These are the opening pages of the book.
"Anyway," Lady Sophia Bryant said, "I have no intention of marrying anyone. Ever." She gave her yellow parasol a twirl above her head and looked into the flowing waters of the River Thames, which sparkled in the May sunshine.
It was a rash statement to make considering the fact that there were three perfectly eligible gentlemen in the group that adorned the grass on the riverbank at Lady Pinkerton's garden party in Richmond. There were two other young ladies there too, one Lady Sophia's close friend and the other one of the greatest gossips of the younger generation. By nightfall the whole of London would know what she had just said, including her papa, who had brought her to London for the Season, doubtless with the intention of finding her a husband despite the fact that she had not quite reached her eighteenth birthday.
But she had meant the words.
"Then there will be no further point in being in town," Mr. Peter Hathaway said. "We gentlemen might as well pack our trunks and retire to the country, Lady Sophia." He caught the eye of Lord Francis Sutton, who was sprawled on his side, propped on one elbow, his chin on his hand. He was sucking on a blade of grass. He raised one expressive eyebrow and Mr. Hathaway grimaced. "Were it not for the presence of Miss Maxwell and Miss Brooks-Hyde, of course," he added hastily.
"But why, Lady Sophia?" Miss Dorothy Brooks-Hyde asked. "Would you prefer to be a spinster dependent upon your male relatives for the rest of your life? You do not even have any brothers."
"I shall not be dependent," Lady Sophia said. "When I am one-and-twenty I shall come into my fortune and set up my own establishment. I shall cultivate the best of company about me, and all the married ladies will envy me."
"And you will cultivate the label of bluestocking into the bargain, Soph," Lord Francis said, first removing the blade of grass from his mouth. "It won't suit you."
"Nonsense," she said. "You are going to be horribly covered with grass, Francis."
"Then you can brush me down," he said, winking at her and returning the blade of grass to his mouth.
"I do not wonder that the name of rake has sometimes been attached to you in the past few years, Francis," Lady Sophia said severely.
"Sophia!" Miss Cynthia Maxwell said reproachfully, dipping her parasol in front of her face to hide her blushes from the gentlemen.
Sir Marmaduke Lane entered the conversation. "Seriously, Lady Sophia," he said, "it is neither easy not advisable to avoid matrimony. Our society and the whole future of the human race depends upon our making eligible connections. Indeed, one might even say it is our duty to enter the married state."
"Fiddle!" was Sophia's reaction to this rather pompous speech. "Why would one give up one's freedom and the whole of one's future happiness just out of a sense of duty?"
"I would rather have said that happiness comes from marriage and the bearing of children," Dorothy said. "What else is there for women after all?" She glanced at Lord Francis for approval but he was occupied with the absorbing task of selecting another blade of grass to suck upon.
"Marriage brings nothing but unhappiness," Lady Sophia said hotly. "Once the first flush of romance has worn off, there is nothing left. Nothing at all. The husband can return to his old way of life while the wife is left with nothing and no means of making anything meaningful out of what remains of her life. And there is no getting out of marriage once one is in, beyond praying every night for the demise of one's partner. I have no intention of allowing any such thing to happen to me, thank you very much."
"But not all marriages are so unfortunate, Sophia," Cynthia said soothingly. "Most couples get along tolerably well together."
"Well, my parents' marriage is a disaster," Sophia said, twirling her parasol angrily and glaring out across the water. "My mother has not left Rushton in almost fourteen years and my father has not set foot there in all that time. Don't talk to me about getting along together."
"Sheer stubbornness is the cause, I would guess," Mr. Hathaway said. "I am not acquainted with your mama, Lady Sophie, but I can imagine that your papa is stubborn to a fault. They ought not to have carried on a quarrel for that long, though. Were they always unhappy together?"
"How would I know?" Sophia said. "I was only four years old when they separated. I scarcely remember their being together."
"They should make up their differences," Sir Marmaduke said. "They should find comfort in each other in their old age."
Mr. Hathaway snorted while Lord Francis grinned. "I don't know the countess, Lane," the former said, "but I would wager that Clifton would not enjoy being informed that he is in his dotage. You cannot find some way of bringing them together, Lady Sophia?"
