In the last chapter of Mistaken Identity: Jes and Conrad tour the massive Somerstone Manor… “New” stories and history were exposed, including the existence of a supposed ghost…
Jes had been disappointed to find Lord Ian seated at the far end of the dining table. She had thoroughly enjoyed the house tour and had hoped to continue the conversation at dinner. Fortune, it seemed, was not smiling upon her, as she was seated again by Lord Bloomsbury. Not only did he continually flip his sweat soaked hair around, but he seemed to have a problem with spittle. It flew from his mouth with any use of a word containing s. His sense of over importance had rendered her quite speechless throughout the meal.
Now, standing in the back of the Grand Drawing room or the Green Pianoforte room, as Lord Ian claimed, she looked at the other guests. She spotted Lord Bloomsbury just as he noticed her. Determined to put at least a room’s length between them, she ducked her head and spun around into a solid chest. Raising her face, her eyes locked with Lord Ian’s, a smile coming naturally to her face.
“You look to be fleeing from something. Pray, what has caused such discomfort?” He scanned the room.
Dropping her chin to her chest, she sighed. “Lord Bloomsbury caught my eye. I fear he is on his way to find me.”
He chuckled. “Ah, yes. That would cause even the most fearless to retreat.” He held out his arm, moving towards the refreshment table as she grasped the lifeline. Casting a look over his shoulder, he tsked. “It would seem he is determined to speak with you.”
“Pray, I do not know why. I should think he said everything at dinner.” Jes clutched his arm. “Please, do not leave me to him. I have already suffered through his conversation.”
“I wouldn’t dream of abandoning you.” He handed her a cup of lemonade.
Just then the baron came to a stop in front of them. She grimaced as his hair continued its forward progression, dangling down into his face. Flipping it back into place, droplets of sweat flying in all directions, he dabbed at his forehead.
“If you will excuse us, Lord Ian. I was just on my way over to speak with Miss Standish when you interrupted.” Lord Bloomsbury looked up his pointed nose at Lord Ian.
“I cannot, Bloomsbury, for she sat beside you at dinner. You had plenty of time to converse. Perhaps you would do better to find someone else to bless with your insights this evening.” He turned to her, placing his hand on the small of her back. Warmth spread out from where his hand rested, up into her arms and chest. He gently pushed her away from the refreshment table. “Come, Miss Standish. I believe your mother has arrived. I shall deliver you to her side.” They left the baron babbling behind them.
Jes’s heart hammered. This was the Lord Ian she had imagined. He was a true gentleman, coming to her rescue when she needed it. In truth, even their exchange this morning had given her even more to admire.
She sat down next to her mother. “Mama, how are you feeling?”
Lady Rachel patted her on the cheek. “I am feeling much better, Jes.” Her voice came out scratchy and weak.
Jes narrowed her eyes. Lady Rachel ignored the penetrating stare, lifting her gaze to Lord Ian. “Ah, Lord Ian. If you are not otherwise engaged, we would be honored if you would join us for the musical selections.”
A smile stretched across his face. “I can think of nothing I would like better. Thank you, my lady.” He sat down next to Jes, stretching out his long, lean legs. A small sigh sounded before she could stop it. She flicked her gaze back to her own lap, where her hands furiously twisted the ends of her shawl, her mouth pinched shut.
She felt him move beside her, his breath touching her neck as he leaned in. “Tell me, Miss Standish. Your Christian name is quite unusual. Pray, what are its origins? It sounds vaguely familiar somehow.”
Her brow puckered. Why was he asking her this again? “Do you not remember?”
Conrad sat up straight, running his hands down his thighs. “Remember?” Gah! This must have been something she had already spoken to Ian about.
“Yes, you asked me the same question in London.”
He took a long breath, his eyes looking everywhere but at her. How was he supposed to smooth this over? He let out an awkward laugh. “I was kicked in the head by my horse, some time ago. I am afraid I lost a bit of memory.” His made up stories had worked on the house tour, perhaps it would now, as well. A small smile turned his lips as he thought about the absurd stories they made up while touring the house.
Her brow furrowed, an action he was finding increasingly adorable. But there was a look in her eyes he was unsure about. Was it hurt? Uncertainty? Whatever it was, it was not good. She leaned to the side. “I am so sorry. I had no idea.” One brow lowered, leaving the other arched in challenge. “Tell me, my lord, was that before or after Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the White Daisy room?”
He smiled guiltily. “After, most assuredly. Would you mind telling me the story again? It was a very long time ago.” When she smiled, his breath came out in a soft whoosh.
“It was my mother’s idea. She is a great admirer of Shakespeare. The name Jessica is from The Merchant of Venice.” Miss Standish gave a little tilt of her head as her shoulder shrugged. How could such a movement cause his stomach to turn to porridge?
“That would explain why it sounded familiar. I too, share your mother’s appreciation.”
The Countess stood, causing all conversations to drop to a whisper and then to silence. It seemed the musicale was to begin. Conrad used all his control to pull his gaze away from Miss Standish. The Countess asked Miss Barton to start the evening’s performances. Conrad was mildly impressed with the young lady’s talent. More than polite applause sounded as she completed her piece.
“Next, we would be honored to hear from Miss Standish, if you please.”
Jes stood up, smiling. “Of course, I shall be happy to sing a number.”
A small rumble of whispers started. Her mother placed a hand on Jes’s arm. “You do not have to do this, dearest. I cannot sing with you and I know how much you dislike singing by yourself.”
