"You think it would be a good idea to go to this house party, then?" Dorothy half turned to include her mother in the conversation.
Caroline retrieved the drinks tray and brought it to the table beside Mrs. Frogerton.
"Yes, indeed. My aunt is an excellent hostess. There will be many opportunities for riding, taking the air, visiting the village, and of course, the ball to celebrate my cousin Mabel's birthday will be magnificent."
"There is to be a ball?" Dorothy immediately perked up.
"Yes, they have an excellent-sized ballroom at Greenwood Hall." Caroline remembered dancing there very well—the excitement of new partners, a new ballgown, the whisper of promise that one night—maybe that night—she would meet the man of her dreams.... "You could wear the dress Madame Julie delivered today."
"Or I could get a new one." Dorothy looked at her mother. "Something more suitable to wear to her ladyship's party."
"I would not worry about being too formal," Caroline hastened to say. "Balls are usually less...showy in the countryside, and one would not wish to stand out."
"Why ever not?" Dorothy frowned. "I would much prefer to be noticed than ignored."
Caroline turned desperately to her employer, who was listening intently, a smile lingering on her face as she regarded her daughter. She was of a similar age to Caroline's own deceased mother, having married young and produced her two children before the age of twenty.
"The ball gown that was just delivered will be more than adequate for your daughter's needs, ma'am, and, in truth, we do not have time for the dressmaker to sew a completely new outfit. The invitation is for the upcoming weekend."
"So it is!" Mrs. Frogerton rose to her feet and hurried over to her desk. "I must reply to it at once and get a footman to take our acceptance to Lady Eleanor immediately!"
"I will take the letter for you if you wish, ma'am," Caroline offered. "I haven't been out today, and I'm sure some of the dogs would relish an evening walk."
"I have no objection to you taking the note yourself, dearie," Mrs. Frogerton said. "As long as you eat your dinner before you go."
"Yes, of course, ma'am." Caroline curtsied and turned back to the door leaving the two women excitedly planning for the trip ahead.
Later as she walked down Half Moon Street with four reluctant dogs trailing at her heels, she had something of a headache. Attempting to curb Dorothy's excesses without offending her or her mother took a set of skills only acquired by years of diplomacy—skills Caroline had not yet acquired, or even realized she might ever need. There was also the matter that Dorothy clearly viewed her as inferior and her lowering suspicion that even when her advice was excellent, it would still be ignored.
Caroline sighed as she mounted the steps of her aunt's town house and rang the bell. It took quite a while for the elderly butler to answer the door. His smile when he saw her was something of a balm to her fractured sensibilities.
"Good evening, Mr. Woodford."
"Lady Caroline! What a nice surprise." He held open the door. "Are you coming in, miss? Her ladyship didn't mention you would be traveling back with us."
"I'm not." Caroline indicated the dogs and proffered the sealed note. "I just came to drop this off before she leaves."
"Oh, that's a shame, miss." The butler's face fell. "We all miss you at the hall."
"I miss you, too." Caroline found a smile somewhere. "Please tell my sister that I will be attending Mabel's birthday celebrations."
"We will all look forward to that." Mr. Woodford took the letter. "Miss Susan will be thrilled."
Caroline walked down the steps and paused to look back at the house she had so recently inhabited. The windows were lit up and she could see her aunt upstairs in her bedchamber getting ready to go out. Her uncle was probably in his study reading and smoking his pipe.
If she ran back up the steps, hammered on the door, and begged her aunt to let her stay, she was fairly certain her wish would be granted, but where would that leave her? Forever trapped in a mesh of family obligation and gratitude that she might never escape, her opinions, her opportunities, her very sense of self gone forever.
The shock of her father's death and the ghastly reveal of his lack of fortune and mountain of debts had ripped away any sense of security and safety Caroline had ever had. Her father had even managed to get around the legal implications and plundered the funds left to her and Susan by their mother for their doweries, leaving them penniless and at the mercy of their relatives.
Her aunt expected eternal gratitude for her benevolence, but all Caroline had left was a slow-burning anger that seemed impossible to extinguish. She bent to untangle the dogs' leads and turned her back on the house. She had lost everything and everyone she cared for except Susan, and she would do anything in her power to make certain that her sister never suffered a similar fate.