Lady Adelaide Colborne lounged on a chaise, flicking absently through a book. A fire roared in the grate, keeping out the bitter chill of October. The clock on the mantelpiece chimed eleven o’clock at night. Outside, carriage wheels clattered past the window.
She glanced across at the others in the drawing room and wondered when she might be permitted to make her excuses and leave the Gilletts’ house. There were far more exciting exploits out there to enjoy. London was her oyster and yet, she was being kept in domestic drudgery. If she had wanted that, she would have stayed at her family’s Yorkshire estate.
“Planning your escape, Lady Adelaide?” a voice murmured. She turned to see Jasper Fitzwilliam, Viscount Gillett, the only son of the Earl of Richmond, watching her closely.
“And what if I am, Jasper?” She mimicked his tone, flashing a mischievous smile. “As you see, my father is in deep discussion with yours, Miss Green is attempting to gain my mother’s favor, and your mother has already retired for the evening. Undoubtedly, out of utter tedium for the company and conversation herein.”
Adelaide looked towards her dear father, Ephraim Colborne, the Earl of Leeds. He drank animatedly from a brandy snifter, whilst Jasper’s father, Milton Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Richmond, nodded uncertainly at everything being said.
Adelaide smiled at the scene. No doubt, her father was discussing some new business endeavor. The Earl of Leeds had a passion for commerce, though his success did not always hit the mark. And most of the time, no one had any clue what he was talking about. Lord Richmond seemed to be enduring such a bout of confusion, at that very moment.
Adelaide’s mother, the Countess of Leeds, on the other hand, seemed to be fielding the excitable chatter of Miss Leah Green. Adelaide liked the girl well enough, but a distance remained between them that had yet to be traversed. All her life, Adelaide had hoped to find a genuine confidante. Thus far, Jasper was the only one she felt she could speak freely with on most subjects. But, being short on close female friends, she kept Leah around, just in case true closeness blossomed.
The problem was that a competitive streak existed between the two young ladies. Adelaide had power and wealth, and a way of wrapping anyone around her little finger. Leah had enthusiasm and a lack of responsibility. She did not have a title to lose if she put a foot wrong. In truth, Adelaide envied her somewhat for that. Not that she would ever admit such a thing to Leah herself.
“You are so severe on your talent for conversation?” Jasper quipped.
Adelaide flashed him a look, “You know very well that your mother finds me an absolute delight. Were she here, she would seek me out as the only worthy conversant in the room.”
“Ah yes, I had forgotten how highly you place yourself above others.”
“That is most untrue and deeply unfair of you to say, Jasper.” She gave him a hard stare, feeling stung. “As you see, I have been forced to retreat into the pages of a novel. Everyone seems perfectly occupied without me. I would not intrude where I am not needed, nor speak for the sake of speaking.”
“Perhaps you might find the evening more interesting if you were to involve yourself, instead of slinking to the shadows like a petulant feline.”
“And seek to interrupt your stolen words with dear Miss Green? I would never do such a thing,” Adelaide teased. She had noticed the way Jasper looked at Leah. It would take a blind man not to see how fond he was of the enthusiastic young lady.
“I have not stolen any words with Miss Green,” he remarked stiffly. “She is here as your guest. She is no acquaintance of mine. Why should I have reason to steal conversation with her? There is no current affection between her and myself. Indeed, I hardly know her.”
“Methinks the admirer doth protest too much,” Adelaide chuckled. “Indeed, methinks the admirer would very much like to get to know Miss Green better. Is that why you have come over to me, Jasper? Do you seek to make the poor girl green with envy?”
He flushed furiously—a sight that amused and pleased Adelaide in equal measure. She knew there had long been a distant flirtation between Jasper and Leah. They were not closely acquainted, but their paths often crossed. Each season, they dabbled a little more. As Adelaide’s London home neighbored with that of Jasper and his family, whenever Leah was invited to visit, they invariably ended up bumping into one another. Adelaide had often teased Jasper that he likely watched from his window like a desperate sentinel.
“I know you seek only to tease me, Lady Adelaide. I shall not rise to your taunts,” Jasper said coolly. “I might ask why you are so eager to make your exit, however? Is there a secret admirer lingering in the dark halls of the Assembly Rooms, awaiting your clandestine arrival?” His tone mocked her, but she did not care. He could mock all he liked.
