Page 36 of The Husband Season

It was obvious he knew what he was about. He piled up the runs and it seemed he would be there for the afternoon, but Sophie, who had been studying his game, came forward and a little to one side. When a ball flew towards her, she ran and caught it, though the speed of it stung her hand.

 Even the ladies clapped, and Adam gave her a rueful grin. Her reply was to take the bat from his hand. ‘My turn.’

 He did not argue with her, but gave the ball to Lord Martindale to bowl and she stood at the wicket, bat carefully positioned behind the mark they had made in the grass.

 His lordship tossed a gentle ball down to her, which she thumped into the undergrowth and ran five runs while they searched for it. The second ball, when it was retrieved and bowled again, received the same treatment and so did a third.

 Adam took over the bowling again and he did not spare her. She hit it, but was unable to direct it as she would have wished, and he ran forward and caught it himself. ‘Out, my valiant one,’ he said. ‘Let that teach you not to play games with men.’

 There was more than cricket on his mind, she realised. It was a warning. It annoyed her. ‘And you should not play games with ladies,’ she retorted. ‘We fight back.’

 He laughed, but it was not a derisive laugh, not the laughter that she had complained about to her friends. It was a laugh that told her he understood her and liked her pluck.

 The exchange brought an end to the game and everyone prepared to go home. In the absence of Teddy, Adam decided to ride beside her on the way back and edged Reggie and Richard out of the way. She did not complain; his company was infinitely preferable to that of those two men.

 ‘When did you learn to play cricket?’ he asked her.

 ‘I used to play with Teddy and his school friends when they came home in the holidays. They wanted someone to make up the numbers. Sir Reginald was one of them.’

 ‘You have known him for some time?’

 ‘Yes. There is no harm in him, but he cannot accept that I will not marry him.’

 ‘Why not?’

 ‘I do not love him.’

 ‘That is important to you?’

 ‘Of course it is. It is the most important thing in a marriage. Don’t you agree?’

 ‘Indeed, I do.’

 They were silent for a few minutes while they pondered on this. He had loved Anne more tenderly, more lastingly, than he could ever explain. Her death had been a terrible blow and had sent him spiralling down into an abyss of despair. He had gone about his business like an automaton, trying not to think, trying not to feel. He had come out of it a harder, colder man. On the surface he functioned well, but there was still that hollow feeling inside and a terrible feeling of guilt that he was to blame.

 He pulled himself together and took up the conversation again. ‘You ride very well. You must have had a good teacher. Teddy again?’

 He looked sideways at her with a slight upward tilt to his mouth. It was a strong mouth, she noticed, and wondered idly what it would be like to be kissed by him. ‘Yes, and our groom. I was put on a small pony as soon as I was big enough to sit on one.’

 ‘Astride, I have no doubt.’

 She knew he was teasing. ‘Yes, there were no side-saddles small enough in the stables and I became used to it. It is much more comfortable both for me and my mount. Galloping side-saddle is a risky business.’

 ‘Ladies are not meant to gallop.’

 ‘This one is.’

 ‘What else can you do?’

 She turned to look at him. Was he teasing her again? ‘Well, I can read and write and add up.’

 ‘Now you are bamming me.’

 ‘You asked for it.’

 ‘So I did. Read, write, add up, dance the waltz, play cricket, ride like the wind—is there no end to your accomplishments?’

 ‘I can shoot and fish.’

 He laughed. ‘Did your brother teach you that, too?’

 ‘Of course.’

 ‘Did he teach you to gamble?’

 ‘No, he did not. He knows how ruinous it can be. Why did you ask that?’

 ‘No reason. You are very fond of him, are you not?’

 ‘Of course I am. He always had time for me when I was growing up, especially after my sisters married. He would take me about the estate and let me join in whatever he was doing. I would not have been able to come to London if he hadn’t offered to escort me.’

 ‘Where do you think he is now?’

 ‘I don’t know. Perhaps we will meet him coming back.’

 ‘Or perhaps he has given up looking for you and is waiting at home. After all, he must know you are safe surrounded by so many friends.’