
“I scared myself, Mother.”
Lady Fairclough squeezed her daughter’s arm.
“Well, you’re better now. While most of the Season has gone, there is still time left to introduce you to Society properly. I know you’re looking forward to this.”
Chloe wasn’t, but she wasn’t about to tell her mother that. She just bowed her head.
“I’ll endeavour to make sure it’s a good remaining Season, Mother.”
“Excellent. I know how hard you’ve been working on yourself. I’m sure the ton are going to love you.” Lady Fairclough steered her to the left when they entered the foyer. “Come on through. We have a couple of guests after afternoon tea, and you might as well come and say hello.”
“What? But I thought…”
“This was a sudden visit, but seeing as they’re old friends it doesn’t matter too much.”
Old friends? Did that mean Florian was here? Chloe’s heart began to beat faster. Oh, God, please don’t let it be him. She wasn’t about to make a fool of herself again.
“Perhaps I should go and rest before dinner, Mother.” Chloe tried to head towards the stairs. “After all, I have been travelling for four days…”
“Nonsense. You can do that later.” Lady Fairclough managed to keep hold of Chloe’s arm. “Besides, I’m sure you will want to catch up with your old friends. It has been three years.”
Old friends? Surely her mother remembered that Chloe didn’t have any friends. The only friend she had who was actually nice to her was Florian, but he had been Richard’s friend. He was just being nice to his friend’s little sister. There wasn’t…
Chloe’s body went cold as she entered the morning room and saw the two familiar ladies sitting on the settee by the window in the sunshine. Both petite and slender with blonde hair and wearing dresses of similar shades of green. The older woman had a bit more grey in her hair, while the younger woman had that familiar sneer to her mouth, one that didn’t seem to disappear.
It was now focused on Chloe as she came into the room, her eyes narrowing as she looked her up and down. Chloe wanted to turn and run away.
Of all the people who could be here when she arrived in London for the first time, why did it have to be Lady Helen Knott?
“You remember Viscountess Palfrey and Lady Helen, don’t you?” Lady Fairclough said brightly as she took Chloe by the arm and led her across the room. “They came by for tea and to greet you once they found out you were coming to London. Isn’t that sweet of them?”
“Yes,” Chloe murmured, her eyes still on Lady Helen. “It is sweet.”
She really wanted to turn and run out of the room. Especially with Lady Helen looking at her in such a manner that made Chloe want to squirm. Even three years later, the older girl certainly knew how to be cruel with just a look.
Chloe had never understood why Lady Helen was so rude towards her. She was a couple of years older than Chloe, so they didn’t really run in the same circles. Chloe preferred her books while Lady Helen liked to socialise. Her acquaintances didn’t want to talk about books and something wider than the latest gossip. Chloe wanted solid, firm relationships with people and not superficial ones, and she had managed to cultivate one or two back in Wales. If she could do that here in London, she would be happy.
But with Lady Helen close by, that would prove to be difficult. She liked to hover near Chloe and sneer at her whenever she said something. Being already nervous and tongue-tied around people, Chloe would trip over her words whenever Lady Helen interrupted, resulting in embarrassing herself and looking like a fool. And that was within close family and friends, small gatherings where the friends of her parents would get together with them and Chloe was expected to be the perfect daughter.
How was she going to cope in London within the ton, going to bigger gatherings and social events, when she knew the woman she disliked the most would be present? All of her lessons would have to be put to the test, and it was already bringing Chloe out into a cold sweat.
Her mind raced with ideas on how to get out of this. Maybe she could pretend to be faint and ask to rest upstairs? Perhaps she should actually faint? She could claim that it was a long journey, and it made her lightheaded. Her mother had done it before, although that had been genuine.
Then again, Lady Fairclough knew her too well. She would know when Chloe was lying, and she wouldn’t let her daughter leave.
She wouldn’t be able to get away for now. All Chloe could hope for was that the conversation was kept short.
“Don’t forget your manners now, Chloe,” her mother said as she gently nudged her. “What do you say when you greet someone?”
“Oh!” Swallowing, Chloe curtsied, keeping her eyes on the floor. “Good afternoon, Viscountess. How are things? I seem to remember you were with child when I last saw you.”
Lady Palfrey beamed.
“I certainly was. My son William is two now. He’s absolutely thriving.”
