Miss Coralynn Notley stood on the steps of Langtry Park, directing a pleading glance at the stately butler. "Forgive me for arriving at such an early hour, Sims, but I must speak to Lady Harriett at once." There was a chilly bite in the morning September air, and she hugged her arms to her chest, wishing she had taken the time to don her warmer gloves. The walk had nearly frozen her fingers.
The elderly man's reply seemed to come ages later. "I am afraid she is still indisposed, Miss Notley. Perhaps you could return—"
"I will wait," blurted Cora, for she could not return home now, not when her life had turned on its end. Lady Harriett was really the only person she felt comfortable confiding in, and confide she must. "Please, Sims. This is a matter of great urgency."
Sims hesitated. His gray, almost nonexistent eyebrows cinched together tightly, making him look a bit like a prune. Cora might have laughed if it were any other morning on any other day. But she was in no mood to laugh, so she clasped her reticule tighter in her hands and implored him with her eyes. Please do not send me away.
"Sims, what on earth are you doing?" a feminine voice sounded behind the man. He blinked twice before turning around, using his large body to block Cora's view into the house.
"Lady Drayson," he said. "You are up and about early."
"I could not sleep," she answered. "This little one begins pounding my insides the moment the sun peeks through the windows. The only thing that quiets it is a walk around the house and a warm glass of milk."
"I see." Sims turned his head to the side and cleared his throat. His wrinkled cheeks had a pink hue to them as though embarrassed by the frank way Lady Drayson spoke of her unborn child.
"Pray tell, why must you keep the door ajar?" Lady Drayson asked. "There's a rather cold draft coming through the crack."
Sims cleared his throat again and stepped aside, revealing Cora. "We have a visitor, my lady. Miss Notley insists on speaking with Lady Harriett at once. I have told her that—"
"Heavens, Sims, let the poor girl in. She is going to catch a chill standing out there in the cold."
"Yes, my lady." He stepped aside and opened the door wider, nodding for Cora to come inside, which she did.
Cora could have hugged Lady Drayson for her kindness but settled on a grateful smile instead.
The Countess of Drayson stood at the foot of the stairs wearing a pale pink dressing gown and matching slippers. Her beautiful, long hair was woven into a braid that draped elegantly over her shoulder and a small bulge protruded from her once-small waist. Though Cora was not so well acquainted with Lady Drayson as Lady Harriett, she knew Lady Drayson to be both kind and genteel.
"Thank you, my lady," said Cora, dipping into a quick curtsy.
Lady Drayson dismissed the formality with a wave of her hand, her expression becoming concerned as she searched Cora's face. "I hope you are well, Miss Notley."
"I am," Cora rushed to say, feeling awkward for descending on the family this way. How unrefined she must appear. "That is to say, I am in body, my lady, but anxious in spirit."
Lady Drayson gave Cora's hand a comforting squeeze and smiled sympathetically. "Sims, please show Miss Notley to the drawing room. I shall undertake the task of rousing Harriett."
"Oh no," protested Cora. "I will wait for her to arise. I just… well, I did not wish to remain at home, is all."
"I understand," said Lady Drayson. "But Harriett will wish to be awakened, I assure you."
Cora felt a moment's relief. She had been pacing the floor of her room all night, ever since she'd overheard the conversation between her father and Sir Gowen. Even now, her stomach roiled at the memory. Cora had always known that she was of little worth in the eyes of her parents, but now she understood exactly how little that was.
"Thank you, Lady Drayson. I am most grateful to you."
Lady Drayson nodded before lifting the skirts of her dressing gown and ascending the stairs. Even in her increasing state, she appeared poised, graceful, and happy. Cora thought of the few times she had seen Lord and Lady Drayson driving or walking the grounds of their vast estate, their heads bent in conversation or smiling and laughing. They seemed so well-suited to each other. It made Cora long for the same even though she knew it could never be.
