... in which the herone, Miss Jane Denby, and the hero, Mr. Harry Finmore, meet for the first time. Jane is the daughter of a simple merchant and has unexpectedly come into a large fortune. She dreams of being a real lady, and has employed Lady Davenport and Mrs. Mulberry, widowed sisters with financial difficulties, to introduce her into Society. And they have engaged their nephew, George Kendrick, a famous arbiter of fashion, to help them turn a vulgar sow's ear into a silk purse. Jane has just been thoroughly humiliated to learn that all the expensive finery she so proudly wears is are all wrong.
"We can start with a few fundamental rules," Lady Davenport said. "Stand up, my dear."
Jane took a deep breath and rose from her chair. She kept her back straight and her hands balled into fists stiffly at her side, all in an effort to hold in check the almost overwhelming need to defend herself against the assault on her taste. Or lack of taste. She had been so proud of her fine new clothes and her expensive jewels. To think that she had been so wrong was a severe blow to her pride. She was offended, humiliated, embarrassed. But in her heart, she knew that in order to make the best match possible, she must allow herself to be guided by these people who were clearly more up to the mark about these things than she could ever be. Still, Jane suspected that she was not going to like whatever was about to happen.
Lady Davenport and the formidable Mrs. Mulberry each studied her in a way that ought to have made Jane squirm, but there was a kindness in the viscountess's eyes that somehow made this whole business bearable.
"Let's start by taking off your gloves and bonnet." Lady Daveport gestured toward the bonnet that had cost Jane what would have once been a month's wages. "That will make the rest go easier."
The rest? The rest of what? Surely she was not going to be asked to strip bare. Not in front of Mr. Kendrick. Heavens, what had she got herself into? For an instant, she had an almost irrepressible urge to flee, but silently scolded herself for being a hen-hearted ninny. Instead, she plucked up her courage and did as asked, taking care not to dislodge the painstakingly arranged curls at her cheeks and forehead when she removed the bonnet.
Mr. Kendrick did not approach, but eyed her through his quizzing glass in a most disconcerting manner. Mrs. Mulberry scowled. "The tippet has to go," she said. "And the muff."
Jane gave a little moan of regret. She had felt so fine in the bear skin ensemble. "Why? What is wrong with them?"
Mr. Kendrick moved the quizzing glass away from his eye and said,"Dark fur accessories are for dowagers and dowds. Muffs and tippets should be of a paler shade, preferably white, and bear skin will not do at all. If you must wear dark fur, it must be sable or beaver. And then only for the lining or trimming of a mantle or pelisse."
Good heavens. She had no idea there were so many rules about such things. She removed the tippet and set it beside the loathsome muff. "All right. What else?"
"You must remove your jewels, Miss Denby," Mr. Kendrcik said.
Jane's hand instinctively clutched at the emeralds at her throat. "Remove them?" When he nodded, she reached behind her neck and unclasped the heavy emerald and diamond necklace. She placed it on a nearby table and looked expectantly at Mr. Kendrick, whose aunts had clearly given him a leading role in this project.
"All of them," he said. "Remove every piece of jewelry, if you please."
She did not please, but did as he asked. The diamond brooch at the waist of her spencer jacket, the emerald bracelets that matched the necklace, the diamond drop earrings — all were reluctantly removed. While she went about stripping herself of jewels, Jane watched as Lady Davenport stood and tugged on a bell pull beside the fireplace. In two blinks of an eye, the haughty butler slinked into the room and, at a signal from the viscountess, came to her side. She whispered something Jane could not hear. Then he nodded, and left the room again.
Lady Davenport turned to Jane and said, "Lesson number one. During the daytime, Miss Denby, one does not wear diamonds, except in a ring, unless one is being presented at Court. And such magnificent pieces as your emerald necklace and bracelets are also meant for more formal attire. You must save those pieces for a more appropriate occasion."
"Oh." Jane heaved a sign of relief. She'd thought she was going to have to put them away entirely. But perhaps not. "You mean, I could wear them at a ball, for example?"
"Precisely. But even then, not in such ... abundance. A few good pieces will send just the right message about your situation."
