Chapter One~March 24, 1806~
Tina stood clasping and unclasping her hands. Even from where she stood in the game room of Lady Norman’s London home, Tina could hear her mother greeting her guests as they came into the drawing room. With merely a collapsible wall separating the two rooms, it was easy to hear everything. Of the twelve who Lady Norman had invited, seven had agreed to come.
Tina was rather happy it was a smaller group. She wasn’t used to a large number of people. Seven or eight women seemed like a reasonable number. If all of them bought dresses this afternoon, Tina’s new business as a modiste would be made—assuming they liked what she created.
This whole past month had been like a dream. Her mother had done so much more than Tina had ever expected of the woman who’d given her up less than a week after she’d been born.
Lady Norman had spent time with her, telling her all about the women of the beau monde, how they expected to be treated, even who the leaders of society were and what they wore for different occasions. Growing up in her little village of Northram Commons, Tina hadn’t experienced any of this, hadn’t even been aware that one needed a different dress to go out for a drive in a carriage than what one wore to visit friends. It was a whole new world for Tina, but she’d studied hard and committed everything her mother had told her to memory. She’d even spent a week studying her mother’s copy of Debrett's, so she would know that Miss X was the daughter of Lady Y and not to call the daughter of a viscount Lady Firstname, but Miss Lastname, whereas the daughter of a duke was always Lady Firstname.
It was dizzying, the rules and conventions, the names and titles. But she’d spent her time studying it all. And when she wasn’t doing that, she was studying the latest fashions and creating dress designs. Her mother had bought all of the fashion magazines and given her old copies as well, so Tina could learn the designs for the various types of dresses her clients would need and even advise them on the latest fashions.
Now, as the folding wall in front of her was pulled open by the two footmen, she would put all of that hard work to the test. Quickly, she placed what she hoped was a welcoming, confident smile onto her face. She and Lady Norman had worked on that smile for nearly a quarter of an hour, practicing to get it to look as if she were sure of herself rather than dyspeptic.
The guests were all sitting around Lady Norman’s elegant drawing room with its golden sofa, blue brocade chairs, and inlaid wooden accent tables. All the ladies were well dressed, naturally, but it was immediately evident to Tina’s discerning eye that not all were wearing what flattered them the most. There was even one young woman who looked positively ill thanks to her jonquil gown.
“May I present Miss Tina Rowan?” her mother was saying.
Tina was so overwhelmed by all the eyes on her and magnificence of the scene that she almost missed her cue. For a moment it all felt surreal, like a fantasy she had never imagined possible. She recalled herself and dropped into a curtsy before launching into her practiced speech.
“Good afternoon, ladies. I know that Lady Norman has already thanked you for coming, but I would just like to add my thanks as well. I invite you all to come and see the fabrics I have here. You should have already had an opportunity to see some of the fashion plates I have prepared for you, but if there is something that you’ve seen elsewhere, please know that I will do my utmost to recreate what you have in mind. I do hope I have the opportunity to work with you all.” She gave another little bob and a smile.
The ladies all sat staring at her for a breath, and then a few got up to examine the material Tina had laid out on a card table next to her. Lady Norman’s footmen hadn’t removed any of the furniture of the game room but merely rearranged it. The only change to the furnishings had been the addition of the full-length cheval mirror from Lady Norman’s dressing room so that the women could hold the material up and imagine what they would look like in a dress made from it.
Eventually, all of the women joined her in the gaming room. Most were talking amongst themselves, but one young woman about Tina’s age with auburn hair and strikingly pale blue eyes came up and fingered a yellow silk saying, “My father wishes I were more concerned with my attire. It’s one reason why I came today.” She looked up and smiled at Tina. “I’m afraid such things as dresses and fashion just never interested me.”
Tina returned her smile and felt herself relaxing a little. “I can understand. I don’t know that I would have become so interested if I hadn’t been apprenticed to a seamstress from a young age.” She picked up the material the woman had been eying. “If you would permit me, my lady?” Tina asked. She unraveled a swath of it from the bolt. “This yellow would bring out the blue in your eyes and the pink in your cheeks. Just look in the mirror, if you would?” She placed the material over the lady’s shoulder and directed the woman’s gaze to the mirror. It really was a stunning color on her.
“Oh, yes! My goodness, I’ve never worn yellow before. I’m afraid I never really liked the color, but… My, it does do all that you said it would.”
Tina tried to hide a grin of triumph. Her first sale!
She shifted the material so that it stretched across the woman’s slender chest. “If you would imagine this with a square neckline and then caught just below your bosom so the skirt falls elegantly to the floor.” Tina tilted her head seeing the dress already made in her mind’s eye. “Would you consider a small train? This could be a lovely carriage dress or even something you might wear for visiting.”
“I was wondering if it could be a ball gown? I don’t have very many,” the lady said. “I know young ladies are supposed to wear white, but it just makes my hair look horribly red.”
“It’s because you’re not wearing the correct shade of white.” Tina put down the yellow and unraveled a creamy white silk. She gave the material a twist and draped it across her chest so that the twist fell between her breasts. “Some pleating here to emphasize your lovely shape and a sleeve capping of this material then shifting into a cream lace.” Tina adjusted the gown in her mind.
