How many people did it take to ruin a ball? Any number that had made it a ball in the first place! Blowing out a puff of air that was probably mingled with the breath of hundreds more about her, Sophia struggled not to look too bored. It was only out of affection for Aunt Caroline that Sophia agreed to come in the first place.
“I do not think I agreed,” she muttered plaintively.
“Still complaining?” Elizabeth asked, giving her a sideways glance before returning to the scene beyond her. “Do cheer up, Sophia. You’re draining all the excitement just like those horrible creatures you spoke about last night.”
“Yes,” the younger sister affirmed. “You’re behaving just like a vampyre.”
“I am not draining the life force of anyone in this room,” Sophia countered. “’Tis only you who complains of it. I promised Mama and Papa that I would guard you against unwanted male attention, and that is what I shall do.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes and fiddled with the deep brown curls framing her face, her body brimming with barely-contained eagerness. Sophia knew her sister’s slight annoyance at her was no match for the anticipation reflected in her hazel eyes.
Shaking her head, Sophia sat back in her chair and crossed her arms. It was not the stance of a young lady, but a bored woman who wanted to go home, remove her hideous gown, and find a lovely spot in the library to read, study something, or perhaps take Freki and Geri for a walk if Clive hadn’t already done so.
Sweeping her gaze through the room, Sophia observed each guest that caught her eye. Some she recognised, while others were mere strangers to her. It was no surprise that most were people she did not know, because Sophia wasn’t interested in knowing them. Aunt Caroline, or Lady Smethwick as others knew her, knew a great many people and enjoyed throwing balls and parties to bring everyone together like one big, happy family. Sophia found it naïve of her aunt to assume that people got along simply because they spent a lot of time together at social events. Balls were notorious for scandals to originate, gossip to spread, and friends or enemies to be created; just because all was done with an air of propriety did not take away from the lack of familial ties between guests—even those who were related turned on each other at some point, especially in the grasp of greed and power.
Sophia was only twenty-two, but she had been watching and listening for so long that she felt she knew everything she needed to know about people. What else could she have done when she was nothing but a wallflower? Perhaps worse. The only reason why people knew she existed was that Elizabeth was beautiful, and Sophia had to follow her everywhere like some unwanted shadow.
Sophia jumped when her sister’s hand smacked her arm and grabbed it, her grip tight.
“He’s here,” she gasped, her voice almost breathy.
Sophia followed Elizabeth’s gaze, finally landing on a fair head that was already surrounded by pressing bodies despite his arrival likely being less than a minute ago. She presumed that was what one got when they were considered the most handsome man in England.
“What am I supposed to do about Lord Brittingham’s presence?” Sophia asked, removing her sister’s grip. “You are the one who is enamoured with him.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks grew bright pink. “I know not what you mean.”
“Of course not,” Sophia replied, her tone sarcastic.
“I do not,” Elizabeth insisted.
Sophia turned her whole body towards her sister, giving her raised eyebrows. “Is this one of those times when I should take your word for it despite knowing the truth? It wouldn’t be the first time you have told me to turn a blind eye, but the last time ended in my scolding. Papa expects me to watch over you, Elizabeth, to be the bigger sister. I cannot do that if you keep putting yourself in compromising situations.”
Last year, Elizabeth had fancied herself in love with a young man whom their parents did not approve of, and an elopement had been planned because Elizabeth couldn’t live without him. Their father found out about the plan from one of their servants and stopped the elopement well before Elizabeth could gather her belongings and slip out in the dead of night. Sophia had been reprimanded in Elizabeth’s stead and blamed for not taking better care of her sister—if Sophia had done so, then the young man would not have seduced Elizabeth into running away. It didn’t matter that Sophia had been visiting her aunt when this had taken place. Thankfully, not many people had found out about the failed elopement because both families had managed to squash the rumours. It helped that no one would think that Elizabeth could ever put a foot out of place.
Her sister’s cheeks went from pink to red in the space of a few seconds. “You will never allow me to forget that, will you?”
“Not if you wish to make the same mistake again.”
“Do not ruin my life because you do not have one.”
Sophia’s chest tightened for just a moment before the heavy pressure of pain eased. She turned away from her sister and focused on the guests, willing herself not to cry. What Elizabeth said was true enough; Sophia did not have the wonderful life that Elizabeth lived—but only in the social sense, for she had what mattered: her animals, books, best friend, and family. She didn’t need the acceptance of others.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, Sophia,” Elizabeth cried, drawing nearer to her. “I didn’t mean that. Sometimes I say things when I’m angry, but I do not mean them.”
“No, it’s not. Please forgive me.”
Sophia wanted to wrap her anger around herself and shut her sister out, but when she felt Elizabeth’s hand on her own, she turned her head and saw the sheen of tears in the young woman’s eyes. Sophia did love her, and for all Elizabeth’s flaws, she knew that her sister loved her, too.
“I forgive you.”
Elizabeth’s smile lit up her face, making her prettier, if that was possible. “Thank you, Saffi.”
Sophia grinned at the use of her childhood nickname. “You haven’t used that in some time.”
