London, December 1804
Lady Sophie York, the only daughter of the Marquis of Brandenburg, had refused to marry a baron who had asked on a balcony. She had refused two honorables, a handful of sirs, and a viscount, all of whom punctiliously requested that honor in her father's study. She had refused a marquess in the midst of a hunt, and plain Mr. Kissler at Ascot. Less fortunate young women could not fathom Sophie's motives. In two seasons, Sophie had rejected most of the ton's eligible bachelors. But after tonight there would be no more proposals, hurried, paced, inarticulate, or otherwise. After tonight the uncharitable would unite in agreement: The girl had held out for a man of high rank. Lady Sophie was affianced to an earl, and she would be a countess by next season.
Sophie grimaced at her mirror, thinking of the avid faces and deep curtsies she would face at the Dewland ball that evening. Uncertainty quaked in her stomach, an unusual flutter of self-consciousness. Was this the correct gown in which to announce her engagement? It was constructed of pale silver, gossamer-thin silk. Perhaps the color would make her look washed-out in the ballroom, once she was surrounded by glittering plumage, the bare breasts and crimson cheeks of the female half of the beau monde. Silver was such a nunlike color. A glint of amusement lit Sophie's eyes. A nun would swoon at the very idea of wearing a bodice made in the French style, low-cut and caught just under the breasts with silver ribbons that wound around the bodice. And the skirt flowed narrowly past Sophie's curves, flirting with the roundness of her hips.
Just then the Marchioness of Brandenburg swept into the bedroom.
"Are you ready, Sophie?"
"Yes, Maman," Sophie said, throwing away the idea of changing her gown. They were already late to the Dewland ball.
The marchioness's eyes narrowed as she looked over Sophie's apparel. Eloise herself was wearing a gown of mouse-colored satin embroidered with flowers and fringed at the bottom. If it wasn't precisely hooped, it gave that impression. It resembled nothing so closely as the styles of twenty years ago, from the early years of Eloise's marriage.
"That dress," Eloise said with asperity, "is a disgrace."
"Yes, Maman." That was Sophie's usual response to her mother's sartorial comments. She gathered up her wrap and reticule, turning toward the door.
Eloise hesitated, uncertainty crossing her face. Sophie looked at her in surprise. Her mother was French and seemed to view life as a battleground in which she was the only general with a standing army. It was uncommon to see her pause.
"Tonight," said Eloise, "it will be announced that you have accepted the hand of the Earl of Slaslow in marriage."
"Yes, Maman," Sophie agreed.
There was a short pause. What could be the problem? Sophie wondered. Her mother was never short of words.
"He may desire some token of your affections."
"Yes, Maman." Sophie lowered her eyes so her mother wouldn't see her mischievous enjoyment.
Poor Mama! She had been raised in a French convent and likely had come to the marriage bed exceedingly ill prepared. Given that Eloise had married an English marquis so obsessed by France and things French that he preferred the French spelling marquis to the English marquess, her daughter had been raised in a house thronged with French émigrés. Her nanny was French, the servants were French, the cook (of course) was French. Eloise had no idea just how earthy discussions had become in the nursery, long before Sophie had even made her debut. The last thing Sophie needed was instruction on what men wanted from women.
"You may allow him one kiss, perhaps two, at most," Eloise said heavily. "I am sure you understand the importance of this limitation, Sophie. I am thinking of you. Your reputation..."
Now Sophie's eyes flashed and she looked directly at her mother, who was, however, gazing at a spot on the far wall.
"You have insisted on wearing gowns that are little more than scraps of tissue. Your neglect of a corset must be obvious to all, and sometimes I have wondered if you are wearing a chemise. I have many times been embarrassed by your behavior, your flirtatiousness, if one can call it that. You have the chance of an excellent marriage here and I demand that you not ruin your prospects by encouraging the Earl of Slaslow to take liberties."
Sophie could feel her heart beating angrily in her throat. "Are you implying that my behavior has been less than correct, Maman?"
"I certainly would say so," her mother responded. "When I was your age, I would no more have dreamed of spending time alone with a man than I would of going to America. No man kissed me before your father. I knew my place and what was proper to my position. You, on the other hand, have shown no respect for the position to which you were born. You have consistently embarrassed your father and myself with your fast behavior."
Despite herself, Sophie felt a curl of mortification in her stomach. "I have never done anything out of the proper, Maman," she protested. "Everyone wears these clothes, and manners are more liberal than they were when you were my age."
"I take part of the responsibility; I have allowed your extravagant escapades to continue, and I have overlooked many of your lapses. But now you are to be a countess, and what may possibly be overlooked as youthful spirits in a girl can never be done so in a countess."
