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The Viscount in Her Bedroom
The summons from the Dowager Viscountess Wade took Miss Louisa Shelby by surprise. She sat alone in the drawing room of Banstead House, her sister's home, and perused the letter a second time. She had met the grand lady on several occasions, but after Louisa's family had lost their fortune, their paths no longer crossed. Then six months ago, Louisa's sister, Victoria, had married Viscount Thurlow, effectively restoring their family in the eyes of Society.
But Louisa didn't feel restored. She felt restless, even . . . bored by the parties and the life she'd once so loved.
Louisa looked up to see her sister Meriel, in London for her first visit since her marriage last autumn to Richard O'Neill. Louisa rose to her feet and hugged her sister, who stepped away, laughing.
"I've been here for several days," Meriel chided playfully. "You've hugged me at least once a day."
"I've just missed my sisters." Louisa sat down on the sofa and patted the cushion beside her.
Meriel joined her. "If I remember correctly, you always had more than enough friends to keep you occupied whenever I was studying or Victoria was immersed in her music. Surely that letter you're holding contains another invitation."
Louisa could have hidden her dismay, but this was Meriel, who would pry until her curiosity was satisfied.
"Lou? What is it?" Meriel frowned and put her hand on Louisa's arm.
Victoria suddenly sailed into the room, full of smiles and happiness. She was about to embark on her long-delayed honeymoon to the Continent.
Before Victoria could even open her mouth, Meriel held up a hand. "Shh, Vic, I was just persuading Lou to talk."
Louisa laughed as Victoria sat down on the other side of her. "Ladies, there are other seats in the room."
"But none right beside you," Meriel said firmly. "Lou just received a letter, and she doesn't look happy."
"Who is it from?" Victoria asked, her face full of concern.
Louisa regretted her transparent emotions. She wanted them both to enjoy their happiness, not worry about her. "Lady Wade—the dowager viscountess—has offered me the position of her companion. It seems that she is good friends with Lady Ralston, my previous employer, who apparently gave me high praise."
"Surely that's not surprising," Meriel said.
"You are so good with people," Victoria added.
Louisa smiled distractedly. "But I left Lady Ralston so abruptly."
Victoria took her hand. "Surely she understood that once I married, you had a secure home and no longer needed employment."
"You know that wasn't why I left, or I'd have been here much sooner."
Meriel frowned. "Then tell us why, Lou. You actually sound like you're considering becoming a companion again when you don't need to. Enough with the secrets."
"I didn't mean to keep secret the reason I left Lady Ralston. It was just too . . . painful to discuss."
They sat on either side of her, holding her hands to give her support. They'd both gone through so much themselves these last months, from meeting their future husbands to finding love. Louisa hadn't wanted to burden them. But confiding in her sisters had always soothed her soul.
Meriel suddenly stood up. "There's only one place we can discuss secrets. Willow Pond."
Louisa chuckled and made a show of reluctance as they pulled her to her feet. "Have you forgotten that our cousin owns our old town house now? And he doesn't like us dropping by."
"He won't even know we're there," Victoria said, marching toward the door. "I know where the old gate is in the garden wall. David very sweetly had the lock repaired so that I could visit the pond when I needed to think."
"You mean he had the lock removed," Louisa said dryly. "I can't believe your husband condones trespassing." But she didn't continue to protest. She was reminded too dearly of her childhood, when she and her sisters used to retreat to Willow Pond whenever their parents argued.
Louisa followed her sisters out into the elaborate garden of Banstead House. In the silence, their footsteps crunched on the gravel path. No one spoke, as if they fancied themselves invisible. And then the spell was broken by a clatter of carriage wheels out on the street.
The gate, partially hidden by a fall of ivy, opened soundlessly, and Victoria gave a triumphant grin over her shoulder. When the three of them stood side by side on their cousin's property, their smiles faded and they watched the house carefully for signs of movement. Every window remained undisturbed, so they snuck down a path into the remotest corner of the garden, where the wall formed a corner and shrubbery hid them. Over it all was an ancient drooping willow tree, beneath whose draping branches they passed. Their bench was still there, standing guard over the pond, which was covered in a layer of stagnant green growth.
Meriel used the edge of her cloak to wipe the dirt from the bench, and they all sat down, shoulder to shoulder.
Meriel looked at Louisa. "Do you feel safe enough now to tell us what really happened when you were Lady Ralston's companion?"
Louisa nodded, but her hesitation must have been evident, because both her sisters took her hands in theirs and offered encouragement with their worried expressions.
"I liked working for her," Louisa began hesitantly. "It felt good to be needed, since she was confined to her sickbed and neglected by her family. I wrote letters for her, read to her, even sang when she simply wanted something soothing to drift off to."
"You once said she just needed you to listen to her talk," Victoria said, smiling.
"Yes, that's true, but helping her gave me true joy. And then I assisted her granddaughter, who was frightened of her upcoming Season. I never truly realized that some girls don't know how to behave amongst Society, and are afraid to talk to people."
"Now, Lou," Victoria began.The Viscount in Her Bedroom. Copyright © by Gayle Callen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.