Previously in The Unwanted Suitor: Sir James arrived late at night to Somerstone Manor to be greeted by the last person he expected to see. Cornelia Greystock may be the Countess’ new companion, but she was still the capable, spirited woman he wanted above all others—even though she made it clear she wanted nothing to do with him.
“You look tired,” the Countess said as Cornelia slipped into her room.
Wellington, her ladyship’s dubiously named and much-pampered pug, trudged in Cornelia’s wake with his tongue lolling out. She wondered what adventures he had been having to wear himself out so. He didn’t even have the energy to jump onto his favorite chair near the fire. He sat in front of it and turned his sad eyes toward Cornelia. With a sigh, she walked over and lifted him up. He turned three times on the silk cushion before settling down with his head on his paws. His watery eyes gleamed in the firelight for a moment before they slowly closed.
“I am no more tired than Wellington, I suppose,” Cornelia said, answering the question at last.
“He shouldn’t get up to so much mischief.” The Countess studied her reflection in the mirror as Grimsby fitted a lace cap over her gleaming white hair, and let out a crack of laughter. “Though, of course, the same could be said for our guests. I am very pleased with how the day has gone. How is Mrs. Finch?”
“I hope she may resume her duties soon, though she is still feverish. I fear I am neglecting you too much while trying to help in her absence.”
“I will let you know if I need you, no worries.” The Countess turned to her maid. “Grimsby, bring Damen to me. I’ll want his support down to dinner.” Then as her maid slipped silently from the room, the Countess sifted through the jewelry on a velvet cushion before her, choosing a large ring and a pin. Then she lifted a dazzling necklace with gleaming emeralds and held it up. “Will you please fasten this on me, Cornelia? Grimsby, bless her, does not have the eyesight for it any longer.”
Cornelia took it and brought it around the Countess’ neck, fastening the delicate clasp. As the Countess studied the effect in the mirror, Cornelia decided to use the moment alone with her employer to good advantage. “May I ask, my lady, if in all your plotting and scheming you had any intentions of finding Sir James a wife?” Stepping back, she met the Countess’s eyes in the mirror. “It seems so odd that you would have invited him otherwise.”
“Odd that I would have invited a handsome, intelligent gentleman? My dear, I do not have plans for everyone I invited here,” the Countess said.
Cornelia felt an odd, relieved sensation in her chest, but she ignored it. If the Countess did not have plans for him, Cornelia was determined to play matchmaker herself. Perhaps then she could close this painful chapter of her life. “I will tell you then, my lady, that I intend to see Sir James connected with one of the young ladies here.”
“Do you? That should prove entertaining. Who do you think would interest him?”
Cornelia turned and stared into the fire, trying to ignore the tight ache in her chest. “There are many girls here who I think would not have come his way before. Perhaps one of the Townshend girls. They are both lovely.”
“Yes, they are. Have you seen Sir James take notice of them?”
“No, not particularly, but I believe I can arrange it. Or Miss Winters would match him well in personality. And Miss Easten would perhaps brighten his demeanor. Then there’s—”
“Cornelia,” the Countess interrupted. “Even I can only guess who might be right for someone. But truly, I prefer to throw people together and watch how they respond. There is nothing that can substitute for attraction. Watch him and see where his eyes linger. Who makes him smile? To whom does he give his attention or do little services for? You may observe him at dinner.”
“Oh, no. I was hoping I may take a tray in my room this evening.”
“That won’t do. My numbers will be uneven.”
Cornelia thought over the names in her mind, counting them carefully. “Is one of the ladies not coming to dinner?”
“You are forgetting, perhaps, that I invited the Vicar to dine this evening and to stay for the entertainment afterward. He so enjoys music and seldom gets the opportunity.”
Cornelia bit back a sigh. “Very well. But I may be late to the table. I still need to dress and then I must go and check on dinner. The fish merchant was late in his delivery today and the chef refused the order on account of them having turned. He has been fretting all day as he’s had to replace them with the green goose and partridges meant for tomorrow’s dinner.”
Just then, Grimsby came back in followed by Damen, who looked very correct in his livery. The Countess rose from her seat before the mirror. “Poor Alphonse. Tell him that I have faith in him.”
“I will,” Cornelia answered, watching as Grimsby settled a fine Norwich shawl over the Countess’ shoulders.
“Oh, and my dear, I should like to speak to Reginald Beauchamp tomorrow. Make sure it is when he would most rather be elsewhere.” This last part was accompanied by such a look of devilry that Cornelia could not help but laugh.
“As you wish, my lady.”
The Countess nodded regally and took Damen’s arm. He led her carefully from the room. Wellington, noting that his mistress was abandoning him, gave a whine and sat up. He looked distressed at having to leave his comfortable seat, but heaved himself up and jumped down, then scampered after them.
Following them all into the hallway, Cornelia heard the Countess command Damen to carry Wellington. She nearly laughed, knowing how the footman secretly despised the pampered pug.
Then, hurrying to the back stairs, Cornelia lifted her skirts high and ran down them, knowing she had very little time to dress. As she reached the next landing, she turned and ran straight into someone. She stumbled, and would have fallen but for the strong hands that came around her, holding her up.
Finding herself surrounded by very masculine arms and pressed against a firm, broad chest, she looked up dizzily to see who she had catapulted into. “Sir James!”
