Chapter One – December 1842
Millie Fairclough stared at the enamelled bronze carriage clock above the fireplace in astonishment. She would never have imagined such a feat of verbosity were possible, but apparently it was. Lady Fentree and her five middle-aged companions really had been talking about bonnets for forty-five minutes. Not to mention fifteen before that on hemlines and almost a full hour on sleeves!
‘Personally…’ Lady Fentree intoned with the air of a woman about to make some momentous pronouncement ‘…I favour a wide peak. Poke bonnets are far too restrictive. I tried on one of Vanessa’s the other day and I could barely turn my head!’
‘Oh, I agree completely.’ The woman on Millie’s left nodded her head so vigorously that her lace cap flopped forward over one eye. ‘But you know young girls like to follow the latest fashions and your Vanessa would look charming in anything.’
‘True…’ Lady Fentree smiled complacently ‘…and I suppose we were the same once. Only one learns to appreciate practicality over appearance at our age.’
Millie looked down at her hands as half-a-dozen ladies laughed, somewhat surprised and faintly chagrined to be included in the latter category. She could only presume that their hostess had forgotten she was there, given that she hadn’t uttered more than a few murmurs of agreement for the past hour and a half.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like bonnets, or hemlines or sleeves for that matter. On the contrary, she had a keen and, she was afraid, somewhat sinful interest in fashion. It was her guilty pleasure. She couldn’t afford to buy new clothes very often, no more than a pair of new gloves or a few ribbons anyway, but she could still look at and appreciate the sartorial choices of others.
Truth be told, she knew a quite shameful amount about bonnets. Straw bonnets, cottage bonnets, spoon bonnets, drawn bonnets… She had an opinion on each and every one of them—maybe not forty-five minutes’ worth—but still, more than she cared to admit. There were certainly things she might have contributed to the conversation, but the whole subject seemed far too shallow compared to her everyday life at the Fairclough Foundation, the institute for down-on-their-luck women her parents had founded more than twenty years before. Now, no matter how hard she tried to relax and enjoy the evening party, she found herself unable to indulge in a little light-hearted discussion. She was a serious person with a serious reputation to uphold and serious matters to consider. Whatever would people say if they discovered that the dutiful, virtuous and, above all, self-sacrificing Miss Amelia Fairclough had opinions on bonnets?
Not that there was anything inherently sinful about the subject, she reminded herself. After all, people needed clothes even if they didn’t necessarily need fashion. That was the reason she gave sewing lessons at the Foundation, as well as weekly tutorials in embroidery and crochet. It was thanks to those very skills that she’d managed to transform her best dress, now in its seventh year of service, into something vaguely fashionable for this evening’s outing. It had taken all of her ingenuity, but she’d finally succeeded in reducing the gigot sleeves into short puffed ones, even fringing the cuffs with a layer of white lace and adding a matching trim to the hem. It wasn’t perfect. The bodice was too high and the overall shape nowhere near full enough, but she’d thought it had looked reasonably presentable.
Less than a minute inside Lady Fentree’s imposing Georgian mansion had been sufficient to destroy that illusion. All of the other young ladies were dressed in the very height of fashion, in off-the-shoulder silk gowns with bell-shaped skirts and low, pointed waists, as if they’d come to the party straight from their modistes. As a casual observer Millie thought she might have enjoyed the spectacle, but to be seated amid so much splendour made her feel like a gaudy weed in a flowerbed full of lilies. It was hard not to feel a little bit jealous, especially when the new vogue for pastel shades was far better suited to her pale skin and auburn hair than the recent craze for bright colours. Even harder not to feel self-conscious when everything about her, from the sensible, unadorned bun at the nape of her neck to the practical ankle boots poking out from beneath her skirts made her feel hopelessly dowdy.
‘What do you think of Pamela hats, Miss Fairclough?’ Lady Fentree’s voice penetrated her thoughts suddenly.
‘Me?’ Millie flushed, embarrassed to have been caught with her attention wandering. ‘Oh, I like them very much, especially the ones with wide ribbons.’
‘Indeed. They’re so flattering, especially when one wears the back of one’s hair in ringlets. It stops them getting flattened.’
‘Yes, I suppose it does, although I’m afraid I’ve never worn ringlets.’
‘Never?’ Lady Fentree sounded genuinely shocked. ‘Well, how extraordinary.’
