“Right foot backward, left foot left, right foot left, left foot forward…
Phillipa’s eyes continued to dart from side to side, following Lady Josephine’s every move. Her lips were just as busy, muttering whispers of each step her Lady took, further imprinting them in her memory.
She would practice later, as always. In the large room—well, large for servants—she shared with her mother, where no one would see her.
It was a secret she held dear to her heart, you see, her passion for dancing. For Phillipa dreamed dreams that someone of her lowly birth and status had no business dreaming. Dreams that would cause anyone who heard of them to laugh out loud, and prod her to awaken to reality.
She heaved a small sigh as she curled up to the wall she’d been hiding behind.
Twirling around a ballroom, ceilings lit with a million dazzling colors from a chandelier. Herself, adorned in the most gorgeous ball gown, and her arms, around that of a faceless, but certainly handsome, gentleman.
Another sigh escaped her lips. It was every little girl’s wish, no? Only for her, it was an impossibility. She was the daughter of a Lady’s maid. And would grow up to be a Lady’s maid, herself.
She would never get the chance to attend a ball or dance with a handsome gentleman. She would never get her one night in paradise.
So, of what use was it to keep polishing her innate gift when she’d never get to use it? Not truly, not in the way that mattered.
Yet, she could contest the temptation to keep doing so, no more than she could stop her heart from pumping blood, or her body from needing food.
Hence, when that voice whispered in her ears again, urging her to steal one more look, Phillipa didn’t resist. She leaned forward, if only a little, just enough to poke her head from behind the wall, and there her Lady was, curtsying to Mr. Carlisle, the instructor who was in turn bowing to Lady Josephine.
Phillipa’s heart dropped in disappointment. She’d gotten carried away and missed the end of the dance, again.
However, remembering that she’d learned more today than she’d hoped for, her mood brightened almost instantly.
Eager to sway her body to the rhythm in her heart, she turned around and began to skip all the way to her bedchamber.
Once there, she opened the door slowly, tiptoed inside, and just as quietly shut it behind her.
As the room was poorly lit, thanks to the curtain her mother had drawn close, Phillipa didn’t bother to affirm if she was well and truly alone, before settling to practice the waltz.
First, she filled her lungs with air, causing her chest to rise. Then, curving her right arm over her left, she raised her chin as though in defiance and began to move.
“Right foot backward, left foot left, right foot left, left foot forward…
Phillipa’s eyes fleeted close, and suddenly, as though by a stroke of magic, her life began to transform around her.
The bedchamber she shared with her mother widened into the grandest of halls, the small bedside lamp lifted in the air until it was hanging from the ceiling, now a chandelier expressing millions of colored lights.
Phillipa felt herself growing bigger, taller, until her twelve-year-old frame was now that of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood. And where air flirted in her arms, there now stood a solid, warm body.
She opened her eyes then, and there he was, her handsome gentleman. Smiling down at her as though she was all he could see, the only thing that mattered in the entire world.
Phillipa took a moment to gaze upon herself, and that was when she realized that she was no longer in her maid’s habit. Ah no, she was adorned in the most stunning ballgown, its color that of the sun.
Her heart swelled in her chest as realization dawned, a gasp escaping her lips. This, it was her dream come true.
Lips stretched further, widening in a grin that made her cheeks hurt, even as awe enveloped her entire being, but Phillipa couldn’t care less.
Solely focused on this new, magical world around her, she gave in to the lovely music from the orchestra and danced her heart out.
She followed every beat, never missing a turn; arched in tens of dips, and flawlessly executed countless spins; earning both cheers and applause from the crowd that now surrounded herself and her partner, watching their every move with evident glee.
It was the most magnificent moment she could have ever imagined.
As the dance came to an end, and as she curtsied, her chest tided and crested in a bid to restore her breath.
Joy hummed in her veins, exhilaration numbed the ache in her feet. She felt…glorious, alive!
Until someone started to clap. And just as suddenly as before, the ballroom around her began to crumble.
Her beautiful sundress turned to dust as she grew shorter, the chandelier returned to its original form, settling on the table by her bedside.
And finally, her handsome gentleman simply...vanished. Once more, she was simply Phillipa, the twelve-year-old maid, in the large bedchamber she shared with her mother.
Realizing what had just happened, Phillipa dropped her head to her chest with an exaggerated sigh. Then, she turned in the direction from which the applause had come.
Her eyes had adjusted to the dimness of the room by now, and that was how she was able to finally see her mother’s petite frame resting against the bath screen, lips curved in a smile that only beaconed pride.
“You’ve gotten better, Pumpkin!” Her mother chimed. Her soft alto echoing her thrill. “The way you moved, you were the wind itself! You were magic!”
Suddenly feeling an overwhelming urge to cover her face in mortification, despite the happiness at her mother’s approval exploding in her chest, Phillipa cried, “Mama! I didn’t know you were here!”
She’d been caught getting lost in her fantasy world, yet again. And while she knew that her mother was the only person who knew of her dreams, and didn’t think it silly, but in fact, supported her, Phillipa still felt shy over having shared with a spectator, what she’d believed was a private moment.
“That’s because you never cared to look. I didn’t even bother to be quiet, you just never noticed me,” her mother said with a smile, her head falling slightly to the side to touch her raised shoulder,
“I know,” Phillipa responded, her head still lowered as she walked to sit on her bed.
Silence reigned in the room, save for the soft footfalls that signaled her mother’s approach. Soon, Phillipa’s mother was standing before her daughter, fitting Phillipa’s chin into her palm.
“You know there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Pumpkin, do you not?”
Phillipa still couldn’t bring herself to hold her mother’s gaze, so she simply muttered. “I’d like to think so, mother. But everyone says it’s silly that I love dancing so much. They believe I’d be better off spending my time doing more profitable things like learning how to serve Lady Josephine better. Which reminds me, her German class is bound to be over soon, and her Lady shall soon have use for me.”
