Cornelia Greystock glanced at the ormolu clock that graced the wall over her dressing table and her whole body tensed with urgency. The exquisite timepiece was the Countess Du’Breven’s way of ensuring that her hired companion was ever aware of the time. The faint ticking of the clock movement further served to remind Cornelia that her time was no longer her own. Indeed, it was likely never to be again.
Nearly a month in the Countess’ service, and she still awoke every morning with a hearty desire to pack her bags and flee back to her childhood home in Derbyshire. But though she would be received into her father’s house again, the circumstances that had necessitated her employment would be waiting there for her.
And so it was on this cloudy, grey morning. Cornelia finished the last of her tea and toast, pushed away the letter she had been writing to her mother and sisters to finish later, checked her fingers for smudges of ink, and hurried to the Countess’ rooms. This distance from her allotted bedchamber was enough to make the most indefatigable walker flag, for it consisted of traversing three halls and the entire length of Somerstone Mansion. When Cornelia had mentioned to the Countess that having her companion closer would be of benefit to her, she had waved an airy hand and said, “You’re young, my dear Miss Greystock. And I wouldn’t deprive you of the enjoyment of passing through the pillared hall as often as possible.”
But Cornelia had at last grown used to the journey and was breathing almost normally by the time she arrived at the Countess’ room and knocked gently.
“Enter.” The commanding voice of Brimsby, the Countess’ devoted lady’s maid was only slightly muffled by the thick door.
Cornelia opened it just far enough to permit her entry, then closed it softly behind her. Cornelia glanced at Brimsby, neither expecting nor getting a word of greeting. Even though Cornelia was a member of the gentry and came from good family, Brimsby took every opportunity to establish a superior position over her. Cornelia had never experienced such consciousness of rank as she did among the servants, and felt the sharp loneliness of being caught between two worlds.
The Countess sat in her canopied four-poster bed, propped up by numerous pillows, sipping her morning chocolate and reading the vast pile of letters scattered over her coverlet. Her pug, Wellington, lounged at his ease with his head over her lap. He perked up as Cornelia came closer, raising his head until Cornelia scratched behind his ears.
The Countess looked up, stirring the ruffles of her lace cap. She smiled, plumping up her smooth but slightly sagging cheeks. But a moment later, she narrowed her eyes at the letter in her hand again.
“Good morning, Lady Du’Breven. Is everything well?” Cornelia asked, pulling a small chair up to the bed.
“Bah!” she said, making Cornelia jump.
The elderly lady held out an imperious hand and shook the letter at Cornelia. “See if you can read this bumble broth of a letter. Why my daughter feels it necessary to cross and recross her lines is beyond me. She knows I would gladly pay the extra postage to not have to spend the better part of an hour deciphering her scrawl. Begin on the second page.”
Cornelia took the letter and sat upon the chair next to the bed. She studied the letter a moment and read, “Thomas has recovered much of his strength, due in large part to the restorative I concocted for him from my own recipe and not from the application of leeches, no matter what Dr. March may say. I have high hopes that he may leave his bed for an hour or two tomorrow and—”
“Stop.” The Countess’ voice was sharp, like a woman past endurance. “I have no desire to hear more about her husband’s eternal infirmities. And we have work to do. Guests will be arriving soon, and I must acquaint you with your duties during the house party.”
Cornelia looked up at her in surprise. “I thought my duties would remain the same, to attend you.”
The Countess searched among the papers on her bed until she found the one she wanted. “Well, of course you shall do so, but part of that will be to assist me as hostess. I am not as young as I wish to be and you will at times be my deputy for activities that are beyond my strength. Also, you shall see to the comfort of my guests and the success of the party. I am determined that there shall be many fine matches made before the party draws to a close, and I may require your assistance in bringing them about. This may be difficult since you are not familiar with many of my guests seeing as how your family saw fit to keep you buried in the wilds of Derbyshire, but I believe you to be an intelligent young woman.”
The Countess then preceded to go through her guest list, one name at a time, expounding on each person’s rank, wealth, and personality. She also added to this list who she believed would be a good match for whom.
The Countess bit her lip thoughtfully. “Lord Beauchamp will be too busy minding his rascal brother to make much effort on his own behalf. We shall have to give him a nudge toward a suitable girl. And poor Tabitha Easton. She’ll need help escaping from her brothers. Perhaps I shouldn’t have invited the whole family, but it would have been rude not too. Besides, every last one of them is handsome enough to make a duchess swoon.”
“Sounds like a great deal of bother to me,” Cornelia said softly, with no expectation that she would be heard.
And indeed she wasn’t, as the Countess’ attention was focused on her list. “Ah, Sir George. Well, I shall be pleased to see him again. It’s been a great deal too long. I hope to do something for his girls. Bah, my eyes. Read the rest to me, please.”
Cornelia took the piece of foolscap and began where the Countess had left off. Names and titles swam before her eyes until her thoughts were all one tangled knot. How would she ever keep any of them straight? But then a name lept off the list, shattering her equanimity.
“Who is next?” the Countess asked.
Cornelia swallowed and said, “Sir James Hawkston.” Hopefully, the Countess had not noticed the tremor in her voice.
“Ah yes. Well, you know him, don’t you?”
“Yes, my lady. Quite well.”
“Well, there you go. That will make you more comfortable.” If there had been a tremor in Cornelia’s voice, there was decidedly a gurgle of amusement in hers. “He is from Buxton as well, I believe.”
“Yes,” Cornelia said. “He is our neighbor. When do you expect him to arrive?”
