Click here to purchase Sophie's Choice
Cornwall, England 1805
Sophie slid off her mare, looped the reins over a convenient shrub and gave the horse a quick pat on the nose. She turned and began the familiar trip down the little path that meandered through the dunes to end up at the gravel and shell beach just on the edge of her family’s estate. When she neared the edge of the sea, she held out her arms and tilted her face to the June sun before stripping off her bonnet. She tossed it in the air where the breeze caught it and whirled it about, ribbons and all, before it landed in a frivolous clump on the beach.
She sat down and removed her riding boots and stockings and wriggled her toes with sheer delight. Then she unpinned her hair and shook her head so the chestnut curls spilled over her shoulders and down her back.
“Aaaaaah.” Pleasure spiraled through her. “I have missed this so.” Feeling a little foolish for talking to herself, she glanced around to be sure that she hadn’t been heard. It would not do to have the locals gossip that Lord Harrington’s eldest daughter was daft!
Sophie gathered up the skirts of her kerseymere riding habit and crunched across the beach to the water’s edge, dabbling first one big toe then the other in the chilly waves. The gravel pricked against the soles of her feet, delightful in its intensity and for the first time in weeks she felt alive, well and truly alive. Not that she hadn’t enjoyed her stay at boarding school, particularly the time assisting in the school library, but it had been restrictive, to say the least.
She mimicked the head mistress. “Sophie, you must pour this way, Sophie, you must set a stitch that way, Sophie, mind that your voice is never raised.” Mama would be scandalized if she saw Sophie now, poking fun at Miss Smythe and standing bare foot in the sea.
“Your mama would be scandalized.” A masculine voice interrupted her, echoing her thoughts perfectly.
She spun around, dropping her skirts into the water. Rueful, she glanced down for it was sure to leave a stain. Then she raised her gaze to the stranger before her. And raising her gaze it was for he stood at least a head taller than her own five foot five inches. Her breath caught in her throat.
He was handsome, to say the least – tall, dark and lean with a rapacious air about him as if he would pounce on his prey at any moment. Judging by his burnished cheeks, tousled black hair and the crop dangling from one wrist, he had also been out riding.
Sophie realized she must look a fool standing there dumbfounded and ankle deep in water. For once in her life she was completely nonplussed.
“You, you …”, she stammered, managing to wobble her way back on to the beach without incurring further damage to her habit.
“Yes?” Amusement tinged the stranger’s voice.
Bravado was her best option so she squared her shoulders and jutted her chin. “I meant to say you’re trespassing.”
“I think not.” He pointed to a marker just off to one side. “I believe that is the edge of my property. Indeed, you are the one who is trespassing, Miss…?” The question dangled between them. When she didn’t answer, he swept forward in an elegant bow. “Allow me to present myself. I am Lord Bryce Langdon. And you?” Again he waited for a response and again she declined to answer.
Oh dear, she knew very well who Lord Langdon was. He’d just acquired the adjacent land. In fact, they were all to meet him this evening for the first time. However, if word ever got out that she’d met him in this situation, her reputation would be ruined. Anger at herself for the foolishness that had brought her here unchaperoned made her tongue sharp.
“You, sir, are an ill-mannered boor.” She spat the words at him. “Only an ill-mannered boor would compromise a young lady as you have just done to me.”
“I must beg pardon then for I had not recognized you as such.” He
pointed to the ten toes peeping out from beneath the hem of her skirt. “I dare
say your behaviour is sadly lacking.”
“You, you scoundrel, how dare you insult me so,” she fumed. “You, you -.” Her mind went blank, sucked bare by the devastatingly handsome man before her.
“Wretch?” he suggested, the corners of his mouth beginning to lift.
Sophie stared at him for a few seconds, watching the devilish grin threaten to take over his entire face. Her lips twitched and she scowled in a vain attempt to maintain her decorum. It didn’t work.
Giggles burbled up and burst free and she began to laugh. He joined her, the sounds of their laughter mingling with the cries of the sea gulls circling above. Bryce Langdon must be an astute judge of character for he was entirely correct in his assessment of her. She detested the rules and strictures of the upper class and it was that rebellious quality that had landed her an extended stay in boarding school in the first place. There was no point in denying it.
“No, you’re absolutely right. I’m not behaving like a lady. That is,” she hastened to correct herself, squeezing out the words between giggles, “in the sense I do not enjoy sewing and such. Much to the dismay of my mother and sisters, I prefer to be outdoors.”
“And I am no drawing room fop so I see we shall get along famously. You have yet to introduce yourself?”
She curtsied. “Lady Sophie Harrington. We are to meet this evening for dinner at Harrington House.” A wry expression twisted her face. “Please don’t mention to anyone that you saw me here today.”
Bryce took her hand and raised it to his lips. “Rest assured, I shall tell no one. Tonight when we meet, it will be as if for the first time.” His dark eyes were admiring and warm with promise as he kissed her hand again before dropping it. “I look forward to seeing you again, Lady Sophie Harrington.” He said her name carefully, rolling out the syllables as if he savored the cadence. He saluted her with his crop then turned on his heel.
