Authors: Kristina Cook
Jane was taken aback, never having heard anyone speak so openly of her Aunt Susan’s self-afflicted death
. The news, only hinted at, of course, and never spoken of plainly in her presence, had shaken Jane to her very core. She could only wonder if Emily worried as she did of sharing the doomed woman’s fate.
Yet Emily looked happy
. Jane attempted to shake away her misgivings about her cousin’s impending motherhood.
A stout woman with steely gray hair under a white lace cap bustled in, and Emily waved her away with a swish of one delicate hand.
“Oh, no, Mrs. Smythe. I’ll show Miss Rosemoor to her room. Just see to her maid.” Emily gestured absently toward Bridgette, who stood a few paces behind her mistress. “Come, Jane.” She looked up and caught her husband’s dubious look, one blond brow raised in censure.
“Cecil, dear, I’m perfectly well
. I’ve been resting the better part of the day.”
“If you insist
. I’ll leave you two to get reacquainted, then.” He bowed to the women with a smile and disappeared down a narrow hallway.
“You’ve no idea how pleased I am to have you here
. I’ve grown bored, lolling about all day awaiting this babe. I’ve been desperate for some sort of distraction. I do hope you’ll be happy here.”
Jane followed her cousin up the stairs and into a cheerful room done in soft shades of pale green and cream
. “It’s lovely,” she exclaimed, standing in the doorway and taking in the unfamiliar surroundings. Green silk hung in wide windows that overlooked the garden, and delicate, hand-painted furniture was scattered about pleasingly–a tall dresser in one corner, a writing desk beneath a window, and a wardrobe opposite the door. A sprigged coverlet was spread invitingly over a beautifully carved maple bed, and Jane realized at once how exhausted she was from her journey. She reached up to stifle a yawn.
Emily peered up at her, her brows drawn over soft brown eyes
. “Oh, I’m so sorry. How selfish of me. Of course you must be tired from your travels. I’ll have your trunks sent up at once and you shall lie down and rest before dinner.”
Jane blinked, yawning again
. “Thank you. That would be lovely.” Moments later, she sank gratefully to the bed, fully clothed, and fell into a deep, dreamless slumber.
When Jane awoke hours later, deep-orange sunlight streamed in through the curtains, casting long shadows on the room’s pale floorboards
. She sat up with a start, rubbing the sleep from her eyes as Bridgette bustled in.
“Well, miss, it looks as if it’s time to get up and start preparin’ you for dinner
. Shall I fetch a basin?”
“Yes, thank you, Bridgette,” she answered.
“Of course.” The maid bustled out again.
Less than an hour later, Jane glanced at her reflection in the glass as Bridgette completed her ministrations
. Her chestnut-brown hair was piled atop her crown, encircled by a thick band of sapphire-blue silk. She frowned, noting the dark smudges beneath her eyes. She looked pale, tired. She pinched her cheeks, hoping to infuse them with some color. Rising from her seat, she stepped into a simply cut evening gown of matching jewel-blue silk and waited as Bridgette fastened it up the back and tied the long organza sash beneath her shoulder blades.
Instinctively she tugged up the neckline, which Bridgette always insisted should be pulled low and taut across her full breasts
. No use spilling out of her dress and into her soup. She allowed the maid to fasten a pearl and sapphire choker around her neck, then gave her hair one final pat before heading down to the drawing room to await the summons into dinner.
Her stomach grumbled noisily as she glided down the stairs on satin slippers, breathing in the succulent scent of roasted fowl
. Her mouth watered in anticipation. How long had it been since she’d eaten? It was a good thing she was amongst family tonight, for she was likely to bolt down her meal like a ravenous dog.
“Here she comes now,” she heard Emily call out, her voice as sweet and melodious as a bell
Jane stepped into the room, a smile pasted upon her face
–a smile that quickly vanished.
Emily rushed to her side, exclaiming over her gown, while Jane stood, rooted firmly to her spot in the doorway as an impossibly tall man rose to stand beside Cecil, his gaze raking boldly up her form
. At last his eyes met hers, the most mesmerizing greenish-gray eyes she’d ever seen. Jane’s lips parted in surprise, her heart accelerating at an alarming rate.
The man raised one brow and then turned away, a look of sheer boredom descending across his noble features
Jane’s mouth snapped shut, her brows drawing together
. Why, he looked as if she displeased him! If she could have huffed without seeming rude, she would have done so.
“Miss Rosemoor,” Cecil said, “let me introduce you to our distinguished friend and neighbor, Hayden Moreland, the Earl of Westfield
. Lord Westfield, I present my wife’s cousin, Miss Jane Rosemoor. She’s come to us from Essex.”
