Refining the Debutante – Anneka R. Walker

What exactly was a man supposed to do in a dressmaker’s shop? His mother’s headache, brought on by his sister Jane’s sour temper, necessitated an early return home. This left Ethan to retrieve Jane from her appointment. He suddenly felt envious of his youngest sister, who remained home at their country estate, and even his younger brother, who was at school. Ethan would rather be anywhere else. With a fortifying breath, he entered the narrow building of the most popular modiste in London and removed his beaver hat. He grimaced at the rainbow of colors before him. His sister had better hurry. To say he was out of his element, with the crowded bolts of fabric and the framed sketches of women’s attire, was an understatement. Jane was in the adjoining room, standing on a raised platform. Her back was to him, but through the doorway, he could see her staring at the reflection of her new gown in the long gilded mirror in front of her. He stepped closer to gain her attention but paused when he saw her expression. She looked as if she might cry. Was this dress the reason for his mother’s headache? Eyeing the gown, he wondered what part offended his sister. It seemed nice enough to him. The shop’s front door opened to let in a woman.

He shuffled to the side of the small vestibule and dipped his head in a polite greeting. The woman curtsied and smiled up at him. Ethan did not easily get his head turned by a pretty face, but when she boldly met his gaze, he could not look away. She wore a jonquil-yellow redingote with a brown velvet collar. She did not remove her heavily trimmed bonnet, but it did little to hide the golden-brown curls framing her large eyes, small nose, and full lips. While he had no intention of speaking to her, his mouth opened of its own accord. No sound emitted, and he floundered for a moment to close it again. She looked away before he did, breaking the strange spell her presence had cast over him. He was still thinking about his reaction to this perfect stranger when she spoke in a near whisper. “You really ought to tell your wife how wonderful she looks in her new gown.

” “Pardon?” Ethan stole a glance at the stranger. Had he imagined her soft words? “It would do her a world of good,” she whispered again. He looked at her. “Are you speaking to me?” Her eyes snapped to meet his. “Who else would I be speaking to?” She motioned to Jane. “Look at your darling little wife. She is terribly insecure. She needs you to buoy her spirits with a compliment or two.” He raised his brows in disbelief. Sisters did not care what brothers thought of their dresses, and he was nobody’s husband.

“You are mistaken.” “There is no mistake. Don’t be hurt that you cannot see what I can. A woman senses this sort of thing.” She gave him a look of pity. “It isn’t your fault. You were born a man; it is harder for you. But I do not mind helping. Go ahead. Look at her.

See the way she stares in the looking glass? See the worry line between her eyes?” She leaned near him as if doing so would allow him to see what she did. He had never met a more impertinent woman. “Why would she be worried? That dress cost a fortune.” A sigh emitted from her mouth. “She needs to feel beautiful. Only you can do that for her. Tell her.” “I don’t think—” “Do it. Go on.” Why had he agreed to come here in the first place? He cleared his throat, anxious for the woman to let him be, and stepped across the threshold of the adjoining room.

“You look well,” he said to Jane. “What are you doing in here?” Jane swiveled on the platform to face him. She batted at a dark ringlet by her face, then dropped her hands to her hips. “Wait outside. I am embarrassed you would speak to me in such a place.” He shuffled backward. The strange woman tsked her tongue. “You did a very poor job of it. A husband must learn the best way to compliment his wife. Let me demonstrate.

” The woman stepped past him. She looked back at him once, shaking her head as if he’d disappointed her, then waltzed into the room as if she were the proprietor. “Excuse me, but I mustn’t stay silent for another moment.” “What is it?” Jane asked. “It’s your dress. It’s exquisite. I must have an exact replica.” “You? But why? Your dress is far superior.” “Nonsense. You can barely see it beneath my redingote.

You are far too kind.” The woman put her hand out as if she were stroking the fabric of Jane’s dress but was not actually close enough to touch it. “This muslin is some of the finest I’ve seen so far this Season. You are a natural beauty, but do not underestimate the power of a beautiful gown.” “You think so? It is rather pretty, I guess. I am not sure about the fit.” The woman looked her over as if she were the mantua-maker. “You’re right. Madame Gillespie? A half inch at each shoulder.” The dressmaker pinned the material in the place where the stranger told her to.

