The Baron's Daughter
Adrik Mironov was a patient man.
He knew what Elizabeth was doing, and he was happy to go along with it because he knew it wouldn't work. He would speak whichever language she asked of him, wear whatever clothes she insisted on, eat whatever food was set before him because it didn't matter. After twenty long years of waiting, he wasn't going anywhere.
Besides, what better way for her to realize she had more in common with him than the ton?
He leaned over the copper tub to dip his fingers in his morning bath. "Iakov, more hot water," he commanded, not bothering with English.
Iakov obliged, adding another half-jug of boiling hot water as the Count stripped down.
"How do you find the English, Iakov?" he asked, closing his eyes as he sank into the water.
"I can deal with them fine out there, my lord, so long as I can be myself in here," Iakov bluntly replied. "How much longer must we follow these 'rules'?"
Adrik chuckled. "I already got her back to speaking Russian, didn't I? Besides, she can only go so long without eating pastila."
"And you, my lord?" Iakov inquired. "Are you prepared to deal with guests today? You never liked entertaining back home."
"My friends were drunks and my father's friends were bores," Adrik sighed. "However, I am curious to meet someone from Elizaveta's youth. You know all the years she lived with us, I never even met any of her relatives?" He opened his eyes, pausing to stare into nothing. "She would write her father, but he would never write back."
Iakov appeared slightly puzzled. "Then why would she come back to such a place, to these people?"
Adrik patiently smiled at him. "She still thinks this is her home."
Dearest, gentle Reader,
It appears we have a dashing, eligible Russian Count wintering right in our midst. One would hope he intends to remain until the start of the Season, as he should make quite the challenge for every ambitious mama.
"I should think so," Cordelia Patridge beamed, laying the pamphlet down in her lap. Her body shook gently as the carriage rolled over the cobblestones. "Did you see him at the opera? 'Dashing' barely does him justice."
She was a very pretty girl, with clear brown skin, dark eyes, and a head of brown-black hair. She'd completed her first season earlier in the year with no proposals, but it hadn't dimmed her spirits.
Mary Ann Hallewell looked over at her friend and scrunched her face. "Would you actually consider moving to Russia?" She was a raven-haired beauty with pale golden skin and slender dark eyes. Like Cordelia, she hadn't received any proposals last season, but she didn't mind. They had become fast friends and were inseparable these days.
"As if I'd allow it," Cordelia's mother scowled, fanning herself. Lady Eleanor Patridge been doing that a lot lately, even as the weather grew colder. "Besides, your father would never pay a dowry for you to move so far from us."
"It causes no harm to dream, Mama," Cordelia smiled wryly. "And it I wouldn't be so sure about Papa. I overheard him speaking with the Earl of Wiltshire about how the Mironovs are among the richest families in the entire Russian Empire. Would you not like me to be a Countess?"
"I would not like you to be his Countess," Eleanor chided her daughter.
"What was the Dowager like when you knew her, Lady Patridge?" Mary Ann asked, genuinely curious.
"Oh, Beth?" Eleanor scoffed. "She was an untamed little creature of chaos. Lord and Lady Worthington ran a very strict household, and Beth would have none of their rules. So when the last Count Mironov made an offer for her, her father couldn't hand her over fast enough."
Cordelia and Mary Ann exchanged looks. "Offer...for her?" Cordelia asked, unsure she'd heard correctly.
Eleanor paused in her fanning, eyes grim, voice leaden. "Ten thousand pounds...or so the story goes."
Both girls' jaws were still on the floor as their carriage pulled up in front of the Mironov residence. Eleanor figured it was probably best if they remained silent for the duration of the visit.
"The Baroness Patridge," a footman announced, "Miss Patridge, and Miss Hallewell."
Cordelia immediately noticed that the Dowager Countess seemed surprised, as though she hadn't expected the Baroness to bring others. Her drawing room was pale, as though unfinished; the walls were white, made ghostly by the dim light of autumn, yet cozy by the light of the candles and the quiet crackling of the hearth.
The Dowager herself was a being from another world, with skin as dark as polished wood, her hair completely covered by a bejeweled headpiece with pearls streaming down the side of her face. Her shoulders and forearms were left bare by a long, intricately embroidered dress fit for no less than an Empress.
All formalities fell away when the old friends saw each other.
"Ellie?" the Dowager gasped, eyes wide in disbelief.
Eleanor smiled with genuine fondness. "Beth."
They embraced lightly, pulling apart just long enough to gaze upon each other, and then embraced again.
"How long has it been?" Eleanor asked, as the Dowager welcomed them in to sit and the housekeeper Allegra began pouring tea.
"Twenty years," the Dowager nodded. "I honestly wouldn't recognize you on the street."
"Nor you," Eleanor raised an eyebrow. She looked the Dowager over once more. "You've changed so much, Beth."