"If you'll follow me, Miss Notley," said Sims, leading the way to the drawing room. He threw open the large, wooden doors and stood aside, allowing Cora to pass. "Please make yourself comfortable. You may have a bit of a wait as Lady Harriett is not easily roused."
Cora sank down on a chair covered in cream brocade. Her fingers fidgeted on her lap and her feet refused to remain still. She did not belong here, in this house. To call Lady Harriett her friend made Cora something of an upstart, yet Lady Harriett was her friend—her only friend, really. The daughter of a wealthy tradesman, Cora had often felt caught between two worlds—the world she had been born into and the world to which her parents aspired. If her father had his way, Cora would be made to pay the price for such aspirations.
Unable to remain seated any longer, she rose and began to pace the floor, walking circles around the beautiful furniture. She did not pause to appreciate the lovely scene from the windows or admire the intricately carved marble fireplace as she had done the first time she had been shown into this room. She merely walked and waited and grew more and more angry with her fool of a father. How dare he treat her as a commodity to be traded or sold?
"Cora." Lady Harriett rushed into the room, her lavender dressing gown brushing the floor as she took hold of Cora's clenched hands. "What on earth has happened?" Her ebony hair frizzed around her face in an unruly way. Cora had never seen Lady Harriett in such an unkempt state before. It made her wonder about her own state. Was her auburn hair still secure in its bun? Now that Cora thought about it, she could feel it sway at the nape of her neck while several tendrils tickled her cheeks. How strange to not have noticed that before.
But no matter. What a silly thing to worry about at such a moment. She clasped Lady Harriett's hands tighter. "My father struck a bargain with Sir Gowen last night. In exchange for introducing my family into society, Sir Gowen will take me as his wife, along with my dowry of twenty thousand pounds."
Lady Harriett gasped, her large, brown eyes widening in shock. "Sir Gowen? But he's twice your age and portly and… and the most disgusting creature in all of Essex, possibly even England." The grimace on her face showed exactly how disgusting she thought him.
"Don't forget titled," added Cora, lest Lady Harriett forget his one redeeming attribute, at least in the eyes of her parents.
"But he's only a baron—a rather disliked baron at that. No one of any sense cares a farthing for that man," Lady Harriett argued, clearly not understanding why Cora's father would have bartered for such a match.
Cora sighed. How could she understand? Not even Cora, who knew her parents well, could comprehend it. "His family name dates back several generations, and society's doors are still open to him regardless of whether or not he is well liked. Besides, what other option is there? I'm afraid no duke would have me—not even for twenty thousand pounds."
Lady Harriett's jaw hardened in determination. "You cannot marry him. I will not let you."
"Of course I will not marry him," answered Cora, for she had already determined as much. Sir Gowen looked at her—at most women, really—the way he might look at a steaming roast goose. It gave her the shivers. She would become a scullery maid before she became his wife. "My father will cut me off if I do not comply—assuming he does not strangle me first. I know I must leave, and soon, but… well, I really have nowhere to go. At least not yet." Feeling exhausted all of a sudden, Cora sank down on the cream brocade chair once more.
"What do you mean you have nowhere to go?" said Lady Harriett. "You will live here with us, of course." As though that would remedy everything.
Cora forced her lips into something she hoped resembled a smile. How like Lady Harriett to extend such an invitation without pausing to consider the ramifications. It reminded her of the first day they'd met, when they had both stopped in at the milliner's and simultaneously spotted a new bonnet on display.
"What a lovely creation!" they spoke in unison, only to immediately eye each other with a certain misgiving.
Lady Harriett immediately pasted a smile on her face but could not hide the calculating look in her eyes. "Yes, that piece of lace is quite lovely, is it not?" She gestured to a length of lace that lay on a table near the bonnet.
Cora refused to be cowed and walked over to the display stand, lifting the bonnet for inspection. "I was not referring to the lace, but to this." It was a beautiful creation, made from tightly gathered white linen and accented with white satin ribbons. Cora had been on the hunt for just such a thing for months.
