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May 1852Newcastle upon Tyne
Why was it that some men only understood the application of a frying pan to the head? And why was it that one often met such men at balls when all one could carry in one's reticule was a hair pin?
Sophie Ravel glared at Sir Vincent Putney and took a step backwards, narrowly avoiding his outstretched hand. Perhaps this contrived confrontation of Sir Vincent Putney in a deserted conservatory was not one of her better ideas, but Sophie knew it was the only way to help one of her oldest friends avoid a fate worse than death. Tonight was the final opportunity to carry out her scheme and prevent Cynthia from being sacrificed on the altar of her parents' ambition.
'Not one step further, Sir Vincent.' Sophie raised her reticule, ready to swat his hand away.
'I have no desire to see you fall, Miss Ravel.' The oily voice grated over her nerves. 'I know how precious you are to my dear Miss Johnson. She sang your praises for weeks before we journeyed to Newcastle. Will Miss Johnson be joining us in the conservatory? Is that what she meant by a surprise?'
Sophie's eyes flew to the door. She'd been meticulous in her planning. Every eventuality covered, every solitary one except the one actually unfolding.
She should know the answer to the question, but her mind was a blank. She hated lying; avoiding the full truth was a necessity in certain circumstances.
'Miss Johnson has another matter to attend to before she can come to any conservatory.' Sophie straightened the skirt of her ball gown so that the cascades of blonde lace fell neatly once again. The tiny gesture restored her confidence. Precise planning would once again triumph and produce the perfect outcome. 'I'm sure she will appear when circumstances permit it.'
'Said with such a disdainful look.' Sir Vincent hooked his thumbs into his waistcoat. 'Despite your airs and graces, Miss Ravel, you have nothing to be proud about. I know all about your parentage and how your father acquired his considerable fortune.'
Sophie fought against the inclination to laugh. The man's accent was so entirely ridiculous, proclaiming about her parentage as if she was some brood mare.
She backed up so that her bottom touched one of the shelves. A particularly large fern nodded over her left shoulder.
'I suspect you have heard lies and half-truths.' She feinted to the left, only to be stopped when he placed his paw on the railing. 'Now, will you listen to what I have to say? Or are we going to have to play "Here we go round the mulberry bush" all night?'
He waggled his eyebrows, but did not remove his hand.
In the distance she could hear the faint strains of the orchestra as they struck up a polka. All she had to do was to calmly return to the ballroom after delivering her message. As long as she refused to panic, she was the mistress of the situation. Icy calm and a well-tilted chin. Poise.
'I regret to inform you, Sir Vincent, that Miss Johnson has other plans for this evening.' She ducked under his arm and wished she had chosen somewhere else besides the deserted conservatory to impart the news. Good ideas had a way of turning bad if not properly thought through. She should know that by now. 'Indeed, she has other plans for the rest of her life.'
'Other plans?' Sir Vincent cocked his head and Sophie could almost see the slow clogs of his brain moving. 'Miss Johnson arrived with her parents and me only a short while ago in my carriage. I know what her plans are. Her father has accepted my suit. They are watching her to ensure her reputation remains unsoiled. We are to be married come a week Saturday.'
'Her note. Miss Johnson asked me to give it to you once we were in the conservatory.'
He shook his ponderous head. 'Mr Johnson and I have come to an arrangement. He knows what is good for him. His wealth will go a long way towards restoring my family home. He saw sense in the match in the end.'
Sophie's stomach revolted. What she had considered Cynthia's fevered imaginings were utterly correct. Sir Vincent had used blackmail and threats to achieve his ends.
Since Cynthia's father had agreed to the marriage, Sir Vincent or her parents had hung about Cynthia like limpets. It was only at this ball that Cynthia stood any chance of escape. Sophie had brought the valise in her carriage. Hopefully Cynthia and her true love were now using the carriage to go straight to the railway station. The last train for Carlisle left in a half-hour. Then, at Carlisle, they would change trains and go to Liverpool, catching a boat to America leaving on tomorrow afternoon's tide. She'd left nothing to chance.
'Read the note, Sir Vincent, before you say anything we both might regret.'
He froze and his pig-like eyes narrowed, before snatching the note from her fingers. His lips formed the words as he read the note. The colour drained from his face.
'You're serious. Miss Johnson has jilted me.'
'She intends to marry someone else, someone far more congenial.'
He screwed up the note. 'We shall see about that! Her father has agreed to the match. He wants my name and status.'
