Previously on Mistaken Identity: Miss Standish makes the unfortunate mistake of agreeing to sing in the musicale. Hearing the snickers from the audience, Conrad tries to rescue Miss Stanish by singing with her. His assistance is rebuffed at first, but in the end, did it really bring them closer? Read Gossip and Ghosts to find out.
Conrad leaned against the wall swirling the amber liquid in his glass. So many thoughts battled for attention, his brain felt a bit like the brandy in his hand. He had observed Lord Courtenay tucking a small piece of parchment into a crack in one of the statues just before the musicale the night before. But after Miss Standish’s memorable performance he had completely forgotten about the note until this morning. However, every time he ventured into the statuary hall, someone was present, making it impossible to search.
Looking around the smoke filled room, he continued the circular motion with his hand. They would be joining the ladies in the parlor soon and if the truth be told, the note was not the only thing taking up space in his mind. His chest constricted as her face came easily to his mind. Miss Standish had been noticeably absent throughout the day, whether the result of the performance the night before or her mother’s health, he could not be sure. But whatever the reason, he missed her. His brow dipped in confusion. When had her presence become so important?
Conrad heard someone call Ian’s name. He sighed, tired of pretending to be his brother. Turning toward the sound, he groaned inwardly. Mr. Beauchamp and Lord Anthony stood off to the side with a new member of the house party. A full on growl rumbled in Conrad’s throat. Mr. Teirny. The men sauntered over, stopping when they reached Conrad’s side. “Teirny.” He tried to look cordial, even happy to see the man, but his mouth refused to turn upward. “When did you arrive?”
Teirny looked at him, disapproval on his face. “Last evening, just before the musicale. Or perhaps the strangled cat performance is a more accurate name. It was fortunate others with talent were able to salvage the evening.”
Beauchamp raised his eyebrows, but said nothing. Lord Anthony chuckled softly, lifting his glass to his mouth. Before putting it to his lips he muttered, “It is fortunate she has such a pretty face or she would never survive the ton.”
Conrad knit his brows together. How would Ian respond? Would he join in the mocking or defend Miss Standish? Conrad hoped Ian would never stoop to the likes of Teirny, but he truly had no idea. Which made him sad for an entirely different reason. “She performed once in London a few seasons ago. Were any of you present?”
Lord Anthony laughed again and Teirny smirked. It was Beauchamp who spoke up this time. “We were all there. Do you not remember? Her London performance was only just better than last night.” Beauchamp winced at his words. “But apart from her singing, she is a lovely creature.” In that moment Beauchamp rose a few notches in Conrad’s esteem.
Lord Anthony’s brows rose. “And, from what I’ve heard, she is swimming in lard.”
Teirny snorted. “Your information is old news. My understanding is they haven’t a sixpence to scratch with.” He glanced over to Conrad as if he had three heads. “How can you not remember that performance? You were her harshest critic. I believe you compared her to gaggle of squawking geese!” Teirny laughed loudly, sloshing his port onto the rug and drawing the attention of those around them.
Conrad shrank back, trying to blend into the wallpaper, heat rising up his neck. He had known his brother was a rake, but his churlish nature was disappointing news. “I barely remember the chit. Perhaps Conrad is beginning to rub off on me.” He forced a chuckle. “Who knows, I may even forsake women and wagers.” Pretending to laugh uproariously with them, he tried to come up with an excuse to leave. Looking around, his gaze landed on Lord Courtenay. “I need to refill my glass. If you’ll excuse me, gentleman.”
Before he could escape, Lord Anthony grabbed his arm. “You have barely touched your brandy.” Eying him, Lord Anthony asked. “What were you about all day, Pinkerton? I thought you were to come to the picnic this afternoon.”
“I was not aware I had missed a picnic.” The thought crossed his mind to ask if Miss Standish had been there, but he dismissed it as quickly as it came. The conversation had been steered away from her, he did not wish to draw her into it again. “The Countess was in need and I volunteered my services.”
The three men laughed again uproariously. Conrad frowned in confusion until the implication of his words descended on him. The growl actually escaped this time. “I went into town to fetch some powders from the apothecary.” He shook his head. What a bunch of commonplace minds. He nodded across the room. “Conrad asked me to relay a message to Lord Courtenay for him. I had forgotten until this very moment. Gentlemen.” Turning away from the louts, he mumbled to himself. “I do not understand why Ian calls you friends.”
“What was that, Pinkerton?” Teirny asked Conrad’s back. He waved the question away and continued in the direction of Lord Courtenay.
He actually had a great deal to discuss with Courtenay, but as himself, not as his bacon-brained brother. As he approached the man, Conrad tried to look properly uninterested. “Lord Courtenay. My brother asked that I deliver a message, should I see you here.”
