The Season

Page 12


“You never do know, luv.”
“I know.”
“Finally!” Alex jumped up from the stool and paced across the floor of the bedchamber, happy to be freed from the tedious task of hair drying. “Now what?”
“Well”—Eliza tilted her head and looked thoughtfully at Alex—“I’m thinkin’ it won’t do for you to meet the Prince draped in damp linen.”
Alex grinned broadly. “Likely not.”
“Stockings.” Eliza pointed to two pieces of silk that were hanging over the top of the dressing screen, and Alex moved to pull them on while the maid went searching in the wardrobe for the rest of the garments necessary for this, the “biggest day” of a young woman’s life.
Just as Alex had finished tying her garters at the tops of her stockings, Eliza emerged, an enormous stack of white cotton and linen in her arms. Alex rolled her eyes again, saying aloud, “The things we are required to do in the name of fashion.”
Eliza was not considered to be one of the best lady’s maids in the history of the Stafford family for no good reason, however. She took little interest in Alex’s distaste for the process of dressing and handed her mistress a set of drawers. Alex pulled them on, letting the linen towel go and turning to give Eliza access to the tapes and ribbons on the pantaloons so they could be fitted to her waist and hips.
As the maid worked, Alex spoke. “Tell me something fascinating.” Eliza always had some terrific piece of gossip that she’d been saving up to share at just such a moment.
“Well, I do have something, but I don’t know how reliable my sources are.”
“Gossip from unreliable sources is always better than from reliable ones, Eliza,” Alex said with a wide smile. “Go on.” She leaned forward toward the pile of undergarments and pulled the wide-shouldered chemise over her head, letting it fall around her in a voluminous swath of fabric. This particular piece had little shape to it, and Alex was always rather amused by how thoroughly unfeminine a garment designed specifically for females could be.
Eliza set herself to arranging the chemise to Alex’s figure, folding the fabric here, pinning it there, as she said, “Well, it seems that John Coachman is smitten.”
“Really?” Alex had trouble envisioning her father’s coachman, an immense giant of a man who rarely spoke to anyone but the horses, smitten. “With whom?”
“Margaret, the butcher’s daughter.”
Eliza nodded, snatching up a stiff whalebone corset from where it lay on Alex’s bed. From a small box on the dressing table nearby, the maid selected a large corset needle, threading it expertly with a length of cord as she returned to Alex. “I must say, he does seem to be more willin’ than usual to drive the kitchen maids down to the meat market.”
Alex took hold of the corset, centering it on her torso and passing the sides back to Eliza, who deftly threaded the two halves together as they talked.
“And does she reciprocate?” Alex held the rigid stays to the natural curve of her waist, waiting patiently for Eliza to finish her task.
“I’m no’ certain, but Mary, the kitchen maid…?” Alex nodded in recognition. “She says that Margaret always has an extra sweet for John when he’s there, and that she always asks about him when he’s not. Hold on.”
“Excellent! Love comforteth like sunshine after rain! Oof!” Alex reached out and grabbed hold of the bedpost as Eliza began tightening the corset laces.
“I told you to hold on.” Eliza kept tugging, the stays growing tighter and tighter as both girls began to breathe heavily. “I thought you didn’t believe in love.”
“I never said that!” Alex exclaimed, her emphatic tone lost as she struggled for air. “Of course, I believe in love.”
“Oh? Breathe.”
She took one last deep breath, feeling the stays tighten to the point of pain, and couldn’t help herself from swearing roundly. “Enough!”
“Finished.” Eliza turned to retrieve the next layer of clothing. “I’m goin’ to forget that you just cursed like a dockside sailor.”
“Blame my brothers.” Alex gasped for air, perching on the edge of the bed. “It’s too tight.”
“It will loosen. You know that.”
She did know that. “I hate fashion.” Alex scowled.
“Tell me about this new belief in love,” Eliza said, distracting Alex and holding open a circle of petticoats. This piece was more elaborate than any of the others Alex had donned, a Madame Fernaud creation in cambric and linen with a stunning swath of beautiful green fabric affixed to the bottom, designed to match the dress Alex would wear that evening.
Alex paused to admire the delicate rosebuds that had been painstakingly added to the undergarment before allowing Eliza to throw the piece over her head. “Not new. It’s not love I’m opposed to. It’s marriage! The first reminds women that they’re free to be as they wish—because someone loves them for it,” Alex said, her voice coming from inside a mass of fabric as she pushed her way through the petticoats toward the light of the room. “And the other takes away that freedom.”
Eliza began securing the top of the petticoat, tying a small row of bows that ran down the bodice of the garment. “Seems to me that the right kind of marriage could increase that freedom, nay?”
Alex tilted her head to one side, thinking on Eliza’s point. “I suppose so…but how many of those have you ever witnessed?”