"And the plumes have to go," Mrs. Mulberry said, her lips pursed like a drawstring bag. "Like the jewels, they are too ostentatious for daytime." It was obvious that she was less sanguine about working with Jane, that she found Jane objectionable on every level. But as she needed the money as much as her sister, she would bite her tongue and participate.
"But, lots of ladies wear plumes on their bonnets," Jane said.
"Not in such numbers nor of such heights." Mrs. Mulberry shook her head and Jane could have sworn she shuddered slightly. "You might sport one, or even two, plumes at a formal affair, but they should be white or gray, never colored, and not so high as those you are wearing. The overlarge plume is no longer fashionable."
"And on a bonnet," Mr. Kendrick added, "a small plume curling down toward your face is all that is required."
More rules. Dear God, how was she to remember them all?
"Have you never studied fashion plates from the magazines, Miss Denby?" the viscountess asked.
Jane felt her cheeks flame. They must think her a complete flat. "Yes, of course. I have a subscription to The Lady's Magazine. I just thought ... I suppose I thought if a short plume looked good, a tall one looked better."
Lady Davenport gave her an indulgent smile. "The magazines show exactly what is fashionable, my dear. You would do well to follow the styles shown rather than trying to enhance them."
Especially, she no doubt would like to have added, when a complete lack of good taste was involved.
"I recommend to you a new publication," the viscountess said. "It is called La Belle Assemblée and includes very elegant fashion plates of the latest styles. Ah, here is Chandler."
A tall, slender women entered the room, with keen dark eyes and gray in the dark hair that peeked from beneath a fine lace cap. She held several small cases which she placed on a side table before standing rigid, with hands clasped, slightly behind the countess.
"Chandler is our dresser," the viscountess said. "I have asked her to assist us. Did you bring the magazines?"
"Yes, my lady."
The viscountess took the two slim, paperbound volumes when Chandler had retrieved them from one of the cases. "You may borrow these, Miss Denby. Take note of the plates as well as the commentary on the latest fashions. You will see that even from month to month, styles evolve. If you wish to be à la mode, you must make La Belle Assemblée your bible. Now, let us take you apart and see what we have to work with."
And so began a mortifying half hour during which Jane's carefully chosen afternoon costume was removed, piece by piece, with the help of Lady Davenport's dresser.
The chip straw bonnet was stripped of its plumes, one of which was clipped in half and reattached in a downward sweep from the brim, which had been tilted up. The green velvet mantle was discarded as was the sprigged muslin spencer and the high-necked pleated tucker. Jane stood in her simple muslin gown without any adornment other than an embroidered ribbon around the waist and a bit of lace pinned to the neckline of her bodice.
She felt quite naked.
"Less is more," Mr. Kendrick said, his eye hideously magnified through the quizzing glass as he surveyed her from top to toe. "If the weather is cold, wear one beautifully made outer garment of good, heavy fabric. Do not layer yourself in tippets and mantles and spencers and shawls, else you will you look like a pouter pigeon."
"And without all that excess," Lady Davenport said, "we can actually see you, Miss Denby. You have a lovely long neck. That is quite an asset, you know. Lift your chin a bit. Now, drop your shoulders and press them back. Oh, excellent! You see, Olympia? I told you she had potential. Now, about that hair. Sit down, Miss Denby, and let's see what Chandler can do with it. A more upswept style will set off your elegant neck."
All that had gone before had been mortifying in the extreme, but now Jane felt the first real wave of panic. "Oh, no, please. My hair is dreadful. It takes forever to get these curls just right."
Mrs. Mulberry lifted her eyebrows, shot Jane a skewering look, and pointed to the chair. Jane took a deep breath and sat, while Chandler opened one of the leather cases.
"I have allowed you to strip me of all my finery," Jane said in a clipped voice. "Please do not strip me of my hair as well."
But Chandler, following Mrs. Mulberry's instructions, put a comb to the tight curls at Jane's ear. And squeaked in surprise when the curls came off in her hand.
Too embarrassed to look up, Jane heard a choked sound from Mrs. Mulberry and something like a smothered cough from Mr. Kendrick.