There was a dark flicker in the Dowager's eyes. "Indeed." She turned her attention to the girls. "You are both such handsome debutantes," she said, as though attempting to be cheery. "What are your names?"
"Cordelia, my lady."
"Mary Ann, my lady."
"Cordelia, you look just as your mother once did. Do you play the pianoforte?"
Cordelia's face lit up. "Yes, my lady."
"The Count's ward only plays Russian music. I would so love to hear what the English are listening to these days."
Cordelia smiled and rose from her seat, going over to the pianoforte. Mary Ann joined her, if only to sit next to her and exchange knowing looks.
Meanwhile, Eleanor lifted her tea cup to her lips. "Have you seen your sisters yet?"
"Not yet," the Dowager replied neutrally, setting her cup back down. "Margaret stopped writing three years ago, Justine stopped writing two years ago, and my parents wrote me never."
"Margaret took over your family house in Somerset," Eleanor told her. "And Justine's husband is currently stationed in Edinburgh."
"Oh," the Dowager blinked. "I understand it took a few seasons before my sisters married, so now their daughters are too young to debut. It's a shame really. I would've loved to see them drop their hems."
Eleanor didn't miss the bite in her words. She found it amusing actually. "And I would've loved to see your debut," she raised an eyebrow, her smirk wry. "But you were gone before your hems dropped."
"Yes, how did my father explain my sudden disappearance to people?" the Dowager blinked, masking her irritation.
"For the most part, he didn't," came the simple reply. "After your hasty nuptials, your parents permanently retired to Somerset."
The Dowager was clipped. "No doubt to avoid accountability to the ton." Despite her anger at her family, she was clearly enjoying this, being a widow, sipping tea, and gossiping with old friends.
"At some point, you're going to tell me about your life in Russia," Eleanor gently mused.
The Dowager shuddered. "It was cold, Ellie. The kind of cold that sinks its teeth into your bones and never lets you go."
"But surely there were balls, concerts, promenades--you were a Countess, for heaven's sake!"
Despite still playing, Cordelia and Mary Ann looked at each other, before straining their ears even more than before.
The Dowager scoffed, surprisingly bitter. "Oh, there were balls, I assure you. Grand dinner parties, operas, ballets...my husband never allowed us to miss an event."
"Did you ever meet the Tsar?"
"Of course," the Dowager grumbled. "The Mironov family has a standing invitation at Aleksandr's court." She switched topics. "What about here? What news of the Georgian court?"
"The King is mad and the Queen distracts herself with disaster weddings and dull operas," Eleanor sighed.
"Am I late?"
All eyes turned to see the Count enter the drawing room. He seemed so tall, so dark-haired, with twinkling eyes and a strong jaw. He was followed by a younger man, curly-haired and wary-eyed.
"You're not known for being on time," the Dowager admonished him, rising from her chair. The other ladies rose with her, the girls awestruck into silence. "My ladies, may I introduce you all to Lord Adrik Mironov." After a pointed pause, she added, "My stepson."
He briefly met and held her gaze before turning his attention back to the guests. He greeted Eleanor first.
"You must be the Baroness," he said warmly, with a polite bow. "I am honored."
"And these are Miss Patridge and Miss...Hallewell," the Dowager gestured.
He flashed them a courteous smile.
"They debuted just last season, you know," the Dowager hastily added.
"How charming," Adrik replied noncommittally. "Is there still tea?"
Without thinking, the Dowager turned to Iakov and requested in Russian, "Iakov, please tell Allegra to bring more tea."
"Right away, my lady," the young man bowed, lips teasing a tiny smile.
The Count also smirked and took a seat at the table, while the guests exchanged bewildered looks.
"You speak Russian fluently?" Eleanor asked, staring at the Dowager as though she were a stranger all over again.
"It took her a year, but with my help, she mastered the language effortlessly," the Count smiled, helping himself to some biscuits. "She even learned to read and write in Cyrillic."
"How remarkable," Eleanor murmured. "So...my lord, my lady...Lady Trowbridge is hosting a gathering in a few days."
"Mm," the Dowager nodded, setting her cup down. "I got that invitation as well."
"Lady Trowbridge is known for her...unconventional tastes," Eleanor warned. "I'm intrigued to hear your thoughts on them."
"Did you know Lady Trowbridge before you left?" the Count asked the Dowager, looking at her.
Her tone was stiff. "I did not."
"But you did," the Count turned back to Eleanor.
Eleanor smiled, nodding. "I was in the same year as her eldest sister, Margaret. We spent our summers together, debuted together."
"What was Veta like back then?"
Eleanor was confused. "Veta?"
The Dowager's whole body stiffened. "It's short for Elizaveta," she explained. "That's what Adrik's father...renamed me upon our marriage."
"Elizaveta Mironova," the Count beamed. "Has a beautiful sound to it, wouldn't you say, Lady Patridge?"