Sophie rolled her eyes. What did he expect after the way he had behaved, cavorting with all manner of loose women, being insufferably rude to Cynthia and, worst of all, boasting about it to members of his club? 'I believe it is Miss Johnson's wishes that are paramount here. It is her life, rather than her father's or her mother's.'
She only hoped some day she'd meet a man who would make her want to forget her life and responsibility, but who would also be her friend. Why wasn't she deserving of a Great Romance? All of her friends had and all she'd discovered was alternative uses for hatpins and frying pans!
'You gambled and you have lost, Sir Vincent. Here is where I say goodbye.'
'We shall see about that!' He threw the crumpled note down on the ground.
'You are too late. Miss Johnson has eloped.'
'Scotland, it will be Scotland. Her father should never have come to Newcastle.'
'You will look like a fool if you go after her. Do you wish to be taken for a fool, Sir Vincent?'
Sir Vincent froze.
Sophie breathed easier. Nothing would happen to her now, but she could buy Cynthia a few more precious minutes.
'I'm no fool, Miss Ravel.'
'I'm glad to hear it.' Sophie cleared her throat. 'A notice will appear in The Times and a number of local papers in the morning, stating that your engagement is off. You will have to find another bride, Sir Vincent.' Sophie started towards the door. 'It is time I returned to the dance. I have a full dance card this evening.'
'This is all your fault!' He stepped in front of her, blocking her path. 'You will have to pay, Miss Ravel. You have done me out of a fortune. Nobody does that to me!'
'My fault? I'm merely the messenger.' An uneasy feeling crept down Sophie's spine. He still stood between her and the door to the ballroom. She needed to get away from this situation as quickly as possible before something untoward happened. Carefully she measured the distance to the outside door of the conservatory with her eyes. It was possible, but only as a last resort. She'd much prefer to walk back into the ballroom rather than going through the French doors. 'And having delivered my message, I shall get back to the ball. I doubt we need ever acknowledge each other again.'
'You are in it up to your pretty neck.' Sir Vincent turned a bright puce colour and shook his fist in her face. 'You will be sorry you ever crossed me, Miss Ravel. I will not rest until I've ruined your life.'
Sophie tapped her foot. 'Cease to threaten me this instant. You have no hold over me. Let me pass.'
His hand shot out, capturing her arm. 'I am not through with you.'
'Unhand me, sir. You overstep the mark!' Sophie struggled against his hold.
'Can you afford a scandal, Miss Ravel, despite your wealth? You may wear your ice-cold hauteur like armour, but do you truly think that will save you?' His vice-like hand tightened on her upper arm.
'I am well aware of what society requires. My reputation is spotless. You cannot touch me.' Sophie twisted her wrist first one way and then the next. She had been naive in the extreme when she had consented to elope with Sebastian Cawburn several years ago. Luckily, her guardian Robert Montemorcy and the woman who became his wife had intervened and had the matter successfully suppressed. Every night she said an extra prayer of thanks that Henrietta Montemorcy had entered her life.
'Yet you allowed yourself to be alone with a man in a conservatory. Tsk, tsk, Miss Ravel.'
Thinking about Henri redoubled Sophie's determination. She brought her arm sharply downwards, broke free and pulled the French doors to the garden open. 'This is where we part.'
As she stepped down, she heard the distinct sound of ripping lace. One more reason to loathe Sir Vincentshe had really loved her new gown, particularly the blonde lace. She didn't stop to examine the extent of the tear, but picked up her skirts and scurried out into the garden. The cool evening air enveloped her and she moved away from the light and into the velvet darkness.
Sophie pressed her hands to her eyes and tried to think. What next? She'd circle around the house and go back into the house through the terrace. Easy enough. With a bit of luck, no one would notice. She could make her way to the ladies' withdrawing room, do the necessary repairs and then plead a headache and have a carriage called. Thankfully, her stepmother had been unwell tonight and so it would be all the explanation required.
Her foot squelched in a muddy pool and cold seeped through into her foot. Another pair of dancing slippers ruined and these ones were her favourite blue-satin ones.
Behind her, she heard footsteps. Sir Vincent called her name. He was closer to the house than she. He was going to head her off before the ballroom, Sophie realised, and a cold fist closed around her insides.
She could imagine the scandal if she suddenly appeared dishevelled and escorted by Sir Vincent. She knew precisely what happened in these sorts of situations and Sir Vincent was not in any mood to be a gentleman. The whispers would reverberate through Newcastle society before morningthe proud Miss Ravel has slipped.
It wouldn't stop therethe rumours would spread throughout society within a fortnight. She faced the very real prospect of ruin. Despite her earlier brave words, could she be sure of her stepmother's support? Being part of society meant everything to her stepmother. Unfortunately the Montemorcys were out of the country. She was truly on her own this time.
