the accidental countess

 

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For my sister and brother-in-law, Sandra Morgan and Matt Morgan, two of the only people I know who love dogs as much as I do and who just happen to be living their very own happily ever after.

I love you guys.

 

CONTENTS

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Teaser

Also by Valerie Bowman

Praise for THE UNEXPECTED DUCHESS

About the Author

Copyright

 

CHAPTER ONE

London, early October 1815

 

“How can one attend the country house party of a person who does not exist?” Cassandra Monroe sat in her cousin Penelope’s drawing room, sipping tea and staring at the slightly older woman who had clearly lost her mind. Cass set her teacup aside and rubbed her temples as she spoke. The headache that had begun minutes ago was slowly turning into a full-blown megrim.

Lucy Hunt, the newly married Duchess of Claringdon and Cass’s best friend, sat next to her, also eagerly awaiting Penelope’s answer. The entire story made absolutely no sense. Neither of them was having much luck getting Pen to answer their questions about her elusive friend Patience.

“Yes. Tell us again exactly
who
Patience is,” Lucy prompted.

Penelope popped another bit of teacake into her mouth and slowly wiped each finger clean with her napkin. She rolled her eyes. “That’s precisely what I’ve been trying to tell you.” Penelope’s voice took on a beleaguered tone, as if she were speaking to a pair of imbeciles. “She doesn’t exist.”

Lucy tapped her finger on her cheek. “Yes. That’s what I thought you said, dear. Which is why we think it makes no sense.”

Cass nodded and looked back to Pen for yet another answer. Thank heavens Lucy was here. Pen often confused Cass to no end, but it made her wonder if she were the mad one, this particular instance notwithstanding. Lucy, with her penchant for bluntness, would get to the bottom of it all posthaste.

Pen shrugged and yanked up her puce-colored bodice with both hands. “I made up Patience, as an excuse.”

Cass tilted her head to the side and eyed her cousin carefully. “But didn’t you tell me just last week that you and Patience went shopping together on Bond Street?”

“Exactly!” Pen replied.

“Exactly what, dear?” Lucy’s brow remained furrowed, and she gave Cass a look that indicated that she finally understood what Cass had been talking about all these years when she’d mentioned that Pen was an egg short of a dozen.

Pen stood and wandered over to the large bay window that overlooked the street. She traced a finger along the pane. “It’s quite simple. Patience Bunbury is someone I invented to get out of doing things I do not want to do.”

Cass narrowed her gaze on her cousin. “Get out of things you don’t want to…? So, you’re saying you did not want to go to the theater with me?”

Pen nodded. “Exactly.”

“You invented Patience and told me you had already made plans with her?” Cass continued.

“Precisely,” Pen agreed, another smile spreading across her round face. “To be quite precise, I didn’t invent Patience to get out of going to the theater. I invented her last summer. But I invoked her when you asked me to go to the theater. That’s what I love about Patience. She’s the perfect excuse for everything!”

Cass frowned at her cousin. The headache was worsening by the moment. “Why exactly are you telling me now?”

“I’m telling you now because I need your help,” Pen answered simply.

Cass tilted her head. “Help with Patience?”

“No. Well, yes. Sort of,” Pen replied.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow at all, dear,” Lucy said.

Cass bit her lip to keep from smiling. Lucy had begun calling everyone dear now that she was an old married woman. Cass thought it was quite charming.

Pen turned away from the window and stamped her foot. “I asked you to come over today because I need your help with Captain Swift. I expect him to arrive at any time.”

Cass sucked in her breath.
Captain Swift? Julian? Arriving at any time
? She smoothed her hair, sat up a bit straighter, and tugged on the ends of both her gloves.

Captain Julian Swift was the man to whom Penelope was nearly betrothed. He was also the most perfect, handsome, wonderful gentleman in the entire world and Penelope didn’t even want him. Julian had been severely wounded at Waterloo and had spent the last three and a half months recuperating. He’d nearly died, and Cass had been alternately praying for him and writing to him. While Pen didn’t seem to care much one way or the other. Cass had known that Julian was expected to return from the Continent any day now. She just hadn’t quite expected it to be today. She gulped.

Without looking at her, Lucy quietly moved her hand over and squeezed Cass’s. “I don’t think she meant that Captain Swift is expected right
now,
dear,” she whispered. Cass let her shoulders relax a bit. Lucy knew how much Julian meant to Cass. She’d always known.

