Katrina Sinclair prowled around the Marchioness of Lanarkshire, searching for imperfections in her new walking dress. But no bulging seams, crooked ribbons or misplaced beads had the temerity to offend her eye. The design was daringly innovative, but Julia, never less than forthcoming with her opinions, had yet to remark upon this particular one. And her silence was playing merry hell with Katrina’s frazzled nerves.
Had she gone too far? Got it completely wrong? No, she refused to entertain the possibility. Whenever fatigue threatened, excitement and resolve drove her on. If anyone could carry off her styles it was Julia, who set fashions rather than followed them.
Heartened by this thought, Katrina tilted her head, absorbed in the work she loved. Her nerves dissipated as Julia snapped out of her reverie, observed her reflection in the full-length glass and raised one brow in approval.
“A triumph, my dear.” She spoke casually, fiddling with an imaginary crease in the skirts as though her verdict was of no great consequence.
“Do you really think so?” Katrina let out the breath she’d been holding as she appraised her friend’s figure from every angle. “It’s almost right but still lacks something.” Her creative mind whirred with further possibilities. Mangling her lower lip between her teeth, she shook her head. “Oh, I do wish I could put my finger on exactly what it is. Perhaps a little more lace on the first flounce would help the skirts to swing more elegantly.”
“Oh, whatever you think necessary.” Julia waved away Katrina’s suggestion. “Don’t burden me with details. I’m not
nearly clever enough to understand them.”
Katrina laughed. “It’s me you’re talking to, Julia, so your pretence at foolishness won’t wash.”
“Blast! I was forgetting how easily you see through me.”
Satisfied her customer was content to remain still, Katrina continued to worry about the details. She had to get this exactly right. Her entire future depended upon it. Her circumstances were dire, but Julia Dupont possessed the power to change all that with a casual wave of one elegant hand. She could establish Katrina’s reputation as a modiste to society’s elite and save her from the mire of ever-increasing debt that had taken a stranglehold on her fledgling business.
Her landlord was fast running out of patience. He’d taken to calling to remind her of her obligations. The manner in which he slapped his fat lips together and ran his eyes inappropriately down the length of her body suggested there was more than one way for her to remain solvent. She shuddered. God forbid it should ever come to that.
She suppressed a sigh. All in all, what had once seemed like a modestly attainable ambition was starting to feel like wading through quicksand. She couldn’t carry on for much longer, existing upon nothing more than implacable determination and the good will of others.
But Julia could change all that simply by wearing some of her more pioneering designs and making sure they were remarked upon by the people who mattered. Lady Marshall’s ball would be the sparkling culmination to the most sought-after of the summer’s house parties. The Duchess of Southport was to attend, and invitations were eagerly anticipated by society’s elite.
Katrina had been delighted when Julia asked her to design her wardrobe for the entire week, including the gown she’d wear to the all-important ball. Katrina had recognised the opportunity for the lifeline it was, and set to work with her sketchpad. The ball gown in question needed to be daring enough to break the current fashion trends and remain in the memory of other grand ladies without seeming too outré. In other words, Katrina must convince even the stoutest of matrons that she too could shine like Julia if only she would condescend to wear one of Madame Sinclair’s designs.
Weariness seeped through her bones as she issued instructions to her two hovering assistants. Katrina couldn’t remember the last time she’d managed more than four hours’ sleep. But sleep was one of the many luxuries she could no longer afford. She frowned over the sample of apple-green batiste she held against the pale skin of her friend’s arm, expecting Julia to comment upon its suitability.
When she didn’t, Katrina nodded decisively, making up her mind for her. “Yes, I think it will do very well.”
She put the material aside and picked up a sketch of a pretty afternoon gown, scribbling a note to herself about alterations to the decorative details that would adorn its hem.
“I’m relieved you were able to keep your engagement today, Julia.” Katrina struggled to keep her tone non-accusatory, making no mention of the three previous appointments the marchioness had failed to honour. “There’s precious little time to complete your new wardrobe before Lady Marshall’s party, and I need to ensure that everything is absolutely perfect.”
“Oh fiddlesticks, Katrina, do stop fussing so. You always follow your own instincts anyway and don’t really need me here at all.”