"It's a hairpiece, my lady," the dresser said, unnecessarily, holding out the sad little tuft of frizz.
"Miss Denby, how much of that hair is your own?" the viscountess asked.
"Not much." Jane wished the floor would open up and swallow her whole. "None of the curls, that is. My hair is stick-straight and won't hold a curl no matter how hot the iron. So I attach these hairpieces. Oh, Lord. I am hopeless, am I not? Even my hair betrays me. How can you ever hope to make me into a lady?"
Lady Davenport smiled. "I have more hope than I did when you walked in, Miss Denby. You have an elegant figure and a fine face. It is simply the outer trappings that we must adjust. Including the hair. Chandler, remove the hairpieces and let's see what we've got."
Some minutes later, with a pile of hair pins and a small mountain of false curls by her side, Jane sat still as a statue while Chandler unpinned her real hair. Jane had protested, saying that it was too intimate a thing to do in front of a gentleman. But the ladies had convinced her that if Mr. Kendrick was to be her fashion advisor – and reminded her that she ought to be grateful he had agreed to do so – he needed to see what raw materials were available to him. The man himself went on to reassure her that his discretion was beyond reproach. And so, for the first time in her adult life, and despite misgivings she could not entirely cast aside, Jane allowed her hair to be let down in the presence of a gentleman who was not related to her.
Chandler pulled a brush through Jane's thick, straight hair and said, "Why, it's lovely, miss."
"Indeed it is." Lady Davenport came to stand closer for a better look. "My dear Miss Denby, you have been hiding your light beneath a bushel of false curls. You have very pretty hair. Sleek as a beaver pelt. I know women who would sell their souls for such hair. Isn't that right, Olympia? Twist it up into a simple knot, Chandler. Like that, yes. Oh, it's lovely. Just the thing, Chandler. Well done. Stand up again, if you please, Miss Denby."
Jane complied, moving slowly and deliberately, worried that the weight balanced on her head would topple at the least movement. She would need a boatload of pins if she was to keep such a coiffure in place. Cool air on her neck suddenly made her feel exposed and uncomfortable.
"Very nice." Mr. Kendrcik offered a smile for the first time since Jane arrived. It gave him a boyish look that was quite charming.
Even Mrs. Mulberry seemed pleased. "The sleek hairstyle is a vast improvement over those ghastly curls. Your natural hair is very good, Miss Denby, but you must keep it clean and well-brushed. We still have a lot of work to do to bring you up to snuff, but I am encouraged. You look very nice indeed."
A wave of pleasure washed over her, to hear such praise from these elegant ladies and the equally elegant Mr. Kendrick. Pleasure, and relief. She had begun to think there was no hope for her, that she could never see her plan through and be a real lady. "If all of you are encouraged, then so am I."
"With your hair swept high," Lady Davenport said, "you can show off your long neck with drop earrings like those you were wearing when you arrived. But not in the daytime, of course. You might wear simple pearl drops, or gold hoops. Chandler, give Miss Denby my double gold hoops."
"Oh no, Lady Davenport. I do not want your jewelry. I have a huge case at home filled with —"
"Don't be silly, Miss Denby, I am not giving you my earrings. I simply wish to show you the style that will look best on you. Here, take them and try them on. And the rock crystal heart, Chandler. Yes, this is the sort of ornament that is perfect for the daytime. Simple, unostentatious, and elegant. Help Miss Denby to try it on, Chandler."
The dresser clasped a gold chain around Jane's neck with a hart-shaped locket of faceted rock crystal. It was the sort of thing Jane actually liked to wear but would never have imagined was fit for an afternoon in Mayfair.
"We do not have a pier glass at hand," the viscountess said, "but do take a look in the mirror over the mantel. See how fine you are."
Mr. Kendrick stepped aside when Jane approached the mirror, but she quite forgot him when she saw her reflection. She was not at all certain that these people truly understood what she was trying to accomplish. Jane looked positively plain, with her straight hair pulled tight off her face and piled too high for a tall woman, and wearing simple jewelry that any shop girl might have worn. The severe hairstyle made her cheekbones stick out and her chin look too pointy. Jane has always believed the false curls softened her angular features.
