Previously on Mistaken Identity: Jes receives a surprise visit from her cousin, the Duke of Shearsby. He offers the dower house at Morley Park for them to live in and give Jes a substantial dowry.
Jes entered the breakfast room. Her lips pressed tightly together,as Lord Ian and Mr. Tierney both stood to greet her. Word of her dowry had not taken long to spread throughout the group. She had no idea how or where it started. All she knew was by the end of dinner the previous evening, whisperings of her new wealth circulated among most of the social circles at the party. She was surprised, although she did not know why, to receive almost smothering attention from several of the men— Mr. Tierney and Lord Ian being the most persistent.
“May I get you a plate Miss Standish?” Mr. Tierney was quick to ask. “You look perfectly lovely this morning.”
Shaking her head, she replied through clenched teeth.”No thank you, sir.” Did they really think her such a dolt? Think she could not see through the false charm?
She moved around him to the sideboard. Picking up a plate, she selected several items before turning towards the breakfast table. Her plate was plucked from her hands. “Please, Miss Standish. I have saved a seat for you next to me.” Lord Ian deposited her breakfast at an empty spot and pulled out a chair, motioning for her to sit.
Jes tightened her hands into fists at her side. These two were making a spectacle of themselves and in turn, of her. Lord Ian was one of the last people she wished to be seated near. Especially when Mr. Oscar Easton sat several seats down the table and on the opposite side. He quirked a smile, his shoulder raising slightly.
“Did you rest well, Miss Standish? Judging from your radiant glow I would guess the answer to be yes.” Lord Ian tucked the chair in under her.
She placed a few bites in her mouth before glancing over at him, barely recognizing the man. He seemed to be a chameleon, changing his personality to whatever situation came along. She was unable to even muster a smile. The more he spoke the angrier she became. How had she ever thought her heart yearned for this man? Granted, his behavior now was more calculated and transparent now than it had been during the house tour or even in the library. Had she missed these obvious cues or had they not been on display then?
She stuffed a large bite of food into her mouth, trying to smile in spite of her bulging cheeks. Chewing a few times, she swallowed several painful gulps and pushed back her chair. “I believe I am done. If you will excuse me.”
Before either man could unseat themselves, she quickly walked from the room, stepping around the corner and out of the view of the guests still eating. Leaning against the wall she closed her eyes, trying to get back her shattered sense of peace. While her cousin surely thought he was doing her a favor by providing the dowry, she had serious doubts as to the prudence of the gift. Now she was just the object of every fortune hunter in the area. She placed a hand about her stomach. How could she resent such an act of kindness? Guilt burned in her stomach. Lord Ian was not the only one showing his less desirable side.
A hand snaked around the back of her waist, forcing her eyes wide open. Lord Ian placed his other hand on the wall just above her shoulder, trapping her where she stood. “I knew you would be waiting for me.” He leaned closer, his breath brushing against her neck. Was that alcohol already on his breath?
Heat burned in the backs of her eyes,as she shoved him hard, his shock allowing her to duck under his arm and move beyond his reach. Hurrying down the corridor, she turned back suddenly. “Keep your distance, my lord.” His title was spit from her mouth. Picking up her skirts, she rushed the rest the way to the library.
Pushing open the door, she peered inside, grateful to see no one was within. She slipped inside and closed the door behind her.
A pinch tightened her chest when she glanced at the table where the maps were kept. She told herself Lord Ian had been a fake and a fraud at every encounter, but a few of their interactions left her unable to fully convince herself of that fact. The time spent in this room with him was one she could not quite reconcile. She stomped her foot, angry with herself for harboring tender feelings for this room. He had seemed so sincere speaking about her father. And his touch… Her breath slowly squeezed from her throat. How could he have touched her with such affinity and not mean it? He had seemed as affected by the contact as she.
Her spine stiffened. But it was all a lie.
The door squeaked open on its hinges. Jes spun around, ready to flee the room.
Mr. Oscar Easton poked his head in the door. “Ah, Miss Standish. Lady Rachel thought I might find you here.”
Jes pretended to look at a shelf of books. She could not have him realize she was mooning over some memory. Especially when it was now tainted by spurious motives.
When she did not reply, Mr. Easton when on. “I was hoping we might work together in the poetry reading tonight.” He rocked back and forth on his heels. “Unless, of course, you are already partnered.”
Jes took a long deep breath before turning around and giving him a wide smile. Too wide— he surely knew something was amiss. “No, I am not yet paired with anyone.” She tilted her head, looking at the gentleman. He was handsome, although not as striking as Lord Ian. While her heart had never thumped rapidly in her chest at the mere thought of Mr. Easton, nor did a thousand butterflies take flight in her stomach at his glance, he had never been anything but kind to her. And he had been even before news of her dowry had circulated. Yes, Mr. Easton was a friend. Why then did that thought not make her genuinely smile?
“I would be happy to be paired with you, sir. Thank you for seeking me out.” She looked to the shelves. “I believe I saw poetry in this area.” The two began searching the shelves. Finally she let out a satisfied grunt. “Ah, here they are. Now, which poet are you most partial to?”
Lord Easton shrugged. “I will leave the decision to you. I am sure you are well versed in poetry.” He raised a brow. “Or more so than I.”
Jes turned back to the shelf. Keats, Wordsworth… Lord Byron? None seemed appropriate for the evenings entertainment. Alexander Pope? She pulled the book out, thumbing through its pages. Nothing caught her eye. Perhaps Coleridge? She looked up at Mr. Easton through her lashes. Could she be happy with Mr. Easton? Not that he had indicated any partiality on his part, but if he did, would she accept him?