“Whom I choose to acquaint myself with is none of your concern. Though, if you must know, I seek only to find more stimulating entertainment. Why must I read and sit on the periphery of stuffy conversation when I might be dancing and conversing with the other shining young creatures of London?”
“The delights of London society calling to you, are they?” he mused. “You know, they are naught but mere façade and performance. None of it is real—it is all a fantasy, created to amuse the young ladies and gentleman of our day.”
“Perhaps fantasy is what I desire,” Adelaide shot back, arching an eyebrow. She chuckled at the sudden flush of his cheeks. She had a way of inducing men to heated discomfort. It was not a trait in herself that she always enjoyed, but she and Jasper had long been friends. She knew she could never induce him towards romantic thought. He was immune where other gentlemen were not. Indeed, a humorous understanding existed between them, perpetuating their mutual jest of one another.
“If you do not enjoy these evenings with my family, why do you insist on partaking of them?”
“I should never wish to appear rude,” she offered with a shy smile.
He sighed in evident frustration, “Then, maybe you ought to make your excuses and leave?”
“You see, now you agree—that is the only solution,” she said, chuckling softly. “Although I believe you have an ulterior motive. You wish me to leave so you might have the pleasure of Miss Green’s company, a little more intimately. My mother shall retire when I do. If I were to remove myself in such a manner, by the merest law of averages you would have to garner the courage to speak with Miss Green. Otherwise, she would be left quite alone. And then, who would appear to be the uncouth one?”
“That is not why I am suggesting such a thing,” Jasper remarked sharply. “I would not see you in discomfort or boredom, that is all.”
“Of course.” Playful amusement rippled from Adelaide’s words, “Ever the selfless knight, charging in on his white steed.”
Jasper narrowed his sea-green eyes at her. “If you will not be serious, Lady Adelaide…”
“Then what?” she interjected.
“Then… perhaps, as we have both said, it would be best if you pursued your alternative endeavors.”
“And I must have your permission, must I?”
“Why must we do this, every time we meet? What is this constant dispute between us?” Jasper sighed wearily. “As children, you and I were dear friends. Our families have spent summers and winters in one another’s company. Where did this perpetual defensiveness come from?”
Adelaide shrugged, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “I do not know what you speak of. As far as I am concerned, you and I remain the best of friends.”
“You behave this way with all of your acquaintances?”
“You have seen the way I interact with Miss Green. It is no different to the way I behave with you,” she paused. “Anyway, I thought you enjoyed our witty repartee? You once told me it brightened your days. Is it not what we have based the foundation of our acquaintance upon?”
He made a small, strangled noise. “I had forgotten those words to you. Indeed, do not misunderstand, I do enjoy our jests when it is appropriate. It is the constancy that I struggle with. May we not sometimes be plain and pleasant with one another, as lifelong acquaintances ought to be?”
It was Adelaide’s turn to blush, “I suppose we may.” She did not often feel embarrassed, but he had touched on a particularly sore subject. People often thought of her as aloof, mistaking shyness for loftiness. Jasper had never been one of those people. He had always known what lay beneath the sometimes-frosty surface. Truthfully, she had not realized her behavior irked him so. As her sole true friend, she did not wish him to find her obnoxious. Wounded pride lodged in her throat, preventing her from apologizing.
“With regards to Miss Green, she fears your sincerity on occasion,” Jasper continued, oblivious to Adelaide’s distress. “I am well-versed in your irreverent ways, where she does not quite comprehend your manner of teasing. She does not always know that your words are never cruelly intended.”
“Ah, so she has been telling tales now, has she?” Adelaide replied defensively. It was her favored means of self-preservation, oft used when she felt backed into a corner.
“Nothing of the sort.” Jasper leapt to Leah’s defense, “I mention it only so you may remedy any issue before it blossoms into something unpleasant. I should hate to see the two of you break up your friendship.”
Adelaide smiled, “Why? In case she no longer visited and you no longer had reason to peer longingly from your window for her arrival?”
“You see, this is what I speak of. This coldness. I do not understand it.”
“You claim to understand my manner of jest, dear Jasper. Alas, it would appear you do not. I do not mean to seem cold in any way. Indeed, perhaps I ought to remedy the situation if she claims to feel troubled by me.” Another twist of remorse gripped her suddenly, prompting her to rise. As strange as their friendship was, Adelaide did not wish anyone to think her cruel. Least of all a well-meaning girl like Leah. She smoothed down the front of her ruby-red bombazine gown. The matching choker at her throat began to itch.
