“Bloody hell!” Conrad muttered to himself, reining in his horse at the sight of several carriages lining the drive of the massive house. If he awaited his turn in line, he would surely be caught in the downpour just starting to sprinkle. He moved his horse to the side, the stables his destination, passing ladies dressed in all their finery as they exited their carriages. Servants followed behind, loaded down with trunks and boxes of varying sizes. Probably filled with bonnets of great extravagance and even less taste. Conrad snorted. He had no idea what had possessed him to agree to this absurd plan. Demonic possession seemed the only explanation for what he was about to do. He hated society and a house party was one of the worst manifestations of it. Every mama able to finagle an invitation would be here to peddle her daughter before the highest ranking peer. It was beyond his understanding why his brother willingly submitted himself to this tabby gathering. Under normal circumstances Conrad would never attend such a gathering, yet here he was. He handed off his mount to a stable boy.
Another curse escaped his lips as he mounted the stairs to the front doors. Other guests made their way up the curved stairs, but Conrad paid them no mind. He scowled at his feet. An old hunched butler opened the door, gesturing him inside. Conrad presented his card, or rather Ian’s. “Lord Ian Pinkerton, welcome to Somerstone.” The old man bowed so deeply Conrad was afraid he may never be able to right himself. Much to his relief, the man returned to his previous hunched position.
A slim, dark haired lady approached with a bright smile She was not a doe-eyed debutante, but neither did she look to be on the shelf. She, or rather her family, must have money problems Conrad thought with a small amount of sympathy. “Ah, Lord Ian. the Countess has been waiting for you. Please follow me, she wanted to speak with you directly.”
Conrad sighed internally, for Ian would never make such a sound unless it was a matter of grave concern, such as a mis-tied cravat or last year’s fashion. Having committed himself the moment he walked through the door, Conrad pasted a smile upon his face- one he hoped conveyed a mixture of fecklessness and charm. The action proved more difficult than he assumed. He loathed this role he must play, but he had agreed. Straightening his waist coat and squaring his shoulders, he followed the woman through a hall with dozens of pillars supporting the upper floor. At the stairs, the lady waited for him to ascend first. She has been trained to be a lady. His earlier suspicions supported. At the top of the stairs, he again followed her down a sort of hallway, although it went through several rooms along the way.
Unlike Ian, he had only met the Countess Du’Breven on a few occasions. He knew her to be a busybody, but at least she could prove amusing at times.
They entered a library of sorts, although it’s offering was sparse compared to many, including his own. From the expansiveness of this house, Conrad guessed it was more likely a personal sitting room of the Countess. The bookshelves only covered the lower half of the walls, the upper portion being covered in a rich red wallpaper. Windows spread throughout the room gave it a bright, welcoming warmth. The lady herself was seated at a desk, a quill in hand. She looked up at their entrance, abandoning her parchment, she stood to greet him. She seemed to almost peer around him, as if looking for someone else.
Her shoulders relaxed a fraction as she smiled. “Ian, it is so good to see you.”
“I can assure you, my Lady, the pleasure is all mine.” Had he used enough affection in his tone? Did his smile appear appropriately friendly? Conrad took a calming breath. How had he thought this was going to work?
She clasped his hands in hers, unabashedly looking him over. The scrutiny was unnerving. Conrad unconsciously took a step back, his smile dropping slightly. The Countess took two steps forward, closing the gap. Her eyes narrowed slightly as she continued her perusal, stopping at his face, her head tilting to one side. I can’t believe it. I have been here less than five minutes and the lady has already ferreted out the secret.
“You seem different, Ian. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is definitely something amiss.”
Conrad ran a hand through his hair, forcing a chuckle that came out sounding slightly crazed. “I do not know what you mean. Perhaps my hair is longer than usual, but that should not elicit such a response.” He raised a brow, hoping he could distract her until he could make an escape to his rooms. “You on the other hand, have not changed a bit. How do you do it, my Lady?” He had two whole days of this? He was beginning to think his best course of action was to keep to his room. Or rather to any room where the Countess was not.
She released his hands so she could rap him lightly against the upper arm. “I can see you have not changed in totality. You are still quite the charmer.”
Conrad gave an inward grimace at the description. It inferred such low character. He did not understand how his brother could not only endure such a title, but seemingly embrace it. “I was told you wished to see me upon my arrival.” He winced slightly at the gruff tone of his voice. Softening it, he asked, “How can I be of service to you?”
Her head titled again, an appraising look entering her eyes. Moving back to her desk, she picked up the feather, tapping it against her chin. “I was hoping you had convinced your brother to accompany you on this visit. But seeing you are alone, I am guessing he was otherwise engaged.” There was a touch of challenge in her voice.
“My dear Countess, if I did not know better, I would think you were using me for my connections to The Marquess of Kendal.” He gave a dramatic sigh, followed by a wink, for he had seen Ian wink hundreds of times. And it always ended with the same response- tittering and blushing. The Countess, however, neither blushed nor tittered, which squelched his earlier confidence. “It is good I know better. I did present him your invitation, but as always, he declined. I cannot fathom why you desire his presence. Everyone knows he is a bore and most disagreeable.” Conrad had heard these and many other descriptions over the years.
