Imogen Hartford stood in front of the vanity, awed by the lady in the mirror. If it were not for the familiar green eyes that stared right back at her, she would not believe that it was her own reflection she was seeing. Those eyes were unmistakably hers. Green like the leaves in full spring with hints of summer sun around the irises; they were unique indeed. “I look so . beautiful,” she muttered. Her maid, Elena, smiled. “You always do, Miss Imogen. You are beautiful.” Imogen shook her head. She knew exactly what she was speaking about. “I have never been so .
may I say stunning? You make me shine, Elena. I look absolutely radiant!” This time, Elena chuckled. “I did nothing.” “That is a lie. Look how beautifully you have done up my hair. My cheeks are a shade rosier and my eyes, oh, they twinkle!” She turned to her maid, taking her hands. “Thank you, dear. I love it!” Elena’s cheeks flushed with warmth and she lowered her gaze, refusing to hold Imogen’s. “Oh well, it is the least I could do seeing as it is your debut. Every lady has to be especially pretty on the night she enters society, I hear.” “I agree!” Imogen’s eyes widened as her brother’s voice filled the room. She spun swiftly, facing the direction she had heard it come from and there he was, arms crossed, standing by the door. “Lewis!” she chimed.
“I did not hear you come in. How long have you been there?” Lewis Hartford lifted his right shoulder in a small shrug. “A short while.” Unfolding his arms, he started to walk towards her. He held her shoulders softly and turned her around so they could look in the mirror together. Side by side, it was almost impossible to see that they were related for the differences in their features. Where Imogen had wild chestnut hair that tumbled down her back in waves when set free, Lewis’ hair was blonde and cut short to stop just before his brows. His eyes often reminded her of honey, and she would ever tease him for his nose being a tad too long. He stood at five inches taller than her five feet two and his shoulders, because of their broadness, easily shielded her. Imogen remembered crying on them too many times.
The only features they happened to share in common were the oval-shaped face and the milkiness of their skin. Just then, his lips curved, and she realized one more thing they both had: that smile. Like her hair, it had been passed down by their mother. “How do you feel?” he asked. Imogen knew exactly what he was talking about. In another hour, they would be arriving at her first ball. She would formally enter society. For years, she had been trained for this moment. She had learned how to walk gracefully, curtsy flawlessly, speak properly . every manner in the book of propriety had been taught to her.
Her governess had never failed to drum into Imogen’s ears, that her first season would go a long way in determining the rest of her life. Of course, Imogen was never comforted by the thought that her future depended on a succession of balls and soirees. To her, it was utterly ridiculous. Nevertheless, she had listened and learned, wanting to make her father and brother happy and proud. The time had finally come to put all that she had mastered into use. “A little anxious,” she finally answered. It was nothing but the truth. She was worried she would make a mistake, that she would not be good enough, and would only end up disappointing the family she loved with all her heart. Lewis nodded. She could see in his eyes that he understood, she did not even have to say much.
She often never did. “Anyone would be, in your shoes. However, you must know that there is nothing to worry about, my dear. You are going to be wonderful, I can tell.” She smiled. She could tell that he meant every word, believed it even. “Thank you, Lewis.” He shook his head. “I am only stating a fact.” There was a moment’s silence as he paused.
When he spoke again, his voice was filled with emotion. “You indeed look especially lovely tonight, Imogen. Utterly gorgeous. Sometimes, I still cannot believe that you have grown into such a beautiful young woman before my very eyes. If mother were here with us, I am certain that she would be so proud.” The mention of their mother brought tears to Imogen’s eyes and she blinked rapidly, sending them back. It would not do to shed sad tears in such a beautiful moment. “She is here with us,” she whispered as she found her voice. She lifted a palm to her heart and tapped. “Right here.
” It was Lewis’ turn to blink. “Yes,” he finally replied, smiling. “Of course, she is. Come now, father awaits us. Society awaits us.” Imogen nodded as she turned around. With an acknowledging nod and a smile toward Elena’s way, she hooked her arm around her brother’s and let him lead them out of her chamber. They found their father waiting in the hall when they descended the stairs. Lewis was his spitting image. But for the evident age difference, it would have been so easy to mistake the elderly Mr.
Hartford for his son. Gerald Hartford’s brown eyes lit up the moment he saw her. “My goodness! Imogen, it really is you!” he gushed in awe as she came to a stop before him. Her cheeks filled with the warmth that was spreading through her chest. “Of course, Father. Why? Do I look that different?” He chuckled. “Only more beautiful. Ahh . ” he sighed as he palmed her cheeks. “You look just like your mother.
Seeing you now, I can hardly keep the memories away. It was a night such as this one when I first saw her. Her first season, her first ball. She was the loveliest sight, so lovely, she took my breath away. I knew it right then that there was no other woman for me. There could not be.” “Oh, Father . ” Imogen whispered. This time, she had no luck. A drop of tear slipped free, but she was quick to wipe it away.
It seemed everyone was intent on making her cry and she could barely fault them. In such precious times, it was only right that they remembered the one woman who had meant so much to them and still did, even in death—not that Rachel Hartford could ever be forgotten. Never. Her father who had been staring into the distance, evidently taken back in time, looked at her again. His eyes widened as he realized what he had done. He was quick to apologize. “Oh, my dear. Forgive me. I did not mean to make you feel sad. It is just .
” Imogen cut him off. “I understand, Father. You need not apologize. Lewis and I believe she is right here with us. Even though we cannot see her, we feel her, in our hearts.” Her father’s lips curved in a sad smile. “I must have done something right in my lifetime. It is the only reason I was blessed with the two of you. You are both so precious to me.” He withdrew his hand from her cheek then and straightened his coat.
After clearing his throat, he spoke. “Are you ready?” Imogen gave it some thought. Was she? She supposed she was. There was no going back now, after all. She nodded. “I believe I am.” Her father’s smile widened. “Very well. Let us be on our way.” With those words, they all left their townhouse.
One by one, they got into the carriage that had been waiting just outside and began the journey to the Wembley residence. Forty-five minutes later, their carriage pulled to a stop. Her father was the first to descend. Her brother went next and when he had, he gave her his hand. As soon as her feet touched the ground, she started to look around, taking in the sight before her. There was a large number of carriages already and a small crowd of people. Some had only just arrived, and the others were trooping to the huge doors that guarded the Wembley townhouse. Loud chatter filled the air, as well as laughter. The joy that filled the ambience was so palpable, it was almost infectious. “So, this is what it is like, attending a ball .
” she thought out loud. Her father and brother chuckled as they fell into place by her sides. “You have yet to see anything, Imogen. You just wait, patience.” Lewis told her gently. Intrigued by his words, Imogen decided to hold her peace as they began to walk. They soon reached the doors and were let in by the butler. Joining the rest of the small crowd that had gathered in the hall, they found their way to the ballroom.