Even though Phillipa wasn’t looking at the woman who’d given her life, and raised her with love, she knew her mother had a soft, tender smile on her face.
The very one that always made Phillipa’s heart ache whilst filling her chest with warmth.
“Lady Josephine would have you join all her classes,” her mother pointed out.
“I’m aware,” Phillipa responded. Lady Josephine had always considered Phillipa a friend, seeing as they’d been born days apart and had grown up together. “However, you always teach me never to forget my place.”
“It is not impetuousness if your Ladyship allows, and even demands it. In any case,” her mother moved to sit by Phillipa on the bed, causing the mattress to sink beneath them.
When she heard her mother’s soft chuckle, Phillipa couldn’t help herself, either. It was a quiet joke between them. How strong her mother truly was, even though she often appeared so frail.
Clearing her throat as she recovered, Phillipa’s mother continued, “In any case, what I meant to say was that Lady Josephine always has use of you, or put more precisely, she always desires your companionship. I think there’s very little you could do to wrong her young ladyship.”
Phillipa’s mother shifted in her seat, drawing closer to her child. “As for the matter of your dream, I shall tell you again as I always have. There is nothing silly about wanting to dance at a ball someday, Pumpkin. Nothing at all.”
Phillipa managed to raise her head then, if only a little, her voice soft. “But only noble ladies dress in lovely gowns and attend countless balls. I’m no noble lady, just the daughter of a foreman and a Lady’s maid.”
Her mother’s response was quick, lighthearted but filled faith. “Who knows? There are years still until you’ll grow into your own woman, Phillipa. The rules might have changed by then. Perhaps, by the time you’re old enough to enter society, the ton would not be so besotted with social stratification any longer.”
Phillipa found herself chuckling at that. “Is that what you truly believe?”
Her mother seemed to give it a thought before shaking her head, blue eyes twinkling in amusement. “No, not truly. A part of me knows the world will always be all too eager to put a wall between the rich and the poor. However, there is one thing I do believe, Phillipa.” She reached out to cradle her daughter’s cheeks, and this time, Phillipa let identical blue gaze meet her mother’s.
“Someday, certainly, you will wear one of those ballgowns you love so much. You will twirl around in the grandest of ballrooms and no less, with the most handsome gentleman as your partner. I don’t know how it will happen, but I can feel it in my bones. Your dreams will come true. The question is, can you feel it too? Can you dare to have faith? To let yourself believe?”
Phillipa’s heart began to grow with an emotion her mind could only describe as hope. She still couldn’t see how it would happen. Still, when her mother spoke that way, it was impossible not to believe, to have faith.
It was in that very moment that it occurred to Phillipa, that perhaps, the reason why her mother never laughed at her fantasies, was because Phillipa’s mother was a much bigger dreamer than Phillipa herself.
And was what again about apple and trees?
Smiling, she rubbed her cheeks against her mother’s tender palms. “I can, Mother. I will. I will believe. And when that day comes, you’ll be there, right by my side, watching it all happen.”
An inexplicable emotion flashed through her mother’s eyes then, but before Phillipa could pick on it, those sapphire orbs were twinkling with love once more.
“Perhaps, not by your side, but I certainly will be there. I shall see every minute of it, never doubt that. You hear me?”
Phillipa didn’t think too much of those words, she simply threw herself into her mother’s arms, holding on to her tightly, as she prayed with all her heart, that if nothing else, this one wishful dream, would come true.
Golden rays streaked across the clearest blue skies the people of Huntington had seen in months. The clouds, pure as they were, held no hint of the stubborn downpour that had plagued the heavens for the past week.
Even though the winds remained cool still, they now held sufficient warmth that made certain residents did not have to wrap their arms around themselves in shudders as they went about their day-to-day businesses.
In the words that held an altogether deeper meaning when spoken by an English man, or woman, it was a perfectly fine weather.
It was evident that the people of Huntington thought so themselves, as they stepped out in droves, their happiness spreading from their heart to their eyes, at no longer having need for their parasols or snow boots.
Spring, Phillipa Jones thought to herself as she raised her face to the heavens, allowing her lungs to be filled with the taste of clean, fresh air.
It had finally arrived, and although she knew the days of rain would return soon, she was more than satisfied to bask in the sunshine for today.
There were many reasons to be happy.
At the top of that list, following the fact that her favorite season of the year had finally begun, was the fact that her Lady and best friend, Lady Josephine would finally be entering society!
In a few days, they would be on their way to London. London!
Phillipa had always wanted to visit, and at long last, she would get her chance.
But it wasn’t just about living in London for the next four months of Spring, now, was it?
Absolutely not. There were also the soirees, the balls, luncheons, brunches. All these exciting functions Lady Josephine would have to dress up prettily to attend. And guess who would be her faithful companion for every one of them? Precisely!
Phillipa hummed, barely able to stop herself from skipping, wrought by the excitement pumping through her veins.
She might never get to dance in a ballroom, she accepted that now that she was older and nothing in society had changed, contrary to what her mother had hoped for.
Nonetheless, she would get to be in many ballrooms, she would get to watch other ladies dance with their handsome gentlemen, and she’d told herself often enough to begin believing, that that would be enough. It was more than many ladies of her status could boast of, after all.
Simply getting to be a part of such an exciting life otherwise beyond her reach, in all honesty, was more than Phillipa could ask for. She would be content with watching from the sidelines. She had to be.
A carriage rolled into Huntington estates at that moment, coming to a stop just in front of the large stairs that led up to the huge mahogany doors that guarded the Woltheof abode.
“That has to be it,” she chimed to the maids who’d been keeping watch with her, waiting for the arrival of the first consignment of Lady Josephine’s dresses.
Something else Phillipa could barely contain her joy over. She’d gone with Lady Josephine to every one of the fittings at the best Modiste’s in their beautiful Earldom.
