‘Allow me,’ Mr Fanshawe said, offering the toll man the money for them all.
She was obliged to thank him, and then all three crossed the bridge together. They were still together when they caught up with the rest of the party just short of the gate to the park.
‘Where have you been, Sophie?’ her aunt demanded, looking tellingly at her escorts. ‘We thought something bad had happened to you. And where is Edward?’
‘I took a wrong turn,’ she said. ‘I haven’t seen Teddy since we set out.’
‘He and Captain Moore went back to look for you.’
‘They must have missed me. Fortunately, Sir Reginald and Mr Fanshawe found me.’
‘Then let us carry on, and do stay beside the carriage now. I do not know what I would say to your parents if anything dreadful happened to you.’
Sophie was happy to obey. At least it would keep her two swains off her, but she was gloomily aware of the disapproving looks of the other ladies, and more than aware of the frown on the face of Viscount Kimberley. It seemed he was always to be witness to her humiliation and he was bound to add two and two and make five. Why that mattered, she would not admit.
* * *
Mr and Mrs Malthouse were riding in their barouche; their travelling coach had been sent on ahead with the servants and the food and several bottles of wine and cordial. When the cavalcade arrived, they had already selected a good spot beneath a tree and were busy unloading the hampers and laying out the picnic on a white tablecloth spread on the grass. Everyone dismounted and wandered about, stretching their legs.
‘What happened?’ Cassie demanded, coming across to Sophie. ‘Why did you ride off with those two?’ She nodded in the direction of Reggie and Richard, who were talking to Viscount Kimberley. Sophie wondered what they were saying to him and would dearly have liked to interrupt them, but decided she was in enough trouble without inviting more.
‘I did not ride off with them and nothing happened. I fell behind and took a wrong turn.’
‘Fell behind!’ Cassie laughed. ‘Was it some strategy to be alone with your amour?’
‘I was not alone.’
‘No, there were two of them. Really, Sophie, you are shocking, you know. I should never have dared.’
‘I didn’t ask them to follow me. In fact, I wish for nothing more than they should leave me alone. I am more than ever convinced there is something strange going on.’
‘They are after your fortune, perhaps.’
‘Fortune?’ Sophie repeated, mystified.
‘Why, yes. You said yourself you were wealthy.’
‘Yes, you said you could afford the best gowns and fripperies and do not need to stint, don’t you remember? And that habit you are wearing is certainly very fetching and must have cost a fortune.’
‘Oh, yes. But surely that is not reason enough...’
‘Of course it is. It is only men like Viscount Kimberley who are rich as Croesus who can afford not to consider it.’
She had forgotten that idle boast, but both men had been to Greystone Manor and must surely know her true circumstances. ‘There are other wealthy ladies,’ she said. ‘You, for instance, so why me?’
‘Who knows?’ Cassie shrugged. ‘Come, let us have some of Mama’s delicious picnic.’
Sophie followed Cassie to where the picnic was laid out. The older ladies were sitting in chairs, but everyone else was sprawled on the grass. Cassie managed to find a spot right next to the viscount and, as she had a firm hold on Sophie’s arm, Sophie found herself sitting on the ground uncomfortably close to him.
‘I hope you are none the worse for your adventure, Miss Cavenhurst?’ he said and though his tone was mild, she detected a certain measure of criticism.
‘It was not an adventure, my lord. I simply fell behind and took a wrong turn.’
‘And Sir Reginald and Mr Fanshawe were happily on hand to set you right.’
‘Yes, they were,’ she said sharply.
‘Tell me,’ he said, still in the same mild tone. ‘Why did you elect to ride and not travel in the carriage with your aunt?’
‘I wanted to ride,’ she said. ‘It is something I enjoy above all things, and I miss my daily rides around Hadlea.’
‘I see. And where is your brother? Should he not have stayed beside you?’
‘I have no idea where he is, my lord. My aunt said he had ridden back to look for me.’
‘Then, surely he should have returned before now.’