Read an Excerpt
Love in a Bottle
By Zoe Archer
Copyright © 2006
All right reserved.
It was the most beautiful fungus Sophie had ever seen.
She would never have described herself as a person normally
interested in fungi. Either one was pro fungus or anti fungus,
as far as she had observed. Usually Sophie's concentration was
solely centered on plants, with her specialty being flowering
plants, but she knew enough about the realm of fungi to
recognize a rare specimen when she saw one. If she were able
to obtain a sample of the fly agaric mushroom long before any
of the area's other botanists, it would be quite a feather in
her cap. Or would it be a mushroom cap in her feather? Sophie
did not dawdle on details. She wanted the mushroom. That would
She finally gave up hope of observing it from a respectable
distance, since it was carefully hiding itself under a fallen
tree green with moss. Sophie set down her sketch pad and
pencils, removed her broad straw hat and began to do what she
had not done since the first of her twenty-three years.
Her blasted panniers made the work difficult, and she was
likely muddying up her gown, yet she did not care when such a
beautiful and extraordinary specimen as the fly agaric
mushroom presented itself like a shy scarlet princess waiting
in the woods to be courted.
Sophie chided herself as she carefully edged closer, over the
bracken and tender forest-floor plants. If she wanted to be
taken seriously as a botanist, she would have to give up such
fanciful notions as fungi princesses and focus on clear,
logical observation. Men might have the luxury to indulge in
pretty comparisons. No one questioned a man's right to dabble
in the sciences. Yet women were an entirely different matter.
Any false move on Sophie's part would only prove that whatever
interest women had in the study of plants should be limited
solely to the planning of gardens.
Gardens, ha! Sophie almost snorted aloud. She was much happier
here, in the wilds of nature, far from the judging eyes of
She inched towards the fly agaric-such a dreadful name for
such a beautiful specimen-unconcerned that she likely looked
ridiculous and undignified. Her mother would succumb to the
vapors if she saw her daughter eagerly reaching towards a
mushroom, all alone in the middle of the woods. Yet that was
exactly why Sophie was not traveling with her mother. Vapors
were quite a nuisance when there was research to be done.
Almost there. Sophie carefully noted the fly agaric's stem
structure, its identifying bright red cap with white scales,
the number and definition of the gills under its cap, its
oddly solitary position, the pair of black shiny boots
standing right next to it.
With a startled yelp, Sophie leapt back, landing on her rump
in a flurry of skirts.
A man stood in front of her, wearing said boots, soft doeskin
breeches, a fine but plain dark blue waistcoat, and a
bottle-green coat. Then she looked at his face and lost all
interest in his clothing.
Taken together, the various parts of this man made up a
pleasant whole. An extremely pleasant whole. Though Sophie was
on the ground, she could plainly see that the man was rather
tall. His legs were long and lean, and he filled out the
shoulders of his frock coat in a way that clearly bespoke a
level of fitness unlike any other man Sophie had ever met. And
his face ... Sophie was not given to dreamy interludes sighing
over heroes in romantic novels-yet here was a man to make a
woman sigh. His rich brown hair was pulled back into a queue,
his eyes were a shade lighter than his hair. He had strong,
even features. Yet the thing about him that made her stomach
contract in a strange and pleasant way was his smile.
She didn't know men could have such beautiful, charming
smiles, full of wit and mischief, and yet be so completely
masculine. This man proved her wrong. There was nothing
calculated about his smile, no empty gesture of friendship or
politeness. No, this stranger, whoever he was, truly seemed to
enjoy life, as though it were a merry gift that kept unfolding
in surprising and delightful ways. He exuded a particularly
male charm, an awareness of himself and his effect on others
that was not cocky or obnoxious, but rather a natural
extension of the pleasure he found in the world. He made her
want to smile, too. So she did.
"I would be most flattered by your smile, my lady," the man
said with a chuckle, "save for the fact that you were smiling
in exactly the same way at a mushroom not moments before."
Sophie felt deflated. Her face must have shown as much,
because the mysterious gentleman immediately stepped
forward-carefully over the mushroom-and offered her his hand.
"My apologies, my lady. I have been teasing you when, like a
churl, I have left you sitting on the ground."
She regarded his outstretched hand. It was large and
beautifully formed, with long square fingers. Though the
stranger spoke like a gentleman, his hand was more
work-roughened than other men she knew, except the gardener at
home. This man had a fascinating hand. She felt as though she
could study it all day, learn its secrets.
"And now you are applying your excellent observational skills
to my hand," the man said, his voice interrupting her
scrutiny. Sophie's eyes flew to his face, mortified, but he
was not at all offended. "Again, you flatter me. Please allow
me the honor of helping you to your feet."
