Her Unsuitable Match by Sally Britton
The stifling heat of the ballroom combined with a heavy fog of perfume pressed in around Philippa until her head ached and her vision swam. Three hours. She had danced, deflected flirtatious comments, and feigned interest in the small talk of her partners for three incessant hours.
All the while, her mother—Fredericka, Countess of Montecliff—stood near an open window, fanning herself. Her unrelenting gaze kept Philippa where she belonged, in the center of the room with no hope for escape.
“You are the epitome of grace, my lady,” Philippa’s partner simpered, bowing as the second dance in their set at last came to an end. Though Philippa knew it wasn’t his fault, his voice had a distinctly nasal quality to it, and she had to fight a wince every time he spoke to her. “I do hope you will favor me with your partnership again, my lady. It has been a great honor.”
“You are too kind, my lord.” She forced a smile as her temples pulsed, as though twin miners had taken up residence in her head and pounded her skull with their pickaxes in perfect sync.
He frowned when her polite words did not offer a ready agreement to his proposal, though he still offered her escort to her mother’s side. Perhaps he would take Philippa’s disinterest as a hint and not bother calling on her the next day. That might upset her mother, given the man held a title and estates in both England and Jamaica. The dowager countess would certainly blame Philippa for not encouraging him to call the next day. But then, Mother blamed many things on Philippa of late.
Especially Philippa’s unmarried state.
The inducement to wed that most unmarried daughters of the ton felt with keenness eluded Lady Philippa Gillensford. As the daughter and now sister of an earl, she made a tempting target for many gentlemen and nobles. They saw her for her position and the connections it would give to them, not as a person. Thus she had shocked several of her formerly enthusiastic callers when she proved she had a functioning mind and strong opinions that differed from theirs.
Yes, Mother had reason for frustration.
But so did Philippa.
When it was just the two of them standing near the window, Philippa flicked open her fan and did her best to cool her face and neck with the inadequate bursts of air the lace-and-paper accessory afforded her.
“The duke’s grandson did not appear happy,” Mother said from behind her own fan. “You did not share your opinions on the sugar tariffs again, did you?”
Philippa beat the air faster with her fan. “No, Mother. You made it very clear that I cannot discuss political topics at balls.”
“Then why did he look so cross?”
“Perhaps he always looks that way,” Philippa ventured. She looked to the window near them, cracked open only a few inches. “Do you think we might step out for a moment, Mother? A little fresh air might be just the thing to perk both of us up.”
“I am not a flower in need of perking up.” The dowager snorted. “And Baron Bramber is approaching. You will dance with him, but do not encourage his attentions overmuch, dear. He is only a baron, after all.” Her nose wrinkled as though dancing with barons was as distasteful as stepping in horse droppings.
Philippa smiled politely when the baron asked her to dance, and she treated him with the same distant respect that she had all her other partners that evening. While her feet took her through the motions, and her face remained a mask of appropriate enthusiasm, her mind dwelled on the ball she would attend the next evening. A much happier affair, and something she had looked forward to for more than a month.
Her brother, Adam, and his wife, Elaine, were hosting a charity ball at one of London’s newest and most luxurious hotels.
Nothing delighted Philippa as much as the memory of her mother’s face when she received the invitation. Everyone in London wanted to see the inside of the hotel’s ballroom, the foyer, and the gardens rumored to be as fine as those at Kensington Palace. That Adam and Elaine had secured the hotel to host a charitable event had made Mother turn the unbecoming shade of puce.
“Is something amusing, Lady Philippa?”
When the baron’s question interrupted her thoughts, Philippa swiftly schooled her features into an indifferently pleasant expression once more. “Do forgive me, my lord. I am afraid my thoughts were already on tomorrow evening. Perhaps you have heard that my brother and his wife, Mr. Gillensford and Mrs. Gillensford, are hosting a ball at Bell’s Hotel?”
“Ah, yes. From what I understand, it is to be one of the finest events of the Season.” That the baron said such made her more kindly disposed toward him. Until he added, “If one can even classify a charity event as such a thing. Given that they sent invitations out to common soldiers, it lacks the exclusivity of the private balls and assemblies.”
