The ugly duckling debuta.., p.1
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       The Ugly Duckling Debutante, p.1

         Part #1 of House of Renwick series by Rachel Van Dyken
 
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The Ugly Duckling Debutante


  The Ugly Duckling Debutante

  by Rachel Van Dyken

  Published by Astraea Press

  www.astraeapress.com

  This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters, and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.

  THE UGLY DUCKLING DEBUTANTE

  Copyright © 2011 RACHEL VAN DYKEN

  ISBN 978-1-936852-53-6

  Cover Art Designed by Paragraphic Designs

  Edited by Stephanie Taylor

  To my grandma, who says, “Nothing beats a bad flight like a good romance novel.”

  And also to my unsuspecting husband who endured many long nights watching me type away on my computer. I love you, babe!

  Prologue

  “It’s a girl, my lady! A fine girl!” the midwife exclaimed, holding out the small bundle in her hands. It seemed nearly impossible she had given birth to such a small and perfect little gift. Obviously, the midwife wanted her to take possession of the child she had laboriously brought into the world.

  Without thought, she pulled the bundle to her chest and wept. The salty tears slipped down her cheeks as she mourned all the love that would be lost on her new baby and all the reasons she couldn’t keep her.

  “Take her away from me!” Her shriek seemed to bounce off the bare walls of the room.

  Hiding her face in her hands, she continued to weep, knowing the situation was completely hopeless. Her aristocratic parents wouldn’t allow the scandal. She knew the only answer lay in giving the child away to distant relatives. If the ton were to discover why she had been sent into hiding, she would be ruined.

  The father of the child wanted nothing to do with the baby, even if she did. Hopefully she could convince him to marry her when she went back into London; the season would be starting soon. She closed her heavy eyes and prayed the feeling of loss would leave her.

  But it didn’t. There was no way to escape the choices she had made, except to move on with life, and hope the Duke would still find her attractive after a twenty-four hour childbirth. He hadn’t even contacted her—had he even cared for her health at all?

  Although young, she wasn’t stupid. He was probably out getting foxed with his friends, while she went through the worst pain imaginable.

  It was better this way. Better the infant girl remain in the country. Better she be raised far away from society.

  “Her name, miss?” The maid urged softly, looking at her with expectant eyes.

  “Sara,” she whispered. “Her name is Sara.”

  Chapter One

  The English Countryside

  Miss Sara Ames had no desire whatsoever to extend a greeting to her Aunt Tilda. Greetings were natural assumptions of welcome, and Sara did not want her aunt to get the wrong impression. She was most certainly not welcome.

  Soon enough she would be encouraged to extend said welcome to her aunt, but naturally, she was in no mood to rush the first step into the inferno, as she so delicately thought of the situation. No. She would greet her soon, but not too soon. Not until the time was forced upon her—much like the current situation had been thrust upon her.

  At least she could spend these last few hours in solitary lamentation, mourning the life she once dreamed for herself. A life filled with nights sitting by the fireside reading novels. After all, she wasn’t pretty enough for a debut, a fact of which she was reminded daily by her sisters and her mother.

  Debuts were reserved for comely, dewy-skinned girls; not ugly girls, as her father had often so delicately put it. She hadn’t even been provided with a dowry. And according to her father, the main reason for that being, “No man in his right mind would take you, even if I offered him the blunt of the ton.” He’d repeated such sentiments to neighbors on many occasions as well, the first time on Sara’s sixteenth birthday, when during the middle of her party he drunkenly announced to all her friends she was worthless..

  At least novels provided the escape she desperately needed, a diversion into a world where she felt loved, cherished, and desired—the most scandalous of all the emotions, or so she thought.

  Men would never desire her; even her own father despised her for how she looked.

  For one thing, she was straight where all the other women had curves. Her skin was dark olive, but that was to be expected when one spent hours contemplating books in the fields. Her lips were too large, her eyes too big, and her nose—well, she didn’t know much about noses, but she figured something had to be wrong with it, too. It always seemed too invisible next to her lush mouth, which her father had often called sinful.

  How was it that her sisters were both gifted with angelic faces and soft bodies, while she was cursed with a hard-muscled body and a long mop of black hair? She was nearly convinced her mother had taken a lover of some sort, or at least had an affair while her father was away on business. It was the only explanation for her looks; certainly, her own father must have thought as much as well, because she received the most despised spankings as a child, and allotted the most horrid of all chores.

  Her parents meant well, her beautifully gifted sisters often told her, but she had her doubts. As of a few days ago, she accepted her lot in life was to be a spinster; to spend the rest of her days longing for something she’d never had to begin with…love.

  “Sara!” Her mother’s impossibly loud voice never ceased to carry for miles on end.

  “Coming!” she called, although not at the same decibel. It was nearly impossible to reach the same frequency as her mother on any given occasion. A gift is what her mother called it, but her father called it a curse behind her mother’s back.

  Sara reluctantly pushed herself off the ground and walked slowly into the lion’s den. Her fate to be decided by the two most unlikeable people in her existence: her mother and her aunt.

