Disclaimer: The characters, contexts and plots of Black Sheep completely belong to the peerless Georgette Heyer.
Though Miss Fanny Wendover was not a young lady given to shy or retiring moods, her natural inclination being towards a sunnier disposition that lent her an infectious air of charm and vivacity, her first London season had, by incremental degrees, rubbed upon her confidence in a way that, two months after her curtsey, a gentleman engaged to dance with her at Almack's could presume to think of her as one of the wallflower sort without being accused of doing her person a great injustice. A combination of factors had intruded upon her self-esteem, the chief of these being the wearying atmosphere of her residence, which was at her Uncle James's house situated in Grosvenor Street. Being a good deal too nice to allow herself childishly to divulge the petty annoyances that accumulated every day by dint of being required to endure her Aunt Cornelia's disapproving company, she found these little anxieties and sorrows collected in her chest: without a vent they emotionally taxed her a great deal, making her too listless to attend to the niceties of the haut ton with her usual degree of contented nonchalance. She could not engage to flirt, as was fashionable, with the various young men she encountered at dinner parties and fêtes when she felt sombre and unhappy with her aunt's incessant nagging. The presence of her cousins was no balm to her frayed nerves, even though they were close to her in age: Albinia was a snobbish creature, inclined to be haughty towards her Bath-miss younger relative; and Alfred was a brusque young buck, the apple of his mother's eye, immediately forgiven even if he stumbled back inebriated in the small hours of morning and picked a fight with a footman (under the impression that the rogue was taking his fob, while the hapless man was only attempting to haul him into the entrance hallway). Aunt Selina was still in Bath and while she wrote every fortnight to inform her brother and her niece of her imminent arrival, Fanny had been led to conclude that these letters contained no promise of definite travel plans as they had not of yet been followed by the correspondent. As for her favourite aunt, her dear Aunt Abby was now mistress of Danescourt, with more pressing concerns than her niece's début; and of course allowance must be made for the fact that she was in a delicate way. With a little Calverleigh cousin soon to grace the world, Fanny's scruples could not countenance disturbing her aunt, so she resigned herself to becoming a little withdrawn without many stirrings of self-pity.
Unaccustomed to thinking the worst of people, even after the infamous Stacy Affair last year, Fanny could not know that her behaviour was at odds with what was expected of a debutante and that in reality her subdued personality significantly injured her chances of making a successful début, much less a sensational one. She did not place great importance on arriving in the capital to cut a dash; she felt she had experienced enough of the social whirl in Bath and as her extroverted conduct there had led her to almost wholly compromise her principles, she was a little frightened to throw caution to the wind in such a manner again and was entirely content to be somewhat quieter in London. A caring chaperone might have taken her aside for a small chat, to soothe her qualms and to encourage her to loosen her reservations, but she had not the benefit of such a guardian: Mrs Cornelia Wendover was very happy to have Fanny shun the spotlight. Her Albinia was regretfully horse-faced and before the advent of the season she had been strongly against taking her niece in, as the two girls standing together could only cast her daughter in a disadvantageous light. But it had all ended very well, as Albinia, the veteran of two years in high society, had introduced her cousin so dismissively and in such a high-handed manner that even the men most intrigued with her beautiful face and attractive figure had soon decided her personality was colourless and dull. Fanny, without an inkling of what the wider world thought of her, was not much troubled by her apparent failure to captivate eligible bachelors. She attributed it to the plethora of young ladies more beautiful and more accomplished than she could ever hope to be; some of them had titled fathers, and she was only the orphaned daughter of a respectable but undistinguished family; and as for her fortune—pooh! There must be a dozen ladies with dowries and inheritances many times the size of hers. One glance at such illustrious luminaries as the delightfully effervescent Viscountess Sheringham and the incomparably beautiful Lady Charlbury taught Fanny all she needed against presumption. She was quite heedless that her face possessed the unique quality of communicating a pleasantly listening temperament and that her smile was something special in its own right. Her humility and modesty might be congratulated, if anyone were perceptive enough to observe it and if anyone were prudish and silly enough to applaud an attitude quickly becoming detrimental to her odds of future felicity.