It wasn’t that Cass had any intention of taking her cousin’s intended, never that. Why, that would be detestable. She merely wanted to see him. Just once, to ensure that he truly was alive and well. And then … she would let him go. Wish him and Pen well on their nuptials and try her best not to think of him again. Not like
that,
at least. Perhaps she’d join a convent. A sigh escaped her lips.

Pen shook her head at Lucy. “No. You’re wrong. That’s exactly what I mean. I expect him to arrive quite literally at any moment.”

Cass pressed her hand against her throat. “I cannot breathe.”

Lucy half turned to pat Cass’s knee through her skirts. “You’ll be fine, darling.” She pointed a finger toward Pen. “Just a moment. You’re saying you called your cousin over here on the same day Captain Swift is expected to arrive to tell her something about a young lady who doesn’t even exist?”

Pen nodded, her fat brown curls bobbing against her equally plump cheeks. “Yes.”

Cass still struggled for breath. Julian was coming? Expected at any moment? Her mind couldn’t process the information. She’d been waiting for this for so long, imagined it, dreamed about it. But now that it was here, she was in a panic. If she were the type of young lady who swooned, surely she would have swooned by now. Thank heaven for small favors; at least she wasn’t a swooner.

Her gaze dropped to her clothing. Why had she worn this unremarkable light blue gown? It had seemed lovely enough when she’d picked it out this morning, but now it just seemed drab.

Her hand flew to her coiffure. Why had she allowed her maid to fix her hair in such a plain fashion, a mere band around her head? It wasn’t sufficient to greet Julian. Oh, it was all wrong. All wrong, indeed.

“Take a deep breath, dear,” Lucy whispered from beside her.

Cass did just that. She was dizzy. That was a sign of imminent swooning, was it not? Oh, good heavens. Perhaps she was a swooner after all. Anyone might become a swooner given the correct set of circumstances, mightn’t they? Her mind raced. Her palms were sweaty, as were her underarms. Oh, wonderful. She would see Julian for the first time in seven years smelling like a barnyard animal. She sniffed at her sleeve.

“Isn’t that right, dear?” Lucy asked, turning to her.

Cass froze. “P-pardon?” She hadn’t heard a word the other two ladies had said. She worried her bottom lip.

“I was just telling your cousin here that I believe she owes you some sort of explanation for all of this.”

Pen plunked her hands on her hips. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“Then out with it, dear, and do try to be a bit more clear this time,” Lucy retorted.

Pen took a deep breath. “Captain Swift will be here at any moment, and I need you to greet him, Cass, and tell him all about Patience.”

Cass blinked at her cousin. Now she was entirely certain she was on the verge of a hysterical fit. Why was Pen babbling on about some nonexistent young lady when Julian was about to walk through the front door at any moment?

“What about Patience?” Cass nearly shouted at her cousin. She clapped her hand over her mouth at her impertinence. She took a deep breath and shook her head. “That is to say … what in heaven’s name has Patience got to do with Juli … Er, Captain Swift?”

Both ladies raised their brows. Lucy quickly filled the silence. “My question exactly.” She turned her attention back to Pen.

Pen gave them both another I’m-speaking-to-imbeciles look. “I wrote to Captain Swift. I told him I’m leaving town, going to visit my friend Patience for the next fortnight at her country house party.”

“You’re leaving town? With Captain Swift coming?” Cass’s voice was high and thin. She shook her head. It was official, this entire story had been invented by a loon.

Pen sighed long and deep. She crossed her arms over her middle and paced in front of the window. “No, I’m not
actually
leaving. Well, I will be, eventually, but the point is that Captain Swift is arriving sooner than I expected. His letter was in this morning’s post. He’ll be on the next mail coach. Apparently there wasn’t enough space on the last one so he sent the letter instead.”

Lucy rolled her eyes. “Pen, dear, I’m still not exactly certain what you’re talking about.”

Cass twisted her hands together. “Yes, Pen, what do you mean?”

Pen stomped back over to where they were sitting and plopped back down in her chair, a huff escaping her lips. “I’m talking about needing an excuse—a good one—to miss seeing Captain Swift when he arrives.”

“And a house party is a good excuse?” Lucy asked, treating Pen to her own I’m-speaking-to-an-imbecile look.