Sophie watched him walk away, scuffing his polished black boots along the beach until he disappeared from view. Then she looked down at her hand where he had kissed it. The skin still tingled and her heart beat a little faster at the memory of his lips on her skin.
A secret smile curved her lips. Perhaps, she thought, not everyone thinks I must conform to society’s rules. Perhaps I can be loved just the way I am? With a light heart she gathered her boots, stockings and bonnet and made her way back up the little path.
* * *
Sophie handed the reins to Hobbs, the head groom. He tipped his cap, revealing a thatch of red hair matching the freckles scattered across his cheeks, before fishing in his pocket for a carrot. He handed it to her. “Looks as if ye’ve given Dancer a bit of a ride,” he said.
She held out the carrot and the mare’s lips rippled across her palm before snagging the treat. “It was a beautiful day for it and I’m afraid time ran away from me.” That wasn’t really the truth. Her encounter with Bryce Langdon had left her feeling unsettled and she’d tried to ride away the feeling. She stroked Dancer’s nose. “You’ll give her a good rub down?”
“Of course,” he replied. “And I should warn ye, yer mother’s been searching for ye and is in quite a state. Sent one of the footmen out here to see if you’d returned.”
Sophie groaned. She’d really hoped to make it to the sanctuary of her room to change before catching her mother’s notice. The entire household was in an uproar over tonight’s dinner party. Lady Harrington’s evenings were always a success and invitations to them were highly sought after. That success didn’t come without a price – Mama ran herself ragged organizing to the tiniest detail. Every last bit of silver must be polished, every last candle in the sconces must be replenished and Harrington House dusted and polished from top to bottom. Her mood wasn’t always the best at these times and the family had learned to stay out of her way. “Thank you, I shall pay heed.” She patted Dancer one last time before waving at Hobbs and turning away.
She darted across the cobblestones that paved the courtyard between the stables and the house and slipped into the kitchen door. As expected, pandemonium reigned in the kitchen and Sophie knew better than to interrupt Mrs. Winston, the cook. The woman, red faced and perspiring, tossed her a distracted glance then focused again on what looked to be buttered apple tarts.
No sooner had Sophie stepped into the hall than she heard her sister Leah’s voice. They were three – Sophie, the eldest at twenty, Leah, two years younger and Catherine, two years younger again.
“You’re in for it,” Leah said, waggling her finger at Sophie. “Mama’s been looking for you for the past hour.”
Sophie rolled her eyes skyward. As usual, Leah was her impeccable self, not a hair out of place and her peach coloured muslin frock freshly pressed and tidy.
Not like Sophie. Despite her attempts to re-pin her hair, most of it hung loose down her back and the sea water had left damp stains on the skirts of her riding habit. She bunched them forward so her sister wouldn’t notice. “We all know how she ties herself in knots when she’s entertaining.”
“Particularly this evening as we are to welcome our new neighbor, Lord Langdon.”
Whom I’ve already met, Sophie thought and a frisson of excitement tickled her scalp when she remembered the admiring look in his dark eyes. “Yes, I know,” she said aloud.
“What do you suppose he’s like?” Leah’s face grew dreamy. “He’s said to be ever so handsome and he’s unmarried. Do you suppose he’ll take an inclination to one of us?”
Sophie snorted. “Don’t expect Papa to agree to us marrying anyone at this time. You know he’s said we’re to wait until we’re twenty-one.”
“I don’t know why,” Leah pouted. “Abigail Penner had her season at eighteen and is already engaged to be married while we are stuck here in Cornwall.”
Where I much prefer to be. “It’s not so terrible. There are shops and tea rooms and a theatre close by in Truro.”
Leah gave her an incredulous look. “You? What do you know of the shops?”
Sophie made a wry grimace. She fooled no one, visiting the shops was not her favourite form of pleasure. She much preferred outdoor past times such as riding or archery. If she must be indoors, then she filled her time with reading or sketching. Needlework made her head ache and her fingers were like sausages on the pianoforte that graced the drawing room. “I’ve heard tell that some of the establishments are as fine as any that can be found in London.”
Leah frowned and gave Sophie a push. “You’d best find Mama.” Her grey eyes were earnest. “Or she’ll have your head.”
Sophie nodded and headed towards the staircase leading to the upper floors. With any luck she could shed her riding habit and its telltale stains.
Halfway up the staircase, Catherine flashed past her heading downstairs, blonde curls bouncing with every step. “Where have you been?” she threw over her shoulder as she reached the bottom. “Mama’s in a state and nothing will do but she must speak with you.” She didn’t wait for Sophie to respond but darted into the library.
To hide, Sophie could only presume, and she picked up her pace. Mama must really be annoyed with her this time if both Leah and Catherine issued warnings. She reached the first landing and had her hand on the railing of the stairs leading to her room on the next level when Lady Evelyn Harrington’s voice rang through the air.
