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Lord John Stokes was the kind of gentleman Sophia Wyndham dreamed of--handsome, charming, kind, and wealthy. But, he was also most definitely not in love with Sophia--which made this the most ...
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Lord John Stokes was the kind of gentleman Sophia Wyndham dreamed of--handsome, charming, kind, and wealthy. But, he was also most definitely not in love with Sophia--which made this the most irresistible challenge she had ever faced. A Regency romance reissue.
Lord John Anthony Peter Stokes stood on the fringe of the glittering crowd. A faint smile touched his lips and he nodded to those acquaintances who chanced to catch sight of him in the shadow of a heavy marble column. He had deliberately chosen his post beside the column for its semi-seclusion from the heavy press of the restless company.
In his capacity as undersecretary to the British ambassador to St. Petersburg, Lord John had assiduously attended to his diplomatic duties. He had made the rounds of the ballroom to leisurely chat with his Russian acquaintances and to bow with negligent ease to their magnificently bejeweled ladies. His pleasant countenance reflected interest only in his elegant surroundings and his companions. None of those whom he conversed with so pleasantly guessed that Lord John would have preferred not to have attended the ball that evening.
Lord John suffered from boredom and readily admitted it to himself. He had attended twenty-seven social functions that same week, and the allure and novelty of the sumptuous gatherings had long since palled. Hence he had suspended his diplomatic duties long enough to enjoy the few moments of privacy his vantage point gave him.
Lord John idly watched the constantly shifting crowd and the graceful couples twirling around the polished mirror-like ballroom floor. Gradually he became conscious of voices engaged in conversation on the other side of the wide column upon which he leaned. Lord John started to step away before he became an eavesdropper, but the young woman's next words, spoken in prettily accented English, riveted him.
"But I do not wish to marry Prince Tarkovich. How dare you contract my handwithout my consent!"
The other woman answered with a hint of sharpness. "You have been told to speak your mother tongue, Sophia."
"Indeed, my mother's native tongue was Russian. But my father's tongue was English and I am equally proud of my English heritage," said the young woman.
Lord John's curiosity was thoroughly aroused. He moved slightly so that he could glance between the marble column and the velvet, brocaded window draperies. The young woman was petite and blond and utterly charming in profile. The older woman was also of small stature and handsome, but she was overly adorned with several bracelets and a massive diamond necklace.
"You are extremely foolish, Sophia. What means your English blood here in this, the most glorious capital of the world? You would do well instead to remember that your destiny is Russian. You will live and die a Russian," the older woman said emphatically.
"If by that you mean that I shall marry Prince Tarkovich, Aunt, you are mistaken. You cannot force me to the altar when my heart is not engaged," said Sophia.
Her companion snorted in disdain. "Your heart! What has that to do with a marriage of convenience?"
"That is precisely my point," said Sophia. "I do not intend to wed without love, Aunt. I have seen too many husbands and wives made unhappy because they married without love. I do not wish to be one of their number."
"The ones you have seen unhappy are those who have not yet taken a lover," said the older woman matter-of-factly. "I speak from experience, Sophia. I myself have enjoyed several lovers through the years."
Color rose in Sophia's face at her aunt's unexpected crudity even though she had long ago become accustomed to the Russian penchant for frank speech on delicate topics.
The older woman's dark slanted eyes mocked her niece. She nodded at Sophia's blush. "I see you are truly your father's daughter, Sophia. The cold English and their prudish ways! I am somehow disappointed in my late sister."
Sophia threw up her head and stared coldly at her aunt. Her embarrassment was forgotten. "You shall not speak of my mother, madame."
"In truth, your mother is of the past, and we do not speak of her tonight. Sophia, this evening you shall give Prince Tarkovich encouragement," said the older woman.
"And if I do not?" asked Sophia, her eyes narrowing.
The older woman shrugged. "I shall regret very much the necessity of sending you to the summer dacha, naturally." She paused to watch the effect of her words, but her niece's gaze did not falter. "And afterward, if you continue to defy me, you will fulfill your destiny in a nunnery." With satisfaction she took note of the shudder that ran through her niece's slender form. She smiled gently. "But I know you to be a sensible girl, Sophia. Come, Prince Tarkovich must not be kept waiting. It is for a few moments only. And then you may dance to your heart's content."
