She’d be damned if the floors of Rutherford Park were better dressed than its mistress.
Susan beamed. “Now that Sir Richard isn’t holding the purse strings, you can order whatever you wish. You’re a duchess!”
“I suppose,” Mia said. She had never really bothered about clothes before. Charlie didn’t care what she looked like, and she hadn’t wished to spill ink on expensive fabrics. Ever since the season in which she debuted—only to be roundly ignored by all eligible young men—she had lived quietly at home, occasionally attending local assemblies, but rarely venturing to London, and never into high society.
But she felt shaken by Nottle’s contempt. She had a shrewd feeling that her wardrobe had something to do with his attitude, though her father’s relationship with the late duchess likely lay at the heart of the problem.
Susan veered back to the topic of the butler. “It was terribly ill-bred of Mr. Nottle to oblige the grooms to talk about His Grace’s fisticuffs with Sir Richard. Mr. Gaunt would never allow such gossip. Mind you, Mr. Gaunt had a way of making his feelings known: he never cared for the way Master Charles Wallace’s mother used to shudder if she caught sight of him. But he wouldn’t say anything aloud.”
That particular memory confirmed Mia’s impulsive decision to get rid of Nottle. Poor Charlie had put up with disdain from his mother; he needn’t face the same from the butler.
“Last night Nottle said at the supper table that Master Charles had a flipper instead of a foot,” Susan said, both hands on her hips now. “I said as how he was utterly wrong about that, and he told me to shut my mouth.”
Mia felt as if there wasn’t enough air in the room. It wasn’t merely the confrontation with Nottle; it was all too overwhelming. “Susan,” she said desperately, “I cannot stay married to the duke.”
Her maid plopped down on the bed. “Why not? He’s a fine figure of a man, and the household likes him. That says a good deal. And now you’re a duchess.”
“I don’t want to be a duchess! I never did.”
Susan scoffed at that. “That’s like saying you hate diamonds. Only a witless woman would say that she doesn’t want to be a duchess. You can have all the gowns you want.”
“All the books you want,” Susan added. “And the young master can have a tutor again.”
“His Grace thinks I’m dumpy,” Mia said, coming out with the truth of it. “And fat.”
Susan’s brows drew together. “How do you know?”
“He thought I was carrying a child.”
“I was able to disabuse him of his error,” Mia said miserably. “But I dislike the idea of being married to him. He’s too handsome, Susan. There’s a disbalance between us that cannot lead to a happy marriage.”
“Were you wearing the blue merino when he said that? It does bunch up under the bosom. I’ve always said that Mrs. Rackerty down in the village should keep to her garden.” She hesitated, and added, “I noticed that he didn’t visit your bed last night, though it was your wedding night.”
Of course she’d noticed. Servants saw everything. “We’ve decided to put the business of making an heir off for a good period of time. Years, most likely.”
“You are not fat,” Susan stated firmly. “You have lovely curves. We shall have to prove him wrong.”
“Dumpy is another word for short. I’ll be known as the Dumpy Duchess.”
“It’s a possibility.”
“You think so?” Mia was actually a little hurt. Susan had been her maid—and, in practical terms, her only female friend—for three years.
Susan pulled Mia until she was standing before the glass. “Your dress goes up to your collarbone,” she pointed out.
Mia nodded. “I like it that way.”
“And these extra ruffles at the shoulders do you no good.”
“I need them.”
“To balance my breasts. They’re too large.”
Susan’s eyebrow shot up. “Is that why you always want ruffles?”
“So would you if you were short and had cabbages in front. You’re a full head taller than I am, Susan, and you have no idea what it’s like to be my size.”
“I would love to be your size. Particularly in front.” She plucked at her bodice. “Look at me. I have almost nothing here.”
“Apple dumplings, not cabbages.”
“What? Why are you talking about food?”
“I don’t like to draw attention to my bosom. I’m too short for dresses that catch up under the breasts. They’re made for ladies with long legs, while on me, they billow out and make it appear that I’m carrying a child.”
“Your legs are nicely shaped,” Susan said. “As are your ankles. I think we should order a scandalously short gown with almost no fabric in the bosom.”
Mia rolled her eyes.
“You are married now. You have to dress like a duchess: à la mode, not behind by two years.” She plucked at the ruffle. “Or ten.”
“It will make no difference.”
“Costly gowns make all the difference. We could leave for London tomorrow.”
Susan nodded vigorously. “In order to visit a modiste. You know my sister Peg is in service with Lady Brandle. When I visited Peg last month, we discussed every modiste in the city of London, and I know precisely whom we should see.”
“I can’t. My novel—”
“Your husband neglected you on your wedding night,” Susan said, her voice sharp. “No woman should stand for that. We’ll transform you into a woman so exquisite that the duke will beg for entry to your chamber.”
Mia liked the idea, though she didn’t believe it possible. “I can’t go to London. You know Charlie doesn’t like to travel, and I am certainly not leaving him alone in a strange house while I gad about to buy some new ribbons.”
“You need more than ribbons!” Susan cried.
“I thought I might go for a ride,” Mia said, changing the subject. “Do you happen to know whether Lancelot was delivered last night? I’m not hungry for breakfast.”
“Yes, he did,” Susan confirmed, “which reminds me, you need a new riding habit as well.”
Mia nodded, painfully aware that her habit had apparently shrunk, as the fabric was straining at the brass buttons that ran down her front, which lent even more emphasis to that area.
“Now that you are no longer plain Miss Carrington,” Susan said thoughtfully, “you might be able to summon a modiste to Rutherford Park.”
“They would come here, to the country?”
“We shall offer double.”
Susan put her hands on her hips. “My lady, your husband did not even attempt to join you in bed last night, did he?”
Mia frowned at her. “Must we go around and around on the same topic?”
“The right gown will make you irresistible,” Susan promised.
In Mia’s expert opinion—as a novelist who had crafted three Cinderella transformations—that was as improbable as snow in July. But she couldn’t help it. A germ of hope sprang up in her heart.