“What are you—?”
She cleared her throat, cutting him off, “Mama, I was wondering if I might retire for the evening? Lady Francesca and her mother have invited me to the Assembly Rooms tomorrow evening and I should hate to seem fatigued.”
The room felt oddly claustrophobic. Jasper’s curious gaze did little to alleviate her discomfort. Her gaze drifted across to Leah for a moment.
How may I prevent her from finding me cold and aloof? she wondered. In truth, she did not know. Making lasting friendships had never come easy to her.
Margaret, Adelaide’s beloved mother, raised her head. A handsome lady of forty, the years had been kind to the Countess of Leeds. Her figure was still shapely, her features barely lined by age, her raven hair hardly touched by strands of gray. Meanwhile, her eye for fashion remained second-to-none. She could not walk into a room without gentlemen admiring her from afar but Adelaide’s father was not one of those gentlemen. Married as two strangers in a fortuitous match, theirs had been a cautious romance. Over time, any passion that might have stirred within their relationship had developed into something far less fiery. A friendship and a partnership, no less admirable for its longevity and fidelity.
“The Countess of Gaumont has invited you to the Assembly Rooms?” A tremor of excitement bristled in Lady Leeds voice.
“She has, Mama. Well, her daughter has, but she is rather eager to meet with me,” Adelaide replied. In truth, there was an ulterior motive to the invitation. It was not something she wished to discuss with so many ears listening in.
“Goodness, then we must ensure you get your beauty sleep.”
“We must, Mama.”
“Husband, shall you join us?” Lady Leeds asked.
The Earl of Leeds shook his head, “I shall remain a while longer. Lord Richmond and I were just discussing the intricacies of the East India Trading Company and I should like to hear more of his views.”
Adelaide noticed a flash of disappointment cross Lord Richmond’s face. Evidently, he had hoped that her departure might entice Lord Leeds to leave, too. Alas, he would have to endure another hour or so of in-depth conversation on the subject of commerce.
“Very well, then we must bid you all a goodnight,” Lady Leeds insisted, before turning to Leah. “Miss Green, might you follow us outside where we may ensure your safe departure in the family carriage?”
The young lady gazed at Jasper. “I thought I might remain here whilst the carriage came.”
“Nonsense, I will not hear of it. You shall accompany us and I will see to it that you are safely taken home.”
“As you wish, My Lady.” Leah stood reluctantly and rearranged the skirt of her lavender muslin gown. Adelaide thought she looked rather pretty in the firelight—a bittersweet notion. For Adelaide was dark-haired, slim and somewhat taller than most young ladies, with a striking appearance. The overall image she presented was not always found instantly desirable. Meanwhile, Leah was petite and slender, with a typical flaxen beauty that could not be ignored. There was nothing remarkable about her but Adelaide knew that gentlemen did not always seek that in a wife.
She did not envy the affections that Leah had garnered from Jasper, or from other gentlemen. Far from it. It was more that she felt covetous of a simpler appearance, a beauty that was easier to comprehend, and more effortlessly appreciated by others.
Jasper glanced back at Leah, his eyes mournful. “Farewell, Miss Green,” he said, rising to bow. “And to you—Countess, Lady Adelaide.”
“Good evening to you, Lord Gillet, Lord Richmond,” Adelaide and her mother chorused, whilst Leah savored her goodbye for Jasper.
“It has been the greatest pleasure to spend the evening in your company, Jasper…Lord Richmond,” she added hastily. “You must give my fondest wishes to your mother, Lady Richmond.”
“Of course,” Jasper replied. “She shall be delighted to hear it.”
Adelaide struggled not to roll her eyes. He was more naturally charming than his puppy-like behavior suggested. Truly, she would not have wished herself to be on the receiving end of his saccharine actions. Weary of the lengthening goodbyes, she gave a small curtsey and swept out of the room. Her mother followed close behind, whilst Leah brought up the rear. Adelaide stared straight ahead as they made the short journey to the next-door townhouse.
Stepping into the entrance hall, Adelaide drank in the familiar sights and smells. The scent of freshly baked cakes drifted up from the kitchens, which were tucked away in the basement. They would undoubtedly appear at luncheon tomorrow. She smiled at the thought.
