According to Lady Mary, however, it was the marquis himself who had contacted her husband and made the arrangements for the marriage on his grandson’s behalf. And of course, the Reids had jumped at the chance for their daughter to be married to such a lofty title, which the grandson was going to inherit, it didn’t hurt, either, that the marquis was quite rich and all that wealth would be coming to the grandson as well. It was only Ophelia who was unhappy with the match, well, Ophelia and her many ardent admirers.
She had those in abundance. The young men flocked about her, utterly entranced by her beauty, and apparently that had been the case at each affair she had thus far attended. But how could they not be? She was blond and blue eyed. You couldn’t be much more fashionable than that. But she also had the most exquisitely lovely features, and a figure that, unlike her mother’s, was willowy thin.
Sabrina, now, could claim none of those appealing attributes. She was on the short side at only a couple inches above five feet, which wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t have such plump breasts or such wide hips, which made her altogether too curvaceous with her narrow waist.
But even that wouldn’t have been so bad if her coloring were at least fashionable, but it was just the opposite. Her hair was a dull brown, not even a lustrous brown or a rich brown, but utterly dull, and her eyes, which really were her best feature, or so she used to think, were the color of spring lilacs, yet ringed with a darker violet, so they were actually quite startling when first noticed.
She found out just how startling when everyone she met, men and women alike, stared at her eyes an embarrassingly long time, as if they couldn’t quite believe they were the color they were. And to top all that off, her features were rather plain, not ugly by any means, but not what one would call pretty either. Plain did describe them very well.
Actually, Sabrina had never been quite so unhappy with her own looks—until she met Ophelia and saw what a real beauty looked like. Like night and day, there was no comparison between the two of them. Which was quite possibly why Sabrina began to relax soon after they arrived at her first ball that night, and completely forget her previous nervousness. She was realistic enough to know that she couldn’t possibly compete for the young gentlemen’s attention with Ophelia there, and so she gave up any hope of even trying. And once she did relax, she was able to be herself rather than the stiff, timid little mouse she had been feeling like.
Sabrina enjoyed a good laugh as much as anyone, and made an effort to bring laughter to others. She could be outspoken, but she also had a teasing nature. She had a gift for lightening someone’s mood when it was most sour. With two grumbling, always bickering aunts, she’d had many years to perfect that gift, and had little trouble ending their little fights when she chose to intervene.
The gentlemen who asked her to dance that night might have done so only so they could question her about Ophelia and her fiancé. But since she didn’t know Ophelia very well yet, and her fiancé not at all, she could hardly answer their questions. She made them laugh, though. A few of them even asked her to dance again for that very reason—she was amusing. And at one point in the evening she actually had three young men wanting to dance with her at the same time.
Unfortunately, Ophelia happened to notice that
Ophelia was standing across the ballroom with three of her closest friends, well, two friends and one girl who secretly despised her, but was loath to leave the circle of her popularity. Each of the three was pretty in her own way, though not nearly as beautiful as Ophelia. Nor did any of the three outrank Ophelia in title. She was the only lady among them, her father being an earl, their fathers having less prestigious titles. But then Ophelia couldn’t stand for any female in her circle to outrank or outshine her.
Ophelia was unaware of Mavis Newbolt’s dislike. She might not care for some of Mavis’s snide or catty remarks, but she would never attribute them to dislike. How could anyone dislike her, after all, as eminently popular as she was?
And she had known she would be. There had never been any doubt that she would reign supreme this Season and have her pick of every single eligible bachelor in town. She did have that pick. They all adored her. But to what purpose, when her parents had let the Marquis of Birmingdale woo them with his blasted title?
She hated old Neville Thackeray for thinking of her. Why did he have to pick her for his grandson, just because her mother had once lived near him and thus he felt he knew her personally? Why couldn’t he have picked the dowdy Sabrina instead, who still lived near him? Of course, she knew why Sabrina hadn’t been considered for the Birmingdale heir.
She knew the Lamberts’ family history from her mother’s account of it. Everyone from Yorkshire had likely heard the story at one time or another, though it was an old scandal and probably forgotten by most.
They were fools, her parents. Ophelia could have landed a dukedom. Beauty like hers didn’t come along often. But they had settled for a mere marquis. She wouldn’t, though. She was going to get out of marrying the Birmingdale heir. Good God, he wasn’t even an Englishman—well, not a pure one anyway. But it was no wonder the marquis felt he had to do the bride-picking himself, in an age when arranged marriages were nearly unheard-of. The grandson had been raised by barbarians!
She shuddered at the thought. And if shaming him didn’t work, and showing him that he’d never have anything from her except her utter contempt, then she would just have to think of some other way to be rid of him. But she’d have a new fiancé by the end of the Season, and one of her choosing. She didn’t doubt that for a moment.
However, at that particular moment Ophelia was staring at her mother’s young houseguest, and was briefly disconcerted seeing the gentlemen hovering near Sabrina, who should have been dancing attendance on her instead. But because there weren’t any men within hearing distance just then, she was able to speak her mind without worrying about how it would reflect on her, and she was surprised enough by what she was seeing across the room to do so.
“Would you look at that,” Ophelia said, directing the other girls’ attention to Sabrina and the three men speaking with her. “What can she possibly be saying to them, to keep them so enthralled?”
“She’s your houseguest, Ophelia,” Edith Ward offered soothingly, recognizing the signs of jealousy in her friend, and adept at defusing it. All three girls, at one time or another, had been burned by Ophelia’s unwarranted jealousy. “They no doubt just want to talk to her about you.”
Ophelia began to look appeased until Mavis said in supposed innocence, “It looks to me like she’s garnered a few admirers, but then I’m not surprised. She does have remarkably beautiful eyes.”
“Those peculiar eyes of hers are hardly a saving grace, Mavis, when she’s utterly drab otherwise,” Ophelia replied tersely. But she immediately regretted her harsh tone, which might make her sound jealous, which she wasn’t, of course.
So she added, with what she thought was a sincere sigh but came out sounding more like a huff, “I do pity her, though, poor girl.”
“Why? Because she isn’t pretty?”
“Not just that, but she comes from bad blood, you know. Oh, dear, I shouldn’t have mentioned that. You are not to let that go any further. My mother would have a fit. Lady Hilary Lambert is her dear friend, after all.”
Since they all knew that Ophelia was quite displeased with her mother at the moment, that last bit was redundant. Ophelia wouldn’t mind at all if her mother had a fit. But then the admonishment not to repeat what they were hearing was just as redundant, since both the other two girls thrived on gossip, just as their mothers did, and they were sure to tell their mothers every single word they’d heard. Mavis deplored gossip herself, but in the ton you really did have to keep up with it.
“Bad?” Jane Sanderson asked avidly. “You don’t mean the wrong side of the blanket?”
Ophelia appeared to give that some thought, but must have decided against that particular scandal because she said, “No, worse than that, actually.”
“What can be worse—?”
“No, really, I’ve said too much already,” Ophelia protested lightly.
“Ophelia!” Edith, the oldest of the four girls, exclaimed. “You can’t leave us in suspense like that.”
“Oh, all right,” Ophelia complained, as if they were dragging the information out of her, when nothing would have stopped her at that point from telling all. “But this is only between us, and only because you are my best friends and I trust you not to repeat it.”
She continued in a whisper. The two friends who were actually her friends had wide eyes by the time she finished the tale. Mavis, knowing Ophelia as she did, didn’t know whether to believe her. But then she knew that Ophelia felt no qualms at all about lying, if she thought it might get her what she wanted. And apparently what she wanted at the moment was to completely ruin Sabrina Lambert’s chance of finding a husband in London.