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The Duke of Ashton is ordering hats for his niece. Trust him to find a way to turn even this simple task into an embarrassing moment for miss Beatrice Devon, the governess.
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The following day proved to be quite exhausting, but Beatrice was determined to show her gratitude to the duke, so she allowed him to guide both her and his niece in whatever purchases it was expected of them to make without once laughing in her sleeve.
Adelina dragged her from milliner to mantua-maker mercilessly, the duke awaiting them on his stylish phaeton, a bored smile frozen on his lips. Finally, burdened by hat-boxes and trailing behind them a million orders of crumpled silks, kid gloves and pelisses trimmed with fur, they arrived at the doorstep of Madame Fleur’s elegant establishment.
At this point his grace dismounted and, tossing the reins to his tiger, proceeded to enter the shop with Miss Devon and Adelina as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
Madame Fleur, to her credit, betrayed neither by look nor by word how well she knew him from his frequent visits to her shop with his various paramours, and asked politely, if a bit haughtily, in what she might seem useful. Adelina, in the manner in which she had been instructed many a time by Miss Devon, eagerly proceeded to explain that they needed as many as possible ready-made gowns, for they were to leave on a journey in two days, so there was no time to order brand-new designs. Madame graciously replied that she would see what could be done, while calculating in her mind the additional charges she could pull off, knowing as she did how easily the duke’s well-lined pocket could afford her outrageous prices.
The duke scarcely spoke a word while these proceedings took place, and waited patiently while Adelina, under the guidance of her chaperone, ordered gown after gown in excellent taste, two with a sprinkling of lace, two with a trim of warm brown fur, a few sprig muslins and a couple of house garments, and many frothy, white ball-gowns for her coming out. More dresses were added to these, the entire shop twirling along in a flurry of silks and taffeta and crinoline, as Adelina was rushed to the changing-room to model the designs for her chaperone and her uncle. At last a couple of elegant wool and fur-trimmed coats were added along with five pelisses, and Adelina announced herself almost satisfied.
Rosy-cheeked and excited almost to the tether of her recently-acquired good manners, she then turned to step outside, intending to leave his grace to deal with the long bill she had amassed, but he stayed her with a hand on her arm and stepped forward.
“Madame Fleur, is it?” he asked, shamelessly, and Beatrice, all too aware of the probability of his many previous visits to the shop –for Madame Fleur’s establishment was known to carry the most exquisite and extravagant designs for young ladies to be found anywhere in Town, and indeed every lady of Quality patronized it steadily- suppressed a smile.
His grace sent a frosty glance in her direction.
“At your service, your grace,” Madame said, drawing her tall and rather sturdy, but quite elegantly attired, figure up.
The duke then proceeded to choose seven gowns single-handedly from her exclusive collection in less than five minutes, and presented them to her, like an artist at work.
“You will add these to the bill, if you please,” he told her curtly. “No alterations will be needed to the muslin and cotton one, but the rest will need to be taken in severely, as you can see by the slim figure of my governess.”
By this time, that said governess’ cheeks were aflame, and she wanted the floor to open up and swallow her.
“I am not your governess!” she whispered hotly to herself.
“I beg your pardon?” the duke turned to her in an infuriatingly calm manner. “Did you speak, child?”
“If you please, your grace,” she said, trying to curb her temper, “the first two gowns would be more than sufficient. I thank you for your generosity, and you’ll be certain, I hope, to take their price out of my next paycheck. And my figure,” she added in quieter tones, meant only for his ears, “is none of your business!”
The duke regarded her seriously for a moment, before his eyes turned to ice again. “Very well,” he said to Madame Fleur. “Do as she wishes,” and he tossed his purse indifferently to Beatrice, taking Adelina’s elbow and guiding her out of the shop in the early afternoon sunshine.
Miss Devon, left alone to arrange for the delivery and payment, cringed under the austere glance of the matron, who now, as a matter of course, must be considering her a cheap addition to his grace’s conquests. Indeed, she made no concealment of her disapproval and went so far as to tell Miss Devon, in no uncertain terms, that her presence in her shop would be scarcely tolerated again. Beatrice hung her head low and accepted the false charges, finding no reason to argue with the vulgar woman, and went out of the shop with a splitting headache.
“Stupid girl!” a voice from the past screams in her ear. “You have no morals. You only get what you deserve, don’t you know? It’s no one’s fault but your own…”
The duke drove them home as the shadows began to lengthen all around, but for once the feel of the breeze against her hot cheeks did nothing to soothe her. She kept silent under the constant chatter of an over-excited Adelina.