"Why?" she said. "So that they may quarrel and part again?"
"Perhaps they would not either," he said. "Perhaps they would be delighted to see each other again."
"Of course," Dorothy said, "ladies do lose their looks faster than men. Perhaps he would be shocked to see her aged."
"Mama is beautiful!" Sophia said. "Far lovelier than…" But she would not complete the comparison. Lady Mornington was undoubtedly Papa's mistress, discreet as they both were about their relationship. But Mama was lovelier for all that. Ten times—a hundred times—lovelier.
"Then you should bring them together," Mr. Hathaway said. "It was probably a foolish quarrel, anyway."
"Oh, how could I possibly accomplish such a thing?" Sophia said irritably.
"Say you want your mama here for the Season, Sophia," Cynthia said. "It is perfectly understandable that you would wish her to be here for your come-out."
"Papa asked me if I wanted her or him to bring me out," Sophia said. "If I had said Mama, then he would have stayed away. I would not choose. I refused. Anyway, I do not believe Mama would have come. She has been in the country for too long."
"You will have to get yourself involved in some scandal, Soph," Lord Francis said after working the blade of grass to the side of his mouth. "That will bring her at a trot. Find someone quite ineligible to elope with."
"Oh, do be serious, Francis," she said crossly. "Why would I want to elope with anyone? I would be forced to marry him and probably would not bring Mama and Papa together after all. That is the silliest idea I ever heard."
"Conceive a grand passion for someone ineligible, then," he said. "Refuse to listen to reason. Threaten to elope if your father will not consent. Be as difficult as you girls know how to be. He will send for your mother out of exasperation before you know it."
"He would be more likely to pack me off to Rushton," Sophia said. "I do wish someone would change the subject. How did we get started on this, anyway?"
"By trying to guess who would be betrothed or married to whom by the end of the Season," Mr. Hathaway said. "Could you not betroth yourself to someone your papa will disapprove of, yet would not like to reject out of hand, Lady Sophia? Can you not present him with a problem that he would need your mama to help solve?"
She tutted. "One of the royal dukes, perhaps?" she said.
"One of your papa's friends, perhaps," he said, his brow furrowed in thought. "Or the son of one of his friends. Someone he would not quite want for his daughter, and yet someone he would not like to send packing because of his friend. A younger son, perhaps—with something of a shady reputation."
"Did someone mention my name?" Lord Francis asked. "You should conceive a grand passion for me, Soph. My father would be delighted and my mother would not stop hugging me from now until doomsday. Clifton would have an apoplexy."
"What a ridiculous idea," Sophia said.
"Not necessarily," Mr. Hathaway said thoughtfully. "Clifton and the Duke of Weymouth have about as close a friendship as they come, do they not? And Sutton is certainly the type of man I was just describing."
"Thank you," Lord Francis said dryly. "Don't forget, Hathaway, that there are only three older brothers and four nephews between me and the dukedom."
"But you are something of a rake, Francis," you must admit," Sophia said. "And what Papa calls a hellion into the bargain."
He grinned at her and winked again. "Fancy me, do you, Soph?" he said while Cynthia dipped her parasol again, and Dorothy was almost visibly storing up details to share with her mama as soon as she decently might. "It would work too, by Jove. I'll wager Clifton would send his most bruising rider tearing off on his fastest mount for your mama if you just whispered your intention of making yourself into Mrs. Lord Francis."
"How stupid," she said. "As if I would ever in my wildest moment consider marrying you, Francis."
He shuddered theatrically. "It is as well, then," he said, "that I would never in the deepest of my cups consider asking you, Soph. Don't glare. You started the insults."
"Besides," Sir Marmaduke said, "it would not be fitting to use the institution of holy matrimony as a charade to accomplish another goal entirely."
"But Sophia," Cynthia said, "do you think it worth a try? Wouldn't your papa really be in a dreadful dilemma?"
"I believe," Sophia said unwillingly, "that he and his grace once expressed a wish that their families be united by marriage. But unfortunately for them, Papa had only me and I was too young. Francis is the only son still unmarried."