  Both eyed her speculatively when she approached them in the garden. Heat encompassed her body while observing her aunt’s disapproving gaze trace her from head to toe. She was used to being criticized. Holding her head high when subjected to rejection had once been a trying chore. Now she did it with ease, her only recourse, as if to say she didn’t care what everyone else thought. Though in her heart of hearts, she always did. Didn’t every girl?

  She resolved to always maintain eye contact—to communicate to everyone within distance she accepted the way God created her. The local vicar once told her there were worse things in the world, and sometimes you only see what others want you to see.

  Sara had her doubts about the local vicar after that day, yet her faith in God was the only solid thing in her life. She had to trust that possibly, when she went to Heaven, she would turn into a beautiful butterfly, whilst her family rotted in….

  “Oh, dear,” her aunt sighed, lifting the teacup to her thin rouged lips. “I just don’t see what you expect me to do. I can’t perform miracles.” Her eyes skimmed quickly over Sara; although, she noticed Aunt Tilda seemed to harbor some tender emotion in them, for she ventured a gentle smile her way before facing Sara’s dreadful mother again. Either that or Sara was losing her mind, which was probably more likely, given the circumstances of her upbringing. One could only tolerate so much verbal abuse before she went to the madhouse, or so she thought.

  “Only the good Lord can,” Mother responded, making a quick cross over her chest. Sara rolled
her eyes but was quick about it, so she would not be caught. “After her sisters ran off and eloped, I thought to myself we would be ruined. Absolutely ruined. Then I realized I still had one daughter left. One daughter left who can at least try to marry above her station. And why not? Why shouldn’t we have more wealth than what we have? I don’t see why the good Lord would bless others and completely turn his nose up to us.”

  “Nor do I,” her aunt agreed, clicking her tongue and then heaved a sigh of resignation. “I shall do as you ask… out of the goodness of my heart.” She rose from her chair and approached Sara, making Sara’s mouth go suddenly dry. “My husband is a Viscount. Unlike your mother, I married within my station, and it suits me well. I shall sponsor your first and only season in London. I shall expect nothing but good manners and graciousness from you. Do you understand, young lady?”

  What was she supposed to do? Sit there and nod like a puppet? Sara cleared her throat to protest, but her aunt put a gloved finger in front of her lips.

  “Tsk, tsk. You will not be speaking at all until we arrive in London. I have a head ailment which prevents me from listening to whiny, ugly girls for extended periods of time.”

  Sara was tired of being insulted. She should be accustomed to it though; it was a daily occurrence, but now it rattled her nerves.

  Aunt Tilda shook her head once more. “I don’t know, I just don’t know. I mean, look at her skin. It’s so, so—” Her hand waved in the air as if she would somehow pull the perfect word out of the sky.

  “It’s brown, dear,” came Mother’s annoyed voice. “She has straight white teeth though.”

  “Ah! Let me see!” Aunt Tilda grabbed Saras chin and forced open her mouth making her feel like a horse being inspected by a famer. “Oh, yes. I do see. Oh good, very good. We shall have her smile often.”

  “And her bosom!” Mother half-jumped out of her seat in a frenzy. “If you’ll just pull back her dress here.” The dress tightened around Sara’s chest furthering her embarrassment. “You see? She really does have a lot to work with.”

  Aunt Tilda walked away for a minute, not facing any of the party in the receiving room. “She’ll have to eat much more than you’ve been feeding her.”

  Sara took another deep breath; it was like getting sold to the butcher. She closed her eyes, so she could think about her latest book rather than the embarrassing things being said about her.

  “She does eat!” her mother bellowed again, hazardously close to Sara’s left ear. She wouldn’t be surprised if she were close to being deaf in both ears. Years of living with her mother had not been good for her health. She winced as her mother yelled again “I know! We’ll just give her more meals and have her eat before bed! If she lies down, it is bound to stay in her belly and make her softer!”

  Sara wanted to scream, but she had always been even tempered, always. But even those who are even tempered can be pushed beyond the brink of sanity. If only her sisters hadn’t eloped, leaving their family in utter ruin! What respectable girls elope with twin brothers to Gretna Green? They weren’t even titled for crying out loud! It meant her family had nothing, absolutely nothing. Her two sisters were the only hope for riches, and now they were gone, along with their measly dowries. Nobody would want them now, even if they could get the marriages annulled.

  Her thoughts had gotten away with her somehow. Before she knew it, her aunt kissed her mother goodbye, and pushed Sara into a black plush carriage waiting outside.

  “Oh, and Sara,” her mother ran toward her, “Aunt Tilda will explain what needs to be done to secure a husband; you listen to everything she says. Do not embarrass us! Your father has, well, he has some debts, dear, and you’re our only hope of securing a man rich enough to take care of us. Do you understand?”

  Was that a rhetorical question?

  Her mother droned on, “And, dear, I know you are…well, you’re wicked-looking, but if you could please swallow your pride and do whatever it takes, we would be grateful. After all, this is your one and only chance for any sort of affection from another person. And we all desire affection. Even ugly children desire acceptance.”