Jane’s gaze dropped to the floor and she curtseyed on stiff legs
“A pleasure,” the earl bit out stonily, as if her mere presence annoyed him beyond belief
“Indeed,” Jane managed to mutter, refusing to look up into those mesmerizing eyes again
. Instead, she fixed her gaze over his shoulder–and what a broad shoulder it was. Silently she chastised herself for allowing her thoughts to travel that route. She let out her breath in relief as the gentlemen moved away toward the sideboard where Cecil poured two neat drinks into tumblers.
“How was your nap?” Emily asked her, laying a hand upon her wrist
Jane dragged her attention back to her cousin
“Quite refreshing, thank you
. I must say, I had no idea I was so tired until my head touched the pillow. I can’t thank you enough for inviting me here, Emily. I’m so looking forward to renewing our acquaintance. It’s been far too long.”
. I hope you don’t mind Lord Westfield joining us tonight.” She glanced over at the men. “I think perhaps Cecil knew we’d be so involved in womanly chatter that he’d do well to have some masculine company. He’s a bit gruff and standoffish, Lord Westfield, but he has the best of hearts.”
“Is that so?”
“Without a doubt,” Emily replied, with seemingly implacable assurance.
Jane stole one more glance at the man, perplexed
. If anything, he appeared cold and haughty at first inspection. Well, perhaps that was too judgmental, she corrected herself. He appeared arrogant, that’s all. Rude and arrogant.
Lord Westfield stood before the fireplace, one hand resting on the mantel
. Her gaze traveled the lengthy route from the tip of his boots to the top of his head. His polished Hessians gleamed ebony in the candlelight, and tight-fitting fawn breeches accentuated muscular legs. A well-cut, dark jacket and striped gray waistcoat stretched taut across his broad chest. His snow-white cravat was tied intricately about a long, proud neck. Dark, wavy locks curled just below his ears, not a hair out of place. Everything about his form and dress exuded wealth, nobility, and exceptional taste. But those soft green eyes...
She dropped her gaze to her slippers, refusing to allow herself to be drawn back to his eyes
. She shook her head, attempting to get her wits back about herself.
At that moment, the butler mercifully stepped in to announce dinner
. Jane sighed in relief as she followed Emily out.
“Perhaps she’s waltzed through
front door instead, eh, Westfield?” she heard Cecil mutter under his breath to his companion.
Jane paused just beyond the door, curiously awaiting the earl’s response
“I’m afraid not, Tolland,” a deep male voice answered
. “She won’t do. Won’t do at all.”
Jane felt her cheeks burn
. It took every last inch of her reserve to continue on to the dining room without turning and giving the insufferable man a severe dressing down, as he deserved.
She ‘wouldn’t do’, would she
? She’d make him regret those words. Two could play this game.
She tipped her chin in the air and schooled her features into the most cheerful of expressions before taking her seat at the long dining table
. Directly across from Lord Westfield.
Bloody arrogant fool
Hayden stroked his chin as he observed Miss Rosemoor from across the width of the table
. She chatted vivaciously with Emily, obviously doing her damnedest to avoid looking in his direction. When she did slip up and catch his eye, she favored him with a bright smile–a false smile, as it did not reach her eyes. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure the woman out.
She was dazzling, no doubt about it
. As beautiful and alluring as any woman he’d ever seen. His instant physical attraction had caught him completely off guard. He’d reacted instinctively, made his face blank, unreadable, so as not to betray his interest. It was clear that Tolland requested his company tonight in order to parade his wife’s cousin before him, and he ruffled at the insult. Miss Rosemoor was no less than five and twenty, if his judgment was correct. A spinster, long settled on the shelf. Was her visit nothing more than a carefully orchestrated maneuver to snare a husband? One in desperate need of a wife, perhaps?
How had she avoided marriage, he wondered, unclaimed at such an advanced age
? She must have faults of character, he concluded. Serious flaws. He raised a brow as he considered the possibilities. Perhaps she was bookish, a bluestocking in the worst way. She
seem rather intelligent, although he found no fault with that. He preferred intelligence to silliness, no matter the current fashion. Maybe she hadn’t any accomplishments to recommend her, though not all men preferred accomplished women. He did, of course, but not all men. He shook his head, perplexed. He could only conclude that it was something more critical, more serious, for her beauty and poise alone would likely be sufficient under normal circumstances to attract a suitable match.
He narrowed his eyes, studying her more intently while she ate
. Glossy chestnut hair was swept back from her oval face rather severely, yet the result was striking–her high cheekbones were clearly defined, her regular features showcased by her alabaster skin. Her nose was straight and narrow, neither too large nor too small. Her lips were full, almost sensual, stained a pleasing petal pink. But her eyes were her true crowning jewel–darkly fringed eyes of a deep, sapphire blue. They were round eyes, inquisitive eyes that drew you to them, dared you to look into their dazzling depths. They were no doubt a window to her soul, and Hayden feared them with a staggering intensity.