Pen waved a hand in the air. “I told him I’d already committed. Not to mention, dear Patience needs me. She was recently jilted over the summer by Mr. Albus Albatross, and this house party is just the thing she needs to lift her spirits.”

“What? Who is Mr. Albus Albatross?” Cass rubbed her temples again. The headache had not abated with all this nonsense.

Lucy cleared her throat. “I believe Mr. Albatross doesn’t exist, dear, because Patience does not exist.”

Cass curled her hands into fists on her knees. She never got angry. Never. Frustrated perhaps, unhappy at times, even irritated. But angry? No. Anger wasn’t exhibited by proper young ladies and Cass was proper if she was anything. But as she stared at Pen—who was still making absolutely no sense whatsoever—anger, white and hot, rushed through Cass’s veins. Pen was toying with Julian and he didn’t deserve it.

“I swear, Pen, if you don’t explain exactly what you mean this minute, I’m going to walk out that door and never speak to you again!” She jabbed her finger in the direction of the exit.

Lucy and Pen exchanged amazed glances.

“Why, Cass, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you raise your voice before today,” Lucy remarked.

Cass was shaking, her fists still clenched. She glared at Pen. “What I still do not understand is why. Why don’t you want to see the man you’re supposed to marry?”

Pen had the grace to bow her head a bit, then she shrugged. She yanked at the top of her gown with one hand. “I just. I can’t. It was so difficult when I thought he was dying … and now. Oh, I don’t know. I need some time to think about things.”

“What things?” Cass prodded. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared down her nose at her cousin.

“You know. He will want to plan the wedding and choose a date and I’m—I’m simply not prepared.”

Cass pressed her lips together. Oh, yes. Why should she be prepared? She’d only had
seven years
to prepare. And this entire farce was so like Pen. She was always asking Cass to do outlandish favors for her, nothing quite
this
outlandish to date, but it still shouldn’t have surprised her. And Cass, good proper young lady and steadfast cousin and friend, had always agreed, always done whatever her cousin asked. But not today. Not with Julian. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.

Lucy shifted in her seat and took a sip of tea. “So, you’re saying that in order to evade your intended who is just back from the war and whom you haven’t seen in years, you’ve invented a friend whose fictitious house party you’ll supposedly be attending until such a time as you deem fit to return and see him?”

Pen smiled and nodded happily. “Yes. Exactly.”

“And what does your mama think of this?” Lucy wanted to know.

“Oh, Mama doesn’t know. I hid Captain Swift’s letters, and thankfully she and Papa are both out this afternoon.” She turned to face her cousin. “That’s why I need you, Cass. Julian knows you. He likes you. You’ve been writing to him all these years, haven’t you? You are friends, are you not?”

Cass nodded. She couldn’t meet her cousin’s eyes.
Yes. We’re friends, but I’d like to be much, much more
. Oh, she was the worst cousin on earth, the very worst. Pen would order her from the house if she knew how much Cass coveted her would-be bridegroom. At the very least Pen certainly wouldn’t ask her to do this mad favor for her.

Lucy set her teacup aside and dabbed at her lips with her handkerchief. “I have one more question.”

Pen nodded a bit impatiently. “Yes?”

“Have you completely lost your mind?” Lucy asked, a serene look on her face. “Or just a part of it, dear?”

Cass had to sharply turn her face away to keep her cousin from seeing her smile.

Pen blinked at Lucy. “I don’t know what you mean.” Pen stood again and made her way back over to the window with her teacup in her hand. She glanced outside. “I just need—”

The teacup dropped to the rug with a solid thunk, spilling its contents on the expensive Aubusson carpet. “Oh, my goodness. He’s here!” Pen called.

All the anger drained from Cass’s body, replaced with sheer, freezing-cold anxiety. She pressed her hand to her belly. “I think I may cast up my accounts.”

Lucy squeezed Cass’s hand and raised her voice to address Pen. “Who’s here?”

Pen whirled to face them, a look of panic in her blue eyes. “Captain Swift! He’s here! Now!” She rushed to the drawing room door and opened it before turning back to the other two ladies. “Cass. Cass, please,” she begged. “You must do this for me. You must tell Captain Swift I’ve gone to see Patience in the country. You must.”

