One Night to Remember – Erica Ridley

Lady Felicity Sutton could not stop herself from plucking yet another glass of lemonade from the tray of a passing footman. Her brother had reminded her multiple times that tonight’s mission was to enchant one of the unwed lordlings wending their way about the ballroom before her. She was supposed to be on the hunt for dukes and marquesses, not sweet, delicious lemonade. Yet no matter how many soirées she attended, or how fine the orchestra played for the dancers, a large part of Felicity could never forget how things had been Before. Back when there were no new clothes, much less fancy gowns. Back when the siblings’ only society was each other. Back when the cost of sugar or lemons was so dear, the idea of lemonade was just another unobtainable dream. Even more than the chandeliers overhead and the elegant revelers surrounding her, nothing reminded her how far they’d come quite like the simple luxury of cold, tart-sweet lemonade any time she wished. “No wool-gathering,” her brother, now the Duke of Colehaven, murmured into her ear. “Concentrate on earl-gathering.” “I’m planning my attack,” she assured him. Cole’s relief was obvious. “Tonight’s the night?” “This Season is the Season.” She hoped. Catching a man’s eye was one thing.

Convincing the right man to the altar was another. “I’ll leave you to it.” Cole ceased scolding her like a mother hen and threaded his way back across the ballroom toward his new wife. Felicity shook her head fondly. There was nothing she wouldn’t do for her brother, and nothing he wouldn’t do for her. It had been the two of them against the world since as far back as she could remember. Back then, he had been Caleb, and she had more often than not been “Felix.” Now she was Lady Felicity and he was the Duke of Colehaven. A few short months ago, Cole had fallen in love and taken a wife. He had never been happier, and he wanted the same happiness for his sister.

In the form of a duke, ideally. Or, he supposed, an earl, if she absolutely must lower her sights. She’d had six Seasons. The horror! Surely it was time to make a choice. She strode into the retiring room and made her way to one of the free spaces before the Barkleys’ grand, gilt-edged looking-glass. A mahogany table placed just beneath the edge of the frame brimmed with all the accoutrements a lady exhausted by dancing might require. Rosewater to reduce the puffiness beneath one’s eyes, spare pins for one’s hair, squares of cloth to dip in a bowl of iced water and press against the back of one’s heated neck. Felicity loved all of it. Other ladies might take such luxuries for granted, but the scent of rosewater or the relief of a cold compress against her neck never failed to make her feel like a princess in a fairy tale. “I fear I shall vomit,” whispered an ashen debutante to Felicity’s left, followed by a panicked cry of distress.

“Oh dear, I promised I wouldn’t say ‘vomit’ at the party! I’m not sick, I’m just… hopeless.” Felicity turned to the young woman with a smile. “How do you do? I’m Lady Felicity Sutton.” The girl grew even paler. “I said ‘vomit’ in front of the Duke of Colehaven’s sister?” The young lady buried her face in her hands. “I’m ruined.” “None of that,” Felicity said with amusement. “I’m not so missish, and besides, if you would like to know a secret… titled people vomit, too. But you won’t, will you? Not in that pretty white gown. You look lovely.

I imagine your dance card was filled in seconds.” “Almost,” the girl admitted. She gave Felicity an abashed smile. “Thank you for being so kind. I’m Alexandra Corning. This is my first Season.” Felicity returned her smile. “Every lady present here tonight has had a first Season. You’ll get used to it.” “Not too used to it, I hope,” Miss Corning said fervently.

“I daren’t become a spinster.” The hushed word was spoken in the same tone as one might say leper or pariah or worthless or doomed. Felicity did not blame Miss Corning for being dramatic. Most marriageable young ladies tended to share that view. Indeed, Felicity’s four-and-twenty years were the reason why her brother despaired of her ever bringing a suitor up to scratch. Felicity had nothing against dukes and earls, but she wanted something more than luxury and a title and wealth. She wanted to share the riches. It wasn’t enough to provide for her children and her children’s children. She needed to do everything within her power to improve the lives of the countless impoverished children out in the streets and in the rookeries, struggling to get through each day. Children like she and Cole had once been.

Children who desperately needed someone to care about them. “Don’t worry about becoming a spinster,” she told Miss Corning. “Try to relax.” “I can’t,” Miss Corning said miserably. “My parents expect perfection.” “Everyone has a different definition of ‘perfect,’” Felicity responded. It had taken every minute of her six Seasons to find a man who fit Cole’s requirements and hers. To most men, Felicity’s dowry alone was reason to wed her. The key was finding a man who didn’t need it. Someone whose own fortune was vast enough that Felicity’s dowry would be a sweet, if unnecessary, gesture.

