Most servants lived in fear of being summoned to the countess’s side. It was most often to be dismissed without reference. A pronouncement they claimed the countess seemed to relish.
But Bianca wasn’t an ordinary servant. In fact, she wasn’t even paid for her labor. She did her part in exchange for the food and shelter Lady Quinseley had given her when Bianca had nowhere else to call home.
Perhaps this was a sign of good things to come. Perhaps this cold, imposing house was about tobecomea home. If the countess had asked for her, that meant the countess had thought of her. That Bianca was seen, and remembered.
What could be a better omen than that?
She replaced the broom in its closet and hurried up the stairs to Lady Quinseley’s private parlor, a shy smile tugging at the corners of her lips.
The countess recoiled on sight of her.
Bianca froze in her tracks, the hopeful expression on her face fracturing like broken glass. She ducked her head to hide her face and nervously tucked the tendril of snow-white hair at her temple away behind her ear.
“You asked for me, madam?”
Lady Quinseley made no reply. Bianca could feel her sharp gaze raking over her from head to toe and back up again, cataloging all the ways in which Bianca was not what the exacting countess had wanted.
All Bianca wanted was to make things warm between them. She hoped for acceptance and dreamed of love, but she would settle for an occasional smile or kind word. They weren’t family, but must that mean they could not be friends?
Indeed, Bianca had wondered more than once if their strained relationship was as much her fault as that of the impeccably dignified matriarch before her. Certainly, Bianca had never given much thought to thecountessbefore becoming unexpectedly orphaned and suddenly forced to fall on her mercy.
And even then, in those first days… in those first months… Bianca had been drowning in grief. She had adored both her parents. They had loved her. To lose them so suddenly was a blow from which she was still recovering.
But Lady Quinseley must have been suffering, too. Bianca’s mother would have been a stranger to her, but the death of Lord Quinseley must have been a sharp loss indeed. Should Bianca have been more considerate of her impromptu guardian’s tender feelings? Was there something more she could have said or done to ease the countess’s pain, as well as her own?
“Has that broom given you a hunchback yet?” asked Lady Quinseley.
“No, my lady.” Bianca lifted her head and rolled her shoulders back to show that her spine was as straight as ever. “Please don’t worry about me.”
Lady Quinseley harrumphed. She was not looking at Bianca, but rather sorting through a pile of letters on a silver tray. She held one up by the corner as if its putrid contents stank through the folded paper.
“Mrs. Gladwell,” she said in disgust. “An invitation to another of her card parties, no doubt. As if I should lower myself to such vulgar entertainments.”
“Mrs. Gladwell?” Bianca repeated. It was such a pretty name.
“Once the daughter of a duke, just like I was,” said the countess. “But instead of marrying well, she became a plain Mrs. with enough wrinkles to rival a pug.” She snorted. “And to think, she’d once considered herselfmyrival.”
“I have no true rivals, because I always win. Mrs. Gladwell learned her lesson, as will… but let’s not discuss unpleasant things.” Lady Quinseley’s blue eyes fixed on Bianca. “How would you like to attend my soirée tomorrow night?”
Bianca gasped in delight. “You mean… Not as a maid, but as an invited guest?”
“That is exactly what I mean,” said the countess. “You’ll attend to your usual duties during the day, of course, but at seven o’clock you will be free to enter the salon and mingle with my guests.”
Bianca’s heart leaped. Her chest felt lighter than it had in a year. This was definitely a sign of good things to come. Not only was the countess softening toward her, mingling with other guests meant the opportunity to make friends—the one thing Bianca yearned to have more than anything.
“Thank you,” she gushed. “You won’t regret this.”
“I know.” The countess’s eyes glittered. “I’m planning to relish every moment.”
Lord Harry Lysander, the Earl of Eagleton, sat in one of two embroidered armchairs flanking a round mahogany table. On the table was one half-empty glass of port. On the other side of the table sat Harry’s father, the Marquess of Albridge. His glass of port was in his hand, and never remained empty for long.
They were in the billiards room of the Savoy Club. The sole gentlemen’s club whose subscription they could still afford.
A precarious position which would soon change for the worse, if Harry’s father continued imbibing expensive port like a fire brigade putting out flames. Father and son might have paid their subscription through the end of the Season, but unless something changed soon, they would not be able to settle the rest of their accounts.