Courtenay leveled his gaze, scrutinizing him. They had been working closely together on reform measures. Conrad hoped he gave nothing away. “He made me memorize it exactly.” He heaved a heavy sigh of irritation. Courtenay seemed to buy it, if the look of impatience on his face was any indication.
He waved his hand in the air. “Yes, yes. What is it?”
Conrad raised his voice. “’Everything…’”
Courtenay cut him off with a glare and snapped. “Lower your voice, man.”
With wide eyes, he leaned in close. “Beg pardon, my Lord. Conrad said ‘Everything is in place, in my boroughs, for the rally. Awaiting direction from Red.’” Conrad took a step back. “That is it. That is all of the message.” He narrowed his eyes at Courtenay. “What does it mean, anyway? Conrad would not tell me.”
“It is not something to be discussed…here.” He nodded in the direction of Lord Anthony, Mr. Beauchamp, and Mr. Teirny.
“Is there a message I should pass on to my brother?”
Shaking his head, Courtenay drained the last of his glass. “No. I shall send a messenger with any information for Lord Kendal. I am sure I will be seeing him before you will.” He turned to leave, but then turned back. “Thank you for delivering the message. I was afraid something had happened when I had not heard anything from Kend… your brother.”
Conrad set his untouched glass on the side table, following the others to the parlor to join the ladies. Relief filled him when he saw Miss Standish sitting with a group of young ladies. Her head was tilted back in an inappropriate and utterly charming laugh. His stomach danced at the thought of spending the late night hours seeking out an elusive ghost with her.
Lightning lit up the hallway through the large window at the end. The rain, pelting against the wind added to the chilling mood. Jes gave a small shiver, as she thought about where they were going. It was quite possibly the most preposterous thing she had ever done. Pray, who in their right mind went traipsing about a very large, very old home in the middle of the night? Searching for ghosts no less. A chuckle burst out, turning Miss Barton’s frightened eyes on her.
“Maybe we should return to our chambers, Miss Standish. I am beginning to think this is not such a clever idea.” There was a slight quiver to the poor girl’s voice.
Jes stifled the sigh of annoyance. The girl was a milkweed, a trait Jes found difficult to tolerate in large quantities. But she liked Miss Barton well enough. After all, she did tend to attract Lord Bloomsbury’s attention enough to keep him away from Jes. Tucking her hand around Miss Barton’s arm, she essentially dragged her along the hallway. “Come now, Miss Barton. You are surely to be married before the end of the next season. Take your chance at some fun before the leg shackle is locked for good.”
Word had spread the group would meet in the Statuary Hall. Entering the room, Jes could hear the murmuring of voices. The two girls looked around the crowd. While Miss Barton had not confided it in her, Jes was quite certain the girl had a tendre for Mr. Julius Easton. As suspected, her gaze immediately sought him out. Miss Barton slowly and gently began to tug Jes in his direction. Tilting her head this way and that, Jes tried to find Lord Ian. Whose idea had it been to meet amid all these statues? As they passed several sculptures in various degrees of undress, she finally caught sight of him. He was speaking to Lord Davies. Her pulse quickened and her cheeks heated. Putting a hand up, she tried to cool it. She dropped the other out from around Miss Barton’s arm, moving in a different direction.
Worried Lord Ian would sense her anxiousness to see him, she feigned interest in the marble next to him— looking altogether too interested in the detailed carving of the feet on the Juno sculpture by Joseph Nollekens.
Behind her, a grunt sounded. She pretended to pull herself away from the piece, looking up into Lord Ian’s pale green eyes.
“I was beginning to wonder if you were too pigeon-livered to come.”
Jes felt her lips begin to quiver. “Pigeon-livered, my Lord? I believe I have only heard that term one other time, and I am quite certain he was not a gentleman.” She arched a brow, hoping he would see it as a challenge.
Lord Ian smiled, matching her cocked brow. “Are you accusing me of ungentlemanly behavior, Miss Standish?”
She shook her head. “Never, my Lord. Just introducing a story. I know how much you love a good one.”
With a half-smile and a sparkle in his eye, he leaned in. “I am most anxious to hear your tale. Let us get this adventure started and you can regale me once we are underway.”
He turned to the group, drawing everyone’s attention to him. “I believe we are all here. Let us make our way to the nursery wing. Everyone take a candle. The halls where we are going will not be lit. And please, keep your voices to a whisper for the sake of the other guests, as well as any ghosts.”
A few snickers could be heard from behind. Jes thought about looking back, but her eyes stayed firmly fixed on Lord Ian. Her stomach felt as if a million butterflies waited to break free. It was only when Wellington, the Countess’s pug, trotted over and began to paw at her slippers, her gaze dropped. She picked the little dog up, scratching him behind the ears.
