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At precisely eight o’clock, Miss Sophie Kendall strode to the head of the long, rough-hewn table in the back room of Madam Laurent’s dress shop and gazed at the women gathered around. They perched on chairs two rows deep, their expectant faces framed by satin-trimmed hats, simple straw bonnets, and white ruffled caps.
This particular moment—just before Sophie spoke, when she felt every pair of eyes trained upon her—was always the most exhilarating. She drew in a deep breath, savoring the flutter in her belly for one more exquisite second.
At last, she flashed a wide, sincere smile at the eclectic group of women and launched into her greeting. “Thank you, ladies, for attending this meeting of our secret society, in which devotees of The Debutante’s Revenge column explore sensitive topics such as courting, desire, intimacy, and love. Welcome,” she said, pausing slightly for dramatic effect, “to the Debutante Underground.” The room erupted in jubilant cheers and enthusiastic applause before quieting again.
Sophie continued, her expression a bit soberer as she stared at the assembly—their largest to date. “Some of you are new to our ranks, and we are delighted to have you here. However, we do insist that every participant abide by a strict set of rules, which we review at the beginning of each meeting.
“Rule number one,” she began, reciting from memory. “The Debutante Underground shall not be discussed outside these walls. Indeed, as far as the rest of London is concerned, it does not exist.”
In response, the women chanted, “Hear, hear.”
“Rule number two,” Sophie intoned. “Anonymity is paramount. We use only given names here—no surnames, no titles. If you should happen to see a fellow member as you stroll down the street, you shall not acknowledge her unless you are acquainted through other means.”
“Hear, hear,” the women chorused.
“Rule number three: Discussions are to be held in the strictest of confidences. While our goal is to enlighten each other regarding subjects that are typically taboo, no personal details related in the course of our conversations here may be shared.”
“And last,” Sophie said, “rule number four: We shall always speak the truth, the best we know it.”
“Hear, hear,” the women said solemnly.
“Now then,” Sophie said, clasping her hands together. “We will begin, as always, by reading the latest column.” She held up that morning’s edition of the London Hearsay, folded open to The Debutante’s Revenge and its accompanying sketch—a gorgeous vignette of a gentleman nuzzling the neck of a woman wearing a smile that could only be described as satisfied. Indeed, the besotted expressions on the couple’s faces made Sophie’s chest ache. She shook off the familiar yearning and cleared her throat. “Sarah, would you like to do the honors?”
The pretty, auburn-haired young widow, still in half mourning, nodded eagerly. She stood and read aloud from her own copy of the newspaper:
A gentleman’s ability to please a woman has less to do with his sexual prowess than with his attentive nature.
If you wish to know whether a man will be a skilled lover, look for small, thoughtful gestures. Perhaps he insists you eat the last slice of cake or holds his jacket above your head to shield you from the rain. Maybe he picks you a bouquet of wildflowers or refrains from interrupting you while you finish the chapter you’re reading.
A man who happily puts your needs above his own is likely to be a generous and ardent lover—and that is the very best kind.
Several of the ladies fanned themselves; others sighed. For the space of several breaths, no one spoke; then Mrs. Abigail Sully, the witty, if weary, mother of three young children, piped up. “I’d settle for a man who changes nappies.”
“I’d settle for a man who took the time to remove his boots before climbing into my bed,” an older woman said mirthfully.
And before long, the women waded into a discussion that was sometimes playful, sometimes wistful, but always forthright and supportive. While they helped themselves to tea and scones, Sophie slowly retreated to her usual corner, where she could observe the proceedings to her heart’s content.
These meetings were the best part of her week, aside from visits with her friends Fiona and Lily. Fiona was the talented artist behind the sketches that accompanied the wildly popular Debutante’s Revenge column; Lily was the inspired authoress. The covert project had originated when their close-knit trio—Fiona, Lily, and Sophie—made a pact to faithfully keep journals about their experiences as they entered the marriage mart and fell in love. Over a year had passed since they’d first toasted to the debutante diaries, and so much had changed since then—for everyone but Sophie.
Fiona had married a dashing earl who adored her. Not long after, Lily had made a love match with a brooding duke. The diaries had morphed into the anonymous column all of London was talking about, and the column, in turn, had spawned the secret society.
Of their trio, only Sophie was still unmarried.
But if her parents had their way, she wouldn’t be for long. Her father had squandered his modest fortune, leaving the family in rather dire straits. Sophie’s sweet, meek mother refused to acknowledge Papa’s habit of drinking to excess. Last week, when he’d passed out at the dinner table, landing face-first in a plate of roast beef and gravy, Mama rushed to his aid and exclaimed that he’d obviously been working himself far too hard. Sophie and her older sister, Mary, had blinked at each other across the table and refrained from comment, for Mama wouldn’t tolerate a hint of criticism directed at Papa.
