A green finch warbled in a bush near the little Cotswold inn. Its glorious song filled the air, adding to a sense of well-being that had been slow to return to Sophie Garnett. Life of late had taken a great number of twists and turns, all unexpected. She was just now finding her feet and was secretly pleased at how well she had coped with the misfortune dealt her by her family.
Fate had unpleasantly surprised her with a cruel joke. Instead of swanning up to London for her expected come-out, Sophie found herself without a farthing and totally dependent on the mercy of others. Destitute! Thanks to Papa's untimely death before he could recoup his fortune following a disastrous investment, this particular branch of the Garnett family was without means, except for a sum that had been set aside for Lawrence.
Her older brother had been able to purchase a good spot in the navy, where he happily sailed the seas.
Her wisp of a mother had moved into the tiny home belonging to her widowed sister, Emma. There had been no room for Sophie--unless she was willing to occupy a small space in the attic that looked to be boiling in summer and frigid come winter.
Bless old school friends who stand by one in time of need. Lady Anne Margrave, now the beloved wife of Sir Cecil Radcliffe, had recommended Sophie to a lady in want of a companion. It wasn't one of those sit-and-read-improving-books or winding-yarn sort of jobs. Lady Mary Croscombe simply wanted a traveling companion.
Sophie had rapidly grown fond of the lively spinster who had such great curiosity about everything in her path. Wherever they traveled, Lady Mary delved into the history of the area with an enthusiasm that proved infectious. This morning they were to visit the Broadway Tower to enjoy the supposedly splendid view of the surrounding countryside on a pleasant summer day. Sophie had donned a simple white muslin from better days with a pretty pink spencer Lady Mary had insisted upon giving her. Sophie tucked a stray blond curl that wanted to spring free back under her neat little cottage bonnet. Trimmed with a small cluster of pink silk roses and tied under her chin with a simple pink bow, it seemed to be most appropriate wear for a companion.
Her inspection of the sheep grazing in the meadow across the road from the inn was disturbed by the entry of a maid holding a letter. "Post for you, miss."
"Thank you," Sophie said with absent courtesy while she puzzled over the missive now in her hand. It looked ominously like the one bearing the news of her father's failed investment.
"Ready to go, my dear?" Lady Mary cheerfully inquired as she entered the little sitting room they shared. She carried a sensible umbrella in hand, not one of those silly parasols that offered precious little shade for tender skin. Her lavender walking dress was the latest fashion, albeit a trifle conservative in style, quite suitable for a wealthy lady who had elected to remain unwed.
"A letter came for me, forwarded from home. How lucky we decided to remain here for another week."
"Well, best to open it and find out what it says. No point in simply staring at the outside, is there?" Lady Mary said in her bracing manner.
Sophie shook off her feeling of unease and slit the seal with an impatient finger. Unfolding the stiff parchment, she hastily scanned the contents, gasped, then read it again far more slowly.
"Are you going to keep me in suspense after that gasp, dear child?" Lady Mary asked with a trace of impatience.
Shaking her head as though to clear out a fog, Sophie replied, "I do not understand. I am summoned to appear at Lowell Hall for the reading of my Uncle Philip's will."
"And where is Lowell Hall, if I may ask?"
"'Tis located not far from Cheltenham--just north a few miles," Sophie said, meeting her employer's gaze with troubled eyes, then looking again at the letter as if to verify that the contents were indeed true.
"And Uncle Philip--he was perhaps a well-fixed bachelor? One with a fondness for you?"
"I always enjoyed the annual visits to Lowell Hall. He married but had no children and his wife died ages ago." Sophie thought back to those halcyon summer days spent with other cousins while roaming the gardens and fields on Uncle Philip's vast estate. With an unconscious sigh for things lost, she added, "He does have an heir--a distant cousin of mine, Jonathan Garnett--who is now Viscount Lowell."
Another sigh followed this remark, this time with Sophie well aware of the past and its secrets. "The estate is south of here, not far off the main road."
"Well, that is no problem, then. You shall go at once. After all, Cheltenham is no more than fifteen miles from here, more or less." She gave Sophie a shrewd look, then added, "I should like to go with you if I may. I've a fancy to see that area better."