Lord Raymore fit the bill perfectly. He was not a duke, but a marquess—and two decades older—but even Cole could find no other flaws. Raymore was dizzyingly wealthy. Three of his six properties were entailed to the title, meaning no one could ever take their home away. Neither Felicity nor her children need ever fear a future living on the streets. But grand possessions weren’t enough. What was the point of marrying privilege and power if she couldn’t use any of it to help the people who needed it most? “When I’m married,” Miss Corning said with a sigh, “I’ll never have to lift a finger again. My husband will take care of everything.” He certainly would if she let him. Felicity had coaxed Cole into placing “permission for wife to contribute to charitable causes as she sees fit” in her betrothal contract, but neither of them had been able to persuade any of her suitors over the years to sign such a statement.

Men control money, some insisted. Every penny of it. Others were happy to give her a bottomless purse, with the stipulation that her husband’s money was only to be spent on accoutrements that improved the family image: jewels, elaborate gowns. Under no circumstances was she to waste their assets on other people. “Do you have your eye on anyone in particular?” Felicity asked. “My eye is on every man with a title,” Miss Corning replied with a little laugh. “Just like everyone else.” Felicity wasn’t “everyone else.” Neither was Lord Raymore. Not only was the older gentleman on the House of Lords’ committee to reform child labor, he and Cole were the only peers on that committee.

Raymore was the one bachelor in this ballroom who would be delighted to wed a bride who shared his passion to improve the lives of the less fortunate. And in less than an hour, Felicity’s hand was promised to the marquess in a waltz. It was a good sign, but a would-be bride required more than signs. Lord Raymore danced with Felicity regularly enough to raise eyebrows, but never sought her company outside of a ballroom. If she intended to change that, she needed to look and act the part of a future marchioness. “Your dress is beautiful,” Miss Corning said shyly. “I love the tiny rosebuds on your demi-train.” “Thank you,” Felicity answered with pride. The selection hadn’t been easy. She’d spent countless hours poring over fashion plates to find exactly the right styles to communicate the impression she was hoping to make.

More mature than blushing, fresh-from-the-schoolroom girls, but young enough to still be a fine catch for any discerning gentleman. Intelligent enough to run any household, yet not so managing or bossy as to be tiresome. Elegant, not gaudy. Attractive, not bawdy. Duchess, not desperate. It was a very fine line. Then again, controlling her outward appearance had been the sole tool in Felicity’s arsenal for most of her life. She had always had to pretend to be someone else in order to be seen, or to get what she needed. It no longer felt like giving up part of herself. She straightened her bodice.

The right clothes made her feel safe. They let her be—or at least appear to be—whatever she chose. Before her brother had inherited a title, the boys’ clothes she donned determined whether she would be accepted. Whether she would eat. Whether she could stay with her brother. Now that Cole was a duke… nothing had changed. Her ability to mimic the right look would determine the rest of her life. She understood exactly why a debutante like Miss Corning felt like she might vomit. Lord Raymore had to work. He was the only hope she had left.

Felicity squared her shoulders in determination. This was the night she’d be on her way to her own happy ending. Miss Corning’s shoulders slumped as she stared into the looking-glass. “My hair is hopeless.” “This will help.” Using pins from the provided dish, Felicity rearranged Miss Corning’s flyaway locks into a style she’d seen in La Belle Assemblée. She and her lady’s maid had practiced this look a hundred times. Just one more pin, and… “There.” Miss Corning let out a shaky breath. “It looks beautiful.

Thank you so much. I suppose I’m now as primped as I’ll ever be.” “You look stunning,” Felicity assured her. “Are you enjoying the ball?” “It feels like every minuet is my one and only chance with each gentleman.” Miss Corning blushed. “It must be lovely to be the sister of a duke, and not have to worry about such things.” Felicity hadn’t always been the sister of a duke, and she had never stopped worrying about thing. “Come along,” she told Miss Corning with what she hoped was a confident smile. “Let’s return to the dancing, shall we? Perhaps we’ll fill the rest of your card while we wait for the next set to begin.” Miss Corning nodded.

She stuck to Felicity’s side as they exited the retiring room and returned to the loud, bright whirl of the ballroom. “There’s my mother,” Miss Corning said. “Oh dear, she looks vexed. Did I tarry too long?” “Go to her,” Felicity said. “Vexed or not, mothers are a precious thing to cherish.” She could not even remember hers. “Thank you for everything.” Miss Corning curtsied and hurried off. Felicity made her way toward her acquaintance Hester Donnell. Like Felicity, this was not Hester’s first Season.

Unlike Felicity, Hester had been born into this world. She did not have to pretend to belong or worry about being unmasked as inferior. To Hester, all of this grandeur was normal. More importantly, Hester was a leader of fashion. Their amicable association had eased Felicity’s entrée into Society back when Felicity had made her debut. For that, Felicity would always be grateful. “Did you try the lemon tarts?” Hester asked as she approached. “You know I tried the lemon tarts,” Felicity responded. “I tried all the lemon tarts. I would have cleaned up the lemon tart crumbs, too, had I not been forcibly restrained by eagle-eyed footmen.