"And the black sheep into the bargain," that young man said. "Clifton has been ominously silent on the old topic since Claude, my last respectable brother, married Henrietta two years ago."
"The question is," Mr. Hathaway said, "are you willing to try it, you two?"
"Enter into a passion with Soph?" Lord Francis said. "The idea has its appeal, I must admit." His eyes laughed at Sophia as they traveled over her seated figure in its flimsy sprigged muslin dress.
"How stupid," she said. "Stop looking at me like that."
"But do you think your papa might send for your mama if you announced your intention of marrying Lord Francis, Sophia?" Cynthia asked.
"If I got into what Papa calls one of my stubborn moods and insisted that she be consulted, perhaps," Sophia admitted. "But perhaps not, too. They have managed to solve all problems for the past fourteen years without once meeting face to face."
"But are you willing to try?" Mr. Hathaway asked. "That is the question now. Sutton?"
Lord Francis was grinning at Sophia. "Soph?" he asked.
"I certainly am not marrying you," she said. "If you have any secret hope that that is how it will end up, Francis, forget it."
"There is nothing to forget," he said. "It will be all charade, Soph. All panting and pretended passion. A counterfeit passion. I rather fancy it. Life has been tedious lately."
"What do you say, Lady Sophia?" Dorothy asked, a note of suppressed excitement in her voice.
Sophia twirled her parasol and prepared to say one more time that the whole idea was ridiculous and that she would not, even in pretense, show a romantic interest in her old childhood tormentor. There was no bringing Mama and Papa together anyway. If they had remained irrevocably apart for fourteen years, there was doubtless no way of changing things now.
"I would strongly advise against it, Lady Sophia," Sir Marmaduke said. "The holy institution of matrimony is not to be taken in jest."
That did it.
"I say yes," Sophia said, lifting her chin and looking indignantly at Lord Francis's lazy and very white grin. "I say let's try it. But I am not marrying you, mind, Francis."
"Good," he said. "You had better be careful not to fall in love with me in earnest, Soph, or you will be doomed to a terrible disappointment, you know. And if you puff up like that, my girl, you might explode."
Mary is at Vauxhall Gardens with a party of acquaintances—and Lord Edmond Waite. Some of them have gone walking. Some are holding an animated conversation in their box. Mary accidentally makes eye contact with Edmond, and he gets to his feet.
"Ma'am," he said, reaching out a hand for hers. "Would you care for a stroll?"
She certainly did not care for any such thing. Not with him, at any rate. But how could she refuse without seeming thoroughly rag-mannered? She could not.
"Thank you," she said, smiling and taking his hand so that he might help her to her feet.
He was a handsome man in a way, she supposed. He was tall, perhaps a trifle too thin, though he had an athletic body for a man who must be in his mid-thirties. His dark hair was thick, not thinning at all, his face narrow with a prominent aquiline nose, rather thin lips, and eyes of a curious pale blue. Many women would find him attractive and undoubtedly did. She did not. She took his offered arm.
"Tell me how you enjoyed the concert," he said. It seemed more command than question.
"Very well," she said.
"You like Handel's music, then?" he asked. "I prefer Bach myself."
"Do you?" she said. "Each has his merits, I suppose."
They lapsed into silence. It was not a very promising beginning, the brief conversation they had had having been anything but profound and neither seeming willing to defend a preference.
"You still have all those literary gatherings at your house?" he asked. "Brough attends most of them, does he not? He likes that sort of thing. He tells me that your salon always attracts the best talent."
"That is very obliging of him," she said. "Yes, Mr. Brough is a regular visitor to my salon. I have a gathering there most weeks."
"Poets and such?" he said.
"Yes," she said, "and artists and politicians and people who just simply enjoy an intelligent conversation."
"Ah," he said, and they lapsed into silence again.
Goodness, Mary thought, she was strolling in Vauxhall Gardens with Lord Edmond Waite. She could not quite believe that she had sunk so low. She wished that they would catch up to Penelope and the others, but they must have taken a different path. There was no sign of her friends ahead of them.
"It is going to storm," she said. There was a breeze swaying the upper branches of the trees, making a swishing sound. On the ground the air was still very close.
"Probably," he said. "It will not be a bad thing. It will clear the air."