  Hearing enough, she bit her lip to keep from talking. Sara nodded her head and closed the door to the carriage. Her body felt numb. She knew all about emotional rejection; it was her cross to bear, but to be reminded by one’s own mother time and time again was the worst pain imaginable. Turning her head toward the window, she pulled her knees up to her chest and sighed. Aunt Tilda reached across and patted her hand much like a stranger would do to comfort a small child.

  “No fear, my girl, I have a grand plan. A plan even you can’t ruin.” She smiled cheerfully before putting a covering over her eyes and going silent, most likely to sleep.

  It’s an adventure, it’s an adventure, Sara kept repeating over and over again in her head to keep herself from crying. Being mortified in front of her family because of her looks she could handle, but being humiliated in front of the ton was quite another. “Dear God, if you can do miracles, I ask for one right now. Make me pretty; make me loveable. I don’t care if I let my family down, I just don’t want to feel this way ever again.” The stress of the day overwhelming her, she drifted off to sleep..

  Chapter Two

  Nicholas Devons, seventh Earl of Renwick, was exhausted. Though only a measly thirty years of age, at this moment he felt ancient, as if his name should already be appearing in history books. One always did at debutante balls—how many had he seen in the past few years? And how many more would he have to endure? His title demanded he do his duty by attending. Not only was he required to attend, but he also must dance—and dance he would, because it was expected of him.

  Overbearing mothers clad in glitzy dresses stared at him heatedly, leaving him feeling like he was in the fires of Hell itself. Actually, at this moment he wished he were anywhere—no matter how hot and torturous—but here. It was a nightmare fit for one of those fairy storybooks his nieces so often begged him to read at bedtime.

  He rolled his eyes when yet another mother approached with daughter in tow. “My lord,” she bowed lower than her dress should have allowed, considering her bosom nearly fell straight out of it, and smiled, revealing yellowish teeth better suited for a horse. “Allow me to present to you Lady Alisa.” The young girl, who looked barely old enough to be out of the schoolroom, was complete with the new French style of dress which hardly left anything to the imagination. Her hair, pulled into tight ringlets around her head, was dusted with so much powder, he couldn’t actually tell her real hair color. Her lips were large and painted with rouge, and her eyes had so much kohl on them, she looked like a raccoon.

  Bending over her hand, he cursed his rotten luck and brought her shaking fingers to his lips. Her ‘look’ was probably a ruse. Her hair must be some disdainful color for her mother to go to so much work to cover it up. A pity, really. If she wore less face paint and powder, she might be attractive. Might being the key word.

  “My lord.” She bowed lower than her mother, which Nicholas thought nearly impossible, and smiled revealing straight white teeth, although quite small and not fitting for her large mouth. Her gums seemed to stick out more than her teeth, making Nicholas stare longer than usual. Lady Isabel, the mother in question smirked, taking the purpose of Nicholas’s stare as encouragement and pushed her daughter into his reluctant arms. With a huff of satisfaction she said.

  “If you’ll just excuse me then,” and without an other word scurried away without looking back.

  And so it happened Lord Renwick was stuck with this untamed and amiable creature called Alisa. “Is this your first season?” he asked politely while leading her to the dance floor.

  “Yes.” Blush crept into her cheeks when she bowed before him and took her place in the dance. Talking to this woman was his own version of torture. It was why he never talked to women; naturally, they never really had anything intelligent to say.

  The dance ended a painful two minutes later, leaving
Nicholas displeased with his new acquaintance. She was—what was the word? Oh yes, boring. He bowed deeply, taking her hand in his own and brushed a light kiss across her glove. Her hand trembled at his touch. He controlled the urge to smile. Had it really been so long ago that he had been the famous rake of the ton? Taking innocent girls into darkened rooms and locking the doors behind him. Now that he was really thinking on it, the girls he took pleasure in were hardly innocents. They were basically begging him with their eyes to bed them, not that it gave him any right to do so. He hadn’t truly known then what it was like to be religious or a strong believer in a higher power. Most of the ton looked at Christianity as a cult, not realizing it was the one true way to Salvation. Since his days frolicking around with married and unmarried women of the ton, he had come to realize it was better that he not give into the lustful desires of man.

  No, he would be like the disciples. He would stay single and donate his money to charity whenever possible. Controlling his impulses was never his strong suit, but in the past year he found it easier and easier if he just stayed away from the more tempting of the female sex. They were, after all, extremely frivolous. Were the debutante balls not mere examples of the idiocy of the ton? Families spent fortunes in the name of their daughters’ debuts, hoping to find them a good match. Many of them aimed for viscounts, earls, and even dukes, though the last were extremely hard to come by these days. Most dukes were overweight, over-brandied versions of Nicholas’ own grandfather and not the marriageable type. It didn’t stop the mothers from pursuing the match, though it should have. They still threw their young girls at men twice their ages for a title. The whole thing made him ill. He may have a reputation, but at least he didn’t marry for money. Not that he needed it.

 
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