Chapter 1

It's dark and soft. Blankets are wrapped around me like a cocoon. For a second, I feel at peace—relaxed. Then I remember yesterday's events and groan.

I wish that the bedding would swallow me and transport me somewhere else. Living in the slums like a working class woman would be preferable to having everything but being under the ton's scrutiny.

I could even get used to the smell—but then, I can barely stomach nearing the Thames in summertime. I'd probably vomit so much that I would never eat again and die from starvation.

Then again, I'd die from whatever the ton had in store for me anyways.

For at least an hour, I lie in bed. I hear the door creak open, and someone enters.

"Miss Randall, are you awake? Lady Ainsworth requests that you join her for breakfast."

"Yes, but I'm feeling poorly right now. Do tell Lady Ainsworth that I will be indisposed for the rest of the season."

A long pause ensues. The maid is probably deciding between following my orders or following the Dowager Marchioness's. If she follows that bacon-brained woman's, I will have her fired.

"Yes, Miss Randall," she says. A moment later, I hear the door creak as it closes softly.

Wise choice. I vow to not scream or throw anything at her the next time she pulls my corset strings too tightly or get a comb caught in my hair.

I groan and clutch my head. Last night, I had the most horrible dream that the train of my court presentation gown had been ripped off. Wait, no, that had not a dream but a nightmare come true.

My thoughts are jumbled together like items in a cart. I think I'm going crazy. I'll probably spend the rest of my season at Bedlam. My young relatives will visit me during the holidays, complaining that they don't want to visit "mad Auntie Priscilla."

Suddenly, the door flies open, hitting the wall so hard that I fear that I will find a dent in the wood later.

"Miss Priscilla Randall!" A shrill voice screeches. I groan; it is the Dowager Marchioness's. "As your sponsor, I cannot allow you to bathe in your misery as all the eligible bachelors are taken up."

"I am indisposed, Lady Ainsworth. Please come back in twenty years when yesterday's embarrassing incident is forgotten."

Lady Ainsworth walks over and opens up the curtains of my four-poster bed so forcefully that I hear a loud rip. A maid walks in opens up the other curtains covering the window. Bright light floods the room, and my eyes burn as if they are on fire. Groaning again, I cover my head with a pillow.

"You act like a child. I will have to tell your father to send you back to the schoolroom."

The schoolroom—the only thing almost as nightmarish as my season. After a month at Miss Peabody's Academy for Girls, I was asked to leave after having Miss Peabody—the most disagreeable spinster alive—catch me setting her best settee on fire…Even though it was part of my "initiation."

I feel a sharp tug on my legs—as if someone had wrapped rope around my ankles and started to drag me on the ground. A second later, the comfort of my silk sheets is replaced with the hard, wooden floor. Lady Ainsworth stands over me, her arms crossed and a grim smile chiseled on her face.

"You will join me for breakfast, Miss Randall. Then you and I will go to Bond Street to purchase things for your ball and see to that last gown fitting." Lady Ainsworth turns to the maid and says, "I want her ready in fifteen minutes."

"Yes, my lady." The maid curtsies as Lady Ainsworth exits the room, her skirts swishing behind her like a curtain.

I glare at the maid. Traitor!

The maid glances at me then averts her gaze the moment the moment she takes in my glare. She wrings her hands and clears her throat loudly. "Good morning, Miss Randall. Please call me Margaret," she says with a curtsy.

"Yes, good morning." I stand up. My head throbs, but I know that the Marchioness would just accuse me of being a liar—or discover the half-empty bottle of whiskey I found in a study last night.

"What about this light yellow gown, Miss Randall?" Margaret suggests. "It would bring out your beautiful complexion." She holds up the dress, and I nod.

I change out of my night gown and into my chemise, petticoats, and the light yellow muslin that the maid picked out. The maid exits the room and comes back with boots, which I put on. Another maid enters and begins to dust the wooden furniture.

I walk to the dresser and sit in front of the mirror. Margaret stands behind me, a brush in hand, as she frowns, wondering what to do with tangled curls. I can't help but think that my hair looks like a bird's nest the color of the Thames's water. Hopefully, most of the ton won't be able to notice the color resemblance; the Thames is much too foul-smelling to be approached during the season—or at any other time in the year, for that matter.

"You have very beautiful hair, Miss Randall." Margaret admires as she begins to brush the comb through my curls. I flinch whenever the bristles catch in a tangle; is she combing my hair—or is she trying to rip my head off to make another lady's wig?

"Thank you, Margaret," I say, trying to make my voice as cheerful as possible.

She probably compliments me to make me like her, I think to myself. My curls—decent-looking on certain days—are not golden and pretty unless I'm in a dim room, and the person talking to me is too foxed to know who he is talking to.

Strands of hair falling out of her fingers like water, Margaret manages to tame most of my hair into a bun. The other strands curl around my face and run down my neck. Margaret says that I'm simply breathtaking. I want to say that I look like I just came back from a clandestine meeting with a lover.

"I'm going to breakfast. Be sure to bring me my reticule and bonnet before I leave."