The Belgravia townhouse was far smaller than the family estate in Yorkshire, but Adelaide preferred the intimacy of it. It felt more comfortable, somehow. The sprawling manor always seemed to echo with loneliness, but this house never did. With its three floors of stylishly decorated hallways and chambers, and a neat garden stretching out at the back, it never felt like too much. She did not believe a person could need anything more.
“Well, goodnight, my darling,” Lady Leeds said, dipping in to kiss her daughter on the cheek. “See to it that Miss Green finds her way home, won’t you?”
“Of course, Mama,” Adelaide replied, inhaling the scent of her mother’s perfume. Her family meant the world to her. Indeed, they were just about the only people she was certain she liked. They did not judge her as others did, nor did she worry about her behavior in their company.
With that, Lady Leeds swept up the curved staircase, passing the first floor and heading even further up to the second-floor, where she disappeared from sight. Adelaide crossed the cavernous entrance hall, speckled light from the crystal chandelier dancing against her skin. She reached for the silver tray by the door, where the letters from the evening post had been piled up for delivery over breakfast. There was one for her. The handwriting was unmistakable.
“Who is that from?” Leah asked impertinently, watching over Adelaide’s shoulder.
“It is nothing,” she replied, pressing the letter to her chest.
“A secret admirer?”
Leah arched a suspicious eyebrow. “A friend? As far as I am aware, you only count myself and Jasper amongst your acquaintances.”
“That is untrue. Lady Francesca is also a dear friend,” she insisted, wishing her cheeks wouldn’t give away her mortification. “And there are others whom you know nothing of—they do not reside in London, nor do they stay the season here.”
Leah shrugged, “I suppose that is believable.” She pushed a few of the other letters across the tray. “I must say, I have always found your friendship with Jasper rather strange. Is it not unseemly for a young gentleman and a young lady to be so acquainted?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
“Why, take this very evening for example. You did not have to monopolize Jasper’s attentions in such a manner.”
Adelaide gaped at Leah. “He is a dear friend, Leah. There is nothing untoward about our association—you must not worry yourself.”
“Make no mistake, I am not envious of the friendship between you, but does our own friendship not matter? Surely, it would have been kinder of you to step aside, so he and I might have conversed more deeply?” A cold look glinted in her blue eyes. “You might have provided the perfect chaperone and yet you chose to steal his attentions for yourself.”
Adelaide groaned. “I did no such thing.”
“I watched you.”
“He spoke with me. I cannot help it if he chooses to talk to me, Leah. As you say, we are friends.”
“Perhaps, it would be prudent for you to set your unusual friendship aside for a while, so that—”
“I will do no such thing, Leah.” She dropped her gaze, wishing she had not cut her friend off so curtly. “As you have stated so candidly, I am not exactly blessed with a multitude of amities. I cannot stand to lose a single one. Now, I believe it is time you went home. The carriage is ready to depart whenever you are.”
Leah pouted sourly, “You are forcing me away?”
“Not at all. I am weary and I wish to retire to bed.”
“Very well, but do not think you have heard the end of this.”
“I pray that I may have. There is nothing to fear from me, and I am sorry if—”
“You are a jealous creature, Lady Adelaide. You have always been so.”
Adelaide recoiled from the slur. She had been about to apologize for her previous behavior, but the words died on her lips. Her heart no longer felt redemptive. Pushing away any indication of visible hurt, she ushered Leah towards the front door. She did not stop until Leah was safely on her way down the cobbled road, the carriage wheels jolting away from sight. Only then did she breathe a sigh of relief. Friendship appeared to be nothing but hard work.
Gazing up at the blanket of stars that glittered in the clear autumn night, Adelaide drew in a deep lungful of cold air. A gentle, frosted breeze nipped at her cheeks. Wrapping her arms around herself, her eyes moved across the still landscape. A rolling fog drifted across the grass of the park beyond. Shadows shifted and darted, playing tricks on her.
Suddenly, the fog cleared. A solitary shadow remained on the park path. Tall and broad-shouldered, a long coat masked his shape. With his head dipped, the edge of his top-hat shrouded his face from sight. She could not make out a single familiar feature. A tremor of fear and confusion rippled up Adelaide’s spine. Whoever this man was, he did not move. She stood frozen to the spot, equally unable to move.
She was about to call out for assistance when the figure vanished. As quickly as he had appeared, he disappeared from sight, melting into the fog and the darkness. Adelaide was alone once more. Still holding the letter in her trembling hand, she stayed on the top step a moment longer and opened it out slowly.
Thinking of you, was all it said.