Previously in The Unwanted Suitor: Cornelia is kept busy as the Countess’ companion, but she has schemes of her own. Deciding that if she is to be afflicted by the presence of Sir James, she will protect her heart by matching him with another.
To say that Sir James was frustrated would be an understatement. He had come out for an early ride to clear his muddled thoughts, but even a sunny morning washed in dew and the powerful stride of his thoroughbred had no power to distract him.
Watching Cornelia the night before as she sat listening to other young women sing had gutted him. Though her expression had been composed, he saw the longing in her eyes. And there was no reason for it.
For some reason wholly lost to him, she had given up her place in polite circles. Her breeding, gentility, and dowry would have given her place of prominence among all these society misses, yet here she was, seen as a nonentity. It irked him beyond bearing, and his blasted proposal was behind it all, he was sure.
She had not had such a drastic reaction to news of Timothy’s engagement. That had hurt her but not compelled her to forsake her family and social standing. The need to understand clawed at his mind, but to no avail.
The road emerged from the trees and opened onto the green, manicured lawn surrounding Somerstone manor. About to turn left toward the stables, he caught sight of Cornelia coming down the road, her eyes cast down. The Countess’ dog sniffed an erratic path through the short grass along the road beside her. It seemed as if the morning smiled on him after all.
Spurring his horse forward, he rode into the stable yard at a gallop, reining his horse in just in time to avoid plowing over a gaping stablehand. Dismounting, he handed the reins to him, saying, “See to him.” Normally he would oversee his mount’s care, but catching up to Cornelia was vastly more important.
James strode down the path to the manor, but Cornelia was gone. Muttering a string of curses, he continued on, hoping he might at least catch her alone in the house. Then he heard something that made him stop—a rustling in the underbrush behind the trees that sheltered this side of the lawn. Cornelia’s voice sounded nearby.
“Wellington, you’d better not go too far. I do not intend chasing after you all morning.”
He smiled at the note of vexation in her voice, and his spirits lifted as he walked into the trees. He had not missed her after all.
When he found her, she stood in a column of leaf-filtered light, looking lovely and ethereal as she watched Wellington scamper ahead. His heart ached for her, but he knew he must approach her carefully.
“He can be a difficult charge, I take it,” James said.
She gave a soft gasp and tensed until she saw him. The very fact that she relaxed for a moment when she met his eyes spoke volumes to him, despite the way she frowned afterward. “He takes a lot of my time, but without him, I’d never set foot out of doors so I won’t complain.”
He frowned then as well, remembering the long walks she used to take at home in Buxton. As a child, she had climbed rocky hills and balanced on stone walls as well as any boy. And here she was, only able to step outside to allow a pampered dog to relieve himself.
Unable to check his emotions, he demanded, “Just as you are no longer free to sing in public, no doubt. I saw you last night, during the musical. I know how it pained you not to sing. This is what you want out of life?” Her eyes widened and he saw hurt there, but he was determined to get to the bottom of this.
“I will never have what I want out of life, Sir James.” Her tone was a rebuke. “I find this to be less painful than any other choice before me.”
“Better than marrying me, you mean.” His voice was as harsh as hers now. “I know you have reason to be angry with me, but surely you can see that I did my best to spare you a greater hurt.”
“You have explained this before. You don’t think Timothy would have made me happy. But how are you the judge, the god, of other people’s lives?”
“I never claimed to be so. I knew how you felt, however. No great trick, considering you wore your heart on your sleeve. But if you believe my brother meant anything more by you than to amuse himself, you are wrong.”
She flinched as if he had struck her. Tears swam in her eyes. “You assume a great deal, Sir, for someone who never deigned to notice me beyond a pat on the head. If you had, you might have noticed that your neighbor’s daughter had stars in her eyes whenever you were near.”
Startled, James started to speak, but she flung a hand out, cutting him off. “I watched you for years, going off to London where I knew you were a prime favorite with the ladies. We heard all about it in letters from my aunt. I was unable to follow you there because the year I was to have my season was the year Mother died. Then Father was ill and there were all the children to care for. I was always sure that the next letter or newspaper would bring word of your betrothal.”
Utterly shocked by this, James stepped closer to her. “I never knew.”
“Of course you didn’t. You never saw me. Is it any wonder that when Timothy finished his studies at Cambridge and came home, I should have been flattered by his attentions? It was the one bright hope in my life, that I might, after all, be loved and not end as nothing but a spinster aunt. He thought I was pretty and interesting and yes, I was perhaps easily won. Now you tell me I was nothing but a passing amusement for him.”
If he could have flayed himself a dozen times for causing her more pain, he would have done so. Instead, he wanted only to ease her hurt. He strode forward and gripped her shoulders until she looked up at him. “I did not mean you are not worthy of his love, Cornelia. You are more than a pretty, pleasant companion. You are the sort of woman who makes a man better than he is, who shoulders duties too heavy for her and thrives. I could not bear to see you broken by his fickle attentions. And yes, I did see you, though not as soon as I should have.”
Just then, a voice broke the tumult between them. It came from beyond the trees, on the path to the manor.
“Ah, what is your name, boy? What a fine fellow you are. And what have you there in your jaws?”
