‘Thank you, brother,’ Sophie said, giving him a beaming smile. ‘You will hire a decent mount for me, won’t you?’
‘Of course. And one for myself. I fancy a trip out of town.’
‘That will please Lucy,’ she said.
‘Lucy?’ he queried.
‘Oh, didn’t you know? She has a fancy for you. You could do worse, a lot worse.’
‘There is no call to be matchmaking, Sophie. I am not ready to be leg shackled yet.’
‘What a horrid expression,’ Lady Cartrose said. ‘So vulgar. I don’t know where you young men learn such things.’
‘Out and about, Aunt, out and about.’
‘What you need is a wife to instil some delicacy into you.’
‘All in good time,’ he said, laughing. ‘We will despatch Sophie first.’
* * *
The party that set off two mornings later in a cavalcade of carriages and riders including Viscount Kimberley, to Cassie’s intense delight, Vincent, Sir Reginald and Mr Richard Fanshawe, to Sophie’s dismay. Mr Fanshawe was a Norfolk friend of Lord and Lady Martindale, who had invited him to join them. He insisted on riding beside her, and what had been anticipated as a pleasurable ride was embarrassing and uncomfortable.
‘Mr Fanshawe, I am sure you would rather ride with the gentlemen,’ she said, falling back in the hope he would tire of her slow pace and leave her.
‘Not at all. Your company, Miss Cavenhurst, is all I want and need.’
‘I do not know why you are saying that. I made it quite clear, three months ago, that I do not wish to marry you.’
‘I know you did, but that was simply done out of convention. Young ladies are taught to say no on the first time of asking.’
‘I don’t know where you got that idea, but in my case you are under a misapprehension. I meant what I said.’
‘Why?’ she repeated. ‘I do not think I am under any obligation to say why. But if it helps you to accept it, the reason is simply that I do not love you.’
‘Love! That is a greatly overrated emotion by young ladies who read too many romantic novels and think they reflect real life. I thought you to be more practical than that. It is better to be well suited and comfortable.’
‘Mr Fanshawe...’ she began, just as Sir Reginald rode up on her other side.
‘Sophie, I cannot let Dickie monopolise you. Pray, allow me to join you.’
‘Oh, Lord, give me patience,’ she said and kicked her horse into a trot. They both followed suit. Unable to shake them off, she cantered and then, in desperation, dug her heels in and galloped.
She knew galloping side-saddle on a strange horse on a busy road was a foolish thing to do, but she was angry. She managed to avoid a mail coach cantering into town to keep to its schedule and an elderly pedestrian who shook his stick at her before she noticed a side road and turned down that. Thinking she had shaken off the two men, she slowed to a trot, but she was wrong. They were not far behind her and shouting at her to stop. ‘You will end up in the river if you keep going like that,’ Reggie shouted.
She pulled up and turned to face them. ‘I am going back to the party,’ she said as haughtily as she could manage, considering she was out of breath. ‘I do not expect to find either of you beside me again unless I invite you. Is that understood?’
‘Perfectly,’ Reggie said. ‘But I was concerned for your safety and your reputation.’
‘My reputation! Who was it who tricked me into riding in that monstrous vehicle of yours? You were not too concerned for my reputation then.’
‘Ha!’ Richard said. ‘What do you say to that, Swayle?’
‘I say it is none of your business, Fanshawe.’
‘Miss Cavenhurst’s welfare is my business.’
‘And how, pray, can you say that? I have not heard of an engagement which might justify it.’
‘It is only a matter of time.’
Sophie had heard enough. ‘Will you both get it into your heads I am not considering either of you? I have refused your offers and will not change my mind. Now, excuse me.’
She moved past them and cantered back to the main road, but unfortunately the carriages had disappeared. All she saw was an empty road. She turned in what she considered the right direction, well aware that the two men were only yards behind her. Strangely enough she was comforted by their presence, so long as they stayed well back.
She rode on until she came to a fork in the road and then she stopped, unable to decide which way to go, and that allowed the men to catch up with her. Ignoring them, she took the left-hand fork on the assumption that she needed to head south, but kept a wary eye on them in case they chose the other route, which would mean she was wrong. Right or wrong, they followed her. Very soon she came to a wooden bridge over the river that she needed to cross and she had no money for the toll. She had left her reticule containing her purse and a few coins in Lady Cartrose’s carriage. The men were beside her again and soon realised her dilemma.