The sky had grown increasingly darker as they neared the Blickton estate, and not because night was falling. A fat raindrop hit the window of Eugenia St. John’s coach as they turned up the drive toward the manor house. Trees dressed in gold and orange swayed in the wind, and Genie wondered how many leaves would be left on the branches come tomorrow.
Pity, for she loved the glorious colors of autumn. As had her dear husband. The familiar ache in her chest had lessened gradually over the past two years since his death, but it was still there. She wondered if it would always be. At least now when she thought of him, she smiled, and any tears she shed were due to fond memories instead of grief.
The house finally came into view, its pale stone Palladian structure rising into the blackening sky. Built less than a hundred years ago, Blickton was not as grand as Lakemoor, but then few estates were. Her husband, the Duke of Kendal, had kept Lakemoor and its land in excellent condition, and his son and heir was continuing that commitment, which Genie observed from the dower house.
The coach came to a stop in front of the door, and a footman rushed out with an umbrella. The rain began to fall in earnest as Genie stepped from the coach and hurried inside, her maid trailing behind.
“Welcome, Your Grace,” the butler greeted her. “The guests are gathered in the drawing room.”
Genie might have asked to go to her room first to change out of her traveling costume, but the hostess, her cousin Lady Cosford, bustled into the cavernous entry hall, her shoes tapping on the marble floor.
“Genie, you’re here at last! Come and meet the rest of the guests. I promise you can retire after a short introduction.” Cecilia smiled broadly, her sherry-brown eyes sparkling. She was always effusively cheerful. Genie had been particularly grateful for that trait after her husband had died.
It was because Cecilia had been so supportive and wonderful that Genie had agreed to come to her house party. The event would be her first major social occasion since Jerome’s death.
Genie summoned a smile. “Of course.” She removed her hat and gloves and handed them to her maid.
Cecilia linked her arm with Genie’s and swept her through several rooms until they reached the large drawing room that overlooked the vast parkland of the Blickton estate. “Everyone, please welcome the Dowager Duchess of Kendal!”
Dowager. Genie bristled inwardly at that title. She’d never thought to be a widow at the age of forty-two.
Surveying the room, she recognized only a handful of faces. She estimated there were twenty or so people in attendance. It also seemed at first glance that there was a rather equal ratio of men and women.
“Welcome, Genie!” One of the people Genie knew came forward, smiling brightly, her pale blue eyes sparkling with delight. Lady Bradford, a fellow widow, had been a dear friend.
Had been. Because Genie had isolated herself at her dower house at Lakemoor for the past two years.
Genie smiled warmly, genuinely glad to see Letitia. “I’m so pleased to see you, Lettie.”
“And I you.” She lowered her voice as she moved closer so that only Genie could hear. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
“I nearly didn’t,” Genie whispered, surprising herself at the disclosure.
“Now that everyone is here,” Cecilia said, “let us have proper introductions. We’ll go around the room, and when it’s your turn, say your name and something about yourself.”
“What should we say?” one gentleman asked, his brow arching.
Cecilia lifted a shoulder. “Whatever you choose. Though perhaps refrain from something so mundane as how many children you have or what you ate for breakfast. I’ll start. I’m Lady Cosford, your hostess, and I sleep with the window open all year round.”
“Even on a day like this?” a lady asked from the other side of the room.
“Especially on a day like this. I love the smell of the rain.” Cecilia turned her head to the gentleman on her left. “Your turn, Mr. Sterling.”
Since Genie stood on Cecilia’s right, she would go last. Another quick review of the room said this was going to take forever. Genie exhaled softly.
Slightly taller than average, Mr. Sterling possessed a charming smile and dark blue eyes that crinkled at the corners, giving the impression he was a man of good humor. “Then I shouldn’t start by extolling the virtues and follies of my four children.” This was met with laughter and shouts of “No!” from a few gentlemen, followed by more laughter.
“All right, then,” Mr. Sterling said, stifling his own chuckle. “I keep a hothouse with exotic flowers.”
“Ooh, that sounds lovely,” said the woman standing to his left. She took her turn next, and so the game—for that was what it seemed to be—continued around the room. Somewhere across the circle from Genie, she began to lose focus, her brain and body tired from the journey even though she simply rode in a carriage. What was it about travel that was so exhausting?
The sharp point of Cecilia’s elbow jolted Genie from her reverie. “Say that again, Lord Satterfield?” Cecilia said, fluttering her lashes.
