The gaggle appeared, as if they’d been eavesdropping just out of sight, which Melisande suspected they had been. That was another thing she could blame on Benedick Rohan. The term “gaggle” had been so accurate for her recalcitrant, squabbling brood that no matter how she tried she couldn’t think of them in any other terms. Not that a gaggle should live in a dovecote—she knew perfectly well her house had received that sobriquet, just as she was called Charity Carstairs behind her back. She had no idea where geese tended to reside, but she hoped Rohan didn’t share his fitting term for her soiled doves. She had trouble enough being taken seriously.
The next few hours passed in a whirlwind of activity. She found herself drawn into the small salon where the girls practiced deportment, surrounded by a bevy of chattering females. Trunks appeared from storage, gowns tossed here and there.
“No, that yellow is atrocious.” Emma dismissed one outmoded ball gown that Violet held up. “It would make her too sallow. She needs something of a soft rose.”
“Rose wasn’t in fashion the year I made my debut,” Melisande protested, but she was ignored as Emma took charge.
“Betsey, order a bath for Lady Carstairs. She’ll need a good soak, an application of Cowper’s Milk to try to make her skin more fashionably pale. You should have known better than to have gone out in the bright sunlight without a parasol. Even the best bonnet cannot shield one entirely from the sun.”
“I’m sorry,” Melisande said meekly.
“Never mind. We’ll work with what we have.”
“I’m good at arranging hair,” Agnes, a bright redhead by way of Ireland and the streets of White-chapel, offered. “She’ll need something better than that awful lace cap she wears.”
“I’m a widow!” Melisande protested.
“She will, indeed,” Emma overrode her. “You’re on, Agnes. Jane, I know you’re good at using paint. Not the usual stuff you used to shovel on your own face, but something more subtle. Just enough to brighten her eyes and give her a becoming blush.”
“I don’t blush!” Which was immediately proven a lie, as eager hands began pulling off her unfashionable gown, and nothing she did could keep them from stripping her down to her undergarments.
“Lady Carstairs, you have a figure!” Sukey, former mistress to a Catholic bishop, breathed. “One would never know with those clothes you wear. Quite a nice bosom.”
Melisande slammed her arms over her chest, only to have a swathe of silk tossed over her head. She had no choice but to put her arms through the sleeves, looking down at the pale green gown she’d never worn, her aunt insisting it was too risqué.
“The neckline’s too high,” Emma said judiciously. “And we’ll need to lace her in tighter. Take off the train—they’re dreadfully out of style right now, and perhaps some lace tucked in the bodice.”
“I’ve got some lace,” Thin Polly called out.
“That chemise has got to go,” Violet announced. “Who’s got something skimpier?”
The room was filled with laughter. Hetty spoke up. “Who doesn’t? We’ll see who’s the closest fit. And don’t you worry none, your ladyship. They’ve all been properly washed—you made us wash everything, including ourselves, when we got here. Besides, the chemises were simply for show. They came off in a matter of moments.”
“I can’t wear something like that!” Melisande protested, scandalized.
“You can and you will. It will give you courage, and make you feel deliciously naughty.” Emma pulled at the dress. “Good God, did you have everything made three sizes too large for you?”
“My aunt was convinced that if I kept eating sweets I was going to be enormous and she wanted to ensure that the clothes would continue to fit me,” Melisande admitted with some shame.
Emma eyed her sternly. “Nonsense! Have you continued to eat sweets?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“And you’ve got a lovely little figure. Just the right side of plump, and men adore curves.”
“You could have made right good money, Lady Carstairs,” Violet announced ingenuously. “The skinny girls were always the last to be chosen.”
“Time for her bath,” Emma announced, pulling the gown back over her head and waving her away. “Violet, I’m putting you and Agnes in charge. You know what to do.”
“Right you are, Mrs. Cadbury! Me and Agnes will get her trussed up good enough for a royal duke.”
“I’m not going to be doing what…what you would have been doing,” Melisande said faintly.
“And get her a glass of claret,” Emma said, dismissing her. “We’ve got work to do!”
Melisande glanced at herself in the mirror, doing her best to keep the blush from rising over the vast expanse of exposed chest. She’d hoped the call for lace had been to preserve her modesty in the already low-cut gown, but in fact the girls training to be dressmakers had adjusted the neckline down even farther, to a truly scandalous level, and the scrap of lace was a sop to fashion, not modesty.