Much subdued, Sophia followed her aunt across the crowded ballroom. Her thoughts were in turmoil. She dared not publicly defy her aunt, for she knew that Princess Elizaveta Kirov's threats were not idle. But perhaps later, when she had time to think, some options would present themselves to her. In the meantime she could only hope that Prince Tarkovich would take an instant dislike to her.
Unnoticed, Lord John watched the ladies go. His blue eyes had darkened to gray with anger by the conversation he had overheard. He thought it was unspeakable that a young woman of proud spirit and beauty should be browbeaten in such a fashion. His sense of boredom gone, he crossed the ballroom, keeping the two unknown women in sight.
The ladies approached a small knot of Russian noblemen, who greeted them courteously. Lord Stokes sauntered closer for a better view of the gentlemen in the group, wondering which of them could be Prince Tarkovich. He recalled the name, but to his knowledge he had never met the gentleman at any of the countless social functions he had attended during his two years of service in St. Petersburg. However, that was not unusual because there were numerous minor provincial princes who made but rare trips to the capital.
Sophia covertly eyed the tall silver-haired nobleman to whom her aunt was speaking. After the initial greeting she did not pay attention to what they were saying, but studied the Russian. The gentleman was well-set. Ribbons and orders decorated his broad chest. His eyes were deep-set and clever and she liked the warmth in his gaze when their glances met. Perhaps her aunt's choice for her was not so unreasonable as she had supposed. Sophia thought that given time she might develop a fondness for such a man. The gentleman was much older than she, but many such marriages managed very well.
Then the Russian took Sophia's hand and gently turned her toward a nobleman seated behind them in a heavy ornate chair. Sophia's immediate feeling was shock that a living being could be so grotesquely fat. The nobleman was a mound of flesh upholstered in rich brocade. His massively jowled face was pudding-white and his small eyes peered forth like black currants pressed into dough.
The nobleman beside her spoke. "My prince, allow me to present your affianced bride, Miss Sophia Wyndham."
A nightmarish feeling enveloped Sophia as she stared at the huge nobleman. Her brain could barely grasp that this gargantuan was Prince Tarkovich. The nobleman gave her hand to the prince and stepped back. Sophia felt her hand engulfed by the prince's soft, hot palm. She felt as though she would faint, but her social training had been rigorous. Still in shock, Sophia managed to curtsy, her head bowed.
Prince Tarkovich made no effort to rise from his chair. He stared Sophia up and down, and his wide red mouth turned down. "She's a pretty-enough piece, I suppose. Does she have an appetite?"
The tall Russian nobleman quirked a brow toward Princess Kirov, who blinked at the abrupt question before she answered. "Indeed, your highness. My little Sophia has a healthy appetite at the table, I assure you."
The prince at last released Sophia's hand. He transferred his hard gaze to Princess Kirov. "Then fatten her up at once, madame. The contract does not obligate me to bed a broomstick."
Princess Kirov bowed, still somewhat taken aback but recovering. "Of course, my prince. I promise you that you shall hardly recognize your bride as this same underfed young lady."
"You have two months, madame," Prince Tarkovich said with finality. From the box on his knees he brought a bonbon up to his eyes and inspected it greedily before he popped it into his mouth. A rivulet of chocolate drooled down his quivering chins.
There was a short silence as the ladies stared at the man. Princess Kirov recalled herself. "Rest assured that my dear Sophia will receive the nourishment and attention that her position as your prospective bride demands," said Princess Kirov, throwing a steely glance at her niece's unnaturally white face.
Prince Tarkovich appeared to lose interest in the conversation. He lifted another bonbon.
The tall nobleman cleared his throat. "Prince Tarkovich will be in contact with you, Princess Kirov." He graciously separated the ladies from the circle of hangers-on around Prince Tarkovich. He bowed to Princess Kirov with correct courtesy, but lingered over Sophia's hand as he shrewdly inspected her pale face. He gave her fingers a reassuring squeeze. "You may count on myself as your most devout friend and servant, mademoiselle," he said, his voice deep with meaning.