“I know, but I hurt my sister, and I feel like that little girl seeking your approval again.” Elizabeth removed her hand and dipped her head. “Sometimes, I think beauty can be a curse to the one who wields it. Everyone treats me differently, and it’s a heady feeling. I’m afraid I’ll become so accustomed to using it that I’ll forget that you’re my sister and hurt the only one who truly knows and loves me despite my flaws.”
Sophia could see the little girl who had followed her around and mimicked everything she did shining in her sister’s eyes. Though they were three years apart, they had been inseparable almost from the day of Elizabeth’s birth, quickly becoming the kind of sisters that everyone wished to have and be. That all came to an eventual end when Elizabeth started changing in physical appearance. She had always been a pretty child, but when she grew to womanhood, she became beautiful and caught the eye of any person who happened to see her.
On the other hand, Sophia’s plain looks never blossomed. Her lips were a tad too large for her heart-shaped face, her nose leaned towards something between a button and snub nose, and her cheeks carried a smattering of freckles that no amount of staying out of the sun or beauty creams could hide. Sophia’s best features were her brown doe eyes and her thick and wavy waist-length hair that gleamed like brushed copper under sunlight. It was more of a chestnut colour when contained in the hairstyle she had chosen tonight, but when let loose, it released the reddish strands that Elizabeth did not have in her hair.
Not that it was much consolation to have something better than Elizabeth—Sophia wasn’t the petty or jealous type anyway. Still, whenever she took down her hair and combed it before bed, there was some little satisfaction that she had something beautiful about her.
“I always taught you that humility was better than any other virtue,” said Sophia. “Practice more of that, and you will never fall prey to the charms of your physical beauty.”
Elizabeth sighed and nodded, her exaggerated curls dangling around her face. “Yes, I remember your teachings, each and every one of them. If only I could recall them when everyone treats me like I’m better than most. It’s difficult to remain humble when people shower you with compliments and put you on a pedestal. I am only human, Saffi. Such things can go to one’s head and permanently change their own opinion of themselves. Look at Prinny—he is an overweight, none-too-handsome Prince Regent, but he believes the entire country owes him a favour because of his position. Had he been anything but King George’s son, he would not have such a swollen head.”
Sophia had to laugh. “Do not let anyone who loves the Prince Regent hear you say that. It’s near blasphemy.”
“But it’s true,” Elizabeth insisted. “Everyone thinks so. But if he had looked like Richard…” The young woman’s cheeks held a faint blush. “I mean, he would be better had he been more handsome and had less of a gut.”
“That’s a matter of opinion. Looks do not maketh the man, but a first impression can destroy him in the eyes of others,” Sophia said, a little gravely. She took a breath to clear her head. “When will you allow names on your dance card?”
Elizabeth drew out said card. “I have several already. You were with Aunt Caroline when it began to fill with partners.”
Of course it did. Sophia was informally known as Elizabeth’s guard. No one could simply approach her and strike up a conversation unless Sophia deemed them acceptable. It was for her sister’s own good as her intelligence and common sense tended to drop once a stunning man smiled her way. Sophia didn’t have that problem because no man had ever looked at her with interest. It was both a curse and a blessing.
Noticing that there were two spaces left on her sister’s dance card, Sophia was about to ask Elizabeth why when the answer came to her: her sister had kept them for Richard.
“Oh, Lizzy,” she groaned. “I think this has gone on far enough. The man hasn’t agreed to formally court you, and yet you keep a light burning for him. Why? He is the biggest flirt I have ever had the misfortune to know.”
“That is only because you do not know him,” Elizabeth argued. “Richard is sweet and caring. He cannot help that he is beautiful.”
“I suppose he cannot help his ego either,” Sophia muttered under her breath.
Sophia had met Richard on a few occasions, and he had snubbed her more times than she cared to count. Elizabeth had caught his attention and likely now had a forbidden relationship hidden away from disapproving eyes.
Why didn’t the man just come to their father and ask to court Elizabeth? Why the secrecy? Sophia had a feeling her sister had met with Richard on the occasions she had not accompanied Elizabeth. Their mother was not as observant as Sophia and far too trusting of her youngest daughter.
“Would you get me something to drink?” Elizabeth asked.
“Now? But you’ve already had some wine.”
“I know. Perhaps some champagne?”
Sophia narrowed her eyes. “You do not like the taste of champagne.”
“I know,” Elizabeth said again. “But apparently Aunt Caroline has started to import a special kind from France. An exclusive champagne, if you will. I wish to try it—you should as well.”
Why would her sister recommend alcohol when Elizabeth knew that Sophia did not like the taste? The few times that Sophia had drunk any alcohol it had either given her a headache or a stomach ache. Tea, milk, and water were Sophia’s preferred beverages. Fortunately, Aunt Caroline knew of Sophia’s aversion and provided her with something to keep her hydrated.
“I do not wish to be ill,” Sophia simply said.
Elizabeth sighed in frustration, but Sophia could have sworn it was tinged with desperation.
“Please, Sophia. It’s just one drink.”
One drink, and then what? Why did Sophia feel that her sister was trying to get rid of her?
“Very well,” Sophia capitulated, knowing that her sister would remain persistent. “I shall not belong.”
