post

Temporary Paradise

They strolled in silence for a time, each lost in their own thoughts. Though her admonitions were stern, Sophia knew her mother was not without compassion. Sophia had always loved to dance, but in her new world it would be a thing of the past. Her soon-to-be-husband abhorred it. A pity, that, but Sophie knew in the grand scheme of things it certainly wasn’t terrible. How many other girls would gladly trade much more than a love of dance for the chance to be a peer? Likely every last one of them in England. The idea cheered her. Sophia had such excitement to look forward to! Her life with Lord Retford was surely one to envy.

Movement in the corner of her eye refocused her attention.

“Mother, is that not Luke?”

Frances looked in the same direction as her daughter. “Where? I do not see — ”

“By that large potted urn. He’s dressed in dark green velvet, next to that man . . . ”

Sophia’s voice trailed away. The man she indicated, standing beside her cousin Luke Driscoll, was by far the most breathtakingly handsome man she’d ever set eyes on.

He was tall with a regal bearing, achieving the inexplicable by having his exquisitely cut and tailored clothing nonetheless appear casually draped about his powerful frame. His tanned complexion was accented by even darker brown hair that just brushed the tops of his shoulders. His eyes, too, though she stood a distance away, looked dark. And they were looking straight at her.

She experienced an odd little catch in her throat when she realized that she was the source of his attention. As though drawn by a magnet, she took a step forward. Now she could see that his hair, although as dark as she first thought, was accented with lighter streaks, as if he spent a great deal of time outdoors. And as she walked closer still, she noticed a faint scar dashed along one side of his throat. Quite a dangerous place for a wound, she thought, unable to suppress a little shiver along her spine. Of excitement.

A tug on her arm halted her trance-like walk. “What in the world is Luke doing talking to him?” her mother whispered.

Sophia looked back at her mother. “Who?”

“That dreadful rake, James Thornbury.”

Again Sophia’s attention was riveted toward where he stood. “Thornbury?” Her brows knit together, trying to place the name. “Why is that familiar?”

“ ’Tis likely because you are thinking of Thornbury Shipping. It is his grandfather’s company, and he the sole heir. The man is worth a fortune.”

Frances had angled her body so that she was facing Sophia more directly, keeping Luke and “that rake” behind her back. But if Sophia discreetly peered over her mother’s shoulder, she could nearly see . . .

“I don’t know why Luke insists on being friends with him,” Frances continued. “He’s a horrendous influence, carousing about as he does, with no meaningful life pursuits whatsoever.”

“You know him well, then?”

“I know what the talk is, Sophia. And though I loathe gossip, I dare say there’s truth to it as it pertains to Mr. Thornbury.” Once more her mother took hold of Sophia’s arm and steered her away from where she wanted to be. “There is another refreshment table at the end of the room. Let us make our way over there.”

“Should we not say hello to Luke?” Sophia protested, even as she was being led in the opposite direction. “It seems terribly rude to ignore him.”

“I don’t believe he noticed us,” Frances said, “and besides, though I love my sister’s son, it does your reputation no good to be seen talking to that rogue Thornbury. Luke, being a man, suffers no ill effect. ’Tis not the same for you, of course.” They reached the area at the back of the room where the crowd had thinned. “Here we are,” Frances said with a note of cheer in her voice, as if they’d just completed a difficult task. “Now, perhaps for something to drink — ”

“Frances?” A woman of about Sophia’s mother’s age approached them. “How good to see you again!”

“Lady Darlington!” Frances turned her attention to the newcomer and Sophia realized that she was one of her mother’s oldest friends, Agatha Dewbury, now Lady Darlington after her marriage years ago to Stanford White, the Earl of Darlington. They greeted one another like long-lost sisters.

“I had not expected that you were in town,” Sophia overheard her mother saying. “Your last letter said you had planned a summer of travel.”

“We did, indeed, but had to delay our departure until . . . ” Her voice grew more faint as Lady Darlington and Sophia’s mother stepped away to gossip like maids in the privacy of their own company. It left Sophia momentarily alone. Stealing a backward glance to ensure that her mother’s attention was thoroughly occupied, she let her gaze drift back to where her cousin Luke and The Rogue had been standing. She looked around. Both men were gone.