“Oh, congratulations.” Chloe risked a glance at Lady Helen, whose lips were pressed together. “How is he with his sisters?”
“Oh, they adore him. Especially Ella. She loves William. The two of them are always playing together.” Lady Palfrey gestured at Lady Helen. “My stepdaughter is very busy going out to events, so she’s not home much, but she’s so sweet with her little brother.”
Chloe could see the barely disguised contempt that the homely Lady Palfrey and her own mother seemed to have missed. She remembered how Lady Helen had been upset that her father married only a year after her mother died giving birth to Ella, and how angry she was when she found out her stepmother was pregnant. The young woman was good at keeping face around others, but Chloe knew that Lady Helen resented her stepmother and half-brother. She loved her little sister, but that was it.
She was a good actress. I have to admire her for that if Lady Palfrey has been in the family for seven years and she hasn’t noticed.
“Come on, Chloe. Sit down.” The countess guided Chloe to the chair next to Lady Helen, gently pressing on her shoulders to get her to bend her legs. “Now, who would like some more tea? Chloe, would you like to pour?”
Chloe began to protest, wanting to point out that she had just been on a long journey and shouldn’t be serving tea, but she caught her mother’s subtle look before she moved away. This was her way of saying that Chloe should show that her lessons after three years away were not in vain.
How was she supposed to serve tea when her palms were sweaty being so close to the woman who was so mean to her as children?
Rubbing her hands on her thighs in the hopes that would dry them, Chloe concentrated. She picked up the teapot, remembering the little tricks her grandmother told her about holding the hot ceramic item without burning herself. She poured out the tea with no spillage and put the teapot back down without knocking into anything. Lady Fairclough beamed.
“Good. You’ve got a very steady hand now, Chloe.”
“I remember the last time Lady Chloe served tea,” Lady Helen said smoothly, putting sugar into her tea. “She got tea all over the tea tray. I think the sandwiches and biscuits got soaked as well. We didn’t get to eat anything.”
Chloe felt her face getting warm. Why did she have to bring that memory up now?
“I seem to remember that my arm got knocked against while I was doing it,” she muttered, picking up a biscuit and putting it on the plate closest to her. “The group I was serving was rather rowdy.”
Lady Helen’s eyes flashed. The duchess frowned.
“Chloe, is that the way to talk right now? Anyway, that was very good serving, dear. Lady Palfrey, may I have your advice on something?”
Chloe’s heart sank as the two older women turned to each other and focused their own conversation. That meant she would have to engage Lady Helen, and she didn’t want to do that. She picked up her teacup and took a sip. The tea was lovely and hot, although it slightly burned her tongue. She ran the tip of her tongue against the edge of her teeth, feeling the strange tingling. If only she could pretend to be clumsy enough to tip her tea into Lady Helen’s lap.
But that would only result in her getting into trouble, and Chloe wanted to show that she was a new person. More confident and more grace. Being clumsy was not a good quality.
She was not clumsy anymore. And she could cope with the woman to her left.
“So,” Lady Helen said, looking at Chloe over the edge of her cup, “you’re back, are you? Finally entering London Society?”
“I don’t think you’re going to have a good time with it. You were very awkward three years ago.”
Chloe managed to fix her with a cool stare. The woman was determined to put her off-balance already, and they had barely been around each other five minutes.
“That was a different person three years ago,” she said as calmly as she could. “I have grown up, and I have had time away from people to work on myself. I think I’ll be fine.”
Lady Helen snorted rudely.
“Don’t think that you’re going to take the ton by storm. You’re going to be struggling as soon as you step into the room. Everyone is going to look at you and see the awkward, clumsy girl who was turned down by a man who would never look at you in a romantic way.”
She might as well have slapped Chloe. All the memories of that night came flooding back, with Chloe remembering how Florian turned her down. It might have been polite, but he still turned her down. The rejection stung even now, and Chloe could feel it prickling at the edge of her subconscious. The only thing that dulled the pain was knowing that it hadn’t been in front of everyone.
Except Lady Helen. She had witnessed it. And she had cornered Chloe before she went into the house, mocking her for trying to gain the affections of Florian when he could have a better woman in his life who didn’t embarrass him.