“There is no need to rush,” Elizabeth assured her. “You still have to walk through throngs of people.”
If Sophia hadn’t been suspicious before, she was now.
“I will not be long,” she promised, and began to make her way through the crowd.
What was Elizabeth up to now? Things would have been so much easier if Aunt Caroline had not made the special request that Sophia attend the ball. The Viscountess of Smethwick was well aware that Sophia hated these events and never felt comfortable with them.
“Mama should be watching Lizzy, not I,” she complained under her breath.
Both her parents were occupied while Sophia played companion and guard; Mama was currently gossiping with a few of her friends, and Papa was likely playing cards in another room.
It wasn’t fair.
Sophia moved past guests that barely noticed her, and that was fine. Better to be ignored than given unwanted attention.
“Sophia, dear,” her aunt called somewhere to her left.
Sophia turned to her with some reluctance. Aunt Caroline was always trying to assimilate her into society, to show Sophia that she could be part of it if only she would enjoy herself. After three years, it had become tiresome. The Viscountess was standing with a young man of perhaps twenty-five years who looked like he wanted to be anywhere but by her side.
“Yes, Aunt Caroline?”
“Have you met Lord Henderson?”
The man’s eyes flicked to hers, showing his discomfort. Sophia inwardly sighed, wondering how to get out of dancing with an unwilling man. She had no doubts that Aunt Caroline would try to force a dance out of Lord Henderson. Why did her aunt not understand that men were not interested in her?
“No, I have not had the privilege. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lord Henderson. Unfortunately, I cannot stay too long, Aunt Caroline. Would you please excuse me?”
Sophia thought she heard the man give a sigh of relief, but that could have just been her past experiences narrating this one.
“Where are you off to, dear?” her aunt asked, sounding a little strained.
Perhaps Sophia had been a little on the rude side by barely giving Lord Henderson much attention, but she tired of seeing the same look of rejection on every man who was presented to her. Besides, Lord Henderson seemed happy to see her go.
“Elizabeth wasn’t feeling well, so I decided to get her something to drink,” Sophia lied, her right eye twitching.
“But she looks fine now,” her aunt said, her lightly lined brow creasing with puzzlement. “She is dancing with Lord Brittingham.”
Sophia turned, sucking in her cheeks and biting softly on the flesh. She had expected her sister to do something, but to dance with the Earl mere moments after leaving her? It stung of insolence.
“I suppose she has regained her strength,” Sophia said tightly.
“Then perhaps you can speak to Lord Henderson for a little while,” her aunt suggested while not giving any options. “He is also interested in customs and traditions of other nations. You’ll have a lot to talk about. Will you excuse me? I think I’ve just seen someone I know.”
Considering that the Viscountess had invited all the guests tonight, she would undoubtedly know everyone to some extent. Sophia cringed at her aunt’s lack of subtlety and could only imagine what Lord Henderson might be thinking.
There must be nothing worse than being left with an unwanted woman. He must wish he was anywhere else at this very moment.
However, Sophia knew the man would be polite and make small conversation before taking the way out that she would provide.
Lord Henderson watched, helpless, as Lady Smethwick all but ran away. When the Viscountess was well and truly out of sight, he slowly turned to Sophia. One would think she was a leper from the look in the man’s eyes, but when one was socially inadequate and unattractive, they might as well have been a leper. Sophia felt hurt well up in her. She didn’t deserve to be looked upon as something unwanted, and she certainly didn’t deserve the title of England’s Least Eligible Gentle Lady.
It had come about when Sophia had been socially introduced three years ago. All manner of things had gone wrong for her, from wardrobe malfunctions to stepping on dance partners’ toes and awkward social moments. These had all plagued Sophia until most wished to keep away from her.
As her thoughts centred upon the unfairness of the entire evening, her anger grew. Welcoming the emotion, she plastered on a smile that may have resembled a sneer and tilted her head.
“Are you enjoying yourself, Lord Henderson?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you.”
Oh, how polite he was. If only his face matched his words. Sophia didn’t want to make small talk, but neither did she want to come away as Poor Sophia the Wallflower.
Watching him look away, Sophia followed his gaze and found it resting on her sister’s pretty head.
“Will you ask me if my sister’s dance card is full now or later?” she asked bluntly.
The man whipped his head back to her, casting a wary look at her. “What do you mean?”
“Come, come now, my lord. We should dispense with the preliminaries and get straight to the point. Perhaps you didn’t think that you would ask me, but now that I’m here, I’m certain you’re curious to know if you have a chance to dance with Elizabeth. You certainly wouldn’t be the first gentleman to use me to get to my sister.”
Sophia’s voice sounded a tad harsher than she had expected, so she tried to soften the quip with a smile. She might as well have smiled at a wall for all the good it did.
“I’ve heard some rumours about you, Miss Emley,” the man said. “I didn’t know they were true until this very moment. A woman in your position would do wise to sweeten her tongue if you ever hope to marry.”
Rumours about her? Sophia wasn’t surprised.
“I presume that you do not enjoy my frankness—how disappointing. However, I will be polite enough to say that you have no chance of dancing with Elizabeth tonight; her dance card is full. I hope you have a splendid evening, my lord.”