‘Is it?’ Millie looked around the group in dismay, wishing she’d kept her mouth shut after all. Judging by the looks being exchanged, everyone else thought it extraordinary, too. As if she’d needed another way to prove how drab and boring she was!
Which was nothing but foolishness and vain self-regard on her part, she chided herself, sitting back in her chair as the conversation moved on without her. There was no cause to feel jealous of the other young women either. Clothes were simply the external trappings of a person and not a reflection of the soul beneath. Self-sacrifice and duty were the things that really mattered in life and she for one could survive perfectly well without new gowns or elaborate hairstyles. It was only being in society that made her feel this way and she’d be back out of it soon enough, as soon as she and her mother returned to the foundation, where nobody had forty-five minutes to waste in idle chatter about bonnets.
For once, however, the idea of noble self-sacrifice failed to provide its usual consolation. Looking around a room filled with smiling, chattering faces, she still couldn’t help but feel just a little bit…well, boring. Was she boring? She didn’t want to be, but compared to everyone else, her impulsive younger sister Lottie especially, she couldn’t help but suspect that she was. Lottie wasn’t there, of course, having stayed behind in London with a cold while she and their mother came to spend Christmas in the country, but Millie still knew what she’d say. She’d tell her to stop behaving like an old maid and just enjoy herself for once. That was the whole point of this holiday, after all, even if Millie suspected their mother had ulterior motives.
They were staying at the house of her father’s cousin, Lady Alexandra Malverly, the only member of his family who hadn’t disowned him after his marriage to her bluestocking mother, Lilian. Despite rigid opposition, the two women had become close friends and remained so even after his premature death from typhoid ten years before. Since then, Alexandra had issued regular invitations for them to visit, but her mother had generally refused, being unable to make reciprocal offers herself. This year, however, she’d said yes, claiming that she needed a change of scene and a rest. Given how worried they were about Millie’s twin brother, Silas, that was hardly surprising, but it was still out of character enough for Millie to wonder if there was something else behind it.
‘I really think you ought to try ringlets, Miss Fairclough.’ Lady Fentree’s fan tapped her knee, startling her anew. ‘A little more width at the sides would make your face look rounder. Yes, indeed, you must try ringlets and with a Pamela bonnet, too. I shall advise your mother to purchase one.’
‘Oh, no.’ Millie lifted a hand in protest. The last thing her mother could afford was a new bonnet for her. ‘I’m perfectly happy as I am. There’s really no need to trouble yourself.’
‘It’s no trouble…’
‘But I’d prefer it if you didn’t.’
‘Well, I’m sure I was only trying to help!’ Lady Fentree tossed her head and gave a loud, affronted sniff. ‘In any case, it seems that your mother is otherwise occupied.’
Millie followed the direction of her gaze across the drawing room to where her mother was deep in conversation with a strikingly handsome, dark-haired gentleman. Now that she thought of it, she’d been talking to him the last time she’d looked and the time before that. Which was…surprising. Even more so the fact that her mother was actually laughing, something she rarely did at the Foundation. Or at all any more. In fact, in the decade since her mother had been widowed, Millie didn’t think she’d ever seen her talk to any man, family members excluded, with anything other than polite interest.
‘She does look rather engrossed.’ The woman on her left tittered. ‘I’m sure bonnets can wait.’
‘My mother has far more important matters to concern herself with than bonnets.’ Millie stiffened defensively.
‘Oh, yes, Lady Malverly told me all about your Foundation.’ Lady Fentree looked pointedly around at her companions and gave an exaggerated shudder. ‘Mrs Fairclough and her husband set up an institute for women of questionable virtue a number of years ago. I understand that Miss Fairclough here assists in its running.’
‘I do, but it’s for women in need,’ Millie corrected her, ‘virtuous or otherwise. In particular, it’s for women with nowhere else to go. Our Foundation provides them with a place to stay and helps them get back on their feet.’
‘Very laudable, but I don’t think I’d like my Vanessa to involve herself in such matters. A young lady ought not to know too much about that side of life.’
‘No, far better to learn about bonnets,’ Millie heard herself snap, ‘but I’ve been raised to believe that we can’t just ignore things—or people—that we might prefer not to notice. We have a duty to help others.’
‘But surely we can do both?’ Her cousin Alexandra appeared at her side suddenly, wearing a placatory smile. ‘Personally I’ve never understood why we can’t help those less fortunate than ourselves and wear the latest fashions.’