Had watched the dresses come to life from measurements, to designs, to stitched fabrics and she simply could not wait to see the finished pieces.
“Come now, ladies,” she beckoned to the maids, once more.
As attendant to Lady Josephine, she held a rank only lower to the Countess’ Lady’s maid. But of course, she never misused her position of authority. Her mother had taught her better than that.
Were Phillipa to even think of doing something so awful, Mrs. Jones would rise from her grave and tug on her daughter’s tightly wound buns until Phillipa came to her senses.
Blinking away the sting of tears that came on the heels of that thought, Phillipa led the way to the carriage.
Soon, they were hauling boxes of ballgowns up the stairs, to the west wing where Lady Josephine’s chambers laid.
“Careful,” Phillipa instructed softly when two of the maids would have dropped one of the boxes. Then noticing that the weight was starting to wear on their small frames, she hurried to lend a helping hand.
Between seven of them, they were able to safely transport three boxes of ballgowns. From the note the coachman had delivered, each box contained three dresses.
The Countess had commissioned sixteen. It meant they were expecting two more boxes at least, and the modiste had promised to deliver before the week’s end.
That would be just in time for their trip to London, Phillipa thought to herself.
“Thank you, ladies,” she said aloud said to the maids as they finished placing their cargo carefully, by the large four-poster bed that graced the middle of Lady Josephine’s bedchamber.
“Will that be all, Miss Phillipa?” Aurella, one of the girls asked. She was the youngest of them all at only sixteen summers. A shy, yet smart lass who reminded Phillipa too much of herself. Little wonder Phillipa had such fondness for the child.
“Phillipa, please,” she corrected softly. “And yes, that will be all. Thank you,” she said again. “You’ve all been of tremendous help. I had a feeling the chore would be strenuous, so I had Dalia prepare fruit ices. It’s such a fine weather for some, would you not agree?”
The girls were brimming with gratitude and joy as they rushed out of the chambers, straight for the kitchen.
Smiling after them and wondering how she’d cope with missing them during her stay in London, Phillipa turned to take inventory of the goods that had just arrived.
Carefully, she opened each box and began to bring out the dresses one after the other.
They were all so beautiful, and, even though Phillipa knew she shouldn’t, she couldn’t resist the urge to go stand in front of the vanity, one dress raised to her chin.
It was the color of coral roses. A blush so deep and lush, it made her think of fresh peaches.
The dress was a simple, yet elegant design, a testament to Lady Josephine’s gentle, yet graceful personality.
However, as Phillipa stared at the reflection in the mirror, she couldn’t help but notice how perfect the ballgown was against her complexion.
She’d grown in the years since she first courted dreams of wearing one of such gowns, her features becoming more defined to reveal the woman she’d transformed into.
Her sapphire eyes had somehow gotten lighter, reminding her more of ice crystals than the prized gemstone.
Her hair had also grown longer, reaching past her shoulders to her waist, but she kept the wild waves in a bun always, save for when she slept. Still, anyone who’d been paying attention could see that it was no longer the dusty blonde it used to be. The hues that coated her locks had gotten deeper, adding more profundity to the paleness they once boasted of.
Her cheeks had lost the plumpness of the child she had been, causing her face to take on the shape of an egg as her chin curved almost sharply toward her jaw.
At five-foot-six, she stood taller than most women her age. But not Lady Josephine, she and Phillipa were of the same height.
Just as they could easily slip in and out of each other’s clothes, and the similarities did not end there.
The complexion was the same creamy silk that often earned them compliments. Their faces, same oval shape. Their noses as pointed, their lips as naturally pink, thin, yet full.
The only true difference they shared was in the shade of their eyes and hair. Lady Josephine’s blue eyes had gotten deeper while Phillipa’s had grown lighter. Their hair had transformed in similar manner, Lady Josephine’s long, wild wave, the color of honey.
As Phillipa considered the similarities between herself and her Lady that had never been hidden, another thought began to form in her mind.
Lady Josephine was having the customary mid-morning tea with her mother. It would be a while still before she would come up to her bedchambers.
The dress already looked so perfect against Phillipa’s complexion. If she were to slip into it… Phillipa was certain it would also be the perfect fit.
She shook her head before the thought could root deeper in her mind, jerking away from the mirror at the same instant.
What was she contemplating? Of course, she could not overstep in such a manner! Lady Josephine might forgive it given their friendship, but Phillipa had been raised better than to take advantage of such privilege, for it was indeed, a privilege that the noble lady she served considered her a true companion at heart.
No, these dresses belonged to her Lady, and Phillipa knew better than to covet them. She forced her legs to move towards the bed, eager to return the ballgown to its rightful place and leave the chambers before she would be further tempted.
Alas, just as she was about to release her hold on the beautifully crafted piece of clothing, the temptation tugged at her heart again, more powerfully than before.
And this time, it had a voice; so alluring, it was almost impossible to resist.
But you are not coveting the dresses, are you? You’d only be wearing this one, just for a moment. It’s always been a dream of yours to wear a ballgown, has it not? Who knows if you’d ever get another chance. You might never be able to dance in a ballroom, but you can have at least this much. This is your moment, Phillipa, cease it!
Phillipa paused, her upper body curved over the bed frame, her fist a tight grip on the ballgown in question.
The voice in her head was right. When would she ever get the opportunity to wear such a gown again? And it wasn’t as though she wanted to keep it for herself. She was simply going to try it out, experience the feeling, if for only once in her lifetime. Then, she would take it off and return it to the bed.
By the time Lady Josephine returned to her chamber, the gown would be back in its place. None would be wiser.
Then again, she shook her head as she forced her fingers to unclench. It simply wasn’t right. And if there was anything she knew about giving in to temptation, it was that it was never so simple.
She would put on the dress, then another enticement would rise, and she’d be pressed to give into that as well.
Phillipa shook her head. Best to fight it off now, before it spun out of her control.
Nodding at her resolve, she took a deep breath and finally let the dress fall softly on the silken sheets.