” Hester smirked. “I wish that were true. A little lemon tart drama would liven up this soirée.” Even after years of running into each other at ballrooms just like this one, Felicity still struggled to understand how other people could tire of being surrounded by so much beauty and riches and food and music. “How are you managing to pass the time?” she asked dryly. Hester tilted the edge of her painted fan toward a well-dressed couple locking elbows in a country-dance. “I’m watching Penelope Wakefield captivate the Earl of Findon. Some say his eye wanders too much for him to select a bride, but he has saved a dance for Lady Penelope at least once a fortnight. Mark my words, that man is thinking of marriage.” Felicity certainly hoped so.

Not because she had any insight into whatever designs Penelope and the earl might or might not have for each other. But because Felicity and Lord Raymore had also shared a set every single week this Season, without fail. If fortnightly attentions meant a proposal was forthcoming for Lady Penelope, surely a weekly waltz or minuet strongly indicated Lord Raymore’s matrimonial intentions toward Felicity. She just needed to coax him to take the next step. “When do you think he’ll ask for her hand?” she murmured. “Any day now,” Hester replied with confidence. “Next year at this time, they’ll be the hosts of the Season’s biggest crush.” She swirled an inch of golden liquid in her glass and muttered, “I hope they’ll have better sherry.” Felicity made no response. She thought the refreshments perfectly delicious, and tonight’s party positively brilliant.

“I’m rarely caught off guard in such matters,” Hester continued. “I knew Lady Diana was meant for your brother the first time I saw them together.” Felicity frowned. “Did they even dance together before they were wed?” “They did not,” Hester said with portent, “and he wanted to. Of course they were destined to marry. Everyone wants who they cannot have.” Felicity’s stomach clenched. Was there some truth to what Hester was saying? Was the real reason Lord Raymore had yet to ask for Felicity’s hand because she said yes to every dance instead of limiting her availability? She gritted her teeth in frustration. Courtship rules were so arbitrary! Why must it be a game of winners and losers instead of frank conversations where everyone simply said exactly what they meant? I like you. I like you, too.

Let’s get married. Wouldn’t that be much easier than making the proper hand signs to flirt with one’s fan, whilst rationing out minuets and pinching one’s cheeks in the retiring room between each set in order to keep up the appearance of a youthful glow? “The expression on your face,” Hester said with a laugh. “It’s as if you just tried the Barkleys’ dreadful sherry for the first time. What on earth are you thinking about?” “Marriage,” Felicity replied honestly. “Believe me,” Hester said, lowering her voice. “If there was a better crop to choose from, I would introduce you. I’m afraid this is it. You’re looking at the best of the best.” Felicity nodded. “I know.

” The truth was, marrying anyone in this ballroom would have seemed like a dream come true to the eight-year-old version of herself. Even being the wife of a footman would have been unthinkable. For most of her childhood, Felicity hadn’t belonged anywhere. She and Cole had been lucky enough not to be alone, but love couldn’t fill one’s belly. Because she and her brother weren’t a part of the original duke and heirs’ lives, there was little to no gossip about the dark years before Cole inherited. The people in this ballroom did not know the truth about their past, and God willing, they never would. Felicity wasn’t ashamed of anything she’d done to survive, but the truth would make her an outcast right when she was closest to finally being in. That was, if she could bring Lord Raymore up to scratch. Hester raised her brows. “I don’t think you have to worry about marriage anymore.

” Because of the marquess? Felicity perked up. Perhaps Hester had heard something interesting. “What do you mean?” she asked carefully. “You must know by now,” Hester said in surprise. “This is your fifth Season.” Felicity swallowed. “Sixth.” “Exactly,” Hester said dryly and returned her gaze to the dance floor. Felicity’s stomach twisted. Hester wasn’t suggesting a marriage proposal was on the horizon.

She was saying it was too late. “I’m four-and-twenty,” she whispered. “Mm-hmm,” Hester said absently. “I’m almost two-and-twenty. This is my last year.” Felicity drew back in horror. “Two-and-twenty is not the end!” “Oh, of course not,” Hester agreed. “Not for me. I’ve always known who I’ll marry. Our fathers made a pact when we were children.

Titus and I made our own pact to enjoy three Seasons of independence before joining in marriage. He’s got the license. We’ll marry next month.” Felicity stared at her before managing a faint, “Congratulations.” She’d known she was tempting the devil by waiting this long to marry, but she hadn’t considered the possibility that things were already dire. Felicity’s chest tightened. She’d promised her brother she’d be betrothed before the end of the Season. She promised herself she’d make measurable progress with Lord Raymore before the end of the night. This was her best opportunity. The orchestra lowered their bows and dancers dispersed from the polished floor.

One of the gentlemen made his way in their direction. Tall, sandy hair, dark eyes… this was the Earl of Thistlebury. Felicity straightened. She had one more set free before her promised dance with Lord Raymore. The earl bowed to them both before extending his elbow toward Hester. “I believe this is my dance?” Hester winked at Felicity over his shoulder as if to imply she was very much enjoying her last month of freedom.

.

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