Lady Harriett took the bonnet from Cora's hands and began looking it over as well. "I am certain you were referring to the lace. This bonnet was made for my head and no other." She removed the pretty bonnet she wore and replaced it with the one on display. "See? It fits perfectly."
"Perhaps, but it pales your complexion in an alarming way. You look rather like a ghost," said Cora, unperturbed. "Perhaps a little rouge on your cheeks would help."
Lady Harriett raised her perfectly arched eyebrow. "I find it interesting that you would say such a thing, considering we have similar coloring."
Cora lifted the hat from Lady Harriett's head and set it on her own. "Those with an untrained eye might believe that to be the case, but once they see it on my head, they would agree that it compliments my complexion most charmingly. Don't you think?"
Harriett had finally laughed. "I do, actually," she conceded, holding out her hand with a smile. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure. I am Lady Harriett Cavendish of Langtry Park."
Cora experienced a moment's alarm. Lady Harriett? As in the Earl of Drayson's sister? Oh dear. Cora ought not to have removed the coveted bonnet from such a distinguished head without so much as a by your leave. What must the lady think of her?
Not knowing what else to do, Cora shook hands and offered a strained smile in return. "Miss Coralynn Notley of Mooreston." Lady Harriett would surely demand to have the bonnet back now. It would be a waste for a beautiful creation to grace the head of such a lowly creature as Cora.
But Lady Harriett had surprised her. "Ah," she'd said. "You are new to the area, I believe. I have heard of Mr. Notley."
"Yes." Cora held the bonnet out to Lady Harriett. "I was only jesting before. It truly looks far better on you." She had thought that would be the end of it, for a lady of good breeding did not socialize with the daughter of a tradesman. But Cora had been wrong again. Very wrong. Not only had Lady Harriett insisted that Cora keep the bonnet, she had invited Cora and her mother to tea the very next day.
But Cora had not informed her mother about her new acquaintance. She'd merely called on Lady Harriett alone—something she had continued to do over the next several months. To this day, her parents did not know she was a close acquaintance of Lady Harriett Cavendish's, and Cora would see that it remained that way. It was the reason she could never accept Lady Harriett's goodhearted invitation to live at Langtry Park.
"You are too kind, my friend," said Cora. "You know why I could never stay here. My father would eventually find out, and I refuse to give him the satisfaction of any connection with your family. I'm hoping, instead, that you might know of someone in need of a governess, preferably somewhere far away from here where my father will never find me."
Lady Harriett's eyes narrowed. "You cannot leave."
"I cannot stay."
"Lady Harriett, please," said Cora quietly. "I have had all night to think on this, and the only solution is for me to disappear. Even though I have come of age, my father is devious and manipulative. Should I stay he will find a way to force me into matrimony."
"He won't need to," said Lady Harriett. "I will be the one to introduce your family into society. He will not need Sir Gowen's connections."
Cora had already anticipated such an offer and was ready with her response. "At what cost, Lady Harriett? You do not know my father. He will parade our family around, making us the laughingstock, and in so doing will tarnish the Cavendish good name. If you call yourself my friend, you would never subject me or your family to that. My visits to Langtry Park these past months have been a respite, a blessed escape. If you welcome my parents here as well…" Cora cringed at the thought, picturing her parents crossing the threshold and saying all manner of offensive and vulgar things. Cora would never wish them on anyone, least of all the Cavendish family.
"This will never do." Lady Harriett strode to the bell pull and gave it a hearty tug. When a maid appeared, she instructed the girl to fetch the rest of her family. "Please summon everyone, Molly. Even Colin."
"Lady Harriett, what are you doing?" Cora panicked. She had no wish to burden the entire family with her problems, least of all Lord and Lady Drayson. Good heavens, she should never have come.
"Relax, my friend. I'm merely summoning reinforcements," said Lady Harriett, settling herself neatly on the sofa. "Between all of us, I am entirely certain that we will come up with the perfect solution."
If only Cora could feel as confident.