The door opened and Lord Easton stepped into the room. His brow furrowed. “Oscar, what are you doing in here?”
“Miss Standish and I have been paired for the poetry reading this evening. We were trying to settle on a poem.”
With narrowed eyes, Lord Easton looked at Mr. Easton. “Very well. Have you seen Tabby? I cannot find her anywhere.”
Mr. Easton shook his head. “I haven’t seen her this morning.”
Lord Easton turned and left the library, muttering about Lord Courtenay and Miss Easton and someone being strangled.
Shrugging, Mr. Easton returned his gaze to the book in her hand, motioning with his head. “Have you decided, then?”
Jes fingered the cover. It seemed a hopeless matter. Every poem she read felt too focused on love and romance. Neither of which she wanted to be reminded about. She shelved the Pope book and looked to Mr. Easton. “What if we did a dramatic reading of a scene from Shakespeare. Perhaps Midsummers Night Dream?” She cringed at her cowardice. But Mr. Easton nodded his agreement.
“If that is what you wish.”
What she wished? She did not know what she wished for anymore. A melancholy settled over her. This man was so kind and yet she felt at a loss to reciprocate. The indifference she felt for him, for everyone here, made her loathe Lord Ian all the more.
Conrad slapped his gloves in his hand as he walked back to the house from the stables. He had been out riding more than usual since his return from Somerstone. In point of fact, his horse had never been exercised so thoroughly. He had never been riding with Miss Standish, leaving that as one of the few pleasures left him which did not conjure her face in his mind. He looked up at the house. How she had imposed herself into nearly every room in his home was beyond him. Books, maps, even the folly on the north hillside could not be viewed without remembering some bit of conversation they had shared.
“Thunder and turf,” he muttered as he walked through the door. Frampton did not even raise a bow, as if he were so accustomed to Conrad spouting such base language. A grunt sounded in Conrad’s throat. Of late, such phrases were more common than he cared to admit.
He handed off his hat and gloves to the man. “Did any of the messengers return yet?” There was one in particular he was anxious to speak with.
“No, my lord. Although, I do not expect any of them before tomorrow morning.”
Conrad scowled. “I will be in my study, Frampton.”
“Very good, my lord.”
He had not even taken a seat when the door opened and the butler entered offering a brief bow. “I am sorry to disturb you, my lord, but this just arrived by messenger. The man indicated it was of some urgency.” Frampton held out a small folded parchment.
Conrad took it, examining the seal as he dismissed the man. He had seen the imprint before, but could not place from where. Cracking the wax as he sat down, he unfolded the letter, his eyes dropping to the signature at the bottom. Ah, he should have remembered the Countess’s mark. What Lady Du’Breven could possibly want with him, he could not say.
The note was quite short. He skimmed over the pleasantries included in all correspondence, finally getting to the reason for the note.
I am writing to demand you get your mangy carcass back to Yorkshire at once. A certain young lady has become quite the diamond in the eyes of your brother and Mr. Tierney upon learning of her rather substantial dowry. Though I cannot say their attention is as welcome as it would be coming from someone more… suited to her. I will expect you back before the ball.
Conrad’s brow crinkled as he reread the letter, amusement and irritation battling for prominence. The Countess was demanding he return? A guffaw escaped his lips. Few people dared demand anything of him. However, the Countess was not like other people.
At first he had believed she must be speaking of Miss Standish, but he knew— she had hinted to it herself— not only did she not have a great dowry, she had no dowry at all. According to Shearsby, after paying off her husband’s creditors Lady Rachel was cleaned out.
But why should the Countess call on Conrad for the sake of another young lady? It was not as if he had paid any of the other girls special attention.
While the Countess tried to feign ignorance, Conrad knew she was up to her neck in machination of the romantic nature. When he had made her aware of his plans to return home before the end of the party, the old woman had actually sputtered. A smile curved his lips at the memory.
It bothered him he had been so obvious in his affections for Miss Standish that the Countess had taken note, but he was also intrigued that Lady Du’Breven believed Miss Standish to be displeased with Ian’s attentions— if he was interpreting the note correctly. The thought made Conrad pause. He was displeased with Ian’s intentions toward Miss Standish, but could it be possible Miss Standish was not pleased with them either? Could she truly no be seeking his good opinion? What of the conversation he had over heard? Was it possible he had misunderstood her meaning?
He sat back in his seat, his breathing becoming tight and his heart jumping erratically in his chest. Was it even possible she could have feelings for him? He shook his head. Was he was only hoping it might be true, because he wanted it to be so?
He ran his fingers through his hair. What was he to do? If his assumptions were correct and she could love him, he must return to Yorkshire immediately.
He shot to his feet.
But what if he was wrong? What if she did, in fact, love Ian? What if he opened his heart to her and she rejected him? Slowly he sat back in his chair, staring straight ahead but seeing nothing.
He needed to ride; to clear his head and make an educated decision. Standing quickly, moved towards the door. If he let his heart decide he would be gallivanting across the countryside on his way to Somerstone with no plan or idea as to how to proceed. But he was not one to fly off in haste— he was practical.
A picture of Miss Standish and Mr. Tierney entered his mind. “Bloody hell. I cannot leave her to that viper.”
In four long strides, he was across the room and striding down the hallway. “Frampton,” he hollered.
The man appeared immediately. “My lord?”
“Tell Ian’s valet to pack my bags and be ready to depart within the hour. We are going to Yorkshire. I have a ball to attend.” And a lady to court, he added to himself.
Conrad’s mind began to compile a list of problems with this plan, but he pushed them back. Instead, images of Jes— her body pulled close to his, her face tilted up towards him as he spun her around the dance floor— settled in his thoughts. Practicality fled, his decision was made.