Sophia did not respond. Her shock was too great. The nobleman smiled faintly. He bowed and went back to his prince.
Princess Kirov watched him go with satisfaction. "It went very well. You are to be congratulated, Sophia. You have successfully gotten yourself a wealthy bridegroom whose family is well-connected at court. And unless I am mistaken, you have also attracted a most suitable nobleman to become your first lover."
Her aunt's words penetrated the hard frozen shell about Sophia. Her mind whirled and she perceptively swayed. Princess Kirov took her arm in an unexpectedly gentle grip. "You are overcome, Sophia, and no wonder! It is too much for a young woman to take in such good fortune all at once."
Sophia shook off her aunt's hand. "You mean to marry me to that--that monstrosity!" She choked hoarsely.
"Prince Tarkovich's family is powerful, Sophia. It will be advantageous for the Kirovs to be linked with them." Princess Kirov shrugged. "The prince is not handsome, no. But he will soon eat himself into the grave and then you will be very comfortable, Sophia. Remember that, niece, and smile. Now, come and be seated by that window where it is cooler. I do not wish you to faint. You have your dance card, of course. And I see that it is nearly full. Very good. Prince Tarkovich will see the grace of the jewel that he acquires. When he overhears the admiration your dancing evokes, perhaps then he will not want you so very fat."
Sophia shuddered. She felt herself suffocating, but she could think of nothing that could extricate her from the grip of her nightmare. Numbly she allowed her aunt to lead her off.
Lord John stood rooted as he watched the young woman follow in the wake of her imperious aunt. The drifting of the crowd had carried him near enough to overhear snatches of the ladies' last conversation, and he was appalled and repulsed.
A hand clasped Lord John's shoulder. His diplomatic training asserted itself and his expression was properly bland when he turned. He was relieved to see his closest friend, Sir Frederick Hawkesworth. "Lord, Freddy, you gave me a start."
"Had your eye on a beauty, did you? Well, if you hope to dance with her this evening mark her card posthaste."
Sir Frederick good naturedly glanced around. "A devilish squeeze, ain't it? I think every titled nonentity in the country has come to this one."
"Indeed," said Lord John absently, his eyes again seeking out the young blond woman, Sophia. His friend's casual words had given him an idea.
Sir Fredrick laughed, sensing his distraction. "One can see that your thoughts are still with some fair goddess. I wish you good hunting, Stokes. Only make certain that her husband is not the jealous sort."
Lord John smiled. "You may be sure of that, Freddy." His friend went off. It was but the work of a moment to discover from an acquaintance the young woman's identity. Lord John sauntered over to write his name on Miss Sophia Wyndham's dance card.
Sophia hardly noticed Lord John's approach and her replies to his civilities were mechanical. Lord John saw with a glance at the dance card that there were several ahead of him. After a few more words to Princess Kirov, Lord John bowed to the ladies and retreated.
"Sophia, you must do better. That is the third gentleman you have snubbed. Even though he is English, he is handsome and deserves your respect," said Princess Kirov with asperity. Her niece turned on her such a glance of indifference that she was taken aback. Thereafter Princess Kirov held her tongue and Sophia was grateful for it.
Sophia went through the motions as each partner claimed her, but even her deep distraction could not completely hinder her natural grace on the dance floor.
Lord John, who had observed her even as he conversed with several acquaintances, was filled with admiration for the young lady's tight control. His chivalric instincts had been aroused by her plight, and it was gratifying to him to see that she was made of stern stuff.
Eventually Lord John presented himself to Miss Wyndham. He bowed politely to her aunt, who graciously dignified him with a nod, before he led out his partner.
Sophia had long since resigned herself to the farce of pretending enjoyment in the evening. She pinned on a polite smile and gathered herself to pursue the typical banal conversation with her new partner. It came as a shock to be addressed in a conspiratorial whisper.
"Mademoiselle, forgive my presumption, but the destiny outlined for you with Prince Tarkovich is preposterous."
Posted February 27, 2011
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