Sophia gave an melodramatic curtsey and walked off. Perhaps she had been rude, but it was better to strike first than allow others to take the first strike. Sophia didn’t want to end the evening wishing she had defended herself more. That had happened many times before, and she had grown tired of lying awake in bed overthinking about who said what, and why she had just stood there and listened to it all.
What should she do now? There was no longer a reason to get the champagne, and Sophia did not want to return to her seat.
“Isn’t that Sophia Emley?” a woman’s voice piped up from somewhere nearby.
Sophia didn’t turn in the direction her name came from, but pretended to be looking for someone in the crowd.
“Yes, it is,” another woman said. “Don’t they call her Poor Sophia the Wallflower?”
The first woman laughed. “Can you blame them? It looks like she dug up that dress from who knows where. She should ask her sister for beauty advice. She certainly needs it!”
“I feel sorry for her,” the second woman said with some pity. “What woman wants to be rejected during her Season?”
“Rejected? She wasn’t even considered! Apparently, she made all the faux pas that one could make and earned a reputation for herself. She had just as much opportunity as we do to make a good impression, and she wasted it. It is sad, but it’s reality. No man wants a wife who cannot fit in. She could at least smile and stop looking like a mean troll.”
The women eventually made off, but Sophia found she couldn’t move. She had heard it all before, but did it ever get easier? Sophia furiously blinked away the hot, unwelcome tears and pushed past surprised guests, trying to flee the room.
After what felt like an eternity, Sophia reached the double doors, breathing a ragged sigh of relief when she stepped outside. Where should she go? It took her a moment of indecision to realise that the library would be her safest option for the time being, but it would only be a matter of time before the men started spilling into the room for cigars and brandy.
Hurrying to the room, Sophia slumped against the door to close it, knocking her head on the wood a little harder than she intended. She rubbed it as she pushed away, making her way to the bookshelves and stopping at random.
Uncle Arthur kept a wide array of books and was as much a collector as was Sophia’s father. However, unlike her father, the Viscount could afford to fill his vast library with first editions, rare books, and even the dark arts.
“I don’t think I could read in here,” she said to herself. “And I have at least three or four hours before Elizabeth will want to go home.”
Their parents were never mindful of when Sophia wished to go home because she never did anything but sit and watch guests or guard her sister. Elizabeth was the one with the chance to marry well.
“I’m sure they’ll be over the moon once they know that Lord Brittingham is interested,” Sophia muttered, trailing her hand over a low bookshelf.
That was, if he was sincerely interested—there was no telling the intentions of that flirt. Sophia didn’t trust him at all.
After some time, she picked a book and decided that reading under the night sky seemed like a good idea. At least she would be alone and not bump into any people. She knew just the spot she would go to, but she needed an oil lamp if she intended to actually see anything; it was a rather cloudy night, and only bits of the moon could be seen. Sophia looked around her and spotted an one with enough fuel to keep burning for an hour or two. She lit it with a candle, tucked her chosen book under her arm, and set out for the garden through the back way. None of the guests were milling around there as it was closer to the servants’ quarters. If they wanted to walk through Aunt Caroline’s garden, then they could take the doors leading out from the ballroom, but Sophia doubted anyone would venture too far.
As she made her way to her favourite spot—the tree with the exposed roots where one person could comfortably snuggle in—she wondered why her aunt and uncle had so many Greek statues dotted about the place. As far as she was concerned, it took away from the beauty of nature.
“Each to their own, I guess,” she mumbled.
The night air was still until an odd wind blew through and snuffed out her lamp. Sophia was plunged into the shadows, made worse by the Aphrodite statue she was sitting below. Groaning at her bad luck, she thought to retreat indoors when she heard twigs breaking. Her heart stuttered. Her eyes grew wide, then narrowed in the direction of the sound. She glared into the darkness, trying to see what had disturbed her.
“It must be a critter,” she whispered.
She half-expected the rustle of leaves and grass to prove that a tiny creature was scurrying away, but what Sophia heard next sent shivers down her spine: footsteps were slowly, but surely, approaching her.
She tried to call out and demand to know who it was, but her tongue felt like cotton. All she could do was make odd sounds that seemed silly to her, so she stopped. A dark shadow appeared in front of her, and Sophia could just make out the silhouette of a man. It grew closer, and despite her mind screaming at her to move, her body didn’t budge. The figure loomed over her and took Sophia in his arms. Sophia was stunned; she couldn’t even struggle!
“I’m so glad you came to meet me,” the man said. “I couldn’t wait until I could have you to myself.”
The voice sounded so familiar, but Sophia’s brain was a little too busy feeling frightened to be concerned about who it was.
“I must tell you that no other woman has made me feel this way,” the man continued. “I knew there was something special about you from the moment I first saw you.”
Sophia would have laughed if she wasn’t so scared. Did this man think that such words worked on women? Clearly so.
“I fear I cannot hold myself anymore,” he confessed, bringing Sophia closer to him.
What on earth was he about to do? Goodness! Why couldn’t she move? Sophia looked up in horror as the man’s face grew closer to her until she could feel his breath on her cheeks. A sliver of moonlight suddenly illuminated the area around Sophia, giving her a quick glimpse of Lord Brittingham before he kissed her. It was a brief one, but enough to send tingles right through Sophia’s body. She swayed when the man took a quick step away, blinking her eyes repeatedly as she saw the look of surprise on the Earl’s face.
