Lady Georgina Hawthorne has worked tirelessly to seal her place as the Incomparable for her debut season. At her first London ball, she hopes to snag the attention of an earl.
With money and business connections, but without impeccable bloodlines, Colin McCrae is invited everywhere but accepted nowhere. When he first encounters the fashionable Lady Georgina, he's irritated by his attraction to a woman who concerns herself only with status and appearance.
What Colin doesn't know is that Georgina's desperate social aspirations are driven by the shameful secret she harbors. Association with Colin McCrae is not part of Georgina's plan, but as their paths continue to cross, they both must decide if the realization of their dreams is worth the sacrifices they must make.
"Hunter's second Hawthorne House novel is dramatically entertaining."
"Hunter's nicely nuanced, realistically flawed characters and the book's emotionally compelling plot work brilliantly together to create a soul-satisfying romance that will not only please fans of faith-based fiction but any reader who values impeccably crafted love stories."
"This whirlwind Regency romance offers spiritual depth and fascinating characters. A not-to-be-missed sequel."
~ RT Book Reviews
Read an Excerpt
Hertfordshire, England, 1800
There was something fascinating about the rhythm of writing, at least when someone else was doing it. Dip the quill, write a line, dip the quill, write a line. The quiet scritch of quill against paper broke the silence of the night, accompanied only by Lady Georgina Hawthorne’s steady breathing ruffling the yellow curls on the head of the doll clutched against her chest.
She hugged her doll tighter and leaned her head against the doorframe. Mother probably knew she was there. Mother always knew everything that happened in the house, including the fact that Georgina often slipped away from the nursery after Nanny was asleep.
There was nothing nefarious about her midnight wanderings. It was simply that the only time her mother wasn’t surrounded by people was in the evening when she sat at her desk, encircled by books, papers, and flickering candlelight.
She was beautiful, peaceful, and everything Georgina wanted to be when she grew up. One day she would be a lady with her own desk and quill, writing important letters deep into the night. Of course, first she had to master holding chalk and writing the letter A. It wasn’t at all the same as holding a watercolor brush. Nanny assured her that it was only a matter of time before Georgina would be writing as smoothly as her mother and sister. Everyone had some difficulty in the beginning.
“You’ll be able to see better if you sit in the chair.” Mother turned her head and smiled at Georgina, beckoning her forward.
Georgina’s bare feet made little noise on the cold wooden floor as she crept closer to the desk, the paint-splattered doll held snuggly under her arm. She clambered into the blue upholstered chair beside the desk and peeked over the edge, eyes glued to the writing rhythm her mother had already returned to.
“What are you doing?”
Mother stopped and set the quill aside before blowing lightly across the page filled with even lines of black scrawl. “I am writing a letter to your aunt. She wrote me this morning about a particularly fine foal, and I am telling her of the new fan you painted yesterday.”
Georgina glanced at the paper but couldn’t see how all of that black ink could tell Aunt Elizabeth about the green fan covered in purple and gold flowers. “Why?”
Mother laughed and leaned over to kiss Georgina on the head. “Because, my dear, a lady always responds promptly to correspondence. Especially when it is from family. It is one way for a lady to show her esteem for the other person. As to why I’m telling her about your fan, it is because it is such a splendid effort for a girl only five years old.”
“Oh.” Georgina thought about the many times she’d seen her mother sit at this desk, dipping her quill and writing for what seemed like hours. “You know a lot of people.”
Mother smiled as she folded the letter, being careful to smooth the edges evenly. “When one is a duchess, my dear, it seems that everyone wants your opinion about something. Some I hold in higher esteem than others and enjoy trading letters with them, but a lady must always be polite, even in correspondence.”
Georgina looked across the desk at the neat pile of papers that had already been folded in a similar manner. To the left of the folded letters sat a large leather-bound book. “Who is getting that one, Mother? You must regard that person most highly.”
A laugh bounced around the room as Mother slid the book onto the empty desk in front of her, but the laugh was sad. “These are the estate accounts.”
Georgina tucked her doll under her chin, the scraggly yellow hair sticking up and making her cheek itch. “Did you write about my fan in there too?”
“No, dear.” This time Mother’s laugh was light and joyful, and she reached over to pull Georgina into her lap.
With one arm wrapped around her young daughter, Mother flipped back the cover of the book, revealing more dancing black lines as well as boxes with numbers.
“That’s nine.” Georgina proudly pointed to a number on the right side of the page.
“Yes, it is. That is how much we paid young Charles to load all the coal bins this week.” Mother ran her finger from the number to a word on the left side of the page. “See? I put his name here along with what I paid him for.”
Georgina frowned. “But Timothy filled my coal bin last week. Doesn’t he still work for us?”
“Yes, but you see Charles has a sick sister, or was it his brother?” Mother frowned and reached for another leather-bound book from the shelf by the desk. The cover was light brown leather, but the edges and spine had darkened, leaving the book with a well-used appearance. She laid it on the desk and flipped through the pages covered with neat, handwritten lines. After turning several pages, Mother ran a finger along the last line written halfway down the page. “Ah, yes, sister. His sister is ill, and his mother is having a difficult time both taking her dolls to the market and taking care of young Clara. So we hired Charles to help them out for a while.”