Slowly, still drawing in a lungful of air, she withdrew from the bed.
Glad that she’d won this round, she was just about to turn away when she felt that tug again, a pull so strong she couldn’t hope to resist it this time.
It was filled with a sense of urgency. As though a force beyond her understanding was telling her that it had to be now. That she would end up regretting not taking this chance.
And quite frankly, there was only so much a starving woman could do to resist the sumptuous meal placed before her.
Begging her mother to understand, and praying to the universe for forgiveness, Phillipa grabbed the gown once more and all but raced to vanity.
Quickly, she stripped off her attire. Then, carefully, she began to wear the ballgown.
Time stretched and it seemed to take forever, but finally, she was staring at a Princess who had her face.
A gasp escaped Phillipa’s lips. One she couldn’t have caught even if she tried, for such was the depth of her awe.
She almost couldn’t recognize herself. The gown, it was... perfect. Just as she’d thought it would be.
It seemed as though it’d been meant for her, and she felt... different, beautiful, right.
Phillipa frowned as that thought flickered across her mind, but the feeling didn’t go away.
This should feel wrong, she reminded herself. She was standing in someone else’s dress, doing the very thing she’d promised herself never to do—forget her place.
Yet, she couldn’t help feeling like her world had finally righted on its axis. That she was actually where she was supposed to be, and it just…
She had no words.
And she certainly had no inkling, when her arms lifted in the air. All she knew was what one moment, she was gaping at the sight in the mirror, and the next, she was gliding through Lady Josephine’s bedchamber in the smoothest waltz she’d ever danced.
Phillipa didn’t have to think of her next step, didn’t have to worry about avoiding obstacles. She simply surrendered to the desire inside of her, let it take over and she moved.
Her limbs turning weightless, and then, she was floating through air.
Her eyes closed and once more, she let herself travel to her fantasy land. Soon, she was back in that ballroom, with the chandelier over her head, and the crowd cheering her on.
Then, suddenly, the music that had begun to play in her head ended, the ballroom disappeared around her, and she was drawn to a halt. The force causing her skirts to slam around her legs.
Phillipa’s eyes stung as her chest rose and fell in fast heaves. Memories clogged her throat, threatening to drag her down the path of grief.
Once before, her world had magically transformed around her, transporting her to the most beautiful of ballrooms.
Her mother had been there when she returned, to cheer her on, to implore her to have faith. Alas, not today. She would never again hear the sound of prideful applause. Never again feel the comforting warmth of her mother’s caress.
Her right hand flew to her cheeks, wiping away the drop of tears that managed to escape. However, when she would have scolded herself to hold back her sorrow, she heard a voice that had her eyes snapping open in horror.
“Graciousness! I’ve never seen anyone move like that.”
Phillipa’s heart went wild in her chest as she began to turn around. Frantically, she searched for words to say in her defense, before she would have to hold her Lady’s gaze.
Alas, nothing came to mind. For all that mattered, she seemed to have lost every sense of speech. Her tongue twisted itself into a knot, her throat went dry and by the time she stood face to face with Josephine, she was prepared to lose the only friend she’d ever had, as well as her job.
What was that she’d said about giving in to temptation, again? Ah yes. It was almost always impossible to come out unscathed.
“Lady Josephine,” Phillipa heard herself croak, barely. “I... The... It’s not…” Nothing. She could think of nothing in her defense. Even more so, she didn’t think it would be right to attempt to defend herself at all. It would only make matters worse. A further insult to this noble lady who’d only ever treated her as an equal.
So, she did the only thing that felt right, fell to her knees, and confessed her sins.
“Forgive me, my Lady! I was wrong! I forgot my place and I should be punished! I simply couldn’t resist, I know I should have, but I was weak against my desires. The dresses, they were so beautiful. I only wanted to know what it would feel like to wear one, if only once in my lifetime. I knew better and should have acted as such, please, my Lady, forgive me!”
Phillipa could not bear to look at Lady Josephine now, so her head remained bowed, her eyes only seeing the pool of coral skirts gathered around her, further reminding her of her sin. She winced, aware that she was creasing the dress, and should be taking it off, but could not bring herself to rise.
She remained aware though, of Lady Josephine’s approaching footsteps. And even though Phillipa knew her Lady was of such kindness of heart she would never do anything to hurt Phillipa, Phillipa still found herself flinching, holding her breath for what was to come.
Only, when Lady Josephine reached her side, she too sunk into a pool of her own skirts, and cradled Phillipa’s face in the tenderness of her palms, urging her maid to look up, to hold her gaze.
Phillipa didn’t wish to, but she did, for she knew to disobey would only make her, an even worse sinner.
“Oh, Phillipa, you wound me,” Lady Josephine muttered, the sadness in her voice heavy. And just like that Phillipa’s heart broke into a thousand pieces.
The dam broke and tears flooded her face.
But Lady Josephine was already wiping them before they reached Phillipa’s jaw, hushing them away.
“Oh, come now, Phillipa. You do not wound me because you wore a dress! You wound me because after all these years, you believe I would take such grave offense that you think to kneel before me. Do you think so little of me? Does our friendship only mean so much? Why in heavens would I be upset that you wore one of my dresses, when we’ve almost always shared everything?”
It became clear to Phillipa then, that she’d misunderstood Lady Josephine’s earlier statement. And once more, she felt shy, a fool.
“My Lady, you must forgive me. I did not mean to hurt your feelings so. I… Phillipa drew in a deep breath. “It is because your friendship means so much to me, and I do not wish to ever lose it, that I am so ashamed. I made you a promise never to overstep.”
Lady Josephine shook her head. “And I have told you countless times that there would never be such a thing as that between us. When will you trust what I feel for you, Phillipa? When will you come to truly believe that I consider you more than a friend, but as a sister in fact? What sisters would kneel and shed tears over wearing the other’s clothes. Instead, they would bicker over it, and end the fight by gushing over how well the gowns fit, which it does, by the way. It looks like it was made for you.”