Patting her mother’s hand, she began to make her way out of their row of seats. “I will be fine, mama.”
As she started up the aisle, Conrad heard her mother murmuring. “This is not good. Is there no way to stop her?” Lady Rachel looked as if she was going to be ill. Miss Standish whispered her song choice to Miss Marleigh, who began to play the introduction. Taking her own sheet music, Jes began to sing. The sound pouring out dropped his mouth open.
Sitting forward in his seat, Conrad now understood Lady Rachel’s apprehension. He had heard stray cats with a better sense of tone than Miss Standish was bellowing. Miss Marleigh seemed to have a difficult time playing, the howling causing her to break concentration. Whispers started throughout the crowd. Conrad even heard a few quiet giggles.
A surge of defensiveness gripped him. But what could he do? Without thinking, he moved down the aisle and began to sing with her on the second verse. He tried to sing a little louder, hoping to deflect some of the attention onto himself, but she increased her volume. From the corner of his eye, he could see Lord Anthony and Mr. Beauchamp barely stifling laughs. Even the Easton men seemed to be struggling to keep their composure. Conrad was finding it difficult to keep his own voice in tune. Then Miss Standish dropped her voice an octave, although it was still badly off key. His only option was to drop his and try to match it as best he could. By the last stanza, Miss Standish began to falter, missing notes and a few words, but finally, the song came to an end. The room was silent, as people looked back and forth between one another. Then the Countess began to clap. Slowly, one by one, other awkward claps began to sound.
Lady Du’Brevan stood and cleared her throat. “Well, that was… something, was it not?” She looked around the room expectantly. When no one answered she continued on. “Let us now hear from Miss Winters.”
Conrad tried to escort Miss Standish back to her seat, but she rushed ahead of him. She sat down next to her mother, her breathing coming out in short bursts. As soon as he retook his seat, she turned on him, whispering in apparent outrage, “What, exactly, were you doing? Can you not stand to have someone else receive attention, my lord?” He looked at her as confusion settled in. She was angry at him? After he had tried to save her from utter humiliation? He had expected at least a quiet thank you, but not the daggers hurling from her current gaze.
Several people on the row in front of them turned in their seats, giving her cross stares. Her mother looked at them, eyes large and lips pursed. Miss Standish faced forward in her seat. He could feel her body shaking next to him.
Lady Rachel’s gaze never left her daughter. At last, he heard applause. Lady Rachel began to cough, quietly at first but then building in volume. She looked over to Miss Standish and motioned for her to get up. Complying, she stood and turned to help her mother from the room. Once they had left, Conrad waited for the next performer to finish her piece. He heard none of it and could not even say the name of the young lady, his thoughts were so entirely on Miss Standish.
As the last strains sounded from the pianoforte, Conrad stood and moved to the refreshment table. He grabbed two cups and slipped into the empty hallway. Walking quietly, he struggled to determine which room they had entered. Finally he heard a muffled sound in the room across the hall. Pushing the door open with his toe, he peered into a drawing room. Miss Graystock had undoubtedly told him it’s name, but he had been preoccupied. Miss Standish sat on the settee, her mother next to her, rubbing circles on her back. Miss Standish’s face lay cradled in her hands. She did not appear to be wracked with sobs, which seemed a good thing. Conrad moved forward a few steps, drawing the attention of Lady Rachel.
“Ah, Lord Ian.” She motioned him inside.
All of a sudden, he felt very conspicuous and out of place. This was a moment for mother and daughter. He should not have intruded. “I just came to bring you a drink for your cough.” His eyes darted to Miss Standish. She had raised her head. Her eyes seemed red and slightly puffy. So she had been crying. The knowledge rooted Conrad in place. He wanted to rush over and comfort her, but he also wanted to flee, to avoid the emotions surging through him. He wanted this tightness in his chest to go away.
“Thank you, my Lord. I seem to be recovered for the moment.” Lady Rachel gave her daughter a small nudge.
Miss Standish looked over to him. “I have been informed I owe you an apology.” She swallowed hard and glanced at her mother. “It would seem I am not an accomplished singer, nor have I ever been.” There was a slight edge to her voice on the last words. Her mother colored slightly. “I am sorry for my outburst and accusations. I was not aware, at the time, you were trying to help me.” Their gazes locked and Conrad felt himself moving towards her. Reaching the settee, he glanced quickly at Lady Rachel, thrusting a cup at her, a few drops landing on his hand. “My Lady, your lemonade.” His gaze returned to Miss Standish. “I brought one for you as well. I thought perhaps…”
She smiled, actually smiled after all that had happened. It made him want to reach out to her all the more. “You thought perhaps my poor performance was due to a dry throat?”
He shrugged, unable to pull his gaze from her. “It was not so terrible.”
Miss Standish laughed again. “That is precisely what started this whole farce. If people would have been honest with me from the beginning,” She looked pointedly at her mother, “this entire scene could have been avoided.” Her hands twisted at the fringe on her shawl. “Although, we would never have heard your lovely voice.” She watched him through her lashes. “And that may well be worth it all, don’t you agree Mama?”
Conrad cleared his throat and bowed. He did not understand what he was feeling. “I am glad to have been of service to you, Miss Standish. I shall leave you to your mother’s care and bid you both good evening.” He turned and strode into the hallway. He could feel his heart racing and knew he could not return to the musicale, but his chambers held nothing for him either. Perhaps an evening ride could clear his mind and sort out his jumbled emotions.