Like many young ladies of seventeen, Miss Julia Purcell often fretted about her appearance. Each time she passed a mirror, she detected a new, fatal flaw: her nose was too short; her forehead too high; her feet too large. All other observers, however, saw only a handsome and amiable young woman with fine dark hair and expressive dark blue eyes.
Julia’s early education with an excellent governess had been supplemented by two years at Miss Bronson’s Select School of the Feminine Arts. She had made her bows to the Queen, and there remained only the ball at Purcell House to launch Julia into London society.
The evening of the ball found Julia and her maid before the tall mirror in Julia’s boudoir, while the latter rearranged yet another strand of her mistress’s hair.
“Now, Miss Julia,” chided the faithful Emily, “you’ve no call to worry! Lovely as Princess Louise on her wedding day, you are!”
Julia patted her hair, arranged softly and charmingly around her heart-shaped face, and adjusted a fold of her gown. Its gauzy white overskirt of cascading ruffles gathered up into a soft bustle—much less cumbersome than the wide crinolines of recent decades. Even Julia herself could find no flaw in her appearance tonight.
When she joined the company, Julia noted that her dress compared favorably with that of the other young ladies. But she cast an envious glance at Mrs. McFarlane—widow of the wealthy industrialist—with her flame-red hair and alluring frock of jade-green silk.
The hired string players took up their bows, and Julia led the Grand March with her brother-in-law, the Earl of Buckton. She never sat down afterwards; she was always in demand; and before half an hour had passed, she found herself partnered by young Lord Daglish.
Daglish was arguably the most eligible bachelor of the season. He had come into his title when the Sea Pearl had foundered near the Cape of Good Hope, claiming the lives of his uncle, aunt and cousins.
Julia liked everything about the young lord: his kind eyes, his droll laugh, his modest and manly bearing. He spoke humbly of his newfound responsibilities, and mentioned—as an aside—that a wife would be of great assistance in managing a large household and estate. Julia’s heart beat with wild and giddy joy.
After the dance, Lord Daglish escorted Julia to a bench beneath an arch entwined with roses.
“A dazzling company,” said Lord Daglish. “Your mother is a charming hostess, as is her daughter.”
“Thank you, my Lord,” said Julia, with downcast eyes, “but I am not so dazzling as others, I fear...”
“Ah, the Widow McFarlane? She is a rose in bloom... but nothing is as lovely as the rose fresh budded.”
And gracefully, he detached a single bud and presented it to Julia with a courtly bow. Julia accepted it with trembling hands and murmured thanks. It was the chief moment of her life.
She whirled dizzily through several dances, hardly knowing who partnered her. But at the last intermission, she passed by a half-hidden doorway where several gentlemen were engaged in spirited conversation. She paused, recognized the voice of Lord Daglish, and heard him say:
“Yes, I danced with her. She’s quite young, though—a child, really—and uncommonly plain...”
Oh, the mortification! Julia felt that a thin, sharp dagger had been thrust through her young and sensitive heart! Only Miss Bronson’s stern training preserved her as she smiled and curtsied through the rest of that long, agonizing night. How caddish he was! How deceived she had been in him! Was she really “uncommonly plain”? Oh, that she could have died at the moment he gave her the rose!
After a fitful hour, Julia slept long into the morning. When Emily came to draw back the shades, she remarked that the talk belowstairs was all of “Miss Julia’s triumph.”
“Thank you, Emily,” said Julia bitterly. Triumph, indeed!
But a shaft of late-morning sunlight fell upon the rosebud, discarded on the floor. Julia slipped out of bed, seized it, and thought:
He danced with others, too! Perhaps he wasn’t speaking of me... And even if he was...
She recalled the sophisticated sweep of Mrs. McFarlane’s hair. Emily—quite skilled at such things—could surely emulate it...
And Lord Daglish would surely attend the soiree at Buckton House tomorrow evening...
Julia pressed the rose against her cheek, inhaling its seductive perfume, which was the fragrance of hope.
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