“Miss Greystock. My apologies. I did not see you.”
“Nor I you.” His warmth and strength sent fire racing through her limbs. In a panic, she pushed back from him and his arms fell away immediately. She flushed all over, overcome by their accidental embrace and the dark gleam in his eyes. How unlucky that she had taken such great care to avoid private conversation with him all day only for this to happen.
Taking a deep, steadying breath, she said, “Excuse me. I must dress. I did not know I was to dine with the guests this evening.”
She noted that Sir James’ expression softened as a small smile pulled at the corner of his lips. “I am very glad to hear it. I myself am in a hurry as I lost track of time while out riding.”
“Well, you’d best hurry, sir. I believe guests are already gathering in the drawing room.”
Despite her curt words, he grinned. “Never fear, Miss Greystock. Remember, it does not take us gentlemen as long to dress as it does you ladies.”
He was teasing her about her excuse for greeting him in her nightrail last night, and she couldn’t leave his impudence unanswered. “I expect it doesn’t take you long at all with such a plain cravat.”
He reached up and touched his cravat, letting her know the shaft had gone home, then turned and resumed her headlong rush down the stairs.
Dressing as quickly as she could without the help of a maid, she barely had a moment to spare to do up her hair again. Unfortunately, her hair was heavy and straight, so it didn’t take kindly to the fashion of the day. The pins were straining to keep their hold. Going down to the company like that would never do, even though few people would ever notice a mere companion.
Sighing she took the pins out and shook out her long hair. Watching her little ticking clock with a burning sense of urgency, she looped and twisted her hair, pinning carefully, and praying it would hold for the rest of the evening. No doubt running down the stairs and colliding with Sir James had done the damage, so perhaps she should proceed more sedately from now on. And somehow, she intended to avoid that particular gentlemen as much as possible.
Well beyond the prescribed dinner hour, Cornelia finally entered the kitchen to find it in a state of mad activity. The chef shouted orders as he stirred a sauce. The staff ran to and fro, placing the first dishes to go out after the soup on their serving platters, lining them up along the enormous work table that ran the length of the kitchen.
Then the butler strode in with a disapproving expression. “Alphonse, we are behind time.”
“You may serve,” the chef said, though it was difficult to understand him through his thick French accent.”
The butler left to go announce dinner and three of the footmen took a soup tureen while the others waited to carry in the first remove.
Cornelia stepped over to Alphonse. “Is everything well?”
“The second remove is not such as I would like with no fish except pickled eels and a few trout the gamekeeper brought me. But the fish merchant promised me an octopus for tomorrow, so I will forgive him.”
Cornelia smiled. “Excellent. You are a treasure. The Countess wants you to know she has complete faith in you.”
Alphonse straightened, swelling with pride, but said, “But of course. Now, leave this all to me, Miss Greystock. You will not wish to miss the leek soup. It is divine.”
She nodded and laughed, then hurried after the footmen to the dining room.
She slipped in, taking in the grandeur of the gowns and jewels and perfectly tailored evening coats, all gleaming richly under the light of dozens of candles. A hum of conversation filled the vast room, and few even noticed her as she moved quietly to the center of the table.
As she found her empty chair, one of the footmen pulled it out for her. She sat down, then glanced to her right, and saw that she was seated next to the Vicar. Not surprising, as he was the lowliest of the guests. But then, she turned and saw that Sir James was to her left. Which did surprise her very much. For some reason she could not fathom, her cheeks flushed with color. Perhaps it was the way his eyes lit with welcome. But how could that be? He held no warm feelings for her. Indeed, he felt nothing more than pity for her. He had made that much clear with his proposal, the insufferable man.
“You are late, Miss Greystock.”
Yes, completely insufferable.
A footmen leaned over her shoulder and ladled some of the creamy leek soup into her bowl. She picked up her spoon and sipped it. The warmth and burst of flavor calmed her a bit. “I may be late, but at least I brought my manners with me.”
“A pity really,” Sir James said. “I much prefer seeing you without them. Like the time I caught you making faces at Mrs. Burns after she said green didn’t become you.”
Cornelia’s eyes widened, and she looked around to see if anyone had overheard him. “If you don’t mind your words, I’ll—”
“What will you do, Miss Greystock?” He smiled with amusement glinting in his eyes. He knew very well there was little she could do.
“I thought you were a gentleman.”
“Ah yes. Indeed I am. Very much so. But I have come to the conclusion that being a gentlemen did not win me the one thing I want most in life.”
“And what is that?” Cornelia asked.
Sir James paused as a footmen removed his empty soup bowl and another presented another dish to him. “Somehow I do not wish to speak of it over pickled eel.” He leaned closer and whispered. “Or with a vicar so obviously listening to our conversation.”
His warm breath fanned across her neck, giving her the oddest sensation. Feeling flushed and indignant, Cornelia shot back at him. “You know, you may well have done me a service when you married your brother to someone else. Having you for a brother would have been a curse beyond bearing.”
His expression tightened and grew solemn. “Well, on that we are in complete agreement. I can think of no worse fate than having you as a sister.”
He turned then to speak to the Baroness Bloomsbury who was seated on his other side. With her thoughts in a severe tangle, Cornelia forced herself to eat her dinner and converse with the vicar. But though she managed to keep her expression placid, she spent the rest of the meal plotting to a horrid revenge on Sir James Hawkston.