“Miss Emley?” he cried aghast.
Hearing his voice was like taking an icy dip in the Atlantic Ocean. She gasped, her hand covering her mouth as her mind grasped the situation. Sophia took one step back and then another, dropping both her book and the lamp before lifting up her dress and making a mad dash for the house.
Richard was relieved his parents decided to stay at home this evening because he didn’t want any interference from them. Lately, the Duke and Duchess had become suspicious of the attention he gave Elizabeth Emley and had asked him of his intentions. Richard wasn’t sure what they were just yet, but he certainly enjoyed being around the beautiful woman.
Elizabeth was easily the loveliest woman of the Season and had caught his eye at the very first ball his aunt, the Countess of Danbridge, had given. She had seemingly floated into the room wearing a white silk dress with a touch of pink at the waist and sleeves. Richard had immediately stopped talking to his friend and gazed at the stunning vision until his eyes fell upon a plainer woman behind her. He had recognised the woman as England’s Least Eligible Gentle Lady and wondered what she was doing with someone so beautiful.
At first, Richard had assumed they were friends until he picked up on the physical similarities between the women. Their colouring, face structure, height and weight had been similar, but that’s where it ended. Elizabeth had a more refined, gentle face that was quite angelic, but Sophia was so nondescript she could easily be mistaken for a servant—if not for the proud way she carried herself. Richard didn’t know what the woman had to be proud of. Her Season had been a disaster, and she had become the one woman no one wanted at their social events unless they really needed to have her there. He sometimes felt sorry for the woman, but Sophia Emley didn’t make life any easier by having a sharp tongue and proving she was more intelligent than any man who dared to challenge her.
“She needs to learn to pick her battles,” he murmured as he stared at the approaching house.
Richard was running late tonight, but he had planned it so. He wanted to ensure that Elizabeth had arrived before him so he wouldn’t have to wait for her. Although he was interested in the younger Emley sister, Richard didn’t like any woman to think that he was so enamoured with them that his life centred around them. That would break the stipulation in his rule book of dealing with women.
Richard and his best friend, Nicholas, had come up with it several years ago when women began to notice them as something more than just cute little boys. Hearing about men being trapped into marriage, falling into scandalous situations, and a host of other problems led them to create a handbook that would protect them from unwanted attention and consequences.
Despite this, he had broken a few of his own rules where Elizabeth was concerned. What was it about gorgeous women that made a man lose his common sense? They had had their first chaste kiss on their fourth meeting, and had snuck away several times to spend time together. He felt like he was following her around like a puppy by finding out which events she was most likely to attend.
Brushing his hands through his fine, pale hair, Richard hoped he would have more sense tonight. He laughed, knowing that he planned to kiss the pretty woman again. That’s if he got the chance to do so; Sophia would undoubtedly stick to her sister like honey on fur.
His carriage slowed until it came to a stop at the front steps of the Smethwick Manor. Huge stone lions crouched on either side of the steps, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting guests and make a meal of them. Richard knew the Viscount was obsessed with cats of all sorts, lions in particular. Lord Smethwick had several taxidermied animals in his study, most of them imported from Africa or Asia. Although Richard liked to hunt with the best of them, he wasn’t particularly keen on keeping animals like some sort of trophy on his walls. It just seemed too gruesome for him.
A footman opened his door, waiting for Richard to walk down the portable steps before closing the door and sitting beside the driver. After a brief announcement of his arrival, Richard entered the ballroom and was immediately met with several people who all wished to speak with him. This was the case wherever Richard went. He knew it had nothing to do with him personally but everything to do with his wealth and social status. After all, he was set to inherit a dukedom, an inheritance that easily made him the most eligible bachelor for miles around. Of course, his fair looks did help. Richard knew that his blond hair, light green eyes, full lips and dimple on his left cheek was enough to make any warm-blooded woman swoon. He had been likened to Adonis, a fallen angel, and all sorts of creatures that bore great beauty with the dangerous power of enthralling masses with the mere crook of a finger. Richard didn’t feel dangerous, but people’s reactions to him made him appear so.
“How are you, Lord Brittingham?” a man asked. “We despaired of you ever arriving. You’re rather late.”
Many uttered the same sentiments, making Richard smile. He turned to the man, recognising him as Adam Leech.
“I had some things to do,” Richard answered. “But I’m here now.”
“We’re so glad that you are,” a pretty brunette said. “This ball would have been boring without you.”
“I doubt that, Cassandra,” said Richard. “There are plenty of amusements to keep one occupied. Surely you do not need me to keep everyone entertained?”
She blushed, the faint pink hue colouring her neck as well. “But none so interesting as you, my lord.”
Cassandra coloured so quickly, but that didn’t lessen the blatant flirtation. Richard hadn’t come here to flirt with anyone; he came here to see Elizabeth. He gave the woman a harmless grin and gazed over the crowd. He was tall enough to see over the heads of most of the people present, but he still couldn’t see Elizabeth. She had to be here; he was sure of it. Perhaps she was sitting? In that case, he needed the sea of bodies to part. If he were Moses, he could lift a staff and command them, but where was a God-powered staff when he needed one?
