JANUARY 1883—NEW YORK CITY
Miss Wilhelmina Radcliff was reluctantly coming to the unfortunate conclusion that there were absolutely no perks to be had when one obtained the unenviable title of wallflower.
Taking a sip of the tepid lemonade she’d actually fetched for herself, she couldn’t help but recall the many times in her past when flutes of champagne had shown up in her hand before she’d even proclaimed herself thirsty. Those flutes had been brought to her by her many admirers, admirers who had all but vanished the moment her father’s fortune had disappeared—destroyed as so many fortunes were wont to do by a single disastrous investment decision.
Shifting on the uncomfortable chair provided by her hostess, Mrs. William Travers, wife to one of the esteemed New York patriarchs, Wilhelmina paused when the chair gave an ominous groan. Refusing to give in to the urge to heave a sigh—especially since any type of heaving might have the chair giving out underneath her—she remained frozen on the spot, praying that the chair would not collapse, since that would undoubtedly draw unwanted attention.
Attention was not something she actively sought these days, especially because any attention she did garner usually came with a large dollop of pitying looks cast her way by young ladies Wilhelmina had once considered friends.
Blowing out a breath of relief when the legs of the chair continued to hold her hardly slender figure, Wilhelmina took a second to smooth out the folds of her slightly out-of-fashion brocade gown.
Her smoothing came to an abrupt end, however, when the lady sitting two chairs down from her suddenly leaned forward, peered at something in the distance, and then bent her head and began scribbling madly on her dance card. After her scribbling was done, she lifted her head, squinted off into the distance again, and then, to Wilhelmina’s surprise, turned and pinned Wilhelmina with eyes that were a very unusual shade of blue.
“I say, Miss Radcliff, given that you are a most sought-after social secretary these days, would you happen to know the name of that gentleman standing over there beside Miss Kasson?” The lady gestured in the direction of one of the refreshment tables. “I took note of him at the Academy of Music earlier this evening, but even though I’ve been out in society for what seems like ages, I’ve never seen that particular gentleman before.”
With her mouth forming an O of surprise, Wilhelmina responded to the question in the only way she felt capable of responding—she simply took to gawking at the lady. That gawking was undoubtedly caused by the very idea that the lady had willingly chosen to break one of the unspoken rules of the wallflowers. That rule, as everyone knew, being that wallflowers did not converse with each other . . . ever.
Wallflowers preferred, or at least she assumed they did, to remain mute, suffering in silence while presenting society with a face of stoic nonchalance. That nonchalance was apparently intended to prove that they were not bothered in the least by the fact they’d been excluded from the fashionable crowd, forced to spend their time twiddling their thumbs while their social superiors waltzed around the dance floor.
Wilhelmina was not a lady who was comfortable with accepting the whole banished-to-the-fringes-of-society notion. Quite honestly, she was fairly certain she’d be far happier not attending society events at all. But, because she did need the funds high-society ladies were willing to pay for her fine penmanship, she found herself included in one society function after another these days. While she attended these functions, it was her duty to take note of all the guests present, observe who seemed to be in highest demand, and then use that information when she compiled the next guest list, making certain those in-demand society members were placed at the very top of the invitation list.
Being required, due to a lack of funds, to take on employment had rankled at first. But with time, and with the realization that her contributions to the meager family coffers actually mattered, Wilhelmina had pushed aside all semblance of pride as she settled into the daunting business of survival.