(The copy in this email is used by permission, from an uncorrected advanced proof. In quoting from this book for reviews or any other purpose, it is essential that the final printed book be referred to, since the author may make changes on these proofs before the book goes to press. This book will be available in bookstores May 2022.)
Caroline stiffened as her aunt Lady Eleanor Greenwood cast a dismissive glance around the highly overdecorated drawing room of number eight Half Moon Street. It was well past the usual time for calling, but her aunt had never been one to worry about such niceties when she considered a person socially beneath her.
"Really, Caroline. A rented house? Does your employer not have the means to buy something decent for herself?"
"I'm fairly certain she does, ma'am," Caroline said. "But she hasn't decided whether she wishes to stay in London for more than just the current Season."
"And if she doesn't like it, does she intend to drag you back up north with her? I must assume she is a widow, because no husband would allow her to spend so much money on such frivolities." Aunt Eleanor shuddered, making the three tall feathers on her bonnet quiver. She had a sharp face, a pointed nose, and a pinched mouth that currently signaled her disapproval. "Where does her money come from?"
"That's hardly any of our business, ma'am." Caroline set her jaw. "Mrs. Frogerton has been very kind to me, and—"
"But there was no need for this, Niece." Her aunt interrupted her again. "You demean yourself to accept a wage. You know I would have welcomed you back to Greenwood Hall with open arms."
Caroline curtsied. "You have been more than generous to me and my sister over the years, Aunt, but I fear becoming a burden on your kindness."
"Yet you happily allow me to house your sister."
"I will relieve you of that responsibility as soon as I am able to do so." Caroline held her aunt's derisive gaze.
"On the wages you are currently being paid? I doubt it." Aunt Eleanor sighed. "I suppose you think you might marry at some point and that your husband would be willing to take your sister in." She paused. "Although seeing as your father's unfortunate death has left both of you penniless and homeless, what kind of gentleman would agree to marry you?"
"I have not thought of marriage recently, ma'am." Caroline hurried to reassure her aunt. "I merely—"
"Well, I am still determined to change your mind, Niece."
Aunt Eleanor took a short promenade around the room pausing to stare and shake her head at every garishly fashionable Egyptian object Mrs. Frogerton had hired to furnish the house. The style wasn't to Caroline's taste either, but she'd enjoyed watching Mrs. Frogerton exclaim in wonder over every item she'd ordered from her avid perusal of the furniture illustrations in Ackermann's Repository.
Eventually Aunt Eleanor stopped beside the inlaid marble fireplace and turned to Caroline.
"I am holding a seventeenth birthday party for your cousin Mabel next week. I expect you to attend."
"Where is the event to be held?" Caroline asked. "I'm sure I could get the evening off if it is here in London."
"No, Mabel is insisting that everyone must come to Greenwood Hall for a house party."
Caroline braced herself for her aunt's anger. "Then I am afraid I will be unable to attend."
"Don't be silly, dear. I'm sure Mrs. Frogerton won't mind."
"But I would mind," Caroline said. "I am employed to be by her side and to help ease her daughter Dorothy's way in society. I cannot abandon my post just as the Season is about to start."
Aunt Eleanor's smile disappeared. "You are being most disobliging." She tapped her gloved fingers against the marble mantelpiece like a mistress testing for dust. "Do you not wish to see your sister?"
Was there a threat behind Eleanor's words? Caroline wouldn't be surprised. Her aunt was more like Caroline's recently deceased father than most people realized and hated not to get her way.
"I would very much like to see Susan, but—"
Again, her aunt cut her off. "What if I invited your employer and her daughter to accompany you?"
"Yes, I assume the daughter is of a similar age to Mabel. Would it not be in her best interest to be introduced to a select few people who are also about to make their debut in society?"
"I would imagine it would." Caroline's mind worked furiously. "But I will have to consult with Mrs. Frogerton as to whether she wishes to attend."