The Countess waved away his words. “On the few occasions I have met Lord Kendal, I found him reserved, but not entirely unpleasant.” A puzzled expression crossed her face as she turned her back, taking up her seat. “Very well. I shall see you at dinner.” Not waiting for her to change her mind, Conrad bowed in her direction and made his way out of the room. He was almost to the door when her words stopped him. “Lord Kendal?”
Conrad turned. “Yes, my La…?” What had she just called him? Was it just a mistake on her part? He chanced a look in her direction, but her head was still down, her feather moving furiously back and forth.
“You will have to try harder if you are to persuade anyone here that you are Lord Ian. Granted, I am more observant than most, but there are several coming who boast quite an intimate acquaintance with your brother, namely Lord Anthony and Mr. Beauchamp.” She finally looked up from her work, continuing. “I am surprised either of you believed you could fool me.” There was a touch of arrogance in her voice.
Irritation flickered across his face at the mention of Ian’s school chums. They were three men of the same ilk. Conrad shook his head. “I tried to tell Ian this would never work, but he was insistent. He was afraid of offending you. His visit with Miss Simmons overlapped by a few days.”
“Thinking me a dimwit is what I find offensive.” She stood again, moving back towards him. “However, I find I am intrigued with the possible outcomes of this little charade, not to mention honored to have the Marquess of Kendal at my little house party.” She quirked a brow, her lips pursed. “Tell me, when is your brother expected?”
“Day after tomorrow, my Lady.”
She clasped her hands, a wicked smile on her face. “Then we shall have to have our fun quickly, my Lord.”
“Tell me again how you procured this invitation, Mama?” Jessica Standish stared out the rain streaked carriage window at the vast home visable between the birch trees lining the drive. The darkness of the storm clouds overhead merely made the expansive house look ominous.
“Do not act so astonished, Jes. We may be paupers now, but there was time when all of the grand homes in England were open to me. Pray, I was even dear friends with the daughter of the Countess Du’Brevan.”
Jes turned sympathetic eyes to her mother. “We are not paupers, Mama.” Not that it had mattered when they did have money. “Though that still does not explain the invitation. Our less than winning reputation among society was made very clear during my last season.” She knew her words were harsh, but none the less true.
“Come now, Jes.” There was a hint of aggravation in Mama’s voice. “Wipe that suspicion from your eyes. I did nothing dishonest. I simply made contact with an old acquaintance.” Her mother looked out the window, conveniently avoiding eye contact. “As for the remaining money, I am afraid the bulk of it is gone.” At Jes’s sharp intake of breath, her mama turned back to her. “We could not arrive here in a mail coach wearing rags, now could we? It was necessary to use the remainder of the money to…” Her mother paused. “Put our best foot forward. This is precisely the type of event that could change your life.”
Jes shook her head. “But Mama, you said Aunt Lydia paid for all of this.” She lifted the fabric of her new traveling dress. “Do you not remember London? If I could not secure a match there, where there were dozens of eligible men, what makes you believe I would make one here? I will be seen as a fortune hunter.” She dropped her head into her hands, releasing a sigh of frustration. How could her mother have done such a thing? This irrational woman was not the mother Jes knew. She whispered her newest fear into her hands. “It will all come to naught and we will be left with nothing.”
Her mother placed a hand on her back, rubbing small circles, taking Jes back to her childhood. “It is not for me I am doing this, you understand. It is for you. I want you to be happy and well settled.”
Lifting her head up, she turned. “And I can only be well settled and happy with a gentleman of large fortune? It was not the life you chose for yourself.”
“I loved your father and we had a good life, but that does not mean there were not difficult times. I am trying to help you avoid that.”
Putting her hand to the window, in awe of the grandeur before her, Jes sighed. “Everyone has difficulties, Mama. Even the rich and titled. You should know that as well as anyone.”
The carriage moved forward, stopping in front of the curved steps. Jessica moved to the edge of her seat, anticipating the footman opening the door. She was not, however, anticipating his very handsome face. He smiled at her, making her face warm slightly. Her mother cleared her throat behind her, moving Jessica’s feet just a little faster. He released her hand, then reached for her mother’s. Once they were both on the ground, he handed them off to another footman.
Jessica entered the house in front of her mother, stopping in the entryway to stare at the dozens of marble pillars dotting the room. Her mother touched her arm, leaning in so only Jes could hear. “It is amazing, is it not?”
Nodding, Jes whispered back. “Have you never been here before?”
“No, my associations were at their London townhouse. Although, I did attend a house party at their estate in Kent one summer.”
They followed the footman through the pillared room and up one side of the rounded staircase. As they reached the first landing, movement on the floor above drew Jessica’s notice. She turned, focusing in on the object of her attention. Her heart quickened and her breath caught in her throat. He was here. She had not seen him in more than a year and dared not hope she would see him again. But here he was.