“It’s extraordinarily ugly, isn’t it?” Mrs. Georgina Mowbray asked her friend, and fellow army widow, Mrs. Lettice Stowe, as they stood before the latest painting to have taken Bath by storm in the fashionable Messrs. Oliver and McHenry Art Gallery in Clarges Street. “I do see that the artist has talent, but look at the expression on poor Cleopatra’s face! She looks more like she’s suffering from dyspepsia than the poisonous bite of an asp.”
Lettice, who was rather less interested in art than Georgina, studied the painting, wrinkling her upturned nose in concentration. “I don’t know,” she said frowning, “I rather like it. It’s so dramatic, the way she’s draping herself across the chaise, her bosom exposed as the asp sinks its fangs into her. And who’s to say that the bite of an asp doesn’t feel like an attack of dyspepsia. You remember old Mrs. Lafferty whose husband was with the 23rd, who swore she was only suffering a bit of the ague when in fact she was having an apoplexy.”
Georgina had to concede the point to her friend, though she was fairly certain Mrs. Lafferty had been suffering from both
the ague and apoplexy. But she didn’t wish to quibble. Lettice was, after all, her only friend in Bath aside from her employer, Lady Russell, to whom Georgie served as lady’s companion.
It had only been a few months since she’d come to the spa town and she missed her friends in London dreadfully. But unlike Isabella and Perdita, who were both the widows of noblemen, Georgie was the widow of a military officer who had been just as terrible at managing his finances as he had been at being a husband. And as a result, she needed to work to earn her keep.
Today, her employer was taking tea with her niece while Georgie enjoyed her afternoon off. She would never have expected that the life of a paid companion would be so fulfilling, but it was. Georgie appreciated order and her life following the army had taught her to appreciate the well-managed life. Especially when her relationship with her husband had been anything but reliable.
“Perhaps,” Georgie allowed. “Though I do still think it’s a remarkably ugly painting.”
Shuddering, she asked, “Does it say who the artist is?”
“I’m afraid that would be me,” said a male voice from behind them. A male voice she recognized.” And I agree, it’s a dreadful painting.”
Georgina stifled a very unladylike curse before turning to greet the newcomer. Just as she’d known he would be, the Earl of Coniston stood behind them, one supercilious brow raised in amusement.
He had been betrothed to her friend Perdita for a few short weeks earlier in the year, and during that time, Georgie had been forced to endure his company despite her dislike of him. He’d been good enough to Perdita—had even agreed to her dissolution of the betrothal without a fuss when she realized she wasn’t ready to marry again so soon after her husband’s death—but from what Georgie could tell, he was the very sort of dissolute, devil-may-care nobleman that she’d come to dislike during her time following the army. Especially given that the officers had often been handed their positions by dint of money and birth while the enlisted men under them were forced to do the real work.
And, perhaps sensing her dislike, Coniston, or Con as he was called by his friends, had found great delight in teasing her whenever they were in company together.
It was just Georgie’s luck that he was her employer’s favorite nephew, and would therefore be underfoot for her near future at the very least.
“Lord Coniston,” she said, masking her dismay with a smile, “what a surprise to find you here.”
“Not so surprising, surely, Mrs. Mowbray,” her nemesis said with a grin. “After all, you must have penned the invitations for my aunt for her house party this week.”
“I meant,” she said, maintaining her poise, “this gallery, of course, not the city of Bath.” It was just like him to deliberately misunderstand her.
Unchastened, he raised his brows. “Do you mean you think me such a cultureless fribble that I could not possibly have business in such a place? For shame, Mrs. Mowbray. Surely, I have made a better impression upon you than that.”
“As a matter of fact,” Georgie began, before she was interrupted by Lettice. To her shame, Georgie had forgotten her friend was even there, such was the power of Coniston to overwhelm her good sense.
“Do introduce me to your friend, Georgina,” Lettice said, her eyes alight with interest as she took in Coniston’s good looks and Georgie’s discomfort in his presence.