Georgina’s eyes widened. “You learned about that from a book? Is it a magic book? Nanny read me a story with magic boots in it, but a magic book would be much more exciting.”
“No, darling, the book isn’t magic, but it is my little secret. One day when you are running your own household and helping your husband oversee tenants and such, you will need a book like this.” Mother slid the book over so Georgina could see better. “Whenever I learn something about one of our people I write it in here. A lady should always know what is going on in her home. If she falters, the entire family will suffer. That is why I write everything down.”
“Everything?” Georgina ran her fingers down one page, covered edge to edge with writing.
Mother nodded. “Everything. Every tenant, servant, friend, and peddler. That way your brother . . .” She cleared her throat. “When your brother comes home from school, his people will feel like he still knows them, that he cares, that he is ready to be the duke.”
“And one day I’ll have a book like this.”
Mother nodded. “I would recommend that, yes.”
Georgina patted the still-opened estate book. “And I’ll have one of these too?”
Mother’s eyes grew wet as she wrapped her arm a little tighter around Georgina’s shoulders. “God willing, you will never have to do estate accounts. Your father—”
Her voice cracked and it took a few moments for Mother to start speaking again. “Your father always took care of these. One day your brother will take them over from me, but until he finishes school it is up to me to keep things running smoothly. There is a smaller book for the household accounts. I’ll teach you about those one day.”
Georgina looked up into her mother’s blue eyes, still glistening from earlier emotion but strong and steady as they looked at her youngest child. “I want to be a duchess just like you when I grow up, Mother.”
With a wide smile, Mother hugged Georgina to her chest. “There aren’t that many dukes around, so you might have to settle for an earl. But don’t you worry. When you keep your own secret book, everyone will think you the most attentive of ladies. You shall be the envy of the aristocracy. Now, where is Nanny? Did she fall asleep reading to you again?”
Georgina nodded. “Poor little Margery only has one shoe, but Tommy has two and he got to go to London. Margery didn’t and she’s very sad, but at least the man who took Tommy to London gave Margery two shoes to console herself with.”
Mother smiled. “At least you will be able to tell her where you left off when she picks the book up tomorrow. Speaking of shoes, you seem to have left yours behind. Let me finish here and I’ll walk you back upstairs.”
Georgina waited as Mother sealed the last letter with a dollop of wax and extinguished the candles. In the glow of the remaining lantern, the study looked magical, like something from the stories Nanny fell asleep reading every night. All it needed was a fairy doll like the ones Charles’ mother made and sold at the street fairs. One day Georgina would have a study of her own and she would be just like her mother.
Only her study would have fairies.
London, England, Spring 1813
Perfection, even the fabricated appearance of it, was a nearly impossible feat. Lady Georgina Hawthorne should know. She’d spent the past three years carefully preparing and planning, determined to make her debut Season perfect or, at the very least, convince everyone else it was.
Exuding anything less than complete excellence could lead someone to the truth: that she wasn’t just imperfect—she was elementally flawed.
If the sparkling creation nestled in the tissue paper before her was a sign of things to come, her hard work was about to reap handsome rewards. The custom-designed mask was everything she’d hoped it would be.
“It looks even prettier than I imagined.” Harriette, Georgina’s lady’s maid and companion, released the reverent whisper as she extended a hand to brush the cluster of feathers bursting from the top left edge of the mask. “You are remarkable.”
Georgina smiled, unable to resist the urge to touch the mask herself. While acknowledgment of the craftsman who constructed the mask should certainly be made, Georgina felt comfortable taking some of the credit for herself. She had given the man very detailed drawings of exactly what she wanted.
“If everything else follows the plan this well, I’ll be married and settled by the end of the Season.” With a sigh, Georgina slid the lid onto the box, blocking the delicate creation from view. As much as she would enjoy looking at the mask for the next three days, she couldn’t risk marring the white silk or bright white feathers before the ball. “Has the dress arrived?”
“It came this morning.” Harriette took the box containing the mask and disappeared into Georgina’s dressing room. Moments later she reappeared with a large bundle of white in her arms. “It’s quite splendid as well.”
Georgina fought past her initial excitement over the dress to look at it with a critical eye. If anything needed to be changed they needed to do it now. The ball was only three days away. Even though it was a masked event, it would be Georgina’s societal debut. It needed to be more than simply perfect. It had to be exceptional.
It would take a fairly spectacular appearance to make everyone forget what a fool she’d made of herself chasing the Marquis of Raebourne last year before she’d even been officially out of the schoolroom. That was what happened when she let emotion cause her to stray from her plan. The marquis would have suited her needs perfectly, but his absurd interest in a woman of little significance put her prime marital target out of reach.
