The Wedding Game

By: Christine Merrill

Chapter One

As they always were at the height of the London Season, Almack’s Assembly Rooms were crowded to the point of overflowing. Amelia Summoner circled the edges of the main room, watching the marriage-minded throng unobserved. It was easy to do when one knew the place and people in it as well as she did.

She had not missed a Wednesday in the three years her family had had vouchers. In that time she had watched three crops of debutantes arrive, parade and depart on the arms of the gentlemen who married them. She had made her own come-out the first year and, after a brief splash, she had sunk through the waters of society, forgotten.

Now she moved about the place like a fish in the deep, invisible until the moment she chose to be otherwise. Unlike other unattached girls of her age, she viewed this more as a freedom than a failure. It was more relaxing to dance, speak or flirt only when one felt moved to do so, instead of obsessing on each social interaction as if it was to be a life-changing event. If one simply wished to watch others, it was much better to be that Summoner girl.

No. Not the pretty one. The other one. The odd one.

After her first few balls, she had known that she was not going to be a major success. She had been classified by the patronesses as an ‘unconventional beauty with an excessively sharp wit’. Any other girl would have been hurt by such a damning compliment. It did not take a bit of Amy’s vaunted intelligence to know that only her desirable family name kept her from being labelled ‘plain and opinionated’. A connection by marriage to Lord Summoner could make a young man’s future, in politics or society. But even those men were hoping for a wife who was conventional in all ways and excessively pretty, rather than excessively sharp.

But it was Amy’s intention to remain just as she was. Thus far, her character had been formed without compromise and she was satisfied with the result. She’d yet to meet a man for whom she was willing to change. In the face of her stubborn refusal to aid in their ambitions by marrying them, even the most stalwart of suitors had given up wooing her ages ago. This Season, if a gentleman wished to dance with her, she knew it was out of pity.

More likely, it was because he wanted to be seen as the nice sort of fellow who bestowed his friendship evenly about the family, and was willing to stand up with her quiz of an older sister if it would make Miss Belle Summoner smile. This year, London buzzed with talk of Lord Summoner’s younger daughter, the most celebrated beauty of the decade. Tonight, as she moved through the crowd, Amy had overheard more than a few men sighing that a single smile from that delicate beauty, Belle, would be worth any sacrifice up to and including being nice to Miss Amelia, the spinster.

No one had dared to try it yet and Amy had no intention of being an easy target for their cheap flattery. She moved through the crush with a purposeful step that hinted a destination in mind and no time for interruption. When she sat, it was in a corner, with her fan raised, scanning the crowd as if looking for someone other than the people in the immediate vicinity. She kept her acquaintance limited, knowing that people would not dare to speak to her without an introduction. If she did not deign to know them, then they could not use her as a conduit to meet Belle.

Since she did not have to waste her time on dancing and idle chatter, she could watch and listen. She heard dozens of conversations without being a part of any of them, while scanning the opposite side of the room to catch those that watched her sister with more than casual interest. If a gentleman in tonight’s crowd was seriously interested in Belle, Amy would know his intentions almost before he did himself. Then she could prepare the proper defence against him. It would take a very special man to make a match with Arabella. No others need apply.

Tonight alone, Amy had catalogued and discounted a dozen prospective suitors. Their intentions did not matter if they lacked sufficient money, manners or station to get around Father’s plans for his daughters. He expected them to marry well, if they married at all. After years of trying to find a husband for Amy, Lord Summoner had declared her too headstrong to wed a man who was not of her own choosing and agreed to let her be.

But Belle...

Amy hid a sigh behind her fan. Belle would be very easily led, by Father or anyone else. It was good that she had a sister to look out for her and keep her from harm.