Sophie slid her muddied hand into his. An immediate deep thrum
shot through her as their flesh touched, like a plucked string
on a viola.
Silently, he pulled her up with almost no effort on his part,
until she was standing squarely on the ground. She rubbed the
bridge of her nose with the tip of her finger, hiding behind a
habitual gesture to find inner equilibrium. Then she
remembered her mother's constant remonstrance against such a
vulgar gesture and quickly clasped her hands in front of her.
He made her feel a bit off, this stranger, uncertain in a way
she wasn't used to. And she thought, for just a moment, that
she set his balance off, too.
And then the stranger was once again smiling. Yet Sophie could
detect that he had retreated somehow, that there was a part of
him that had erected a façade and used it as a shield. Against
what? she wondered. Her? It seemed impossible. What threat
could she pose to anyone, let alone a young and handsome man?
"Permit me the honor of introducing myself," he said, bowing
smoothly as if they were in a drawing room and not a forest
glade. "Ian Blackpool, my lady."
Sophie curtsied, an automatic response. The gesture seemed
particularly odd here in the woods of Wiltshire, far from
human habitation and custom. "Sophie Andrews," she answered.
His eyebrows arched playfully as he pressed his hand to his
chest like a courtier. "Ah, the fair nymph of the woods speaks
at last. I was beginning to despair of ever hearing your
dulcet voice. You continue to heap tributes upon me."
Frowning, Sophie backed up. She did not like being spoken to
in such a fashion, as though she were an empty-headed miss who
could be charmed with easy flattery. She had received enough
of that kind of attention to last her a lifetime, and had
resolved never to endure it again. Although Mr. Blackpool was
certainly one of the most handsome men she had ever met, her
sense of pride demanded that she treat him no differently than
she would anyone else offering up meaningless, patronizing
compliments. Out in the field, she wanted life unhindered by
pretense, to create the world as she wished it-as though she
were Prospero and this stranger Caliban.
Taking up her hat and sketch pad, she walked as close as she
could to the fly agaric mushroom. "A pleasure meeting you,"
she said quickly, sitting down on the fallen tree. She ignored
the vibration of awareness that moved through her as she
She opened her sketch book and, after fishing ink and pen from
her pockets, began to draw the mushroom. She bent over her
work, gazing up only to observe her subject and shutting Ian
Blackpool out of her line of vision. Instead of responding to
her unsubtle hint, he sat right next to her. Surprised,
Sophie had to rein in her impulse to jump up and spill her
ink. For a man she had just met, he certainly had a way of
ruining her composure.
"I've offended you, Miss Andrews," he said, appearing
"Not a bit, Mr. Blackpool. Good day." She resumed sketching,
her hand flying across the page and the nib of the pen
scratching loudly in her meaningful silence. Yet Ian
Blackpool did not move from his seat beside her.
"I can see that I have," he insisted. "There's no use denying
it. Your face is quite pink."
As if on command, her cheeks flushed. Sophie couldn't
remember the last time someone had made her blush. Mr.
Blackpool grew more discomfiting by the second. She opened
her mouth to dismiss him, but he cut her off.
"If you wish me good day again," he said dryly, "I will have
"Have to what?" Sophie interjected hotly. "Give me a
He grinned wolfishly. "That idea has merit."
Sophie set her pen down in astonishment. "I believe you are
one of the most bizarre men I have ever met."
"You flatter me."
"I do not," Sophie insisted hotly. "I don't believe in
flattery. And," she added, gazed at him pointedly, "I don't
like it when people give me extravagant compliments."
"So," he said, "I did offend you."
"Yes," Sophie admitted.
"By complimenting you."
"When you say it like that, it sounds ridiculous."
"Not a bit," he said, echoing her early words.
Sophie trailed her fingers along the petals of a wood anemone
as she sought to explain herself. "Compliments are handed out
to women like sweets are given to children in order to keep
them quiet until dinner. People, men especially, think that
if they heap all manner of flowery words on a woman, they
won't actually have to talk to her, that she will be pacified
with the verbal equivalent of a sweet."
"Something tasty and filling but ultimately unhealthful," Mr.
Sophie nodded. "Exactly. I've had a bellyful of flattery and
now my stomach hurts."
"What is the tonic for such indigestion of the soul?" he asked
with a gentle smile. He plucked a blade of grass and began to
chew it thoughtfully.
He wasn't making fun of her. He honestly wanted to know how
to help. "Talk to me like a person, not a woman," she
replied. "Don't let my gender prove an obstacle to real
conversation. Let us exchange ideas and philosophies. They
are the meat on which I would much rather feed, not empty
He nodded contemplatively, looking at her with a newly
realized respect. She liked seeing it, from him, especially.
