Page 81 of The Husband Season

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Mark had sent his groom over to Greystone Manor that morning to fetch Swift and the animal had thrilled Jane. When they arrived Sophie handed over her own present, a new riding crop bought from the local harness maker, and received a hug in return. There were other presents to receive and exclaim over and then supper was served and they all trooped into the dining room.

The meal was a happy affair and there was no shortage of things to talk about: the latest on dit, the new fashions, the running of the orphanage, young Harry’s latest accomplishment and Adam’s speech in the Lords that had been reported in full in the Thunderer and resulted in a spate of letters to the editor, a few supporting him, but most condemning him. The workers he was defending were not ones to write to newspapers. No one seemed to notice that Sophie, in her gleaming gown and sparkling jewels, had little to say.

Her head was full of Lord Gorange’s threat. A few words noised abroad that she was not the innocent she appeared to be and he could spoil all this and once again plunge everyone at Greystone Manor and Broadacres into scandal. How she could prevent it without marrying him she did not know.

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It was when the ladies retired to the drawing room, leaving the men to their cigars and port, that her mother remarked on her unusual quietness. ‘Sophie, you have hardly said a word all evening,’ she said. ‘You are not going to catch Bessie’s cold, are you? It would not surprise me if you did.’

It was a heaven-sent opportunity to pass off her ill humour, but suddenly it seemed important to tell the truth. ‘No, Mama, not a cold...’

‘Oh, I see. It is Viscount Kimberley.’

‘Adam?’ Jane echoed.

‘No, it is not.’ Sophie rounded on her. ‘I shall have to marry that horrid Lord Gorange and—’

‘Good heavens, why?’

It tumbled out then, the whole sorry story, and at the end of it she was sobbing and spoiling her face. Her mother took her in her arms. ‘Oh, Sophie, why did you not say something sooner? There is no question of you marrying Lord Gorange if you do not want to. Let him do his worst.’

‘But what will Papa say?’

‘I have no doubt he will say he was right not to trust Teddy to look after you.’

‘But it wasn’t Teddy’s fault.’

‘If he were here now, I think I could cheerfully thrash him,’ Jane said.

‘But Teddy was against my accepting any of those three...’

‘Of course he was,’ Jane said. ‘Mama, Adam has told us that Teddy made a wager with them that Sophie would not marry any one of them by the end of July. They were each intent on winning it.’

Sophie stared at her. ‘Is that true?’

‘Yes. Adam would not make it up, would he?’

‘Why didn’t he tell me?’

‘He thought you might be hurt by it and asked us if we thought you should know. I felt you should be told because it would help you to understand.’

‘That explains why Lord Gorange said something about the other two stealing a march on him, and yesterday he said they have given up and left the field to him.’

‘Yesterday?’ her mother queried. ‘Is his lordship in Hadlea?’

‘Yes, he accosted me while I was out riding, and very offensive he was.’ She paused. ‘Mama, I do not want to bring scandal down on everyone. I have been foolish and naive and I beg you to forgive me.’

‘Oh, Sophie,’ her mother said, ‘there is nothing to forgive. But we will not tell your father. He is already very angry with Teddy. I do not wish to add to it.’

‘Then I must marry Lord Gorange.’

‘No, you will not,’ her mother said. ‘Leave it to me to tell your papa as much as he needs to know. He will give his lordship his rightabout on your behalf.’

‘Best thing you could do,’ the dowager Lady Wyndham put in suddenly, ‘is marry someone else. That would put a stop to his lordship’s antics.’

They had all forgotten she was there and turned to her in surprise. She chuckled. ‘I know a young man not so very far away who has been mourning his dead wife long enough. He ought to marry again and set up his nursery or the line will die out. And so I have told him.’

Sophie looked at the old lady with her mouth open for several seconds, then burst into tears.

The men chose that moment to rejoin them. ‘What is the matter with Sophie?’ Sir Edward demanded.

‘I think we should take Sophie home,’ his wife told him. ‘If everyone will excuse us.’