Reluctantly, Georgie said, “Lord Coniston, this is my friend Mrs. Lettice Stowe. We followed the drum together.” Turning to Lettice, whose grin alerted Georgie to her amusement at the situation, she said, “Lettice, this is Lord Coniston, the nephew of my employer, Lady Russell.”
She would have liked to find fault in Coniston’s reception of her friend, but Georgie was forced to admit that his bow and expression of pleasure at making the acquaintance were all that was proper.
“What is it you dislike about this painting, my lord?” Lettice asked, returning them to their surroundings. “I should be interested to hear your opinion of it.”
A dark curl brushed his brow, giving the earl a boyish air. “Where to begin, Mrs. Stowe?” he said gravely. “There are so many things wrong with it that I don’t quite know which to condemn first. I will say, however, that it is obviously one of the artist’s earlier works and doubtless he would prefer it to never be seen in public again.
“I have told the owners of the gallery to remove it many a time,” he continued. “But they ignore my pleas to spare the good people of Bath from the horror of it.”
Suddenly, a memory of her employer saying something about her nephew winkled its way into Georgie’s consciousness. Closing her eyes, she bit her lip in frustration. Of course.
yours, isn’t it?” she asked the earl in a flat tone. He’d overheard her criticizing his work. He’d never let her hear the end of it.
To his credit, Coniston did not attempt to capitalize on her embarrassment. “It is indeed, I am sorry to say,” he admitted. “I gave it to a friend as a joke years ago, and the beastly fellow sold it to this gallery. Every time I come to Bath I attempt to buy it back from the owners but they refuse, claiming it’s one of their most popular display pieces.”
Georgie couldn’t help but sympathize with him. “How unfortunate,” she said, looking once more at the hideous face of Cleopatra. “You have become a much better artist since you painted this,” she added, thinking how mortified she would be if one of her sewing samplers, which were truly awful, were to be hung up next to someone else’s neat and tiny stitching. “The landscape in your aunt’s sitting room is particularly fine.”
Coniston gave her a puzzled look, as if he weren’t quite sure what to think of her when she was being generous with him. Georgie felt a tug of shame. Had she really been so difficult with him? she wondered.
“It’s not so bad as all that,” Lettice said, again reminding Georgie of her presence. “I was just telling Georgie that—”
But before she could finish, they were interrupted by another gentleman.
“There you are, old boy,” the newcomer said, slightly out of breath. “The others are waiting. Let’s get out of this mausoleum.”
It was clear from the man’s glance at Georgie and Lettice, and his quick dismissal, that he did not consider them worth his notice. Coniston, to his credit, looked embarrassed at his friend’s bad manners.
“Ladies,” he said, bowing to them, “I hope you find some more pleasing works of art to occupy the rest of your time here. I recommend the very fine Tintoretto in the corner.”
And with a grin, he followed his friend from the anteroom of the gallery where Georgina and Lettice stood looking after him.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Lettice unfurled her fan and briskly plied it before her face. “Lord, Georgie, have you ever seen such a handsome man in your life? Why did you not tell me you were friends with him?”
“He’s hardly a friend, Lettice,” she responded with a laugh. “He is my employer’s nephew. We met in London at the home of a mutual friend, but to be honest we are not on the best of terms.”
“What do you mean?” Lettice demanded. “You seemed easy enough just now.”
Georgie was silent for a moment as she tried to put into words her complicated feelings about Lord Coniston. He was friendly enough and had been kind to Perdita. But she found it difficult to admire a man who seemed to concern himself with nothing beyond the latest on-dit or the outcome of some much-talked-about prizefight. For better or for worse, she could not admire a man who was so lacking in seriousness.
“You were in the war, Lettice,” Georgie tried to explain. “You saw how some of the aristocratic officers behaved.”
At her friend’s nod, she continued, “Lord Coniston reminds me of them. As if he has nothing more to concern himself with than the betting book or which opera dancer he’s going to bed.”
