Conrad stood against the wall of the waiting room, watching. Dozens of people wandered between the two small rooms, waiting for dinner to be served. Mothers and daughters moved from group to group, tittering and laughing at each one, as if every person in attendance was particularly witty. As his gaze made another circuit about the room, he spotted a young lady enter. She was not overly beautiful, yet Conrad could not seem to take his eyes off her. A small group opposite him seemed to be her intended destination, however after a quick perusal, her eyes lit and she changed her course, heading instead in his direction.
She stepped up to him, dipping a slight curtsy. “Lord Ian. It is good to see you again.”
Placing what he hoped looked like a lazy smile on his face, he nodded. “I quite agree, but remind me, when did we last see each other? It seems to be ages ago.”
She smiled as if she knew he was searching for information. “It was in London… at the Medford’s ball.”
“Ah, yes. The Medford’s ball.” He knew the Medford’s. They were a decent sort of people, but not the upper tier by any stretch of the imagination. It rather surprised him Ian would attend such an affair. “And how have you been since last we met?” He was surprised Ian had associated with this woman, for she did not possess the beauty and charms of most of his conquests. Perhaps he had only been interested because of her innocence. The thought brought a disgusted grunt.
She looked at him, befuddled. “I am doing well, I thank you for inquiring.” She looked around the room, at anything but him, no doubt in search of better company. He wished he knew her name, not that it would help this fledgling conversation.
He cleared his throat, bringing her attention back. “Are you here with your mother or ….” He groaned internally. What was he prattling on about? Staring at a wall would be of more interest than this conversation. How did Ian do it? He needed to try for a lighter tone.
The young lady gave a polite smile, her gaze not fully connecting with his. “Yes, my mother accompanied me. In fact, here she comes now.”
A beautiful woman walked regally towards them. He looked back at the lady next to him, noting the resemblance. The mother was striking, while the daughter was more… pretty. Her dark brown eyes played to her advantage, however, bringing out the pink in her cheeks. The mother reached them, standing at her daughter’s side. “Who do we have here, Jes? I do not believe I have made the gentleman’s acquaintance.”
Jes? That did him very little good in his current situation. It was not as if he could call the young lady by her Christian name, although he would definitely keep that bit of information tucked away. For now, it was a better way to think of her than ‘the young lady.’ Jes placed a hand on her mother’s arm. “Lady Rachel Standish, may I introduce Lord Ian Pinkerton.”
Lady Rachel curtsied. “My Lord.”
Conrad bowed, kissing the lady’s hand. Ah, finally. He had a name, but was she Lady Jes or Miss Standish? “It is a pleasure to meet you Lady Rachel. You have a very charming daughter.” The young lady pinked slightly at the compliment. The color suited her.
Just then, the Countess sidled up beside him. “Ah, Lord Ian.” She said the name as if it contained a great secret or scandal. If the woman continued this way, everyone would know something was amiss. “I see you have met Lady Rachel and her daughter, Miss Jessica Standish.”
Conrad nodded in Miss Standish’s direction. “It would be hard to miss someone as lovely as Miss Standish.” The blush deepened, making Conrad feel successful for once. Perhaps this is why Ian acts as he does. “Although, Miss Standish and I already had the pleasure of meeting… in London, at the Medford’s ball.” The success vanished. Conrad took a deep breath, berating himself for muddling something so simple. Once again the question of this charade ever working hit him.
Lady Du’Breven coughed, although it sounded more like a laugh. “Is that so, Lord Ian?” There was that tone again.
Miss Standish nodded her head vigorously, apparently she had taken the Countess’s odd reaction to mean their story was not believed. This was all a diversion to the old woman, just another reason Conrad hated society and all the games they played. He chagrined slightly, as he realized he was playing a game as surely as anyone else here.
The Countess patted Miss Standish on the arm, as if to reassure her. Turning to Lady Rachel, she continued. “Lord Ian is the brother of Lord Conrad Pinkerton, the Marquess of Kendal.”
Lady Rachel smiled tightly. “I was acquainted with your mother. She and my sister had their come outs together. She was a very… refined lady.”
Conrad felt his heart tug at the mention of his mother’s name, momentarily forgetting those around him. “Yes, she was. Were you close friends?”
The Countess coughed again, placing her hand on Lady Rachel’s. “Come, my dear. I seem to have a tickle in my throat. Perhaps we can find something to assuage it until dinner is served.” The two women moved away, leaving Miss Standish behind.
She moved her gaze around the room. Conrad could tell she was anxious to find someone else to converse with. It seemed he was not as good at being his brother as he thought he would be. After all, how hard could it be to play an idiot? Ian made it all look so simple- a smile here, a wink there. But Conrad was having difficulty pulling it off. He needed to think of something to make him smile naturally and genuinely. Suddenly a smile broke free as he thought of punishing Ian when this was over.
Miss Standish turned back towards him. “Is your bother attending? I have not been introduced to him. I assumed he would attend such an event, especially if you were here also.”
Conrad leaned in towards her, as if they were conspirators. “Then you do not know my brother at all. He abhors events such as this and rejects every invitation.”