"Yes," she said.
She wanted to be back at the boxes, where there was the deceptive safety of numbers. She wanted to be at home, where she could hide beneath the relative safety of her blankets, Rachel sleeping in a truckle bed close by. She wanted to be mistaken about the storm. Perhaps it would just rain.
"Perhaps there will just be a good rain," she said.
"Perhaps." He looked up to the sky, still invisible beyond the lantern light. "Though I doubt it. I believe we will have a good fireworks display before morning. But not yet, I think."
It seemed to Mary that she was the only person at Vauxhall concerned about the approach of the storm. But perhaps not. As they walked on, they met fewer and fewer people. Was it just because they were moving away from the crowded area around the boxes? Or were other people being wiser and leaving while there was still time?
"Perhaps it would be wise to turn back," she said. "It would not be pleasant to be caught in a storm."
He smiled down at her. "Could it be that you are afraid of storms, Lady Mornington?" he asked. "Or is it my person that makes you uneasy? You may relax, ma'am. I do not make a practice of ravishing unwilling females."
Mary set her teeth together. She would not answer such words. Oh, she would not so demean herself. How dare he! He was more vulgar even than she had expected.
"If you wish to turn back," he said, "we will do so."
The path was deserted suddenly. There was no one else either ahead of them or behind them. And the trees were rustling in the growing wind. Of course they must turn back. Some heavenly fury was about to be unleashed, even though there had been no distant flashes to warn of an approaching storm.
"I am quite happy to walk on," she said. She would be damned before she would admit fear of any sort to the likes of Lord Edmond Waite.
He chuckled. "I fear you are right, though," he said. "The storm is much closer than estimated. It is these lanterns. They make it impossible to see if the sky is clear or cloudy. I believe we had better return. We seem not to have a great deal in common conversationally anyway, do we?"
Mary turned back with an inward sigh of relief. But as she did so, a large spot of rain splattered on her nose and then another against one eye.
"Damnation," her companion said. "The heavens are about to open. We are going to get soaked."
"We will have to run," she said as two cold spots landed on her shoulders and then more continued to come at her, too numerous to count. The wind was suddenly sweeping through the trees.
"Not back to the boxes," he said, releasing her arm and taking her firmly by the hand. "This way."
And he drew her at a run along one of the darker, narrower paths through the trees, the wind moaning through the branches, the rain lashing down on them, until they reached one of the rustic shelters that were dispersed at intervals through the gardens. He pulled her inside.
"Blast!" he said, shaking rain from his hair and brushing ineffectually at his damp coat. "We will probably be stuck here for an hour or more. I hope we can find some topic of mutual interest on which to converse."
Mary dried her arms with her hands. She felt uncomfortably chilly suddenly. "I think perhaps I was right about one thing at least," she said. "I think it is going to be a good rain. There will be no storm."
"I would not count on it," he said, turning to push the wooden table against the inner wall so that they would have more protection from the rain. The shelter was walled on three sides. Fortunately the wind was blowing against the back wall, so that almost no rain was coming in at them.
And sure enough, even as he spoke, the first flash lit up the sky. Mary sat carefully on the wooden bench that was attached to the table. She folded her hands in her lap. The thunder came a long time after. Perhaps it would not come close, she thought. Perhaps they were just on the fringe of the storm.
"Now, then," he said, seating himself beside her, "what shall we talk about? Your late husband was a colonel with the cavalry, was he not? And you were in the Peninsula with him? Tell me about it. What was the life like? Or does it pain you to talk about it?
"It was a long time ago," she said. "The pain has dulled."
"You were fond of him?" he asked.
"I loved him."
"Ah," he said. "Love."
There was another flash, brighter and longer than the first. The rain was sheeting down beyond the shelter. The wind was howling around them.
"The autumn rains were the worst," she said. "Or perhaps the heat of summer. When it was hot and dry, we longed for the rains, and then when it rained, we wished and wished that we could have the heat and sunshine back."
The crash of thunder was a little louder and more prolonged.
"I have heard," he said, "that conditions were quite intolerable, that men died of the heat and died facedown in the mud. It amazes me that Colonel Lord Mornington would have voluntarily taken a woman there."
