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Sixteen Scandals
Author: Sophie Jordan

 


Chapter One


15 June 1821

Ainsworth House, Belgrave Square

London, England


Twelve hours earlier . . .


Primrose Ainsworth had trained all her life for this day.

This training included a long list of do’s and don’ts. To be fair, there was an excessive amount of don’ts on her list, largely due to Lady Druthers’s Guide to Perfect Deportment and Etiquette, the only book Primrose could claim to abhor. As a devoted reader, someone who considered books to be her closest companions, this was saying a great deal.

Alas, Mama valued Lady Druthers’s guide as no other book. It was her bible, a mariner’s compass that directed her through the rearing of her daughters.

Even before Primrose could read its pages, the book had been read to her. Then, once she knew her letters, her governess had been charged with regularly evaluating Primrose to make certain she had the book memorized. Hours of recitation. She could be ignorant of the Battle of Hastings and its significance to British history for all Mama cared. As long as Primrose knew that blasted guide to manners and other torments front to back, her mother was satisfied.

A true optimist, Primrose had always concentrated on the do’s rather than the don’ts in those pages. On the things she would be permitted to do at ten and six: Staying up late and dressing in a manner not suitable for nine-year-old girls. No more loosely fitted frocks and plaited hair in ribbons.

Instead, she could wear her hair in an elegant coiffure, sip champagne, waltz with handsome gentlemen, and attend salons on topics of art, literature, and science. These were but a few of the liberties to be hers—or any lady’s, really—once she came out in Society.

Finally, Prim would no longer be a child consigned to the nursery. No more sneaking out to spy on her older sisters through the balusters as they entertained friends and suitors.

As the youngest of four girls, Primrose always had an abundance to observe, but for the two years since Aster had entered Society, she had been alone in her observations. Not that Aster had ever been one to join her in her forays to spy on their sisters, but these last couple years were especially lonely for Prim in the Ainsworth household. She had been forced to watch and wait her turn, counting first the years, then months, weeks, and days. Like a prisoner stuck in Newgate, she’d counted down the time until her release.

Envy had climbed high in her chest whenever her sisters slipped cloaks over their lustrous gowns to venture out to the theater or a dinner or a ball. They dazzled her, and she’d marveled at the idea that one day it would be her turn.

One day she would be like them.

One day she would know such freedoms.

That day had arrived.

Finally, she would be seen.

At last, she could attend events with her sisters. She could stay out late and partake in all the diversions permitted adults. That would be celebration enough for her.

Prim hastened downstairs to breakfast, eager to see her mother and learn what plans were in place now that she was of suitable age.

Obviously, nothing special was planned for today or she would already know of it. She did not even care that her parents were not hosting a party or dinner in her honor. Prim knew better than to expect that, especially this close to Violet’s long-anticipated wedding. Prim was fine with a quieter debut. Truly.

Her family was of moderate means. Papa often bemoaned how costly it was to bring up four daughters. She knew no grand coming-out ball was in her future. That was for members of the peerage and much too impractical for the Ainsworth family. Prim’s sisters had not received any such fête to commemorate their birthdays, and she knew to expect the same.

Currently, her family’s focus was on her sister’s impending wedding, which would thankfully be over and done in a fortnight. For now, Prim’s expectations were simple. She wanted to be included in all social gatherings her family attended—that meant accompanying her parents and sisters in the evenings. These were not far-fetched hopes. It was reasonable to believe she would be treated as an adult now.

She didn’t even require a new wardrobe. She could fit into all of Violet’s old gowns, as her sister was already wearing her wedding trousseau, confident her betrothed would outfit her in new gowns as soon as they were married. Redding was rich enough. Violet reminded everyone of that no fewer than 672 times a week.

When Prim entered the dining room, Mama was already seated at the table, eating and sipping her tea as she browsed the scandal rags beside her like she was Napoleon examining a map of Europe.

Primrose cleared her throat. “Ahem.”

No response.

She tried again, declaring rather grandly, “Good morning.”

Mama returned the greeting with a distracted murmur, not glancing up from the day’s gossip holding her rapt attention.

Papa at least looked around the edges of his paper at her. “Good morning, poppet.” He then went back to reading.

Primrose studied them both, her anticipation ebbing over their lackluster reaction to the sight of her. She waited several more moments.

“It’s someone’s birthday,” she called out, hoping that would gain her acknowledgment.

Perhaps they merely sought to surprise her?

The silence stretched and she admitted to herself that it was unlikely given her parents were not demonstrative people and they lacked a sense of humor in general.

Mama finally spoke, not glancing up. “Of course, it is. We have not forgotten.” She took a moment longer, her finger tracking the sentence she was reading. With a sigh, she lowered her paper, and began to generously lather jam onto her toast with single-minded focus.

“Happy birthday, poppet.” Papa looked around the edges of his paper once more. It was recognition, lackluster though it may be.

Mama had not said the words, but Prim now doubted she would. Her mother was not the effusive sort. At least not very often. When her daughters received marriage proposals, then she became quite demonstrative.

Apparently this, the fifteenth day of June, was not to be remarked on in any special way. It was to be treated as an ordinary occasion.

Prim cleared her throat. “I know we haven’t anything planned for today, but—”

“Correct,” Mama said perfunctorily, stabbing her toast once in the air. “I warned you that we haven’t the time or attention to devote to you right now.”

Prim nodded. “Of course. Yes. I know that, but I had hoped that I might join you out this evening since I am now—”

“Not possible.”

Primrose flinched. The quick denial felt like a slap. She looked back and forth between her parents, instructing herself to stay calm and not panic. Begging or crying or coming at her parents aggressively would reap nothing.

She moistened her lips and took a careful breath. “You promised when I turned ten and six—”

“Yes, well, you should not be such a selfish girl to fling that at me now,” Mama snapped, looking up from her toast to level a hard stare on Primrose. “Have you any notion of the stress involved with arranging Violet’s wedding whilst ushering Aster through the marriage mart?” She rubbed her fingers at the center of her forehead as if the very mention of these things caused her pain.

“And the coin involved,” Papa intoned from behind his paper.

Mama continued as though he had not spoken. It was her modus operandi to ignore all mentions of money.

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