Read an Excerpt
A Regency Match
By Elizabeth Mansfield
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Paula Schwartz
All rights reserved.
Even her acerbic, acid-tongued grandmother had to admit that Sophia Edgerton knew how to enter a room. Everyone said that there was not an actress on the London stage who could make an entrance to better effect. Sophia would pause in the doorway of a ballroom or drawing room just long enough to permit the onlookers to admire her graceful pose and her slightly eager smile, and to cause those who had not been looking to turn their heads. Then she would permit her smile to widen (thus allowing her entrancing dimples to make their appearance), and she would hurry in, her arms outstretched affectionately toward her hostess or whomever she'd chosen to greet. The sparkle of her eyes, the warmth of that dimpled smile, and the artful liquidity of her movements would hold every eye in the room on her until her entrance had been completed.
But her grandmother, the austere Lady Alicia Edgerton, was too familiar with Sophia's artifices to be impressed. She much preferred her granddaughter's manner when the girl was at home, the buoyant, sweetly-generous girl bubbling with good spirits and youthful enthusiasms, although even that aspect of Sophia's character could be trying to a world-weary old beldame in her sixties.
This very moment was a case in point. Lady Alicia was sitting peacefully before the mirror on her dressing table, submitting to the ministrations of her dresser, Miss Leale, who was attempting to coax Lady Alicia's wispy gray hair into some semblance of neatness, when Sophia, without so much as a by-your-leave, burst into the room waving a letter excitedly in the air. The entrance was a far cry from her grand entrances into the ballrooms of the great houses of London. "Grandmama, you won't believe my news!" the girl cried.
Lady Alicia favored Miss Leale with a look of hopelessness and turned to the intruder with one eyebrow reprovingly cocked. "Have you forgotten how to knock?" she asked coldly.
"Never mind that," Sophia responded, laughingly ignoring her grandmother's rebuke. "Bertie's back! He's sent a note! Isn't that astounding?"
"Astounding indeed," Lady Alicia said drily. "I'm quite overwhelmed to hear it. Especially since his mother, your Aunt Isabel, has been writing to me for the past three months of their intention to return."
"Three months? You've known for three months?" Sophia demanded, shocked. "Then why haven't you told me?"
"Because, my dear Sophy," her grandmother explained, rubbing the bridge of her nose with weary fingers, "I wished to be spared your breathless fervor for as long as possible."
"Really, Grandmama," Sophy said with a pout, "that was most unkind. Bertie was the very dearest friend of my childhood, and you know that I haven't laid eyes on him since I was ten."
"It's just as well for you that your uncle took him off to India when he did. That child was making a hoyden of you, if memory serves. Really, Leale, must you pull my hair that way?"
"Sorry, m'lady," Miss Leale murmured, giving Sophia a wink. Those who knew the Lady Alicia well were quite aware that her acid bark had no real bite.
Sophia perched on her grandmother's chaise and tucked her legs under her. "I loved being a hoyden," she said, her eyes glowing with happy reminiscences. "We always had the greatest fun together during those lovely days when we all lived in Wiltshire."
"Aye," remarked Miss Leale fondly. "Prime for a lark you were, the two of ye."
Lady Alicia glowered at her maid in the mirror. "You needn't indulge yourself in sentimentality, Leale. I remember quite distinctly that those two were a constant source of irritation and worry. Always climbing trees and falling out of them. Or eating green apples in the orchard until they were sick. Or wading through the stream and ruining their boots. Dreadful stuff!"
"It wasn't dreadful at all. It was wonderful!" Sophia declared. "Besides, what should two children have been doing with their days if not larking about and making mischief?"
"One would think the answer is obvious. Have you never heard of good books and good works?"
"Oh, pooh!" Sophia said scornfully. "You should have sent me to a convent if that was what you wanted."
"I was often tempted to suggest to your mother that very course of action," Lady Alicia said mendaciously.
Sophia paid no heed to her grandmother's remarks, her mind full of her childhood memories. "Dear Bertie! The brother I never had ... my only real chum! You know, Grandmama, I was horribly lonely after he'd gone—there wasn't anyone else to play with."
"I see no point in dwelling on the past," her grandmother said crisply. "What does it all mean now? You're certainly too old for a 'chum' at this point in your life."
"I suppose you're right," Sophia sighed. "I can scarcely expect a grown man of twenty-two to go chasing through the woods with me after grouse as we were used to do."
Lady Alicia turned from her mirror to frown at her granddaughter in irritation. "You cannot want to go chasing through the woods any more, you silly chit! You're almost twenty-one yourself. You should be married and raising a brood by this time."
Sophia tried to hide her grin, but her dimples appeared to give her away. "Is that what you want for me, Grandmama?" she asked with exaggerated innocence. "Marriage and babies? I thought you just said you preferred that I spend my life reading good books and doing good works."
