Page 18 of The Husband Season

‘The doings of the Cavenhursts in Hadlea are an open book, my dear, but I cannot say it was my whole reason for coming. If I cannot have you, then I must settle for second best.’

‘Then I pity her. To be second best must be altogether too humiliating. If I were her, I would never agree to it.’

‘Oh, she would never know.’

‘Do you not think she might guess? I am sure I should.’

‘Perhaps it will not become necessary.’

‘No, you might fall genuinely in love.’

He laughed and manoeuvred the carriage through the park gates. ‘It is as easy to drive along here as it is up Park Lane,’ he said. ‘We can drive out through the Grosvenor Gate.’

She was becoming slightly alarmed that he might be trying to abduct her, but shook the idea from her thoughts. He was unlikely to do anything so outrageous in Hyde Park, where there were hundreds of people to whom she could appeal. The hundreds of people were the bigger problem. Her aunt had introduced her to so many friends and acquaintances on their carriage ride, she could not remember half of them. Supposing they saw her and recognised her? Sitting so high above everyone else, she could not fail to be seen. She had no chaperone and did not even have the protection of a parasol, for there had been no sun when they set out and she had not needed one. The only thing she could do was brave it out.

‘This is the most extraordinary vehicle,’ she said, turning towards him so that her face was turned from the occupants of a carriage then passing them. ‘I am not sure I feel altogether safe.’

‘Oh, it is safe enough in expert hands,’ he said. ‘Though if a greenhorn were to attempt to drive it, he might come to grief.’

‘And you, I collect, are an expert.’

‘Yes. Shall I show you?’ Instead of turning north to the next gate out into Park Lane, he turned down Rotten Row and set the horse to a trot, exposing them to yet more stares.

‘Reggie, I beg of you, don’t,’ she said, hanging on to the side of the carriage. ‘Please turn back and take me home.’

‘You are not afraid I shall overturn you, are you? I never knew you to be so chicken-livered. Come, Sophie, where is your spirit of adventure?’

‘It is not my spirit that is lacking,’ she said. ‘I am concerned that we are attracting attention.’

‘Admiring glances, what is wrong with that?’

‘You know perfectly well what is wrong with that, Reggie. You will quite ruin my reputation if you do not slow down to a sedate walk and turn round. Even then I fear it will not do.’

‘There is no room to turn round until we reach the end.’ Nevertheless he did slow the horses, though this had the effect of taking them longer to reach a turning point and longer for them to be seen and either admired or criticised. If she could have sank down on to the floor, she would have done. All she could do was pray no one would recognise her. In that she was to be disappointed and by the person she least hoped to see.

He was riding towards them on his bay and on coming level lifted his hat and bowed. He did not speak, but the amusement was evident in his brown eyes. She endeavoured to ignore him.

‘Who was that?’ Reggie asked as they passed him.

‘I have no idea, but it seems every time I go out, I encounter him. He is the most odious man.’

‘Top of the trees,’ he said. ‘I wonder how many cravats he ruined getting that one tied like that.’

‘I do not know and care even less.’

‘Tell me,’ he said changing the subject abruptly, ‘are you enjoying your Season? That is why you are in London, is it not?’

‘Yes, and I am enjoying it excessively.’

‘Ah, then, no doubt you have dozens of hopeful swains vying for your hand.’

‘Dozens,’ she agreed in the hope it might put him off.

He sighed as they reached a spot where he could turn round without colliding with other carriages. ‘So you like being admired and setting off one suitor against another. It is cruel of you, Sophie.’

‘I do not do it on purpose, Reggie.’

‘My trouble,’ he said regretfully, ‘is that you know me too well. I do not represent the excitement of conquest.’

‘Riding in this contraption is excitement enough, Reggie.’

They rode on in silence until they were once again in Park Lane and turning down Mount Street. She was never more thankful to reach the door of Cartrose House. He jumped down to help her out and it was then Teddy came out of the house.