“And what,” Lettice asked, with a frown, “is wrong with that? Goodness, Georgina, you behave as if the war is still going on. So what if Lord Coniston enjoys himself. Wouldn’t you love to have enough funds to live as you pleased? It’s not as if he’s leading men into battle and compromising their safety.”
It was nothing more than she’d told herself any number of times, and Georgie knew that Lettice was right on some level. “True enough,” she said with a shrug. “I’m not sure why I am so hard on him. Perhaps I am a bit jealous of his freedom to do as he wishes.”
“If you ask me,” Lettice said with a sly look, “you need to loosen your stays a bit, so to speak. Let yourself have a bit of fun. You’re no longer following the drum, keeping everything neat and tidy for that brute of a husband to come back to from the fighting. And it’s time you remembered it.”
It was an old argument, and one that Georgie did not wish to rehash again. One of the ways in which she’d learned to cope with the unpredictabilty of her husband’s temper was to keep everything else in her life as predictable as possible. She lived her life by the ticking of the small heart-shaped watch pinned to the breast of her gown. And the one freedom she did appreciate was the one that allowed her to do so without reproach.
Looking down at her watch, she gasped. “Goodness, it’s gone three! I promised Lady Russell I’d be back in time for tea.”
“I thought it was your day off?” Lettice pouted, looking like a thwarted five-year-old.
Since Georgie didn’t wish to explain again that she’d agreed to giving up a bit of her off day under no duress and that she, in fact, had offered to do it, she remained silent.
“I shall have to get back to Henrietta Street,” she said, giving her friend a quick hug. “I’ll see you at the Pump Room, tomorrow, all right?”
To Georgie’s great relief, her friend didn’t raise a fuss. But before they parted ways on the street outside the art gallery, the other woman said, “Just remember that your employer is not your friend, Georgina. She is your employer. It’s just not possible for folks of their station and ours to be friends. Not true friends like we are.”
It was an old argument, and rather than go into it for the umpteenth time, Georgie merely nodded and gave her friend another quick hug before hurrying down the street toward Lady Russell’s town house.
She knew there was some sense in what Lettice said. But she’d learned from her friendship with Isabella and Perdita that not all members of the ton
were supercilious and cutting. And if truth be told, Georgie trusted the sisters more than Lettice in some instances, because though Lettice was a good enough person, she had a tendency to look for the cloud in every silver lining. And if Georgie needed anything it was to be around people with a sunny outlook on life, given her own tendency toward seriousness.
No sooner had the thought crossed her mind, however, than she remembered the letter in her reticule. She had reason for her worries, she reminded herself.
The first had arrived a month or so ago. And knowing the hell Isabella had gone through after she’d received similar missives, Georgie was prepared for something terrible to befall her now that the second and third warning letters had arrived.I know what you did last season.
The notes were unsigned. And she was quite sure if she compared her own letters with Isabella’s that the handwriting would be identical.
Someone, she knew, was out to avenge the late Duke of Ormond’s death. No matter how much of a brute he’d been. No matter that his death had been a matter of preventing him from murdering Perdita before their very eyes.
Whoever was behind the threatening letters, Georgie knew that they weren’t interested in fairness or logic or justice. They wanted only revenge.
On that thought, her hand slipped down to feel the reassuring shape of the small pistol resting next to the notes in her reticule.
Let this person continue to threaten, she thought grimly. When they began their campaign to frighten her, Georgie decided, she’d be ready for them.
* * *
“Why are you here, Con?”
The Earl of Coniston turned with a sense of resignation to see his cousin, Mr. Philip Callow, bounding toward the door of their aunt, Lady Russell’s, Henrietta Street town house. He was fond enough of his cousin, but Philip had never been much in the brains department.
“I should imagine,” he said, tapping his riding crop against his boot, “for the same reason you are here, Philip. To celebrate Aunt Russell’s birthday.”
