Arranging a season for an unruly young lady whose habit is to enter drawing rooms by sliding down banisters presents a challenge at best—especially since the boisterous Mirabelle Markham has a sister of incomparable grace.
Mira isn’t daunted at all by high society’s ridiculous marriage mart. Her heart belongs to Lord Charles Devere, and always has. Alas, Charles only has eyes for her ever-perfect sister, Drusilla.
But the Marquess of Grantley rather enjoys Mira’s jealous antics—until she goes too far and pushes her sister into the fountains. Now it’s up to Grantley to restore Mira to respectability and make her an eligible bride once again. Yet when he succeeds, the smitten Marquess begins to wish he’d left well enough alone . . .
The Dreadful Debutante is a delightful regency romance in the Royal Ambition series from Marion Chesney, writing as M.C. Beaton, New York Times–bestselling author of the popular Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth series, both of which have been adapted for TV by the BBC and PBS.
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Never had two sisters so close in age looked so little alike. Drusilla Markham was very beautiful, tall, statuesque, elegant, a perfect Regency beauty — with liquid dark eyes, thick brown hair, and a figure that had that necessary rounded look for beauty. Her sister, Mira, short for Mirabelle, was small with dark, wiry hair, large green eyes, and unfashionably high cheekbones in an age when women plumped out their cheeks with wax pads to achieve the desired Dutch doll effect.
Where Drusilla was calm and gracious, Mira was fiery, tetchy, and restless.
Like most children of aristocrats they had been brought up by a nurse and then a governess, rarely seeing their parents. The trouble started early on. Drusilla had always been beautiful, but Mira had heard herself described at an early age as a "changeling." The nurse doted on Drusilla and paid scant attention to Mira. The governess followed the same pattern, being the sort of governess who considered proper education harmful to young misses, and so it was Drusilla who could play the harp gracefully, embroider well, and who received all the praise.
Mira adored her father. Mr. Markham, of the untitled aristocracy, was a cold, withdrawn man, but Mira had once heard him say he longed for a son, and so she had tried to be that son. She rode well, hunted, fished, and shot like an expert. She preferred the company of men, for she knew she alarmed women, whereas men accepted her, she thought, as an equal.
The other light in Mira's life was Lord Charles Devere, younger son of the Duke of Barshire. He was ten years older than she, but it had amused him to take the child, Mira, fishing and hunting. He had gone away to join the army but had written to her from time to time from the Peninsular wars, and Mira had followed every battle in the newspapers and pestered every military gentleman who visited her parents for details.
Lord Charles had been absent at the wars for four years, and Mira missed him dreadfully.
One winter's day as she returned from a hard day's hunting, she was thinking of him and of what fun they once had together. Muddy and windswept, she erupted into the elegance of the Markhams' drawing room, where Drusilla sat at the harp, admiring the effect of the rise and fall of her own white arms.
"How many times must I tell you," said Mrs. Markham wearily, "to change before you enter my drawing room? Go and put on a clean gown and return here immediately. Your father wishes to speak to you."
Mira's green eyes flew anxiously to her father, but he was reading a newspaper and did not look up.
She went upstairs and allowed the maid she shared with Drusilla to help her into a gown after she had washed and to try to tease some semblance of order into her frizzy, windswept hair.
Mira descended to the drawing room by sliding down the banisters. As usual, the minute she entered, despite the fact that she was wearing a fashionable gown, she felt gauche and dowdy. Drusilla was always calm and impeccable. Mrs. Markham, who had once been as beautiful as Drusilla, moved gracefully, talked in a low, pleasant voice, and tried hard not to disturb her appearance with any evidence of animation whatsoever. Mr. Markham was slim and elegantly tailored as if for a London saloon rather than a country drawing room.
"Sit down, Mira," said Mr. Markham. Mira sat down wide-eyed, unused to any attention from her father.
"As you know, Mira," said Mr. Markham, delicately taking a pinch of snuff, "we are to take Drusilla to London for her come-out. She is nineteen and you are eighteen. We originally planned that should she be engaged after the next Season — and we are confident that she will be — you should make your own come-out the following Season."
"To which I have strongly objected. Money on a Season for Mira would be sadly wasted," said Mrs. Markham.
"But," went on Mr. Markham, as if his wife had not spoken, "I have decided to bring you out together."
"I agree with Mama," said Mira roundly. "I would not take."
"I must protest, Mr. Markham." His wife looked fondly at the beautiful Drusilla. "Mira is a hoyden. Besides, what gentleman is even going to look at her beside Drusilla?"
Does Mama even realize how very cruel she is being? thought Mira. Aloud she said, "It is very kind of you, Papa, but in truth I do not need a Season, and I should dislike it above all things."
"Nonetheless, you will go." Her father's voice was flat and final.
Mrs. Markham began to protest again, but he picked up a newspaper and paid no heed to her complaints. Drusilla smiled at Mira maliciously. "It might be fun," she said. "We shall have such larks." Drusilla, after her initial surprise that her father should be so determined that Mira have a Season, was beginning to relish the idea. Her own beauty and grace set against Mira's undistinguished looks and clumsy manners could only be enhanced by the contrast.