“I still remember what you said to me that day,” Chloe said quietly, lifting her eyes to Lady Helen’s. “I remember how much you hurt me.”
“All I did was say that you should keep within your own social standing and now go after someone who is clearly more for you.”
“That included a pauper or someone who likes ugly girls.”
Lady Helen shrugged.
“Well, if the shoe fits…”
Chloe could feel her anger welling up. She knew this was what Lady Helen wanted; she was trying to get Chloe to lose her temper and do something that would be embarrassing, even in front of very few people. She was going to goad her throughout the rest of the Season to ensure Chloe didn’t have a good time.
But she had been taught how to control her emotions. Her grandfather said that a proper lady knew how to keep things back, but he had also mentioned that there would be a time and a place to cut through with a remark that could stop anyone in their tracks. Chloe liked to think she was honest to a fault, and it came off as grating. She still needed to work on it.
But not on Lady Helen.
“I was just going to say the same about you, Lady Helen.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, you talk about the shoe fitting regarding me being better for a pauper and the like. What about the shoe fitting you with regards to your horrible personality.”
Lady Helen’s eyes widened.
“What did you say?”
“I thought that you might have grown up in three years. But it’s clear that you haven’t. You behave like a little girl with your attitude, and it’s not very attractive.”
Lady Helen’s nostrils flared.
“Who do you think you are talking to me like that?”
“You’re insulting the daughter of the Earl of Fairclough, and you think you’re a big person for doing so. Which means that I’m of a higher social standing than you, yes? I mean, you’re just the daughter of a viscount.” Chloe leaned forward. “I think you should learn how to respect others. Maybe then you’ll be able to find yourself a suitor who will stick around long enough to marry you. From what I can tell from your hands, you’re not married.”
Lady Helen’s face was going dark red. Her jaw tightened.
“You do not get to talk to me in that way,” she hissed.
“If you don’t want me to be rude to you, then don’t be rude to me. It’s as simple as that, Lady Helen. It’s basic manners, which I think you need to revisit.” Chloe stood up and turned to her mother. “Forgive me, Mother, but I’m very tired. I might just rest in my room for a while before dinner. I don’t want to be rude and fall asleep talking to Lady Helen.”
“Oh.” Lady Fairclough blinked. “I see. You didn’t seem tired when you arrived.”
“I didn’t want to upset you by not greeting your guests.” Chloe pretended to yawn, only to have it turn into a real yawn, which she covered with her hand. “Forgive me, Mother.”
“No, it’s fine. You have had a long journey, after all.” The countess nodded at her. “I’ll see you later at dinner, dear. We’ll be having it at seven-thirty.”
“Thank you, Mother. Lady Palfrey.” Chloe curtsied at the viscountess, who gave her a warm smile. Then she turned away. “Lady Helen.”
Somehow, she kept her composure until she left the room, and then her legs wobbled as soon as she shut the door. Staggering to the stairs, Chloe sagged onto them and breathed a sigh of relief. She had never been assertive like that, and she had done it in front of Lady Helen. Of course this was going to cause problems, but she was confident that she would be able to handle it.
If she can stand up to Lady Helen with grace, then the rest of the ton was going to be easy enough to handle. Chloe believed she had changed enough that those who were aware of her would not recognise her.
She was not going to be seen as a failure anymore.
“Returning as the Season’s Diamond” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
After confessing her feelings and being rejected by the Marquess of Atterbury, Chloe Tamblyn goes to live with her grandparents. Determined to not let history repeat itself while entering Society as a young woman, she works on herself to become a proper lady. What will happen when she and Florian meet again though?
If only she could manage to keep her mended heart intact and resist surrendering to her soul’s caprices…
Florian Crathorne, the Marquess of Atterbury, feels bad for turning Lady Chloe down, but his guilt transforms into regret when he sees her again and realises his mistake. Yet, every time he attempts to approach her, someone gets in the way. To make matters worse, a well known man turns his attention to Chloe, threatening to fracture Florian’s tender romance…
How many times can a man mend a Lady’s broken heart?
As both struggle with their growing feelings, Chloe wonders if she can trust the happiness she has longed for, while Florian tries to prove how much he has changed. Will they be able to trust each other once more and let their love flourish? Or will people dangerously close to them conspire to keep them apart forever?
“Returning as the Season’s Diamond” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.