Friday, September 5, 2014

On Being the Toast of London

You may have heard the phrases in stories set in the early nineteenth century--the toast of London, the belle of the ball, an Incomparable, a diamond of the first water.  What sort of young lady do those phrases describe?  Well, real-life examples vary, but here are some characteristics to consider:
  • She is invited to all major social events and may indeed be the first person on the hostess’s guest list.
  • Her drawing room is constantly filled with fawning gentlemen and giggling lady friends because how could they possibly pass the day without a moment of her company?
  • She receives the coveted vouchers for Almack’s, London’s famous ladies’ club, without any manipulation or begging on her part.
  • She garners more than one offer from an eligible bachelor for her hand in marriage within a short time frame.
  • Her very name is synonymous with good taste, elegance, and sophistication.
Rather tall order to fill, isn't it?  Yet Priscilla Tate, the best friend of Lady Emily Southwell in Art and Artifice (formerly La Petite Four) masters each of these traits within the first month of arriving in London. She has to. You see, Priscilla must go big or go home.  Her family is punting on tick, about to end up in debtor’s prison, if she doesn't marry well.

But the toast of London is about to get burned.

Priscilla is well on her way to wringing a proposal out of the Season’s most eligible bachelor, the Duke of Rottenford, when blackmail notes start arriving, threatening to expose a dark secret unless she ceases her pursuit. It’s up to Emily and her dear friends Ariadne and Daphne Courdebas to help her uncover the mastermind before disaster strikes. But more than one secret is waiting to be revealed, not the least of which is Priscilla’s growing attraction for a most unlikely ally, Nathan Kent, the duke’s personal secretary. But will Nathan, no, no, the duke, understand if her secret comes out?

Here’s an excerpt:

Nathan Kent set his top hat on his head and descended the steps of the town house with an unwelcome feeling of defeat. He glanced back with a frown. Lady Emily, the youngest daughter of the Duke of Emerson, seemed such a levelheaded young woman. He had been quite impressed by the way she’d regained her composure after the contretemps at her debut ball a week ago. Between her personality and her place in Society, Lady Emily would have made an exceptional liaison for His Grace the Duke of Rottenford. A shame her interests obviously lay elsewhere.

He allowed himself a sigh. He was running out of suitable matches, which meant Miss Priscilla Tate was going to be a problem. Oh, there was no doubt she had the presence to make an excellent duchess. And no man alive could complain of her looks.

He supposed if he searched in Belgium or Flanders he might find a woman whose hair was as golden or possessed of such luster and vitality that it begged to be touched. It was possible some Irish lass might have eyes a more vibrant shade of green and capable of exuding the warmth that beckoned a man like a fire on a cold winter night. The women who had modeled for the classic Greek sculptors could have had figures that rivaled the one Miss Tate showed to advantage in her stylish gowns.

But somehow he doubted any other woman in England combined those traits with such cunning and will as he had seen in her. She had thrown her considerable armament against the wall of His Grace’s bachelorhood, determined to capture the duke’s affections. Nathan could not allow her to succeed.
He turned to the front again, his duty stiffening his spine, and found the very woman he’d been contemplating standing in his way. Nathan blinked.

Miss Tate blinked.

For a moment, he almost thought he was mistaken in her identity. Stripped away were the polished airs, the coy smiles. The color in her cheeks came from high emotion or exertion, not rouge. The downturn of those rosy lips spoke of dismay.

He put his hand to her elbow before he thought better of it. “Miss Tate. Is everything all right?”

He watched as the woman withdrew behind the mask. Her gaze brightened, her lips lifted, her lashes fluttered.

“Why, Mr. Kent, how nice to see you.” She glanced pointedly around him as if he could have hidden his tall employer behind him. “Is His Grace with you?”

“Alas, no,” Nathan replied, trying to recapture her gaze even as he dropped his hold of her. “Uneasy lies the head that wears that coronet.”

Her smile was no more than polite. “Of course. I admire a man who takes his duty seriously.”

Did she? Somehow, he doubted she would admire him for doing his duty, especially when that duty meant keeping His Grace away from fortune hunters like her.

He tipped his hat. “Then you will not mind if I return to mine. Good-day, Miss Tate.”

She inclined her head. Had he been the duke, she would have dipped a curtsey with effortless grace and humility. As a mere personal secretary, he had not warrant such a response. Indeed, she turned from him so quickly it seemed he did not even warrant her attention. Given the tasks he needed to complete before returning to His Grace, Priscilla Tate did not warrant Nathan’s attention either.

But as he reached the street, he could not help glancing back one last time. She had reached the door to the town house and lifted her hand to the brass knocker. Her back was straight, her head high. The pink satin pelisse was a mastery designed to outline her curves. She was the epitome of a fine London lady.
Yet the hand that reached for the knocker was trembling.

What had happened to so discompose the redoubtable Miss Tate? And why, when he was certain she was a clever fraud, did he feel compelled to help her?

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Leandra Wallace said...

I like a diamond of the first water the best. =) And great excerpt!

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, Leandra! I like the phrase best too, but it was just too much fun to say "The toast of London is about to get burned." :-)

QNPoohBear said...

Ooh a new Lady Emily caper! I hope I can find a way to read it.

Regina Scott said...

Thanks, QNPoohBear! I hope you can find a way to read it too!