Her disappointment, as unexpected as it was acute, felt curiously like a stab to her heart. Silly girl. What did you think? Were you actually —

“Looking for someone?” His voice, like his looks, was dark. And smooth. And dangerous.

Sophia’s head swung around and she was face to face with Mr. Dreadful Rake himself, James Thornbury. He looked at her as intently as he had across the room, perhaps even more so now that they stood next to one another. Green, Sophia thought hazily, her mind unable to come up with anything more meaningful. His eyes were not as dark as she’d first thought but instead a deep green, the color of a storm-tossed sea. And magnetic as a lodestone. She looked away before answering, composing herself.

“My . . . ah . . . cousin,” she said at last. “You were standing with him but a moment ago.”

He raised an eyebrow in response. “Luke Driscoll is your cousin?”

“Yes. On my mother’s side.”

Before she could explain further the topic of their conversation stepped out from the swelling crowd. “Sophia.” Like the gentleman he always was, Luke took her hand and dropped a chaste kiss across the back of it. “I did not know you were here.”

Sophia smiled up at him; she had always liked Luke. “I can say the same for you, cousin.”

Luke gestured to James. “I am a guest of my friend here. Have you two met?”

“We were just getting there.” James took Sophia’s hand as well and brushed a kiss across the back of it, though it was far from the gentlemanly greeting Luke had just delivered. He hastened to make introductions.

“Sophia, this is my friend, James Thornbury. James, Sophia Haliday, my cousin.”

James, who had not yet dropped Sophia’s hand, instead grasped it more strongly. “Come,” he said quietly. “Dance with me.”

So startled — and elated — was she by his invitation that for one mad moment Sophia nearly accepted, in fact, took a step forward before common sense reared its horrid head. What in the world was she thinking? Several yards away stood her mother, completely entrenched in the discussion with Lady Darlington but there nonetheless, not to mention that elsewhere in the room was none other than George Hardwick, Viscount Retford. Her betrothed. She withdrew her hand and stood bolted in place.

James’s expression went dark; his eyebrows furrowed in obvious confusion. No doubt he was unused to being denied, especially from someone who seemed to want what he offered.

Luke, likely guessing where his friend’s thoughts had gone, was quick to intervene. “I imagine that my cousin would prefer to be dancing with her intended. Is that not right, Sophia?”

Intended?” Thornbury murmured the word like a growl. His body tensed and Sophia noticed a muscle jump in the back of his jaw. She dragged her thoughts back to reality from their dangerous flights of fancy, grateful that Luke had set her back on earth. Where had her mind gone?

“Yes,” she agreed with a wide smile, grateful for the reprieve from the momentary insanity paralyzing her senses. She made a show of looking around for George, feeling a peculiar need to stress how terribly interested she was in locating him. “My betrothed is around here somewhere.”

“Then we shall take our leave.” James caught her eye while she was looking about and held it a moment more than was proper. Then with a nod he released her and moved away, the wake of his departure leaving a chill in the room, as though he’d walked outside into winter air before firmly closing the door behind him. Luke departed as well, and seconds later Frances rejoined her daughter, completely unaware of Sophia’s conversation with Luke and The Rogue.

“I’m so sorry to have left you, Sophia,” her mother said as they resumed their stroll about the room. “I hope you weren’t lonely.”

Lonely? Though she hadn’t been alone, it was in an odd way the exact word to describe how she felt at that moment. “Perhaps I was, a little. I should like to be with Lord Retford.”

“I should expect you would, my dear,” Frances beamed. “Come, let us find him and Mr. Haliday, and see if we can’t rouse them into speaking about something else besides plants.” She linked her arm with Sophia’s, a smile lighting her face, as if to remind the titled world that the Haliday family was about to become one of them. And Sophia, remembering her duty, smiled right along with her mother, projecting to anyone who cared to look how filled with elation she was over all that her family was about to accomplish.

 

 

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with my webmaster, Alla. {photo credits: Alessandro Bologna}