Nothing made her so cross as people in Society disparaging what her brother and sister-in-law sought to do with their time and money. Thanks to an inheritance left to them by Philippa’s late great-uncle, Adam and Elaine had the ability to dedicate their lives and much of their fortune to helping others. The ton ought to have admired their decision to solicit funds for a hospital—a hospital meant to help soldiers recover from battle in a quiet, safe place. And meant to see to the needs of the soldiers’ families while the men were away fighting for their country.
With her chin raised, Philippa briefly joined hands with her dance partner as the steps called for and spoke with a haughty tone she had learned from her mother. “I have heard that Lord Nelson himself will be in attendance.”
The baron shrugged, unimpressed, and Philippa avoided speaking another word more than necessary for the remainder of their set.
Again and again, the situation repeated itself. Smiling, curtsying, dancing with strangers. Her mother whispered instructions before each dance, between sets, and while they walked around the humid, hot room.
“You cannot avoid marriage forever,” Mother said when the evening drew to a close. Her frustration rose to the surface, her whispers becoming hisses. “It is ungrateful to your brother, and to me, to withhold your hand from a prosperous match. You have a duty to our family to lift Society’s eyes to us—to strengthen our place amidst our peers.”
Philippa remained silent, though her mother’s words hurt. The dowager countess wanted things that her daughter had never wanted.
“You’re behaving selfishly,” her mother added. “It is a daughter’s duty to wed and wed well. Georgiana understood this responsibility—why don’t you?”
Much later that night—truly, in the early hours of the next day—Philippa collapsed into her bed with a weary groan. Her feet hurt. Her head ached. And in a few hours, she had to rise and dress to receive callers. More posturing. More pretending. She hated it.
During the carriage ride home, her mother had ceased talking but had commenced glaring. Despite Philippa knowing her own mind, her mother’s censure was no less irritating. Mothers were supposed to be sympathetic to their children, weren’t they?
Her sister-in-law, Elaine, was kind and compassionate with her two adopted children, and would certainly be so with the babe she had born a few short months before.
But then, Mother railed against Elaine’s place in the family every chance she had. Despite Elaine’s kindness. Despite the grandchild Elaine had provided. The dowager countess acted as though Elaine’s marriage into the family had created a scandal too great to live down. When, in fact, Society openly welcomed Elaine everywhere she went. Perhaps because of her money, initially, and her eye for fashion. But once people came to know Philippa’s sister-in-law, they couldn’t help but love her. No one kinder existed anywhere on earth.
Although happy for Adam and Elaine, there were moments when Philippa wished there had been a scandal. At least enough of one to keep their family in the country for a single Season. Hiding away from spiteful gossips and scheming bachelors.
Philippa loved the Season. But she hated the marriage mart. She had heard from friends that—once married—the time spent in London held many delights. No one had to stay at a ball longer than they wished. They could come and go from other events without worrying overmuch about what the gossips observed and spoke about later. Married women were protected from snobbery and criticism in a way no single lady was ever afforded.
It might be worth it—to marry someone—if only to end the constant speculation of others.
Philippa laughed quietly to herself and pressed a cool cloth to her forehead.
At three and twenty, she no longer felt the eagerness of a girl fresh from the schoolroom. She had no desire to marry in order to please her family or anyone else. When she married, it would be to please herself.
The dark shadows of her room painted swaths of gray forests upon her ceiling. Her eyes traced the imaginary branches, despite how heavy with fatigue they remained. She blinked, then gave in and closed them.
According to her father’s will, upon her most recent birthday, she had won access to her full inheritance. Every pound meant as a dowry to tempt bachelors belonged to her, even if she never married. But her horrid eldest brother, Richard, kept finding reasons to delay the transfer of her funds into her name. More than once, she had thought about finding a solicitor to force the issue. But her family had already undergone a painful fracture with Adam’s marriage to Elaine, a former seamstress-turned-heiress.
Philippa didn’t particularly want to begin a new war with her mother, brothers, sisters-in-law, and sister. What harm did it do for her to spend one more Season doing her mother’s bidding? The money would still be there come summer, and then she would make Richard give it over to her.
And she would finally do as she pleased.
That thought made Philippa smile and think markedly happier thoughts as she finally slipped into peaceful slumber.