Cass’s teeth chattered. She shook her head. She couldn’t do this. She could not. “But I haven’t even seen him in seven years, Pen. I was a child when last we met. And besides—”

“Please!” Pen nearly shrieked. “I must go. I’ll sneak up the back staircase so he won’t see me. Cass, please do this for me. Please!” And with that, Pen was gone from the room in a sweep of puce skirts.

Cass sat dumbly staring at the empty teacup lying haphazardly on its side on the carpet. She blinked, replaying the last few moments again and again in her mind. A log snapped in the fireplace. The smell of burnt wood filled the room. “This cannot be happening. It simply cannot,” she murmured.

Lucy took a deep breath and pushed her hands down her legs, smoothing her skirts. “It appears it is happening,” she said just before Pen’s butler arrived at the door to the drawing room.

“Captain Julian Swift,” the butler pronounced.

“Show him in, please,” Lucy replied in a commanding voice, as if she were the lady of the house. She turned quickly to face Cass and grasped her shoulders. “Cass, look at me.”

Cass managed to meet her friend’s eyes. Her headache had been replaced with a strange buzzing sensation and a dazed feeling. She grasped at the smooth satin of Lucy’s sleeves.

“You look frightened half to death.” Lucy squeezed her shoulders and gave her an encouraging shake.

“I
am
frightened half to death. Oh, Lucy. What am I going to say? What am I going to do?” She searched Lucy’s face. Lucy was always sensible, always rational, always so good with words. Lucy would know what to do. Wouldn’t she?

Lucy nodded, a determined look in her eye. “Don’t worry, Cass. I’ll handle it. Leave all of the talking to me. I have an idea.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

Cass had heard of people being overcome by fits of uneven breathing. She’d even seen it a time or two at the odd, overly crowded crush. Once Lady Sarah Markingham had delicately fluttered to the parquet floor in the middle of the Thorntons’ ball, only to be carried away by two footmen and followed by her mother who declared that smelling salts were in order and she just so happened to have a vial of those useful little pebbles in her reticule. But Cass had never expected such a dramatic turn to happen to
her
. Today was certain to be the first. Spots danced before her eyes. The room seemed to be closing in on her. For a strange moment, she thought she smelled oranges. She braced a hand against the arm of the sofa.

Lucy had said to leave all the talking to her. Of course Cass meant to leave all the talking to her. That was Lucy’s strength, after all, talking. And a duty Cass was more than grateful to relinquish to her friend at the moment. She doubted she could utter a word if she was prodded with a hot poker.

Yes, Lucy would talk. As it should be. In fact, Cass, Lucy, and their third close friend, Jane, had all agreed at a ball last June that they would use one another’s strong points to help each attain what they wanted in life. First, Lucy had chased away Cass’s unwanted suitor, the Duke of Claringdon. It turned out in the chasing, however, that he’d actually been the perfect suitor for Lucy all along.

Next, they had promised to help their bluestocking friend Jane convince her parents to stop constantly pestering her to marry. Jane wanted nothing more than to be left in peace to study and write and stop being forced to attend all those hideous balls and routs.

It was Jane’s turn, yes, but here Lucy was, using her skill with words to help Cass in her time of need yet again, and Cass was infinitely grateful to her friend. In the moments it took for the butler to show Julian into the drawing room, Cass pulled her hand away from the arm of the sofa and set it in her lap. She swallowed hard and straightened her shoulders. Then she concentrated on not sliding off the settee in a fit of wrong breathing.

“You look absolutely breathtaking, dear,” Lucy said with a small, encouraging smile. “Captain Swift is certain to be amazed at your beauty.”

“I was quite serious when I said I may cast up my accounts,” Cass answered.

“Don’t do that, dear,” Lucy replied quickly.

Cass took a small gulp of air and nodded shakily just before the door to the drawing room swung open again and Captain Julian Swift strode into the room.

A funny little noise flew from Cass’s throat. A whimper? A sigh? Both, perhaps. She turned her face up to him and just … stared, her eyes, no doubt, wide as saucers.

Julian was there, not the dream of him, not the memory, but the flesh-and-blood man. He was even more dashing and handsome than she’d remembered. She’d been barely sixteen the last time she’d seen him. Julian had been three and twenty. Now she was three and twenty. She gulped. She’d been a child back then, really. She hadn’t matured at a fast pace. She’d had straggly blondish hair, unremarkable blue eyes, and freckles on the bridge of her nose. She’d also been far too thin and all knobby-kneed. She hoped she’d grown into the swan her friends always told her she would. But at this moment, facing Julian, she could only remember herself as an awkward young girl. Weren’t friends always telling one another how beautiful they were even if it was entirely untrue?