“Let me see.” She looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought. “Not till tomorrow. How difficult men are to manage sometimes.”
“Yes, they are. I’m happy to be free of them.”
But the Countess smiled slyly at her. “Only because you do not know what you are missing. Now, I expect you to take care that Sir James is comfortable when he arrives. No doubt it will be at some vulgar hour early in the morning.”
“I shall do my best,” Cornelia responded. Her voice and face were placid, but torrents of emotion swept through her. Sir James had proposed to her two months ago and she had refused him. Because they were neighbors it had become impossible for her to remain at home where she would see him often. The Countess had offered her a post as paid companion, and Cornelia had leapt at the chance to escape. She had often wondered, though, what had prompted the invitation.
If only she had told her whole story to the Countess. Perhaps then, her employer might have spared her to the ordeal of facing a spurned suitor in such a setting. Especially if she had known the full, infuriating story.
The Countess’ voice cut through Cornelia’s tumbling thoughts. “Now, go and check on all of the rooms. I like to keep my servants on their toes lest they grow complacent. They know I cannot walk all over this pile, and Mrs. Finch has more on her hands than she can manage today. She is feeling poorly besides.”
“Yes, my lady. I shall attend to it.”
“Oh, and when Lord Ian arrives, I wish to speak to him.”
“I will notify you.”
Cornelia left the Countess’ chambers and hurried off to do her bidding. A sense of urgent expectation hung about the manor, and every floor and room buzzed with activity. Maids laid beds with freshly aired sheets, provided candles, and filled washbasins. The butler oversaw an enormous delivery of wine, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Finch, bustled about overseeing the whole of it, though every time Cornelia saw the woman she looked a different shade of grey.
It didn’t take long before Cornelia felt vastly unnecessary. The staff was well-trained and efficient—though she did have to send Damen about his business when she caught him in the larder with a pretty upstairs maid who had come looking for soap.
“Miss Greystock. Where are you?”
Cornelia heard Mrs. Finch long before she saw her. The lady had a voice like a thunderclap when she chose to raise it. Since Cornelia was at that moment taking a cup of tea in the kitchen and sampling the raspberry tarts, under the guise of supervising the pastry cook, she resented the interruption. Still, it was her duty to be of service.
“Here I am, Mrs. Finch. How can I help?”
“Miss, I am at my wits’ end. I cannot go another step. And the flowers, miss. I haven’t had time to do the flowers. Will you please see to it? You have a lovely eye for arranging them.”
This was an unexpected pleasure, seeing as how she had expected a far worse task. She loved secreting herself in the still room with nothing but elegant, fragrant blooms and her thoughts for company.
“Of course, Mrs. Finch. I shall have them done in a trice. Now, I think you had best go to bed. ”
“Oh, but I cannot. We’ll have guests upon us in no time.” Then the redoubtable lady clenched her thin jaw and walked away, with only a slight, swaying stagger to her steps.
Cornelia worried for her but knew she did not have the authority to order the woman to bed. So, she retired to the still room where the gardener had brought in baskets of flowers that were just beginning to wilt for want of water.
But as she worked, her thoughts turned again and again to Sir James and his brother Timothy. Yes, Timothy, whom she had thought herself to be in love with. Her once childhood playmate had professed himself in love with her until Sir James had seen to it that Timothy become betrothed to a wealthy girl from Bath.
She had been hurt by Timothy’s fickle nature but had in part understood Sir James motivation. It was not surprising that he would have wanted a better match for his brother than the dowerless, spinster daughter of his neighbor. She might have lived out the rest of her life at home, or perhaps even one day made a match with a simple country gentleman and been comfortable if Sir James had left her alone.
But to her mortification, he had sought her out one morning as she was walking near the lake and proposed to her. Shocked she had asked, “But why do you wish to marry me? I was not good enough to marry your brother, remember?”
“Cornelia, no. It is only that Timothy has very little fortune of his own. I do not need to worry about such matters when choosing my own wife, and indeed, I do feel that you are owed something for the loss of your expectations.”
Just thinking about it made her want to pick up the roses in the basket provided by the head gardener and beat them against the wall until the perfect petals were torn from the stems. How would she ever endure his presence?
Fortunately for the sake of her temper, Mrs. Finch was a prophetess. It was no more than half an hour later that the first carriage arrived, and she was called forth from her sanctuary to help greet people. Flower arrangements would just have to wait.
For the next five hours, she greeted and introduced. She directed ladies to tea and the gentlemen to the billiard room for more reviving refreshments and male company—except for Lord Ian, who she took to the library for a chat with the Countess. Much to her annoyance, she also had to keep a close eye on Wellington who scampered outside when the door opened and nearly got trampled by horses several times.
Later on in the afternoon, when Mrs. Finch eventually succumbed to her illness and retired to her bed, Cornelia was left to attend to her duties. This included caring for Miss Fairchild, a young lady who reminded her of a fragile china doll. The delicate girl had become suddenly faint, adding to the chaos of the day.
At least all the activity made the time pass quickly, and it was not until the front hall was finally cleared of trunks and baggage, that she had time to think again about Sir James. Dreading his arrival as she was, she was tired of waiting for the ax to fall and wished only to get it over with.
Instead, she was forced to sit through dinner and the elegant gathering afterward, wearing complacency instead of the rouge her cheeks no doubt needed. At long last, she was able to see the Countess safely in Brimley’s care and retire to bed for the night. But she knew she would not sleep from dreading the morning to come.