But even Mama knew they couldn’t continue on as they were. One of her daughters needed to marry well—and fast. Given that Mary was the oldest, the burden would have fallen on her if she hadn’t nearly succumbed to scarlet fever as a child.
Even now, fear gripped Sophie’s heart as she remembered the morning she’d stood helplessly in the doorway of her sister’s darkened room. Papa had sobbed and Mama had knelt beside the bed, her voice hoarse as she whispered the same prayer over and over: that her daughter might live to see her twelfth birthday.
Miraculously, Mary had.
In the months that followed, Mary had slowly recovered, thank heaven. But even now she remained frail and peaked, which meant her parents were taking no chances where her health was concerned. No invigorating walks, no horseback riding, no crowded balls … and no opportunity to meet single gentlemen.
Leaving the family’s fate squarely in Sophie’s hands.
She wasn’t opposed to the idea of marrying. On the contrary, she craved a deep and lasting connection to another person. She longed for someone to talk to at breakfast each morning and someone to lie next to each night. But she’d always harbored romantic notions of falling in love before becoming engaged. Unfortunately, marrying for love was a luxury that she and her family quite literally could not afford.
So Papa and Mama had determined that she should wed Lord Singleton at the end of the season. She and the handsome, well-to-do marquess weren’t officially betrothed yet. The last time he’d come to call, Sophie had locked herself in her bedchamber and pleaded a headache. On the occasion before that, she’d slipped out the back door and gone on a two-hour stroll through the woods. The mild case of poison oak she’d contracted had been a small price to pay.
She knew she was behaving poorly and didn’t intend to shirk her duty to her family forever. She only wanted the rest of this season to herself.
One more season to continue hosting meetings of the Debutante Underground.
One more season to dance and flirt with dashing gentlemen.
One more season to feel young and free.
Sophie dragged her thoughts back to the meeting in progress and watched an earl’s shy daughter—recently betrothed to a portly older man—furrow her brow during a rather explicit conversation about wedding night disappointments. But then another woman smiled fondly as she recounted the story of how her husband once took extra jobs at the docks just so that he could buy her a pretty hair comb—an extravagance they could ill afford. As usual, the women balanced their negative stories with uplifting ones, painting a picture that Sophie hoped was realistic and fair to both sexes.
Some women asked questions related to the evening’s topic, and others chimed in with their own experiences and advice. A few women simply listened raptly, soaking in the knowledge and camaraderie.
Time passed quickly, and when Sophie checked the old clock wedged between spools of thread and a basket of frippery on one of the workroom’s shelves, she realized they’d been meeting for almost two hours. Reluctantly, she left her spot at the back and made her way, once more, to the head of the table.
She waited for a pause in the conversation, then shot an apologetic glance at the women. “I’m afraid it’s time for us to bring our meeting to a close. On behalf of everyone, I’d like to express my thanks to Cecile”—she inclined her head toward Madam Laurent—“for allowing us to convene here again this week. I wanted to let you all know that I’m working on securing a larger space and hope to have some news in that regard by next week’s meeting.”
A murmur of approval and excitement swelled inside the room, and Sophie’s belly twisted. She couldn’t continue to impose on Madam Laurent week after week, and their group had clearly outgrown the back room of her dress shop—a few of the women had to share chairs and others had to stand. But Sophie had yet to find a suitable alternate location—something large and centrally located, with an inconspicuous entrance.
She pasted on a cheerful expression and continued. “Please, be safe as you return to your homes, and be mindful of the rules stated earlier, especially the first: the Debutante Underground shall not be discussed outside these walls. Until next time, good night.”
Several of the women embraced before filing out, a few at a time, so as not to create a throng on the pavement outside the shop. Meanwhile, Sophie began the process of setting the workspace back to rights. Dishes were washed, furniture was moved, and sewing projects were carefully returned to their former places. Ivy, one of the shop’s hardworking seamstresses, insisted on staying and helping Sophie after everyone else had left.
“Thank you,” Sophie said, handing Ivy the box with a few leftover scones. “Please, take these home and enjoy them.”
Ivy grinned. “My youngest brother will devour them before I can remove my bonnet.” As she reached for her shawl on a hook by the door, she asked, “Where’s the new meeting location that you’re considering?”
Sophie frowned as she buttoned her pelisse. “I’m still looking for the ideal place. Some friends have generously offered to host at their private residences, but I’d prefer something closer to shops and businesses—in an area where most of the members are comfortable coming and going. It doesn’t need to be anything elegant. Just a bit bigger than this, with seating for three or four dozen of us.”
Ivy tapped a finger to her lips, thoughtful. “There’s a vacant building down the block. Madam Laurent said it used to be occupied by a tailor’s shop, but they shut their doors a year ago. She’s considering expanding to that space if business continues to be brisk for another season or two. But until then, perhaps you could ask the owner if he’d allow you to use it. After all, it’s just sitting there, unoccupied.”