Friends from Bath could have detected the change in Fanny's spirit, but these persons were few and far between in London, and they were largely preoccupied with their own circumstances. Mrs Grayshott, though certainly aware of her young friend's melancholy, knew just as well that she would find no receptive ear in her chaperone-aunt; desiring to not make the matter worse if she could not make it better, she resolved to say nothing at all, though some evenings she regarded Miss Wendover with a troubled expression indeed. The début of her daughter confined her unease to these long glances from across a drawing room; as she was not labouring under similar misgivings as her friend Fanny's, Lavinia Grayshott had gladly thrown herself into the parties and balls of the season. Proper sensibility and affectionate attachment had not separated the two best friends, but as Fanny was not at all selfish, and reassured Lavinia that she did not mind hearing about day trips and shopping expeditions she herself had not been invited to, their rapport had not suffered. Occasionally Lavinia regretted that she was not enjoying London with Fanny as her ever-present companion—especially after all the plans they had made together last year!—but the giddy excitement of exhilarated adolescence soon submerged her pangs of conscience. She attributed her friend's reticence to the unfortunate entanglement involving Stacy Calverleigh: a loyal creature, she sincerely and fervently hoped that Fanny would speedily recover from the wound to her heart, but did not stretch her solicitude too much further than that. Thus, it was in this context that at Lady Sefton's ball, Lavinia soon took her leave of her seat by Fanny near the edge of the dancing floor to form a part of the set for a country dance with only a warm smile cast over her shoulder at her friend, who had refused a similar entreaty to gratify a potential partner. Such a look would have been thought the height of callousness if it had transpired in Bath the previous year, but they were in London now and, for better or for worse, many aspects of their lives had changed.
Such lofty reflections, however, did not feature in Fanny's thoughts as she regarded the elegantly dressed dancers with a small smile that was more complaisant than wistful. She was admiring her friend Lavinia's dress, which was creamy mull muslin shot with bronze threads, as well as many of the other gowns she saw twirling about the ballroom. Her own raiment was not shabby even in such superior company: her Aunt Abby, with a veritable flood of advice from Aunt Selina in mind, had escorted her to all the best London modistes before her departure to her husband's estate and so she could début for the occasion an exceptionally fetching evening dress of dove blue crêpe with ruffs of frothy lace, worn over a pearly white satin slip, with snowy kid gloves. She was pleased with her looks but did not refine much upon this topic beyond the bounds of her uncle's house. Therefore, the effect of her striking presence was rather lost on her; she took much more pleasure in viewing everyone else's clothes, with a rather unfortunate consequence. Enchanted with her loveliness, many gentlemen were on the verge of approaching her, but upon venturing into her vicinity perceived her resolutely non-romantic air and the abstracted gleam in her eyes and presently recalled that this Miss Wendover had a reputation for being dreary and tedious. They shortly found other partners and gave not another thought to Miss Fanny, who was thankfully oblivious to her predicament. Yet perhaps she was a little too unmindful of her situation, for she had the ill luck to recognise the approach of another young lady she would have rather avoided just when it was too late to pretend to be wandering off in search of a glass of ratafia.
The Honourable Eleanor Baker Holroyd was an intimate friend of Miss Albinia Wendover's and this young lady was, unluckily for Fanny, possessed of a philanthropic and overbearing outlook that was constantly searching for misfortunes she could enlighten with her superior education and wisdom. As a result she was in the habit of seeking out 'projects' that she could very merrily leave in a worse off state than how she had found them, proclaiming at the end of her endeavours that she had done everyone a good turn indeed. When she had been introduced to Albinia's young cousin from Bath, Fanny had not sensed any danger but her opinion had swiftly altered when Miss Baker Holroyd had surveyed her from head to toe and declared, 'Well! I can see my touch shall be required here!' Any gentle resistance utterly failed to penetrate Miss Baker Holroyd's impervious demeanour and, not wishing to make a scene, Fanny had simply taken to avoiding the lady. In the few instances that she had been too slow to make her escape, Eleanor's domineering and bossy monologues had been inescapable; as the night was still young, she had no wish to endure a few more hours of incessant and unwanted counsel. These encounters were always humorous after they had occurred, but as Eleanor called, 'Fanny! My dear Fanny!' as she advanced, the quarry could not fail to feel a sense of encroaching doom this time.
'Miss Baker Holroyd,' she said a little helplessly when the lady finally stood in front of her, 'how are you this evening?'