But Mira had had one thing in her young life that Drusilla had coveted, and that was her friendship with Lord Charles Devere. Although she knew that it had obviously amused the older Lord Charles to make a playmate of the boyish Mira, it had rankled that he seemed to find her, Drusilla, somewhat tiresome.
But she knew she had grown in beauty and was no longer the rather chubby little girl he had known. She had also just heard from her parents that he was returning on leave and would be at the Season. A rather calculating look entered her eyes as she looked at Mira. It would serve Mira right if her precious Lord Charles barely noticed her. Drusilla did not know that she was jealous of her sister, jealous of Mira's popularity with the men on the hunting field and with the people of Darton, the nearby market town.
She had not meant to tell Mira about Lord Charles's forthcoming visit to London in case it encouraged the girl to prettify herself in any way or to modify her hurly-burly manners, but Mrs. Markham said suddenly, "Lord Charles is coming home on leave."
Mira's green eyes suddenly shone like emeralds. "He is coming home? How soon? Oh, how wonderful it will be to see him again."
"He is going directly to London," said Mrs. Markham. "He will be at the Season."
Mira's face fell and then lit up. "But we can still have fun. He is like me. The fashionable life bores him. We can go and see the waxworks. We can —"
Mrs. Markham's voice cut through her enthusiasm. "Lord Charles is coming to the Season to find a wife."
Mira looked at her, startled. In her innocence she had never thought of Charles marrying. Then she rallied. Everything would be all right once she saw him again.
But somehow in the weeks that followed, Mira thought she would never see him again. The weather was bad. It rained incessantly, steady, drenching rain, thudding on the roof of her family mansion and chuckling in the lead gutters. The nearby River Blyn overflowed its banks, and Mira got a sound dressing down from her mother for going out to help the flooded townspeople while she was wearing the masculine clothes she wore on the hunting field. In fact, so alarmed was Mrs. Markham at Mira's dress and behavior that a lady of quality fallen on hard times called Mrs. Dunstable was hired to school Mira in grace, deportment, and conversation. So Mira found her freedom ruthlessly cut off, and it was only at night when she slid down the apple tree outside her window dressed in breeches and coat and made her way across the rain-soggy lawns that she felt she could breathe.
A month before their departure to London was due, she made her escape as usual during the night. When she was out of sight of the large, square mansion with the porticoed entrance that was her home, she took off her hat and let the rain fall on her straightened hair. She hated the hair straightener — which her mother had insisted the maid apply — with a passion, for it made her scalp itch dreadfully.
It was made in the stillroom from one pound of beef suet, two ounces of yellow wax, two ounces of castor oil, twelve grains of benzoic acid, thirty drops of oil of lemon, and five drops of oil of cinnamon. The preparation was massaged through her hair twice a day so that it would lie flat.
She made her way across the soggy lawns. The rain of the previous weeks had eased off to a thin drizzle. She jumped over a stile and entered the darkness of the home wood. Here was where she had often walked and talked with Charles. Surely he would return home after this dreadful Season, and then they would walk and talk again.
She bit her lip. But he might be married! Charles, married! And then her heart began to beat hard. Perhaps he could marry her, and then everything would be as it was. She could go to the army with him when he rejoined his regiment, and they would have such adventures. And she would refuse to let the maid straighten her hair again. She should appear as he remembered her. Besides, her frizzy hair was at least healthy and shiny, whereas the straightening made it look dark and dull.
So Mira walked on under the dripping trees of the home wood, surrounded by the comforting wet smell of old leaves, wrapped in a fantasy about marriage to Charles — which was, in her unawakened mind, more like a schoolboy adventure than a romance.
The next day Mira's rebellion over her hair was unexpectedly supported by her father. Mr. Markham cut through his wife's protests by saying firmly, "Her hair is better frizzy. It looks unhealthy with that stuff on it. Leave it." And as Mr. Markham's word was law, that was that. Looking at him, Mira thought there was a gleam of amusement and affection in his normally cold gray eyes, but she immediately decided she must have been mistaken.
But Drusilla had noticed it, too, and was jealous. She had further reason to be jealous. The townspeople and neighbors were sending presents to Mira, wishing her well in London, and Lady Rother, who lived on the far side of the town, had sent a present of a handsome fan on ivory sticks, which Drusilla coveted. She simply could not understand Lady Rother's behavior, for ladies were apt to shy away from Mira, and Lady Rother was a high stickler. She did not know, and neither did Mira, that Lady Rother had been touched by the report of Mira's help during the flooding and had decided the girl had "bottom," which was better than looks any day.
So during the days before they were due to depart to London, Drusilla tried her best to undermine Mira's confidence by sighing sympathetically over her sister's lack of style and looks. But Mira hardly paid any attention to her. The prospect of London had a whole new magic for her now that she knew she was to see her beloved Charles again.
