Twenty-Four: Games And Gauntlets

Previously in The Unwanted Suitor: Sir James learned precisely how badly he had mucked up his chances with Miss Greystock and determined to court her with unabashed determination. However, the lady made her own intentions clear—to foist some other lady upon his notice.

As Cornelia returned indoors from an afternoon of lawn games and flirtatious maneuverings, she could not deny that Sir James had come off the indisputable victor in their unspoken contest. With very little difficulty, he had avoided any attempt Cornelia made to throw him together with Miss Easton. Quite out of charity with him, she was determined to be revenged on him at last.

The ladies had all retired to rest before dressing for dinner, but Cornelia had other plans. Hurrying to the drawing room window that overlooked the west lawn, she saw Sir James lingering in the shade with a group of gentlemen. Seeing him so happily engaged, she felt confident that he would not return inside for some time.

She went to her usual chair in the corner and retrieved her sewing basket, then hastened to Sir James’ room.

Ensuring that she was alone, she closed the door and saw that his man had laid out his evening clothes. Picking up his coat, she sat on a chair and threaded her needle with matching thread. With tiny stitches, she sewed the sleeves closed. Her work was so precise, the stitches were impossible to see and would be difficult to cut out again.

Pleased with the result, she gathered the rest of his coats and did the same to each of them. When she was done, she knew that either Sir James or his man would likely come along soon, so she put away her needle and returned everything to where she had found it. Hanging the last coat back in his wardrobe, she imagined his reaction and chuckled softly.

As she closed the door to the wardrobe, a whirl of scent surrounded her, bergamot and citrus. It transported her back to the time she had twisted her ankle while walking home from church and Sir James had lifted her into his carriage and driven her home.

Her throat tightened and she spun away, feeling as if she’d been pierced to the core.

“We shall see how quickly you dress for dinner tonight.” But her whispered words did not soothe the aching deep inside her. She picked up her basket and fled to the door, closing it softly behind her.

Sir James was indeed late for dinner, and as he walked into the dining room, she looked for clues as to his reaction. His expression was well-ordered and he did not so much as glance at her as he walked over to the Countess, bowing and speaking softly. With a sudden pang of anxiety, Cornelia wondered what he was saying. Surely…surely he would not be so cruel as to expose the prank to her employer.

But as he walked to his seat, the Countess turned back to her conversation with Sir George who sat on her left. He had not betrayed her.

Sir James passed behind Cornelia’s chair on the way to his own, and she turned to look at him over her shoulder. He glanced down with such a look of amusement, she nearly laughed. Which made her angrier than ever.

She hated that he had such power to sway her emotions.  He had always been able to do so, but now that she was no longer in love with him, surely his ability to influence her feelings should diminish.

After dinner, she sat with Miss Townshend by the fire while the other guests ranged themselves around the room, playing cards or enjoying conversation. Several of the gentlemen excused themselves for a game of billiards, and Cornelia knew that certain intrepid guests planned more gothic pursuits this evening. She, however, reveled in the chance to sit quietly, embroidering a handkerchief.

“You are a very accomplished needlewoman, Miss Greystock,” Miss Townshend said.

Cornelia glanced up but turned her attention back to the bluebell she was currently stitching. “Thank you. I enjoy it a great deal. Especially here since Lady Du’Breven is positively frivolous with her use of candles.”

Miss Townshend laughed and set aside the book she had opened on her lap. Cornelia felt a rush of hope that perhaps she might find a friend in the refined and intelligent lady. But before either of them could say another word, Sir James came up to them.

“Good evening, Miss Townshend,” he said sitting down in the chair next to Cornelia’s. “Miss Greystock.”

When he said her name, his voice rang with warmth and humor. Surprised, she looked up at him, then quickly over at Miss Townshend. Sure enough, that lady’s eyes sparkled with a knowing gleam.

“Good evening, Sir James. Please don’t think me rude, but I should find my father. He did not eat much at dinner and I fear he may have a headache.”

Sir James stood with Miss Townshend, bowing and saying, “Of course.”

