‘Of course,’ Mark said. ‘Is she ill?’
‘I think she has perhaps caught a cold from Bessie,’ Lady Cavenhurst said, putting her arm round Sophie and helping her to her feet. ‘She will no doubt be better after one of Cook’s remedies and a good night’s sleep.’
Shawls and wraps were fetched, Sir Edward, somewhat bemused, apologised to everyone for their rapid departure and Sophie was led away.
* * *
It was left to Jane to explain what had happened to Mark and Adam. ‘I know exactly how poor Sophie is feeling,’ she said. ‘She feels as if she has no choice but to comply with Lord Gorange for the sake of the family.’
‘But that is monstrous,’ Adam burst out. ‘Surely, to God, no one expects her to marry him?’
‘What do you suggest, then?’ the dowager said, smiling at him.
‘She must defy him, Aunt Helen. Such a union is unthinkable.’
‘Then, why don’t you marry her yourself?’
There was a stunned silence. Adam stared at her. ‘Aunt, I don’t think—’
‘Then I suggest you do think,’ she said, cutting him short. ‘You are a healthy young man with a whole life before you. Are you going to spend it becoming a crotchety old recluse with no friends and no children or grandchildren to comfort your old age? Sophie Cavenhurst will do you very well. She can be a little wild perhaps, but I see no harm in her and you could soon tame her.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of taming her.’
‘No?’ The old lady smiled. ‘Then, take her as she is.’
‘She would not have me.’
‘Have you asked her?’
‘No, of course I have not.’
‘Then, I suggest you do.’
‘Mama,’ Mark put in because his cousin seemed lost for words, ‘you are embarrassing Adam.’
‘He needs a little embarrassment. And we are all family, are we not?’
‘Excuse me,’ Adam said, and hurriedly left the room.
He went into the garden. It was a warm, clear night with a full moon and a sky full of stars. A slight breeze ruffled the trees. A cat, its stomach almost on the ground, stalked its prey in the long grass. An owl hooted somewhere in the direction of a distant barn. In contrast with the peaceful atmosphere, his insides were churning. His aunt had gone far beyond acceptable manners in speaking as she had and made him angry. He did not need her to tell him what to do.
On the other hand, she was probably right and he would have to marry again some day. But not yet. Not now. Later, perhaps. Much later, when he was middle-aged and he could find someone steady and unremarkable with whom he could have children and who would not bother him. Safe, not wild, tactful, not outspoken. A little plain even, not so beautiful he caught his breath whenever he beheld her.
An image of Sophie in that lovely gown, her blue eyes bleak and tear filled, swam before him. Even like that she was far from plain. Her evident suffering touched his heart. But that didn’t mean he had to marry her. You couldn’t build a marriage on pity. Was it pity he felt or exasperation? Or was it something else altogether? He began walking up and down the garden, then set off down the drive to walk along the village lanes. Tomorrow he would go home and get on with his work. Honest toil would take care of his turmoil. Tomorrow he could forget her.
Sophie was half expecting Lord Gorange when he arrived in the middle of the following morning. Peering over the banister at the top of his head, she heard him ask Travers if Sir Edward would see him. The servant disappeared while Gorange checked his cravat in the mirror, a satisfied smile on his face. Travers came back and conducted him into the library and shut the door. Sophie went back to her room and waited. A little later she was sent for.
‘Lord Gorange has asked to speak to you,’ her father told her, after she had frostily replied to his lordship’s greeting. ‘Do you wish to hear him?’
‘No, Papa, I do not. I wish him to go away.’
Her father turned to the peer. ‘Then, I am afraid, my lord, you have my daughter’s answer.’
His lordship stared from one to the other. ‘Miss Cavenhurst’s reputation will be sullied by this refusal not to allow me even the courtesy of a hearing,’ he said pompously.
‘I think not. If any word of scandal reaches me, I shall be obliged to make known the vile wager you made and the tactics you have used to win it. I think it might very well be your reputation that suffers. Good day to you, my lord. I wish you a speedy journey home.’