Home > A Duke for Diana (Designing Debutantes #1)

A Duke for Diana (Designing Debutantes #1)
Author: Sabrina Jeffries




Spring 1807



Hours into London’s most poorly attended ball, not a single gentleman had asked Lady Diana Harper to dance. That didn’t surprise her. Once one became a pariah in high society, one was sentenced to holding up the wall at all social engagements. Hence the term “wallflower.” Except that she and her younger sister, Verity, were more like “wall-weeds,” to be rooted out and stomped upon.

Still, they refused to give anyone the satisfaction of driving them home to hide. Who cared if Mama had scandalized everyone by running off with Major-General Tobias Ord? Who cared if Papa, the mighty Earl of Holtbury, was divorcing Mama for that selfsame act? It wasn’t Diana or Verity’s fault, and they refused to act as if it was. Instead, they went to every society affair they were invited to attend.

There weren’t many.

Fortunately, their oldest sister, Mrs. Eliza Pierce, who had already wed by the time their mother made her mad dash for freedom, hadn’t suffered quite as much. Whenever someone was cruel to Eliza, she could retreat to Mr. Pierce’s strong arms. Diana and Verity could only put a good face on matters and dare the ton to torment them for what was not their fault!

Diana sighed. Perhaps if she said it often enough, she’d believe it. Perhaps then society might finally allow them to dance instead of forcing them to sit to the side watching their youth slip away.

Good Lord, but she was morose tonight, and the overpowering orchestra was giving her a headache that worsened matters. At this rate, she might as well go home where she could hear herself think.

Thank heavens the music ended with a flourish just then. Their good friend, Miss Isolde Crowder, approached them, her ash-brown curls bouncing. “I’m delighted you came. Mama wanted so badly for this to be a crush, but I knew it was unlikely.”

Isolde and Diana were both twenty, their friendship forged when they’d embarked on their first Season together. This was their second, and, judging from how things were going, they might need a third. And a fourth and a fifth and—

Diana didn’t want to think about that. Isolde hadn’t “taken” during their first Season, not because of scandal but because she was a Cit. Marrying a Cit, even a wealthy one, wasn’t au courant in society these days. Diana hadn’t “taken” during her own first Season because of the rumors about her parents’ flagrant infidelities.

Then Verity had only just been presented to the queen and had her début ball before the dance floor had been knocked out from under her, too, so to speak, by Mama’s running off. At nineteen, Verity was now doomed to be an outcast in society. It simply wasn’t fair.

Verity lifted one brow. “I’m surprised your mother even wanted us here, given our notoriety.” The hint of bitterness in her voice reminded Diana that her sister had good reason to be bitter, given that she’d lost a serious suitor because of their parents’ behavior.

“She didn’t, but I told her I wouldn’t attend if she didn’t invite the three of you,” Isolde said hotly.

“You’re a good friend, and we appreciate that,” Diana told Isolde. “I’m afraid everyone else thinks us as tainted by Mama’s sin as if we’d jumped into the carriage with her.”

“I hope it’s not as bad as all that,” Isolde remarked, ever the optimist.

Diana gave her an arch smile. “We both know Verity’s and my Seasons have not borne the appropriate fruit so far.”

Nearby, a lady chuckled, prompting Diana to look over. This was the second time tonight Diana had seen the woman eavesdropping on their conversations. Diana didn’t recognize her, but no one else was standing close by, so the lady had to be laughing at their conversation.

Diana couldn’t imagine why. “I believe a change of subject is in order.” Putting her back deliberately to the lady, she swept her hand down to indicate Isolde’s attire, a sheath of French gray silk with a silver net overlay and darling little bishop sleeves with ribbon bands. “Your gown turned out very well. It suits you.”

Isolde beamed at her. “Thank you for designing it. I know that your help is why I’ve had so many more dances tonight. If I’d left matters to Mama, I’d be dressed in jonquil satin with large pink tambour-work blossoms over my . . . embonpoint.”

“Good God,” Verity said. “That sounds awful!”

The lady nearby laughed outright, reminding Diana that she and her sisters were under heavy scrutiny these days.

“Verity,” Diana said in a low voice. “That’s hardly appropriate language for a young lady.”

“‘Large pink tambour-work blossoms’ over a woman’s ‘embonpoint’ are hardly appropriate for a young lady either,” Verity said grimly. “Thank heavens you intervened. Even I know Isolde would look abysmal in that shade of yellow. The color is perfect for my skin, but—” She flashed their friend an apologetic smile. “It would turn your lovely alabaster skin sallow.”

“Surely the dressmaker would have discouraged your mother from that choice,” Diana pointed out.

“I doubt it,” Isolde said. “Mama patronizes Mrs. Ludgate’s shop more than any other woman of the ton, so the dressmaker dares not gainsay Mama. I can barely gainsay her. She’s stubborn to a fault.” Isolde touched her necklace of jet beads. “And speaking of Mama, I couldn’t ask her about this because I don’t trust her taste.”

“With good reason,” Verity mumbled.

Isolde went on as if she hadn’t heard Verity. “But I was hoping you could tell me if my jewelry matches my gown well enough.”

“It matches beautifully,” Diana assured her. “And your reticule is perfect—the simple gray silk and black ribbon ties contrast well with the sparkling net. As always, you have far better taste than you give yourself credit for.”

“Thank you,” Isolde said with a faint blush. “What a relief.” She turned to Verity. “I did try to implement your ideas about the décor, but Mama—” Her eyes went wide. “Oh, dear, she has spotted me. I’d best go mingle or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

Once Isolde was gone, Verity blew her droopy, golden-brown curls from her brow. “It’s so hot in here.” Verity snatched Diana’s fan and started fluttering it over her unfreckled bosom.

Diana shook her head. “I warned you not to wear velvet in spring. This time of year, the weather is highly unpredictable.”

“But I like velvet.”

“I like parents who aren’t engaged in a public war, but we don’t always get to have what we like.” Diana stared straight ahead, ignoring the matron who passed by while giving them the cut direct.

Her sister’s brow darkened. “All the same, I’m determined to do as I please now that I’m rid of Lord Minton. He hated velvet, so I never wore it. I won’t do that for a man ever again. Look what it got me! I’ll wear what I like and to the devil with it.”

“And you shouldn’t curse either.”

“I’ll curse if I please. You should do a bit more cursing. Trust me, it is wonderfully freeing.” Verity sneezed, then pointed Diana’s fan at the massive arrangements of lilies, wisteria, and roses set at intervals of three yards apart. “Isolde’s mother got to do and have what she pleased. Why can’t I? Honestly, who would cobble those three flowers together? The scents are overpowering.”

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