The Widow Mironova
Adrik Mironov was neither surprised nor upset that Elizabeth had changed her mind about that ball. He was looking forward to a night out as well as time away from her.
Iakov could tell, and knew better than to mention the Dowager Countess.
That being said, he was not looking forward to a night and would've been grateful to have the Dowager as a buffer. Having Adrik's undivided attention was becoming...unsettling.
"Stop tugging at your collar," the Count chided him softly.
Iakov shifted in his seat as the carriage rolled towards Trowbridge House, pulling his coat down a little. "English clothing is so uncomfortable," he complained.
"Or the tailor got your measurements wrong," Adrik casually shrugged. "Do you remember those girls who came to visit when we first arrived? One was the daughter of a baroness?"
"Vaguely," Iakov grumbled, staring out the window and watching as evening fell. "What of it?"
"If we see them tonight, dance with them both," Adrik nodded calmly, paternally. "You already have a passing familiarity with them, so it won't be too awkward for you."
"And you?" Iakov pointedly blinked. "Who will you dance with tonight?"
"You're the heir," Adrik raised an eyebrow. "You're younger, you have a fresher face. No one will be looking at me tonight."
He couldn't be more wrong, of course, for no sooner did the men step foot into Lady Trowbridge's mansion, a horde of ladies immediately descended, with even the spinsters and widows coming off the metaphorical bench to join the fray.
Normally, Iakov would've been paralyzed in terror at the throng, but he was quickly amused as the women brushed right past him to get to the Count.
"My lord, these are my daughters Tessa and Theresa."
"My lord, I believe I met your father some twenty years ago when he was last here. Have you met my daughter Maribel?"
"It's a pity you weren't here during the season, my lord. My daughter Georgina was very nearly chosen as diamond of the first water."
And on and on they went, mamas shoving women young enough to be his daughter in his face, while busty widows elbowed their younger competition out of the way.
Adrik opened his mouth to officially introduce Iakov as his heir, thus redirecting the heavy fire, but his breath caught has his heart stopped in his chest. For just beyond the crowd he beheld a vision and was certain his eyes were playing tricks on him.
"Iakov," he gasped. "Do you see? Do you see it too?"
A thin blond debutante with cold blue eyes and thin, fake smile light up. "Is that Russian my lord? You know, I took German lessons last year when I was being courted by the Prince of Prussia--"
"I see it, my lord," Iakov whispered, as both men completely tuned out the women in front of them. Eventually, the women noticed both men staring and followed their gazes. They parted like waves before Moses as a young woman slowly approached.
She gave a grand, low curtsy, humbling greeting, "Moy gospodin (My lord)."
For a moment, Adrik thought he was either dreaming or how somehow stumbled through time. She was Veta, and yet she was clearly not Veta. Perhaps she was her shadow, or her echo.
Mutely, he gestured for her to rise.
"Cordelia Patridge, my lord," she greeted with the utmost courtesy. "We met at the home of the Dowager Countess."
"Miss Patridge," Adrik murmured, nodding slowly as he finally remembered her name. "I remember now." He offered her his arm. "Dance, Miss Patridge?"
For all of the ton's flirtations with Russian culture, none had been willing to fully commit.
Not Cordelia. From the moment she'd stood in the Count's presence, she'd made the conscious decision to get his attention by any means necessary. She bribed a servant in the Trowbridge House to reveal the ball colors, and as predicted, the daring Lady Trowbridge had chosen a pale blue Imperial Russian theme. Even the orchestra played a few Russian composers while guests cautiously sipped drinks like kompot and sbiten.
And now Cordelia completed the vision. Tonight, she wore a flowing Frenchified sarafan with split sleeves, and a brand new kokoshnik.
She'd seen the way he looked at the Dowager, the irreverent smirks, the lingering gazes. She didn't pretend to understand the full nature of their relationship, but at least she knew his type.
Cordelia wasn't as dark as the Dowager, but she was dark enough to draw comparisons. For her dress she'd chosen ice blue to accentuate her darkness. The matching kokoshnik had been trickier (and wildly expensive), so she decided to forego the opulent gems and simply settle for the twin streams of pearls. Besides, she already owned a necklace of ice blue gems that was a perfect match for her dress.
They didn't speak, nor did they need to. The Count watched her with an unwavering gaze, a mix of wonder and bewilderment, as though he still couldn't believe his eyes.
Did I bring back a good memory of her? Cordelia slyly wondered, even as she kept her eyes virtuously downcast. Perhaps I remind him of when they first met?
He watched her intently, and the ton watched them, speechless, breathless as they moved alone on the dance floor.
This will give Lady Whistledown something to talk about, Cordelia mused, working overtime to her facial expression inscrutable.
The dance ended, but he clearly wasn't ready to move on.
"Another?" he murmured softly, so intimately it made her whole body warm.
"My lord," she curtsied slightly, every humble, taking his arm again.
This time, the ton joined in.
While Adrik and Cordelia were in a world of their own, Iakov took the opportunity to dance with Mary Anne Hallewell. He remembered her vividly, as she reminded him of a few Siberian girls he'd briefly met before.
He introduced himself as the Count's heir and watched her eyes light up. She eagerly accepted his invitation to dance, and they hit the floor, blending in with the throng. He knew the custom was to dance a maximum of two times with someone, so he planned to dance with her once more before randomly asking another girl to dance afterward. No, it would be three girls total, but it would be three dances, and besides...Adrik looked too distracted to care about the technicality.
"So how do you find England, my lord?" his dance partner shyly asked. Iakov was slightly amused; he'd expected to be the nervous one, and yet Mary Anne could barely meet his gaze.
"England is a fascinating country, Miss," he replied with a gentle smile. "I expect the winter to be less harsh than the ones I'm used to."
Mary Anne blushed and Iakov was briefly confused. He hadn't said anything amusing or charming. And then he realized.
It's my accent, he blinked. It was like having some sort of super power. He could talk about the weather, it would still make a debutante's heart flutter.
This is so much easier than I thought it would be, Iakov blinked. Perhaps I should reconsider marrying an English girl?
After all, Adrik was right. This would be a lot easier here than back home in Russia. Russian mamas would be livid that their daughters weren't marrying into the vaunted Mironov bloodline. Here, nobody cared.
After their second dance, Adrik bowed low and excused himself from the dance floor, eager for the cold, fresh air of night. And maybe a cigarette.
She was not his Veta. She was nothing like Veta. And yet...her clothes, her composure, her complexion brought back every thought, dream, and memory of Veta with such force his chest threatened to explode.
Adrik stared out across the empty courtyard at Trowbridge House. Autumn was cold, too cold by English standards, so much that he was the only one out here. He'd thought to have a smoke but knew he wouldn't be able to breathe if he did.
She is not Veta.
No, she wasn't, but perhaps she was a second chance. Cordelia Patridge was young, beautiful, healthy, and clearly attracted to him.
I could take her away from here, back to Russia, Adrik thought. Marry as my father did twenty years ago and make her my Countess.
I could finally leave the real Veta behind with her mood swings, and her temper tantrums, and her beloved fucking ton.
Next: The Girl