She turned sharply and headed out into the dark of the garden. Two could play a waiting game.
'You can be a fool, Sophia Ravel,' she muttered to herself, stepping into another puddle. Her intricate hairstyle of small looped braids combined with curls tumbled down about her shoulders. 'Would Cynthia have done this for you? Or would she have found an excuse at the last moment? How could you have forgotten the pencil incident at school!'
Sophie gritted her teeth. It was too late to worry about what-might-have-been.
Behind her, she heard the sound of Sir Vincent's heavy breathing. 'I will find you. I know you are in the garden. I do so like games of hide and go seek, Miss Ravel.'
In the gloom of a May evening in Newcastle, she could see his black outline. She was going to lose, and lose badly.
She pivoted and ran blindly back towards the house and bumped straight into a well-muscled chest.
'Where are you going?' a deep rich baritone said as strong arms put her away from the unyielding chest.
'Are you running away from the ball? Has midnight struck already?'
Sophie's heart skipped a beat. All might not be lost. Silently she offered up a prayer that this man would be a friend rather than a foe.
'Please,' she whispered. 'You must help me. For the love of God, you must save me or else I shall be ruined.'
Richard Crawford, Viscount Bingfield, regarded the dishevelled blonde woman in his arms. The last thing he wanted or needed was to save some Cinderella-in-dis-tress. But what choice did he have? He could hardly turn his back on her, not after he'd heard her ragged plea.
'If it is in my power, I will help.'
Her trembling stopped. 'Do you mean that?'
'I do. Are you some escaping Cinderella, fearful of missing her fairy godmother's deadline?'
'Hardly that.' Her hand tried to pin one of her braids up, but only succeeded in loosening more of the blonde curls. 'I'm not running away from the ball. I am running towards it.'
'Towards the ball? That dress?' Even in the gloom, Richard could see the rips and tears. A twig stuck to the top frill of her blouse. He pointed and hoped she was aware of the scandal which she was about to be engulfed in.
'I loved this dress.' Her hand brushed away the twig. 'Really loved and adored it. It is irreparable.'
Her lavender scent rose around him. All his instincts told him to crush her to him and hold her until her shaking stopped, but that would be less than wise. The last thing he needed was to be engulfed in a scandal and for his father to realise he was in Newcastle rather than in London. His father, the Marquess of Hallington, was in ill health. In fact, he had only now begun to recover from the last fit at the end of April. With each passing week, his father seemed to slip more and more into a jealous rage against his mother and the scandal in which she had engulfed the family, even though those events had occurred many years ago.
Richard knew he shouldn't have come to Newcastle, but equally he knew he had to vet the man who had captured his half-sister's affections. His mother was untrustworthy on this matter and he had also taken the opportunity to once again sort out his mother's finances.
He forced his arms to let the young woman go and put her from him. 'Tell me quietly and quickly what you need and I will see what I can do about it.'
'I need to go back to the ball.'
'Looking like that? Brushing away one twig won't mend the ripped lace. You must know what will happen to you. Shall I call a carriage?'
Her hand instinctively tried to smooth her rumpled ball dress. 'Very well, then. I need to get back into the house and go to the ladies' withdrawing room where I can repair the damage. I do have my leaving arrangements in order.'
'It should be simple a matter to walk straight back.'
'Not so simple.' She lowered her voice. 'Someone is after me. He is determined to ruin me.'
Richard regarded the woman. The back of his neck pricked. He should walk away now. 'It is hard to ruin someone who does not wish to be ruined. Practically impossible.'
She gave a half-shrug. 'I was foolish and failed to consider the possibility. I fear we have not been introduced, but you must accept my assurance that I am normally considered to be extremely reliable and sensible in such matters.'
'Viscount Bingfield.' He inclined his head. 'And I am most definitely received everywhere.'
'I will take your word for it.' Her voice dripped with ice cold.
'Miss Ravel. Miss Ravel. Where are you? I will find you. You can't hide for ever. And then you will see what happens to women who try to cross me!'
Richard's jaw clenched. There was no mistaking the grating voice of Putney! The man was a bounder and a cad of the first order. He'd detested the man ever since that first term at Eton where Putney had put his hand up the maid's skirt and lied about it, causing the poor girl to be dismissed. Richard had sneaked out to see if she was all right and then the newspaper stories started. Then there was Oxford and the tragedy of Mary. Again he could not prove Putney had a hand in it, but he had encountered Putney in the street the day before he'd been called in front of the Master. Even now he could remember the furtive smile Putney gave.