She turned to face Lady Davenport in dismay. "How is this better? I look like a prim Methodist. Or a milliner's assistant."
Lady Davenport laughed. "You look like no such thing. Take my word for it, you look much more elegant without those bird nests in your hair. Does she not, George?"
"It is a marked improvement, Miss Denby," he said, "I assure you. Take those horrid curls and burn them. Your own hair is an asset."
"Speaking of assets," the viscountess said, "come here, my dear. Let's see about that lace. Chandler?"
Jane squealed in shock as the dresser reached inside her bodice and began to unpin the frothy lace that filled the neckline. "What are you doing? Leave that lace where it is! Stop!"
Jane had an unimpressive bosom and saw no need to expose it to all the world and Mr. Kendrick. The lace had disguised her shortcomings, but now ... Dear God! These people were mad!
"I may only be a stationer's daughter, but I know what's right. This is not a dressmaker's fitting room. There is a gentleman present, for heaven's sake!"
The viscountess chuckled and gestured at Jane's too-revealing bodice. "He has seen more than that at any day on Bond Street or any evening at a Society ball."
Jane had no doubt of it. That was, after all, the whole problem.
"We need to see what sort of figure you have so we will know what style of dress to recommend. You have nothing to be ashamed of, my dear. You look quite —"
"Mr. Finmore, my lady."
Jane turned at the butler's voice to find a man standing in the doorway, a man unknown to her but surely one of the most handsome she'd ever seen. She gave a shriek of alarm and quickly covered her bosom with crossed arms.
Harry was taken aback by the screech of the unknown female standing with Kendrick and his aunts. He was further confounded by the bits of clothing flung across a settee, a collection of very flashy jewelry piled on a candlestand, and a strange-looking heap of brown fluff on a table that looked as if it might well be alive.
Kendrick's eyes danced and he seemed to be making an effort not to explode in laughter. Lady Davenport, too, appeared to be caught between dismay and amusement. Even the stern Mrs. Mulberry bit back a smile. The screeching female stood with shoulders hunched and arms crossed tightly over her breasts, as though she'd been caught in a state of undress. Hardly that, unfortunately, as she wore a perfectly decent frock. Yet the wide eyes glared at him as if he'd seen her naked.
What the devil had he walked into?
"Oh, this is too much!" the lady exclaimed in a voice bristling with indignation. "It is not enough that you take me apart piece by piece in front of Mr. Kendrick, but you have invited another gentleman as well to inspect me and offer an opinion? I may not be genteel but I know what's proper!"
Harry watched in fascinated amusement as the outraged woman stuffed some lace haphazardly in the neckline of her dress and retrieved a short jacket from the pile on the settee. She was a tall woman, with hair the color of Turkish coffee, and a neck that rose out of the billows of lace like a slender column of the purest white marble. She was quite attractive, though not in the usual sense of prettiness. Her face had an appealing sort of character, even in her anger.
"It's too much," she muttered as she began awkwardly to shrug into the jacket. "Too much."
"Forgive me, Miss Denby," Lady Davenport said, "but I must have lost all track of time. I had no idea it was already three o'clock, when Mr. Finmore was due to arrive. Please do not be angry. He was not invited to inspect you. We are chaperoning his niece this season, the young lady I mentioned to you once before. Allow me to introduce you properly. Mr. Finmore, Miss Denby."
"There is nothing proper about it," Miss Denby said. "Another plain Mister, too. I have no wish to meet anyone when I'm — Oh, the devil take it!"
The twist of hair atop her head, which had been listing left as she put on the jacket, now toppled completely. Pins pinged as they skittered across the floor, and a heavy mass of glorious dark brown hair fell down Miss Denby's back. "Oh, no!" she cried, her cheeks flushing pink with embarrassment.
A woman Harry hadn't noticed, but who was surely a lady's maid, stepped forward and said, "Please sit down, miss, and I will pin it back up, more securely this time."
