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Julian Richard Sinclair, Earl of Ravenwood, listened in stunned disbelief as his formal offer of marriage was rejected. On the heels of disbelief came a cold, controlled anger. Who did the lady think she was, he wondered. Unfortunately, he could not ask her. The lady had chosen to absent herself. Julian’s generous offer was being rejected on her behalf by her obviously uncomfortable grandfather.
"Devil take it, Ravenwood, I don't like this any better than you do. Thing is, the girl’s not a young chit straight out of the schoolroom," Lord Dorring explained morosely. "Used to be an amiable little thing. Always eager to please. But she’s three and twenty now and during the past few years she seems to have developed a considerable will of her own. Dashed annoying at times, but there it is. Can’t just order her about these days."
"I am aware of her age," Julian said dryly. "I was lead to believe that because of it she would be a sensible, tractable sort of female."
"Oh, she is," Lord Dorring sputtered. "Most definitely she is. Don’t mean to imply otherwise. She’s no addle-brained young twit given to hysterics or anything of that sort." His florid, bewhiskered face was flushed with evident dismay. "Normally she’s very good-natured. Very amenable. A perfect model of, uh, feminine modesty and grace."
"Feminine modesty and grace," Julian repeated slowly.
Lord Dorring brightened. "Precisely, m’lord. Feminine modesty and grace. Been a great prop to her grandmother since the death of our youngest son and his wife a few years back. Sophy’s parents were lost at sea the year she turned seventeen, you know. She and her sister came to live with us. I’m sure you recall." Lord Dorring cleared his throat with a cough. "Or perhaps it escaped your notice. You were somewhat occupied with, uh, other matters at the time."
Other matters being a polite euphemism for finding himself helplessly ensnared in the coils of a beautiful witch named Elizabeth, Julian reflected. "If your granddaughter is such a paragon of all the sensible virtues, Dorring, what seems to be the problem with convincing her to accept my offer?"
"My fault entirely, her grandmother assures me." Lord Dorring’s bushy brows drew together in an unhappy frown. "I fear I’ve allowed her to read a great deal. And all the wrong sort of thing, I’m told. But one doesn’t tell Sophy what to read, you know. Can’t imagine how any men could accomplish that. More claret, Ravenwood?"
"Thank you. I believe I could use another glass." Julian eyed his red-faced host and forced himself to speak calmly. "I confess I do not quite understand, Dorring. What have Sophy’s reading habits got to do with anything?"
"Fear I haven’t always kept a close watch on what she was reading," Lord Dorring muttered, gulping his claret. "Young women pick up notions, you know, if you don’t keep a watch on what they read. But after the death of her sister three years ago, I didn’t want to press Sophy too hard. Her grandmother and I are quite fond of her. She really is a reasonable girl. Can’t think what’s gotten into her head to refuse you. I’m sure she would change her mind if she just had a little more time."
"Time?" Ravenwood’s brows rose with ill-concealed sarcasm.
"You must admit you’ve rushed things a trifle. Even my wife says that. We tend to go about this sort of thing more slowly out here in the country. Not used to town ways, you know. And women, even sensible women, have these damn romantic notions about how a man ought to go on." Lord Dorring eyed his guest with a hopeful air. "Perhaps if you could allow her a few more days to consider your offer?"
"I would like to talk to Miss Dorring, myself," Julian said.
"Thought I explained. Not in at the moment. Gone out riding. Visits Old Bess on Wednesdays."
"I am aware of that. She was informed that I would be calling at three, I assume."
Lord Dorring coughed again to clear his throat. "I, er, believe I mentioned it. Undoubtedly slipped her mind. You know how young women are." He glanced at the clock. "Should be back by half past four."
"Unfortunately, I cannot wait." Julian set down his glass and got to his feet. "You may inform your granddaughter that I am not a patient man. I had hoped to get this marriage business settled today."
"I believe she thinks it is settled, my lord." Lord Dorring said sadly.
"You may inform her that I do not consider the matter finished. I will call again tomorrow at the same time. I would greatly appreciate it, Dorring, if you would endeavor to remind her of the appointment. I intend to speak to her personally before this is all over."
"Certainly, by all means, Ravenwood, but I should warn you it ain’t always easy to predict Sophy’s comings and goings. As I said, she can be a bit willful at times."
"Then I expect you to exert a bit of willpower of your own. She’s your granddaughter. If she needs the reins tightened, then, by all means, tighten them."
"Good God," Dorring muttered with great feeling. "Wish it were that easy."
Julian strode toward the door of the small, faded library and stepped out into the narrow, dark hall. The butler, dressed in a manner that blended perfectly with the air of shabby gentility that characterized the rest of the aging manor house, handed him his tall, flat-crowned beaver hat and gloves.
Julian nodded brusquely and brushed past the elderly retainer. The heels of his gleaming Hessians rang hollowly on the stone floor. He was already regretting the time it had taken to dress formally for the unproductive visit.
He’d even had one of the carriages brought around for the occasion. He might as well have ridden over to Chesley Court and saved the effort of trying to add a formal touch to the call. If he’d been on horseback he could have stopped off at one of the tenants’ cottages on the way home and seen to some businesses. That way, at least, the entire afternoon would not have been wasted.
"The Abbey," he ordered as the carriage door was opened for him. The couchman, wearing the green-and-gold Ravenwood livery, touched his hat in acknowledgment of the command.