"What lapses? I have never allowed a man to take liberties with my person!"
"I know that chastity is an outmoded word, but it is not an outmoded concept," her mother rejoined sharply. "Your constant joking and flirting makes you seem more accomplished than you are. In fact, Sophie, you have precisely the manners of a top-flight courtesan!"
For a moment Sophie stared at her mother in outrage, then consciously took a deep breath. "I have never done anything out of the proper, Maman," she repeated firmly.
"How can you say that when Lady Prestlefield found you in the arms of Patrick Foakes, alone in a reception room?" her mother retorted. "When you chose to be indiscreet, improper, you were discovered by one of the most talkative women in all London.
"It would have been one thing if you became engaged to Foakes. But to be found kissing in a corner! You embarrassed me profoundly, Sophie. So I will tell you again—I forbid you to allow the Earl of Slaslow more than the most token gesture of affection. Any more of these heated embraces and your reputation will be ruined forever. Moreover, Slaslow will be justified in calling it off if he suspects your rackety nature."
"Your rackety nature," Eloise repeated. "Which," she added, "you inherited from your father. And he has encouraged you. From the moment he supported your study of all those languages, he fostered your unladylike nature. There is little behavior more unmaidenly than learning Latin."
She raised her hand as Sophie began to reply. "Fortunately, that is over. When you are a countess you will be too busy running a large household to indulge yourself in such fruitless pursuits."
Suddenly Eloise remembered her primary grievance. "Had you married Foakes, the gossip would have died, but naturally your reputation has suffered since you turned down his offer." She continued without pause. "No one believes he was able to bring himself to scratch!" The marchioness's tone was biting, and an ominous red flush had mounted up her neck.
"I could not accept Patrick Foakes's proposal," Sophie objected. "He asked me only because Lady Prestlefield walked into the room. He is a rake whose kisses mean nothing."
"I know little about meaningless kisses," Eloise commented magisterially. "It would be nice if my daughter had the same delicacy of person that I have maintained. And what does it matter if Foakes is a rake? A rake can make as good a husband as any other man. He has extensive holdings — what more do you want?"
Sophie looked at the tips of her delicate slippers. It was hard to explain her aversion to rakes without making reference to her beloved papa, who made a practice of chasing every Frenchwoman who arrived in London. And given the turbulent situation in France, he had been very busy in the last seven years or so.
"I would like to marry someone who will respect me," she said.
"Respect you! You certainly don't try to achieve that goal in a very intelligent fashion," her mother said, with a sharp twist of her lips. "I'll warrant there's no gentleman in London who doesn't think of you as an approachable minx, if not worse. When I debuted, poetry was written in praise of my modesty, but I venture to say those verses would not apply to you. In fact," Eloise concluded bitterly, "sometimes I think that you are entirely your father's child — both of you destined to make me the laughingstock of London."
Sophie took another deep breath, and this time tears began to prick the back of her eyelids.
Eloise's expression softened. "I do not wish to be snappish, but I worry for you, Sophie. You will have an excellent husband in the Earl of Slaslow. Please do not place your engagement at risk."
Sophie's anger drained away, followed by a wash of guilty sympathy. Her mother endured a great deal of mortification due to her husband's flagrantly public love of Frenchwomen, and now Sophie had thoughtlessly added to the gossip. "I never meant to cause you embarrassment, Maman," she said quietly. "I was caught by surprise when Lady Prestlefield found me with Patrick Foakes."
"Had you not been alone with a man, no one could have surprised you," her mother pointed out, with irrefutable logic. "A reputation is not a trifling thing. I never thought to hear my daughter called a light-skirt — but that, Sophie, is what is being said about you."
With that, Eloise turned and walked from the room, closing the door behind her.
Tears welled in Sophie's eyes. It was not unusual for her mother to descend on a member of the household like an avenging Fury out of a Greek play, although generally Sophie was able to ignore her embittered comments.
But tonight Eloise had struck a nerve. Sophie knew that she skirted the edge of propriety: Her gowns were the most daring in London and her manner was seductive.
Sophie had heard those dreary odes composed for her mother many times: "Thus from a thousand virgins, heav'nly fair,/One sees the Diana of the sex, whose hair—" Eloise's hair was the same reddish-gold color as hers, but Eloise's lay sleekly along her head, the line of her chignon never disturbed by a curl or a streamer. Sophie's hair curled, and it rebelliously escaped from ribbons and pins. What's more, Sophie had cut off all her hair before any other woman in London had thought of imitating the French fashion, and now that every young miss cropped her curls, she had chosen to grow hers again.
