To Capture a Duke's Heart(4)

By: Jennifer McNare

Initially she hadn’t understood Maryanne’s underlying animosity, but as she’d grown older she’d come to understand what motivated her stepmother’s enmity. Blonde, beautiful and exceedingly narcissistic, Maryanne was accustomed to being the center of attention, and as such, her stepmother deeply resented the love her husband had felt for his first wife, as well as the love and affection he bestowed upon Penny.

Unfortunately her feelings of ill will toward her had only intensified with the passing of time, taking on an added dimension and becoming ever more palpable as Penny’s youthful countenance had slowly matured to echo her mother’s and her slim, girlish form had blossomed bit by bit into a profusion of womanly curves. Sadly, her attempts at improving the relationship between her and her stepmother had long proved fruitless, thus she no longer tried. Instead, she simply avoided Maryanne whenever possible and did her best to ignore her when it wasn’t.

Alas, one good thing had come from Maryanne’s entrance into their lives, however, and that was her brother, Charles. She’d adored him from the moment he was born and had done her best to make up for his mother’s profound lack of interest, showering him with an abundance of sisterly love and affection. Now, at four-years-old, Charlie was the spitting image of his mother, having inherited Maryanne’s golden-blonde hair and pale blue eyes; but despite their physical resemblance, her sweet-tempered brother seemed to possess none of his mother’s unflattering character traits. She couldn’t help but smile just thinking about him, for like their father he had a kind, loving disposition and a remarkably keen intelligence; and though they had only been away from home a short while, she missed him terribly.

Alright, Penny, enough woolgathering, she silently admonished, forcing her attention back to her reflection in the mirror. Reaching upward she adjusted the narrow sleeves of her off-the-shoulder gown, pushing the pale-peach satin bands downward another inch. Never one to focus overmuch on her physical attributes she had to admit that tonight was different; for with the recent arrival of the Duke of Ainsworth and his brothers she couldn’t deny that she wanted to look her best and was immensely thankful that she’d had Anne pack several of her new Parisian gowns into her trunk. The one she wore now was by far the most beautiful garment she’d ever worn and tailored to perfection, hugging her curves in all of the right places. And almost as pleasing as the gown itself, there wasn’t a thing Maryanne could do to keep her from wearing it.

Regrettably her stepmother had assumed one motherly role upon her arrival into Penny’s life, and that had been the overseeing of her wardrobe. It rankled even now, for under Maryanne’s direction nearly all of her pretty frocks had disappeared from her wardrobe, only to be replaced with simple, drab-colored garments that had become less and less flattering with each passing year. Unfortunately her father’s utter lack of fashion sense had made the task all too easy for her malevolent stepmother and she shuddered to think that she would likely be wearing one of those ghastly abominations at this very moment if it hadn’t been for her recent trip to Paris to visit her mother’s younger sister, Catherine.

Since her mother’s death Penny had developed a close relationship with her aunt, a bond that had grown increasingly stronger as the years had passed. Unfortunately, however, she didn’t get to see Catherine nearly as much as she would have liked, for her aunt had married a French marquis four years earlier and now resided in Paris with him and their two young children.

Not surprisingly, when Catherine had seen the collection of gowns packed within the depths of Penny’s trunks upon her arrival in Paris she’d been aghast, uttering a string of very unladylike exclamations as the hideous garments had been revealed one by one. As such, and to her absolute joy, her aunt had taken her to visit the shop of one of the most celebrated dress designers in Paris the very next day and had proceeded to order her an entire new wardrobe. Thus, when she had arrived home the following month she’d had three trunks packed full of exquisitely crafted Parisian gowns, including the one she wore now. As she’d expected, Maryanne had been livid when she’d seen them, immediately threatening to dispose of the entire lot, insisting that the elegant, sophisticated designs were far too mature for a girl of her age. But in an uncharacteristic display of defiance Penny had taken a stand against her stepmother, taking the matter directly to her father. Fortunately, after a relatively brief discussion, the earl had sided with her, confident that Catherine would not have approved the designs if they were truly unsuitable, as Maryanne had suggested. And so, much to her stepmother’s consternation the new gowns had been hers to keep.