‘Sophie, I am persuaded you are very hard to please,’ Lucy said.
‘So my brother tells me, but marriage is a very serious business. If you are to spend the rest of your life with someone, you need to know he is the right someone, don’t you think?’
‘Yes, but how can you be sure?’ Cassie put in. ‘Mama says you have to listen to your elders who know best, take their advice and then work to be a good wife. That way lies contentment.’
‘Poof!’ Sophie said. ‘I shall listen to my heart. I want to be head over heels in love with the man I marry and to be sure he feels the same way about me.’
‘How will you know that?’ the other two asked in unison.
‘My sister Jane says I will know when the time comes and if I have any doubts, then he is not the one for me.’
‘I hope you may not be hoist on your own petard,’ Cassie said as a footman approached them from the house.
‘Ladies,’ he said. ‘Her ladyship asks that you join her in the drawing room for tea.’
They rose and followed him back indoors, where they found Vincent and Teddy had joined Mrs Malthouse and Lady Martindale.
‘You have been gossiping long enough,’ Lady Cartrose told the girls. ‘Now greet Mr Malthouse and Mr Cavenhurst and sit down to have some tea.’
They obeyed and then seated themselves in a row on a sofa.
‘Beats me what you find to talk about,’ Teddy said as the young men found chairs for themselves. ‘Empty-headed tittle-tattle, I’ve no doubt.’
‘And what do you find to talk about when you spend hours at your club?’ Sophie responded. ‘I will wager it is not the state of the country’s economy or the plight of the poor or anything of more import than the cut of your coat, the negligence of your valet or the state of your luck.’
Vincent laughed. ‘She has you there, old man.’
‘We will have no quarrelling,’ Emmeline said. ‘Edward, you should be more polite to your sister.’
‘Oh, do not mind him, Aunt,’ Sophie said. ‘We are truly rather fond of each other, you know, and where would I be without him? Who else would I have escort me to the Rowlands’ dance?’
‘I would gladly be of service,’ Vincent said.
Sophie looked at him in surprise. ‘Why, thank you, Mr Malthouse, but you are not family and can hardly chaperone me, as Teddy does.’
‘No, I realise that,’ he said. ‘But I hope you will save a dance for me.’
‘To be sure I will,’ she said, while Cassie giggled. Sophie shot her a quelling look.
The footman returned. ‘Viscount Kimberley and Lord Wyndham, my lady.’ He stood aside for the two men to enter.
Immediately the atmosphere in the room changed subtly; there was a tension in the air that had not been there before. Cassie smiled happily, Lucy blushed crimson and Sophie’s back stiffened as if to repel an attack.
‘We were passing, my lady,’ Mark said, addressing Lady Cartrose, ‘and decided to call. I hope we have not inconvenienced you.’
‘Not at all,’ her ladyship said. ‘We are pleased to see you. I will order fresh tea. Do sit down. We were just discussing the Rowlands’ dance. Will you be one of our party?’
‘I am returning to Hadlea the day after tomorrow,’ Mark said. ‘It is one of the reasons I called, to ask if Sophie has any messages for Sir Edward and Lady Cavenhurst. But I am sure my cousin will be pleased to join you.’
‘Will you, my lord?’ Cassie turned to Adam, eyes alight.
He hesitated only a second before saying, ‘I will be honoured, so long as I have no other pressing engagements.’
‘It is to raise money to buy the new princess a gift,’ Cassie said as a servant brought in fresh tea. ‘But I shall think of it as a rehearsal for my come-out in July. Do you dance the waltz, my lord?’
‘My late wife taught me the steps, but I have not danced it since she passed away.’
‘Oh.’ Cassie was at a loss to know what to say. ‘I am sorry, I should not have mentioned it.’
‘Why not?’ he said. ‘You were not to know, and I do not mind you speaking of her.’
He spoke lightly, but Sophie noticed the pain in his eyes and concluded he must have loved his wife very much. At that moment, her animosity towards him softened and she gave him a sympathetic smile. ‘Teddy taught me the steps,’ she said.
‘She didn’t need much teaching,’ Teddy put in. ‘My little sister catches on quickly.’