“Excuse me, Sir James. I must see to my charge,” Cornelia said, her words throbbing with emotion. She ran away from him, and he had nothing to do but follow after.
Emerging from the trees, Sir James saw Lord Courtenay crouched on the road, scratching the pug’s face and trying to get a look at what was in his mouth. As Cornelia approached him, however, he stood and took a step back. James was not surprised. Cornelia looked like a thunderstorm about to rain lightning on anyone unwise enough to get in her path.
“Drop it,” she said to Wellington. Whereupon, the dog spat out a mangled butterfly, narrowly missing Lord Courtenay’s boot. “Oh, you repugnant creature. Come.” Cornelia walked away, head held high, ignoring the dog who trotted at her side.
James walked to the path, knowing his chance for conversation with her was lost. Perhaps it was best, however. He had done nothing but further hurt his chances with her. He sighed. Why couldn’t he say the right things to her?
“I say, James, you don’t look much better than that butterfly there.”
“Don’t I? Well, I suppose I’m not. I’ve certainly come a cropper, fiend seize it.” He started walking again, watching Cornelia further up the lane.
“Am I to understand you’re dangling after Miss Greystock, the Coutness’ companion? Not that she’s not lovely, but James—”
“There’s more to it than that, Henry. I’ve known her all my life. Or all of hers rather, since I’m a good bit older.”
“How’d you manage to muck it up then?”
“I’ll not lower your opinion of me by going into all the horrifying details. Suffice it to say, I have never before realized how utterly incompetent I am at expressing myself than when in this particular lady’s presence.”
“Did you come here to court her? Seems odd, considering you could have courted her before she took employment.”
James stopped as if struck. He had never courted her, never dared hope that she might return his love. Having never gone to London, she had little acquaintance and few chances for meeting an eligible parti. Upon considering her practical, reasonable aspect and knowing what she must think of him for separating her from his brother, he had offered her what he had thought would be most acceptable to her. He’d hoped only that she might accept him as a substitute for what she had lost and learned to love him.
Now, pieces of their conversation sounded in his mind, and the effect of it upon him was shattering. Had she really meant she had been enamored of him all those years and believed it to be impossible? How could he have been such a simpleton to only have realized his own feelings when seeing her as the object of his brother’s attentions?
“James, are you going to stand like a stock in the lane all morning? I’ll abandon you if you are. Riding always makes me ravenous.”
Walking forward again, James said, “I am the greatest fool that ever lived.”
“I would not argue with you for the world, but I am quite sure I have met greater fools in my time. Indeed, there are several here at this very party.”
“No, Henry, take my word for it. There are none equal to me. Let me spare you from falling into the same pit I have. If you ever love a woman, do not hesitate to tell her so or it will cost you dearly.”
James lengthened his stride, unconcerned that his friend looked uncharacteristically grave. From this hour on, he would not let an opportunity to capture Cornelia’s feelings pass him by. She would be in no doubt that he was courting her in earnest.
When the two men walked into the breakfast room, they found Lord Bloomesbury noisily eating kippers and eggs at one end of the table, Cornelia pouring herself a cup of tea, and the entire Easton clan just sitting down.
As if Cornelia felt his attention, she looked up, and he saw just the faintest hint of red rimming her eyes. Indeed, if he had not known she had been crying, he would not have seen it.
“Sir James, I have been waiting for you,” Cornelia said.
“I am vastly pleased to hear you say so,” he answered her warmly.
Her cheeks colored and she looked flustered for just a moment as she sat the teapot down. She recovered quickly, however. “I have just this minute learned that Miss Easton has not yet visited the folly overlooking the fields. I thought it might be lovely if you would escort her on a walk in that direction. If her brothers approve, of course.”
James flicked his eyes from Miss Easton’s surprised countenance to those of her various brothers ranged about the table. They looked too pleased with the idea for his comfort. The little minx. How dare Cornelia try to throw him off on someone else? But he could not think of a polite excuse.
“I should be pleased to do so, of course,” he said with careful neutrality.
The eldest Mr. Easton, ran his eyes over James as if they had not met often at White’s in London. “And I would be pleased to grant my approval.”
“That would be lovely, though perhaps another day,” Miss Easton said, her voice polite but firm. She then focused her attention on her breakfast.
“That’s a very good notion,” Edward said to Miss Greystock, continuing to eye James from across the table.
James shot Cornelia a look, and she raised her eyebrows innocently. This was not the place to tell her precisely what she could do with her matchmaking attempts, so he nodded to the footman offering him a tankard of ale and plate of eggs and ham. “Yes, indeed it was,” he said affably. “I’m happy to know Miss Greystock believes me capable of securing a woman’s affections.”
Cornelia took a sip of tea. “Indeed I do believe you capable of it, but the talent is without merit as you expend nothing on the effort. You would do well to consider what to do with such affections once they are earned. They are not lasting unless nurtured, you know.”
“Not in my experience, Miss Greystock. The white-hot coals of love may burn down to embers, but they may be fanned to a flame again if the right tinder is applied.”
“You wax poetic for such a rational man, Sir James.”
Sir James met her eyes, baring his emotions for her and not caring who else saw so long as she did. “It would seem that after all our years as neighbors, and, dare I say, friends, there is much we may still learn about each other.”