‘She says not, but I shall try to persuade her. Now is not the time to withdraw from society. Lord Kimberley is not fixed to be in town beyond the next two or three weeks and she cannot afford to waste time being ill.’
‘I don’t suppose she is ill on purpose, Mrs Malthouse,’ Sophie said.
‘No, of course not. But if she does come tonight, I hope you will not monopolise his lordship as you did yesterday. It was very unfair of you.’
‘I did not ask him to ride with me and could hardly be rude to him when he did.’
‘Why not? You managed to rebuff Sir Reginald and Mr Fanshawe without much trouble. Very put out they were, especially after they had rescued you when you were lost and about to ride straight into the river.’
‘That is nonsense. Did they think I could not see the water, or that I was so poor a rider I would allow my horse to plunge straight in with me on its back? And I was not lost. I simply took a wrong turn. I could easily have found my way back to the party. No doubt they wanted to make themselves look like heroes.’
‘Be that as it may, your riding back with the viscount was certainly noticed.’
Sophie opened her mouth to protest, but they were interrupted by the arrival of more callers and the conversation came to an abrupt end. The room was soon full of friends and acquaintances, many of who had been on the picnic and were to be part of the company that evening. Reggie and Richard arrived together and, after bowing to their hostess and acknowledging others, came straight to her side.
Fortunately she was able to excuse herself with a polite smile on the grounds that she must help her aunt, who was wilting in her chair by the open window.
‘Is there anything I can get you, Aunt Emmeline? I think everyone has some cool cordial and cake, and now I can look after you.’
‘Thank you, child. Do you think you can fetch my big Chinese fan? You will find it in the top drawer of the chest in my bedchamber. I need something bigger than this little chicken-skin one to move the air in here.’
She was passing Mrs Malthouse when she heard her saying, ‘Such an accomplished flirt for one so young, and Emmeline seems not strong enough to rein her in. I fear for Vincent.’
‘I heard she had been riding in the park in Sir Reginald’s high-perch phaeton, just the two of them,’ her listener added. ‘It can’t be true, surely.’
‘It is. She told Cassandra so herself. I would not have her at Cassandra’s ball, but the invitation has been made and accepted and I can hardly retract it. She is Lady Cartrose’s niece and Emmeline has been my friend for many years.’
Pink with mortification, Sophie went on her way. It was so unfair! She was not a flirt. It was not her fault Reggie and Richard dogged her, and as for Vincent, she had hardly spoken half a dozen words to him. She was rapidly coming to dislike London and everyone in it, but if she asked Teddy to take her home, everyone would think she was running away in shame. That she could not bear.
Putting her head in the air, she made for the stairs and her aunt’s room, where she found the fan and returned to her aunt.
‘Thank you, child. You are a good girl.’
‘Mrs Malthouse does not think so.’
‘Bear her no mind. She is simply jealous that her daughter does not attract the attention you do.’
‘I wish I did not.’
‘It is why you came to London, surely?’
‘Not to have Sir Reginald and Mr Fanshawe on my heels all the time. Why couldn’t they stay in Norfolk?’
‘Because you are here, my dear.’ Her aunt laughed. ‘And do you know, their attention is a good thing in a way—it attracts other men to find out what they are missing.’
‘There is something smoky going on, and I wish I knew what it was. I’m told Lord Gorange is in town as well, though I have not seen him.’
‘It may just be coincidence.’
‘I hope so, I really do.’ She looked up as Teddy came into the room. He was sober and perfectly groomed. Going from one to the other of her aunt’s guests, he smiled and exchanged a few words before moving on and eventually reaching her.
‘Well, sis,’ he said, smiling disarmingly at her, ‘all present and correct. Am I forgiven?’
‘Yes, if you accompany us to Ranelagh Gardens this evening and stay with us. No going off and leaving us, especially if Reggie and Richard are hovering about.’
‘They only want you to change your mind.’
‘Well, I’m not going to.’