Lessons in Expectations – Ginny Hartman

Cecily squinted her eyes as she deliberately, and with trained expertise, evaluated her supple ivory skin reflected in the full-length mirror before her. Still dewy and pink from her recent bath, she stood stark naked, inspecting the flesh that was about to be put on display for the ton’s entirety to evaluate and weigh its worth. Well, not the entirety of her skin, for that would be saved for her future husband alone. Still, her body’s overall shape and the comeliness of her visage would be free for examination and left to the full judgment of every person she’d meet from here on out. It would do her well to pretend the fact didn’t bother her. Anxiousness swirled in the pit of her belly as she twisted to view her figure from every angle possible. Her heavy breasts, without the aid of her corset and stays, hung lower than normal, yet still retained their firmness. Her hands softly trailed along their outer edges before trailing down her curvaceous hips, perfect for breeding. She’d been reminded, nearly daily, of that since leaving the schoolroom. Cecily’s lips twisted into a moue of disgust as she turned around and flipped her head over one shoulder, tossing damp golden locks across her back as she gazed upon her rotund derriere and inwardly groaned. It was out of proportion with the rest of her otherwise symmetrical body. It vexed her to no end that no matter how hard she tried to avoid partaking of extra refreshments at tea, it retained its fullness valiantly, utterly unaffected by her painstaking abstinence from sweets. Her pouting distracted her from noticing her maid’s return to the room, carrying her fresh chemise and stays in her slender hands. Seeing her mistress’s scrutiny, Hetty barely masked the disdain in her eyes while commenting, “‘Tis a good thing fashion is in your favor and does much to disguise the fact that your figure isn’t, in fact, perfect.” All the air whooshed out of Cecily’s lungs as disappointment filled her breast.

She didn’t know why it discouraged her to hear the truth from Hetty’s lips. Her flawed physique was pointed out coolly multiple times a day, usually from her mother, and often by her maid as well. Yet on the eve of her come out ball, Cecily clung to the unlikely hope they’d at least pretend to flatter her in an attempt to bolster her confidence for the occasion. Unmet expectations were so cruel. Discarding her raw emotions as quickly as if she were casting off a wet peplum after being caught in the rain, Cecily shrugged her shoulders and said in clipped tones, “Since I’m unable to change the unfortunate fact, let us be quick to disguise it. Hurry along, Hetty, there’s no time to waste.” Hetty helped her into a thin chemise, that stuck to her still moist skin. While Cecily was busy adjusting it, Hetty turned to retrieve her mistress’s corset, the blessed instrument that would pinch her waist and elevate her bust until her silhouette looked nearly perfect. Cecily breathed deeply as she held to the post of her bed while Hetty used her entire might to pull the laces of her corset as tight as possible. When she was finished, Cecily could hardly breathe.

“I’m certain you’ve outdone yourself tonight, Hetty. Please be so kind as to loosen the laces a bit so I can breathe.” “I can’t, milady. Your mother has told me you must look your best. You can breathe after the ball.” “That’s right.” Feeling lightheaded, Cecily moved to sit down on the edge of her bed as her mother glided regally into her room. Her toilette was finished for the evening, and she looked the picture of perfection. Her slender body was clad in a cerulean blue gown that contrasted her pale skin beautifully. Cecily watched her bell-shaped skirt swish back and forth as she came across to stand before her.

“Get up, dear. It won’t do to be late to your own ball. It appears there’s still much to be done to get you ready. I don’t want to chance any other girl outshining you at your come out. How mortifying that would be, would it not?” With a nod of her head, Cecily rose from her bed, closing her eyes as she waited for the dizziness the movement caused to pass. Her mother moved out of the way as Hetty, and another maid brought the caged crinoline and began assisting Cecily into the contraption. “Let us hope that styles never return to the straight skirts of my early childhood,” her mother intoned, tapping her finger on her chin as she inspected her daughter’s body. Cecily grew warm under her gaze and felt to defend herself. “I haven’t taken any refreshments at tea for at least a sennight, and I promise I won’t eat any tonight either.” Her mother merely nodded her head perfunctorily.

“And do limit yourself to one glass of champagne tonight. I don’t want you to lose your wits.” “Yes, mother,” she quipped as the maids began draping her white satin gown over her head. Not only could Cecily not breathe, but she was also beginning to sweat profusely under the weight of the dense fabric of her undergarments and gown, a fact that only produced more sweat as her nerves increased. “Heavens, child, you must stop perspiring at once,” Hetty scolded as she ran for a rag and began dabbing beneath her arms and atop her chest before they could slide the bodice of her gown up and into place. Her mother glided across the room in the calm, steady way she always moved, and procured a bottle of fine French perfume, laced heavily with the scent of jasmine. Before she knew it, Cecily was being spritzed liberally with the concoction, coughing as the fumes filled up what little space was left in her lungs. “What is this nonsense, Cecily? Are you truly so nervous about being presented to Society?” She took the offered handkerchief from Hetty, wiped her mouth, and lied, “No, Mother.” “Then what is it?” “Excitement, I presume, nothing more.” Her mother’s aqua eyes, the same shade as Cecily’s, took on a faraway look, her mouth curving upward in a rare smile of delight.