"You speak good sense," he said with a nod. "I would wish for
the same for myself." He shifted his weight, brushing his
shoulder against hers as he did so. Sophie again felt that
strange strumming awareness resonate through her body. If
anything, the sensation had grown more intense. Shyly, Sophie
cradled her sketch pad closer to her chest, as though trying
to shelter herself. She did not want her gender to influence
her behavior, but she became aware of how alone she was with
this attractive man, the size difference between them, and the
warm curiosity of his brown eyes. She felt as though she
should go, but she was reluctant to part company with Mr.
Blackpool now that they had settled their dispute. Prospero
did not want to leave the island.
"Perhaps," she said, struggling with her awareness of him, "I
was being rather waspish just a moment ago."
"On the contrary, you've every right to speak your mind." He
contemplated the fly agaric mushroom. "Your interest in this
red fellow has something to do with your dislike of being
patronized, I'd wager."
Her eyes widened at his perception as she nodded.
Straightening her spine, she announced with self-conscious
pride, "I am a botanist."
He tipped his head respectfully. "A noble calling."
"I think so," she said, waiting for his disapproval. Surely
it would come, as it had with so many before him. She
continued to wait, but it did not arrive.
"Yet your friends and family don't agree," he said instead.
Ian Blackpool seemed a most singular man.
His understanding of her predicament sent a rush of gratitude
through her, and a release of long-pent frustration. "A woman
has no place in botany, they say." Distracted, she stood and
began to pace. "Especially a woman of breeding," Sophie
added, the word becoming a vile insult. "They would rather
see me mindlessly tinkering in a garden, planning rose beds
and topiary, than making real scientific discoveries, and
actually contributing something to the world." She stopped
pacing and brushed the loosened strands of fair hair from her
face. Forcing herself to be calm, she added, "I'm not being
impartial. My family wishes me well, but they know that there
are few venues open to a woman in the sciences. None,
Mr. Blackpool rose and came to stand a few feet away from her.
He gave her a long, assessing look that made her flush
deeply. "And how do your sweethearts feel about your
botanical pursuits?" he asked.
"Sweethearts?" Sophie echoed as her mouth dried.
His smile was lazy and intimate. "Surely a pretty young woman
such as yourself has sweethearts," he said. "Trust me, love,
that I am not giving you an empty compliment." He reached out
and gently brushed the bridge of her nose, where she had
accidentally smudged some dirt. Sophie watched his gesture,
completely hypnotized by its masculine sensuality.
"I've had suitors before," she rasped. "None that would
qualify as sweethearts, exactly."
"What did these suitors think of your passion?" he asked
warmly, rubbing his fingers together as though recalling the
feel of her skin beneath them. At her blank look, Mr.
Blackpool explained, "Your passion for botany."
Sophie felt like she was playing a game where she did not know
the rules. Mr. Blackpool not only knew the rules, he was
cheating. Yet she was determined to prevail, prove that she
was capable of managing herself in all things, not merely the
scientific. "They proved to be even less understanding than
my parents," she said, tipping up her chin. "After my next
birthday, I shall be an official hopeless case, and completely
He abruptly stepped back and laughed casually, though to
Sophie the laugh sounded strained. She got the impression
that she had trumped him, but did not feel particularly
pleased about it. "I never mentioned marriage," he said with
an abstracted grin. "Only sweethearts and suitors."
He had done it again, that barrier he had put up when their
hands had touched. Sophie did not consider herself an
unusually sensitive individual, yet she found that Mr.
Blackpool's strange dance between intimacy and distance
unsettled her. Even more unsettling was her awareness of his
feelings, an almost complete stranger. Ever since they had
made contact, she found herself aware of him. Very aware.
"I have established that I shall never marry," she said with
resolve. "It seems as though no man wants a botanist for a
"You're quite serious about botany, to give up hopes of a
husband and a family in order to pursue it." He crossed his
arms over his broad chest, taking her in.
Sophie thought about the children she would never have, the
long years of solitude with no one such as Mr. Blackpool to
grow old with, and the fact that her sacrifice for science
might never be recognized because of her gender. It was
cruel. A sharp longing and sadness pierced her thinking of
it. Yet she loved her work with the kind of ardor she
supposed most people felt for their sweethearts. Sophie once
read that Queen Elizabeth considered herself married to
England, so strong was her determination to have complete
control over herself and her country. Sophie had decided she
would take botany for a husband for the very same reasons.
She had to continue her scientific pursuits and would not
relinquish her rights to herself. And if the nights were long
and her bed lonely, and the love of a man for a woman
something she only read about in novels, it would have to be
enough knowing the work waited for her every morning. "I am
quite serious," she replied gravely.
He nodded with equal solemnity and held out his hand. "May I
look at your work?"
Excerpted from Love in a Bottle
by Zoe Archer
Copyright © 2006 by Zoe Archer .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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