The last part was said with a smile. A smile that made the hold around Phillipa’s heart unclench, releasing its pressure.
“Only because we’re so alike,” Phillipa managed to say, as she reclined into a sitting position. She brought her hands to her face then, wiping her tears away, until she no longer felt the overwhelming need to empty her eyes. “I have made a muck of the dress, have I not?”
Lady Josephine giggled softly at that. “Nothing that a little washing would not solve. However, I have a feeling you weren’t really crying because you feared you’d disappointed me. You miss her, do you not?”
And there was why Phillipa truly respected Lady Josephine, beyond admiring and loving her. Lady Josephine always saw beyond the surface, always knew what Phillipa was feeling or thinking, just by looking carefully at her.
Lady Josephine had been there when Phillipa had lost her mother at only twelve summers, too young to grasp why her mother had to die, but old enough to understand the finality of such a wicked thing.
It was Lady Josephine who’d held Phillipa while her sorrow wracked through her in the days to come. Lady Josephine who’d offered what comfort a child their age could have offered, and for Phillipa, it had been enough, had made her heal.
As these memories played through Phillipa’s heart, she understood then, what she’d been too blind to see all this time, and what her mother had told her that afternoon, all those years ago suddenly made sense.
Indeed, as far as Lady Josephine was concerned, Phillipa was no maid. She loved Phillipa, held her dear to her heart. Lady Josephine never held back, not when it came to Phillipa. Happily, she shared it all with her maid, her privileges, her lessons, her knowledge, her dreams, and the secret love she nursed in her heart, for the scholar who was in a land faraway across seas, improving his studies.
It was Phillipa who’d always held back, holding her own heart, her own fears, her dreams, her wishes, drawing lines Lady Josephine tried evenly to erase, all because she never wanted to forget her place.
Yet, look where that had gotten her. Ah! It was almost laughable.
“I love to dance,” she heard herself confess to her Lady for the first time. “I enjoy it so much, it’s like breathing to me. I dream of dancing at a ball someday,” a wry smile as she added, “With a handsome gentleman for a partner. I imagine that the audience would watch in awe, and erupt in wild applause when the music ends.”
A pause. “Sometimes,” she swallowed. “When I dance, it feels as though I’ve been transported to the most beautiful ballroom ever, my dream come alive. It’s nothing short of magical.”
She paused to look at Lady Josephine’s face and saw that she was being watched with rapt attention.
But there was no condemnation there. No mockery. Only delight.
“I know none of the words I’m saying make any sense. It’s probably all gibberish to you, is it not?”
To her greatest surprise, her Ladyship threw her arms around Phillipa, drawing her into a warm embrace as elated giggles filled the air.
Phillipa’s eyes widened in surprise, even as her brows knitted in confusion. She’d said nothing funny, had just confessed a secret that used to make people laugh and shake their heads at her. And even though Lady Josephine was laughing, Phillipa held no hint of ridicule in her voice.
As though she could hear the questions turning in Phillipa’s mind, Lady Josephine withdrew to hold her gaze. “Oh, Phillipa,” she gushed. “I can’t believe you really thought I haven’t been able to figure it out yet! I knew! I’ve always known! You think I never noticed you watching me when we were little? Even though I invited you every time, you would come up with some silly excuse, only to sneak up and watch me learn, nonetheless.”
Lady Josephine lifted her shoulders in a sly shrug. “I also caught you twirling around the manor more than a few times, when you thought nobody was watching. It was almost as though you couldn’t help yourself. You’d dance in the field, the atrium, the gardens, any open space where you believed you were truly alone, you’d simply lift on your toes and begin to twirl.”
Phillipa couldn’t believe her ears. All this time, and she’d thought she’d done a good job hiding it from her ladyship. Then again, she should have known that could not be true, shouldn’t she? Very little slipped past Lady Josephine.
“Although, I must admit, I am only just finding out about your dream, and the magic you spoke of.”
Phillipa found herself giggling at that. “It’s not truly magic, only my imagination. But I love to think of it as such.”
Lady Josephine’s eyes shone with understanding. “Ah, I see.” Still, there was no judgement in them as she shook her head and added, “No matter. The most important thing is that you’re finally letting me in. After two decades. You’re finally sharing something with me I didn’t have to figure out myself.”
Phillipa’s breath caught in her chest. “I’ve been an awful friend, have I not?”
Lady Josephine’s eyes twinkled at those words, the glint in her eyes unmistakable for mischief. “Well, I have a few suggestions on how you can make up for that. First begin by calling me Josephine.”
Phillipa’s eyes widened as panic flared in her chest, causing her heart to quicken its rhythm. “I could never.”
Lady Josephine’s hands rose in the air, her jaw angled in such a way that said she would not take no for an answer. “Let me finish, at least while we’re alone, and in your thoughts as well. You refer to me still as Lady Josephine when you think of me, do you not?”
Phillipa could not repudiate as it was the truth, but she didn’t want to accept either, so she just kept quiet.
“So?” Lady Josephine prodded when she said nothing.
Phillipa swallowed, aware that this was a lost argument. Still, she tried to hold her own. “I shall consider it, my Lady.”
“Josephine,” her ladyship corrected. “What kind of true friends refer to each other so formally?” Then, lips settling into a pout as her eye turned adorably sad, “I thought things were finally starting to change.”
A snort escaped Phillipa’s nose, and even though she tried to catch it, she soon found herself chuckling. “Heavens! I was trying to stay serious,” she explained as she recovered. “But you looked so adorable, I just couldn’t resist,” she admitted.
And then, Lady Josephine was smiling at her. “So, it’s decided, from now on, whenever we’re alone like this, I shall be just Josephine to you?”
Phillipa smiled at that, knowing she could not resist. Two decades was a long time to maintain her distance with someone who’d only ever been so good to her.
