A Notorious Vow (The Four Hundred #3)(10)

By: Joanna Shupe

Yet Patricia talked all the time, laughing and smiling, and she was liked by just about everyone. A beautiful girl with cool blond hair, her cousin was unpretentious and comfortable in her own skin. Sort of like Oliver Hawkes, a man who hadn’t even bothered to don a coat in the presence of a lady, propriety be damned. He was smart and resourceful, obviously unconcerned with how others saw him. How Christina envied them both.

Two young American heiresses strolled by, their gazes darting to where Christina and Patricia stood talking. “Did you see her dress?” one girl said in a not-so-quiet voice.

“I swear, that pattern went out with hoop skirts,” her friend answered.

They both laughed. “God, the English are so poor,” the first girl drawled as the two moved away.

“Ignore them,” Patricia said. “They are unforgivably rude.”

“But not wrong.” Mercy, Christina wished the floor would open up and swallow her whole.

“Do not worry. I shall ‘accidentally’ trip them the next time I am dancing.”

Christina clasped her fingers together and bit back a smile. It was nice to have a friend, one who would willingly stick up for her. “Thank you but that is unnecessary.”

Patricia waved her hand. “So what about you? Has any man caught your eye? New York City has the best-looking swells in the entire world, you know.”

“I haven’t noticed. It hardly matters anyway because my parents are determined to marry me off to the highest bidder.”

“But why—”


The single word went through Christina like a pike. She straightened, immediately wiping all traces of emotion from her face as she turned to find her mother. Please do not let her embarrass me. “Yes, Mother?”

Her mother’s demeanor softened when she saw Christina’s cousin. “Oh hello, Patricia. I did not see you standing there. Don’t you appear lovely this evening? How I wish my daughter could carry off that pale pink color as well. It is a shame her complexion is not as pale as mine and yours.”

“I happen to think Lady Christina looks smashing in her gown.” Patricia squeezed Christina’s arm.

The countess appeared unconvinced. “If you will excuse us, I require my daughter for a moment.”

“Of course. Christina, I shall visit with you later.”

“I cannot comprehend why you are hiding in here,” her mother said as she towed Christina out of the room. “You should be dancing and flirting with the eligible men. Fortunately, I have been doing your job for you. There is someone you need to meet.”

Christina’s stomach dropped. She tried for a reprieve. “Must I meet him now? I had hoped to—”

“You will do as I say.” Her mother’s grip tightened, nails scoring through gloves and into Christina’s flesh, and she pulled them to a halt. “Everything is riding on this, Christina. Everything. Our entire future depends on what happens in the next few weeks. You will not disappoint us.”

Christina winced at the pain shooting down her arm, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from making a noise. Then her mother let go and rubbed Christina’s arms affectionately, as if she were a doting, affectionate parent.

Christina knew better.

She’d been disappointing her mother since the day she was born. The countess never stopped telling Christina all she was doing wrong, all the ways she would never measure up.

When I was your age, I was the most sought-after girl in Europe.

When I was your age, I’d already turned down three marriage proposals.

When I was your age, all the girls copied my coiffures and gown patterns.

“There,” her mother cooed. “Now, are we ready to remember our purpose here?”

“Yes.” The sooner this distasteful business was over with the sooner she could return to hiding.

“Good. I am taking you to meet the wealthiest man in this godforsaken city. He is recently out of mourning and looking for a wife. I have already told him all about you, so merely smile and nod and you shall do fine.”

Without waiting on a response, her mother pulled her into the ballroom, threading their elbows together as if they were lifelong friends out for a stroll. Her mother hated growing older and often introduced herself and Christina as sisters when encountering strangers. It never made any sense to Christina.

They made their way to the far side of the room, where her father stood next to a . . . Goodness. Was that the man? Stooped shoulders rounded into a crooked neck. Wrinkled, dull skin. Shorn gray hair. His black evening suit hung on his frame, as if he’d recently lost weight. He only came up to her father’s sternum, which was slightly shorter than Christina.

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