Jane stared longingly at the decadent chocolate cake perfectly decorated with intricate patterns of corded piping. Her stomach, to her embarrassment, roared out its want to devore more than the tiny sliver passed down to her. She looked down at her morsal hoping no one had heard and waited for everyone to have a piece before she could take her first bite.
Jane scanned the room to see if all had been served yet. To her dismay, she caught a glimpse of her mother, and the woman was glaring daggers at her. Emotions of anger and guilt warred in Jane as she worried over what her punishment would be for this faux pas. It wasn’t her fault. She really was trying to be as perfect as her mother strived for her to be. She couldn’t help that she had been starved so that she might fit in the impossible fashion of the year.
When everyone had a plate, Jane waited with bated breath for someone else to take the first bite, so that she didn’t look greedy. When the elderly and most esteemed hostess of the morning, Marchioness of Lindsey Lady Kesteven, Jane was grateful to dig her fork in. She rolled the chocolate confection over her tongue savoring the luxury that came few and far between. She was often denied sweets in order to maintain her mother’s standards on her figure. Not that her family could afford such extravagances as chocolate, but she was sure if they could she would not be allowed to partake.
Jane’s eyes had unconsciously slipped closed as she savored her first bite. When they popped back open, they locked on the cake. The euphoria of the taste sent her into tizzied fantasies of her picking the cake up with her hands and shoveling it into her face until till she drowned in its lusciousness. Instead of lapsing out of self-control, though, she gracefully put her fork down before she could gobble up every bite and complemented her host, “Lady Kesteven, this is a most divine cake. Do send our regards to your cook.”
Hums of agreements were murmured over mouthfuls of cake by the other debutants at the bruncheon. Jane’s mother suppressed a wicked smile. She was happy that the other young ladies had lapsed out of manners by talking with their mouths’ full and that Jane had incited it. She felt there might be hope for her daughter no matter how unintentionally jane had conjured that scenario. Jane herself realizing what she had done and noticing her mother's smothered smirk hoped that the carriage ride home would be more pleasant.
Lady Kesteven beamed under the positive attention, “This is one luxury I have been wanting to share for a while. It's so much nicer than just drinking it. That’s such a manly pass time anyways. I thought this more,” she up ended her fork in thought before drawing out the word, “feminine.”
Something about the gesture ruffled Jane. It was by no means polite or feminine to display a dirty fork in the air. Jane would know, manners were drilled into her every day. Still, she liked how Lady Kesteven had done it anyways and realized her sudden surge of anger was out jealousy. Jane wished she didn’t have to constantly control herself at home and in public and envied Lady Kesteven.
Jane supposed marriage gave one that type of freedom, so she would have to marry. She knew her mother wished for her to marry above her station. Her mother often liked to say that being a baroness was akin to being a trades man’s wife. Coming from a wealthy trade family herself Jane’s mother had been groomed to find someone of ranking, but the best she could manage was Baron Auckland, Jane's father. Eager to push ranks further the baroness likewise was grooming her daughter to look above her station. Jane was not comfortable with this but had learned long ago that it was easier not to resist.
Jane stayed in her thoughts while polite pleasantries about the cake were exhausted, and awkward silence threatened the room. The mothers present used the lull in the conversation to switch to more important topics like their daughter's future. Lady Kesteven was an invaluable gossip. Her word on a man could solidify a mother’s resolve to make a match for their daughters.
Countess Beaumont started in first, “Lady Kesteven, I hear that Lord John has finally come back from the war and taken his place as the 5th Duke of Portland.”
“Indeed, he has,” Lady Kesteven replied. She intentionally did not expand on the subjected. She wanted the woman to ask her directly, because it brought her gleeful joy and made her feel less like the gossip she was.
The countess narrowed her eyes and looked coyly at her own daughter, Courtney, “What are your thoughts on the man.”
All the mothers leaned in while Lady Kesteven took a theatrical sip of tea before replying, “He is not currently taking visitors and I have heard through the servants that he has been doing some major renovations to his estate.” She leaned into the group of women and lowered her voice an octave, the true gossip in her coming out, “His father and brother where terrible at managing the estates money and there has always been something off about the men in his linage. I think he has enough of his mother in him, though, and he is turning the estate around quite nicely. Still, I would not want be the apple of his eye.”
Jane read between the lines of what Lady Kesteven was saying. He is crazy and penniless for now. Two strikes for her. For one, she did not have a substantial dowry to entice such rankings even on their richest days. Secondly, she did not want to live in a dangerous situation where she might be misused. Marriage was supposed to give her comfort, not upend her.
Jane continued to half listen while her mind wondered though her own fantasies. She heard the breakdown of each man and fantasized about how she would fit into his life. None of the stories she could conjure took the direction she wanted to go, though. She didn’t want to run a house. She didn’t want to stay prim and proper, but there was no other place for her. Resignedly she hoped she could snag someone kind and not completely boring.
The party trickled down with no upsets or drama. Everyone left more knowledgeable for the ball that evening. The woman each getting into their carriages with game plans on how to snag their top picks for the evening. Jane and her mother were no exception.
As soon as the carriage door closed her mother began her assault, “If your stomach is going to make such fowl noises you know you are supposed to excuse yourself. At tonight’s ball you know I will not always be able to keep my eye on you, such is the way at balls, but I will not accept you embarrassing me.” She droned on, “We cannot afford another season for you, you must be married soon!”
Jane knew it was futile to argue with her mother and said simply, “Yes Mother. I will do my very best.”
“Your very best is not good enough. Three seasons it's been, and your father is going bankrupt trying to keep you in fashionable dresses. I think you should stop eating as much. I noticed your dresses are getting tight and we cannot spare extra coin for retailoring your clothes. You know your father’s investments have not been doing as well as he had hopped.” She continued to dig into her daughter.
Jane was well acquainted with the family finances. Her mother liked to remind her constantly. She wished to tell her mother to stop spending so much and that she hated every one of her dresses but kept it to herself. She had already had those fights. She hoped thought, her mother never found out that cook was sneaking her food at night and some mornings before her mother woke, “Yes mother,” she agreed absentmindedly as she looked out the window. She was thinking on how she would describe the cake to cook and wondered if she could replicate it if she could get her hands on chocolate.
“Jane,” Her mother commanded her full attention on her and waited for Jane to turn back to her before continuing, “I have heard from Lady Kesteven that the Duke of Portland is making his first appearance in public at tonight’s ball. I want you to pursue him.”
Jane’s heart filled with dread as the cake rose to the top of her throat. It took everything in her to force herself to say, “As you wish, Mother.”