Staring at Julian, she was rendered completely speechless. Her gaze swept from the tips of his boots to the top of his head. He wore his army uniform. Oh, my, he wore it well. A deep red coat with epaulets, dark gray trousers, and black Hessians. Julian was two inches over six feet tall, had blond-streaked hair and broad shoulders and the most amazing gray eyes she had ever seen.

He flashed a smile as soon as he saw the two women sitting on the sofa. Cass sighed again. His teeth hadn’t suffered any ill effects from his service to the Crown, still straight and white and perfect. And while he had a few small crinkles at the corners of his eyes and he looked a bit older and more distinguished, for certain, he was still as handsome—more so—than Cass remembered from her vivid dreams.

And he was standing directly in front of her.

The look on his face was a bit of astonishment mixed with confusion. His gaze remained fixed on Cass. He’d barely glanced at Lucy. Lucy looked back and forth between the two of them, and Cass forced herself to pull her gaze away from Julian and turn her attention to her friend. There was a gleam in Lucy’s eye, the type of gleam Lucy always got when she was up to one of her schemes. But Cass had no time to consider it. Instead, she stood to greet Julian. Did he recognize her? The look on his face told her he must. Didn’t he?

“Ju … Julian?” she barely whispered.

Lucy’s hand on her arm stopped her and Cass promptly snapped shut her mouth. Oh, yes, Lucy had told her to leave the speaking to her.

Lucy stood, too, and executed a perfect curtsy. “Captain Swift.”

“My lady?” Julian said in a tone that clearly indicated he had no idea who she was.

“I am Lady Worthing,” Lucy offered.

Cass let out a small gasp. Why had Lucy given him a false name?

“Lady Worthing,” Julian repeated, bowing over her hand. “A pleasure.”

Cass waited with bated breath to be introduced. Julian had to know who she was. She couldn’t look at him. What if disappointment lurked in his eyes? She couldn’t bear it.

“And this is…?” Lucy paused deliberately, sweeping her hand in Cass’s direction.

Cass held her breath again.

The silence seemed to last an interminable amount of time but it was probably only seconds. Cass glanced up at Julian. Her name would fall from his lips any moment now. Should she curtsy? What was appropriate under such circumstances? This was the man she’d written to nearly every day for the last seven years. She knew more about him than Pen did. She thought about him, dreamed about him, had cried endless tears when she’d believed he would die. And now, here he was, seeing her again. All grown-up.

His brow was furrowed and he stared at her as if seeing a ghost. “Penelope?” he asked in a voice that was half awe, half disbelief.

Cass’s mouth fell open. He didn’t recognize her. And he apparently didn’t remember Pen, either. Pen had been eighteen that last time they’d seen each other. She hadn’t changed much, other than the addition of a bit more girth.

“No,” Cass breathed, shaking her head.

Lucy swiveled on her heel and gave Cass a deadly glare. “Allow me,” she said with a clenched jaw in a voice that clearly told Cass to stop speaking.

Oh, good heavens. Whatever Lucy was up to, it was going to be both messy and complicated. It always was.

Lucy turned back to Julian, a wide smile on her face. “Oh, heavens no, though we are here for the same purpose you are. To see Penelope.”

Cass remained silent and motionless at Lucy’s side, but her mind was shrieking,
What is Lucy doing
? Why wasn’t she introducing her? It was beyond awkward.

“Please have a seat, Captain Swift.” Lucy gestured to the chair across from them.

Julian reluctantly sat, though his gaze remained on Cass, clearly still wondering about the identity of the other occupant of the room.

“Would you care for some tea, Captain?” Lucy asked next in the most nonchalant voice in the world, as if she wasn’t entertaining a man in someone else’s drawing room with an unnamed lady at her side. Cass wanted to expire from embarrassment, but Lucy kept a perfect hostesslike smile pinned to her face.

“No, thank you. I don’t drink tea,” Julian replied.

Cass glanced at her lap and tugged at the ends of her gloves. Oh, good heavens. He was going to see the teacup on the rug and wonder why it was there. Then, he’d piece the entire idiotic scheme together. Very well, perhaps
that
was unlikely.

Julian leveled his furrowed brow on Lucy. “Is Miss Monroe—Penelope—here?”

