A Lady’s Perfect Match – Bridget Barton

Emelia Wells had known two things with certainty since she first stepped into her role as the social center of Northampton and wealthy daughter of a prosperous merchant—she loved parties, and parties hated her. What’s more, her family knew it as well. “It’s not that I have any desire to cast disparagement,” her younger sister, Hannah, said nervously, tugging at a loose curl. “It’s only that I wish to offer my assistance. You know what father always says: what can go wrong, will go wrong.” With anyone else, this might have been a dramatic overstatement, but Emelia hid a smile at the words, knowing they were absolutely correct in her case. Just last Friday she’d hosted a little picnic with close friends that had turned into a sprint for cover in an unexpected rainstorm. A few months before, the ball she’d worked on for weeks had ended prematurely when an elegant brocade had caught fire at the far end of the hall. Thankfully, the house hadn’t been in real danger—a servant had seen the tiny conflagration and taken the smoking rug out to the lawn before it burned the building down—but the guests had still gone screaming for cover, and Emelia was left holding the fragments of yet another social disaster. “I really don’t know how it always happens,” she said now, laughing good naturedly at her sister’s worry. They were sitting together on the back lawn, fashioning paper flowers for the garden decorations. “I try to go over the details again and again, and yet things almost always go to seed when I least expect it.” “And you keep trying,” Hannah said softly. Emelia knew that for Hannah, this wasn’t exactly a compliment. Hannah was very shy and careful, and though Emelia knew her bold side as only a sister could, she also knew that had Hannah thrown even one soiree that ended in disaster she would have given up the hostess game for good. Hannah had often said that she didn’t understand how Emelia could try so hard again and again, even in the face of social defeat. She was a year younger than nineteen-year-old Emelia, and the two were about as different as sisters could be. Emelia had always admired Hannah’s dark brown curls and wide brown eyes, inherited from their mother—a renowned beauty. Emelia had the same chocolate eyes, but her hair was fair and wavy without any of Hannah’s ringlet quality. Emelia was a powerhouse of energy and emotion. Hannah was quiet and cautious, adhering to the rules at all times and punishing herself mentally if she overstepped in any way. Emelia was haphazard, full of grand visions and ideas with little followthrough—Hannah was a planner and a thinker. “You know why I keep trying.” Emelia twisted a piece of wire around the base of the paper blossom and then used her long fingers to fluff out the petals in a full arc. “I would rather spend a day surrounded by people who I’d frightened with a carpet inferno than spend all my time locked up indoors with books and embroidery.

” “You and your adventures,” Hannah said with a smile. “You may roll your eyes and toss your head at me all you like, but some people enjoy the excitement of wondering whether or not the social event of the season will end with a slippery marble staircase or salt in the wine.” “That last one was not a mishap,” Hannah scolded gently, raising her eyebrows at Emelia. “It was a real event caused by yours and Brody’s antics when you were children.” Emelia widened her eyes. “Mine and Brody’s? Are you really going to remove yourself from the occasion? We would never have been able to pull it off if you hadn’t agreed to distract father for us. There’s a prankster in you yet, Hannah, if you’d only let her out to play every once in a while.” Hannah blushed and focused intently on the work in her hands. The warm morning sun lit the pale gold highlights in her dark curls. Emelia looked at her with tenderness, and then let her eyes drift around the garden. It was all arranged for the afternoon soiree; a picnic and games sort of day with fine food and friends. There was a net set up on the manicured lawn for badminton, a fine array of crochet hoops in one corner, and a beautiful bed of flowers surrounding the tables and chairs and wide lace umbrellas over all. “It really does look perfect,” she mused softly. “I’m almost disappointed.” Two maids bustled onto the scene with their arms laden with baskets. They took fine stemware and linens out of the baskets and began laying the tables. When they were finished, the oldest of them, Alice, came over with a little curtsy to give the mistress of the party her update. “We’ve the meal all arranged to be distributed in the downstairs if you’d like to look it over, and the courtyard has been opened up for the guests to leave their carriages to the livery boy. They can circumvent the inside of the house and come straight to the gardens.” She gave a little curtsy. “We did have a few questions about the final guest list. Will your father be in attendance?” Emelia nodded. Arthur Wells was a less frequent face at these kinds of events since the passing of his wife two years before, but he’d promised Emelia that he would come. She was glad—she thought he spent all too much time indoors, his head in his books and his worries wrinkling his forehead. “And the Shaw brothers, ma’am.