“Looking for someone?” a man asked at his elbow.
Richard spared him a brief glance because he already knew who it was. “How long have you been here, Nick?”
“Long enough to know where the person you’re looking for is sitting right now,” his friend replied with a knowing grin.
Richard ignored the laughing eyes. “Where?”
“With her sister. Four o’clock on your right.”
Richard groaned. Her sister? “I should have known,” he said in hushed tones. Richard didn’t want the other guests hanging around him to know what was going on, but they looked curious as he bent his head towards Nicholas. “How am I going to see her now?”
“Patience, I guess. Miss Emley cannot sit by her sister for the whole night.”
Richard snorted. “If that’s what you think, then you do not know the woman well.”
“And you do?” asked Nicholas, his one eyebrow raised.
“Let’s just say I’ve encountered the woman more times than I care to recall.”
At first, he hadn’t known her name but the two nicknames people had given her. It was only when he saw Elizabeth and found out her name did he realise Sophia was an Emley. Richard had quickly established that he would see more of the woman, but he didn’t know that she would make it so challenging to talk to Elizabeth.
“What will you do now?” Nicholas inquired. “I know you wish to see her alone, although I think that is a foolish idea. You could get caught, and that will ultimately cause problems.”
“I’m aware of that, but we’ve been careful. I like Elizabeth very much—more than I’ve ever liked any other woman,—but I’m not prepared to settle down just yet.”
Although, if he was to hazard a guess about the perfect woman for him, it would likely be Elizabeth. Richard was still wary about committing himself to one woman, but she made him feel like he could go down the marriage road and be happy about it. He paused at the thought. Did he really mean it? Perhaps not, but he was certainly closer to the idea of marriage now than he had been prior to meeting Elizabeth.
As though they knew that he wished to see the woman who held his affections, the crowd cleared a path that gave him a perfect view of the woman he had come to see. For some reason, her beauty didn’t make Richard catch his breath tonight, but he didn’t worry about that. Elizabeth Emley was still beautiful, and he liked her. What more did he need?
“I think she knows you’re here,” Nicholas commented as they moved further into the crowd.
“I’m not surprised. Everyone made it too obvious to miss.”
Elizabeth wasn’t looking at him, but Richard could tell by the tension in her body that she was aware of his close proximity. However, she wasn’t the only one who had noticed his arrival. Sophia looked annoyed and seemed to want to be anywhere else but here. Richard didn’t understand the woman. He had tried everything he could think of to make her like him, from being charming to friendly, but none of it had worked on Sophia. Why? Was she immune to him? Apparently so, but Richard didn’t like the idea. If he married Elizabeth by some chance, how would his life be with a sister-in-law like Sophia? Granted, he wouldn’t have to see much of her, but that wouldn’t change that they were related by marriage.
“Guess who is not happy to see you?” Nicholas said with some glee in his voice.
“I resent that you think any of this is amusing,” Richard bit back. “The woman would do better to smile once in a while and stop watching her sister like a hawk. She could take up the position of royal guard she’s so good at being protective and watchful.”
“You’re just annoyed that there is some woman out there who doesn’t like you,” Nicholas returned.
Was that the reason? “You’re talking a lot of hogwash. Miss Emley is an annoying woman—why would I want her to like me?”
“Maybe because she is directly tied to the woman you have pursued for the past several weeks? It’s only natural to want to be in the good books of your potential in-laws.”
Hearing the hint of marriage coming from his friend gave Richard an unsettled feeling. It had sounded plausible in his head, but he wasn’t certain about actually marrying Elizabeth. Perhaps their kiss this evening would give him the answers he wanted.
“I’ll give her some credit for her determination to keep her sister from unworthy suitors, since that has cut me a clear path to Elizabeth. But the dislike is mutual; I also don’t care for her and merely tolerate her for Elizabeth’s sake.”
Richard watched the sisters exchange words before Sophia stood up and walked away. He realised with a jolt that this was his opportunity to speak to Elizabeth. Perhaps she had made a way to see each other.
“I’m going to approach Lizzy while her sister is away,” Richard told his friend.
“Do you think that wise?” Nicholas asked.
“It will just be for one dance. Surely that is allowed?”
“Not in Sophia Emley’s book,” Nicholas argued. “She might not be pleased that you waited until her back was turned to ask her sister for a dance.”
Richard gave a gallic shrug. “I’ll take my chances.”
He wanted to see Elizabeth and tell her of his plan to meet alone in the garden. He did not need Sophia’s interference.
Richard left his friend and made his way to where Elizabeth sat, taking in her demure behaviour, which he knew was for his benefit.
“Good evening, Elizabeth.”
The young woman looked up with surprise, her lips framing an ‘o’. “Richard! I didn’t know you had arrived.”
That was a lie, but he didn’t mind. “Indeed? Well, I noticed you from across the room.”
“You did?” said Elizabeth, barely hiding the smile of pleasure playing about her lips.
“Of course, I did. How can any man not see the most beautiful woman in this room?”
