I’d never planned on stealing someone else’s life.
Really, at a glance, you wouldn’t think there was anything wrong with my old life. I was young and healthy. I liked to think I was clever. I belonged to one of the noblest families in Osfrid, one that could trace its bloodline back to the country’s founders. Sure, my title might have been more prestigious if my family’s fortune hadn’t evaporated, but that was easily fixed. All I had to do was marry well.
And that was where my problems started.
Most noblemen admired a descendant of Rupert, First Earl of Rothford, great hero of Osfrid. Centuries ago, he’d helped wrest this land from savages, thus forming the great nation we enjoyed today. But few noblemen admired my lack of resources, especially in these times. Other families were fighting their own financial crises, and a pretty face with an exalted title no longer held the appeal it once might have.
I needed a miracle, and I needed one fast.
“Darling, a miracle’s happened.”
I’d been staring at the ballroom’s velvet-embossed wallpaper as dark thoughts swirled in my head. Blinking, I returned my attention to the noisy party and focused on my grandmother’s approach. Though her face was lined and her hair pure white, people always remarked on what a handsome woman Lady Alice Witmore was. I agreed, though I couldn’t help but notice she’d seemed to age more in the years since my parents had died. But just now, her face was alight in a way I hadn’t seen in some time.
“We have an offer. An offer. He’s everything we’ve hoped for. Young. A substantial fortune. His family line’s as prestigious as yours.”
That last one caught me by surprise. The blessed Rupert’s line was tough to match. “Are you sure?”
“Certainly. He’s your . . . cousin.”
It wasn’t often that words failed me. For a moment, all I could think of was my cousin Peter. He was twice my age—and married. By the rules of descent, he would be the one to inherit the Rothford title if I died without children. Whenever he was in town, he’d stop by and ask how I was feeling.
“Which one?” I asked at last, relaxing slightly. The term “cousin” was sometimes used loosely, and if you looked far enough in the family trees, half the Osfridian nobility was related to the other half. She could be referring to any number of men.
“Lionel Belshire, Baron of Ashby.”
I shook my head. He was no one I knew.
She linked my arm with hers and drew me toward the opposite side of the ballroom, winding our way through some of the city’s most powerful people. They were swathed in silks and velvets, adorned with pearls and gems. Above us, crystal chandeliers covered the entire ceiling, like our hosts were trying to outdo the stars. Such was life among Osfro’s nobility.
“His grandmother and I were both ladies in the Duchess of Samford’s coterie, back in the old days. He’s only a baron.” Grandmama leaned her head toward me to speak more quietly. I noted the pearl-studded cap she wore, in good shape but unfashionable for at least two years. She spent our money on clothing me. “But his blood is still good. His line comes from one of Rupert’s lesser sons, though there was some scandal that Rupert might not actually have been his father. His mother was noble, though, so either way, we’re covered.”
I was still trying to process that when we came to a halt in front of a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooked Harlington Green. A young man stood with a woman my grandmother’s age, speaking in low tones. Upon our arrival, they both looked up with keen interest.
Grandmama released my hand. “My granddaughter, the Countess of Rothford. My darling, this is Baron Belshire and his grandmother, Lady Dorothy.”
Lionel bent over and kissed my hand while his grandmother curtseyed. Her deference was a show. Sharp eyes raked over every part of me. If propriety had allowed it, I think she would have examined my teeth.
I turned to Lionel as he straightened. He was the one I had to size up. “Countess, it’s a pleasure to meet you. It’s a shame this hasn’t happened sooner, seeing as we’re family. Descendants of Earl Rupert and all that.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Grandmama arch a skeptical eyebrow.
I gave him a demure smile, not deferential enough to diminish my superior rank but enough to make him think his charm had flustered me. His charm, of course, was yet to be assessed. At a glance, it might be all he had going for him. His face was long and pointed, his skin sallow. I would have expected at least a flush, considering how the crush of bodies had heated the room. The sagging of his narrow shoulders gave the impression he was about to cave in upon himself. None of it mattered, though. Only the marriage logistics did. I’d never expected to marry for love.
“We’re definitely overdue for a meeting,” I agreed. “Really, we should all be having regular Rupert reunions, as a tribute to our progenitor. Get everyone together and have picnics on the green. We could do three-legged races, like the country folk do. I’m sure I could manage it with the skirts.”
He stared at me unblinkingly and scratched his wrist. “Earl Rupert’s descendants are spread out all over Osfrid. I don’t think a gathering of that sort would be feasible. And it’s not just unseemly for nobility to do those three-legged races; I don’t allow the tenants on my estates to do such things either. The great god Uros gave us two legs, not three. To suggest otherwise is an abomination.” He paused. “I don’t really approve of potato-sack races either.”