“I say, Westfield, have you heard a word I’ve said?”
Hayden blinked hard, reluctantly drawing his gaze from Miss Rosemoor. “Pardon me, Tolland,” he muttered. “You were saying?”
. I’ll not repeat a quarter hour’s worth of idle chatter. Shall we shoot tomorrow? What say you?”
? The day should be fair and mild.”
“Oh, Lord Westfield,” Emily chimed in, “I’d almost forgotten about the assembly day after tomorrow
. Will you attend?”
Hayden took a breath to respond negatively but before he had the chance to speak, Emily continued on in her usual breathless manner.
“Why, I’ve got the most brilliant idea! Perhaps you two could escort Jane to the assembly. Why should she not enjoy a pleasant evening of music and dancing, simply because I cannot go?”
“I’m afraid I cannot
“But of course we can,” Tolland interrupted Hayden’s protestation.
Hayden shot the man a volatile look.
“Really, Emily, I’d rather not,” Miss Rosemoor interjected
. “I’m here to visit
. I’ve no need of such entertainments, and perhaps Lord Westfield has other engagements, besides.”
“Please, I insist,” Emily said, her brow furrowed
. “You must go, and I will not take ‘no’ for an answer. Tell her, Cecil, darling. She must go, and then report back to me who dances with whom, and what all the ladies are wearing.”
. “I’m afraid my wife will give you no peace until you agree to go, Miss Rosemoor. Westfield and I make fine escorts, I assure you.”
“Well, I... If you insist
. I don’t wish to disturb anyone’s plans.”
“Nonsense,” Tolland said
. “Westfield and I hadn’t any plans, had we, old boy?” Tolland turned to him with a smirk. He was obviously enjoying this. Immensely.
“I suppose not,” Hayden muttered
. He looked up and his gaze collided with Miss Rosemoor’s. For the first time, he noticed a dimple in her left cheek. His heart began to pound; a vein in his temple throbbed.
With an inward groan, he tore his gaze away
. It took a concentrated effort to force his usual mask of ennui to descend across his features before he spoke again. “I’m afraid Miss Rosemoor might find our local entertainments a bit provincial for her tastes.”
“Why ever should I?” Miss Rosemoor shot back
. “I’m not some priggish debutante who turns her nose up at a country dance.”
“No, a debutante you’re not.”
“With age comes wisdom, I always say, and tolerance, too. Why, I’m surprised a man of your
experience hasn’t learned such a lesson.” She smiled sweetly at him, despite her sharp tongue.
“I’ve no doubt you could teach me a thing or two, Miss Rosemoor.”
“Certainly nothing of interest to you,” she retorted.
“I think you’d be surprised at my range of interests, especially where ladies are concerned.” Hayden suddenly pictured the rapier-tongued Miss Rosemoor lying naked in his bed, her chestnut tresses falling enticingly across those full breasts she obviously took great pleasure in displaying
raised his interest, among other things. It had been far too long since he’d enjoyed such pleasures.
“You underestimate me, Lord Westfield
. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.” Miss Rosemoor shook her head with a scowl. “Perhaps it isn’t such a good idea that we go to the assembly.”
“No, I insist,” he challenged, inexorably sealing his fate. “I’m certain Mrs. Tolland will vouch that I can be a perfect gentleman, when necessary.”
“Of course. It’s settled, then.” Emily rose, placing her napkin on the table with a nervous smile. “Let’s leave the men to their port, Jane. We’ve much to talk about.”
Hayden looked away, his gaze fixed upon the wall as the ladies swept out with a swish of silk
. Devil take it, he had no choice but to go to the blasted assembly now. Perhaps he
“Have you had an occasion to visit Grandmama and Aunt Gertrude recently?” Jane asked, then took a sip of her steaming tea. She peered at Emily over the rim of her cup. The warm brew soothed her nerves as well as her throat, still parched from her journey.
“I’m afraid not,” Emily answered, shaking her head
. “I haven’t seen Grandmama in several years. Aunt Gertrude always says she’s not up to it. It was perhaps four or five years ago that I saw her last, and even then she barely knew me. Most disturbing.”
Jane nodded, her throat constricting uncomfortably
. Dare she broach the subject with her cousin? No, she resolved; perhaps some things were better left unsaid, considering Emily’s condition.
Deep baritone voices startled her as the men strode in, and she set aside her teacup with a frown
. Why didn’t Lord Westfield take his leave? It was clear he found her company unpleasant and his forced civility was wearing on her nerves.
