Sir James Hawkston rode up the long, dark drive, glad that the clouds had cleared before night had fallen, enabling him to continue traveling. But even in the moonlight, he was unable to make out any features of Somerstone manor but its colossal size. It looked like a black mountain silhouetted against the night sky.
At the entrance, he dismounted and smoothed his hand over his horse’s flanks to assure himself that his stallion had taken no harm from the ride. Anxious to arrive at Somerstone before the doors were locked for the night, he had pressed him hard the last two miles. No doubt the Countess would be annoyed with him for arriving so late, but he’d brave anything to avoid another night at an inn.
Only a few windows shown with light, but he was glad to see that at least some of the party were still awake. That meant servants would be as well. Indeed, just then, a lad ran up and offered to take the stallion to the stables and see to his care. James unstrapped his saddlebags and headed for the extravagantly colonnaded entrance of Somerstone Manor.
By the time he had climbed the steps, a footman had come to meet him partway down with a lantern. His shoulders relaxed as he thought about falling onto a bed somewhere. He still had no idea how the Countess Du’Breven had convinced him to attend this party. He was in no mood for socializing or for dancing attendance upon hopeful young debutants, but at least he need not see anyone until he had slept past noon.
As he went in, he gave his saddlebags into the keeping of the footman and looked around, amazed, at the grandeur of the place, with its forest of Corinthian columns, audacious statuary in carved niches, and the double stairway beneath a soaring, gilt-edged dome.
The footman cleared his throat in a delicate fashion. “May I take your card into Lady Du’Breven?”
“You mean she’s not asleep?” he asked, taking his card case out of his coat pocket.
“I shall inquire, Sir James,” he said after glancing down at the card Sir James gave him. “Will your trunks be arriving soon?”
“In the morning, with my man. I need nothing tonight but a bed,” he said, hoping the footman would make this easy for them both and show him to his room.
But the footman only bowed. “If you would wait in the drawing room, Sir James.”
Holding back a weary sigh, James followed him past the staircase and down a hall to a small drawing room. Only the sight of a cozy fire and a tray with a decanter and glasses resigned him to his wait.
He poured a glass of burgundy and pulled a chair nearer to the fire. He crossed one leg over the other and took a sip. The night was not chilly, but the fire was friendly, so he stared into the dancing flames and relaxed a bit. Soon, images of another evening filled his mind—a winter night, just five months past, when his neighbors had come for dinner. And afterward, Cornelia, their eldest daughter, had sat near the fire, staring into it as he did now.
The orange glow had bronzed her complexion and her delicate features had been highlighted by the flicker of shadows across her face. It had been that moment that he had discovered he loved her. But then his brother had come to sit beside her and it had been to Timothy that she had gifted her sweet smile.
He tossed back the rest of his burgundy and lowered his hand, rolling the empty glass between his fingers. What a fool he had been. If only he had handled the situation differently, he might have been able to win her love. Instead, he had dashed all his chances and caused her to flee rather than face him. Her parents said she’d gone to live with an aunt in Ireland whose existence he’d never heard of till then.
He brooded over these dark memories until his eyes grew heavy. He might have gone to sleep had the door not opened then. Rousing himself, he stood and sat the glass back on the sideboard. It clinked against the silver tray, and he turned, expecting to see the footman again.
But there, coming towards him in a night rail and shawl, was the same face that so often tormented him. The familiar features were lit by the light of the candle she carried. His mouth opened slightly as his puzzled mind tried to make sense of her appearance. He did not think himself so tired that he would see visions, and he’d drunk but one glass of burgundy.
“Cornelia,” he whispered.
“Sir James. I am quite sure you’d prefer to go to bed then spend the night in that chair. Would you follow me, please?”
She turned to go, and he wrestled with his spinning brain. Cornelia, inviting him to bed? This was clearly the raving of a disordered mind. And yet, she looked so real, with her dark hair cascading down her back and her slippered feet brushing across the rug.
In a surge of action, he lunged forward and caught her wrist, spinning her around to face him. She was real. His fingers lingered, trailing down to grasp hers, which were bare and delicate. The lace at her cuff brushed against his skin. Hearing her breath quicken, he looked up and saw that she was distressed. He released her hand and stepped back.
“Forgive me, Miss Greystock. I…you surprised me.”
“As you did me,” she said, her voice tight with censure.
But then his temper flared. “Though no doubt you knew to expect me. I, however, thought you far away in Ireland. You cannot claim to be have been the most shocked tonight.”
“Only by your handling of me, sir. You have no right to my hand.”
“No. You made certain of that, did you not?”
He did not know why he referenced his failed proposal. Because he had blundered it so badly, the regret and disappointment still ate at his soul. He had no wish to dredge it up for conversation.
“Do not fret, Sir James. There are many young ladies who would be most willing to accept an offer from you. Perhaps you may even find one at this house party on whom you may bestow your love and not just your pity.”