Lucy sighed. “I’m afraid not, Captain Swift. Though my friend and I were just looking for her, too. Seems we stopped by at an inopportune time.”

Cass kept her gaze trained on her lap. Her
friend
? That’s all Lucy was going to say?

“I don’t understand,” Julian replied. “The butler said—”

Lucy leaned forward and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Just between you and me, Captain Swift, the Monroes’ butler is a few pence shy of a pound these days.” Cass glanced up to see Lucy frown and shake her head as if it was a sad bit of news, to be certain.

“Oh, I see.” Julian nodded as if he completely understood.

Cass bit the inside of her cheek. Lucy was egregious. How long could Cass remain silent?

“I’d sent Penelope a note this morning telling her I was to be here this afternoon. I suppose she didn’t receive it,” Julian continued, obvious disappointment marking his features.

Cass longed to reach out and squeeze his hand, run her fingertips along the strong jut of his jaw. She should say something, blurt out her name. But she was having the best time just watching him, staring at his beloved face, beyond relieved to have the chance to see it again.

Lucy sat forward and poured a bit more tea for herself. “It seems we got our days confused and Miss Monroe has already left,” she informed Julian.

Cass took another deep breath. Obviously, Lucy was going to go along with Pen’s madcap scheme. She was actually going to do it, tell Julian that Pen was at her fictitious friend’s house party. This whole thing was ludicrous.

“Already left?” Julian’s burnished brows snapped together again.

“Yes, and the silly thing is that she is on her way to the same place we are.” Lucy took a small sip of tea.

“Where’s that exactly?” Julian asked.

“Why, Miss Bunbury’s house party, of course,” Lucy replied.

“Miss Bunbury’s house party?” Julian asked.

“Yes. Patience Bunbury is one of Penelope’s dearest friends. Hasn’t she mentioned her to you in her letters?”

“I…” Julian cleared his throat and shifted a bit uncomfortably in his chair. “Miss Monroe rarely writes me letters.”

Lucy’s eyebrows shot up. “Rarely writes you letters? Oh, I must be mistaken as to your identity then, Captain. I was under the impression that you and Penelope are all but engaged.” Lucy turned her face so only Cass could see and gave her a quick wink.

Cass wanted to stamp on Lucy’s foot, but at the moment, all she could do was smile and nod. She wasn’t at liberty to speak since she still hadn’t been introduced. Just the way Lucy preferred it, no doubt.

Julian looked away again and tugged at the collar of his coat. “Yes. We’re supposed to be betrothed … eventually. But I was about to say that she did mention Miss Bunbury to me in the last letter I received.”

Lucy took another tiny sip. “Ah, so you know all about her then.” Lucy sighed dramatically. “At any rate, it seems Penelope has left prematurely for Miss Bunbury’s house party, and in addition to missing us, she’s missed her intended, back from the war. Such a pity.”

“You said you are going there,” Julian replied. “I assume that means you know where this house party is?”

“Oh, yes. We know precisely where it is,” Lucy replied serenely.

“Could I trouble you to give me the direction? It’s imperative that I speak with Penelope as soon as possible.”

Lucy’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Eager to see your future bride, Captain Swift?”

He tugged at his collar again. “Something like that.”

Cass had to look away. This was excruciating. She couldn’t listen any longer. And what possible address could Lucy give him? It was preposterous. She’d have to come out with the truth now that he’d caught her in her lie.

“I’d be more than happy to share the address with you, Captain Swift.” Lucy set her teacup on the table in front of her and folded her hands on her lap. “In fact, I can do even better than that.”

“Better than the address?” Julian tilted his head in inquiry.

Cass’s insides went hot and cold. Suddenly, it all came together, the sly look Lucy had flashed, the failure to introduce her, the questions she’d asked Julian, the things she’d said.

“Yes.” Lucy turned to Cass and splayed her hands in front of her as if displaying her for the first time. “Because this is Miss Patience Bunbury right here and we would be delighted to invite you to her house party.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

 

As soon as the front door closed behind Julian, Cass forced herself to count to fifty. She ensured he was well gone from the property before she jumped up, spun around, and bore down on her closest friend.

“Lucy, how could you? How could you!”

