* * *
It was the same after supper when they strolled about the grounds, waiting for the fireworks to begin. With such a large party, they were bound to become separated. Cassie and Lucy went off, arm in arm, escorted by Vincent and Adam. Sophie stayed close beside her aunt, whose pace was exceedingly slow. After a while her ladyship begged to sit down and they found a bench where they were joined by Lady Martindale and Mrs Malthouse.
‘Do go and join your friends,’ her aunt said. ‘Augusta and I and her ladyship will have a comfortable coze here until the fireworks begin.’
Thus dismissed, Sophie went in search of Teddy, but could not find him. It was nearly dark and the lanterns had been lit in the trees along the main pathways but more distant walks were in deep shadow, making her shiver a little. She did not find her brother but came upon Cassandra and the viscount, dogged by a determined Vincent. She had no idea how they had managed to lose Lucy, unless she was with Teddy. She fell into step beside Vincent, allowing the other two to go a little way ahead. Cassie was still talking too much, hardly pausing for breath. Adam was smiling indulgently and putting in a ‘Quite so’ or ‘Indeed?’ every now and again.
‘It is much cooler now, isn’t it?’ Sophie said to Vincent. ‘So much more comfortable.’
‘Yes, thank goodness. Cassie cannot stand the heat.’ He turned towards her. ‘You, on the other hand, Miss Cavenhurst, seem to thrive on it.’
‘Do I? I suppose it is because I would rather be out of doors than in.’
‘You enjoyed the picnic, then?’
‘Yes, very much. Did you?’
‘Oh, yes, especially the cricket. I never expected to see a young lady hitting the ball with so much gusto and making runs.’
‘Teddy taught me. Sometimes I used to dress in his outgrown breeches to play when I was a child. It is so much easier when one is able to move freely.’
‘Did you really? What did your parents say to that?’
‘So long as it was only in the grounds of the estate they did not mind. Of course, it had to stop when I grew older.’ She knew she was shocking him and was enjoying it.
‘But you don’t do it now?’
‘Oh, no, that would be decidedly improper.’
Adam, in a pause in his one-sided conversation with Cassie, turned towards them; she could tell by his smile that he had heard her. ‘I think it is time to make our way towards the fireworks,’ he said. ‘All the vantage points will be gone if we leave it much longer.’
They turned back and joined the throng of people standing behind the ropes waiting for the display to begin.
‘What are you playing at?’ Adam murmured in Sophie’s ear, startling her; she hadn’t realised he was so close. Cassie had been claimed by her mama a few yards away. Teddy was fussing round Aunt Emmeline. Lucy and Mrs Martindale were with them.
‘Playing at, my lord?’ she said sweetly. ‘What can you mean?’
‘You know very well what I mean. You manoeuvred Miss Malthouse to sit beside me at supper. It was so obvious I wondered others did not notice it.’
‘Now, how could I, a mere slip of a girl, manoeuvre you, of all people? And why would I?’
‘I do not know, but it was unkind of you. I had to endure her idle chatter throughout supper and afterwards while we walked. Listening to her is exhausting.’
‘I expect she is nervous.’
‘Why, for heaven’s sake? I am not an ogre. I do not eat silly little girls.’
She laughed. ‘I believe Cassie is a few months my senior.’
‘What has that to do with it? I am persuaded you must have some motive.’
‘My lord, I have been accused of being a hoyden and a flirt and Cassie is convinced that I am trying to put her out with you. I had to make her see otherwise.’
‘And you wouldn’t be doing anything of the sort, of course.’
‘Certainly not. I should be wasting my time, would I not? Have not you not declared you are not looking for a second wife?’
‘Indeed I have.’
‘And I am not prepared to be one, so let us be friends.’
He laughed. ‘Oh, Sophie, if anyone could make me change my mind it would be you.’ But his murmured words were drowned by the noise of the first rockets being sent up into the night sky, vying with the stars in their brilliance.
He remained at her side while the display continued, lighting up the sky in red, green and yellow stars which burst upon the firmament before fading to earth again. As the last one died away, they turned to leave. It was then she saw Reggie and Richard talking to Lord Gorange and her heart sank.