"Forgive us, Mr. Finmore," Lady Davenport said, "you have caught us in the process of assisting Miss Denby to achieve a more fashionable style. We will be introducing her into Society very soon."
That explained Kendrick's presence. "I beg your pardon for walking in at an awkward moment. I had come to discuss Miranda with you, but I can return another time."
"Do not leave on my account," Miss Denby said while the maid arranged her hair. "I'm not staying another moment. I've been poked and prodded and stripped and insulted enough for one day."
"I am pleased to have met you, Miss Denby," Harry said, sketching a bow, "despite the inopportune circumstances."
"Likewise, Mr. Finmore." She studied him with eyes that were an intriguing mix of brown and green. "I don't suppose you are in line to inherit a title, are you?"
Harry laughed. "Hardly, Miss Denby."
She sighed. "A pity. I daresay it is just as well, since you have not seen me at my best. Whatever that may be." The maid had finished with her hair and Miss Denby reached up to test it. Apparently satisfied, she grabbed a frightful bit of fur from the mound that Harry had thought to be a small animal, but Lady Davenport held up a hand to stop her.
"No more of those, Miss Dendy," she said. "Lesson number two: no false curls. Leave them. Chandler will dispose of them."
Harry looked more closely and realized it was a pile of hair. Hairpieces. Good Lord, had Miss Denby been wearing those? Disguising her perfectly beautiful hair? Women! Harry would never understand their particular brand of vanity.
Miss Denby uttered a snort but did not argue with the countess. She removed her earrings and necklace and handed them to the maid. She then proceeded to don all the clothing that had been discarded on the settee. The finished product was quite shocking. A high-necked dickey with a sort of ruff hid the neck he had found so tantalizing. A jacket, a velvet cloak of a hideous shade of green, and a horrid length of fur completed the ensemble. The bonnet was charming, though Miss Denby kept swiping at the plume that curved down over her cheek, as though it tickled her.
Finally came the jewels. The pirate's treasure that had been sitting on the candlestand was added, piece by genuine piece, to Miss Denby's person. Harry knew the real thing when he saw it, and he watched in astonishment as the lady donned a fortune in jewels.
She caught his eye and shrugged. "Yes, I am a vulgar cit who knows no better than to wear gemstones in the afternoon. Shocking, is it not? But Lady Davenport, and Mrs. Mulberry have promised to turn me into a real lady. If such a thing is possible." She grabbed an ugly fur muff and stood tall before him in all her gaudy glory, flaunting every bit of ostentation.
Ah, now it was all clear. He ought to have guessed that such a plainspoken woman was not a member of the ton. And he understood why the ladies had involved Kendrick. No one's taste was more refined, and God knew Miss Denby could stand some refining. Harry's own sense of style had once been as ostentatious and vulgar as Miss Denby's, but he'd educated himself at the knees of several sophisticated patronesses as well as Kendrick himself. He knew from experience how far Miss Denby had to go, and he almost pitied her the work ahead. But like Harry, she would have to make the effort if she wanted to fit into Society.
"Everything is possible, Miss Denby," he said, "if you want it badly enough."
"Well, I do want it. Perhaps the next time we meet, Mr. Finmore, I shall be so elegant you will not recognize me. Now, if you will excuse me, I shall take my leave. Lady Davenport, Mrs. Mulberry, Mr. Kendrick, it has been ... interesting."
"Come back tomorrow, Miss Denby," the viscountess said. "We shall visit my modiste. Dress simply, and —"
"No diamonds. Yes, I know. Thank you for everything, ma'am."
When she had departed, both ladies and Kendrick sank into chairs and fell into laughter. "Oh, my dear," Mrs. Mulberry said, "how are we ever to do this?"
"With great effort," Kendrick said. "How did I allow you to talk me into this?"
"And what do you think of our Miss Denby, sir?" Lady Davenport asked Harry.
He recollected the image of her hair falling down her back and the small swell of cleavage she tried unsuccessfully to hide. And her disarmingly direct way of speaking. She was as genuine as the jewels she wore, and he liked that in a woman.
"I think she will do very well," he said. Very well, indeed.
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