Lucy remained serenely seated and calmly pressed her hands to her coiffure as if smoothing her dark locks. “Cass, if you’ll only sit down and think about this reasonably, you’ll see—”

Cass turned and paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. She pressed her hands against her cheeks. “Reasonably? Reasonably! I believe reason left this room over an hour ago, right around the time Pen started speaking nonsense about a person who doesn’t
exist
!”

Lucy merely raised a brow. “Sit down, Cass. Allow me to explain.”

But Cass couldn’t sit. All she could do was pace the carpet and tug at her gloves. How in heavens would she ever extract herself from this situation? Julian hadn’t said where he was going, but it stood to reason that he’d go visit his older brother, the Earl of Swifdon, in Mayfair. He would probably stay with his brother until he secured his own lodgings. Either that or … “Lucy, did you even stop to consider that Julian may now be on his way to see his closest friend,
your husband
?”

Lucy pushed up her chin. “Of course I’d thought of that.”

“And yet you still did this?”

Lucy nodded. “Yes. That’s precisely why I didn’t tell him my real name. I thought of that and several other things, and if you’d sit down and be calm for a moment, I’ll tell you exactly how this will work.”

Cass tossed her hands in the air. “It can’t work. It won’t work.”

Lucy stood up, stalked over to where Cass was pacing, grabbed her arm, and dragged her back over to the settee. “Sit!”

Cass did as she was told, then she dropped her head into her hands. “Very well, tell me. Tell me all about this addle-brained scheme of yours.”

“First of all, I take extreme exception to the fact that you just referred to my brilliant plan as an addle-brained scheme—” Cass lifted her head and opened her mouth to retort, but Lucy pointed a finger in the air. “Allow me to finish.” Cass snapped her mouth shut. “And secondly,” Lucy continued, “this is going to work perfectly.”

“You’ve just invited Julian to a nonexistent house party, given by a nonexistent person,” Cass pointed out.

“Not nonexistent, not now.” Lucy flourished a hand toward her. “You’re Patience.”

A strange strangling noise came out of the back of Cass’s throat. “That is so mad I don’t know where to begin.”

Lucy took up her teacup once more. “Don’t you see, Cass? This is the perfect opportunity. You’ve been waiting for seven years to see Julian again. You wrote him a letter telling him how much you love him, for goodness’ sake.”

“A letter I never sent,” Cass replied.

“That’s not the point. Do you or do you not love him?”

Cass took a deep breath. It was true that when she’d heard that Julian was going to die from his injuries, she’d written him a letter. Lucy, with her domineering insistence, had convinced her to. But Cass had never been able to post the letter and now she was heartily glad she hadn’t. Oh, why hadn’t Julian recognized her? Was she truly that different-looking from seven years ago? If he had recognized her she wouldn’t be caught in this awful predicament right now.

She didn’t answer Lucy. She didn’t need to. Lucy knew how much Cass loved Julian. It was hardly a secret. She’d loved him since she was a girl.

*   *   *

“Penelope, Lord Julian’s coach is coming up the lane. You’ll want to meet it.” Penelope’s mother’s voice rang through the house. It was Cass’s parents’ manor house. And it was Cass’s sixteenth birthday. Her cousin and aunt had come for the celebration. Julian Swift, Penelope’s intended, was soon to be leaving for the Continent with the army. He had decided to visit the party to say his good-byes to Penelope.

Cass’s stomach filled with nervous knots. Julian? Julian Swift? Here? On her sixteenth birthday? It was a dream come true. She would never have thought to invite him, would never have imagined he would come. But apparently, he could not delay his journey any longer and he wanted to say good-bye to his intended before he left for God only knew how long. Perhaps forever. But Cass refused to think about that. Not today.

She hurried over to the looking glass that hung on the wall of her bedchamber and took a good look at her reflection. Her eyes were too big for her small, pale face. Her hair was lanky and a nondescript color. Her lips too wide, her nose too small. And those freckles weren’t helping anything at all. She was a fright, a sixteen-year-old fright. Perhaps she would be beautiful one day, but today was not that day. Today she was too thin and too scrawny and too everything. Too nervous, also. Mustn’t forget too nervous. The only good thing was her gown. It was ice blue. It brought out the bit of color in her eyes and didn’t make her skin look too, too pale. Her mother had had the gown made specifically for her birthday celebration and Cass looked good in it. Well, as good as she was going to look with the rest of the fright to go along with it.

“Must I speak with him, Mother?” Penelope replied in what could only be described as a petulant tone.