Julia Dupont stepped down from the stool she’d been standing on and draped herself in a silk robe. She pranced restlessly round Katrina’s salon, pulling aside the colourful festoons of fabric draped in extravagant swathes from ceiling to floor. They were an artistic attempt to disguise the damp patches, peeling walls and lack of accoutrements one would expect to find in the premises of a modiste to the quality. Katrina was hugely discouraged to notice her friend wrinkle her nose as she let the fabric fall back into place. Her décor were supposed to be a visual display of her individuality, but if her best friend could see straight through it, then what hope did she realistically have of attracting the custom she aspired to?
Katrina squared her aching shoulders, refusing to allow insecurity to overcome her purpose. No matter what it took, she would succeed. Anything else was quite simply unthinkable.
“But I need your final decision on some of my ideas. You did promise to come last week,” Katrina chided gently. “And the week before that.”
“Oh, I got held up, there was no help for that. But I trust your judgement absolutely, darling. I’m sure that whatever you’ve achieved will be magnificent.”
Julia was clearly preoccupied. Her wardrobe was one of the few subjects guaranteed to engage her complete attention. Not so today. She played abstractedly with a bowl of dried lavender placed on a sideboard in a futile attempt to overcome the stench from the streets that permeated the salon. The pungent aroma of the herb wafted in the air, lingering as Julia allowed it to fall through her fingers like shifting grains of sand.
“But this is important.” Katrina spoke with a confidence that belied her quaking anxiety that Julia would still decide against her radical designs.
“We are of a similar size. Do what you’ve done before and fashion the garments to fit yourself.”
“But things were different then,” Katrina wailed.
“Nonsense, you’ve made a thousand things for me. I was your first victim.”
Katrina flashed a wry grin. “Yes, but you’re a marchioness now. That changes everything.”
“Oh, don’t remind me!”
“Julia,” Katrina said, frowning. “Is something amiss?”
“What, other than being married to that old goat?”
“But I thought you wanted to…that is to say…”
Katrina hesitated. In spite of the differences in their respective situations, she’d always been able to say absolutely anything to Julia without fear of giving offence. But her friend was now married to the Prince Regent’s favourite equerry, whilst Katrina was struggling to make a name for herself as a modiste, working from cheap premises at an unfashionable address. The tenor of their relationship had changed. Even with Julia’s patronage, and however remarkable Katrina’s skill as a dressmaker, it was unlikely that many of Julia’s peers would be persuaded to follow her to Basing Lane. The narrow alley in Cheapside was constantly rutted with mud and filth, always rife with the smell of the gutters and barely wide enough to accommodate even a modest carriage.
That was why this house party was so important. It was the first time since her marriage that Julia had asked her to fashion her wardrobe. And she’d placed no limit on the amount Katrina could spend on her creations. It was a heaven-sent opportunity to display her skill, and Katrina didn’t intend to squander it. She’d agonised over every tiny detail, working until her fingers bled as she put the final delicate touches to each garment.
“You thought that being a marchioness was the be-all and end-all as far as I was concerned.”
Katrina shook her head. “No, not that exactly.”
Julia smiled impudently, a flash of her old spirit briefly reflected in her eyes. “Yes, you did, there’s no need to deny it, especially as it’s no more than the truth. I turned down the luscious Leo Kincade in favour of Dupont, just so I could enjoy the privilege of his rank, to say nothing of his position at Court.” She swirled towards Katrina, grinning flamboyantly. “You thought I was shallow. Go on, Kat, admit it.”
“No, no, I didn’t.” Katrina hesitated and then returned her grin. “Yes, well perhaps I did wonder how you could prefer Dupont over Kincade. Your marquess might be fabulously wealthy but Lord Kincade isn’t exactly a pauper. What’s more, he’s a duke’s brother, devilishly handsome by all accounts, and, if even half of what you’ve told me is true, he adored the ground you walked on.”
“His brother is as strong as an ox and already has two healthy sons,” Julia said absently. “Kincade will never succeed to the duchy.”
“Don’t sound so shocked, darling. These things matter in society. Anyway, I got my comeuppance. Marry in haste, repent at leisure.” Julia smiled ruefully. “Dupont dazzled me with the splendours of Court and all the privileges attached to his position there whilst Kincade neglected me quite shamefully. He was always off all over the place doing secret work for the government, so he’d have me believe, but I always suspected there was another woman involved.”
“Surely not? How could he prefer anyone else over you?”
“You’re only saying that because I’m your friend and because you don’t understand the way men’s minds work.”
Katrina bridled. “I wouldn’t exactly say that.”
“You’re far too trusting for your own good.”
