Someone to Love

Anna Snow, a teacher at the orphanage in Bath where she grew up, supported by an unknown benefactor, is summoned to London by a solicitor who wishes to discuss her future. In the meantime, the members of the Westcott family, relatives of the recently deceased Earl of Riverdale, have been summoned by his solicitor to an important meeting at the home of Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, guardian of the new earl. A few weeks previously the widow of the late earl had sent the solicitor to Bath to make a final settlement upon the young woman she knew her husband had supported from childhood on—presumably his illegitimate daughter.

Edwin Goddard, His Grace of Netherby's secretary, had seen to the set-up of the rose salon. Chairs had been arranged in three neat rows to face a large oak table from behind which Brumford presumably intended to hold court at the appointed hour. Avery had viewed the room with distaste earlier—so many chairs? But now he stood out in the tiled hall, awaiting the arrival of the last of his guests. At least, all these people must be called guests, he supposed, though it was not he who had invited them. Standing out in the hall was preferable, however, to being in the salon, where his stepmother was playing the part of gracious hostess to an alarmingly and mysteriously large number of her relatives and Jessica was in transports of delight at seeing Harry and his sisters and was talking to them at great speed and at a pitch high enough to have brought a frown of censure from her governess if that worthy woman had been present. She was not, however, Jess having been released from the schoolroom for the occasion.

Brumford was in the hall too, though he had taken up a position at some distance from the duke and was uncharacteristically silent—mentally practicing his speech, perhaps?—and easily ignored. Avery had asked him upon his arrival if this family gathering had anything to do with the delicate and very private matter the countess had entrusted to his skill and discretion a few weeks ago. But Brumford had merely bowed and assured His Grace that he had come on a matter of grave concern to the whole Westcott family. Beyond regarding the man in silence for a little longer than was strictly necessary through his quizzing glass, Avery had not pressed him further. Brumford was, after all, a man of the law and could therefore not be expected to give a direct answer to any question.

Avery tried not to think of any of the dozen or so more congenial ways in which he might be spending his morning. He raised his eyebrows at a burst of merry laughter from the rose salon.

There was a knock upon the outer doors, and the butler opened them to admit Alexander Westcott, Mrs. Westcott, and Lady Overfield. Westcott was looking his usual immaculate, dignified self. Avery had known him since they were boys at school together, and if Westcott had ever had a hair out of place even after the most rugged scrimmage out on the playing fields or set one toenail out of line behavior-wise in all the years they had spent there Avery had certainly never witnessed it. Alexander Westcott and gentlemanly reserve and respectability were synonymous terms. The two men had never been friends.

Westcott nodded briskly to him and Mrs. Westcott and her daughter smiled.

"Netherby?" he said.

"Cousin Avery," both ladies said simultaneously.

"Cousin Althea." He stepped forward, extended one languid, beringed hand for the elder lady's, and raised it to his lips. "A pleasure indeed. Cousin Elizabeth." He kissed her hand too. "Looking ravishing as always."

"As are you." The younger woman's smile had acquired a twinkle.

He raised his eyebrows. "One does one's utmost," he said on a sigh and released her hand. He had always liked her rather more than he did her brother. She had a sense of humor. She had a good figure too. She had inherited both from her mother, though not the mother's dark good looks. The son had got those.

"Westcott," Avery said by way of greeting.

Brumford, bowing reverentially from the waist, was ignored.

The butler ushered the new arrivals into the salon, and there was a swell of greetings from within and even a squeal or two. It was time he went to join them, Avery thought with an inward sigh, taking his snuffbox from a pocket and flicking open the lid with a practiced thumb. Everyone was present and accounted for. But before he could move, the knocker rattled once more against the outer doors and the butler hurried to open them.

A woman stepped inside without a by-your-leave. A governess—Avery would wager half his fortune on it. She was young and thin and uncompromisingly straight-backed and clad from head to toe in a darkish blue, with the exception of her gloves and reticule and shoes, which were black. None of her garments were either costly or stylish, and that was a kind assessment. Her hair was scarcely visible beneath the small brim of her bonnet though there appeared to be a large bun at the back of her neck.

She stopped just inside the door, clasped her hands at her waist, and looked about her as though expecting a pupil or three to materialize from the shadows with books and slates at the ready.

"I do believe," Avery said, closing the snuffbox with a snap, "you have mistaken the front door for the servants' entrance and the house for one in which there are infants in anticipation of instruction. Horrocks will set your feet in the right direction." He raised one eyebrow in the butler's direction.

She turned her eyes upon him—large, calm gray eyes, which did not falter when they encountered his. She stayed where she was and looked neither abashed nor terrified nor horrified nor frozen in place nor any of the things one might have expected of someone who had just stepped through the wrong door.

"I was brought from Bath yesterday," she said in a soft, clear voice, "and today I was set down outside the door of this house."

"If you please, Miss." Horrocks was holding the door open.

But Avery was arrested by a sudden realization. By God, she was not a governess, or not just a governess anyway. She was a bastard.

Specifically, she was the bastard.

"Miss Snow?" Brumford had taken a step forward and was actually…bowing again.

She turned her attention upon him. "Yes," she said. "Mr. Brumford?"

"You are expected," Brumford said while Avery replaced his snuffbox in his pocket and raised his glass to his eye and Horrocks shut the door. "The butler will show you to a place in the rose salon."

"Thank you," she said.

