One Kiss From You
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The coach belonging to the duchess of Magnus pulled up to the tall house on Berkley Square, and an imposter stepped out.
The imposter's long, sturdy traveling cloak covered plain, dark, modest traveling clothes. Like the duchess, she was tall and well-rounded, and she spoke with the duchess's aristocratic accent. Also like the duchess, she wore her black hair smoothed back from her face.
Yet for the discerning eye, the differences were obvious. The imposter had a sweeter, rounder face, dominated by large blue eyes striking in their serenity. Her voice was husky, warm, rich. Her hands rested calmly at her waist, and she moved with serene grace, not at all with the brisk certainty of the duchess. She was slow to smile, slow to frown, and never laughed with glorious freedom. Indeed, she seemed to weigh each emotion before allowing it egress, as if sometime in the past every drop of impulsiveness had been choked from her. It wasn't that she was morose, but she was observant, composed, and far too quiet.
Yes, a knowledgeable person would recognize the differences between the duchess and the imposter. Fortunately for Miss Eleanor Madeline Anne Elizabeth de Lacy, no such person was in London at that moment, with the exception of her groom, her coachmen and footmen, and they were all devoted to her cousin, the real duchess, and to Eleanor, the duchess's companion. They would never betray Eleanor's mission.
They would never tell Mr. Remington Knight the truth.
Eleanor's heart sank as Mr. Remington Knight's stern-faced butler made the announcement into the large, echoing foyer. "Her Grace, the duchess of Magnus."
To hear herself presented in such a formal manner made her want to glance about for her cousin. If only Madeline were here! If only she hadn't turned aside from this mission for a more important task!
If only Eleanor hadn't agreed to impersonate her.
At the far end of the room, a liveried footman bowed, then disappeared into an open doorway. He was gone only a moment, then returned and inclined his head to the butler.
The butler turned to Eleanor and intoned, "The master is busy, but he will receive you soon. In the meantime, ma'am, I'm Bridgeport. May I take your cloak and bonnet?"
Although noon had passed, the mists outside subdued the sunlight into a wash of gray. The light of the candles couldn't illuminate the dark corners of Mr. Knight's enormous entry, an entry built to communicate, in the surest way possible, the owner's wealth.
Eleanor's nostrils quivered with scorn.
Bridgeport jumped a little, as if anticipating her ripping at him as a substitute for his master.
Of course Mr. Knight would take this house; he wanted everyone to know he was rolling in riches. He was, after all, nothing more than an upstart American who dreamed of marrying a title.
Yet the entry was decorated with velvet draperies of evergreen and gold, and with a profusion of cut glass and beveled mirrors in marvelous good taste. Eleanor comforted herself with the thought that Mr. Knight had bought it in this condition and was even now planning to gut it and install gilt in the Chinese fashion, a style fully as vulgar as -- Eleanor's mouth quirked with humor -- as vulgar as was adored by the Prince of Wales himself.
Bridgeport relaxed and returned to his stolid demeanor.
He watched her much too closely. Because he thought she was the duchess? Or because his master had so instructed him?
She removed her bonnet, stripped off her gloves, placed them in the dark bonnet, and handed them to the butler without a trace of outer trepidation. After all, what was the point of showing trepidation? It would merely be another proof that, although Eleanor had traveled across war-torn Europe as the duchess's companion, she hadn't acquired the verve and confidence that characterized Madeline's every move. This wasn't from lack of trials; the two women had faced trials aplenty. It was because -- Eleanor sighed as she allowed the butler to take her cloak -- Eleanor was born timid. She never remembered a time when her father's shouting hadn't paralyzed her with fright, or when her stepmother's narrow-eyed glare hadn't had the power to turn her into a bowl of quivering blancmange. Which is why Eleanor cultivated a serene facade -- she might be a coward, but she saw no reason to announce the fact.
"If you would follow me, Your Grace, to the large drawing room, I will order refreshments," Bridgeport said. "You must be tired after your long journey."
"Not so long." Eleanor followed him through the tall door off to the left. "I stayed at the Red Robin Inn last night and spent only four hours on the road this morning."
The butler's impassivity slipped, and for a moment an expression of horror crossed his countenance. "Your Grace, if I might make a suggestion. When dealing with Mr. Knight, it's best not to tell him that you failed to obey his instructions with all speed."
Turning from her contemplation of the elegantly appointed room, she raised her eyebrows in haughty imitation of her cousin and gazed at the butler in a frigid silence.
It must have worked, for Bridgeport bowed. "Your pardon, Your Grace. I'll send for tea."
"Thank you," Eleanor said with composure. "And more substantial refreshments, also." For she suspected Mr. Knight intended to keep her waiting, and it had been five hours since breakfast.
Bridgeport left Eleanor to scrutinize her grandiose prison.
Tall windows let in the timid sunlight, and the candles washed the walls with a pleasant golden glow. Books lined one wall, reaching all the way to the twelve-foot ceiling ...