“Well, we are at war with the French, so Kincade’s absences are to be expected.”
“Yes, and it’s a damnable inconvenience. Men so enjoy their fights and us women are left at home with nothing to do except spend their money and fall out with each other.” Julia fell into a chair, looking thoroughly out of sorts with the world at large. “Anyway, I made my choice and it’s too late to repine now.”
Katrina rushed to her friend and took her hands in her own. “Oh, Julia, I had no idea you were so dissatisfied with your marriage. Give it time. It’s been less than a year, and you haven’t had the opportunity to adjust yet.”
“Did it take you a year to realise you’d made a mistake?”
Katrina felt her expression close down. “I had no choice in the matter.”
“Unlike me.” Julia pulled a face. “Sorry, darling, to remind you of that horrible time but it’s all behind you now. Anyway a year is more than enough time to discover the true nature of the man behind all that gallantry. Underneath it all he’s nothing more than a bully who wants to control absolutely everything I do.”
Katrina, mindful of the change in Julia’s status, didn’t quite know what to say. “Come and see the beautiful gown I’ve made for you to wear at Lady Marshall’s ball,” she urged, taking her friend’s hand and pulling her to her feet. She bit her lip as she did so, suddenly afraid that the gown wouldn’t find favour when Julia was in such an unsettled mood. Born into wealth and privilege, she was apt to change her mind on a whim with total disregard for the consequences. “You gave me carte blanche when it came to selecting a colour, and so I thought to try something a little…er, different.”
“Let me see it.” Julia appeared to take a genuine interest at last.
“I thought this deep shade of apricot would complement your hair,” she said tentatively, holding forth the dress for Julia’s inspection.
“And the black lace festoons would match my soul.”
“Oh, Julia, no, I didn’t at all mean to imply”
“Darling, it’s fabulous.” Julia fingered the sarsenet with genuine enthusiasm, a distant look in her eye. “So divinely different and, as you say, a perfect match for my hair.”
“Do you really like it? Because if you don’t, I can”
“It’s absolutely perfect. You’re a genius.”
Katrina let out a long breath. It was finishedshe and her two apprentices had worked long into the nights to ensure that. They’d sewn in the small workroom behind the salon until the candles burned down to nothing, the fire died, their eyes drooped and their fingers were so sore that they could no longer grasp a needle. But if Julia was satisfied with the outcome, then all their sacrifices had been worth it. “If you’d slip it on, we can adjust the length of those festoons whilst you’re here, and your maid can collect it tomorrow.”
All that was required now was an adjustment to the elaborate apricot-and-black ruffles adorning the hem, set with jet beads and tiny black pearls. Low-cut, the gown defied the current trend by sporting short sleeves. It was to be worn with gloves fashioned from sheer black lace that came over the elbow. A modest spray of black and apricot feathers in Julia’s hair would complete the ensemble.
Katrina was taking a risk in designing something so out of step with the rest of society, but Julia was one of the few ladies in London with the style, confidence and panache to carry it off. Besides, if she was to persuade other well-heeled ladies to overlook her humble address, then she needed to make her mark through sheer effrontery.
“No, you put it on, Kat.” Julia sounded almost regretful. “I want to see the effect.”
“But I’m a little taller than you. That’s why I couldn’t complete the length of the festoons.”
“Only by an inch or so.” Julia clapped her hands. “Come on now, anyone would think you were ashamed of your handiwork.”
Katrina grinned. “Oh, all right then.” She unfastened her plain muslin gown and slipped out of it. “Oh, Julia, if this gown works, you do realise what it could do for me, don’t you?”
“Of course I do, but it’s no more than you deserve. You’ll give that horrible Celestine a run for her money. It’s high time someone did.”
“Even I don’t aspire that high. Madame Celestine is established in Bond Street.” Katrina could hear the awe in her own voice. “She’s a living legend in the world of haute couture so I suppose she can afford to be moody if she wants to.”
“She’s a fraud.”
“Julia, how can you say that?”
“Very easily. Even duchesses must bend their knees to her before she’ll deign to design for them. The woman is a positive ogre. Recently she charged me triple for a gown I required at the last minute. And her original price was quite outlandish enough as it was.”
Katrina said nothing. To remind her friend that she would gladly have made the dress would be pointless. Diplomacy had never been Julia’s strong point.
“No, darling,” she continued blithely. “I’ve decided to make you my protégée. You shall be the next Celestine, and I shall bask in reflected glory.”