Indeed, if what his sister had told him was true, Aunt Russell had invited all of her nieces and nephews to Bath for a week for her birthday celebration. Of course the spa town was not nearly as fashionable as it once was, having been superseded in the ton
’s affections by Brighton with its seaside bathing and lavish entertainments. There had been a bit of grumbling about the dullness of the locale, but as Aunt Russell was turning seventy and, moreover, had promised them all a sizable portion of her fortune upon her death, they each made the sojourn to Henrietta Street.
“I suppose that’s right.” Philip sighed. “I was hoping she’d decided to cut the rest of you out and leave the whole lot to me.” He picked an invisible bit of fluff from his sleeve. “Weston is cutting up rough over my bill again.”
Con was not surprised to hear it. It was unfashionable to pay one’s bills in a timely manner, and if Philip was anything it was fashionable.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” he said just as the door was opened by his aunt’s ancient butler, Rigsby, who ushered them both into the narrow house and instructed a footman to see to the valets and bags.
“The others are gathered in the drawing room,” Rigsby said with a stiff bow, indicating that the two men should precede him.
But Con waved him off. “We’ll find our own way, Rigsby. We don’t stand on ceremony with family, after all.”
In the absence of his parents, who were more involved with one another than their only son, he’d spent most of his holidays from school in Aunt Russell’s house and was intimately acquainted with its layout. Even the secret passages that had been built into it by his long dead Uncle Russell’s father.
“Wonderful,” his aunt said as they entered the room, which seemed filled to the rafters with his cousins and their spouses. After a general round of greetings, knowing their duty, both men made their way to their aunt.
Lady Russell was ensconced in a comfortable wing chair near the fire, and Con was troubled to see that her foot was propped up on a stool. “Come and let me have a look at the two of you,” she said brightly, inviting her hand to be kissed, a silent order with which both Con and Philip complied.
Con knew that to any outside observer, he and Philip were obviously related. Both of them bore the dark hair and blue eyes of the Callows, but there the resemblance ended. Whereas Con had grown into his frame some years ago, and bore his height and breadth of shoulder with confidence, Philip was rather more like the family name, that is, callow. Even so, standing side by side, they were a handsome pair and more than one set of female observers in the ton
had remarked upon it.
“Philip, I believe you’ve grown,” their aunt said, surveying the twenty-three-year-old with a keen eye.
To Con’s amusement, the young man’s ears reddened. “Aunt Russell,” he said with an adolescent whine. “You shouldn’t remark upon such things.”
“But it’s the truth, Phil,” their cousin, Mr. Geoffrey Callow, chortled from his position at the mantel. “Have you got lifts in your shoes? I thought—” He broke off as his wife, none too gently, poked him in the ribs.
“Pay no attention to him, Philip,” Elisabeth, Geoffrey’s wife, said sweetly. “I think you’re looking quite fine. Is that coat Weston?”
While Philip and the married couple discussed fashion, Con leaned forward to kiss his aunt’s paper-thin cheek. Was it his imagination or did she seem more frail than she had the last time he’d seen her?
“Is it the gout again?” he asked, indicating her foot. “I thought the waters were supposed to be doing that some good.”
“They were for a time,” she said with a frown, “but I’m afraid even the foul-tasting waters of Bath fail to make a difference now.”
“What does your physician say?” he asked. “Surely there is something to be done.”
“He insists that she should change her diet,” said Georgina Mowbray, stepping forward with a shawl, which she wrapped around Lady Russell’s shoulders, despite the warmth of the fire. “I hope you will attempt to reason with her while you are here, my lord. She refuses to give up lobster patties no matter how I remind her of their effect on her foot.”
“Mrs. Mowbray,” Con said, giving the lady a slight bow. “How good to see you again so soon.”
“What’s this?” Lady Russell demanded, looking from one to the other. “You didn’t tell me you’d seen Con lately, Georgina.”
Giving Con a low curtsy, Mrs. Mowbray bowed her head and turned to Lady Russell. “Lord Coniston and I ran into one another in the art gallery earlier. I did not have time to tell you when I returned because the guests began to arrive.”
