Previously on Mistaken Identity: It was a perfect night for a specter sighting!
“Are you sure you will not join the party, Mama? You have kept indoors too much, the fresh air will do wonders.” Jes tilted her head to the side. “Lord Ian is sure to prove amusing.” Memories of their last house tour brought a smile to her lips.
“You are right, Jes. I have remained indoors too long. The weather is beautiful, but I believe I will enjoy the grounds here today.” Lady Rachel smiled, patting Jes on the arm. “Go, have fun with your friends.”
“Are you feeling unwell again? Did attending church service tire you, this morning? I can remain behind if you need—”
Her mother cut her off. “Nonsense. I am well. I just do not need to go traipsing about some castle when there are so many lovely gardens here.” She shooed Jes out of her bed chambers. “I am not an old woman who needs constant care. Go have fun.”
Jes entered the marbled hall, tying the ribbons of her bonnet as she walked. Guests were gathering to make a trip to Wentworth Castle. It was deemed too far to walk, so carriages were being prepared to transport the large group. She looked about, hoping Lord Ian had decided to make the journey, smiling at the thought of the stories he would concoct. Spotting him on the opposite side of the room, she moved in his direction. He was speaking with his friends, laughing and making a spectacle of himself.
She approached the group, giving a small curtsy, and made a show of addressing all of them, but her eyes addressed him only. “Good morning, Lord Ian. Are you to make the journey to Wentworth Castle with us?”
He looked at her with a mixture of bewilderment and dismissal. “It would appear I am. Why else would I be donning my coat and hat?”
Mr. Teirny laughed loudly, while Lord Anthony and Mr. Beauchamp smiled, pity evident in their eyes.
Feeling the heat rise in her cheeks, she took a step back, confusion clouding her eyes. Lord Ian stepped away from her. “Now, if you will excuse me. I have asked to escort Miss Barton. It would be terribly rude for me to keep her waiting a moment longer.”
Jes stood rooted in place. She did not know where to go or how to react. Lord Ian had never dismissed her, let alone so thoroughly. Tears began to sting at the back of her eyes. She pushed them down, determined not to make a scene. Squaring her shoulders, she walked towards the entryway. What had made him so indifferent? No, there was much more than indifference in his look. It was almost as if he did not know her and did not desire to make her acquaintance. The thought renewed the burning in her eyes.
What could she have done to change his opinion of her so quickly and drastically? When they had parted in the early morning hours, there had been no indication he was displeased with her. He had even kissed her hand and wished her sweet dreams. Her hand warmed at the remembrance. Although, they had not been seated next to each other at church, he had caught her gaze and held it several times. What had changed in the last few hours?
Stepping onto the pebbled drive, Jes waited to be shown to a carriage. The same handsome footman as had helped her from the carriage when first they arrived, helped her into the next available one. He gave her a smile, one that should have made her swoon, but it did nothing. She returned it with a quick, artificial grin. Sitting on the bench, she looked around the carriage seeing Lord Beauchamp, Mrs. Jones and Lord Anthony shared the conveyance. Lord Anthony caught her glance, smirking at her. She forced her gaze down to the very interesting fringe at the bottom of her wrap.
“Is your mother still not well?” The question from Mrs. Jones brought Jes’s head up.
“She is doing much better, thank you for inquiring. She has not yet explored the gardens at the Somerstone and wished to do so today.”
Her gaze drifted over to Lord Anthony, who looked at her in a way that was altogether not to her liking. Turning her head to look out the window, she silently willed the coach to move faster.
Finally, the carriage rolled through a gated entrance and made its way around the formal pond in the middle of the drive. Statues spouted water in all directions, the droplets of water shimmering in the suns rays. Just when she thought she could stand it no longer, the coach swayed to a stop. Jes kept her eyes focused out the window until the door opened and a footman began to hand them out.
Taking in a calming gulp of air, Jes looked at the house and grounds around her. While this house was not nearly the size of Somerstone, it was indeed impressive. The mixture of baroque and Pallidian styles reminded her of Somerstone, even though the homes looked entirely different.
The group walked around the main house and onto the expansive grounds. Someone must have applied to the housekeeper for permission, for a liveried footman stood at the front of the group, beginning his speech on the history of the home and grounds.
