At precisely eight o'clock, Miss Sophie Kendall strode to the head of the long, rough-hewn table in the back room of Madam Laurent's dress shop and gazed at the women gathered around. They perched on chairs two rows deep, their expectant faces framed by satin-trimmed hats, simple straw bonnets, and white ruffled caps.
This particular moment—just before Sophie spoke, when she felt every pair of eyes trained upon her—was always the most exhilarating. She drew in a deep breath, savoring the flutter in her belly for one more exquisite second.
At last, she flashed a wide, sincere smile at the eclectic group of women and launched into her greeting. "Thank you, ladies, for attending this meeting of our secret society, in which devotees of The Debutante's Revenge column explore sensitive topics such as courting, desire, intimacy, and love. Welcome," she said, pausing slightly for dramatic effect, "to the Debutante Underground." The room erupted in jubilant cheers and enthusiastic applause before quieting again.
Sophie continued, her expression a bit soberer as she stared at the assembly—their largest to date. "Some of you are new to our ranks, and we are delighted to have you here. However, we do insist that every participant abide by a strict set of rules, which we review at the beginning of each meeting.
"Rule number one," she began, reciting from memory. "The Debutante Underground shall not be discussed outside these walls. Indeed, as far as the rest of London is concerned, it does not exist."
In response, the women chanted, "Hear, hear."
"Rule number two," Sophie intoned. "Anonymity is paramount. We use only given names here—no surnames, no titles. If you should happen to see a fellow member as you stroll down the street, you shall not acknowledge her unless you are acquainted through other means."
"Hear, hear," the women chorused.
"Rule number three: Discussions are to be held in the strictest of confidences. While our goal is to enlighten each other regarding subjects that are typically taboo, no personal details related in the course of our conversations here may be shared."
"And last," Sophie said, "rule number four: We shall always speak the truth, the best we know it."
"Hear, hear," the women said solemnly.
"Now then," Sophie said, clasping her hands together. "We will begin, as always, by reading the latest column." She held up that morning's edition of the London Hearsay, folded open to The Debutante's Revenge and its accompanying sketch—a gorgeous vignette of a gentleman nuzzling the neck of a woman wearing a smile that could only be described as satisfied. Indeed, the besotted expressions on the couple's faces made Sophie's chest ache. She shook off the familiar yearning and cleared her throat. "Sarah, would you like to do the honors?"
The pretty, auburn-haired young widow, still in half mourning, nodded eagerly. She stood and read aloud from her own copy of the newspaper:
A gentleman's ability to please a woman has less to do with his sexual prowess than with his attentive nature.
If you wish to know whether a man will be a skilled lover, look for small, thoughtful gestures. Perhaps he insists you eat the last slice of cake or holds his jacket above your head to shield you from the rain. Maybe he picks you a bouquet of wildflowers or refrains from interrupting you while you finish the chapter you're reading.
A man who happily puts your needs above his own is likely to be a generous and ardent lover— and that is the very best kind.
Several of the ladies fanned themselves; others sighed. For the space of several breaths, no one spoke; then Mrs. Abigail Sully, the witty, if weary, mother of three young children, piped up. "I'd settle for a man who changes nappies."
"I'd settle for a man who took the time to remove his boots before climbing into my bed," an older woman said mirthfully.
And before long, the women waded into a discussion that was sometimes playful, sometimes wistful, but always forthright and supportive. While they helped themselves to tea and scones, Sophie slowly retreated to her usual corner, where she could observe the proceedings to her heart's content.