Last time in The Unwanted Suitor: Sir James rides hard to London and secures a special license to marry Miss Greystock. But fate is against him returning in time for the ball to propose to her.
The truth about balls, Cornelia decided, was that they were a great deal of fun and merriment for some and a great deal of bother and work for others. For the Countesses’ grand ball on the last evening of her house party, Cornelia was decidedly in the second group. As to whether or not she might also find some enjoyment in the evening depended entirely on whether or not Sir James returned in time. And as the afternoon wore on with no sign of his arrival, her stomach knotted with the depressing surety that he would not.
Fortunately, there was simply too much to be done, too many tasks to be completed, for her to wallow in despair. Since dawn, an army of servants had been cleaning the Pillared Hall, the grand staircase, and the Marbled Ballroom, which stood at the top of the stairs. The reason for its name was quite obvious to anyone stepping foot inside it. It was a unique and splendid room, with so much marble it astounded the mind.
Needing to check on the servants’ progress, Cornelia went in and paused, amazed as always at the opulence of the room. The tile floors were laid out in a design of varying shades of marble that radiated from the center, matching the domed roof overheard. Stone pillars supporting the carved balustrade of the balcony that ran along the whole second level of the nearly square room. Tall statues stood in carved niches along the four walls, the wide fireplace stood tall with an intricate bas-relief adorning the mantle, and every doorway and window, of which there were many, were framed with intricately carved embrasures.
At the moment, huge palms and urns of flowers were being carried in and fresh candles were being placed in candelabras around the room. The musicians that had been hired from Harrogate tuned their instruments on the balcony overhead and footman placed chairs around the room for the comfort of those who would not be dancing. There was a harried chaos to the scene that wound Cornelia’s nerves even tighter, even though everything was progressing well.
Walking out to the center of the floor, she turned in a slow circle, imagining herself dancing with Sir James. She remembered their last dance, the one that had ended in the Pillared Hall with a life-altering kiss. From that moment, it had been impossible to fight her growing feelings for him.
“Miss Greystock, Alphonse is calling for you in the kitchens.” The frantic voice of one of the young maids broke through her reverie.
“Good heavens,” she exclaimed, hurrying after the maid.
Arriving breathless in Alphonse’s bustling kingdom below stairs, she found the man wild-eyed and waving a wicked looking knife around in the air. From the commotion of scullery maids and the kitchen boys who turned the spits, she realized they were chasing something. Above Alphonse’s bellows and the maids’ squeals, she heard a sharp yip and knew immediately that Wellington was the source of trouble.
Going up to Alphonse, she asked, “What mischief has Wellington been up to?”
“Mischief? It is not mischief to upend a bowl of strawberries, crush a wax basket of prawns, ruin three soufflés, and steal away with the green goose for the second remove. It is devilry, and I won’t have that spawn of hades in my kitchen a moment longer. If he returns, he’ll know the sting of my blade.”
Since the blade he spoke of glinted ominously as he waved it around in front of the fire, Cornelia didn’t bother to point out that the Countess was more likely to support her pug over her chef in such a matter. Fortunately, one of the young boys managed to grab hold of the dog at that moment. “I’ll take him away, Alphonse. I’m sorry he’s caused you so much trouble. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.
She took the pug from the boy and walked toward the servants’ stairs, planning to lock him away in the Countess’ rooms. A steady stream of lady’s maids and valets moved up and down the stairs with cans of hot water and freshly laundered petticoats, all of them in a mad rush. As she wove her way up the stairs, she met Damen coming down. They stepped to the side, making everyone else step around them like the current around an island.
“I heard the mongrel was ruffling Alphonse’s feathers,” Damen said, a slight smirk playing about his face.
“How quickly word gets around in such a big house.”
Damen’s eyes sparkled with humor. “Oh, that’s the least of the gossip, miss. I have little doubt tonight shall prove to be…exhilarating.”
“Perhaps for some,” she mumbled, gripping her arm more firmly around the pug as he tried to wiggle free. “Would you please take Wellington to the Countess’ room? I’m supposed to be overseeing the decoration in the ballrooms.”
“Sorry, Miss Greystock, I’d be happy to, but I’ve got orders of my own.” An air of purpose and resolution hung about him that made her curious, but he didn’t linger so that she could question him about it.
By the time she arrived in the Countess’ chamber, she was not surprised to find the Countess dressed for the evening already. Dinner would be held in less than an hour. The Countess wore a dove grey gown of satin with a silver-spangled net overskirt and a purple turban with five of long feathers. A wealth of icy diamond adorned her neck, ears, and wrists, and if Cornelia was not mistaken, the Countess had made use of her rouge pot to brighten her cheeks and lips. Cornelia stopped and gaped at her magnificence.
“My lady, you look beautiful. You’ll shine down every lady in the place.”
The Countess looked in the mirror. “Not too shabby for an old bird like me. Still, no amount of jewels and satin will bring back the adornment of youth. I do not repine, for I have had my day, my dear. And now it is your turn.”
“My turn? Oh no, my lady. Tonight is not for me.”
“What utter nonsense. Of course it is. You and all the other young people I have brought together.”
“But I’m your companion.”
“Only because it was the easiest way to get you under my roof and into Sir James’ arms.”