“I said my favorite color is purple.”
Cecilia shot Genie an arch look that was clearly meant to communicate something. Then her lips pursed, and she dipped her gaze to Genie’s traveling costume. Which was…purple.
So? Genie glanced about and quickly registered that she was the only one in purple. She looked across the room and saw Lord Satterfield—that was his name, wasn’t it?—staring straight at her. Heat bloomed in Genie’s chest and spread outward, warming her blood and flushing her skin. It wasn’t just that he was staring at her. It was the way he was staring—he had the most arresting eyes, dark like a black coffee, with what should have been feminine lashes but that looked wholly perfect on him. He looked at her as if he simply couldn’t tear his attention away.
But then he did, as the game continued. Genie let out her breath, and only then did she realize she’d been holding it. She spent the next several minutes thinking about why she’d felt that sudden flash of fever. Perhaps she was becoming ill.
At last, it was almost her turn. She had no idea what she was going to say. Why hadn’t she spent this time thinking of something witty or at least interesting? Probably because she was the least interesting person she knew. Or so it seemed that was what she’d become.
Cecilia looked at her encouragingly. “It’s your turn,” she whispered.
“I’m…” Genie croaked. She coughed gently. “I’m the Dowager Duchess of Kendal, but then Cec—Lady Cosford already told you that. This is my first house party in some time. I, ah, like to dance.” How perfectly boring and predictable.
“Excellent, for there will be plenty of dancing!” Cecilia said, clapping her hands together. “Lovely, now we all know one another. We’ll adjourn shortly so that those who wish to retire for a time may do so before we gather for dinner. We’ll meet here at half six and then proceed to the dining room at seven. After dinner, there will be cards and dancing. Tomorrow, we have entertainments planned, including a picnic and a walk to the River Swift.” She looked behind her toward the doorway and frowned. “I do wonder where Cosford has taken off to.” She smiled brightly. “Ah well, he’ll be here soon, I imagine. If you haven’t yet been to your room, a footman will escort you. And here are some refreshments!”
Several footmen entered bearing trays of food and drink. Genie’s stomach growled softly in response, and she dearly hoped no one heard it. As tired as she was, apparently she was even hungrier.
The food—sandwiches, biscuits, and cakes—was set on a table situated in one corner of the room while the drinks went to another table in another corner. Genie went straight toward the food, but was almost immediately intercepted by the first gentleman who’d spoken, Mr. Sterling.
“This is my first house party in some time too,” he said with a half smile. “I’ve just come out of mourning.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Genie realized there hadn’t been a Mrs. Sterling. At least that she’d heard of. But then her attention had waned. Still, she’d caught many names, and wouldn’t his wife have been standing next to him?
Except there is no wife.
Genie thought back to the game. Had there been any wives? Rather, had there been any married couples? Save their hosts, of course. No, she didn’t think there were. How peculiar.
“I know you understand,” Mr. Sterling said. “It’s not easy to carry on after losing one’s spouse. Particularly with children. Do you have children?”
There was always a deep ache when someone asked that question. Genie had long ago learned to ignore it, bury it, and once in a while indulge it. Now was not that time.
“Just my stepson, but he is twenty-four and quite capable of managing on his own.” Mostly. He still allowed her to mother him, and for that, she was grateful. He’d taken his father’s death perhaps even harder than Genie. He’d certainly spent the last two years proving he would be as excellent a duke as his father had been.
“Right. I like to dance too. Hopefully, I’m still as spry as I was in my youth.” Sterling chuckled. He looked to be around the same age as Genie, with some gray streaking his dark hair. He was attractive in a distinguished, mature way. What did that even mean? It meant she hadn’t considered anyone attractive since she’d met Jerome almost twenty years ago. “I hope you’ll save me one this evening?”
“Certainly.” Genie’s stomach made another desperate sound, much to her horror.
Sterling chuckled again. “Shall we move to the refreshments?”
“Yes, please.” Genie continued toward the table, and from the corner of her eye caught Lord Satterfield watching her.
You find him attractive.
Yes, she did. Fine. So she hadn’t found anyone attractive except Lord Satterfield since Jerome.
Heat jumped through her again as she picked up a plate and selected a few items to eat. Glancing about for somewhere safe to partake, her gaze landed on a small, and thankfully empty, seating area on the opposite side of the room.
Genie strode there with purpose, eager to satisfy her hunger and be on her way to her room to fortify herself for the evening ahead. Fortify herself? Was she going into battle?
