Chapter One In Which Scandal Brews in Wiltshire
It is a truth universally acknowledged by women that it is far easier to dress when the point is to cover one's body, than when one desires to leave expanses of flesh delectably uncovered.
In the days of Esme Rawlings's reign over London society, it took her hours to clothe herself. She would emerge as a caterpillar from its coccoon: silky black curls gleaming over pearly shoulders, bodice miraculously suspended in air at the very moment of dropping to her waist, delectable curves swathed in a fabric so light and revealing that many gentlemen weakened at the knees at her very sight. Other gentlemen stiffened. It was all a matter of constitution.
These days it took precisely twenty minutes to throw on enough clothing to cover herself, and gentlemen in her vicinity never showed reaction beyond a sharpish discomfort at the apparition of a woman with a stomach the size of a large cannonball.
"I am plump as a pork pudding," Esme said, peering at herself in the mirror over her dressing table.
"I wouldn't say "that," her aunt said with her characteristic drawl. Viscountess Withers was seated in a small chair, riffling through her reticule. "Drat, I cannot find my handkerchief."
"Stupendously stout," Esme said disconsolately.
"You "are carrying a babe," Arabella said, looking up and narrowing her eyes. Clearly a pair of pince-nez would have come in handy, but spectacles were inconceivable, given the dictates of fashion. "I never liked the look of it. But you, my dear, might go far to changing my mind. How dare you look so delightful? Perhaps your example will finish theridiculous habit of women "confining themselves. Such a punitive word, "confinement."
"Oh pooh," Esme said, rather rudely. "I am reaching elephantine proportions. No one would wish to see me on the streets of London."
"I believe that your size is normal, not that I've had much to do with childbearing. In fact, this is the first time I have seen a woman so close to her time. So when do you expect it, my dear? Tomorrow?"
"Babies aren't like house guests, Aunt Arabella. They choose their own moment, or so I gather. The midwife seems to think it might be a matter of a few weeks." Privately, Esme thought the midwife had to be mistaken. If she grew any larger, she'd be confined to a bath chair, like the Prince of Wales when he had the gout.
"Well! Here I am, ready to help in every way!" Arabella threw out her hands as if she expected to catch the baby in midair. Esme had to grin at that. Arabella was her very favorite relative, and not only because her reputation was as scandalous as Esme's own. "It's very kind of you to visit me, Aunt Arabella. Not to mention positively self-sacrificing in the midst of the season."
"Nonsense! One can have just as much pleasure outside of London. Even in Wiltshire, if one applies oneself. I knew that you would be quite dreary in the country all by yourself. Always struck me as a foolish habit, women rusticating themselves in the wilderness merely because they're carrying a babe. The French are much more sensible. Marie Antoinette was dancing up to the moment she gave birth."
"I suppose so," Esme said, wondering whether a black gown would diminish the look of her waist. She was no longer in full mourning, and the idea of returning to blackswas dispiriting. But then, so was her girth.
"I took the liberty of asking just a few persons to follow me tomorrow," her aunt went on briskly. "We shall dine alone tonight, unless Stephen Fairfax-Lacy joins us in time. I suppose you know that your friend the Duchess of Girton is "enceinte? If she births a male, obviously Fairfax-Lacy will lose his title. Mind you, it was only an honorary one, but having had it for eight years at least, the man will probably feel as if he's lost his hair. We'll have to cheer him up, won't we, darling?"
Esme looked up, startled. "Fairfax-Lacy? I am not in a position to entertain a house party, particularly one which includes a man I have only the slimmest acquaintance with!"
Arabella ignored her. "And of course I've brought my "dame de compagnie with me. Why be on our lonesome when we needn't? It is the season, but I fancy that my invitation outweighs any tedious little parties that might be occuring in London."
"But Aunt Arabella, this is not entirely suitable--"
"Nonsense! I shall take care of everything. In fact, I already "have. I brought some of my staff with me, dearest, because there are such terrible difficulties with people hired in the country, are there not?"
"Oh," Esme said, wondering how her butler, Slope, had taken this news. The extra footmen might come in handy if she was reduced to being hoisted about in a chair.
"As I said, a very few persons will follow tomorrow, just to enliven dinner, if nothing else. Of course, we won't hold any public gatherings, or perhaps only a very, very small one, because of your condition."
"Now darling," Arabella said, patting her hand, "I've brought you a basketabsolutely full of the latest creams and soaps made by that Italian man, the one with the funny little shop in the Blackfriars. They are all absolutely efficacious. You must try them immediately! Your mother's skin was disastrous when she was carrying you." She peered at Esme's face. "But yours appears to be remarkable. Ah well, you always did take after me. Now, I shan't expect you downstairs until dinner ...
Author of eleven award-winning romances, Eloisa James is a professor of English literature who lives with her family in New Jersey. All her books must have been written in her sleep, because her days are taken up by caring for two children with advanced degrees in whining, a demanding guinea pig, a smelly frog, and a tumbledown house. Letters from readers provide a great escape!