“There you are, Cecil darling,” Emily called out
. Cecil came to stand behind his wife, his hands resting on her shoulders. Lord Westfield, silent now, took a seat at the far end of the room, beside the door. “Perhaps Jane will play for us,” Emily said, hopeful eyes turned toward her. “You
“Of course,” Jane replied
. “Not as well as my sister, but I play.”
“By all means, then.” Emily tilted her head toward the pianoforte
. “It would please me enormously.”
Jane rose and strode over to the instrument, a lovely one at that and obviously well cared for
. Its keys gleamed, the wooden case polished brightly. Jane took a seat on the narrow, embroidered bench and ran her fingers across the keys. She couldn’t resist stealing a glance at the earl, who sat stiffly, his gaze fixed on the fire. His words echoed in her ears.
She won’t do
, he’d said.
With a practiced smile, she began to play
, the most difficult piece she knew, one she played flawlessly and effortlessly. Her fingers flew over the ivory, her heart soaring at the beautiful sounds emanating from the finely tuned instrument. Oh, ‘she’d do,’ she thought to herself with a smug smile. She wouldn’t have him, wouldn’t have anyone, of course. But ‘she’d do’ just fine. She always did.
When her piece was finished, she looked up to her cousin’s beatific smile
“Oh, Jane, that was lovely
. I had no idea you played so well. If your sister is better, then she must play magnificently.”
“Susanna is quite talented,” Jane agreed.
“Wasn’t that lovely, Cecil?” Emily laid her hand on her husband’s arm.
“It was,” Cecil answered
. “Eh, Westfield?”
Jane started in surprise as the earl rose from his seat and strode over to the pianoforte, leaning indolently against it
. “Indeed. You play tolerably well, Miss Rosemoor. And do your accomplishments extend beyond the pianoforte?”
Jane looked up at him sharply, her sensibilities pricked
. “I read both Greek and Latin, speak four languages, and can quote the ancient Greek philosophers with ease. I paint quite nicely– landscapes as well as china–and I sit a horse very well. Does that rate to your satisfaction, my lord?”
One corner of Lord Westfield’s mouth twitched and he arched a brow in reply
. “You speak your mind,” he said, his jaw flexing perceptively. “Some might see that as a flaw in a lady.”
“Indeed?” She tipped her chin defiantly as she rose to stand before him
. “Have you ever considered that ladies might find rudeness and arrogance offensive in a gentleman?”
“Or is it solely the perception of rudeness or arrogance when none exists?” he countered
“Why should I perceive such traits if at least a hint of them weren’t painfully evident
? It’s not as if I go about expecting ill manners–”
“I say,” Cecil cut in
. “Perhaps we can convince Emily to play for us.” He turned toward Jane, his pale eyes pleading. “She’s modest, of course, but her voice is incomparable. She’ll only agree if you insist.”
Jane opened her mouth to speak but closed it again as Emily hurried over to her side
“Oh, if you insist, Jane
. Here, now.” She patted the bench, her eyes practically goggled. “Sit back down and turn the pages for me.” Jane watched as Emily exchanged a desperate look with her husband.
“Of course.” Jane sat compliantly, the conversation effectively over
. Lord Westfield moved away, back to his seat by the door.
As Emily began to play, Jane peered back over her shoulder
. With a sharp intake of breath, she watched incredulously as Lord Westfield’s mouth curved into an all-too-arrogant grin.
at her, the maddening man! She smiled back brightly, maintaining her façade, and then turned to face the keys with nary a tremor, despite her churning emotions.
. She’d never understand them.
Jane tried not to frown as Lord Westfield’s carriage pulled up before the assembly hall. Crowds of people spilled out onto the street in their finery as conveyances jostled about, depositing their occupants here and there onto the cobbles below. As Jane took Cecil’s arm and stepped out into the cool night, the lilting notes of the orchestra reached her ears while the breeze caressed her cheek. There was a hum in the air; the excitement was almost palpable.
She turned and watched as their silent companion alighted, joining her and Cecil on the street
. Lord Westfield hadn’t spoken a single word the entire drive. Instead he’d sat in stony silence as Cecil pointed out local landmarks and made idle chatter. Jane had felt as if she would scream if they did not accomplish their destination in due haste. Why ever had she agreed to this?
Pushing through the crowd, their party at last made their way to the door
. Jane instinctively reached down to smooth the skirts of her favorite gown as they entered the assembly. She’d thought to leave behind these yards of crimson watered silk, thinking she’d not likely have the opportunity to wear such a fine gown. She was thankful now for her change of heart. She knew the cut of the gown, with its deep, square neckline and high, tightly fitted waist showed off her figure to its best advantage. It was impossible to feel anything but confident in this gown and she was grateful for the self-assurance.