"Yes, Miss Randall." Margaret curtsies, and I stand up and walk to the door. "Miss Randall?"

"Yes?" I stop and turn around.

"Do you need help finding the dining room? Lord Ainsworth's townhouse is quite large."

"No, but thank you. I'll find the dining room on my own."

"Yes, of course." Margaret smiles and clasps her hands together. I turn around and walk out.

Then I regret not taking Margaret along. The townhouse is quite large, and obviously, I'm not used to the maze-like hallways of the building. I pass a portrait of the Virgin Mary holding her child. I swear that I pass the same portrait again five minutes later.

If only I had a trail of breadcrumbs, like in Goldilocks—or what it Jack and the Beanstalk? I forgot, and now I fear that I'm turning into father; often he forgets that I'm his own daughter.

I open a door and recognize the study from which I had stole the whiskey last evening. The room is larger than my own room at father's country manor, and a desk the size of a bed takes up part of the room. Bookshelves line the walls like wallpaper, but a thin layer of dust covers everything.

This room obviously belongs to the Marquess, a debauched bastard currently on his Grand Tour before he takes up his duties. I have never met him, but I've heard enough rumors of him to develop a strong dislike—strong enough to wish that he contacts venereal disease from a Paris whore.

Meanwhile, I think I will enjoy his liquor stash.

"Are you all right, Miss Randall."

I gasp and turn. It is the butler, Charles—or is it Giles?

"I'm—I'm lost," I blurt out. "Do you know where the dining room is?"

"Of course, miss." The butler bows and leads me away.

I know I should concentrate and try to memorize the route, but I've been unable to pay attention for more than five seconds since I was a child—more proof that I am on the way to Bedlam.

We pass a lovely portrait of a mountain and its surrounding scenery, and I pause to look. The lines are exquisite—the details, perfect. I want to know the artist of this wonderful masterpiece. I turn to ask the butler—and find the hall before me as empty as a cave.

I lift my skirts and run down the hall. When I get to the end, I see the butler turning another corner, and I sigh in relief. Charles/Giles leads me down a winding staircase and through a door where I see the dowager marchioness sit at the head of table long enough to sit at least thirty people.

"Good morning, Miss Randall," Lady Ainsworth calls out. "Please join me."

"Good morning." I curtsy, and a footman pulls out a chair next to the marchioness. I sit down.

"Do hurry, Priscilla—May I call you Priscilla? I want to get our business done by luncheon."

"Oh, yes, please call me Priscilla." I'd ask her if it was okay to call her by her first name, but I would just scandalize her. Besides, I've never heard her Christian name, and I can't imagine the old bat having one.

I eye the table: toast, marmalade, hot chocolate, and tea. Not bad. I grab a slice of toast and empty half a jar of marmalade on top. When I take a bite, I feel as if I am heaven. I make a mental note to pay my respects to the cook.

Lady Ainsworth eyes me. "Are you enjoying your toast on marmalade?" She emphasizes the "toast on marmalade" part. "My aunt was fond of marmalade, and her entire house had to be remodeled, as she could not fit through most doorways."

Guiltily, I put the piece of toast back on my plate and dab my mouth with a napkin. "I see." Quickly, I think of a different subject. "Where are we going today?"

"Bond Street. We need to get gloves for tomorrow's ball—and maybe feathers for your hair."

I am reminded of how the feathers in my headdress dangled in front of my face and tickled my nose yesterday.

"I cannot possibly wear feathers to my debut ball. Why not flowers?" I say after thinking carefully, as I don't want Lady Ainsworth to find me rude or ungrateful for her hospitality.

"Feathers suit you, dear. Your suitors will find you good enough to eat."

"Yes, they will. I just hope that I am not confused for the pigeon on the menu," I say dryly, without thinking. Realizing my mistake, I quickly add, "I mean, feathers sound wonderful."

Lady Ainsworth nods approvingly. "You're fair enough, and you have nice brown eyes. I am sure that we will find a husband attracted to your dowry by the end of the season."

I look away and sip at my cup of hot chocolate. To others like Lady Ainsworth, it seems as if the only goal in life is to make a convenient marriage with a man who will most likely need my dowry or a woman to bear his children. I want to tell Lady Ainsworth that I would rather be put on the shelf instead of marry a man that I could never love.

"Yes, of course," I say. "I am done with breakfast."

Lady Ainsworth smiles at me. My stomach feels as hollow as an unlucky gambler's purse, and I know that I will regret not eating my toast and marmalade.

"Oh," Lady Ainsworth says suddenly, as if she has forgotten something. "I received a letter from my son earlier saying that he will be returning tomorrow. Just think, with the Marquess's influence, we will have no trouble losing guests for tomorrow's ball."

I want to add that most of the guests will only appear at my ball to see the Marquis—not me. However, the very idea of his return makes me too shocked to reply.

The Marquess—a rake who may ruin me instead of help my standing in society.

I remind myself that rakes only chase widows and married women, and I feel slightly relieved.

"Yes, that sounds wonderful, Lady Ainsworth," I reply, smiling.