Sophie wrinkled her nose. “I dislike the notion of asking a stranger—especially if he’s the curious type. He’s certain to inquire about the nature of our meeting. What on earth would I tell him?”
Ivy arched a mischievous brow. “That it’s a Bible study group?”
Sophie chuckled. “I fear that’s stretching the truth a bit too far.”
“Fine,” Ivy said, with a suit-yourself shrug. “You’re fond of gardening, are you not?”
Sophie nodded vigorously. Plants were her first love—her passion long before the Debutante Underground had come into existence.
“So,” Ivy continued, “you could tell the owner you chair a weekly meeting of the Ladies’ Botanical Society.”
Not a bad idea. Not at all. Except—“I hate to dissemble more than I have to.” Even as Sophie said it, she could picture Fiona and Lily rolling their eyes at her. Telling her that she was allowed a minor transgression every now and then. Urging her to focus less on following the rules and more on following her heart.
“Well,” Ivy drawled as she opened the door and pulled a key out of her pocket, “you do have another option.”
“What’s that?” Sophie stepped outside into the alley behind the shop and waited while the seamstress locked the door.
“You could simply skip the part about asking the owner’s permission.”
“What?” Sophie cocked her head. “Are you suggesting that we use the space without asking?”
“If we’re able to find a way in,” Ivy said, pointing at a bottle-green door in a brick building half a block down the street, “I don’t see why not. After all, it’s just sitting there, empty, day after day. It’s not as though we’d be pilfering anything or leaving a mess behind. Knowing you, you’d leave the place tidier than you found it.”
“Yes, but I’m not sure that’s the point.”
Ivy rolled her eyes. “Good night, Sophie. I’ll see you next week.” The young seamstress sauntered down the alley, shaking her head with good-natured regret—as though she should have known better than to think Sophie Kendall had a daring bone in her body.
And something inside Sophie snapped. She called out, “You know, Ivy, I believe I shall consider the old tailor’s shop as an option.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Ivy replied in a kindly if vaguely disbelieving tone. “Be careful as you make your way home.”
Home? Dash it all, Sophie wasn’t going home. She was off to have herself a peek at the tailor’s shop—and, if it proved suitable, the future meeting place of the Debutante Underground.
Before she could lose her nerve, she marched down the dark, dank alley, lifting her skirts to avoid a few lily-pad-sized puddles that shone in the moonlight. As she approached the green door, she glanced up and down the narrow lane, confirming no one was about. Ivy had already turned the corner, leaving Sophie alone, if one discounted the mice skittering in and out of the drainpipe behind her.
The chipped paint on the door revealed that it had once been a lighter color—gray, perhaps. A small, faded metal plate nailed to the brick on one side read “B. D. Peabody, Tailor.” Mullioned windows covered the top half of the door, but the panes were smudged with grime and dust, preventing her from seeing inside.
Vexed, she rifled through her reticule, pulled out her handkerchief, and vigorously rubbed at the center pane—gasping as the door swung open.
Gads. She hadn’t imagined it would be unlocked, much less unlatched. The faint scents of leather and cigars wafted through the door opening, but the interior was cloaked in shadows, still and quiet.
She placed her hand on the doorknob and hesitated. She hadn’t planned on breaking and entering into a vacant building this evening, but now that she was there, one foot already over the threshold, why shouldn’t she scout out the location? It would certainly save her the trouble of a return trip during the week, and she could only concoct so many excuses for leaving the house before Mama became suspicious.
One quick glance around the inside would tell her if the building was a viable meeting place. Half of her hoped it was filled with trash and rat dung, so she’d be able to close the door firmly behind her and walk away. Only one way to find out.
She pushed the door open and took a tentative step inside. “Hullo?” she called, praying no response was forthcoming. If anyone did reply, she intended to dash outside and be two blocks away before they could reach the door. “Is anyone here?”
Emboldened by the continued silence, she took two more steps inside and paused, giving her eyes time to adjust to the inky darkness. She could make out a few large shapes in the center of the room—furniture, most likely—and a long counter along the far wall.
Already she could see the potential here—room for at least fifty women, an easily accessible back entrance, and even some seating. She’d need to inspect it during the day to be sure, but—
The air at her back moved unexpectedly, sending a chill over her skin. The courage she’d felt moments ago drained through her slippers. Deciding she’d had more than enough adventure for one night, she gulped and took a step backward. She reached behind her, feeling for the wall or the doorjamb, but as she did, the swath of moonlight that had painted the floor a pale yellow shrunk to a thin ribbon before being swallowed up by darkness.
The door slammed shut with a bang that made her heart buck like a spooked foal. She leaped halfway to the ceiling and let out a cry before she managed to find her voice. “Who’s there?” she asked, wishing she sounded more assured and in command. Less terrified to the point of casting up her accounts.
“If you don’t mind,” came the exceedingly dry, hauntingly deep, eminently masculine voice, “I’ll ask the questions here.”
Copyright © 2020 by Anna Bennett