'Very well,' was the answer, 'but I do wonder why you have chosen this hue for your gown tonight! It is too drab, my dear! As a debutante you must present a gayer aspect. Why, when I was in my first season, I was always out and about in pastels and bright colours. Jewel tones will not do, however; I know what you are thinking; only older ladies wear such tints. You have not the familiarity with society yet, Fanny, which I can clearly see from the fact that you are not dancing. Here, now, you must not be shy—unless you do not know many of the gentlemen here? I daresay you have no idea who is eligible and who is not to be seen with! Well, my dear, you leave it to me; I can always be counted upon to secure an introduction…' Listening to this demonstration of insight with an increasingly glazed frame of mind, she was jerked back to alertness when Eleanor grabbed her elbow. 'Why, look!—' she hissed elatedly in the younger lady's ear. 'My presence has undoubtedly been enough to communicate to the most worthy suitors that you are no miss to be trifled with, my dear Fanny! Here comes Mr Grayshott, a most suitable gentleman! You do not know, I am sure, but he is said to be fabulously rich, with an uncle in India who quite dotes upon him and his family. Stand straighter, my dear; it is a pity you are not in better looks tonight!'
Torn between exasperation and amusement, Fanny had no time to dwell on the flutter of her heart that had accompanied Eleanor's warning of Oliver's nearing. The two ladies curtseyed and the gentleman bowed; Miss Baker Holroyd was about to open her mouth when he held out his hand towards Miss Wendover, with a smile that made her breath catch: 'Care to dance, Fanny?'
Blushing slightly, she gave him her hand, and let him lead her to the next set. He cast one glance behind them, at the flabbergasted Eleanor, with a wry set to his mouth that prompted a giggle from her. She was about to say something in her usual manner to Oliver, but the eyes of many young women, as well as the assessing stares of many matrons, made her faintly shy and she fairly forgot what it was she had been about to say. Instead, she admired the cut of his coat, how it set his broad shoulders and imposing height to considerable advantage, and so in the next moment stood opposite him without having said a word. His face showed nothing but kindliness and consideration but she fancied, in her self-recrimination, that he looked a little bored, and she roundly abused herself for her dumbness.
The musicians began to play and there was then no opportunity to extend her temporary spell of glumness. She loved dancing and the exercise was enough to banish her newfound sobriety; when the set ended she was flushed and exultant, and gladly took Oliver's arm when he offered to procure her refreshment. 'Thank you!' she exclaimed, sounding much like the young lady who had captivated Bath along with her fashionable and esteemed aunts. 'I did not know you would be attending the ball, Oliver, but I am glad that you have come!' To which he returned her sentiment with a fleeting but heartfelt press of his hand against hers. 'I did not think I was going to be here tonight,' he admitted. 'As you know, I have been much detained by matters of business in the City. This is a welcome respite and I am always glad to see you, Fanny.'
A debutante, standing by the side, with her eyes trained on Mr Grayshott's profile, blanched to hear the couple's mutual usage of Christian names, and declared to her equally shocked friend standing to her left, in a low voice and in strongly offended accents, that she did not know Miss Fanny Wendover was such an appalling flirt!
Ignorant of this indictment, Fanny looked up into Oliver's face and gave a small smile. 'Oh? Matters of business? Is it to do with your uncle's company?' The pause this inquiry elicited instantly made her cheeks redden. She had been so used to standing on no ceremony with him in Bath that she almost mechanically fell back into the habit, despite the so dissimilar context. Since the deplorably shameful events of last year she had been in his company often enough, and with such absence of formality, that she fancied they had an interminable understanding. But they had not met for some months after this heightened companionship, when the Grayshotts had departed for Hampshire to set about buying a country estate, and then they had been a month later still coming to London for Lavinia's début. The sister she often saw, but the brother was so often busy that she was rather taken aback by her own familiarity and offered an awkward apology.
He seemed startled and raised his eyebrows. 'Oh no, Fanny, don't! I should be the sorry one; I didn't mean to upset you. I was just deliberating because, well, it's not company business exactly but it is to do with my uncle—you should find out soon enough. He has impressed on me that he means to keep this, ah, transaction hushed up for as long as possible. But I shall give you a hint: my mother may soon have the honour of presenting an addition to our society.' This enigmatic declaration was sufficiently winning as to prompt a teasing guessing game for the next few minutes. They danced once more during the night once enough sets had passed to satisfy all notions of propriety, and as Oliver introduced her to a few entertaining friends of his who had until then never seen Miss Fanny so lively and charming, she could truthfully mumble, when she tumbled into bed that night, that she had passed an exquisite evening without a doubt. She happily reflected that she could nod off composing a joyful letter to Aunt Abby, but it was kind hazel eyes, broad shoulders and a compassionate smile that she dreamed of.
Note: Including this chapter, I'm guessing the story should be told in four or five parts. I would like to acknowledge inspiration where it is due; in this case I am in TheImaginationAddict's debt, for showing me that Heyer fanfic is possible. Also, the great author herself deserves some mention, for her ability to breathe as much life into her secondary characters as her main ones, while using only a tenth of the words.