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Life is finally looking up for the poor relations. The Prince of Wales's coat of arms gleams over the hotel entrance. All but one of the rooms are filled by the open-handed Prince Hugo Panic and his entourage. The owners have taken on a new partner, Mr. Jason Davy, a popular actor. Even curmudgeonly Sir Philip hasn't uttered anything loathsome for days. They have finally reached a position comfortable enough to allow them to consider offers to buy the hotel. The poor relations' hard-earned success, however, is in stark contrast to the plight of their latest guest, Lady Jane Fremney. The slight, beautiful youngest daughter of the Earl of Durby has been cast out of her family for refusing to marry the man her father has chosen. Lonely and bankrupt, Lady Jane has decided to commit suicide. But when Miss Tonks uncovers her plans, the poor relations go into action again to try to rescue Lady Jane from suicide, her father, and her intended.
Daphne, the fourth Armitage sister, appears to be empty-headed and totally vain. She is first interested in Cyril Archer, a young man who seems equally shallow, but things get complicated when she finds Simon Garfield unconscious in a pit dug by the Vicar to prevent a visit by the Bishop, who is intent on making him relinquish his pack of hounds and give up hunting. When she realizes that her father is thinking of snaring Garfield, Daphne tries to further his first impression of her as a crazy girl. She does fall in love with him, but Cyril has discovered blackmail is a way to insure that she marries him. Lady Godolphin, Daphne's sponsor, has troubles of her own, but she is helpful.
When Miss Hannah Pym meets the tomboyish Lady Deborah Western on the coach to Dover, she is certain that, with a little guidance, Deb will attract many suitors--perhaps even her handsome neighbor the Earl of Ashton. Marion Chesney has won the Romantic Times Award for Outstanding Regency Series Writer.
Deirdre, the third daughter, has just fallen in love with Guy Wentwater, Annabelle's first love, who is planning to use her for vengeance on the Armitage family. The vicar has no knowledge of it, and arranges a marriage for her with Lord Harry Desire. Lord Harry seems to her to be a vacuous fool, but her opinion of him gradually begins to change after he rescues her from the disaster of an attempted elopement, but not in time to prevent his releasing her from the engagement. She runs into Guy again, and, even after previous shameful treatment at his hands, asks him to elope with her again. Desire humiliates him again, with Deirdre's unwitting help.
Diana, a gauche tomboy, is resentful when Squire Radford interferes with her plan to go fox hunting with her father. She goes, despite the vicar's stern command to stay home. The squire recognizes her, and when she sees that her father is really angry, she runs off from the hunt. She quickly realizes that she is quite lost, and it is sleeting heavily, and her horse must have shelter. She shelters in the home of Lord Mark Dantrey, whom all the county mamas are determined she shall not snatch. She is disguised as a boy, so she thinks she is safe. The next day, when the vicar sees her, he informs her that her hunting days are over, that she will go to Lady Godolphin for a season in London. She determines to do something quite different from what he has in mind; she will live as a man in London for one week of freedom. At the beginning of her journey, she meets Jack Emberton, a card sharp who is not above making money by other means. He decides she is fair game. A Gypsy has told her that a tall, dark man will enter her life, so she thinks Jack fits the bill perfectly. She arrives in London, masquerades as a boy, but is "press-ganged" the first morning she ventures out on her own, is rescued by Lord Dantrey, and goes to Lady Godolphin and confesses all. The vicar arrives on the scene, after having received an anonymous letter, which frightens them, since Lady Godolphin and Diana thought the scandal was thoroughly squashed, and that she was likely to receive a marriage proposal before the season even began. Her season is abruptly curtailed, and she finds herself back in Hopeworth, where her doings in London must be kept very quiet. Diana does finally accept the fact that she is a woman, and doesn't mind it at all!
Frederica, the "plain Armitage sister", devastated after she learns the vicar's plan to marry Sarah Millet, a vicarage servant, soon after his wife's death, fearing her inadequacy to attract a husband, decides she will earn her own living and leave her home. She writes Minerva a sad letter, forges letters of recommendation and one to get her released from school, and runs away. She decides to try for employment in the service of the Duke of Pembury. She goes to an inn nearby, not wanting to be traced to his mansion, and meets him there. He is interested in her school girlish behavior. She makes her way to his house and is employed, since they need extra staff fast because the Duke forgot to warn them of a house party until the last minute. Unable to sleep the first night there, she goes to the library for a book, where she is surprised by the Duke. He recognizes her. He plans to write her father, but forgets it temporarily, as the arrival of the guests claims his attention. Among those guests are his former mistress, invited by mistake, and Lady Godolphin, that spouter of Malapropisms who has brought the rest of the girls "out," who recognizes her. Meanwhile, Lord Sylvester, Minerva's husband, has ridden down to sort the vicar out, and they arrive on Pembury's doorstep. After a tense scene, Frederica is sent to London with Lady Godolphin for her "come-out." On the way, she gets sick in the coach and has to stop for air. She gets out and gets lost. A storm happens, and she shelters in a building. The duke finds her and they both spend the night there, which could ruin her if it became known. The duke kisses her, and begins to think of her as more than a schoolgirl. His former mistress and Guy Wentwater, a former suitor to Annabelle, plot to get revenge and nearly succeed.
Minerva, a self-made Cinderella, is aglow with sacrificial fervor, which alternates with a longing to continue living as the responsible daughter of the large family at the vicarage. However, she is to have a season in London, which she finds in violent collision with her personal code of morality. Her attempts to impose her ideas on others make enemies, and when she does realize she is truly in love with a man, these enemies act, forcing him to fight a duel. Not content with that, the man who challenged Lord Sylvester Comfrey manages to alienate Minerva from him by means of an anonymous letter and a page of an altered betting book. The vicar, at first resigned to his penniless state, compounded by the debt for Minerva's season in London, finds her unhappiness intolerable and sets out to remedy the situation.
Annabelle, over-indulged and still very childish, smarting from jealousy of Minerva, finally gets her chance for a visit to Minerva's fiancé's home. She feels that she is right for him, that she loves him, and does not believe Minerva could possibly have the same romantic feelings that churn in her! She disgraces herself almost at once after her arrival by speaking Coachee, a form of slang (and has no idea what she is saying). The Duchess of Allsbury informs her she will write her father and tell him of her unacceptable behavior. Annabelle finds out in a shocking manner that Lord Sylvester does not love her, as she thought, convinced that her beauty would win anybody's approval. She decides to get revenge on Minerva by marrying the Marques of Brabington, thereby socially outranking her sister at all public occasions, and to insist on a double wedding so that she will outshine Minerva. This will also get her out of trouble with her family. Lord Peter Brabington succumbs. Despite qualms, Annabelle goes through with the marriage. When it goes sour on their wedding night, it is once again left to the vicar and his friend, Squire Radford, to straighten out the situation.
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