Elizabeth’s blush went straight to the roots of her dark hair. “Do not say that, Richard. I cannot be the most beautiful.”
Yet, she knew she was. Richard had come to know Elizabeth well enough to realise that the woman was aware of her beauty and enjoyed the perks that came with it. How did Sophia fare with her sister’s popularity? The odd thought cut through Richard’s mind, disturbing him. What did he care what Sophia felt about it? It was none of his business.
Richard noticed Elizabeth was clutching her dance card, giving him an idea. “Do you have any space on there to dance with me? I know that you must have many partners lined up this evening, but I would be beholden to you if you would give a poor man a little time on the floor.”
Richard watched the woman’s eyes light up. “I would love to dance with you, but let me make sure that I have a set available.”
It didn’t take the woman long to tell him that she had two spots open. Richard had a feeling they were purposefully left open for him. It worked even better for him that her first dance had yet to be claimed.
“I would be honoured to lead you to the dance floor right now, if you will have me,” Richard requested in his most humble voice.
It was part of the charm that he could be both handsome and humble. He held out his hand to Elizabeth, knowing that she would say yes. Some people would think his confidence was a sign of cockiness, but Richard wasn’t one to do things unless he was absolutely sure of the outcome. He wasn’t an impulsive man and rarely took risks unless he was certain that the consequences would favour him.
Elizabeth put her slender hand in his and stood up. “I would be delighted.”
Richard threw her a heart-warming smile and led the willing woman to the dance floor. He had a moment’s doubt about what Sophia might say about taking her sister without asking her permission, but she wasn’t Elizabeth’s parent, was she? Sophia could only be a year or two older than Elizabeth and wasn’t equipped to handle matters of interested men—how could she when she had never had a suitor look her way?
He and Elizabeth soon fell into the dance steps, with the woman putting more gaiety into the dance than Richard felt was necessary. After a moment or two had passed, he launched into his plan, making sure to keep his voice at a minimum. Perhaps asking Elizabeth to sneak off into the garden with him was not the best thing to do while dancing, but it was the only way to ensure that Sophia wouldn’t interrupt him before he was done.
“Elizabeth,” he murmured into her ear as they came together. “Would you meet me outside?”
Elizabeth pulled away, startled, swapping places with another woman before coming back to him.
“You wish to meet me outside?”
“Yes, in the garden. I wish to speak with you alone.”
Elizabeth’s cheeks pinkened as she moved several steps back, getting into formation with the other women. She lowered her eyes, biting her bottom lip. Would she deny him? She had always seemed eager before. Richard hadn’t considered Elizabeth saying no to him, but perhaps he should have.
The dance brought them closer again, but Richard didn’t dare say anything for fear of seeming persistent. That was the woman’s job, not his. If he appeared persistent, then the woman was certain to expect a proposal on the horizon. However, if they were persistent, he would gently turn them down. It was a win-win situation as far as he was concerned.
Richard had no desire to hurt anyone, and he wasn’t the vindictive sort. He preferred to come across as a harmless, flirtatious young Earl who had a smile ready for any woman, even those who disliked him.
“I would like to meet you in the garden,” Elizabeth finally said, her voice somewhat breathy.
Richard couldn’t resist the mild look of triumph he could feel travel across his features. “Thank you. Will you meet me by the Aphrodite statue in five minutes? You go first once this dance ends, and I’ll follow you.”
Elizabeth nodded, almost forgetting the next step in the set. She giggled a little as she stumbled, quickly falling into step with the other women. A sense of excitement took hold of Richard. Why did that happen whenever one was about to do something that was not allowed? It reminded him of the time he had taken his father’s favourite horse and phaeton for a spin around London without letting him know. Richard had been a little more careless until some years ago and had taken a bend too sharply. The result was a dislocated shoulder, a destroyed phaeton, and a jittery horse. It was only his title as heir that had kept the Duke from taking a switch to his hide.
Once the music ended, and a little break was called, Richard and Elizabeth drew apart almost immediately. He didn’t look to see where she disappeared to as he didn’t want to draw attention to them. People were just meant to see that he had danced with her, and that was it. Anything else would invite too many questions. At times, Richard wondered if he was tampering with Elizabeth’s virtue by seeing her alone or sharing a hasty kiss with her, but that was what people who had some affection for each other did, didn’t they? Richard had never taken advantage of her and had no wish to do so. It simply wasn’t his modus operandi.
He moved to get a drink, barely sipping it as he counted down the minutes. When he felt that he had given Elizabeth more than enough time to reach their destination, he placed his drink on the nearest surface and set off after her. Richard wasn’t halfway out of the ballroom when he realised that he should probably try another exit. What if someone was watching him and surmised that he was following Elizabeth? The thought was enough to spin him on his heel and take another route to the garden.
He stepped outside and was surprised to see how dark it was ; not an inch of moonlight illuminated the path he needed to take. How had Elizabeth managed it? Perhaps her familiarity with the place was enough for her—it was her aunt and uncle’s estate, after all. Richard had also come to the estate several times in the past and knew it enough to note specific markers along the way.
