At the age of ten, Miss Miranda Cheever showed no signs of Great Beauty. Her hair was brown- lamentably- as were her eyes; and her legs, which were uncommonly long, refused to learn anything that could be remotely called grace. Her mother often remarked that she positively loped around the house.
Unfortunately for Miranda, the society into which she was born placed great stock on female appearance. And although she was only ten, she knew that in this regard she was considered inferior to most of the other little girls who lived nearby. Children have a way of finding these things out, usually from other children.
Just such an unpleasant incident occurred at the eleventh birthday party of Lady Olivia and the Honorable Winston Bevelstoke, twin children of the Earl and Countess of Rudland. Miranda's home was quite close to Haverbreaks, the Rudlands' ancestral home near Ambleside, in the Lake District of Cumberland, and she had always shared lessons with Olivia and Winston when they were in residence. They had become quite an inseparable threesome and rarely bothered to play with the other children in the area, most of whom lived nearly an hour's ride away.
But a dozen or so times a year, and especially on birthdays, all the children of the local nobility and gentry gathered together. It was for this reason that Lady Rudland let out a most unladylike groan; eighteen urchins were gleefully tramping mud through her sitting room after the twins' party in the garden was disrupted by rain.
"You've mud on your cheek, Livvy," Miranda said, reaching out to wipe it away.
Olivia let out a dramatically weary sigh. "I'd best go to the washroom, then. I shouldn't want Mama to see me thus. She quite abhors dirt, and I quite abhor listening to her tell me how much she abhors it."
"I don't see how she will have time to object to a little mud on your face when she's got it all over the carpet." Miranda glanced over at William Evans, who let out a war cry and cannonballed onto the sofa. She pursed her lips; otherwise, she'd smile. "And the furniture."
"All the same, I had best go do something about it."
She slipped out of the room, leaving Miranda near the doorway. Miranda watched the commotion for a minute or so, quite content to be in her usual spot as an observer, until, out of the corner of her eye, she saw someone approaching.
"What did you bring Olivia for her birthday, Miranda?"
Miranda turned to see Fiona Bennet standing before her, prettily dressed in a white frock with a pink sash. "A book," she replied. "Olivia likes to read. What did you bring?"
Fiona held up a gaily painted box tied with a silver cord. "A collection of ribbons. Silk and satin and even velvet. Do you want to see?"
"Oh, but I wouldn't want to ruin the wrapping."
Fiona shrugged. "All you need to do is untie the cord carefully. I do it every Christmas." She slipped off the cord and lifted the lid.
Miranda caught her breath. At least two dozen ribbons lay on the black velvet of the box, each exquisitely tied into a bow. "They're beautiful, Fiona. May I see one?"
Fiona narrowed her eyes.
"I haven't any mud on my hands. See?" Miranda held her hands up for inspection.
"Oh, very well."
Miranda reached down and picked up a violet ribbon. The satin felt sinfully sleek and soft in her hands. She placed the bow coquettishly against her hair. "What do you think?"
Fiona rolled her eyes. "Not violet, Miranda. Everyone knows they are for blond hair. The color practically disappears against brown. You certainly can't wear one."
Miranda handed the ribbon back to her. "What color suits brown hair? Green? My mama has brown hair, and I've seen her wear green ribbons."
"Green would be acceptable, I suppose. But it's better in blond hair. Everything's better in blond hair."
Miranda felt a spark of indignation rising within her. "Well, I don't know what you're going to do then, Fiona, because your hair is as brown as mine."
Fiona drew back in a huff. "It is not!"
Miranda leaned forward, her eyes narrowing menacingly. "You had better take a look in the mirror when you go home, Fiona, because your hair is not blond."
Fiona put the violet ribbon back in its case and snapped the lid shut. "Well, it used to be blond, whereas yours never was. And besides that, my hair is light brown, which everyone knows is better than dark brown. Like yours."
"There's nothing wrong with dark brown hair!" Miranda protested. But she already knew that most of England didn't agree with her.
"And," Fiona added viciously, "you've got big lips!"
Miranda's hand flew to her mouth. She knew that she was not beautiful; she knew she wasn't even considered pretty. But she'd never noticed anything wrong with her lips before. She looked up at the smirking girl. "You have freckles!" she burst out.
Fiona drew back as if slapped. "Freckles fade. Mine shall be gone before I turn eighteen. My mother puts lemon juice on them every night." She sniffed disdainfully. "But there's no remedy for you, Miranda. You're ugly."
"She is not!"
Both girls turned to see Olivia, who had returned from the washroom.
"Oh, Olivia," Fiona said. "I know you are friends with Miranda because she lives so close by and shares your lessons, but you must admit she isn't very pretty. My mama says she'll never get a husband."
Olivia's blue eyes sparkled dangerously. The Earl of Rudland's only daughter had always been loyal to a fault, and Miranda was her best friend. "Miranda will get a better husband than you, Fiona Bennet! Her father's a baronet whereas yours is a mere mister."
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