‘Quite!’ Lady Fentree’s voice had the force of a small cannon. ‘Although I might suggest that this Foundation teach a few lessons in manners as well!’
‘What a splendid idea.’ Alexandra placed a restraining hand on Millie’s shoulder. ‘I’ll suggest it to Lilian later, but now I’m sorry to say we must leave you. It seems the weather is conspiring against us.’
‘Why, whatever do you mean?’
‘It’s snowing. Quite heavily too. If we don’t leave now, then I’m afraid we might become stranded and I wouldn’t want to trespass on your hospitality overnight.’
‘No indeed.’ Lady Fentree narrowed her eyes at Millie. ‘I prefer not to share my roof with revolutionaries.’
‘But we’ve had a perfectly lovely evening, haven’t we, Millie?’ Alexandra’s grip on her shoulder tightened.
‘Yes…thank you.’ Millie rose to her feet and bobbed a dutiful curtsy. ‘Please forgive my bluntness, Lady Fentree. I meant no offence.’
‘Mmm.’ The look on the other woman’s face was anything but forgiving. ‘In that case, I hope you enjoy the rest of your stay in the country, Miss Fairclough, though I very much doubt that our paths will cross again.’
Millie gritted her teeth as she followed Alexandra and a few other guests from the village out into the hall. They’d all travelled together to save the need for individual carriages, but now the thought of sitting in a constricted space and reviewing the evening’s entertainment made her want to scream.
‘Millie dear…’ Alexandra’s voice was gently chiding.
‘I know. I was unforgivably rude.’
‘Not without provocation. It might do Lady Fentree good to be reminded that there are other people in the world, but perhaps it was a little tactless to do it under her roof.’
‘I’m sorry, Cousin.’
‘Never mind.’ Alexandra patted her arm sympathetically. ‘It’ll be forgotten soon enough, but it’s not like you to be so sensitive. Are you feeling all right?’
‘Yes… No.’ Millie looked down at the floor in consternation. ‘Not really. I thought Mama might have told you I received an offer of marriage last week.’
‘She did mention it, yes…’ Alexandra paused tactfully. ‘From the local Curate—although I understand it’s not a love match.’
‘No. It’s not romantic for either of us. Gilbert’s a good man and he says he wants a wife who can work alongside him, but we’re not in love.’
‘But you’re thinking of accepting him?’
‘I suppose so…yes.’
Millie drew on her gloves with a sigh. Yes, she was considering it, although considering was as far as she’d got. Practically speaking, it was an advantageous offer. Gilbert was good and intelligent and serious. A little too serious perhaps, pedantic even, and a little over-zealous on occasion, but still…good and surely that was the quality she ought to want most in a husband? Only she couldn’t help but worry that two serious people together might become a little too serious. Which would make her even more boring…
‘I believe your mother is afraid you might accept him simply to alleviate her current financial difficulties.’ Alexandra’s gaze was a little too focused.
‘Our financial difficulties. Her problems are mine, too.’
‘Ye—es, but the last thing she wants is for you to sacrifice yourself to a loveless marriage just for her sake. Or the Foundation’s, for that matter.’
‘I know.’ Millie glanced back towards the drawing room. ‘I think she hoped I might meet someone else, but it seems unlikely. All the men here tonight could talk about were the newest inventions and how much money they might make from them.’
‘You didn’t give them much of a chance, dear.’
‘No, but why would they look at me anyway?’ She bit the inside of her cheek at the words. She hadn’t meant them to sound quite so self-pitying.
‘I can think of a lot of reasons, but I think what you need more than anything else at this moment is a rest. You look exhausted.’
‘Do I? I don’t feel tired. I usually do much more in a day.’
‘I didn’t say tired, I said exhausted. There’s a difference and you, my dear, are the latter. You work far too hard at the Foundation.’
‘I don’t mind. It’s too much for Mother to manage on her own.’
‘Perhaps, but she wants you to be happy more than she wants your help.’ Alexandra touched her chin gently. ‘Self-sacrifice is all very well, but not if it causes you to make foolish decisions.’
‘In any case,’ Alexandra spoke over her, ‘you’re staying with me for a fortnight. There’ll be plenty of time to think about the future and make a decision after Christmas. In the meantime, I want you to rest.’