“I recall the excitement of my own debut. I was a diamond of the first water, highly sought after. I had proposals from three different men before the month was out, one a Duke, you know?” She did know, for her mother never failed to remind her of the success she had been. Cecily also knew that the only reason she refused the Duke’s proposal was because he hadn’t been as well to do as the Earl of Dalford, the man who eventually became her husband and Cecily’s father. “My mother before me also made an advantageous match during her first season, so I suppose you might consider it a family tradition.” Her eyes suddenly snapped back to the present as she commanded coolly, “You will not let us down.” Cecily swallowed hard, feeling the weight of the pressure upon her more than the weight of her petticoats. For a brief second, she panicked, wondering what the ramifications would be if she didn’t make a match. However, her mother’s intense gaze as she waited for a response prompted her to shake off her apprehension and give her mother the answer she longed to hear. “Mother dearest, I’d never be so ungracious as to do anything to bring shame to the family.

I daresay I have lofty hopes of inspiring a match before the month is out.” Her mother gasped in delight. “Oh, Cecily, you do make me proud.” Cecily smiled, though it wasn’t pleasure that filled her heart, rather fear that her mother’s pride in her would be short-lived if she didn’t meet the expectations she had set. “Lovely and pure, almost angelic in her innocence.” Emmeline hid her blush daintily behind her fan, casting her eyes downward in an act that made her appear even more meek, though in truth, the bloom of color on her cheeks stemmed not from the effusive praise of Mr. Crestwell, but rather from indignation. “Indeed, and I can assure you her temperament is even more saintly than her looks.” Gritting her teeth together, Emmeline continued to fan her face primly as she listened to her aunt and Mr. Crestwell discuss her attributes as if they were discussing horseflesh at Tattersalls.

Mayhap that is why she had always held a fondness for the magnificent beasts; she felt a kinship with them that ran deep. Mr. Crestwell was in the act of reaching for the dance card that hung around her wrist when the majordomo began the announcement they’d all been anticipating. “The Earl and Countess of Dalford are pleased to present their daughter, Lady Cecily Withington.” Mr. Crestwell’s hand fell to his side as every eye in the crowded ballroom drifted to where an ethereal beauty appeared as if the heavens had opened and deposited her there for their viewing pleasure. Her aunt and Mr. Crestwell gasped in unison, though Emmeline deduced her aunt’s was one of vexation while Mr. Crestwell’s was one of wonder. All eyes followed the stunning debutante as she made her way further into the room.

Her white gown, golden hair, and smooth alabaster skin made her appear as if she were glowing. Soon she was swallowed up by the plethora of people who surrounded her, vying for her attention. At Emmeline’s side, Mr. Crestwell quickly forgot about claiming her for a dance. Clearing his throat, his eyes still on the spot where Lady Cecily had disappeared, he muttered, “I must be off, good evening.” Emmeline felt naught but relief, as she watched the heavyset man with nondescript features, scurry across the room, pushing people rudely out of the way in an attempt to reach his target. As soon as he was out of sight, Emmeline recognized the ungodly attribute of envy swelling in her breast. Not because she held any affection for Mr. Crestwell or felt vexed by his sudden departure, but the fact was, she’d yet to garnish anything similar to the attention Lady Cecily was already receiving, and she was already on her third season. A low growl emitted from deep within her aunt’s throat.

“Another opportunity lost.” Schooling her features to look contrite, Emmeline murmured, “‘Twould appear so.” “Don’t try to fool me, child, you’re not even the least bit upset by the loss of yet another prospect. If I didn’t know better, I’d believe the possibility of being on the shelf appeals to you.” Large, chocolate brown eyes widened into saucers as Emmeline’s mouth gasped in mock surprise, “Aunt Tilly, don’t say such a thing. You know I’ve no desire to become a spinster. I’ve been raised to find a titled husband and run an estate of vast proportions, and that’s what I’ll do.” Aunt Tilly squinted as she appraised her, looking at her niece as if she were weighing the sincerity of her words. “You better not be lying to me, Emmeline, for you know how the Lord feels about deceit.” “Indeed I do,” she said, without an ounce of remorse for the lies that fell so smoothly off her tongue.