Cass swung around to stare at her cousin. All she could do was blink. “You do not wish to see Lieutenant Swift?” It made no sense to her. How could her cousin not want to see her intended?

“He’s not even a lieutenant,” Pen shot back. “He’s a second lieutenant, just received his commission.”

Cass didn’t see how that mattered. “But he’s … he’s … your intended.” Not to mention he was handsome, kind, strong, sincere, and absolutely wonderful. All of the times Cass had been in his company, she’d been positively mesmerized by him. Pen was a lucky, lucky young woman.

“He is not,” Pen retorted, crossing over the thick carpet and staring at herself in the same looking glass that Cass had recently abandoned. “He’s not my intended yet. Nothing is settled definitely.”

Pen’s mother plunked her hands on her hips. “I don’t care if he’s a cadet. He’s going to be your husband one day and he’s made the trip all the way out here to say good-bye to you before he leaves. You’ll do him the courtesy of speaking with him.”

Pen rolled her eyes and stuffed a fat brown curl behind her ear. “If you insist, Mother.”

“I most certainly do. Now, I’ll go and greet him. You come down to the rose salon in ten minutes, miss.”

Pen’s mother strode from the room, giving her daughter a stern stare.

“I wish she wasn’t so set on my match with Julian Swift,” Penelope said, after her mother had vacated the room. “For all I know he’ll be gone for five entire years.
Five years!
Can you imagine?”

Cass shook her head. In part because she truly couldn’t imagine Julian being gone for such a long time and in part because the thought brought tears to her eyes and she was already desperately fighting them. “No,” she murmured. “I cannot.”

“He might not even return at all,” Pen pointed out.

Cass could only nod, but her cousin’s words stung her heart.

“I may never see him again,” Pen added.

Cass walked silently back over to the looking glass and took her cousin’s hand. “Is that why you don’t want to speak to him, Pen? You’re afraid of getting close. In the event that he … d-dies.” She closed her eyes on that last word. Unthinkable. Unimaginable.

“Not really,” Pen replied, tugging her hand from Cass’s grasp. “I just cannot bear to think of myself growing old and ugly waiting for a man who might not be coming back. It’s completely unfair, don’t you think?”

Surely Pen didn’t know how harsh her words sounded. Surely she didn’t mean them the way they came across.

“I’m sorry, Pen,” Cass said simply. “It must be quite difficult for you.”

“You’ve no idea,” Pen replied. “And I’m sorry, too. Sorry that Mother and Father chose a second son with a target on his back to be my groom. I know I’m not the best catch of the Season, but surely they could find me someone who isn’t about to go cavorting all over Europe. They only want this match so that they can be connected to the Swifdon title.”

Cass couldn’t disagree with her cousin. It was true that the Swifdons were an illustrious family. But how could Pen not want Julian? Tall, handsome, kind Julian? Why, Cass had been in love with him since the day she’d first seen him.

“What are you going to do, Pen?” Cass smoothed her hands down her skirts.

“What can I do?” Pen asked with a sigh. “I’m going to have to go speak with him. Say good-bye.” Just then, Pen’s eyes lit with fire. “Do me a favor, Cass. Come and save me in five minutes.”

Cass blinked rapidly. “Save you?”

“Yes. Come down to the rose salon and interrupt. Tell me you’re about to begin the celebration or something. Anything. I cannot bear to stay there and endure an awkward discussion with Lieutenant Swift for Lord knows how long.”

Cass shook her head. She couldn’t imagine not wanting to savor what might well be her last moments on earth with Julian. “Oh, no, I cannot—”

“Of course you can. Do it, please. For me?” Pen squeezed Cass’s shoulder and flew from the room saying, “Thank you, Cass, you’re such a dear,” on her way out as if Cass had agreed.

Shaking, Cass turned slowly and took another look in the mirror. She’d gone white as a ghost, whiter, even, than she had been before if such a thing were possible. Perhaps she’d turn translucent next. Translucent with freckles, what a lovely combination. She sighed. What was she to do? Pen was expecting her to barge in on her last private moments with her future husband and interrupt them. Cass paced in front of the mirror, pondering it all for a moment. There was
one
good thing to consider.

If Cass did it, in the end she’d be alone with Julian. Possibly.

Very well, she would do it. It was her birthday after all, wasn’t it? What better birthday present could she ask for than a stolen moment with the man she loved?