The group began to move in a swarm towards the stairway. Jes lowered the dog to the floor, noticing Miss Barton had returned to her side. The Easton men followed several paces behind, Mr. Julius Easton looking disinterested. Mr. Tauney Easton engaged in a conversation with Miss Anne, his hands waving wildly as he spoke. Miss Anne watched his every movement, nearly tripping when they began to climb the stairs. Jes stifled her laughter, until she stumbled on the stair as well.
Strong hands gripped her upper arms, stopping her from falling, When she looked up, she almost tripped again. Lord Ian steadied her, then began to speak. “I believe you were about to spin me a yarn of questionable origin.”
She smiled, something that seemed to happen without much coaxing whenever he was near. His request, she waved aside. “I find I am more interested in stories of a more ethereal nature.”
“Very well.” He shrugged. “I assume this is your first encounter with an…” His voice dropped to a whisper as he wiggled his fingers in the air. “Apparition?”
Jes let out a dramatic sigh. “Indeed. But this is not your first, I remember. Tell me, my Lord. Is this the only ghost you have seen or do you see them other places as well?”
“I see them everywhere. It is as if they follow me.” A grimace passed briefly over his face.
She tried to give him a bland expression, but the anticipation was too much and her grin broke forth. “What is the story behind this ghost? Surely you know all the intricacies.”
Miss Barton scooted in closer. “Truly, there is a story?”
Jes glanced over, trying not to scowl at the girl for intruding on the moment she felt she was having with Lord Ian. Her stomach burned when he turned his attention to the young lady.
“Indeed, there is.” His gaze returned to Jes, her envy melting away, pooling on the floor with every breath he took. “As the story is told, a house party, similar to this very one, had just begun. At breakfast the first morning, one of the young ladies lamented she had scarce slept a wink. She contended something cold had awakened her with a kiss.”
Miss Barton squeaked, sucking in her breath, eyes wide as saucers. They came to a stop on the stairs. Jes glared at her. “Really, Miss Barton. A little tenacity.”
Jes returned her gaze to Lord Ian, noticing the slight tremor in his lips. “Please continue, my Lord.” She began to move back up the staircase.
He nodded. “The former Earl dismissed the young woman’s claims. But after numerous sleepless nights, she insisted on new sleeping chambers. Once the party ended and the guests all removed themselves to their own estates, the Earl had the walls of the room in question searched. When nothing came of it, he ordered the floor removed, revealing a small casket.”
This time it was Jes who sucked in the breath. She was totally unaware of anyone but the two of them in that moment. “No! I can scarce believe it.” She gripped the handrail, once again halting their upward progression.
“It is true.” He looked as though he was on the verge of laughter. “It was discovered the wooden box belonged to a young boy, the younger son of a previous Earl, who drowned after falling into an icy pond.”
“Why was it placed under the floorboards of the guest room?” Jes barely recognized her own voice. Her heart dropped into her stomach.
His voice dropped to match her own whispered tone. “That, my dear Miss Standish, is the mystery. No one seems to know exactly when or how the casket came to be under the bedroom.” Their gazes locked, her hands became sweaty inside her gloves.
He motioned her to again begin climbing the remaining stairs. As she walked he continued. “Once the coffin was removed, the boy’s spirit seemed to stay behind. From that time on, he could be found roaming the halls outside the nursery.”
The group came to the top of the staircase. Lord Ian squinted down the hallway just as another slice of lightening brightened the corridor. The thunder quickly followed. “If I remember correctly…” He looked in the other direction, but then turned back. “This is the way to the nursery.” He looked at everyone, his face very serious. “I suggest keeping close together.” He held his arm out for Jes to take hold.
She wrapped her hand around his arm, momentarily pulled from the lingering jitters caused by the story. “Is this necessary, my Lord. Do you believe we could be in danger?” She tried to keep the shiver from her voice, afraid he would realize fear was not what put it there.
A sly grin turned his lips, his brows wiggling a few times. “We cannot be too careful, Miss Standish. And what would I tell your mother if something should happen to you?” He covered her hand with his own, drawing her gaze to them. Her breath caught in her throat.
A yelp sounded and Wellington scurried past her in the opposite direction. Her candle flickered, then extinguished completely. Jes glanced behind them, noticing several other candles had blown out as well, causing a few eerie shadows to dance on the wall. She moved her candle, hoping to light it off Lord Ian’s just as his puffed out, and the hallway went dark.
She heard a shuffle next to her, then felt a warm breath on her earlobe.
“Do you see him?” Lord Ian’s voice was a whisper, but it still moved the hair on her neck. Or maybe it was the hazy white figure of a young boy clinging to the nursery door frame, which caused the gooseflesh to appear.