Even so, she should never have allowed the ensuing panic to convince her to share family gossip with Lady Helena Bell. She should have known Lady Helena wouldn’t be able to use the information to successfully break the couple’s attachment. It had all been horribly embarrassing, but Georgina had learned a very important lesson: No one else could be counted on to carry out any part of her plans.
This year she would rely only on herself. She looked at her maid, inspecting the skirt for loose threads. And Harriette. Dependable, loyal Harriette could always be relied upon. In fact, Georgina would be lost without her. “Your brother is due to start school soon, isn’t he?”
The maid looked up from the dress, plain brown eyes narrowing in her commonly rounded face. She straightened herself the full length of her average height and scolded Georgina with a voice laced with an extraordinary amount of intelligence and tenacity. “You’ve already taken care of it. I won’t take any more of your pin money.”
Georgina tried to hide her smile as her friend gave a decisive nod and turned back to the dress.
Though no one else in London would likely believe it, the two were friends. No one on earth knew Georgina as well as Harriette did. Without the other woman’s friendship as a child, Georgina would never have been able to keep her shortcomings hidden from her perfect, noble family. As it was, they all thought her a hopelessly spoiled brat, a condition she tried to use in her favor as often as possible. “I could tell Griffith to give you a higher wage. He wouldn’t doubt me. Probably thinks you deserve one.”
Harriette draped the dress over the bed and crossed the room to grasp Georgina’s hands. “Don’t fret. I’ve been with you since you were seven. I’m not going anywhere.”
It was hard to believe that Harriette was only two years older than Georgina’s eighteen years. Sometimes she seemed too settled and mature for one so young.
Georgina pulled her lip between her teeth. “This is going to work, isn’t it?”
“Stop that.” Harriette shook a finger at Georgina. “You’ll make your lips all cracked and wrinkly if you bite them.”
Georgina smoothed a finger along her bottom lip.
The maid nodded before continuing. “Of course it’s going to work. We’ve been through Debrett’s Peerage three times since last Season, making a list of all the options. We know every unmarried man who fits your requirements. One will come up to snuff. Four of them are even dukes.”
“I can hardly marry my brother, so we can consider there to be only three.” Georgina held the masquerade dress up to herself and spun around the room, enjoying the novelty of the Elizabethan styled gown. “Spindlewood is most likely going to be escorting his granddaughter around this Season, though he’s been out of mourning long enough to consider remarrying.”
“You don’t consider him too old?” Harriette’s eyes widened as she sank into the chair at Georgina’s dressing table.
“I do, as a matter of fact. Were he to die, I would be a very young dowager with no firm ties to the next duke. There’s not nearly enough power in that position.” Georgina slipped her feet into her slippers and did a final inspection in the mirror. “It’s too bad that his grandson is so young. He’s not even out of school yet.”
Harriette tilted her head to the side. “You could wait for him. He’s sure to enter society within the year.”
As if Georgina could afford to wait an entire year in the hopes that the duke’s grandson would prove as socially proficient as the rest of the family.
Georgina shook her head before carrying the dress into the dressing room for storage. Harriette’s light footsteps followed her.
“What I need, Harriette, is for the Duke of Marshington to make a reappearance, seeking the most advantageous bride for his reentry into society. That would set me up for life. I might actually believe God was looking out for me if that were to happen.” Which meant she had little to no hope of it happening. She was certain God was up there somewhere, but she was just as certain that He’d tossed her aside long ago.
“There’s still one other duke, a marquis, and two earls on your list, though I do wish you would reconsider removing the Earl of Ashcombe. Your sister—”
“My sister should have married him when she had the chance.” Georgina checked the reticule she’d had made for the upcoming ball, ensuring it was packed with everything from a spare pair of slippers to a needle and thread for urgent dress repairs. Nothing could be allowed to ruin her night. “Ashcombe is popular, wealthy, and conscious of the importance of reputation. He stays on the list.”
Harriette said nothing as she laid a white velvet cloak on the shelf beside the white ball gown.
A pang of guilt nudged the back of Georgina’s thoughts. Ashcombe had courted her sister during her first Season, but Miranda was embarking on her fourth turn through the ballrooms this year. She’d had plenty of chances to win the man’s hand. Now it was Georgina’s turn.
The fact that she thought the man a supreme bore placed him a bit lower on her list, but she’d rather be bored than ruined.
Not for the first time, Georgina wished Miranda had gotten married last year. The threat of Miranda’s impending spinsterhood might make Georgina’s quest to be the Season’s Incomparable a little more di>cult. Association carried its own form of guilt, after all.
She pressed her hand to her chest, as if she could reach through and force the nerves into submission.
“Everything is ready, my lady.” Harriette fluffed the skirt on the dress until the white-on-white embroidery was shown to perfection.
Georgina’s heart calmed as she looked over the ensemble she would wear as she took her first turn in society as an adult. It was the epitome of everything she’d been working to build. Entering on the arm of her brother, the powerful Duke of Riverton, would seal her as one the most popular girls of the evening.
The masquerade was going to be the best event of her life.