Lady Russell’s eyes brightened as she turned her gimlet gaze on Con. “I should have known you’d go to the gallery first,” she told her nephew. “Were you able to get him to take that abomination of a painting down once and for all? I vow I have no notion of why he wishes to hang it there for all the world to see.”
“Bath is hardly all the world,” Con said wryly, “but I see your point.” The Cleopatra painting was one of his earliest and lacked the skill and technique his work had become known for over the years. Now that the earl was considered to be one of England’s most talented artists, the Cleopatra, despite its amateurish technique, was quite valuable and no amount of money would convince the owners to part with it. Much to Con’s dismay.
“At least,” he continued, “you display some of my better works so that I can rest easy knowing that the Cleopatra is not the only example of my talent to grace Bath.”
“Is it usual for aristocrats to dabble in the arts?” Mrs. Mowbray asked, her blond brows raised in curiosity. “I had thought—”
Con finished for her. “That it would be akin to being in trade? Oh, it is and many of my peers have let me know it. But since I haven’t sold any of my paintings since my salad days it’s not much of an issue anymore. I paint wholly for my own enjoyment now.”
“Or mine,” Lady Russell said with a grin, recalling to Con how long it had been since he’d seen her look really happy. He must credit Mrs. Mowbray with some of that, he knew.
“Which reminds me,” Lady Russell said. “I should love to have a little portrait of my spaniel, Percy. He’s such a little dear.”
Con bit back a sigh; it would be the devil to get Percy, the most spoiled pet in three counties, to sit still long enough for a portrait, but since his aunt asked it, he would have to try.
“You shall have your work cut out for you, my lord,” Mrs. Mowbray said with a rare smile. The effect was rather like watching a storm turn into a sunny day in the space of a breath. When Georgina Mowbray left off her usual, serious expression, she was a beauty. Con had suspected as much before, but had never really seen it for himself. How the devil did the woman not have a line of suitors leading out into Henrietta Street? he wondered. “Percy,” she continued, breaking him out of his daze, “is as profligate as the Regent and as difficult to control as Byron at his most reckless. I wish you luck with him.”
“Percy and I are acquainted, Mrs. Mowbray,” Con replied with an exaggerated grimace. “I have little doubt painting his portrait will be as wretched as anything I’ve attempted. And that includes the time Uncle Russell made me empty the chamber pots for a week as punishment for frightening the chambermaid with a frog.”
“Impudent boy!” his aunt chided, rapping him on the knuckles with her fan.”I thought you were renowned for your charm. You do not speak to your legions of female admirers of chamber pots, I should think.”
Con felt his ears redden. “Not so many as all that, Aunt,” he said, trying not to sound like a green lad just up from the country. When a low feminine chuckle sounded from his aunt’s companion he turned. “I suppose you find this amusing, Mrs. Mowbray?”
“To be perfectly honest, my lord,” the widow responded. “I am enjoying the sight of someone besides myself being raked over the coals by Lady Russell. It is uncharitable, I suppose, but the truth.”
Her wry humor gave Con, who had been puzzled by Mrs. Mowbray’s friendship with Perdita and her sister Lady Isabella, some notion of what the sisters found in common with her besides an interest in charity. From what he could remember, the widow had followed the drum with her husband, who had been killed in the war. It was a rough life for a woman, he knew, and now that he’d glimpsed the beauty beneath the serious demeanor, he wondered if perhaps her usual manner wasn’t something she used as a defense against unwanted attentions.
“Well, I like this,” Lady Russell groused, though it was clear she was enjoying the repartee. “My nephew and my companion enjoying a laugh at my expense. I suppose it’s to be expected at my age.”
To Con’s surprise, Mrs. Mowbray leaned down to hug his crotchety old aunt. And his aunt did not rebuff the show of affection. That she’d been able to break through his aunt’s shell was another point in the widow’s favor.
“You know we adore you, Lady Russell, but even you must admit that you have a certain fondness for exposing our vulnerabilities.” Mrs. Mowbray smiled as she spoke the words and Con was amazed to see his aunt looking sheepish. “I pray you will remember what you’re about this week, when there is so much at stake.”