As he sat back down again, Cornelia minded her stitches and waited. She did not have to wait long.

“You have always been keen with a needle, Miss Greystock. I have often seen you thus, sitting in front of a fire, staring down at your tambour frame.”

“I’m embroidering handkerchiefs for my sisters. I hoped I might impose on you to deliver them for me when you go home.”

Sir James lifted his arm and stared very hard at the sleeve of his coat. “You know I am your servant to command.”

He reached for the cuff of his coat sleeve, pinched at it and held up a short blue thread, the same color as his jacket. He reached over and dropped it onto her embroidery. It lay there on the white muslin, mocking her. She caught her bottom lip between her teeth to control the smile that threatened, and picked up the thread, tossing it into the fire.

“My manservant, Cholt, had a most distressing evening.”

“Did he?” Cornelia asked, maintaining her calm with iron determination.

“Yes. Normally it requires very little work on his part to get me into my coat. Tonight, however, he faced an unaccountable amount of exertion.”

“Oh no. I am so sorry to hear that. I see that he did manage to perform his duties, however.”

“Yes, in the end. Thankfully. I could hardly come down to dinner in my shirt sleeves and waistcoat.”

Wondering what he might look like in such a state caused a flood of color to rush to Cornelia’s cheeks. “That would have been very irregular indeed,” she agreed, keeping her face turned down to her stitching.

“And now, I believe he will be up quite late attending to the remainder of my coats.”

“Too ensure that you do not have similar difficulties tomorrow I apprehend. Poor man. I’ll see that he is sent some sustaining refreshment.”

Sir James chuckled softly. “That would be very generous. I know you have been busy today.”

She looked up at him then, meeting his eyes squarely. “I am always busy. And as you very well know, it is not at all appropriate for you to sit here singling out a mere companion in such a deplorable way.”

“Ah, but we are such old acquaintances.”

“Sir James, I can feel the scald of censorious eyes hot upon my neck. You had best go and direct your considerable charm at some willing young debutant.”

“I had much rather direct it at an unwilling hoyden.”

With a quickly indrawn breath, Cornelia glared at him. Leaning toward him, she whispered, “I am not a hoyden.”

“You certainly are. You always have been, no matter how much you try to hide it under that prim exterior of yours.”

“Prim exterior indeed. I am respectable to my core.”

“Respectable young ladies do not distance themselves from their loving family, leaving them to worry and explain away their absence with visits to fictional aunts. They also do not insult well-meaning gentlemen by showing him that his proposal is so repugnant that a life of servitude is preferable.”

By this point, Cornelia’s bosom heaved, as if she were a dragon about to scorch him with fire. Indeed, she felt hot all over. “How dare you speak to me in such a manner—and in company, when I cannot give you the trimming you deserve!”

“You are stunning when your eyes spark fire, Cornelia. Did it occur to you while you were so industrially engaged in sewing shut all my coat sleeves that perhaps you might be asking for retribution in kind?”

“I do not know what you are talking about,” she said, putting her tambour frame back into her basket, preparing to retreat from a conversation that had flared out of control.

“I should have suspected something when my room smelled of pears and roses.”

“What?” Cornelia’s mind floundered as she realized that she had indeed dabbed some of her perfume on her wrists that morning.

“Do you know what effect it had upon my senses to find your scent, sweet and mocking, in my bedchamber? I don’t suppose you do, innocent as you are. No, don’t run away, Cornelia. I’ll go.” He stood. “You are playing a deep game, my girl, but I warn you—I am playing a deeper one.”

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Michelle Pennington spends her days quoting movies with her husband, making messes faster than her four kids. Michelle writes Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Adult Romance, Fantasy, and Regency Romance. The genre might change, but her characters will always be falling in love. She loves to make magic by stringing words together, but she also creates designer sugar cookies, sings loud in church, and reads fiction like it’s her last day on earth. Michelle is an active contributor in the LDS and Clean Fiction writing communities. She is blessed to have the support of her family and amazing friends on this crazy journey, as well as the constant company of the characters who live in her imagination.

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