They started in one of the many formal gardens, the ha-has separating them from the carefully planned wilderness beyond. Jes tried to keep her attention on the footman and his properly rehearsed monologue as the group walked about seeing the Corinthian Temple and Archer’s Hill Gate, but found herself instead seeking out the form of Lord Ian. Was he making up stories and sharing them with Miss Barton? She spotted him up ahead, speaking closely with the young lady. Miss Barton did not laugh, nor did he, but her constant blush was enough to guess about their conversation.
Jes told herself there was an explanation for his altered disposition, yet as she searched her memory, nothing surfaced as a justification.
Hoping his ill humor had faded, she moved up next to him as they all gazed out at the Sun Monument. “I have heard that is the exact location where Caesar surrendered to King Henry the VIII.” She smiled up at him, only to have it drop from her face at his look of bewilderment.
“I believe you are mistaken, miss. A bluestocking you are not.” He gave her one last look of disdain, before leading Miss Barton away.
Jes dropped her head, but not before seeing the look of sympathy Miss Barton cast over her shoulder. A shaky breath, slightly resembling a donkey’s bray, passed her lips. Tightly twisting her fingers until they ached under her gloves, she pushed down the sobs threatening to burst out. Straightening her spine, she followed the crowd, hearing nothing the footman said of the Castle folly.
“Ah, Miss Standish. How are you enjoying the tour?” Jes looked up to see Mr. Oscar Easton standing at her side. His brow wrinkled slightly, as if he were concerned about something.
Pasting on a wide smile, she responded with as much cheer as she could fake. “Very well, Mr. Easton. Thank you for asking.” Her gaze bounced to Lord Ian and then back. “And you? Are you enjoying the gardens?”
“Very much. The rhododendron and magnolia blooms are quite exquisite.”
Jes smiled genuinely this time. “I would not have guessed you to have such an interest in the flowers.”
Mr. Easton pinked slightly. “Only those specific ones. They are some of my mother’s favorite.”
“Ah, it is more you are a good son, than a botanist.” Her mood cheered slightly, as long as her gaze did not stray.
He nodded then put his arm out for her to take hold, while they walked down the incline and away from the castle. She moved to let go when they reached level ground, but he placed his hand over hers, keeping it firmly in place. Jes let a small smile grace her lips, even as she wished someone else was in possession of her hand. .
Conrad had stayed out longer than he intended after church. The missive had indicated a quick resolution, but meetings about Ian and his gambling, usually took longer than they should.
By the time Conrad had returned and changed his clothes, he was convinced the other guests had surely completed the tour and would return shortly. It was one of the few planned activities he had anticipated attending and he was sorely disappointed to miss out. He had an array of very tall tales about the various folly’s and monuments at Wentworth, ready to share. He knew Miss Standish would have laughed a great deal, something he was very disappointed to miss. Instead he had stayed behind, reading the correspondence his butler had forwarded on to Somerstone.
His first chance to see her was at dinner. He noticed she rarely looked in his direction and when she did, there was no pleasant smile or pertly arched brow. It was as if something had washed all the happiness from her countenance. Conrad literally itched for dinner to end and a chance to speak with her.
When the gentleman finally rejoined the ladies in the parlor, he sought her out immediately. Sidling up next to her, he cocked his head to the side, whispering into her ear. “Good evening, Miss Standish. It is lovely to see you. How was your afternoon?”
She turned, confusion and hurt evident on her face. “We are to be friends again, are we?”
His brow creased. “Friends again? Whatever are you speaking of? When have we not been friends?”
A cross between a huff and a sob escaped her lips. “Truly? We spent the afternoon exploring Wentworth Castle’s grounds and you completely ignored me. It was as if you did even know me. On the few occasions I ventured into a conversation, you brushed me aside, as if I were a street urchin begging for food. That, my lord, is when I assumed we were no longer friends.”
“But—“ Conrad opened his mouth to refute his presence when confusion turned to understanding and then anger. Ian. It was the only explanation. The lout had arrived. Conrad’s hands curled into fists, his teeth clenched until his jaw ached. His mind began to work, trying to find a way to smooth the situation over, while still coming up with several ways to destroy Ian. “I must apologize for my earlier dismissal, Miss Standish. I had just received a letter from home, with some unpleasant news. I am afraid I let it take precedence in my thoughts. Please beg pardon.” She looked only slightly less hurt.
“Miss Barton certainly seemed more than a preoccupation, my lord.” There was a bit of challenge in her voice.