"It was not voluntary," she said. "I insisted on going. And I am glad I did. Our two years there were the only time we had together. I would not be without those two years."
"Love indeed," he said.
"It was love," she said quietly, "despite your tone of sarcasm. There is such an emotion, such a commitment, my lord, even though many poor people choose to heap scorn on the very idea."
"Ah," he said, "I detect a setdown. I am one of your 'poor people,' Lady Mornington?"
"Yes," she said. "I would guess that you have never known love."
He chuckled. "And so you comforted your grieving heart after your colonel's demise with Clifton," he said.
With Marcus. The Earl of Clifton. Lord Edmond's tone made her relationship with him sound sordid. Though for six years she had been the close friend of a married man, it had not been sordid. But she would be damned before she would justify herself to anyone, least of all to her present companion.
"That is my own affair, my lord," she said, and then she was furious with herself for her choice of word as he chuckled again.
Lord Edmond Waite clearly had a sordid mind.
And then suddenly and quite unexpectedly the storm was close. They could actually see the lightning fork above the trees, and the thunder crashed only moments afterward.
"And they said there would be no fireworks at Vauxhall tonight," Lord Edmond said.
Mary clasped her hands very tightly in her lap, tried to impose calm on her mind, and failed miserably. At the very next flash she launched herself against her companion's shoulder, wailing horribly. Her terrified mind could form no words.
"What is it?" He laughed and set one arm about her shoulders. "It was not my person after all, then? You are afraid of storms? It is a good thing you had no children, Lady Mornington. Who would comfort whom?"
The thunder rocked their shelter. Mary clawed at his shoulders and burrowed her head against his chest, wailing out her hysteria.
"Hey," he said, the amusement gone from his voice. "Hey." She was almost unaware of the fact that he slid one arm beneath her knees and lifted her onto his lap. He opened his coat and wrapped it about her as best he could. "By Jove, you really are frightened, aren't you?"
"Hold me," she babbled at him as the storm reached a rapid crescendo. "Hold me."
"I have you close." His voice was quiet and quite serious now. His arms were tight about her, his cheek against the top of her head. "I have you safe, Mary. It is Mary, is it not?"
But she could not get close enough to him. She wanted to crawl inside his clothes, inside his body. They were so very exposed, in an open shelter and amongst trees. And the storm was directly overhead.
"Hold me!" she commanded him, her face hidden against his neck. "Oh, God. Please. Oh, please."
She resisted as one hand lifted her head away from its hiding place. She clawed at his wrist. And then her face was hidden again—against his. His mouth was warm and wide over hers.
"You will be quite safe," he murmured into her mouth. "I have you safe, Mary."
She clung to him for the next several minutes as he alternately kissed her and murmured to her. There was some comfort. If only she could have him closer. Her back felt so very exposed to danger despite the strength of his arms about her. But there was some comfort. She opened her mouth to his tongue, which came warm and firm right into her mouth and stroked her own tongue.
"I have you safe," he told her as he laid her head against his shoulder eventually and held it there with a warm and steady hand as the storm receded somewhat. The rain too had eased a little, though it was still falling far too heavily to permit them to venture out in it.
Some sanity began to return. She knew that she was on Lord Edmond Waite's lap, her head cradled on his shoulder, held there with one hand that played gently with her short curls. His other arm was protectively about her. She knew that he had been kissing her and putting his tongue into her mouth—something Lawrence had never done. It was perhaps what one might expect of a libertine. She closed her eyes and relaxed. The storm would be over soon.
"Have you always been like this?" he asked her.
"Four men from my husband's regiment were killed by lightning one night in the very next tent to ours," she said. She swallowed. "There was the smell of scorched flesh."
"Ah," he said. "You have every right to be afraid, then. It is almost over."
"Yes," she said. But she did not move. She felt safe where she was. "Thank you."
He chuckled. "No need, ma'am," he said. "There are compensations to offering comfort to a frightened lady."
Such ungentlemanly and ungallant words should have infuriated her. But if she were furious, she would have to lift her head and remove herself from his lap. It was safer and more comfortable to let the words pass.
And then it was obvious that the storm was coming back.
© Mary Balogh