What would he say once he had Elizabeth alone? It wasn’t just the lure of a kiss that had sought privacy but a lesser need to divulge his growing feelings for the woman. Richard still wasn’t confident about the latter intention as he had never done such a thing, but he couldn’t deny that Elizabeth Emley had won his affections.
“Some, not all,” he whispered to himself.
He still needed time to explore what he felt. Nicholas had once said that he knew he had loved Marianne after he had kissed her a second time, which was one of the reasons why Richard felt he needed to kiss Elizabeth. If he had fallen in love with the woman, then he needed to be absolutely sure about it. Hopefully, he wouldn’t get his heart broken in the process like his friend did.
The clouds parted enough for some moonlight to filter through and guide his way, but the height of the hedges, trees and statues kept most things in their shadow, including him. Why did the Viscount and Viscountess have so many statues in their garden? A few were fine, but when the number surpassed twenty, it became too much.
Richard spotted the statue he was looking for up ahead, as well as the form of a woman nearing it. He was glad to see that Elizabeth had taken an oil lamp with her, but what was that she had under her arm? A book? Had she brought it while she waited? That was odd, since Elizabeth didn’t strike him as a bookish woman. Perhaps her sister, but not her. Whatever Elizabeth’s reasons were for bringing the book, Richard decided that it wasn’t important. Nothing mattered more than getting to her, telling her what he felt, and sharing another kiss. He paused, wondering where all this sudden urgency had come from—yes, he wished to be with Elizabeth, but he certainly didn’t need to.
Richard shook his head, wondering what had gotten into him. A breeze ruffled his hair, almost teasing it as it passed him and disappeared as quickly as it had come. How strange. He looked ahead and noticed that Elizabeth’s lamp had been blown out by the zephyr. No matter— could see where she was.
Not wanting to scare her by coming up from behind, Richard walked around a long hedge until he stood several feet in front of Elizabeth. He could barely see her in the shadows, but they were familiar enough to know each other. As he approached her, Richard watched her shadowed form grow still, as if listening. He paused for just a moment, but a sense of urgency pushed him ahead until he stood before her, still not able to see her face clearly in the shadows. Richard felt himself reach for her, closing his hands around softly rounded arms, and brought her a step closer to him. He hadn’t known precisely what he wished to say to Elizabeth, but now his words flowed out of him as though they had been there all along.
“I’m so glad you came to meet me. I couldn’t wait until I could have you to myself.”
Elizabeth said nothing. Did she want to hear more from him? Richard had no problem doing that because he had something more to say.
“I must tell you that no other woman has made me feel this way. I knew there was something special about you from the moment I first saw you.”
That sounded a little trite even to his ears, but that didn’t change the fact that he meant every word. Elizabeth didn’t pull away, which was a good sign. That encouraged him to do the one thing he had thought about for most of the evening.
“I fear I cannot hold myself anymore,” he said, surprised at the intensity of his voice.
He hadn’t felt like this the first time he had shared a kiss with her. Richard bent his head towards her and closed his eyes, instinctively knowing that he would land in the right place. He kissed Elizabeth, feeling a pressing warmth travel through his body that wasn’t there the first time. Something wasn’t right. He abruptly let go of her and stepped away, watching her sway slightly. A streak of moonlight lit up their area enough for Richard to realise he had made a grave mistake.
“Miss Emley?” he said, his voice hoarse with shock and other things that he did not want to think about right now.
Richard heard Sophia gasp, watching her hand go to her mouth as she took several steps back. Finally, she dropped the book and lamp she had been holding, seemingly not bothered by the sound of breaking glass. Richard was worried that she had cut herself and thought to approach her with an apology and a quick observation to see if Sophia had hurt herself, but before he could, the horrified woman picked up her dress, flashing her slender ankles in the process, and ran off towards the house. Richard had never seen a woman run that fast and would have admired her agility if not for the crashing feeling in his chest that he had just kissed the wrong sister. What the devil was he supposed to do now?
“A Most Unlikely Betrothal” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Treated like an uncomely and social pariah, Sophia Emley has resigned herself to spinsterhood at the age of twenty-two. Her life takes an abrupt turn though when the handsome Richard Hatherton, Earl of Brittingham, mistakes Sophia for her prettier sister and kisses her in the shadows. Unbeknownst to them, their kiss was witnessed, and in an instant, a great scandal ensues…
How will Sophia feel upon hearing that the only way to clear her name is to marry a man she dislikes?
When Richard finds out that Sophia is now his wife-to-be, he cannot imagine his life by her side. However, he soon realises that there is so much more to his fiancée than what meets the eye, finding himself unable to stop thinking about her unique beauty and intelligence. From that moment on, he is determined to make her see that he is more worthy of her attention and make up for his regretful mistake. Will Richard manage to charm Sophia and prove deserving of her love?
Could he really compensate for such a rocky start and earn her trust?
While Sophia and Richard’s mutual love and admiration grow, Sophia’s guilt tied to marrying her sister’s beau lies heavily on her chest. More than that, society’s criticism continues challenging their decision to unite their lives and hearts… Could these threatening obstacles cost the happiness both Sophia and Richard deserve? Will Sophia and Richard fight for their deep feelings, or will their romance collapse under society’s weight?
“A Most Unlikely Betrothal” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.