“At stake?” Con asked, wondering to which issue the lady referred. “I think the celebration of my aunt’s birthday is hardly so fraught as that.”
“Oh, do not be so nice,” Lady Russell said with a dismissive wave. “You know quite well that the majority of people in this room are here to toady me into enlarging their bequests in my will. If I weren’t so fond of them I’d be quite put out.”
Looking about him, Con had to admit that his aunt was likely right. Some of these cousins he hadn’t seen in the same room in years. But then again, his aunt hadn’t celebrated her birthday in such a grand fashion in years. If ever.
“That’s as may be,” he conceded, “but it’s not why I’m here.”
“Of course you aren’t, dear boy,” his aunt said, patting him on the cheek. “You were always my favorite. And not just because you were the eldest. Mrs. Mowbray, you will not account for it,” she said to her companion, “but Coniston was such a dear thing when he was a boy. He could sing like an angel and—”
“That’s enough, Aunt,” he said cutting her off before she could continue. What next? A recitation of his first pony ride? “I’m sure Mrs. Mowbray would rather not listen to tales about my childhood. We are, after all, here to celebrate you.”
“Yes, we are,” his uncle Rex said in his nasal voice as he approached their circle. “Hortense, I’m so glad you decided to have this little party. It’s good to have the whole family back together again. Even if one could wish that you’d chosen a more entertaining spot. Bath is positively dull when compared with London.”
While his uncle prosed on, Con felt Mrs. Mowbray’s eyes on him, and when he looked up, she quickly glanced away. On impulse he reached out and touched her on the arm, indicating with a tilt of his head that they should move to the small window alcove on the far end of the room. Warily, his aunt’s companion gave a brisk nod and made her way through the various clumps of Callow cousins to the window. Striding across the room behind her, Con was determined to put whatever it was that gave her a distrust of him behind them.
Because despite the affability he’d seen from her during their little chat with his aunt, there was something wary lurking behind Mrs. Mowbray’s eyes. And he refused to spend the next week enduring covert glances of distrust from the woman.
* * *
Georgie fought down a wave of unease as she walked to the window overlooking the back garden. She knew that outwardly she gave no evidence of being flustered—she’d long ago mastered her expressions so that whatever she felt inside was hidden from the outward observer—but inside she worried that she’d done something that would make the earl press his aunt to dismiss her. Or that he’d learned somehow of the threats she’d been receiving. Fear for his aunt’s safety would certainly be reason enough for him to wish her gone.
Reaching the window, she steeled herself to maintain her expression, and turned to face the earl. And found him watching her.
Fleetingly she wondered if this was what it had been like for Perdita to have all of his attention focused on her.
Perdita had never really explained why they had broken their engagement but Georgie knew the reasons for the dissolution were all on her side. If Coniston was pining for her friend, however, Georgie couldn’t see it.
“What is it you wished to discuss with me, my lord?” she prompted, wanting whatever it was he was going to say out in the open before she lost her poise.
His words, however, though not the warning or dismissal she’d expected, threatened to shatter her reserve all the same.
“Have I done something to offend you, Mrs. Mowbray?” the earl asked, his usually good-natured expression clouded with concern. “Because for the life of me I cannot remember anything which might have put us at loggerheads. With the exception, of course, of my engagement to your friend, the young dowager Duchess of Ormond, the breaking which, I am quite sure you know, he was her choice.”
Georgie stared at him for a moment. Of all the scenarios she’d imagined, this one had never crossed her mind.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean,” she responded, pretending confusion to buy herself some time.
“Do not brush me off, madam,” he said, deliberately leaning in so that she had no choice but to meet his gaze. “I know there is something I’ve done to make you uneasy in my company and I wish to know what it was. And barring that, I’d like to know what I might do to make amends so that my aunt will not be forced in the next week to feel the tension between us. She is obviously not in the best of health right now and I do not wish to worry her.”