Cornelia gaped at the Countess while her cheeks flushed hotly. “I…don’t understand.”
“Never doubt me, my child. I have schemes within schemes, but the one I am most satisfied with is helping you find happiness with a good man who has loved you for a long time. When he comes to you tonight, don’t let pride or complications keep you from accepting him.”
Cornelia did not waste time questioning how the Countess knew so much. She had not spent all these months with the great lady to doubt her. But she did feel a lurch of pleasure that she had been included in the Countess’ matchmaking. Her throat closed up and her eyes watered. How kind she was.
Cornelia dropped to her knees before the countess and grasped her hands. “Thank you. I do not know what has prompted such generosity, but I am indebted to you, even though I daren’t even hope for the joy you hint at.”
The Countess bent closer. “You may do more than hope, my dear. You may count on it.”
“But he has gone to London, which is so very odd of him don’t you think? And at such a time? And he is not yet returned, though he said he would return for the ball.”
But the peeress did not betray a flicker of worry. “I promise you this—never before has a man had so great an inducement to complete a journey.” She chuckled and straightened. “Yes, unless he has met with some accident upon the road, we will see him tonight.”
“An accident?” Cornelia asked, all the color draining from her face.
“But I don’t fear for that. Your young man is a very capable sort. Now, I must turn my mind to a few other matters, for while bringing you two together was my first and dearest scheme, I am far less certain as to the success of some of my others. Now, leave my servants to finish their work. Go and dress. Take your time and pamper yourself. You will want to remember tonight the rest of your life.”
Cornelia did not know what to think, but Brimsby had already stepped back toward the Countess with a perfume bottle in hand and a determined look on her face as if she would forcibly remove Cornelia from the room if she hesitated a moment longer.
With her thoughts racing and her heart pounding, Cornelia hurried down the long series of corridors back to her humble room. She didn’t know what the Countess was hinting at, but her nerves twisted nonetheless. Sitting at her vanity, she looked in the mirror and saw her hair falling down, as usual, her countenance paler than she liked and her mouth turned down in a worried frown. She wore a drab day dress that was streaked with pollen from the lilies in ballroom and soot from the kitchen. This would never do.
With a gasp, she unpinned her hair and undressed as quickly as she could by herself. She washed with the cold water in her basin, then standing in a clean shift, went to decide which of her faded and muted gowns would be best for the night. It was a depressing choice to make, but before she had decided, a knock on the door interrupted her. She opened it to find Brimbsy and one of the upstairs maids standing in the doorway. The maid carried a beautiful gown in orange blossom silk and Brimbsy… well, Brimbsy held a bandbox and looked as if she was there very much against her will.
“We’re here to assist you in dressing, miss,” Brimbsy said stiffly.
Though deeply surprised, Cornelia stepped aside. As the maid laid out the gown on the bed, she couldn’t stop herself from running the sumptuous fabric through her fingers. She most likely shouldn’t accept this, but she had no doubt the Countess would get a great deal of pleasure out of seeing her wear it. And, well, Cornelia, desperately wanted to.
Between them, Brimbsy and the maid got her into her shift and gown and did up her hair in a much more fashionable and youthful style than she usually wore. Brimbsy produced dancing slippers, long evening gloves, and a spray of white tea roses for her hair. Cornelia had brought her string of pearls with her to Somerstone, though she seldom wore them. Tonight, however, they were just the thing to complete her dress.
Cornelia reached for her scent bottle, her own creation of pears and roses, and dabbed a bit more perfume than usual on her wrists and neck. Then, remembering that Sir James once reacted quite strongly to it, she dabbed a bit in her décolletage. Feeling naughty indeed, she bit her lip to keep from smiling. And when she looked in the mirror, her heart fluttered at the sight. She looked exactly like a lady of fashion and not a poor mouse of a companion.
“The guests will be at dinner, miss,” Brimsby said, moving to the door. “But they’ll be moving to the ballroom soon. Don’t be late as the Countess will need you at her side.”
“I won’t be,” Cornelia answered her.
Brimbsy looked her over one more time with the critical eyes of a professional, then swept out of the room. The maid, however, paused with a soft smile. “Oh, you do look a picture, miss.”
“Thank you,” Cornelia said.
But when they were gone, Cornelia was too excited to wait a moment longer. She had nothing keeping her and a keen desire for information, so she hurried downstairs. As she moved into the Pillared Hall, she saw that the front doors were open. Torches blazed down the steps and along the drive. A multitude of footman attended the carriages of those of the surrounding gentry who had been invited to the ball which were now arriving, strung out in a line down the drive. Desperate, Cornelia caught the sleeve of one them as he passed.
“Has Sir James arrived from London yet?”
The footman paused a moment, staring at her harder than usual, and she realized he was trying to make sense of her appearance as if he hadn’t recognized her at first. “Not that I’ve seen, Miss Greystock, and I’ve been stationed here for hours now.”
Cornelia sighed and headed back to the ballroom. The Countess was just then taking her place at the top of the stairs to greet her guests, so Cornelia stationed herself nearby in case she was needed. Her eyes constantly scanned the faces coming up the stairs, but when the Countess decided that most of her guests had arrived and moved back into the ballroom, Cornelia followed her disconsolately. Sir James had still not arrived.