Perhaps, it was high time the walls came down.
“Yes,” she finally acquiesced with a smile. “Just Josephine.”
Josephine’s smile was dazzling, and it spread warmth through Phillipa’s chest, filling her with even more love.
“Excellent!” she chimed, clapping her hands together, but Phillipa was already rising to her feet.
“You really don’t mind me wearing your gown? It’s a beautiful one?” She held out a hand which Josephine took.
“Please,” came her friend’s response. “You could try them all on for all I care. Now that I know it’s always been a dream of yours, I’m more than happy to help tie your corsets.”
Phillipa giggled at the image that formed in her mind. Josephine, helping her dress. She shook her head. Even though she’d just agreed to close the berth between them, she didn’t think she would ever allow such.
“Just one dress is enough, thank you.” Then, needing to know, her voice fell as she asked, “And you don’t think my dream is silly? I mean, I’m only a lady’s maid.”
Josephine’s features contorted into a grimace as she went to take in the other gowns. “If dreams were realistic, then they wouldn’t be dreams now, would they? I would say, if we must wish for something with all our heart, then it might as well be something we would never get otherwise.”
Josephine turned as her eyes gazed out the windows, hands clasped over her chest, and Phillipa knew what her friend was doing again; thinking about the man who owned her heart.
“It is no secret that I sometimes dream of Warner appearing in front of me and asking me to be his wife.” She cackled in self-depreciating humor as she turned to face Phillipa once again. “Now, how can that possibly happen when he’s weeks at sea away? But do I let that stop me from wishing? Not at all!” Her voice grew as soft as her eyes turned. “Sometimes, Phillipa, dreams are all we have, and we must cherish them.”
Now, it was Phillipa’s turn to see through her friend, for with Josephine, that had never been a difficult feat. “You miss him, do you not?”
Josephine didn’t have to think her response. “Every day.” A heavy sigh leaving her lips as she fell to her bed. “It doesn’t help that we’re bound for London soon, where I’m expected to join the marriage mart, find a suitor and be married by the season’s end. Warner is set to return home in three months. I have no doubt he will propose then, for he loves me, just as I love him.” Her head fell, her mouth settling into a sad pout. “I’m only afraid I might not be able to thwart my parents’ match making skills for that long.”
There was a sudden pause as her head jerked upwards, towards Phillipa. “Shall I run away then? Hide somewhere until my Warner is back in London?”
Phillipa didn’t even think to deign those words any consideration, all too aware that it was no option. “Or you could tell the Earl and Countess about your love,” she said instead. “Warner might be a second son, but he is also a great scholar. Surely, the Earl and Countess will not disapprove.”
Josephine’s response was swift, doubtless. “They won’t, but they do not know Warner, not like me. They won’t believe his love to be true, won’t believe he will come back to me. They’d think me foolish for wanting to wait for me. They’d rather have me marry someone who’s here, present, whose word they can receive in person. Besides, you know how much my mother adores titled men.”
Phillipa’s lips curved into a rueful smile, mirroring Josephine’s. “Ah, yes. Your mother certainly is determined to get you married to a Marquess at the very least.”
Tilting her chin and straightening her spine in the way only the Countess of Huntington was capable of doing, Josephine managed to make her voice take on the soft soprano that was her mother’s voice. “Only a Duke would do for my daughter. However, I suppose a Marquess would not be so bad, after all.”
They were both laughing as the door opened to reveal the Countess right at that moment.
And for the second time that morning, Phillipa’s face drained of color from being caught unawares, her heart filling with panic as she wondered just how much of their conversation the Countess had heard.
From the corner of her eyes, she caught Josephine’s equally pale face, and she knew her dearest friend was battling the same fears.
Notwithstanding, Josephine was on her feet in an instant, forcing a smile into her voice as she chimed, “Mother, what brings you here?”
Phillipa watched the Countess eye her daughter warily, and her stomach clenched tighter.
“I didn’t realize I needed a reason to visit my daughter’s chambers,” the older lady replied, closing the door behind her as she walked further into the room.
Phillipa watched her, searching for anything at all that would betray whether or not the Countess had finally managed to find out about her daughter’s secret love.
However, Phillipa found nothing. What wariness stained the Countess’ eyes on a closer look, appeared to be more of weariness, and perhaps, a reluctance to share some news that didn’t seem so good.
Phillipa’s breath eased, but her belly remained wounded tight.
“I see your dresses arrived,” the Countess observed aloud, taking in the boxes and the small array on the bed. Then, her eyes fell on Phillipa, and the realization suddenly dawned.
Phillipa had never gotten around to taking off the dress!
When the Countess’ brow raised in question, she moved to explain herself, but Josephine beat her to it. “I was too tired to begin to try on all these dresses myself. Since Phillipa and I are of a size, I reckoned it would be best to have her try them on for me. That way, we can ascertain that there is no need for extra fittings, and if there happens to be, return them to Madame Fleure in time for alterations.”
The Countess seemed to consider those words for a moment before she finally nodded, all the while, her eyes never leaving Phillipa. “Hmm. You’re right.” Her lashes fell and rose as she took in the dress once more. “Well, this one looks perfect. It does suit you, Phillipa. You look lovely, almost as lovely as my dear Josephine.”
Because the Countess was so pure of heart, Phillipa was aware those words hadn’t come from a place of malice, and grateful that Josephine’s quick wit seemed to have saved the day, she was able to give into the laughter that tickled her insides.
“Oh, you flatter me, my Lady. For I’m certainly nowhere as lovely as our dear Lady Josephine. She is the fairest of us all, after you, of course, my Lady,” she said with a small curtsy.
It was no flattery. The Countess was truly beautiful. Although all that Josephine seemed to have taken from her mother appeared to be her slender frame, the Countess easily held the admiration of many.