“Your shoulders are slender indeed. What do you think now?” She turned to Madame Gillespie before Jane could answer. “Fetch that gold shawl on the table.” The woman accepted it and draped it over Jane’s shoulders. “Stunning. Wear it a little lower. Just there.” Then she crossed to a table and selected a green feather. She placed it in Jane’s hair. “Sometimes the little accents give a dress greater personality.

” Ethan stared. A little charm made the personality of a woman shine too. He turned his gaze from the vexing but delightful woman to see Jane’s reaction. His sister’s cheeks flushed with pleasure. “It’s far lovelier with your adaptions. I never would have been able to put this combination together.” Jane turned and preened in front of the mirror. “Thank you.” Madame Gillespie clasped her hands together in front of her chest. “Miss Bartley has excellent taste.

She sometimes sketches designs inspired by her travels.” “I am most impressed,” Jane said. Ethan was too. Miss Bartley . He would remember her name. “I am happy to share one with you, although my skills pale compared to Madame Gillespie’s,” Miss Bartley said. She pulled out a sketch from her reticule. “I happen to have one I did just this morning. What do you think of this? Oh, forgive me; I don’t even know your name.” “This is Miss Roderick,” Madame Gillespie supplied.

“May I?” Jane took the picture and gasped. “It’s like a Grecian princess.” “I think an English lady like yourself could do it justice too. It’s yours. I believe a soft blue would do well with your coloring.” “Thank you, Miss Bartley,” Jane cooed. Miss Bartley smiled at her and stepped back into the vestibule. Jane returned to studying her reflection in the mirror, her eyes sparkling. Ethan chuckled. “You’ve made my sister feel very beautiful.

” “She seems most deserving.” “You were right about her insecurity and the worry lines on her face. You have done something in minutes that my family hasn’t managed in two years.” “Well, I—” Her eyes widened. “Your sister? She is not your wife?” “Jane is my sister. But don’t worry. When I marry, I will be sure to compliment my wife just as you’ve instructed. I will insist on having an exact replica of her dress made to fit me. I will select her shawls and feathers. And I will sketch all the designs for her gowns.

” “Oh . ” She sputtered. “That would be most extraordinary of you.” She took a step backward. “Perhaps I should return for my appointment when your sister is through.” “I’m disappointed. You cannot be finished instructing me on my behavior already,” he teased. “Instructing?” She looked perfectly bewildered—as innocent as a dove. “Why would I do that? We have not even been properly introduced. I wouldn’t dare speak with a stranger.

” He bit back a grin. “Heaven forbid.” “My thoughts exactly.” Madame Gillespie stepped out of the room at that moment and gasped. “Don’t move!” She returned with a piece of parchment and a pencil and started sketching something. “Just one more minute.” “What is she doing?” Ethan asked Miss Bartley. “Don’t interrupt an artist at work.” He couldn’t help the movement of his lips. He grinned.

This woman was a great deal more outspoken than most. “An artist?” “She draws fashion plates for La Belle Assemblée, the lady’s magazine.” “Oh.” Ethan frowned. “I hardly think—” “You will be famous.” “Me? In a lady’s magazine?” He cringed. Madame Gillespie lifted her pencil from the paper and studied her work. “What do you think?” She handed it to Miss Bartley, but Ethan could easily see it. Miss Bartley was the focus of the sketch, which did not surprise him. “Add a scalloped edge to the hem of my dress and give Mr.

Roderick a pale-green scarf.” “Oh, I like that.” Ethan groaned. Miss Bartley put her gloved hand up to hide a smile. “You won’t speak to a stranger, but you’ll laugh at one?” he asked. “You must have imagined it,” she said, looking up at him. “I have a refined sense of humor.” “Which is probably why you have guilted me into complimenting my sister and then memorialized me in a lady’s magazine. Your sense of humor is most unique.” The door opened, and in stepped a woman and her daughter, crowding him closer to Miss Bartley.

He turned and was nearly touching her. She blushed and maneuvered back against the wall. “You’re still here!” Jane said to Miss Bartley, walking out with her cloak clasped around her throat. “Please, come to the teahouse with us.” “My appointment is next. My apologies.” Ethan didn’t know what possessed him to step forward and ask, “Another time, then?” She turned her head to meet his gaze. Did she think him insincere after his teasing? He had no reason to pursue this woman, except that he couldn’t let this be the last time he saw her. She wasn’t part of his plan, but with her in front of him, he couldn’t remember why his plan was so important. She smiled.

“I should like that.”

.

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