The Accidental Countess
Playful Brides Series, Book 2
CAN A SCANDALOUS CHARADE
For seven long years, Lady Cassandra Monroe has waited for the man of her dreams to return from the war. Unfortunately, he happens to be engaged to her flighty cousin. What Cass wouldn’t give to take her cousin’s place! When he mistakes Cass for Patience Bunbury, a fictitious friend her cousin has invented to escape social obligations…even with her future husband, Cass thinks this is her chance.
LEAD TO TRUE AND LASTING LOVE?
After defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, Captain Julian Swift is not quite ready to settle down and enter into his unwanted arranged marriage—especially when the real object of his affection turns out to be a beguiling beauty he meets at a party. Patience Bunbury is witty, independent, passionate…and, unbeknownst to him, the cousin of his current fiancée. When the truth about Cass comes out—and Julian discovers that their courtship is anything but accidental—will he surrender his heart to a woman who really is too good to be true?
Read an Excerpt
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 her 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 shook 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 cute.
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, and 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 spent the last weeks 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 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 quite 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 room 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 and bit her lip. “Yes, Pen, what do you mean?”
Pen stomped back over to where they were sitting and plopped back down in her chair. “I’m talking about needing an excuse—a good one—to miss seeing Captain Swift as soon as 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.
“I swear, Pen, if you don’t explain exactly what you mean this minute, I’m going to walk out that door and never speak to you again!” She jabbed her finger in the direction of the exit.
Lucy and Pen exchanged amazed glances.
“Why, Cass, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you raise your voice before today,” Lucy remarked.
Cass was shaking, her fists still clenched. She glared at Pen. “What I still do not understand is why. Why don’t you want to see the man you’re supposed to marry?”
Pen had the grace to bow her head a bit. Then she shrugged. She pulled at the top of her gown with one hand. “I just. I can’t. It was so difficult when I thought he was dying . . . and now. Oh, I don’t know. I need some time to think about things.”
“What things?” Cass prodded. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared down her nose at her cousin.
“You know. He will want to plan the wedding and choose a date and I’m–I’m simply not prepared.”
Cass pressed her lips together. Oh, yes. Why should she be prepared? She’d only had seven years to prepare. And this entire farce was so like Pen. She was always asking Cass to do outlandish favors for her. Nothing quite this outlandish to date. But it still shouldn’t have surprised her. And Cass, good proper young lady and steadfast cousin and friend had always agreed, always done whatever her cousin asked. But not today. Not with Julian. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t.
Lucy shifted in her seat and took a sip of tea. “So, you’re saying that in order to evade your intended who is just back from the war and whom you haven’t seen in years, you’ve invented a friend whose fictitious house party you’ll supposedly be attending until such a time as you deem fit to return and see him?”
Pen smiled and nodded happily. “Yes. Exactly.”
“And what does your mama think of this?” Lucy wanted to know.
“Oh, Mama doesn’t know. I hid Captain Swift’s letters, and thankfully she and Papa are both out this afternoon.” She turned to face her cousin. “That’s why I need you, Cass. Julian knows you. He likes you. You’ve been writing to him all these years, haven’t you? You are friends, are you not?”
Cass nodded. She couldn’t meet her cousin’s eyes. Yes. We’re friends. But I’d like to be much, much more. Oh, she was the worst cousin on earth. The very worst. Pen would order her from the house if she knew how much Cass coveted her would-be bridegroom. At the very least Pen certainly wouldn’t ask her to do this mad favor for her.
Lucy set her teacup aside and dabbed at her lips with her handkerchief. “I have one more question.”
Pen nodded a bit impatiently. “Yes?”
“Have you completely lost your mind?” Lucy asked, a serene look on her face. “Or just a part of it, dear?”
Cass had to sharply turn her face away to keep her cousin from seeing her smile.
Pen blinked at Lucy. “I don’t know what you mean.” Pen stood again and made her way back over to the window with her teacup in her hand. She glanced outside. “I just need—”
The teacup dropped to the rug with a solid thunk, spilling its contents on the expensive Aubusson carpet. “Oh, my goodness. He’s here!” Pen called.
All the anger drained from Cass’s body, replaced with sheer, freezing-cold anxiety. She pressed her hand to her belly. “I think I may cast up my accounts.”
Lucy squeezed Cass’s hand and raised her voice to address Pen. “Who’s here?”
Pen whirled to face them, a look of panic in her blue eyes. “Captain Swift! He’s here! Now!” She rushed to the drawing room door and opened it before turning back to the other two ladies. “Cass. Cass, please,” she begged. “You must do this for me. You must tell Captain Swift I’ve gone to see Patience in the country. You must.”
Cass’s teeth chattered. She couldn’t do this. She could not. “But I haven’t even seen him in seven years, Pen. I was a child when last we met. And besides—”
“Please!” Pen nearly shrieked. “I must go. I’ll sneak up the back staircase so he won’t see me. Please, Cass, please do this for me. Please!” And with that, Pen was gone from the room in a sweep of puce skirts.
Cass sat dumbly staring at the emptied teacup on the carpet, blinking and replaying the last few moments again and again in her mind. A log snapped in the fireplace. The smell of burnt wood filled the room. “This cannot be happening. It simply cannot,” she murmured.
Lucy took a deep breath and pushed her hands down her legs, smoothing her skirts. “It appears it is happening,” she said just before Pen’s butler arrived at the door to the drawing room.
“Captain Julian Swift,” the butler pronounced.
“Show him in, please,” Lucy replied in a commanding voice, as if she were the lady of the house. She turned quickly to face Cass and grasped her shoulders. “Cass, look at me.”
Cass managed to meet her friend’s eyes. Her headache was replaced with a strange buzzing sensation and a feeling of unreality. She grasped at the smooth satin of Lucy’s sleeves.
“You look frightened half to death.” Lucy squeezed her shoulders and gave her an encouraging shake.
“I am frightened half to death. Oh, Lucy. What am I going to say? What am I going to do?” She searched Lucy’s face. Lucy was always sensible. Always rational. Always so good with words. Lucy would know what to do. Wouldn’t she?
Lucy nodded, a determined look in her eye. “Don’t worry, Cass. I’ll handle it. Leave all of the talking to me. I have an idea.”