Millie smiled half-heartedly as they put on their bonnets and capes and went out on to the front steps of the mansion into a world transformed. The moon was full and high, making the sky shimmer with snowflakes that danced and spun like falling stars all around them. It was hardly like night-time at all, Millie thought, catching her breath in wonderment. It was beautiful, as if a white cloak had been draped over the landscape. Even the air tasted different. Crisp and clean, utterly unlike that of London.
‘Here we are.’ Alexandra put an arm around her shoulders as three carriages rolled alongside the front steps. ‘You go ahead with the others. I’ll wait for your mother.’
‘No, you go.’ Millie looked at her pleadingly. ‘If you don’t mind, I don’t think I can bear any more conversation tonight. I’ll wait for Mama.’
‘Are you certain?’
‘Yes…’ she smiled ruefully ‘…and I promise to go straight to bed when I get back.’
‘All right. If that’s what you want, then I’ll see you in the morning. Goodnight, dear.’
Millie waved goodbye, waiting until the first two carriages had rattled away before turning back into the house. Her mother had made it as far as the hallway, though she seemed in no hurry to leave, still engrossed in conversation with the handsome gentleman. Something about the way they were standing made her avert her face again quickly, too, struck with the distinct impression that she was interrupting something private.
She looked up at the falling snow again, wondering what to do next. She could climb into the last carriage, she supposed, but she didn’t want to shut herself up inside just yet, not when the world looked so breathtaking. And surely a quick stroll through the gardens wouldn’t hurt?
She threw a swift glance over her shoulder and then hurried down the mansion steps, over the gravel drive and across the lawn. It was positively luminescent, she thought delightedly, the snow beneath her feet making soft crumpling sounds as she wandered into a small grove where a line of willow trees obscured any view of the house. It was like a fairy-tale grotto, secret and silent and peaceful, the trees all bedecked with sparkling crystalline pendants. A memory popped into her mind, of throwing snowballs in the park with Silas and Lottie as children. They’d charged around like hoydens while their parents had watched arm in arm from the path. It was a happy memory, but bittersweet, too. She’d been so much more carefree and adventurous back then, always running about and getting into scrapes. What had happened to her? As a woman, she obviously couldn’t expect the same freedom allowed to her brother, but Lottie still managed to be fun. Why—when?—had she become so dull?
She didn’t have time to think of an answer, whirling around at the muffled sound of wheels and hooves coming from the direction of the driveway. Catching up her skirts, she ran back out of the grotto just in time to see the last of the carriages roll away from the house.
She started to run and then stopped. Even without the snow slowing her down she doubted she’d be able to catch it. Obviously her mother had thought that she’d left with the others and taken the carriage by herself. Which was a reasonable assumption, given the weather and the fact that, foolishly, she hadn’t told anyone except Alexandra that she was waiting behind. It was her own fault for straying so far from the house, but surely once her mother got back to the village and discovered her mistake, she’d send the carriage back? Unless her mother assumed that she’d gone straight to bed…and if Alexandra assumed the same thing…and she’d told the maid not to wait up for her… Well, then there was a very real chance that no one would realise she was missing until morning.
Millie closed her eyes in mortification, weighing up the choices before her. The thought of throwing herself on the mercy of Lady Fentree and begging a room for the night made her shudder, as did that of admitting her mistake and asking for another carriage. No, those alternatives didn’t bear thinking about, which meant the only other thing she could do was walk. Which, since she was wearing practical boots, didn’t seem like too much of a hardship. It was only a couple of miles to the village, after all—three at most—and the snow wasn’t so heavy, nothing to worry about anyway.
She turned her feet in the direction of the gate and started purposely towards it. The more she thought about it, the more appealing the idea of a walk became. It wasn’t what sensible and boring Miss Amelia Fairclough would do, but it was right up the alley of her previous incarnation, Millie Fairclough, intrepid twin and plucky explorer.
She loosened the strings of her bonnet and tugged at the pins of her bun underneath, letting the auburn tresses unravel about her shoulders. There, she didn’t have to be so strait-laced all of the time. Alexandra was right, there was no need for her to think about the future just yet. Tonight, she wouldn’t think about the future at all. Tonight she would forget the rest of the world even existed, stick her tongue out at the Fentree mansion and be Millie again.
And a moonlit walk in the snow sounded like a perfectly wonderful idea.