Miss Sophie Cavenhurst was not renowned for her patience or tact. Nor, come to that, for her common sense. This lack was balanced by a comely face and figure, a soft heart and a sunny disposition. Young gentlemen frequently proposed and were as frequently turned down. ‘You see,’ she would say with a smile meant to soften the blow, ‘it just would not do.’ Which, according to her fond papa, showed she had more sense than she was generally credited with.
The trouble was that Sophie measured all prospective husbands against the husbands of her two older sisters, and her swains had always been found wanting. Mark, Lord Wyndham, who was Jane’s husband, was gentle and kind and dependable; Isabel’s husband, the recently knighted Sir Andrew Ashton, was dashing and exciting and was always taking Isabel off to foreign climes to have adventures. They were both wealthy, though their wealth came to them in very different ways: Mark’s through inheritance, Drew’s through international trade. None of the suitors who had asked for her hand in marriage came anywhere near them.
One thing she did not want was a scapegrace like her brother, though she loved him dearly. It had taken a really bad shock and a spell in India for him to come to his senses. To give him his due he had saved the family bacon when it looked as though they would lose everything, including their home, and for that she would forgive him almost anything, even the way he teased her.
‘Sophie, you have exhausted all the eligibles in the neighbourhood,’ he told her one day in April. ‘You are fast earning a reputation for being hard to please.’
‘What is wrong with that? Marriage is a big decision. I don’t want to make a mistake like Issie very nearly did.’
‘And as a consequence will likely end up an old maid.’
‘That’s why I want a Season in London. I would meet new people there.’
‘A Season?’ he asked in surprise. ‘When did you think of that?’
She could not tell him she was afraid she was falling in love with Mark and that simply would not do. She had decided that the best cure was to leave Hadlea for a time and try to find a husband to equal him. What better way than a Season in London? ‘I have been thinking about it for a long time,’ she said. ‘Lucy Martindale is having one this year and she talks of nothing else.’ The Martindales had an estate ten miles from Hadlea and Sophie had known Lucinda since they were at school together. They corresponded frequently and often visited each other.
‘I can quite see you would not want to be left behind, but what does our esteemed father say to the idea?’
‘I haven’t asked him yet.’
‘I doubt you will persuade him to take you. You know how coach travel always makes Mama ill, and he would not leave her behind.’
‘I know that,’ she said with a sigh. ‘But if Papa won’t take me, you will, won’t you?’
‘Good heavens! Whatever gave you that notion?’
‘Well, who else will?’
‘Ask Jane.’ No one in the family seemed to have given up the habit of saying, ‘ask Jane,’ whenever a problem raised its head.
‘Jane is too wrapped up with her baby to leave him, you know that, and Issie is on the high seas somewhere. If you agree to take me, then Papa can have no objection, can he?’
‘Ask him first.’
She found her father in the morning room reading the newspaper, sent down every day from London. He liked to keep abreast of the news, though very little of it was good. There was unrest everywhere, especially in the industrial north, and frequent demonstrations for parliamentary reform, not to mention the unpopularity of the Prince Regent and rumours that he was about to divorce his wife, from whom he was separated. Such a thing was unheard of and set a very bad example to the populace. There was a rumour that, since the death of his daughter and her baby, he was anxious to marry again and produce a legitimate heir. His brothers, none of who had legitimate heirs but plenty of illegitimate ones, were all hastily trying to marry and have children. So far only the Duke of Kent had made any progress in that direction; his duchess was enceinte.
He laid the paper aside when his youngest daughter tripped into the room, all winning smiles. ‘Papa, dear Papa,’ she wheedled, ‘I have a request to make.’
He smiled. ‘And I have no doubt it will cost me money.’
She squatted down on a footstool near him. ‘Yes, I suppose it must, but I know you would not like to disappoint me.’
‘Go on,’ he said patiently.