Oh, God. Viscount Rohan due in half an hour, and she was already exhausted.
She’d been poked and prodded, her skin pinched and bleached and smoothed, her hip-length hair twisted into a painful series of arrangements until fifteen women agreed upon the right one. She’d been practically wrestled into a chemise of such fine weave that it was completely transparent, a tiny corset that was nevertheless lethal in its efficiency, and layers upon layers of petticoats, many of which were definitely not hers. Most of them were far more expensive than the plain but sensible stuff she tended to have made, and she knew the girls had kept their clothing as one of the few valuables they owned.
The gold embroidered dancing slippers had belonged to Thin Polly, the clocked stockings were in Hetty’s hope chest and the silver shawl was Emma’s own. Even the lace-trimmed drawers were from a long-ago delivery of fancy underthings that she’d had tossed in a closet and forgotten. She’d ordered them when she’d embarked on her ill-fated affaire, and been too thrifty to toss them when she’d discovered Wilfred was a snake.
“No one is going to see my drawers!” she’d hissed, scandalized, when Emma had insisted she wear them. “Certainly not Lord Rohan.”
“You never know,” Violet said judiciously. “He could talk you right out of them.”
“Not likely!” Long Jane said with a crack of laughter. “Her ladyship’s got more sense than that. She’s not going to spread her legs for someone like him, no matter how pretty he is.”
“And he is pretty,” Violet said with a gusty sigh.
The rest of the women were vociferous in their agreement, and Melisande turned scandalized eyes on them. “Good God, did he sleep with you all?”
Sukey grinned. “And after the first time he could have had us for free, your ladyship.”
“Girl, girls, girls—I don’t think we need to discuss that,” Emma said sternly. “You look gorgeous, my dear. I only wish we had the proper jewelry for you.”
“We do,” said Hetty quietly, coming in from the hallway with a velvet bag in her hand. “This was me retirement money, but I don’t mind lending ’em to you, your ladyship. The Earl of Selfridge gave ’em to me. Said they were family heirlooms, since his pockets were to let and he knew he had to come up with something.”
Emma had taken the bag and opened it, letting out an uncharacteristic whistle. “Perfect, Hetty. You’ll get them back, I promise.”
The emeralds were exquisite. They brought out the green of the totally revamped dress. They even gave a green tint to her dark blue eyes. The matching earbobs swung just below the artful tousle of curls that Agnes had arranged, and the touch of carbon on her eyelashes, the dusting of rice powder on her skin, made her reflection seem to glow.
“I can’t do this!” she said in sudden panic, turning from the mirror.
A chorus of protests greeted that pronouncement. “You can.” Emma was firm. “It’s for the greater good.”
And for a moment Melisande was ashamed of herself. These women had had to sell their bodies, lie beneath strangers simply to survive. She could certainly manage the night in an effort to help them.
“Go along now, girls!” Emma shooed them away. “I’ll keep Lady Carstairs company until the viscount arrives.”
The girls vanished, leaving them alone. The clock stuck half past the hour, and Melisande felt her stomach knot.
“I will give you a little hint,” Emma said with a wry smile. “A whore’s trick, but a good one. It’s a part that you’re playing, like a grand actress on the stage. It isn’t you. It has nothing to do with you. You’re simply using your body in service to something necessary. You can smile and flirt and dance and pretend you’re someone entirely different, and it won’t matter. You, the real you, will still be safe inside.”
“You make me ashamed of myself.”
“Nonsense. Nothing to be ashamed of. We’ve all got different roles to play in this world. Was there ever someone you wished you were? Someone in society who seemed impossibly beautiful, impossibly graceful, who had everything and was everything you thought you wanted to be?”
“Yes.” Her voice was hollow.
“Then pretend to be her. Do what she would do, laugh as she would laugh. Be as happy as she would be.”
“She’s dead,” Melisande said.
Emma shook her head. “Try not to be so gloomy. Be as she was, then. When you feel uncertain, tell yourself you are…what was her name?”
Emma only hesitated a moment, as if the name sounded familiar but she couldn’t quite place it. “Then tell yourself you are Annis, out for an evening of gaiety, and you have no intention of letting anyone make you sad. Will that do?”
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