Her eyes were amber flames, and her hair, a dark shade of copper. Her face had no sharp edges, round in a way that spoke to the soft feminine features she must have possessed in her youth, even though now refined with years.
At five-foot-two, she was commonly described as petite, but everyone who knew the Countess of Huntington was well-aware that her small frame was no true reflection of the strength of her will, nor her spine. For that reason, no one ever mistook the Countess to be weak, not even despite her renowned fairness.
Now, those amber eyes lost their apprehension for a fleeting moment, twinkling instead as she too chuckled. “You and your flowery words, Phillipa. Though you must know, I believe Josephine is far more beautiful than even myself. After all, it is every parent’s wish that their children surpass them, is it not?”
“I suppose it is,” Phillipa heard herself say in response. She’d never met her father—he’d died before she was born. However, she knew her mother had only ever wanted the best for Phillipa. All the things she herself, had not been able to have.
“I shall go change out of this, my Ladies,” she added, dipping in a shallow curtsy.
She had a feeling that whatever had brought the Countess here, it was a serious matter and deemed it only fit to give the mother and daughter privacy.
Picking her own dress, she stepped behind the bath screen and busied her mind with what other preparations needed to be made before they took leave for London. Still, she couldn’t stop herself from hearing the Countess’ words.
Phillipa had a feeling the older woman wasn’t taking any care to be quiet, in any case.
“I’m afraid I have some sad news,” Phillipa heard the Countess say.
Her ears pricked up, straining to hear more. Inside her chest, an unsettling
“Have we gone bankrupt?” was Josephine’s response.
Phillipa almost fell to her side as laughter erupted in the air, startling her. She’d heard that laughter one too many times to know who exactly it belonged to. She’d not imagined the Countess laughing at such a time. Then again, if anyone could solicit a smile from someone in pain, it was certainly Josephine.
As Phillipa pulled her other arm out of the ballgown, she heard the Countess reiterate the same.
“Bankrupt? Oh, Josephine, trust you to always think of the wildly hilarious things. No, child. This family has enough wealth to last us for generations, so you must never worry about that.”
“So, what could be the matter, so grave that even your eyes look sad?” Josephine’s voice was softer now, serious.
And when the Countess responded, it was evident that she too had grown somber once more.
“It’s your father,” she replied. “He’s been suffering more frequents fits. Mr. Carlisle has only just left.”
Mr. Carlisle was their physician and Phillipa hadn’t been aware he had visited that morning, nor of the Earl’s worsened illness. Then again, not all was privy to even a Lady’s maid treated more like family than servant.
Shuffling of feet, then an almost broken whisper. “Mother.”
From behind the bath screen, Phillipa could see outline of their silhouettes, but she didn’t need to check before knowing that Josephine had just gone to take her mother’s hands.
“I didn’t know. You should have told me,” Phillipa heard her friend and Lady say.
“I didn’t want to trouble you, not with the season around the corner. Besides, it is nothing new. Just his old ailment of the heart. Only, it seems to hurt more and more these days.”
“Is Father in any danger?” Phillipa could hear the fear in her friend’s voice, a hint of sorrow that spoke to the fact that Josephine wasn’t ready, willing to mourn the man she loved most in the entire world.
There was a small smile in the Countess’ voice as she replied. “No, Mr. Carlisle believes he will make full recovery. This is how it is, he says. The medication makes things worse before they get better. However, I’m afraid there is a reason why we couldn’t keep this from you any longer.”
Phillipa paused just as she’d begun to slip into her own dress, left leg in, and gown drawn halfway up to her waist.
It was Josephine who voiced the thought that took hold of Phillipa’s mind.
“We will not be able to go to London for the season, will we? I shall not be entering society this year either.”
Phillipa wanted to celebrate, rejoice. It was good news. This way, Josephine would not be pressured to find a husband, and her beloved, Warner, would be back just in time to make her his wife.
However, that meant Phillipa would not get to see London, or enjoy the thrill of traipsing through ballrooms as the Lady’s maid of a debutante.
She crushed that thought as soon as it rose in her mind. This wasn’t about her. It had never been about her but Josephine’s happiness. Long as this was what would make her friend happy, she was more than willing to remain in Huntington, to spend the season riding the fields and seeing if she could finish reading all the books from the library.
“Oh, of course not! You’re twenty summers now, Josephine,” Phillipa heard the Countess rebuff. “It’s either now or never. If we keep you from entering society this year... I’m afraid it will be too late by next year. You would be considered too old, past your prime.”
Phillipa couldn’t resist scoffing. She heard the echo of Josephine’s scoff as well.
“There we go again,” Phillipa heard her friend rumble. “Referring to women as though they were oranges on a tree, needed to be plucked at just the perfect time by the ageless farmer.”
Phillipa’s laughter came out in a snort, and she raised her hands to stop it, but it was too late.
This time, when the Countess spoke, she called out to Phillipa. “I know you can hear us. If you’re done changing, come out now. What I have to say is for the both of you, Phillipa.”
Phillipa had indeed, managed to finish putting on her dress amid her eavesdropping. Now, she gathered the ballgown carefully into her arms and stepped out from beyond the bath screen.
Her attempt to not look guilty was futile, but if the Countess took notice of it, she made no indication.
“Come, come,” the older woman said instead. And waited, until Phillipa joined them at the small dining area where Josephine had her meals if she didn’t wish to join her family.
Once Phillipa was seated, Lady Huntington took both girls’ hands in hers.
“The Earl has been advised to stay behind in Huntington, to continue receiving his treatment so that he may recover fully,” Lady Huntington said to the both of them, looking from Josephine to Phillipa, back to Josephine. “Mr. Carlisle believes the bustle of the season would do him no good and I’m inclined to agree. Of course, now, I cannot leave my husband to go all the way to London for four months.”
