Six weeks later
"And this for the trim," Elizabeth said, holding a strand of very fine silver beads against the white silk they had selected for Annie's first ball gown. "What do you think?"
"I think I cannot bear to look at another piece of cloth or another trimming," Annie said truthfully. "Are you not hungry?"
"Hungry?" Elizabeth repeated, signalling to the hovering merchant with a wave of her gloved hand.
"It has been hours since we had breakfast."
"I am training you to do without food," Elizabeth said.
"In preparation for your first ball."
"They have suppers at balls. You told me so."
"Indeed they do, but you don't actually intend to be seen eating them, do you?"
"Of course not. Perhaps only a bite or two. If you don't practise starvation now and grow accustomed to it, how shall you manage to do without food, especially after dancing for hours?"
"You are teasing me," Annie said, laughing as she finally detected the mockery in the countess's words.
"Only partially. It truly won't do to be seen to have a hearty appetite."
"Perhaps you could fatten me up during the next three weeks, as they do geese for Christmas, and I could simply live off the accumulated store."
"And then you should never get into all these dresses."
'All these dresses,' Annie thought, repeating the unbelievable phrase in her head. So many of them that she had truly lost count. So many that she could not imagine ever having occasion to wear half of them. So many that...
"Is he very rich?" she asked, fingering a bronze satin that she thought evocative of leaves in the autumn.
She was surprised when Elizabeth took the fabric out of her hands and unrolled enough from the bolt so that she could drape it across Annie's shoulder.
"You are right," the Countess of Dare said, stepping back to look at the subtle gleam of the material next to Annie's skin and hair. "You have a very good eye for what will become you. Too bad we can't have this made up."
"Because it isn't white," Annie said, having by now learned the rules that governed a debutante's dress.
"Or cream or pink or blue. Silver if you wish to be thought very daring," Elizabeth agreed.
"All of which make me look like a death's head."
"Not so bad as that," Elizabeth said, undraping the satin and rewrapping it neatly around the bolt, "but in truth, this would be far more becoming."
"Perhaps we could have it made up into something to wear at home. A dressing gown," Annie suggested hopefully. She ran her fingers longingly over the fabric, almost a caress.
"If you like," Elizabeth said, again signalling the merchant.
"Is he?" Annie asked again as they Waited for him to cut the satin and add it to their purchases.
"Is he what?"
"Very rich," Annie repeated impatiently. "I mean Ian is buying all of this, isn't he? I can't believe my father made provisions for me to have a Season. Especially since he never made provisions for anything else. So... is he very rich?"
"I believe Ian has money from his mother, which he has invested in the funds. I know Dare made a settlement on both his brothers as soon as he inherited. He didn't want them to have to come to him for pocket money."
"So he is not really rich. Then why is he doing all this?"
Elizabeth hesitated a second, and then she said, "Because he is your guardian. And so that you may have your chance."
"My chance to make a good marriage. Which is supposed to be every woman's dream," Annie said.
"And it isn't yours?" Elizabeth asked, smiling at her.
"I don't know. I've never been married, so perhaps I'm a poor judge. Was it your dream?"
"I am hardly the person to ask that question."
"I'm sorry. I had got the impression..."
"That you were happy in your marriage."
"My second marriage, and I am very happy. I was not happy, however, in the first."
"Then why did you marry him?" Annie asked reasonably, trailing Elizabeth as she began to make her way through the crowded aisles towards the outer doors of the linen draper's shop.
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