Last time in The Unwanted Suitor: Sir James despairs of how to bring his courtship of Cornelia to a happy conclusion and visits the Countess for advice. Between them, they decide he must race back to London for a special licence.
Cornelia focused on taking calm, steadying breaths as one of the maids tied her stays. She felt an urgency, an impatience to be done, though the sun had not yet risen high enough to burn away the dusky shadows of the night. It had taken her weeks to grow accustomed to rising so early, but today, she had gotten out of bed when the servants had just begun to stir. Somehow, today, she would show Sir James that she welcomed his advances.
Surely, for such a happy future, she could brave the censure of those who would disapprove. But the rapid beating of her heart proved how deeply anxious she felt at taking such a step.
With the last pins and ties securing her morning dress, she thanked the chambermaid who had helped her, and sat at her small vanity to put up her hair. She pinned it into place, then, feeling utterly brazen, pulled out a few wisps of hair around her face and smoothed their wild curls into ringlets. It softened her face, allowing her to show her youth whereas normally she sought to hide it with a severe style.
A knock at the door surprised her, for no one ever came this way except the maids who were assigned to help her. Going to the door, she saw Damen and raised her eyebrows in question.
“Sir James sent me to find you,” he murmured, casting his eyes down the corridor as if to assure no one could hear him. “He’s in the stables. You’d best hurry. It looked to me as if he was setting out on a journey.”
“Thank you.” Cornelia did not wait to ask him any of the questions that sprang at once to her mind. No doubt Damen had told her all he knew. If Sir James was indeed on the point of departure, there was no time to waste. Her worry, her insecurities, her reluctance to have him gone gave wings to her feet as she ran through the rabbit warren of corridors that made up Wentworth house.
Impatient of the time it took her to reach the stables, Cornelia did not notice her labored breath or the way her hair began to pull free of its pins. Turning through the garden and through the gate to the stable yards, she immediately beheld Sir James, holding the lead of a prime stallion who fidgeted while a groom fastened on two saddlebags. Sir James ran a soothing hand down the horse’s neck while murmuring to him.
“You’re leaving?” She asked, her voice rough as she tried to catch her breath.
Sir James turned immediately when she spoke and motioned for a groom to take the horse. He strode to her and took her hand, leading her to a sheltered corner near the high wall of the stable yard. “Yes. I have business in London.”
“London?” Cornelia searched his eyes, surprised. “But that is a three-day journey. You will miss the rest of the house party.”
His strong fingers gripped her elbows a moment, then ran gently up and down her arms, soothing her as he had his horse. “I fully intend to return for the ball.”
“I can travel faster riding than is possible in a carriage, and I shall be moving at a wicked pace, I promise you.”
“But what is so urgent? So necessary that you must leave now instead of waiting a few more days?”
“Cornelia, I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t think it was important, but do not make me speak more about it now.” He paused a moment and she searched his eyes. They were shadowed with concern and worry. His shoulders looked tense, as did the muscles in his jaw as he clenched it. “I had planned to read a poem tonight at the reading, but since I cannot, can I give you a few lines now?”
Her pulse raced. “Please do.”
“It is from I Speak Not by Byron,” his tone sounded like a warning, and he hesitated.
“Go on,” she said, anxious to hear.
“And our days seem as swift, and our moments more sweet,
With thee at my side, than with worlds at our feet.”
Cornelia gasped softly, not just at the power of the lines, but at the intense passion with which he spoke them. “James…”
“By thunder, if it wasn’t impossible to leave you before. Don’t look at me like that, my darling, or I’ll never find the strength to get on that horse and ride away.”
“Then I will endeavor to do precisely that and keep you here, as the poem says, at my side.”
He stood still, his eyes burning her with the fierceness of his emotion. When he spoke, his voice was rough. “But you see, for me, the words of the poem are why I must leave.” Then, pulling her firmly towards him, he pressed a firm, urgent kiss to her lips then turned away sharply. More quickly than Cornelia would have believed possible, Sir James mounted and rode out of the gate. The two grooms on duty looked as amazed as she felt.
Turning away, needing peace to order her thoughts, she ran back to the garden. Tears ran hard and hot down her cheeks, and she fumbled for her handkerchief then realized that she did not have one. She wiped her wet fingers on her skirts, trying to numb herself to the sharp longing in her chest. She shuddered and started crying again as she realized she had not told him she loved him.