Slowly the house began to empty. The Markhams had rented a town house in St. James's Square. Most of the servants and a fourgon piled high with luggage were sent on first, and then the great day arrived. It was sunny at last, with a warm spring wind drying the grass and buds appearing on the bare branches of the trees, when the Markham family finally set out.
They were to arrive some weeks before the beginning of the Season so that Mrs. Markham could "nurse the ground — that is, meet the most important of the London hostesses and so secure invitations to balls and parties for her daughters.
Mrs. Markham often wondered why her husband was incurring such unnecessary expense in giving Mira a Season. Still, she reflected, as Mira would possibly remain unwed, it was only right that the girl should have some fun. Her unruly ways would quieten with age, and she might become a pleasant, if spinster, companion to her parents in their declining years. But, ah, Drusilla! Mrs. Markham looked fondly at her elder daughter's rather petulant face under the fashionable bonnet. Drusilla would break hearts.
They stayed two nights at posting houses on the road, finally entering the outskirts of London in the morning. Drusilla shrank back against the squabs. London was so large, so noisy, and so very grimy, it was not what she had expected at all. But Mira sat forward in her seat, her green eyes shining. Charles was in London, and so everything about London was beautiful — from the billboards advertising Warren's blacking to the multitude of shops at the East End of the city, which had not yet been glassed in like the more fashionable ones of the West End but had their many- colored wares spilling out into the streets.
But Drusilla began to brighten as the quieter streets and squares of the West End were reached. She peered from the window of the carriage, studying the dress of the ladies and commenting on the height of cravats worn by the dandies.
Mira expected that Charles would call almost as soon as they were settled in, but when he did not, she contented herself by believing he would call the following day.
But a week of calls on various ladies went by, a stultifying week to Mira of boring conversation at boring tea tables, and still he did not call. Another week passed and then another, and Mira began to feel desperate. The rigid modes and manners of London society were becoming terrifying to her, and the more she thought of attending her first ball, the more clumsy and gauche she became. She even began to regret that her mentor, Mrs. Dunstable, had not come to London with them.
And then two days before their first ball, Mira heard her father remark that he had met Lord Charles at the club the preceding afternoon.
"But why hasn't he called?" she cried.
Her father rustled his paper impatiently. "Lord Charles has many friends and acquaintances in London. He has been too busy. You will see him at your first ball. He is to attend."
"Where is he residing?" asked Drusilla.
"He has lodgings in South Audley Street next to the Welsh bakery," said Mr. Markham.
All that long day Mira worried and worried. If only she could see Charles, if only she could reassure herself that he still cared for her. And then she remembered her masculine clothes, which she had brought from the country and hidden in the back of the press in her room. Her heart beat with excitement. She could slip out the following morning before anyone was awake and go and see him. How he would laugh!
She bareley slept that night. Surely Charles would not be so silly as to keep fashionable hours and not rise until two in the afternoon.
At nine in the morning she slipped out of the house in her breeches and coat with a hat jammed down over her hair. She began to swagger, enjoying the old freedom of pretending to be a boy.
But when she reached the corner of South Audley Street, her steps began to falter. Everything was so quiet, not a fashionable to be seen. But surely it would be all right when she saw Charles again. She found the bakery, went to the house next door to it, and faced a row of doorbells that looked like organ stops. Which one was Charles's? She retreated to the bakery, which was fortunately open, and said boldly, "Delivery for Lord Charles Devere. Which is his apartment?"
"Number three," said the baker laconically, and went back to picking his teeth.
Mira went back, drew a deep breath, and pulled the bell marked with a brass three. Somewhere deep in the silent building, a bell jangled noisly on its wire. She waited and waited and then heard the sound of advancing footsteps.
The door was opened by a servant in black coat, knee breeches, and striped waistcoat.
"What is it, lad?" he demanded.
"I am called to see Lord Charles," said Mira haughtily.
"Be off with you."
"Tell Lord Charles that Miss Mira Markham is called to see him."
The servant's eyes widened slightly, and then his gaze raked up and down her clothes. His eyes returned slowly to her face. Mira stared him down.
"Follow me, miss," he said curtly.
He led the way to the first floor, opened a door that led into a hallway, and said, "Be so good as to wait there."
Mira took off her hat and twisted the brim round in her fingers. The flat was dark and silent, with only faint noises of traffic from the street below filtering up through the gloom.
She heard the low murmur of voices from a room, and then the servant reappeared. Again he said, "Follow me" and this time led her into a masculine-looking study. "His lordship will be with you presently," he said.
Mira sat down nervously and looked about her. There was a businesslike desk against the window and several shiny black leather and horsehair-filled chairs like the one on which she was perched. There was a large oil painting on the wall depicting a hunting scene and several smaller oils of horses. A stand in the corner held an assortment of whips, sticks, and riding crops. Stuck into the gold frame of the mirror over the fireplace were many invitations.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dreadful Debutante"
Copyright © 1994 Marion Chesney.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not as good as author Stephanie Laurens, but a fair attempt at a Regency romance. I like Beaton's Agatha Raisin series better!
very little character build.