The Accidental Countess

By: Valerie Bowman

CHAPTER ONE

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 a 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 tilted 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 charming.

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, 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 been 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.

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