“Why are you hurling such attacks at me?”
“Attacks? I am not attacking you. I am simply assuring you that your purpose in coming here will not be in vain. I am only sorry you should have to suffer my presence while doing it. Now, please be courteous enough to follow me. I would like to return to my own bed.”
She turned to leave again, and he saw nothing for it but to follow her.
She went to the staircase on the left and began to climb. He skipped a few steps until he was even with her. “But what are you doing here?”
“I am the paid companion of the Countess, and since the housekeeper is ill, it was my duty to see you situated.”
“A paid companion? But, what about your aunt in Ireland? Not that I have ever heard of her before, but that is where your parents have said you were.”
“Did they indeed? Then they must be ashamed that their daughter is earning her own living. But I assure you, I am precisely where I wish to be.”
“But… I don’t understand. Why would you wish to be employed when you might be living in comfort at home?”
They had reached the first landing. She spun and looked at him with seething indignation. The marble faces of stern statues stared him down as well, increasing his discomfort.
“Do you dare to say you don’t understand why I left? Why I might feel dreadfully uncomfortable living in the same neighborhood with someone who deprived me of a chance to marry the man I loved, and then proposed to me himself out of some strange need to make reparations when his conscience flayed him for it?”
His brain seized on the one part of this that he knew wasn’t true. “You do not love my brother.”
Her face grew cold. “I believed I did. And so I might have if you hadn’t driven him to betray my affections.”
He leaned closer. “You never knew my brother well enough to form a true attachment. In time, you would have learned that his nature is as shallow as a ditch.”
“We shall never know, shall we? As soon as you realized which way the wind was blowing, you packed him off to Bath for an arranged marriage.”
“Thereby doing you a tremendous service, I promise. Had you married him, you would have been miserable.”
She pressed her lips together. “I shall thank you, then, for the euphoria of joy I live in now.”
James heard voices then, coming up the stairs behind them, but before he could see who it was, a small hand pressed on his chest until he took one step back and then another.
“Move, you big lummox. I have no wish to be caught in the hall in my night rail by a set of drunk gentlemen, thank you very much.”
He then realized that she was trying to move him to get to the door behind him, so he stepped out of the way, and quick as a wink, she slipped inside. But before she could close the door, he shoved his foot in the way and pushed his way inside after her.
The room was dark with only frail, stark shafts of moonlight coming through the large windows on the far side of the room. Cornelia was the only thing he could see with the halo of dim candlelight suspended between them. From the echoes of their slightest movement and a strange awareness of vast space, he knew they were in a large room, but what it was, he could not tell. At least he had not pushed his way into her bedroom. That would have capped off his history of missteps with her quite nicely. “Why did you…?”
He sighed but obeyed her, listening to the footsteps passing in the hall. Some of the footsteps fell irregularly as if the people outside were stumbling instead of walking. A garbled drinking song was met with uproarious laughter, and for a moment, James worried they would never move along. At last they did, however, and Cornelia stepped out, looking carefully from side to side.
“Why did you come to fetch me without changing your dress if you were so worried by it?”
“You must not have any understanding of how long it takes a woman to dress and then undress again. I had hoped that the only one to see me would be you.”
“As I am of no consequence.”
“Precisely,” she said, shriveling the last of his conceit.
She paused for a moment as they drew up to an intersection of halls, then took a right with a determined step. “Not much further now.”
He hoped so. His brain was in such a muddle now that it would be best if they parted ways until he could think coherently.
But then, as a long, faintly lit hallway stretched before them, her candle went out. She gave a gasp, and he took the candlestick from her hand. After giving his eyes a moment to adjust, he strode forward to set it down on a table.
“There will be candles and a kindling box in my room, I presume. Let us find it and then I will see you safely back to yours.”
She nodded and led him down the hall, moving slowly as if counting the doors they passed. She stopped and motioned to one. He turned the knob but found it locked. He shook his head.
“Must be the next one then,” she said softly, no doubt not wanting to be caught alone with him at night outside his bedroom.
He tried the next door and it opened. Inside, he found his saddlebags draped over the back of a chair and a candle lit on the table beside the bed. He looked behind him and saw that Cornelia waited outside, looking after him with her eyes wide with apprehension. He took the candle, lit another that stood ready, and carried both into the hall.
He gave one to her and said, “Now, let’s get you safely to your room.”
He was, by now, oddly awake and paid close attention to the direction they took so that he might find his way back again. He just hoped his memory would serve him well so he didn’t spend half the night wandering around trying to find his room.
She stopped and opened a door at the very end of a hall in what seemed to be a different wing of the house.
“This must be a very inconvenient bedchamber for you.”
“I manage. Good night, Sir James.”
“Your servant, Miss Greystock.”
“Oh, stuff,” she said, shutting the door in his face.