White light blasted suddenly through Nora’s head, murdering sleep with its fiery blade. She moaned and rolled over, burying her head beneath a silken pillow. It seemed she’d closed her eyes mere moments earlier, but the sun had quite obviously risen since she had. “It’s time to be up, milady,” Kate, her maid, chirped as she flung open the draperies at the other windows. “I held back as long as I dared, but if you lie abed much longer, you’ll leave your father waiting.” “What time is it?” Nora mumbled under the pillow. “Nearly half nine, milady.” Nora pushed the pillow up and exposed her weary eyes to the sunlit room and the doubly bright glare of Kate’s smile. Her father liked to leave for their morning ride in Hyde Park promptly at ten. Now that she’d been presented at court, to the new King George V, and was a proper lady, it took thirty minutes or more to get dressed in the morning—and in the evening, much longer than that. If her first few weeks of womanhood were a mark by which to judge the condition, she preferred girlhood. But it wasn’t her maid’s fault, so Nora sat up and blinked her eyes into working order as Kate set a tray across her legs. While Nora grumpily nibbled at a piece of toast with jam and sipped the day’s first cup of tea, Kate bustled around the room, fluffing Nora’s riding habit, arranging the brushes and pins and other assorted necessities of Nora’s ablutions, and gathering up the crumpled underthings Nora had been too tired to allow her to attend to the night before—or earlier in this same morning. The bells had tolled for three while she and her father were yet in the carriage last night. “How was the ball?” Kate asked, setting out Nora’s boots for a polish.
Nora finished her tea and set the tray aside. “Like all the other balls. Women preening for the men and trying not to show it, and the men browsing the women like wares on a cart. Everyone trussed up like Christmas geese and too uncomfortable to breathe, let alone enjoy the evening.” Kate stood at her dressing table, brush in hand, and Nora, understanding the unspoken message, slid from bed. She sat before the mirror and let Kate begin her torturous ministrations. “But was the Duke there? Did you dance with him?” Richard Jameson, The Duke of Chalford. He was the supposed catch of London, and he’d turned his eye toward Nora at most events so far this Season. He was handsome—tall and broadshouldered, with a nicely arranged face and wavy ginger hair. At first, hearing how coveted his attention was, and seeing how pleasant he was to look at, Nora had been, she could admit to herself, dazzled in the beam of his bright blue eyes.
But then she’d sat beside him at a few dinners and spoken with him in a few drawing rooms and during several dances. Now she knew that everything interesting about him was apparent from across a crowded room. And he didn’t like her much better. She talked too much and had too many opinions. Indeed, that was the growing consensus among everyone in London, whispered in tones loud enough for all to hear. Lady Nora Tate talked too much about unseemly things, like politics. Lord Tarrin had let his youngest child and only daughter run wild for too long. She thought she was a man. No, Nora knew full well she was a woman. She simply wished she were a man.
She sighed and watched in the mirror as Kate began the painstaking, and painful, ritual of winding her thick blonde mane into the coils and ratted puffs of a proper style. All those pins, digging into her scalp, all the day long. Already she missed the days when she’d worn her hair loose and long —only weeks ago, but never again. “He was there,” she answered Kate’s question. “We had one dance.” Kate pulled a little face of disappointed commiseration. “Well, that’s all right. You’ll have another chance at your dinner tonight.” Her dinner. Before they’d arrived in London, while she was in Paris with her Aunt Martha, buying so many lovely dresses and shoes and hats, Nora had been excited at the prospect of her first Season.
Now, after weeks of visits, and dinners, and breakfasts, and parties, and balls, and weeks more to go, seeing the same people over and over, either struggling dully to comport herself like a lady or scandalising the people around her by daring to express an opinion about anything more controversial than the neckline of another lady’s gown, weeks of feeling the baldly estimating gaze of men she barely knew, all she wanted was to return to Kent and the home she loved. Each day, the expectations for her ladylike comportment, miles wide but barely an inch deep, wore harder on her. She thought it unlikely that the Duke would find her temper any more appealing at her own dinner this evening. “I doubt it, Kate.” The robust optimism of her maid was not so easily thwarted. “He’ll have made way for someone else, then. As lovely as you are, the fine lords must be clamoring amongst themselves to claim your hand. You’re sure to have a list of proposals before the Season is out.” Nora studied the mirror as Kate transformed her into a lady of the Realm. In that glass, she could see everything about herself that was of value.
Here in London, no one seemed to care what she wanted, or what she had to offer besides blonde hair, blue eyes, a fair figure, and a titled father. Like most young ladies in London during the Season, Nora rode with her father in Hyde Park every morning that the weather was fair. The effort was ostensibly intended for fresh air and good health, but truly, riding the Ladies’ Mile was an event like all the others, meant to display the young ladies to their best advantage so that they might catch the fancy of a likely gentleman. Nora had always loved to ride with her father, but at home in Kent, she’d been allowed truly t o ride—to gallop and jump and splash through muddy pools, to sit astride and even to wear breeches, so long as there were no guests in residence who might be scandalised. When there were guests at Tarrindale Hall, and now here in London, Nora sat sidesaddle, dressed in a cumbersome and dour riding habit, a uniform virtually indistinguishable from that of all the other young ladies riding the Mile. She wondered whether her father would allow her to sit astride when they returned home in August, or whether, like her corsets and coiled hair, a side saddle and riding skirts were all her future might hold, now that she’d left girlhood behind. On this morning, like all the other London mornings, Nora and her father rode abreast, nodding greetings to the other pairs of riders they passed. As usual on these daily rides, her father spoke little beyond pleasantries, to her or any other. He was keenly aware of the gossip—that in his great grief at losing his wife and two of his sons all within the span of a single week, he’d left his youngest child to grow up wild in the country, and now, her manners were mannish and unseemly— and he fretted that he’d failed her, that because of him, Nora wouldn’t get the marriage proposal of which her maid was so confident, and her future wouldn’t be secured. Twelve years earlier, her mother, and Edmund and Peter, her two middle brothers, had all succumbed to scarlet fever.