“When you are finished with Miss Hemshawe,” another young woman said, coming up to them, “I would like to have a dress made.” She had been looking at a bolt of fine sprigged cotton with green and pale purple flowers that would have looked nice on Tina herself because she was blonde and fair, but it absolutely would not work with this young lady’s darker coloring. Tina would recommend another sprigged muslin she had with deep pink and blue flowers instead.
“Yes, of course, Miss,” Tina said. She gave the woman a friendly smile before turning back to her current customer. “Six small buttons going up the back covered in this same material,” she continued. “And pleats below to provide that elegant short train. May I sketch something up for you quickly?”
The woman looked a little dazed but gave a small nod. Tina removed the material and picked up her sketch pad, which she had kept handy for such an occasion.
“Before you wait on Miss Sheffield, Miss Rowan, I would like a gown of that blue cotton in this style,” another woman said. She held up one of the fashion plates Tina had left out, but it was a morning dress intended for a much younger woman. It would require a bit of altering to be appropriate for the middle-aged woman holding the drawing.
“Yes, my lady, I’ll be with you in just a moment,” Tina said, suddenly feeling rather overwhelmed.
Very quickly, she did a rough sketch of the gown that had been in her mind for Miss Hemshawe.
“That’s amazing!” the first young woman exclaimed, looking over Tina’s shoulder. “What an incredible talent you have, Miss Rowan.”
Tina turned and gave the woman a true smile. “Thank you, my lady. Would you be interested in commissioning this gown?”
“Yes, I would, thank you,” the woman said. “But I’m the daughter of a baron, not my lady,” she added with a kind smile.
“I do beg your pardon!” Tina said, quickly. She was already making faux pas. Thank goodness, Miss Hemshawe didn’t seem to mind.
“That is very pretty, Miss Hemshawe,” said an older woman with fair hair in a complicated coiffure and very large brown eyes. She was a larger woman who obviously enjoyed rich food. Making a dress that complemented her figure would be a bit of a challenge, but Tina could do it.
“Do you think so, Your Grace? I know so little about fashion,” Miss Hemshawe said, looking to the older woman for approval.
“Yes. It will be very flattering, and goodness knows you could use a new ball gown. I think I saw you in the same one twice within the past few weeks, did I not?”
“Oh, dear. I do have two gowns that are nearly the same color. Could it be that you mistook the two for the same dress?”
“I suppose that is possible,” the duchess conceded.
A small black and white dog with a feathered tail and long floppy ears nosed over, sniffing at the material.
“Can I interest you in a gown, Your Grace?” Tina asked, so proud of herself for remembering not to say ‘my lady’ to a duchess.
“Me? Oh, goodness, no! I have used the same modiste for the past fifteen years. I am not interested, thank you. However, judging from the dress you made for Lady Norman, you do fine work.” She turned and looked about. “Mrs. Aldridge! Please remove your animal at once, it is getting amongst the fabric!” She called out. “Disgusting creature,” she added under her breath.
Tina picked up the little dog. “Oh, she’s a darling! I don’t think she would hurt anything, would you?” she said, scratching the animal behind her ears.
The pup had slashed pale brown markings that looked like eyebrows over huge brown eyes, making her expression look very worried. She turned and licked Tina’s nose before laying her head on her shoulder. “Oh! How sweet!” Tina said, unable to contain a giggle as the dog’s whiskers tickled her ear.
Another older woman in a violent violet gown bustled over. “Is my little Duchess being a naughty girl?” she said in a baby voice.
The true duchess winced. “Must you call her that?”
“But that’s her name!” Mrs. Aldridge protested, reverting back to her true voice.
Tina laughed. “You named her Duchess?”
“Actually, I didn’t. My husband did. She always expects everyone to wait on her, and she is quite regal in her bearing. Of course, she is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed created ’specially for the royal family. Naturally, she is a duchess.”
The real duchess shook her head in disgust and walked away.
Tina did her best not to laugh, but Mrs. Aldridge and Miss Hemshawe clearly had no such qualms. They both burst into giggles.
“Well, she is adorable,” Tina said as she handed the dog back to her owner.
“Thank you. As soon as you are finished with Miss Hemshawe, I’d like you to take my measurements. I have exactly the sort of dress I want in mind. It’s one that I saw in La Belle Assemblée last month.”
“Oh, I’ve seen the new magazine. It has beautiful and quite forward-thinking gowns. I’d be honored to make one for you, madam,” Tina said. “Although, I’m afraid two other ladies are ahead of you in their requests that I create a gown for them.”
Mrs. Aldridge didn’t look thrilled at having to wait her turn, but nodded and said, “When you’re ready.” She turned and walked over to speak with some of the other ladies who had sat down at one of the card tables. A deck of cards had been produced, and it looked like they were preparing to play a game of some sort.
It was an odd thing to do at a fashion party, but Tina supposed those women had no need of new gowns. It was all right, she thought. She currently had four gowns to make, and there might be more coming as there were still other ladies looking through her fashion plates and the material.
Tina was busy measuring Miss Sheffield when she heard the footman announcing the Earl of Ayres. Why would Lady Norman have invited a gentleman to a party where the focus was on fashion and dresses?
Tina exchanged a look with the young woman who just shrugged. Clearly, she was as confused as Tina.