One of Katrina’s apprentices helped her into the gown.
“Thank you, Julia.” Katrina knew her friend meant what she said. Whether she would follow through was another matter entirely so Katrina refused to get her hopes up. “I just wish there was something I could do to repay you. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have got as far as I have.”
Julia stared at Katrina, unnerving her.
“What is it? What’s wrong with it? Is it too daring? Are the colours all wrong?”
“It’s simply sublime.” Julia dismissed the hovering apprentice with an impatient wave of her hand. “You don’t need to alter a thing.”
“But the festoons—”
“Are perfect for you.”
“Julia, are you feeling quite the thing? You’re the one who’ll be wearing this gown, not me.”
“Katrina,” she said slowly, fiddling abstractedly with the pretty tippet Katrina had been working on when her friend arrived. “Were you serious in your desire to do something for me?”
“Of course.” Katrina wrinkled her brow, wondering what was wrong with Julia. She’d never seen her like this before. “What an odd question. But what can I possibly do for you?”
“Well, you could attend Lady Marshall’s house party for me.”
No! Katrina’s heart sank. Julia was asking that she impersonate her. “Have you changed your mind about going? Does Dupont require you at Court with him instead?” She tried to sound as though it didn’t matter to her one way or another. As if her whole future didn’t rest upon Julia’s presence at Lady Marshall’s. “I thought you were quite excited by the prospect of it.”
“Yes, it will be diverting, I suppose, but I need a week to myself. I have something else I wish to do. Besides, I’m tired. I’ve been continuously on the go since my marriage and I need a rest.”
“Are you…” She glanced significantly in the direction of Julia’s stomach.
“Well then, tell Lady Marshall you’re indisposed and retire to your country estate for the week. No one will think the worse of you.”
“I could do that but then Dupont would probably wonder what I was about.”
Katrina frowned. “He isn’t attending the party with you?”
“No, he’s ensconced at Brighton with His Royal Highness. The prince is receiving a deputation from India and they’ll keep Dupont busy for at least a week.”
“He doesn’t need you there with him?”
“No, thank goodness, it’s all high-level, negotiations about tea quotas or something equally dull. But if Arthur thought I wasn’t going to Lady Marshall’s then he’d insist that I join him.”
“But, Julia,” Katrina said, panic welling up as she realised that her friend was actually serious. “How could I possibly pretend to be you and hope to get away with it?”
“We did it a hundred times when we were children. We look so alike that no one could tell us apart.”
“We played unkind tricks on your governess, it’s true.” Katrina grinned at the memory. “But we’re adults now. You’ve gone from being an earl’s daughter to a marquess’s wife, and I’ve progressed from steward’s daughter to struggling modiste.”
“You won’t be struggling for long. That gown and my patronage will secure your reputation.”
“Not if no one sees it.” Katrina immediately regretted the resentment in her tone. “What is it, Julia? What’s so important that you need a week alone to attend to it in secret?”
“Oh, pray don’t ask me such a question.” She flapped a hand. “I’ll be tempted to confide in you if you do, and that wouldn’t be fair.”
From which Katrina surmised the worst. Julia was already tired of her marriage and indulging in a clandestine affair. Arthur Dupont watched her like a hawk, even from afar, and Katrina didn’t see how she could hope to get away with it.
“We might look alike but I don’t know the first thing about being a marchioness.”
“Bah, of course you do! You’re a marchioness by nature and a fast learner to boot. Anything you don’t know you’ll soon pick up. You and I shared the same education but you were always a far more attentive student than me.”
“Your father was generous in allowing me to share the schoolroom with you, even if we did cause poor Miss Tipping almost to have the vapours, what with our pranks and always pretending to be each other.”
“Exactly. She couldn’t tell us apart and she saw us every day. You were even able to confuse her by laughing in the same manner as me. I remember you doing so to distract her when I wanted to dally with the gamekeeper’s son. You fooled her completely.” Julia’s smile didn’t come close to reaching her eyes. “Can you still laugh like that?”
Katrina could scarce believe what she was hearing. Julia was about to thwart all her ambitions, and expected her to laugh about it. “I gave up trying to be you a long time ago,” she said acerbically.
“Try, Kat. Just for me.”
“The last thing I feel like is laughing but, for you…” Katrina threw her head back and sideways in a fashion unique to Julia and let out a delicate peal of laughter.
