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London, England, 1836
Sophie could scarcely hear what Stella was saying; her heart was pounding so loudly in her ears and filling her throat that it was difficult to even breathe. It was bitterly cold, so cold that every bruise on her body seemed to throb with eager vengeance. But it was precisely that throbbing pain which forced her to put one foot in front of the other, to keep moving down the walkway, calmly, despite an inner voice warning her to turn back.
Turn 'round, turn 'round, turn 'round! It's not too late! He'll not know you attempted to escape if you turn 'round now! "Ooh, milady! That'd be his lordship Allenwhite just ahead! What are we to do?" Stella whispered frantically.
Sophie lifted her gaze, saw the portly gentleman walking briskly toward them. Instinctively, she lifted her chin, wincing at the pain in her jaw where she had been struck just that morning. "We shall say good day and keep walking," she said low, ignoring her maid's fearful grip of her fingers.
"Lady Stanwood, how do you do?" the man asked, pausing to tip his hat.
"I am very well my lord, thank you." Stella's grip tightened painfully. "You'll forgive my manners for hurrying past, sir, but I am quite overdue for an appointment with my modiste, and I confess, I'm rather chilled to the bone."
Allenwhite seemed almost relieved, gave her a curt nod. "Yes, indeed, a nasty day to be abroad. I'll not keep you, my lady." "Good day, my lord." She continued walking, pulling Stella along, her step quickening in time to her pounding heart. She would not allow herself to look back, would allow herself nothing but to stare straight ahead. They were almost there. It was too fantastic to believe, but they were almost there. Almost free.
They rounded the corner onto Bond Street, felt a respite from the wind. Where was Claudia? Sophie's heart plummeted into the pool of her fear-Claudia was not there. She had promised to meet them at the corner of Audley and Bond streets! Had something happened to her? Julian! Julian had discovered their plan and stopped Claudia from coming! The panic spread thick in Sophie's throat. No. No! She could not come so close and be denied! It was so unfair! God!
Frantic, she glanced furtively over her shoulder-Lord Allenwhite had continued on, his head down, oblivious to her and Stella. How long would it be before someone asked him if he had seen her? Sophie fumbled anxiously with her cloak, pushing it open so she could stare at the small watch pinned to her breast. Five minutes past two o'clock. Claudia was five minutes late.
She was not coming.
"By the saints, what could have become of Lady Kettering? Ooh, there's something amiss, I feel it in me bones!" Stella squeaked, gripping Sophie's arm tighter still. Unable to assure Stella they would indeed succeed, Sophie swallowed and stared at the deserted corner of Audley and Bond Street. The words simply would not come, smothered by the weight of her heart, now lodged in her throat along with the fear and the biting dis- appointment . . . and an insane sense of relief.
It is over.
Her little fantasy of escape was over. It was foolish to have thought she might have succeeded. There was nothing left but to turn around now, hurry home before William discovered what she had almost . . . No! She would not allow herself to think what he might do. She would simply hurry home now, before she was forced to imagine it.
She would find another way out of this nightmare, surely.
Or perhaps she would live with the consequence of her foolishness all the rest of her days.
Tears suddenly blinded her, and Sophie looked again at her watch. Seven minutes past. Claudia was not coming. She should have known it was impossible. She should have realized there would be no escape from the private hell she had created for herself. Sophie blinked, felt the tears freeze on her lashes. Huddled beside her, Stella was frightened unto death. Sophie opened her mouth to tell her they would go back now, end this silly escapade, but a hack careened around the corner of Bond Street onto Audley before she could speak. Her heart swelled; Stella turned, too, just as Claudia flung open the door ahead of the coachman and leapt to the ground. She glanced quickly up the street and then down, her gaze landing on Sophie and Stella several yards away. She began walking purposefully toward them.
Sophie's heart filled to almost bursting.
For the first time in several months, she could taste the sweetness of freedom mix with the acidity of fear.