What her mother didn't understand was how impossibly difficult it had been to turn down Patrick Foakes's offer of marriage. She stared at herself blindly in the mirror for a moment, then sank onto the bed as she remembered the Cumberland ball last month. The glory of it when Patrick made it clear that he was stalking her. The twisting excitement in her stomach when she glanced up from the intricacies of a cotillion, and caught his glance.
Even thinking of the lazy greeting in those eyes, the way his right eyebrow flew up in silent acknowledgment, the utterly masculine arrogance of his glance made her stomach jump. Her heart beat fast the entire evening, and excitement tingled in her limbs and weakened her knees. By ten o'clock Patrick Foakes had exerted such a pull over her that she was living for those moments when he would suddenly appear at her elbow or when she would turn in the swirl of a dance and catch a glimpse of silver-streaked black hair on the other side of the room. At supper, in the midst of a chattering crowd huddled around a small round table, her heart leaped every time his leg or arm accidentally brushed hers, sending a drugging velvet excitement down her legs.
They danced together once; they danced together twice. To dance together a third time would be akin to announcing an engagement.
Sophie didn't dare speak during their second dance, a Maltese Bransle that kept parting them and then suddenly jolting them back together. She was afraid that Patrick would guess the spinning tenderness that shivered down her body every time the figure brought them back together.
When he silently took her arm and led her out of the ballroom as if to fetch a glass of syllabub, but instead turned into a quiet room full of spindly tables and frothy chairs, she followed with no objection. Patrick propped himself against a biscuit-colored wall and looked down at her teasingly, and Sophie's only excuse was that the emotional stimulation of the last hours had gone to her head. She impishly grinned back, behaving precisely like the wanton her mama believed her to be.
And when Patrick pulled her into his arms, the moment had the rightness of inevitability. But the purely carnal, fevered urgency of that kiss was a shock. Sophie had been kissed before, so many times that her mother would faint if she even suspected, but this kiss was not the adoring, gentle compliment that she was used to.
This kiss began as an exploration and flared into summer lightning, began as a simple meeting of lips and ended with burning touches and whispered moans. Patrick broke off the kiss with a surprised curse and then instantly bent his head again, his hands walking a fiery line down her back to the curve of her bottom.
It was unfair to say they were kissing when Lady Sarah Prestlefield walked, or rather tiptoed, into the salon, Sophie thought bitterly. They had kissed, and kissed, but at that moment they were merely standing very close together, and Patrick was rubbing his finger across the curve of her lower lip. She was looking at his face in a rather bewildered way, conscious that her cultivated urbanity, her sophisticated manner of dalliance, had entirely deserted her and that in fact she couldn't think of anything clever to say.
"Merde!" Sophie whispered, shaking off the memory. She could hear her father's distant bellowing from the antechamber of the Brandenburg house, undoubtedly shouting for her to hurry. She knew exactly why he was in such a rush. Her father had started a new flirtation with a young French widow, Mrs. Dalinda Beaumaris, and probably had an assignation at the ball.
The thought steeled her resolve. It didn't matter that she had been sobbing every night for a month since rejecting Patrick Foakes's hand. The important thing was that she was right to reject him. Remember the shadow of relief that crossed his eyes when she disengaged her hands in the library the next morning and politely said no, she told herself fiercely. Remember that.
She was not going to have her heart broken by a libertine, the way her mama had. She was not going to turn into a bitter old woman, watching her husband circle the floor with Dalindas and Lucindas. She might not be able to stop her future husband from chasing other women, but she could certainly control the extent to which she cared about the matter.
"I am not a fool," Sophie said to herself, not for the first time.
Hearing a scratch on her door, she stood up.
"His lordship would be very pleased to greet you in the antechamber," said Philippe, one of the footmen.
Sophie had no illusions about the wording of the actual message. Her father had bawled to Carroll, "Get that chit down here!" and Philippe had been dispatched by a nod of the butler's head. Carroll's portly demeanor and his French sense of dignity precluded delivering messages of this sort.
She smiled. "Please inform my father that I will join him directly."
As Philippe backed out the door, Sophie picked up her fan from the dressing table. She paused again in front of the mirror. What looked back at her was an image that had set fire to gentlemen's hearts all over London, had inspired some twenty-two proposals of marriage and numerous intoxicated compliments.
She was small in size, only coming up to Patrick's shoulder, Sophie thought absently. And her wispy silver dress emphasized every curve, especially those of her breasts. The fabric stiffened above its high waist, making it look as if she might fall out of the inch of material.
Sophie shivered. Lately she couldn't even look at herself in the mirror without thinking about the melting softness of her breasts pressing against Patrick's muscled chest. It was time to go. She grabbed her wrap and left the room.