The beautifully matched team of grays leapt forward under the light flick of the whip an instant after the door was slammed shut. It was understood that the Earl of Ravenwood was not in a mood to dawdle along country roads this afternoon.
Julian leaned back against the cushions, thrust his booted feet out in front of him, folded his arms across his chest, and concentrated on controlling his impatience. It was not an easy task.
It had never occurred to him that his offer of marriage would be rejected. Miss Sophy Dorring did not stand a chance in hell of getting a better offer, and everyone involved knew it. Certainly her grandparents were vividly aware of that blunt fact.
Lord Dorring and his wife had nearly fainted when Julian had asked for their granddaughter’s hand in marriage a few days ago. As far as they were concerned, Sophy was quite past the age when it might have been possible to make such a suitable match. Julian’s offer was a bolt from a truly benign providence.
Julian’s mouth twisted sardonically as he considered the scene that had undoubtedly ensued when Sophy had informed her grandparents she was not interested in the marriage. Lord Dorring had obviously not known how to take charge of the situation and his lady had probably suffered a fit of the vapors. The granddaughter with the lamentable reading habits had easily emerged the victor.
The real question was why the silly chit had wanted to win the battle in the first place. By rights she should have leapt at Julian’s offer along with everyone else. He was, after all, intending to install her at Ravenwood. A twenty-three-year-old country-bred miss with only passable looks and an extremely small inheritance could hardly aspire higher. Julian wondered briefly just what books Sophy had been reading and then dismissed the notion that her choice of reading material was the problem.
The problem was far more likely to be her grandfather’s overly indulgent attitude toward his orphaned grandchild. Women were quick to take advantage of a weak-willed man.
Her age might also be a factor. Julian had considered her years an asset in the beginning. He’d already had one young, ungovernable wife and one was quite enough. He’d had sufficient scenes, tantrums, and hysterics from Elizabeth to last him a lifetime. He had assured an older female would be more levelheaded and less demanding; more grateful, in fact.
It was not as if the girl had a great deal of choice out in the country, Julian reminded himself. She would not have all that much choice in town, for that matter. She definitely was not the type to attract the attention of the jaded males of the ton. Such men considered themselves connoisseurs of female flesh in much the same way they considered themselves experts on horseflesh, and they were not likely to look twice at Sophy.
She was not fashionably extreme in her coloring, being neither strikingly dark-haired nor angelically blond. Her tawny brown curls were a pleasingly rich shade but they appeared to have a will of their own. Tendrils were always escaping from beneath her bonnets or straggling free from a painstakingly arranged coiffure.
She was no Grecian goddess, the look currently fashionable in London, but Julian admitted to himself that he had no quarrel with her slightly tilted nose, gently rounded chin, and warm smile. It would be no great task to get into bed with her frequently enough to ensure himself of an heir.
He was also willing to allow that Sophy had a fine pair of eyes. They were an interesting and unusual shade of turquoise flecked with gold. It was curious and rather satisfying to note that their owner had not the least idea of how to use them to flirt.
Instead of peeking up at a man through her lashes, Sophy had the disconcerting habit of looking straight at him. There was an open, forthright quality about her gaze that had convinced Julian that Sophy would have a great deal of difficulty pursuing the elegant art of lying. That fact suited him, too. Picking out the handful of truths buried amid Elizabeth’s lies had nearly driven him insane.
Sophy was slender. The popular high-waisted gowns suited her figure but they tended to emphasize the rather small curves of her breasts. There was, however, a healthy, vibrant quality about her that Julian appreciated. He did not want a weakling. Frail women did not do well in childbirth.
Julian reviewed his mental image of the woman he intended to marry and realized that, while he had assessed her physical assets accurately, he had not, apparently, taken certain aspects of her personality into consideration. He had never guessed, for example, that beneath that sweet, demure façade, she had a streak of willful pride.
It must have been Sophy’s pride that was getting in the way of a proper sense of gratitude. And her willfulness appeared more entrenched than expected. Her grandparents were obviously distraught and quite helpless against their granddaughter’s unanticipated resistance. If the situation was to be salvaged, Julian decided, he would have to do it himself.
He made his decision as the carriage rocked to a halt in front of the two stately arms of the crab-pincer staircase that marked the imposing entrance to Ravenwood Abbey. He climbed out of the equipage, stalked up the stone steps, and began giving low-voiced orders as soon as the door was opened for him.
"Send a message to the stables, Jessup. I want the black saddled and read in twenty minutes."
"Very good, my lord."
The butler turned to relay the message to a footman as Julian strode across the black-and-white marble-tiled hall and up the massive red-carpeted staircase.
Julian paid little attention to his grand surroundings. Although he had been raised there, he had cared little for Ravenwood Abbey since the early days of his marriage to Elizabeth. Once he had felt the same possessive pride toward the house as he did toward the fertile lands that surrounded it but now he only experienced a vague distaste toward his ancestral home. Every time he walked into a room he wondered if this was yet another chamber in which he had been cuckolded.
His land was quite a different matter. No woman could taint the good, rich fields of Ravenwood or his other estates. A man could count on the land. If he took care of it, he would be amply rewarded. To preserve the lands for future Earls of Ravenwood, Julian was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice: he would marry again.