"Minx!" Lady Alicia muttered in disgust. "Much good it would do me if that were my preference. I've never seen you spend any time with either."
Sophia giggled and jumped to her feet. "Poor Grandmama. It must be terribly trying to be saddled with such a ninnyhammer for a granddaughter." She kissed her grandmother's cheek and went to the door. "Wear something spectacular tonight to the Gilberts' ball, my love. Bertie writes that he's to attend, and we want him to be pleased with us when he sees us after so long."
"Take care of yourself, Miss Prattlebox," Lady Alicia called after her disappearing granddaughter irritably. "I know how to choose a gown for myself without your advice." But the remark was wasted on the closed door. "That girl will be the death of me," she muttered to Miss Leale.
"She's the life of ye, and you know it," Miss Leale answered bluntly. She had been in her ladyship's service too long and had served her too intimately to be intimidated by her sharp tongue. "I remember how it was in this house after his lordship passed on. Like a tomb it was, so quiet and dim-like. An' you keepin' to your room like you wanted to bury y'rself away with 'im. Never seein' a soul from one week to the next. This wasn't a house—it was a grave."
She put down the brush and the hairpins and bustled about to find a suitable gown, hoping her activity would prevent the need for facing a sharp retort from her mistress. But Lady Alicia was staring into the mirror with unseeing eyes, her mind having taken her back to the day, five years before, in 1808, when Sophia had first come to live with her. Leale was quite right, the house had been like a mausoleum then. Her husband dead, her younger son in India and her elder one in Wiltshire, she had been quite terribly alone in the Edgerton townhouse in Russell Square. She had been unspeakably lonely yet had disdained the society of most of her circle. Finding them either too frivolous, too lackluster or too self-pitying to make good company, she'd withdrawn from the world. By the time her daughter-in-law, Sophia's mother, had died, she'd become an embittered, unhappy old woman who rarely left the house. Had her son not remarried, and had Sophia not fled from the tirades of her Evangelical stepmother, Alicia might be living still in that terrible isolation.
But Sophia had come to her. The child, sixteen years old and spoiled by an overindulgent mother, had been driven to desperation by the antagonism of her fanatical stepmother and had sought her grandmother's protection. With her son's permission and his new wife's relieved blessing, Alicia had taken little Sophy under her wing and as a result had found herself reborn. Sophia had been like a gust of wind, sweeping the cobwebs of mourning from the house and refreshing it with a breezy gaiety. Her youthful energy had infused the old woman with a new vitality. She had had to face life anew, if only to become strong enough to guide her granddaughter's future. She had to renew her friendships so that the child would have a social circle in which to move. She had to see to the girl's education, to take her to museums and libraries, the opera and the theater. She had to find her the proper clothing and accompany her to parties and outings. She had to oversee Sophia's come-out three years ago and to chaperone her when her dozens of admirers paid calls. In short, she had to mother the girl. And in return, Sophia had brought her to life again.
Lady Alicia loved her granddaughter dearly, but she would have been the first to admit that the girl was too volatile by half. But how could she have turned out otherwise? She'd lost an indulgent mother before she'd reached sixteen. Then she'd had to deal with a religious fanatic of a stepmother. And finally, she'd found herself in the care of a grandmother too old and embittered to deal patiently with the mercurial moods and obsessive enthusiasms of youth. Attractive in appearance and charming in manner, the girl had learned to win her way with everyone she met. Was it any wonder that she was spoiled, moody and self-absorbed?
Lady Alicia sighed as she rose to permit Leale to help her into her ball gown. Leale, like all the rest of London, was too easily beguiled by Sophy's charm. "You always eat out of her hand," Alicia grumbled accusingly to the startled abigail.
"Whose? Miss Sophy's?" the maid asked.
"Yes, Miss Sophy's. Don't you see how you spoil her with that sort of indulgence?"
"Me spoil 'er? Don't know what you mean, m'lady. She's as pretty-behaved a young lady as I've ever laid eyes on."
"That's bibble-babble! The girl's headstrong, willful and very likely fated for some sort of disaster before long," Lady Alicia prophesied gloomily.
Miss Leale, in the act of lifting the gown over her mistress's head, froze in the act and gasped. "Disaster! Bite y'r tongue, ma'am! I don't know how you can say such a dreadful thing."
"Never mind, woman. Don't just stand there. Are you going to help me into that dress or just gape at me?"
Miss Leale closed her mouth and proceeded with her chores. Her ladyship was in a taking, the maid told herself. Why, everyone knew that Miss Sophy was the sweetest, kindest, prettiest young lady ever. Why should anything disastrous occur to such a one? Lady Alicia didn't mean a word of it. With that comforting thought, the abigail put the conversation from her mind.