She was being quite absurd. This was a harmless house party, meant to help her transition from mourning back to life. But what life was that exactly?
Reaching the seating area, Genie sank into a chair and took a bite of a small sandwich. The ham was deliciously smoked. She briefly closed her eyes in delight.
“Good sandwich?” The masculine voice nearly made her choke. She opened her eyes, swallowing, as she looked up.
Lord Satterfield sat down beside her. His dark eyes perused her with warm appreciation. He was broad shouldered and fit, with a handsome visage marked by a small but distinctive cleft in his chin and the sort of angular cheekbones that made them look as if they’d been sculpted. His dark hair was thinning, resulting in a wide, masculine forehead. His dearth of hair did not detract from his good looks in the slightest.
He held a glass of something, brandy perhaps, and raised it to his lips for a sip. Genie fixated on his mouth before realizing—much to her horror—that she was staring. Dropping her gaze to her plate, she finished the last of her ham sandwich.
“My brandy is delicious,” he said, perhaps prompting her that she’d failed to answer his question. Because she’d been too busy staring.
Genie picked up another sandwich. “The ham is quite good. You should try it.” It was a thinly veiled attempt to get him to leave. Why was she so eager for him to go? Wasn’t the point of coming to the party to reestablish social connections?
Taking a deep breath, Genie summoned a smile. Then she took another bite of sandwich. This one was fowl—pheasant, she thought. It wasn’t as good as the ham.
“I’m not terribly hungry,” Satterfield said. “I am thirsty, however.” His eyes sparked with mischief before he took another sip. “I’m trying to think if we’ve met before. I knew your husband, of course. We worked together in the Lords.”
“Did you? Kendal was quite dedicated to reform. Are you?”
“I am indeed. Sometimes it makes me unpopular, but I don’t mind. Kendal didn’t either.”
It felt strange to be discussing her husband, in part because “Kendal” now meant her stepson. In her mind, Titus was still Ravenglass, which had been his courtesy title, but to everyone else, he was now the duke. Genie’s husband—and their time as duke and duchess—was gone.
“Is this difficult?” Satterfield asked softly.
“No.” It shouldn’t be. Quite enough time had passed. “It’s actually nice to speak of him, especially with someone who knew him.”
“I admired him very much, actually. He offered guidance to me when I first came to the Lords—fifteen years ago or so.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. I often called him the Shepherd, for he was fond of guiding everyone who would allow it.” Genie didn’t have to summon the smile that rose to her lips this time.
Satterfield smiled with her. “What an excellent name for him. I wish I’d known to call him that.”
For the first time since her arrival, Genie began to relax. Perhaps this would be just what she needed.
Satterfield studied her a moment. “I was surprised to see you here, Duchess.”
Something in his tone made Genie sit up straighter, her senses tingling. “Why is that?”
“I’d heard you were in deep mourning and that you may sit out a third Season come spring.”
Of course there were rumors about her. Gossip made London go round. “Well, this isn’t exactly the Season,” she said, feeling a trifle defensive. “It seemed just the right opportunity to dip my toe back into the sea.”
Satterfield’s brow creased, which only further pricked Genie’s awareness. However, before she could think on his reaction further, Lord Cosford strode into the drawing room.
“I’m so pleased you are all here! Please forgive my tardiness.” He looked around the assemblage until his gaze settled lovingly on Lady Cosford. After a brief moment, he readdressed the room. “As I said, I’m so pleased you are all here, because if you weren’t already, I’m afraid you wouldn’t have made it. The rain has washed out the road, and given the way it’s pouring, it may be that way for a few days. It’s a good thing you’d all planned to be here for a week!” He chortled. “In fact, you may be here longer, and I daresay you won’t mind.” He winked, and this was met with laughter from nearly everyone. Only nearly, because Genie wasn’t sure what was funny.
“Needless to say,” Lord Cosford continued, “we’ll be making some adjustments to our activities.” He looked to his wife once more. “I know my darling wife has alternate plans, so rest assured there will be amusements for all. Now, I think it’s time I had a brandy!” He turned toward the nearest footman, then stopped. “I nearly forgot. If you haven’t yet received your map, raise your hand, and Vernon will bring it to you.”
Genie swallowed the rest of her second sandwich, then looked at Satterfield. “What map? If we can’t go outside, why would we need a map?”
The earl cocked his head, looking at her…dubiously. Again, Genie had an odd sensation. And she was finally beginning to realize that she was missing something.
