The Dress of the Season
The Dress of the Season was previously published with a different cover.
Harris Dane, Viscount Osterley, orders a very fine and scandalously cut dress to be made for a certain lady he wishes to woo. While with the dress designer, he also orders a pair of gloves to be sent to his ward, Miss Felicity Grove, to wish her well for the new Season. But when Felicity accidentally receives the dress, along with Osterley’s affectionate note, it sets into motion a tale of scandalous misunderstandings and love in the last place you look.
“For me?” Miss Felicity Grove squeaked, admitting Lord Osterley’s great-aunt Bertha to her bedchamber, the shopgirl from Madame LeTrois’s—Madamoiselle Collette, she had said as she dipped to a curtsy—following silently behind her, bearing a massive box. “From Osterley? Are you sure?”
“Yes, miss,” Collette said. “And I am to make final adjustments so you may wear it tonight. Madame would have come herself, but she received an order for an entire wardrobe last week. I am to assure you that I am her best seamstress, and you will be perfection itself.”
“But he’s never sent me a present before,” Felicity was bewildered. Her brown eyes widened like saucers. “Not in four years of guardianship.”
“Just because he’s never given you a gift doesn’t mean he has been a negligent guardian,” Bertha admonished. She was not one to hear any negative words about her beloved—although admittedly distant—great-nephew.
“Of course not—I did not mean to imply that he was!” Felicity hastened to reassure. “Only that . . . what is the occasion?” she asked, her eyes locking on Collette’s—who looked as skittish as a rabbit caught by a gardener’s lamplight.
“The start of the Season, of course!” Bertha said, her mop of light gray curls dancing as she shook her head at Felicity’s foolishness. “Perhaps this year he has decided to be more supportive in your quest to secure your future.” Meaning finding someone to marry her off to, Felicity thought sharply, and allow him to be free of his obligation to her family. But she said nothing, as Bertha continued blithely. “Now, since you must be fitted into this dress, you obviously cannot come with me to the Fieldstones’ for tea. And oh dear, I shall have to meet you here right before we head out for the evening, since I am getting ready at Lady Fieldstone’s. I am having my hair dressed by her maid—she wants to experiment on me, you know,” Bertha added, plumping her curls. Even well into her sixth decade, Bertha’s hair was her one true vanity—it retained the bounce, shine, and thickness of youth, if not the fair color. She always preened under the attention she was given for it, by ladies and their maids alike.
“Be ready promptly, and we shall retrieve you at the door,” Bertha was saying, snapping Felicity back to the present conversation. “You know Almack’s rules about punctuality. And oh—I do hope the gown is appropriate, I didn’t even think of that. Collette, what color is the dress?”
The question was because Almack’s had a dress code second only in rigidity to the military, and Collette answered promptly. “It is silver, ma’am. But a very light silver. Almost white.”
“Splendid, good to know that my nephew has paid at least some attention to something other than his field dredging,” Bertha said pulling on her gloves. “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay and oversee, my dear? I can send a note to Lady Fieldstone—although her maid does have the most marvelous way with hair . . ."
“Go,” Felicity said kindly but firmly. “I’ve been capable of dressing myself for quite some time now, I’m sure Collette and I will muddle through without you.”
And with that, Bertha gave a small wave, and headed out. Leaving Felicity alone with Collette, and the large box in her arms.
“Well,” Felicity said finally breathing out a sigh. “Let’s see this silver dress, shall we?”
Collette immediately set the box down on a table and lifted the lid. Reverence in her voice, a flush of excitement on her cheeks, she met Felicity’s eyes.
“In this, ma’am, you will be the sensation of the Season!”
A Sensation in Silver.
Those were the words that greeted Harris Dane, Viscount Osterley, as he had walked through the tittering crowds of Almack’s that he always found so insipid. And those were the words that rushed through his angry mind as he slammed the door to his town house, after enduring a spectacle of an evening that could only be described as humiliating.
“Have you gone mad?” he thundered, the chandelier in the foyer shaking with his rage as he stomped into the library. He expected Felicity to follow him meekly, to wail with contrition and regret, but instead he was insulted by the sound of a harsh, bitter laugh.
“Have I gone mad? No, of course not!” Felicity countered. “After all, I simply wore a dress that was given to me by my adoring guardian.”
“That is not a dress,” he growled. “That is barely more than an underthing!”
“Regardless,” Felicity replied tartly, “I’m not the one who purchased it!”
The tips of his ears turned hot—he was blushing. Rightfully so, even though he wanted to bury such embarrassment deep. But what needed to be buried deep was his rage—indeed, he was so far outside of his normal steely control, it shocked him. Shocked him almost as much as the sight of Felicity had earlier that night, on the dance floor of Almack’s.
He had begrudgingly attended Almack’s that evening. He was in no market for a wife, and no mood to deal with wide-eyed young misses frightened by his unsmiling demeanor, and their less easily intimidated mamas. But ever since Felicity had come out three Seasons ago, he decided it was good politics to make an appearance at the beginning of the Season, thereby reminding anyone who might have forgotten that Felicity was under his stern-faced protection.
The fact that he avoided anything to do with the social season the rest of the time—including his ward—was of little consequence, he told himself.
He bowed and made polite his way through the crowd, aware that everyone was being gracious but reserved with him. Not that that was unusual, of course. He was used to people’s nervousness, the way their eyes flitted to his face. Osterley knew what they called him behind their hands, too, whispered in hushed tones. “Austere Osterley.” He didn’t mind it—in fact, secretly, he encouraged it. When his jaw was set, when he didn’t smile, and when he did not engage, he found that people and their frivolities tended to leave him alone.
Which was better. Surely.
But tonight, those whispers had not been about him. In hindsight, he would realize the pointed looks toward him did not contain just fear, but a kind of . . . anticipation. But at that moment, all he did was blithely wander through the foyer and receiving rooms, until he found himself standing on the edge of the ballroom floor.
And he saw her.
She was dancing a reel in line, her back to him, partnered with a young man who tripped over his feet since he couldn’t keep his eyes off her. Her dark hair was piled high on her head, only little wisps falling artfully against her neck. Having that luscious hair up allowed the work on the back of the dress—or more appropriately, lack thereof—to be featured. Tiny cap sleeves of silver lace held the dress up, crossing her shoulders, but there, the fabric ended, until the thin, clinging silk of the skirt swooped around from the front and came together in a point in the center of her back.
Osterley felt a shot of lust go straight to his groin. He knew the widowed Mrs. Grace was a beautiful woman. Young, her beauty only slightly sharpened by her recently ended mourning of her husband, five decades her senior. But he did not expect Mrs. Grace to have such soft, youthful shoulders, or such gleaming fine skin. He also did not expect her to be wearing the silver dress he had given her that very evening. At least, not to Almack’s, that high watermark for propriety. He had expected to see her at one or another of half a dozen parties. Dances and soirees that had dark alcoves and a more permissible atmosphere. Even as his body hummed with excitement, his jaw remained set, a slight twitch of disapproval at the corner of his mouth. Perhaps Mrs. Grace was not naturally the discreet creature she had been while in mourning gray. Maybe she was not the perfect partner for his needs that he had envisioned.
While his lust was stirring, and his jaw was twitching, the lines of the reel exchanged places.
And Austere Ostlerley nearly cried out in shock.