The Countess leaned in, holding Josephine’s gaze this time. “You, on the other hand, that’s a different matter entirely. You can and will go to London. Escorted by Phillipa, of course. I trust her to keep you out of trouble. As for the matter of a chaperone. Remember your Aunt, Lady Carlton? She shall be your guardian and sponsor for this season. I sent word to her a week ago and we finally received her response today. All is set. She’s eager to receive you.”
Phillipa faintly remembered the name Carlton. It tugged at memories hidden so far away, they had to have been formed in her childhood. She must have met Josephine’s aunt, once or twice. However, she could remember nothing of the woman now.
That seemed to be a different case for Josephine though. From the way her friends’ eye widened, she could tell Josephine very much knew the aunt in question.
“I have not met Aunt Carla since I was six. Six! It’s been four-and-ten summers, Mother. She’s as good as a stranger to me. Surely that isn’t who you intend for me to spend an entire season with? And under her wings at that?”
Josephine was shaking her head, shuffling in her seat as she clasped her mother’s hand in her own.
“I’d rather stay here, Mama. By Father’s side. I’d rather be a dutiful daughter and take care of him,” she pleaded.
Alas, it appeared that the Countess was resolute, and her mind would not be changed. Even though her gaze remained tender, her voice was firm when she said, “Going to London will be you fulfilling your duty as a daughter of this household,” giving no room for argument. “Your father and I will be fine. We shall write you letters, often. And who knows? We might be able to visit before the end of the season.”
Phillipa simply sat quietly, watching the scene before her unfold. She knew it was not in her place to interrupt, not that she had anything to say should she wish to.
The Countess of Huntington was as fair as they came, but she never changed her mind once she made a decision on any matter at all.
Josephine certainly knew that too, it was why her friend stopped begging, her shoulders crumpling in defeat as she leaned back into her chair.
Nothing more needed to be said, it had been decided. They were going to London.
Minutes later, Lady Huntington departed from her daughter’s chamber with an affectionate kiss to Josephine’s forehead, and a feathery caress across Phillipa’s cheeks.
As soon as the doors closed behind her, Phillipa turned to her friend.
“Perhaps, this might not be so bad after all. Surely, your aunt wouldn’t be so keen on marrying you off now, would she? I’m certain she will simply let you have your fun and enjoy the season as you wish.”
Josephine winced at those words, her smile, a sarcastic bite. “You have met my mother. Aunt Carla? Is her elder sister. Anything my mother is, Aunt Carla is that multiplied by two, or perhaps three. Determined, stanch in her ways, some would call her hardheaded. However, she’s just as kind and as charming, which makes it even harder to say no to her because you know she only means well.”
Josephine must have read the question in Phillipa’s gaze for she simply smiled. “I might have only met her when I was six, but Mother has told me so many stories of her. And my memories from the time are still sharp.”
Phillipa nodded slowly. “Ah, I see. Well, there goes our hope.”
An exaggerated sigh slipped past Josephine’s lips as she further crumbled in her chair. “Aunt Carla would take the matter of marrying me off very seriously. In fact, if anything Mother says about her is true at all, she might have already put certain arrangements in place. Plans that would ensure I end the season a married Lady to a most suitable gentleman according to her standards.”
Suddenly, as though Josephine just realized the true implication of those works, she jerked up in her seat, turning to face Phillipa with eyes wide.
“My aunt will surely see me married off. But I can’t get married, Phillipa. I have to wait for Warner.”
Phillipa took her Lady’s hands in a bid to comfort her, quell her panic. “What have we two not have been able to accomplish together? Never fret, Josephine, your aunt sounds formidable enough, but surely, she’s no match for us. We shall find a way. A way to keep your unmarried until your Warner returns.”
Josephine must have heard Phillipa, but now, she seemed lost in thoughts, her eyes narrowing as she evidently contemplated a matter.
Then, suddenly, she was looking up at Phillipa with unbridled joy in her eyes.
“Of course! You are right, Phillipa! There is nothing we haven’t been able to achieve together and this time, indeed, we shall come out victorious again, for I’ve just had the perfect idea.”
There was something about the way Josephine’s eyes were gleaming, a distant difference than the sadness that had stained those sea-blue orbs only moments ago.
Phillipa’s breath caught in her chest as her heart hitched. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that whatever Josephine had to say, it wouldn’t be anything good.
When she voiced that latter thought aloud, Josephine simply smiled sweetly in response.
“Why didn’t I think of this sooner? The answer has always been right there, in front of our eyes! In fact, Phillipa, it would appear that going to London under the guardianship of my Aunt shall turn out to be the best plot twist ever, after all!”
Phillipa simply stared at her, urging her to get to her point more quickly.
“Don’t you see?” Josephine asked, rising to her feet. “My dress fit you perfectly!” She began to walk around in circles then, her arms gesticulating with every word she spoke. “We’ve always been rumored to look so alike that if my father’s fidelity and your mother’s loyalty weren’t so unquestionable, we wouldn’t have been able to quell the rumors.”
She suddenly drew to a halt, then spun to face Phillipa. “We could pass for sisters! But even more so,” reducing her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, Josephine continued, “To someone who hasn’t seen me in fourteen summers, and has never met you, we could pass for each other.”
A pause as Josephine drew closer to Phillipa once more, bending over with her palms flat down on the table to gaze into Phillipa’s eyes.
“What I’m trying to say, for the entirety of our stay in London, you’re going to be me and I’m going to be you.”
The fearful moss that had been gathering in the pits of Phillipa’s stomach unfurled into dreadful vines, reaching for her heart, her throat, wounding her insides up in knots.
She’d known whatever was coming was bad. But this?
“Oh dear,” she heard herself say. For what Josephine had never cared to admit was the fact that, though in looks, she favored her father, as far as temperament was concerned, she was the Countess’ child through and through.
She could see the resolution in Josephine’s gaze and Phillipa knew, that as she only wished to please her Lady, the decision had already made for her.
There was no turning back now.
Her stomach churned at the thought of all could go wrong, and she tried to rein her emotions in, she heard herself mutter yet again.