Read The Accidental Countess Online

Authors: Valerie Bowman

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.

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