If Cornelia had never before felt such a keen unrest and loneliness as she did after Sir James’ departure. Throughout dinner and the poetry reading, she performed her duties but took no pleasure in them. Though the drawing room was full of laughing, applauding people, all bent on courtship and social maneuvering, all Cornelia could feel was the lack of Sir James’ presence.
She didn’t hear the poems recited for the guests, only the one Sir James had quoted to her in the stable yard for her ears alone. Try as she might, she could think of no urgent business that he might have in London. She knew all too well that his business concerns all revolved around his lands around Buxton. If anything, he should have been called home.
But speculating would do her no good, nor would it bring him back. All she could do was remember the gleam in his eyes and the passion in his voice, and hope that he cared for her as he had so often intimated. If only she had not taken so long to understand and accept her own feelings.
When the poetry reading was done, the Countess directed her to ring for tea, and the butler came in a moment later with the tea service, closely followed by Damen. With so many guests, the Countess did not pour the tea herself. It was Cornelia’s duty to see to it with the help of the servants. As she carried steaming cups to Miss Fairchild and Miss Townshend, she heard Sir James name spoken behind her. Alert and curious, she listened carefully as she returned to the tea tray.
“I don’t know where he’s gone off too,” Lord Ian said. “Hared off early this morning.”
“No doubt he finally tired of that companion creature setting her cap at him and slipped away.”
Cornelia stiffened, her fingers gripping the teapot so hard her knuckles turned white. The second voice belonged to Lady Summers, her mocking tone striking like arrows in Cornelia’s flesh. Her words were followed by badly muffled laughter.
Mortified and angry, Cornelia looked over her shoulder and saw that Mr. Tierney was also part of the group. When he had mastered his laughter enough to speak, he said, “Does anyone even know who she is?”
“Of course not.” Lady Summers said. “People who have connections are not employed as paid companions. I pity her really. She must be really quite desperate to secure a match and rise from such a lowly position. But why she must needs cast her lures at Sir James is beyond my understanding. Lord Bloomsbury I could understand for, really, who else would marry such a man? But Sir James? Well.”
Lord Ian spoke up then, his voice unsteady with mirth. “Who knows? Perhaps Sir James does mean to make her an offer. There are different sorts of offers, you know.”
“There are indeed,” Mr. Tierney said. “I wouldn’t mind making her such an offer myself. She’s pretty enough after all, and has quite the figure under all those dull gowns she wears.”
Lady Summers sniffed. “No doubt she would throw herself at you if you showed her some interest. And you might be doing Sir James a favor—though I’ll be surprised if he returns to the house party.”
The teacup Cornelia held rattled on its saucer as her hands shook. She wanted to scream and claw and hiss, but more than anything, she wanted to escape. But how could she? If she ran out now, they might see and know that she had heard them. No, she would not give them the satisfaction.
Just then, a hand came out and took the china dishes from her hand. “Go,” Damen said. “I will cover for you.”
She looked up at him, and though she had often been wary and even mistrustful of him, she saw such a shade of sympathy in his eyes that she nearly broke apart right then. But somehow, it also gave her strength. “No. I will not run away anymore.”
Running away from pain was the reason she was here in this position. If she’d had the courage to stand and face her problems, how much different might her life have been. She took the cup back from Damen, and with only a slight tremor, poured the cup of tea. Then, she took five lumps of sugar and stirred them into the hot brew until they disappeared.
“That’s nigh on enough sugar to choke a person,” Damen said, his voice at once shocked and amused.
“That I should be so fortunate.” Pressing her lips together, Cornelia added two more lumps and stirred them in, then turned and carried the cup over to Lady Summers.
When the woman saw her approaching, she looked shocked for just a moment, then looked sideways to her two male companions and bit her lip in an effort to hold back her laughter.
Cornelia’s resolve firmed. “Here is your tea, Lady Summers.”
“Why, thank you.”
“I think you’ll find it contains just what you need.” Cornelia smiled, dipped a mocking curtsy and walked away, enjoying the sound of sputtering and gasping that erupted as Lady Summers drank the tea.
She passed Daman, who watched in great amusement from the tea tray. She paused next to him. “If the Countess should inquire after me, tell her that Wellington needed to go out.”
He nodded, a sign of respect she thought, and turned back to his duties. Cornelia collected Wellington from his seat near the door and left with her head held high.
To read the rest of The Unwanted Suitor, click HERE.
And our days seem as swift, and our moments more sweet,
With thee at my side, than with worlds at our feet.