Georgie was taken aback by his directness. But she supposed he was right. It would bother Lady Russell to see them at cross-purposes and Georgie did not wish to worry her. She’d grown quite fond of the older lady during the past few months.
And it was hardly Lord Coniston’s fault that Georgie thought him an undisciplined fribble. Lettice had been perfectly correct when she’d said it was his right to behave as he wished. He could hardly be expected to live his life according to Georgie’s standards of correct behavior. And he clearly adored his aunt, which was certainly a point in his favor.
Addressing the earl, she made herself look him in the eye. “You are correct when you say that your aunt is not in the best of health, Lord Coniston,” she agreed. “And if my manner toward you has given offense, I sincerely apologize. I may have been a bit stiff, but that is simply my own cow-handed manners, not anything purposely insulting at any rate.” To her own surprise what she said was the truth. She hadn’t intentionally been cool toward him. She simply did not know how to go on with him. She was hardly in the company of handsome earls every day.
“Then what is the problem?” Coniston demanded, his brows drawn together. He stood so close to her that Georgie could smell the sandalwood of his cologne, and see the laugh lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes.
“There is no problem with you, per se,” she explained, willing her attention back to the matter at hand. “I am simply not all that comfortable around…” She paused, searching for a word. “Gentlemen,” she forced herself to say aloud.
Coniston’s pique turned to puzzlement. “You’re afraid of me?” he asked in a bewildered tone. “Whyever for? If I’ve done something to give you a fear of me, I do sincerely apologize, Mrs. Mowbray. It was certainly never my intention.” If the situation were less serious, Georgie would have been amused at the echo of her own earlier apology.
“It’s nothing you’ve done,” she assured him with a smile. “Indeed, you have been a perfect gentleman. I have simply not been accustomed to moving in such elevated circles and I fear that my own natural reticence coupled with my diffidence in the company of gentlemen has made me seem less than friendly. Which has certainly not been my intention.”
It wasn’t that she disliked him, personally, she suddenly realized. Just that he seemed so much like the titled officers she’d known in the army. Which was hardly his fault.
Unaware of her mental struggles, Coniston rubbed his chin thoughtfully, his eyes troubled. “I must admit, I had not considered that you might find me intimidating,” he said with a frown. “I do not mean to brag, but I have a rather easy rapport with most of the people I encounter. And though, yes, I am an earl, I hardly think myself to be so fearsome that I would cause a spirited lady like yourself to cower before me.” The twinkle in his eyes let her know that this last was meant to be a jest.
“I would hardly call it cowering,” said Georgie with a roll of her eyes. “It’s more that I do not know how to be comfortable in your company.”
He was clearly nonplussed by the whole situation, Georgie could see that by the shadow that lurked behind his affable smile. Still, he did not give up or decide to wash his hands of her. “I hope that over this week, Mrs. Mowbray, you will give me the chance to prove to you that I am not the brute you think me.”
Before she could protest his characterization of himself as a brute, Coniston continued, “In fact, I insist upon it.”
“Oh, but surely there’s no need,” she began, feeling a bit sheepish at his declaration. Even if she didn’t find him the most comfortable companion, he was under no obligation to ease her mind.
“I believe there is every need,” he said firmly. “And I warn you I won’t take no for an answer.”
Georgie sighed. She supposed she had no choice. And at least this might allow her to gain enough familiarity with him that Lady Russell would not be made uncomfortable by her own unease.
“All right,” she said with a rueful smile. “But you must agree that if by the end of the week I still feel this way, then you will leave me in peace with my shyness.”
He held out his gloved hand. “Agreed.”
This might not be a particularly comfortable week, Georgie thought as she shook his proffered hand, but it would certainly be interesting.
Copyright © 2013 by Manda Collins
Manda Collins spent her teen years wishing she’d been born a couple of centuries earlier, preferably in the English countryside. Time travel being what it is, she resigned herself to life with electricity and indoor plumbing, and read lots of books. When she’s not writing, she’s helping other people use books, as an academic librarian. Her books include Why Dukes Say I Do and Why Lords Lose Their Hearts.