Her face turned crimson, and not for a good reason this time. “I did not know, my apologies for making such an assumption.” She pulled away slightly, seemingly ill at ease with their close proximity.
He tried a wink, it felt rather foreign and odd. “There is no need to apologize. I am sure it is for the best. He is terribly tedious and really no fun at all.”
She shook her head. “I cannot believe it. I have yet to meet anyone with nothing at all of interest to say. I am sure your brother is not so very different. It is too bad I shall not have the opportunity to find out for myself.”
Just then the butler announced dinner. Miss Standish offered a small curtsy before hurrying to join her mother as the group began to order themselves for the move into the dining room, leaving Conrad to wonder about this intriguing woman.
Jes and her mother were seated about halfway down the dining table, separated only by a gentleman. Apparently her mother’s title still held some clout, in this household at least. Or perhaps not. Jes looked up and down the table, taking note of where others of her acquaintance were seated. She noticed Lord Ian was seated only a few seats from The Countess. Curious, she thought. While he was a lord, it was only a courtesy title, given to all sons of a marquess. There were several in attendance boasting greater status than that of a younger son. But then, the Countess was quite known for ignoring social protocol.
“Ah, Miss Standish. I see we have been placed next to each other.” Lord Bloomsbury patted at his sweat-dotted forehead with his handkerchief.
She smiled. “You have a very good memory, Lord Bloomsbury. Many gentlemen would not have remembered my name among this crush.” The baron flopped the long strands of hair he used to cover his balding crown, back into place. “Mother always says manners require a good memory.”
Trying to hide her amusement, Jes nodded in agreement. An army of footmen entered, bringing dishes to the table. Lord Bloomsbury turned his attention to Miss Burton across the table. The gentleman on Jes’s other side- apparently she had poor manners, for she had forgotten his name, was engrossed in conversation with Lord and Lady Wilmington. Jes began eating, lost in her own thoughts. Her eyes moved of their own volition down the table to Lord Ian. He seemed much changed since last she saw him. Granted, she had only danced with him once, but she had observed him, more than was strictly acceptable. He was acting more reserved and withdrawn than he had in London. When he looked up and caught her eyes, she realized she was staring. Feeling her face heat, she ducked her head and focused on the plate in front of her.
“Do you not agree, Miss Standish?”
Jes, swallowed her bite, raising her eyebrows. “Beg pardon, I did not hear your question.”
“I was just explaining to Miss Barton there is far too much riffraff imposing on the ranks of society.”
Confusion wrinkled Jes brow. “I am afraid I do not understand what you are speaking of. I was not a party to your earlier conversation.”
The Baron rose a disdainful brow. “Mother and I were talking of this just the other day. It seems the ton is being overrun by upstarts, the offspring of simple tradesmen or merchants, who feel they are of the same social importance. Just because they have made some blunt along the way.” He sniffed in indignation, before continuing. “Can you imagine the state of society in only a handful of years if we continue to let this happen? It is not to be borne.”
Jes had no answer. She was not sure if he was accusing her personally, or just an entire class of people. What was she to say? If she agreed with him, she would be a hypocrite, having been exactly that her last season. But if she disagreed with him and made her station known, she and her mother would do just as well to pack their bags and return to Durham.
“Well?” A nasally female voice down the table barked sharply. “My son asked you a question, miss. Are your manners so neglected you do not offer a response?” The older woman, lips pursed, stared down her pointed nose at Jes.
Her head snapped back slightly in surprise. “I am sorry. I did not have any opinion to add, therefore I felt it better to remain silent. Your son seems to have covered the subject to his satisfaction.” The table had gone silent, every eye was riveted on her and the Baroness. “My mother always says, if I cannot say anything nice, I should not say anything at all. Which means I should stop speaking.” At the open mouth shock on the Baroness’s face, Jes turned to the gentleman on her other side, still unable to recall his name, and asked, “Have you tasted the duckling? I believe I have never tasted anything its equal.” She smiled an innocent smile, then stuck a forkful of meat into her mouth.
As the occupants of the dining room resumed their conversations, Jes could feel the stares at the back of her head. Part of her wished to turn and see who it was, but another part of her was suddenly too tired. Too tired of putting on a show. Too tired of caring about society’s opinion of her and her family. Too tired of dealing with mean, arrogant people.
Although, she was fairly certain her mother was one of those staring, she just hoped Lord Ian was not. When she felt enough time had passed, she chanced a glance at her mother first. Lady Rachel seemed to be engaged in a conversation, thank goodness. Her gaze moved on to Lord Ian. He was speaking to Lady Du’Breven, but when he finished he flicked his attention to Jes. She ducked her head again. The peach ice in her mouth lost its savor and her stomach clenched as she realized if there had ever been a chance of an alliance between them, she had most likely put an end to it, with a few pert words. What was wrong with her? Why could she not leave well enough alone? Must she always try and bring men like Bloomsbury down a notch?
As the desserts were cleared away, the women moved to adjourn to the Crimson Velvet drawing room to await the men. Jes rose and followed her mother, wishing she could slip away and hide in her bed chambers. Perhaps for the rest of the party.