But Sophy's loving grandmother was not so easily comforted. A long life had taught her much, and one of the things she'd learned was that one paid a price for the flaws in one's character. Her granddaughter's willfulness and tendency to histrionics were characteristics for which the possessor would pay a price. And Lady Alicia had every expectation that her granddaughter's payment would soon become due. Unfortunately, she had not an inkling of the form which the disaster would take. And what was worse, she had no idea of how to prevent it.
If Sophia was facing imminent disaster, she showed no signs of having detected its looming presence. She hummed happily to herself as she studied the two ball gowns laid out on her bed. Picking up the cherry-colored Tiffany silk, she held it to her shoulders and twirled around her bedroom in the new waltz-step. This is the one, she decided happily. Bertie had liked bright colors as a boy. She hoped he hadn't changed too much.
The memory of her cousin Bertie had remained fresh in her mind all during the eleven intervening years. There had never been anyone like Bertie in her life. They had ridden together, played together, exchanged favorites stories and revealed to each other their most closely-guarded secrets. An only child, Sophy had treasured the company of someone close to her own age. When Bertie had been taken off to India with his parents, she'd been heartbroken.
Readying herself for the ball, she studied herself carefully in the mirror of her dressing table. Would he recognize her, she wondered? She had been a rather chubby little thing when he'd last seen her, her nose freckled and her bright red hair plaited down her back. Now she was stylishly slim, her skin was completely clear of the disfiguring freckles, her hair was more auburn than red, and it was cut in short ringlets that framed her face. He would not know her at all.
But she would know him. Of that she was certain. He had towered over her in their youth, so he would probably be quite tall. His skin would be swarthy from the Indian climate, but his blue eyes would be unchanged. She would know those blue eyes anywhere.
Lady Alicia had already taken a seat among the dowagers when Sophia (who had excused herself when they'd arrived at the Gilberts' to check her appearance in the mirror of the cloak room set aside for the ladies), decided it was time to make her entrance. Her smile was a bit wider than usual as she stood poised in the doorway of the Gilberts' ballroom. A number of eyes turned to watch the girl in the cherry-red silk dress as she hesitated on the threshold, her eyes roving over the faces in the enormous, crowded room. Although the many admiring eyes studied her appreciatively, they could not detect the rapid tremor of her pulse. Beneath the poised exterior, Sophy was quite tingling with anticipation.
She scanned the room carefully, paying particular attention to gentlemen who were above average height. Suddenly her eyes lit up and, lifting her skirts with a sweep of her arm, she flew across the room. "Bertie!" she cried as she neared a group of gentlemen who had been standing together near the dance floor chatting amiably. She made straight for a tall man who stood in their midst. His height, his dark skin and his remarkable blue eyes gave him away. "Bertie!" she exclaimed again as she approached. "Dearest boy, I'd have recognized you anywhere!" And she flung her arms around his neck with such ardor that he had to stagger to keep his balance.
Every dowager seated in the vicinity stared. Every stroller stopped and gaped. A number of dancers paused in their promenade to turn and watch the little drama being enacted nearby. The gentleman himself had looked startled and embarrassed in quick succession as she'd advanced on him, but before these emotions could be noted by the onlookers, his face became impassive. Taking her hands firmly from round his neck, he raised an eyebrow and said coldly. "I'm afraid, ma'am, that you've mistaken me."
"Mistaken you? Oh, Bertie, as if I could!" Sophia laughed.
The gentleman's face remained impassive, but his annoyance was clearly noticeable in the glint of his eyes. "I assure you, ma'am, that my name is not Bertie," he told her, smoothing the folds of his neckcloth, the pristine perfection of which Sophy had disturbed.
"Sophy, you goose," chortled a voice at her ear. She whirled around to face a rather rotund, ruddy-cheeked young man who stood grinning at her from a height not an inch taller than her own. "I'm Bertie."
Sophy stared at him for a moment, gasped, looked from him to the tall stranger and back again, and burst into giggles. "Oh, dear," she exclaimed sheepishly, "now that I see you, Bertie, I do recognize you."
"Still making a cake of yourself, I see," he grinned, holding out his arms to hug her.
"Bertie, dear," she responded warmly, hugging him in return, "it's been such an age!"
There was a loud laugh behind them. "Well, Marcus," snorted one of the men in the circle to the fellow Sophy had first embraced, "what do you think of the likeness? Can't say I see much of a resemblance."
The gentleman called Marcus merely flicked him an unamused glance and said nothing. Bertie, however, blushed furiously. "She's my cousin," he explained. "Ain't seen her since she was ten. Best of chums we were then, but it's been a long time ..."
The gentleman made a polite bow in acknowledgement and turned to go. But Sophia caught his arm and caused him to turn back. "I am so sorry, sir," she said with her most disarming smile.
Excerpted from A Regency Match by Elizabeth Mansfield. Copyright © 1980 Paula Schwartz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.