“Perfect!” Julia cried, clapping her hands. “You still have it exactly.”
“Perhaps, but even so, no one will be fooled for long.”
“Nonsense, I know who’ll be at Lady Marshall’s and I haven’t seen any of them in an age.”
“You must have done. You mix with these people all the time.”
“If I’ve seen them, it’s only been in crowded places. No one has much time to notice other people at society events. Anyway, I’ll give you chapter and verse on all of them and you’ll be able to carry off the deception with ease.”
Katrina let out a short, nervous groan. “I really don’t think it will work. And if I’m found out, it will make terrible trouble for us both.”
“Not only did my father allow you to share Miss Tipping but he set you up in this business too,” Julia said peevishly. “How many men would do that for the daughter of a mere steward?”
“True and I’m indebted to him for that.” And determined to repay him as soon as she could. Katrina never intended to be reliant upon any man ever again.
“And I have managed to steer a few customers to your door already.”
“Please don’t think I’m ungrateful.”
“You aren’t behaving with much gratitude.” Julia tossed her head resentfully, immediately putting Katrina on her guard. When she behaved like that as a child, usually because she didn’t get her own way, it signalled an impending tantrum. “I ask you to do one small thing for me and you put up all sorts of silly objections.”
“You are serious about this, aren’t you?”
“Perfectly serious and I thought you’d jump at the chance. You’ll be able to relax for a week. Only think of that. You work far too hard and deserve some time off.”
“Yes, but I don’t see how I can”
“And at the house party you can talk to the other ladies about your fashion designs much more knowledgeably than I ever could.”
That, at least, was true. “Oh, Julia, you know I want to help, really I do, but how would we ever get away with it? For a start, I know nothing about your personal life with Dupont.”
“Nor does anyone else.” Julia shrugged. “No one would be ill-bred enough to ask you for intimate details, and as for the rest, well, just make it up. Talk about the prince. That will give the busybodies something to chew on.”
“I would need a maid.”
“Celia will come with you,” Julia said without hesitation.
Damn, Katrina thought she’d hit upon the perfect excuse but Julia was there before her. “Yes, but even so”
“She’s known you for as long as she’s known me, and we could trust her not to give you away.”
“What about your coachmen?”
“I’ve thought of that too.” As soon as Katrina abandoned her wholesale objections in favour of practical ones, Julia’s fit of pique gave way to good humour, as though Katrina had already agreed to the whole crazy scheme. “I shall be in the town house from now until it’s time to leave for the party next week. I’ll have my coachman bring me here to pick up some last-minute garment, we’ll swap clothes and places and you can go on with Celia.”
Katrina sighed. “You make it all sound so simple.”
“It is.” Julia glowered at her. “Tunbridge Wells is an easy day’s drive. The coach will stop just once to change horses at an inn, and a private parlour will have been reserved for me there. Or rather, for you.”
“Julia, I’m simply not you!” Katrina cried in anguish. “You were brought up to mix with the best of society. I know how to behave in their company, thanks to you and Miss Tipping, but that’s as far as it goes. I don’t have your extrovert personality for a start.”
“You’re not a flirt,” countered Julia, grinning. “Unlike me.”
“Well, yes, something like that.”
“There’s really nothing to it. Besides, I’m a married woman now, so if anyone remarks upon alterations in my conduct, that would account for it.”
“Aren’t women supposed to flirt more once they’re safely married?” Katrina asked gloomily.
“Since when have I ever conformed to anyone else’s expectations?”
“That’s true but still, I don’t know”
“If you’re sincere in your desire to repay me in some small way you could make it work.”
Katrina hardly considered her request to be a small one but refrained from saying so, aware that it would do her no good. “But we’re different heights,” she pointed out instead.
“Bah, you’re barely taller than me. Unless we’re standing side by side, no one will notice, and probably not even then.”
“Our hair’s a different colour.”
“Oh, Kat, do stop making difficulties where none exist.” Julia spread her hands, clearly irritated. Presumably Katrina was supposed to have capitulated far more easily—just as she had when they were children, always following Julia from one prank to the next. “Mine’s only slighter lighter. These people will never remember. Wear hats with veils if it so concerns you.”
It took another half hour of Julia’s persuasive charm, interspersed with pouting and thinly veiled threats about the withdrawal of her father’s patronage, before, full of misgivings, Katrina gave way. Just like she’d always done in the past when Julia required a favour.
Just like she’d always known she eventually would this time.