Home > Someone to Love (Westcott #1)(12)

Someone to Love (Westcott #1)(12)
Author: Mary Balogh

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 awaiting an invitation. 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 was 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 as 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 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 appeared 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 be 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.

   
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