Mama’s annoyed tone couldn’t be ignored. Drat. Sophie’s heart sank and she cast a longing glance up the stairs. She’d not make her escape after all. She turned and spied her mother advancing on her like a square-rigged frigate. Plump and petite, her stature belied an iron will. A few wrinkles haloed her blue eyes and a few grey hairs shadowed her blonde hair, but she was still attractive and Papa adored her. She still looked much as she had when their family portrait was painted soon after Catherine’s arrival. It hung over the staircase with other Harringtons past.
“I’d ask where you’ve been for most of the afternoon but I see you’ve been wading.” Her mouth tightened and she pointed to the hem of Sophie’s skirts. “I can only assume your boots are also wet because I can’t imagine a daughter of mine being so foolish as to splash about barefoot where others might see you. And please don’t tell me you went down to the beach. It’s not safe with all the smugglers sullying our coast.”
Sophie clasped her hands at her waist. “No Mama, I didn’t go to the beach. I was hot so I dipped my toes in the stream behind the mill.” Heat crept up her neck and into her cheeks and she hoped she didn’t look as guilty as she felt over the fib. Thankfully she said nothing about Sophie riding out without a groom to accompany her so Hobbs must have kept that to himself.
Lady Harrington sniffed. “More than your toes, I’d say. But never mind that for now.” She smoothed an imaginary stray hair. “The Earl and Countess of Blackmore will be joining us this evening, as well as Vicar Sinclair and his wife and of course Lord Langdon. I have in mind a small entertainment.”
“Entertainment?” Sophie dug her fingers into her palms. Please no, not the pianoforte. Despite hours at the keyboard, the fugue by Bach she’d been working on for weeks resembled the screeches of a tom cat rather than anything musical.
Her mother smiled. “I’m not deaf, I’m not expecting you to play. I had thought Catherine could accompany you while you sing. Your voice is more than passable.”
“Sing?” For Lord Langdon? How could she look him in the face after their encounter this afternoon?
“Yes, sing. I suggest “Greensleeves”. It’s a lovely piece and your sister has mastered it admirably.”
“You’ll find the music on the bench. If you’d been home sooner, you’d have had more time to practice.”
Her mother raised a manicured finger. “There will be no excuses from you. I intend to make a good impression on our guests, particularly our new neighbour. I understand he is a barrister of some note.”
“I see.” A barrister. A man who earned his living. That explained his comment that he was no drawing room fop. A small burst of admiration flushed her cheeks anew. Most men she knew, including her father, contented themselves with overseeing the management of their estates. But perhaps Langdon didn’t have an estate before purchasing the neighboring property. That would explain his foray into law and if he were as successful as her mother implied, he’d done well for himself to become a landowner.
“Besides,” continued her mother, “it’s a good opportunity to practice the entertainment we shall offer once we are in London for your coming out this Season. We shall host evenings where you will sing, Catherine shall play and Leah will read her poetry.”
“I don’t want to come out in London. I’m quite happy here in Cornwall.”
“Nonsense. How are we to find you a suitable husband otherwise?”
“I don’t fancy being paraded about like a prize thoroughbred and given away to the highest bidder.” Sophie tried to keep the petulance from her voice but failed miserably judging by the frown on her mother’s face.
“Paraded? Given away? It won’t be like that at all. We’ll find a suitable young man and soon enough you’ll be inclined to accept his attentions, you’ll see. Perhaps someone like Viscount Weston.” She slanted a glance at Sophie. “His mother is ever so charming and you could do far worse.”
I doubt that very much, Sophie thought. Giles Weston might be considered a catch and she might be able to overlook his pimpled face and yellowed teeth. However she’d once seen him whip his horse until the animal bled. That cruel streak she could not overlook. Nonetheless arguing with Mama would lead nowhere. Once she made up her mind, there was no changing it. Sophie bit her lip. Best to say nothing.
Lady Evelyn stood on tiptoe and kissed Sophie’s cheek. “Do wear your lilac frock this evening. It brings out the colour of your eyes.”
“As you wish.” Well, at least that was one thing they could agree on. Until now, she’d not had the opportunity to wear her newest frock. She loved the white silk embroidered flowers along the hem and indeed, the lavender shade made her green eyes a deeper hue.
Her mother sailed off, leaving a rose scented breeze behind her and a befuddled Sophie clutching the carved oak railing of the stairs. Not only was she to reacquaint herself with Lord Bryce Langdon this evening, she must sing for the man. How was she to do that without bursting into giggles of embarrassment?
By making sure she sang as well as she possibly could. After she changed, she’d search out Catherine so the two could practice as Mama suggested.
I enjoyed this bookReplyDelete
Thank you Janet. I enjoyed writing it! :)Delete
Lovely start for this story. Thanks for sharing.ReplyDelete
Thanks Vijaya, so glad you enjoyed it. This story grew from a short story I posted to this blog a few years ago. Thanks to Jude, it expanded into a 3 book series plus prequel! :)ReplyDelete