Horrocks's back was almost visibly bristling with disapproval and indignation as he led the woman away. But Avery scarcely noticed. His glass was trained fully upon the solicitor, whose face was shining with perspiration, as well it might, by thunder. He turned unwilling eyes the glass's way.

"What the devil have you done?" Avery asked, his voice soft.

"All will be made clear shortly, Your Grace," Brumford assured him as one bead of moisture trickled down his forehead, spread through his eyebrow, and dripped onto his cheek.

"Have a care," Avery said. "You would not enjoy my displeasure."

He lowered his glass and strolled off to the rose salon, where an unnatural silence seemed to have fallen. Everyone was seated, the family members on the three rows of chairs before the table, the…woman behind and apart from them, just inside the door and to one side of it. But the fact that she was seated at all in company with a roomful of aristocrats, only two of whom lacked some sort of title—and even one of those was heir to an earldom—was astonishing enough to plunge the room into an uncomfortable and outraged silence. No one was looking back at her, and Avery doubted anyone had spoken to her, but that they were all aware of her to the exclusion of all else was patently obvious.

Who could she be but the bastard?

Every head turned toward him as he entered the room. All must be wondering why such a person was in his house at all, let alone in one of the salons, and why he was not doing something to rectify the situation. The Countess of Riverdale looked unnaturally pale as though she had come to the same conclusion as Avery had. He ignored the one remaining unoccupied chair and strolled to one side of the room, where he propped a shoulder against the rose-colored brocaded wall before taking his snuffbox from his pocket again and availing himself of a pinch of its contents. It was a newly adjusted blend and very nearly perfect.

Much as he always avoided exerting himself unnecessarily, he might well find it necessary to wring Brumford's neck after this morning was over.

The silence had become loud. Avery looked unhurriedly about him. Harry looked irritable. He had had another late night, by the look of him, surrounded, no doubt, by the usual hangers-on, who laughed at his every attempt at wit and drank deep at his expense. Camille on one side of him and clad in deep, hideous mourning, looked prunish. She would probably look even more so after she married Uxbury, who had probably been laid in a crib of prunes at his birth and absorbed them through his pores. Abigail on Harry's other side looked even worse in black, poor girl. It positively sapped her of all her youthful animation and prettiness. Harry, unlike his mother and sisters, was paying homage to his late parent with a mere armband. Sensible boy.

The duchess, Avery's stepmother, sat behind them. She looked distinguished in black, though she would not need to wear it much longer since Riverdale had been only her brother, not her husband or father. What a ghastly invention mourning clothes were. Jessica sat beside his stepmother in a dress that was refreshingly white. Her grandmother, the dowager countess, was on her other side, so swaddled in black that her face looked like a ghost's. Lady Matilda Westcott, her eldest child, the one who had dutifully remained at home and unmarried to be a prop and stay to her parent in old age, looked no better. Beside her was the youngest of her siblings, Lady Molenor, with Baron Molenor, her husband. Alexander Westcott sat in the third row, between his mother and his sister.

What the devil was Brumford up to? Why was this business not being conducted privately as the countess had specifically directed? Avery was inclined even now to stride from the room to hurl the solicitor bodily out through the door, preferably without opening it first. But that woman would remain behind on her chair by the door and so would too many questions for the matter to be hushed up. Fate, it seemed, must be allowed to run its course.

He ought to have exerted himself yesterday, Avery thought, after reading Brumford's letter.

She continued to sit alone close to the door, looking perfectly in command of herself. She had removed her cloak. It was draped over the back of her chair. She had removed the bonnet and gloves too—they were beneath her chair. Her cheap blue, high-waisted dress covered her from neck to wrists to ankles. It covered a slender, neat figure, Avery noticed as his eyes rested upon her, not a thin one as he had thought at first. Nevertheless, it was a figure totally unremarkable to a connoisseur of feminine figures. He had noticed when she was standing that she was on the small side of average in height. Her hair was a mid-brown and looked as if it must be perfectly straight. It was scraped back from her face and twisted into a heavy knot at the back of her neck. Her hands were clasped loosely in her lap. Her feet in their sensible, unattractive shoes were set neatly side by side on the floor. She looked about as alluring as a doorknob.

She was remarkably calm. There was nothing bold about her demeanor, but nor was there anything shrinking. She did not keep her eyes lowered, as one might have expected. She was looking about her with what seemed to be mild interest, her eyes resting for a few moments upon each person in turn.

Her attention turned last upon him. She did not look hastily away when her eyes met his and she realized she was the object of his scrutiny. Neither did she hold his gaze. Her eyes moved over him, and he found himself wondering what she saw.

What he saw surprised him just a little. For when he withdrew his attention from all that was unappealing in her appearance—and that was almost everything—and concentrated instead upon her face, he realized that it was quite startlingly beautiful, like the madonna in a medieval painting his mind could not immediately identify. It was neither a smiling nor an animated face. It was not set off by enticing curls or beckoning fan or peeping dimples or come-hither eyes. It was a face that simply spoke for itself. It was an oval face with regular features and those wide, steady gray eyes. That was all. There was nothing specific to account for the impression of beauty it gave.

She had finished inspecting him and was looking into his eyes again. He pocketed his snuffbox and raised both his quizzing glass and his eyebrows, but by that time she had looked unhurriedly away to watch Brumford make his self-important entrance. One of his boots was squeaking.

There was a stirring of interest from the family gathered there. The countess, though, Avery saw, looked as though she had been carved of marble.

© Mary Balogh