Seeing the skepticism that still lingered in Aunt Tilly’s eyes, Emmeline was quick to add, “And I will prove it by showing great interest this evening to any man that so generously spares me a moment of attention.” The answer seemed to appease her aunt’s wrath, at least for the moment. Emmeline flicked her fan open once more and hid her face with it to disguise her pinched lips. She hated submitting herself to her aunt, but it wouldn’t due to make the woman upset. The last time she’d dared defy her, by pretending to be sick when the Vicar Montrose came to call on her, she’d been forced to pay penance for an entire se’ enight. Locked in her room with nothing but her Bible, she’d been forced to memorize verse after verse and recite them, with perfection, to her angry aunt at the end of each day, lest she be forced to starve. Her reward for her obedience was a cup of weak tea and a stale biscuit, barely enough fare to sustain her. “Well, well, do look now,” Aunt Tilly said with a sense of smug delight, her recent perturbation all but forgotten. “It would appear the Marquess of Rivenhall is heading this way right now. Do straighten your spine and avert your eyes.

We cannot have you appearing eager.” Emmeline assumed the look of pious purity that she adopted so well; eyes downcast, face devoid of emotion as her mind reeled. What was the Marquess of Rivenhall, the Duke of Sunderley’s eldest son and heir, doing approaching her? They’d been formally introduced last season but had no reason to speak since. Breaking the rules of Aunt Tilly’s proper etiquette, Emmeline glanced up to watch the Marquess approach and felt a flush of sinful delight wash over her as she did so. He was tall with broad shoulders, thick chestnut hair, and a short-trimmed beard covering the lower half of his face. His blue waistcoat beneath his dove grey suit matched his eyes splendidly, eyes she suddenly noticed were not trained on her, but rather pointed in the direction of nearly everyone else in attendance. With horror, she realized he must be in search of Lady Cecily and moved to withdraw. Aunt Tilly, noting her movement, grasped her arm firmly and pulled her forward with a snap at the exact moment Lord Rivenhall approached, causing her to nearly collide with him. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment as he reached his hands out to flank her shoulders and keep her from stumbling into him. “Pardon me, Miss…?” Her mortification increased when she realized he didn’t even remember her name.

“Norris,” Aunt Tilly filled in for him. “Excuse me, Miss Norris, I was distracted and didn’t see you.” Of course, he didn’t see her; she seethed inwardly. No one ever saw her. Not when there were more beautiful women with better bloodlines and purer hearts in plenty everywhere she went. “No apology necessary,” she managed to mutter, effectively hiding her emotions. “Perhaps you can make it up to her by asking her to dance.” Her aunt’s boldness was too much. Emmeline had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from groaning. It didn’t help her cause any that Lord Rivenhall looked perturbed by the suggestion.

But, ever the gentlemen, he turned to her and extended his arm. “May I have this dance?” Emmeline hesitated, wishing she could politely decline. It was better not dancing at all than dancing because someone took pity on you. She felt a jab in her back and knew it was the end of Aunt Tilly’s fan threatening her not to ruin her chance. “Of course, my lord,” she recited as she gingerly placed her gloved hand in his much larger one. Lord Rivenhall led her to the dance floor in silence. It wasn’t until he held her firmly in his arms that he spoke; his words humiliating her. “This farce is ridiculous, wouldn’t you agree?” “Uh…yes, my lord, most absurd. My aunt should not have been so forward in demanding you partner me in this dance.” His eyes sparkled as the corners of his mouth twitched, “I wasn’t referring to this dance.

” Was it her imagination, or did he pull her closer? “I was referring to Lady Cecily’s come out ball.” “What is so ridiculous about it, my lord? ‘Tis a customary rite of passage.” “Indeed, that’s the case when one wishes to be presented to Society in hopes of finding a beau. But what of the ones who will be forced into arranged matches for the betterment of their lineage?” Emmeline craned her head, catching a glimpse of Lady Cecily’s burnished curls. “Is that the case with Lady Cecily? I wasn’t aware a match had been arranged.” “It hasn’t,” he grumbled, a shadow passing over his features. “At least not yet, anyway.” “Then what care is it to you, my lord? Have you a tendre for Lady Cecily?” Lord Rivenhall snorted. “Far from it. My tastes run to more unconventional beauties,” he admitted as his gaze dropped slowly to her face.

Emmeline inhaled sharply as she watched his eyes rove over her face and down to her modest neckline. Her skin felt scorched as if he had touched her in the most improper vicinity of her chest. She instantly recognized the look of lust that flitted in his eyes, for she’d seen it countless times when gentlemen gazed upon other women, but that look had never been bestowed upon her before now. She turned away from his piercing eyes and swallowed loudly. “Then you mustn’t concern yourself with Lady Cecily.” “You’re right, not when I am holding her superior in my arms.”

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