Satterfield raised his hand, and a moment later, the butler delivered a folded parchment to him. “I already have one,” he said to Genie. “This one is for you. However, I take it you don’t know what it’s for.” He frowned slightly. “Did Lady Cosford not explain the purpose of this party?”
Purpose? What purpose did a house party have aside from providing social opportunity and amusement? Genie took the map and opened the parchment. “Is this the house?” She glanced over at the earl.
“Upstairs, to be precise.”
She could see that. In each bedroom was written someone’s name or initials. She found hers—at least she thought DDK meant her, the Dowager Duchess of Kendal. Why on earth would they give out maps of everyone’s bedrooms? Unless… No, that was too scandalous.
Genie looked around the room at the people assembled. Not one wife. Not one husband. No one was a couple, save their hosts. In fact, Genie was fairly certain every woman in attendance was a widow. What the devil kind of party was this?
Standing so quickly she upended her plate, Genie felt heat rush to her face. Before she could bend down to pick up the biscuits that had tumbled to the floor, as well as the plate, Lord Satterfield did it for her.
When he stood, he took a step closer, so that there was scarcely any space between them. Their proximity both terrified and excited her. She hadn’t been this close to a man in some time. She hadn’t been this close to a man who wasn’t her husband ever.
“I’m sorry you didn’t know,” he said softly. “But I’m glad you’re here.”
Genie couldn’t move. Her heart beat faster, and she wondered if he could hear it. He turned and walked away, taking her plate and biscuits with him. Which was fine since she’d quite lost her appetite.
She located Cecilia across the room, standing with her husband, and made her way quickly in that direction. “Cecilia, may I have a word?” Genie tried to keep her voice pleasant.
Cecilia turned toward her, smiling. “Of course.”
“Welcome to Blickton, Duchess,” Lord Cosford said cheerfully. “We’re so glad you came.”
Genie narrowed her eyes slightly before pinning her attention on Cecilia. “Privately, please?”
Concern flashed in Cecilia’s gaze. “Certainly.” She walked with Genie from the drawing room. Once they were several paces away from the doorway, she stopped and turned toward Genie. “Is there something amiss?”
Holding up the map, Genie struggled to keep her emotions in check. “What is this?” No, that wasn’t the right question. Genie knew what it was. What she didn’t know was why it was. “What is this party about?”
Pink dotted Cecilia’s cheeks, validating the shock and distress Genie felt. “Oh dear, I can see you’re upset. I should have told you straightaway, but I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
She was damn right Genie wouldn’t have come. “Everyone here is unmarried.”
“Yes. Our hope was to provide an opportunity for those who are unwed and perhaps wish to be wed again to meet and establish connections.”
“What sort of connections?” Genie glanced toward the paper in her hand. “You provided a map with everyone’s bedrooms.”
The color in Cecilia’s face deepened. “Ah, yes, we did. We are also providing an opportunity for more…intimate connections, should someone desire.”
Genie stared at her, unthinking, for a moment. “This is mad.”
“It isn’t, really. Lady Greville hosted a party like this a couple of years ago, and it was a great success.” Cecilia’s fixed on Genie with a half smile, her eyes shining with empathy. “I actually thought of hosting it precisely for you.”
“You can’t think I would want to wed again. Or…anything else.”
“Why not?” Cecilia’s russet brows gathered together. “You’re young, beautiful, intelligent. There’s no reason you should be alone.”
“No reason at all, except that I want to be. I’m leaving.” As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized departure was impossible.
“You can’t. The road—”
“Is impassable.” Genie ground her teeth. “I feel as though you tricked me.”
Cecilia reached out to touch Genie’s hand, but Genie stepped back. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. I truly thought you would be amenable. You’ve always been the most cordial— even gregarious—woman.”
“That doesn’t mean I want to marry again. Or have an affair. I was looking forward to a house party, not…whatever this is.”
“Forgive me.” Cecilia’s face fell, and she twisted her hands together. “This can still be just a house party for you.”
Genie wasn’t sure she believed that. She opened her mouth to respond, but, deciding there wasn’t anything she could think to say, she simply turned on her heel and began to walk away. Thankfully, the inconceivable map would show the way to her room.
“I’ll see you at dinner!” Cecilia called, her tone bursting with hope.
Again, Genie didn’t respond. Because she didn’t know what she was going to do.Return to The Bachelor Earl