” “Of course, the younger—but I’d hardly expect to see the elder here.” Emelia went on to outline the rest of the guest list and then watched as the maids went off towards the main house to finish their preparations. She stood and smoothed her skirts, turning to Hannah. “Would you mind tying these flowers up? I’ll go make sure all is in order with the food, and then I will be back to help welcome everyone.” Hannah nodded. “Don’t forget to take off your pinafore.” Emelia would have, of course, forgotten. She fumbled with the strings as she made her way to the kitchen staging room off the lower floor of her father’s mansion. It was a pretty little place, well-lit, with fine windows and two long tables upon which the food had been laid in preparation for the guests. The spread was magnificent: a roasted duck in the center, a boar’s head, an assortment of fine fruit and vegetable dishes, a tureen of savoury soup, two full platters of meat pies, and a cake as glorious as could be imagined, trimmed with white and gold. Emelia looked it all over, finding more delicacies at every turn. When the cook appeared from the kitchen, her plump face bright with the heat of the kitchen and her eyes expectant, Emelia was able to give a worthy report. “It’s a fine thing you’ve done here, Aggie,” she said with a wink. “A fine thing indeed. I don’t know that I can wait until the party arrives. I think I’ll have to get into those asparagus spears right away.” Aggie shook her head, knowing the little mistress she’d fed all her life was teasing as usual. “You’ll feel the weight of my spoon again if you do, Miss Emelia.” She smiled though, belying her words. “I’m going back to the kitchen to finish the rolls. You can stay as long as you like.” Emelia hung up her apron on a hook, smoothing her hands over the fine white muslin gown underneath. Hannah had an eye for fashion that Emelia had never inherited, and had insisted earlier that day that Emelia wear simple white with little white posies woven into her hair. Hannah had done something similar, with pale yellow instead of white, and Emelia thought now, looking at the glorious spread of food, that they’d somehow managed to coordinate with the little pats of freshly-churned butter sprinkled here and there among the glorious spread. She smiled at the thought, snagged a spear of asparagus after all, and made her way back outside.

There was a rumble of a carriage already on the front patio, and she knew that the first of the guests would have arrived. She finished the vegetable, licked the sauce off her fingers, and hurried across the lawn to where Hannah was tying on the last of the flowers. “Is the food up to snuff?” her sister asked. “More than. Aggie’s outdone herself yet again.” Emelia helped hold the ribbon while the last bow was tied, and then gave her sister a playful tap on the shoulder. “Thank you for your help.” “My pleasure.” Hannah craned her neck towards the house. “I heard someone pull into the front drive. Do you know who was the first to arrive?” Her question was answered by a sudden flurry of activity as the first guest rounded the corner of her house in a cloud of pink silk and fine white lace. Lady Michelle Parker, young and beautiful with dark black hair and creamy skin, floated rather than walked towards them with her parasol snapped open above her head and two of her own maids trailing behind. “You invited her?” Hannah asked under her breath, holding a stiff smile in place. “But she’s…” She trailed off, and Emelia thought wryly that it wasn’t really necessary for Hannah to finish that sentence. Michelle Parker had grown up alongside the two sisters, their better in every accomplishment, with a fine dowry and a reputed wealth beyond the public’s knowledge. She used her appearance to maximum benefit, and Emelia thought her only real downside was the flaw that was most grating—she was vain beyond belief, and hand in hand with this vapidity came a certain condescension upon every woman she thought less beautiful than she, which, it turned out, was every woman everywhere. “Of course I invited her,” Emelia retorted under her breath, applying the same stiff smile to her own face. “She’s a long-time family friend, and it would have looked bad indeed if we had excluded her from a social event where others in our mutual circles could attend. I will say,” she added under her breath, “that I don’t know why she always need arrive first. I think we would all be able to bear the deprivation of her presence for a few minutes, at least.” “Well, have fun with that,” Hannah said quickly, turning before Michelle was halfway across the lawn and making her way towards the house. “I’m off to find Father.” “Traitor,” Emelia hissed good-naturedly under her breath. She gathered her skirts and walked towards Michelle. It was, of course, the only decent thing to do as the hostess.

With nobody else yet in attendance, it would look ill-mannered indeed to wait patiently across the lawn without going to meet her first guest. Before she’d even reached the other woman’s side, however, Michelle was making her regret the journey. “What a glorious day it is,” she called out, waving her free hand. “Although if you could manage to pick a day that was just a bit cooler next time, I wouldn’t be required to bring my retinue.” She nodded at the maids and then whispered behind her hand, loudly enough that maids and anyone else in the vicinity could hear, “It’s just so hard to find good help these days, and I feel it’s such a drag to be followed about.” Emelia cast a look at the maid holding the parasol and then tried to keep the frustration out of her voice. “Of course, Miss Parker. But it’s not quite so warm as you might think. As you can see, I’m managing quite fine without a hat or parasol, and we have coverings over the tables.” “Oh, but I couldn’t be so flagrant with my own skin health.” Michelle let loose a little gasp. “You and Hannah both have such ruddy complexions—it bears up well under the sunshine—and you’ve never seemed to care about your skin going a bit brown during the season, but if I got even a bit of sun on this white skin my main attribute would be destroyed. Destroyed.” She leant forward and gave a little wink. Emelia tried to think of a response to such flagrant vanity and settled instead on something her mother had taught her years ago: if you can’t think of something nice to say, best to keep your mouth in check. She smiled, curtsied, and wordlessly led her guest to the first table.


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