“Miss Barton? Her father and mine were friends from Eton. When I found she was to be unaccompanied on the outing, I offered merely as a favor to her father.” Conrad bristled at the lies he was heaping upon his previous ones. Oh, how had he gotten himself into this position? He looked Miss Standish in the eyes, pleading. “Please, Miss Standish. You are one of the only females here I do not find simpering and intolerable.” He expected a laugh, but was disappointed.
Barely a crack seemed to form in her frosty demeanor. One brow arched slightly. “I am slightly more tolerable than the rest?” Her nostrils flared slightly. “I am merely a diversion while you are stuck here at this party?”
His face heated and his stomach soured. “No, no, no. That is not what… er, that is to say, I did not speak clearly. What I meant to say is I find you…” He stopped. What was his plan? Give her a list of everything he found appealing about her? Confess he got lost in her eyes? Or perhaps that he found her lips most tempting? Even the idea of explaining how he found her witty, intelligent and perceptive seemed far too intimate.
She cleared her throat, her hands on her hips, her very shapely hips. Conrad shook his head to clear those thoughts.
“Yes? I am anxious to hear what exactly you believe I am.” A challenging smirk appeared on her face.
It was not the reaction he was hoping for. He rubbed at his earlobe. “You are neither simpering nor intolerable, Miss Standish. I find your company most acceptable. Please accept my earlier apology, as terrible as it may have been.”
The challenge seemed to drop. The smirk relaxed slightly into a smile, only with no sparkle or glow to it. He growled low in his throat. Ian was an idiot and Conrad planned to throttle him as soon as their path crossed.
The fake smile on her face made him grimace. Pray, Ian was not the only idiot here. He may have removed her smile completely, but Conrad had done nothing to restore it.
She began to look around the room, as if she needed to escape his presence. The thought she would follow through brought panic, his chest tightening.
He extended his arm, placing his hand over hers when she tentatively placed it there. “I understand there are luminaries in the garden tonight. If you would be so kind as to accompany me, perhaps you could tell me which of the sights at Wentworth Castle were your favorite?”
She looked up at him, hurt clearly evident in her eyes. In that moment, he yearned to know what he could do to remove the sadness.
“The history there is almost as interesting as this old place.” He raised a brow in exaggerated excitement.
She dropped her head, her eyes fixed on the toes of her slippers. “I confess, I did not pay much heed to the footman and his informative tour.”
“Surely you heard the whole place was built because of a competition with the Du’Brevan family?” He leaned in closer, whispering the secret. “You most likely did not hear that it was the sight of the first battle of the American Colonial Revolt.”
He felt her body relax at his side, her smile twitching, while tears hovered in the bottom of her lids. His heart ripped a little.
At last a little laugh broke out. “I tried to point out the spot where Caesar surrendered to Henry VIII. But it seemed you were too involved with Miss Barton.” Her head ducked as she quickly inhaled.
He let out a laugh, but guilt stripped it of any conviction. “Drat it all! I missed that bit of history? Perhaps we can make another trip, where we can enlighten each other.” He led her to the terrace doors. “Granted, it shall never be as exciting as a specter hunt, but little is.” They stopped at the railing, looking out over the Italian Garden. It glowed with the muted light of thousands of luminaries.
A sharp intake of breath sounded next to him. From the corner of his eye, he saw her face soften in the glowing light. “It’s beautiful.” She whispered.
He looked down at her, though her eyes remained on the garden. “Indeed it is.” His voice was scarcely louder.
She turned just then, catching him staring at her, but turned back quickly. When she spoke, her voice sounded slightly strangled. “Speaking of ghosts. Were you aware there is one haunting the grounds of the castle?”
Conrad tsked and chuckled mockingly. “I believe I would know of such a thing, if it really did exist.”
Those pert brows raised high, righting Conrad’s world. “Ah, but there is. It is said the daughter of the Earl fell in love with the gardener.” She looked back out over the grounds, but he continued watching her. “The girl’s parents forbade the match and she refused to marry another. They say she died of a broken heart and her lonely spirit now haunts the gardens.”
She turned to face him again, the breeze picking up a stray lock and blowing it onto her lips. His hand lifted, tucking the hair behind her ear, his eyes never leaving her face. Her eyes drifted closed for a moment, as a breath escaped her. When she opened them and looked at him, he smiled, hoping she could see how much he meant it.
Trying for an unaffected tone, at which he failed miserably, he shrugged. “Then there is nothing for it, we must visit the castle together.”