Nora herself, then a child of only six years, had been gravely ill as well, but she’d recovered. Only Christopher, the eldest, and their father had been spared the illness, if not its consequences. Nora didn’t remember being ill, and she barely remembered her mother or her brothers, but she hadn’t been neglected and allowed to ‘run wild’ after their deaths. She’d been raised by her father and brother, two wonderful men who’d lavished love and encouragement on her and allowed her interests to flourish and her curiosities to be sated. When she’d asked a question, whatever the question, they’d provided an answer, or directed her to the place where the answer might be found. At home alone with family, she’d been free to work out what she wanted and valued in herself and in the world. And to wear riding breeches and ride astride. Her father had, however, withdrawn from Society upon his grief and never fully returned to it until now. He’d rarely gone to London, and Nora had never been at all until this year. At the few country balls and dinners she’d attended before, she’d thought the other girls vapid and silly and assumed they were country bumpkins.
She’d expected London to be different. All the most interesting news came out of London. Politics and culture, business and entertainment—it all happened in this great city. For the past several years, Christopher had spent most of his time in the city, when he was in England at all, and he’d always come home with dazzling stories about great debates and brilliant artists. Especially after a few weeks in Paris, Nora had been beside herself with anticipation of her debut London Season, thinking she’d meet many fascinating people and have many captivating discussions. But no one in London wanted to hear what women had to say, or seemed to have any use for them at all except as ornaments to be hung on a gentleman’s arm. The young ladies here, with whom she was expected to strike up great friendships, were just as insipid as the girls in Kent—either that, or they were well practiced in pretending to be so. Nora was not. Used to speaking her mind at home, she had not yet managed a reliable habit of holding her tongue in London—nor had she managed to understand why she should. Thus her father, who at home would quiz and challenge her about current events, now in public barely spoke to her, lest she lose control of her tongue and try to express herself, exposing herself as a thinking human being, and thereby ruining her chance to make a good match.
Glum and bored, still tired from the long night before, and hungry now for breakfast, Nora rode at her father’s side, keeping a social smile in place. Most of the riders were young ladies and their fathers or chaperones, but a few young men rode around and with the ladies as well. They were there for the show, of course. Nora could see them considering the ladies as they rode past, leaning over to remark to each other and chuckle. She’d learned to shoot from the saddle a few summers earlier. If she had her bow and quiver here in London, she could make those ‘gentlemen’ a bit less arrogant. Her fantasy of racing through Hyde Park hunting conceited young men improved the ride markedly, and Nora grinned. Her father noticed and looked around. “Is there someone here you’d like to speak to?” he asked. “The Duke, perhaps?” Nora rolled her eyes.
The Duke of Chalford would not warrant such an expression from her. But she scanned the people around anyway, hoping to find someone—a lady would be best—she could mention, since she could hardly tell her father that she’d been imagining running arrows through all the young gentlemen in Hyde Park. She was saved by broad shoulders and blond hair, riding in from an intersecting path. “Christopher!” Heedless of the propriety, she urged her horse into a trot and weaved through the riders to her brother. He grinned as she rode up and turned her horse to stand beside his, and he leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Hello, little sister! I wondered if you’d be riding today.” “Of course. I’m surprised that you’re here, however.” Christopher enjoyed the balls and parties of the Season, but he was critical of the aspects that made it seem overtly like a market—like the Ladies’ Mile. He smirked.
“Just out for a ride on a lovely day.” “And seeing the sights,” she challenged, nodding toward the lovely riders, most of them batting wide, hopeful eyes at her ruddily handsome brother. If the Duke of Chalford was considered the greatest catch in London, the younger Lord Tarrin might be next in line. “These are lovely sights indeed, and I am not a man who would turn a blind eye to beauty.” “You would turn none of your parts, especially the one that leads you,” Nora muttered, hoping she’d been quiet enough that only Christopher could hear. He laughed and kissed her cheek again. “Careful which man’s cheeks you redden with such words, Nono,” he muttered while he was still close. “What you might say to your brother for a laugh, could turn against you in someone else’s ear.” She sighed. “I know.
I’m trying.” “I know you are. From all I hear, you should try harder.” Nora glared at him, and he simply shrugged. Her brother was twenty-eight years old and had little interest yet in choosing a bride. That was another injustice of Society: women were expected to marry the moment they were old enough to do so. Men were expected to wait—for years—and ‘sow their wild oats’ before settling down to domesticity. Nora had some wild oats, too. There were things she wanted to do, and see, and know. She imagined that most women had wild oats.
If they didn’t, they should have. She’d barely left Kent. Christopher had traveled the world. He’d fought in the Boer War. He’d been to India and Africa and America. He’d seen things, done things Nora could scarcely dream of. Their father wanted him home now, and to settle down. Brother and sister were finally in the same place, expected to marry. But Christopher had got to have a full life first.