Sophie gave the older woman a grateful look. Bless her heart, Lady Mary was not only a curious person, she had developed a rather protective attitude toward Sophie. It made Sophie wish to do everything in her power to please the adventuresome spinster. Again tucking the rebellious blond curl back under her bonnet and giving a little nod, she fixed determined blue eyes, first on the letter, then on her employer. "Very well. I would be pleased for your company. Whilst I doubt I inherit much from Uncle Philip, I would value a wise head for counsel should I have need of one."
"I fancy the Broadway Tower will be there for some years to come. I can see it in another trip. Come, let us pack our things and make arrangements to travel south to...Lowell Hall, did you say?" Lady Mary gave Sophie an inquiring look.
"Indeed, ma'am. I shall order up your traveling coach at once," Sophie said promptly, referring to her employer's luxurious mode of travel.
"Do so. Wickens shall pack my things in a trice. I trust it will not take you long?" She paused to study the still-bemused Sophie.
At this prompting, Sophie bestirred herself and smiled as she moved toward the door leading to the stairs. "Indeed, it will not take me long at all. I shall be packed long before your coach can be drawn up before the inn."
"Good," Lady Mary said with a decided snap, then disappeared into her room, issuing orders to her maid like a general about to embark on a battle.
It was a simple matter to order Lady Mary's coach, for the inn possessed an excellent stable, one which the coachman had declared first-rate. Sophie scanned the bill offered by the proprietor and after seeing no improper charges, settled with him on behalf of Lady Mary. He was sorry to lose so good a patron, but smiled when Sophie informed him that Lady Mary had been so pleased with the area and his inn that she planned a future visit.
Reflecting that she would enjoy a return to this area as well, Sophie went to her room and carefully packed her few belongings. What a change for the pampered daughter of Sir William Garnett to be stowing her own garments, tending to their care and improvement. It was a blessing that she was an excellent seamstress, for she had needed that skill more than once in repairing and altering her gowns, not to mention mending stockings that seemed to acquire holes with shocking speed. While Lady Mary was not niggardly in her pay, Sophie hoarded every pence she could against a time when Lady Mary would no longer require her services.
It was shortly after noon and a pleasant repast--Lady Mary refused to travel without a meal first--that they left the quiet little inn.
"A woman of my size," her ladyship declared as the coach headed south at a leisurely pace, "must eat to sustain her body and energy."
"Yes, ma'am." Sophie eyed the tall woman seated across from her on the comfortably cushioned seat. Large she might be, but she had an excellent figure and carried herself well. Her red hair streaked with gray was always neatly arranged in a modish style. Her clothing was of the finest quality and the latest fashion.
Sophie had merely nibbled at the food presented to them, her mind far away. How many of her cousins would be present? And how would she cope with facing Jonathan again? Her tall, handsome cousin--never mind how far removed--would of course be present at the reading of the will. He stood to inherit the bulk of the estate as well as the entailed property. Would he recall her past folly? Surely his memory would be required for more important matters than girlish nonsense. Or would his dark eyes mock her with remembered foolishness?
"What curious thoughts you must be having. I declare, I have never seen you blush in such a delightful manner," Lady Mary remarked in a considering way.
"Nonsense," Sophie replied without heat, giving voice to her thoughts. "It was merely nonsense. How silly girls can be at times."
"Let me see...you expect to see your cousins at the reading--or at least one of them, the heir. Is there perhaps an interest of the heart involved?" Lady Mary firmly believed that roundaboutation was to be avoided.
Giving the lady an alarmed look, Sophie turned away to stare out of the window at the passing scenery, yet saw nothing of the rolling green hills dotted with oxeye daisies and cattle. "No, just silly girlish nonsense," she said at last.
"I see," Lady Mary said with the manner of one who didn't see in the least.
Five miles down the road the ladies paused for a restoring cup of tea at Winchcombe. Sophie welcomed the delay. Her fears at seeing Jonathan again had grown with each passing mile. She would have been quite happy to have escaped from attendance at the reading of the will.
"You enjoyed spending time with your cousins in years past?" Lady Mary inquired casually while keeping a sharp eye trained on Sophie over their modest tea.
"Oh, yes, indeed," Sophie replied warmly. "They were some of my happiest days while growing up. Or most of them were pleasant," she amended, thinking of the last time she had seen Jonathan. "The last visit did not go well."
"What happened that time?" Lady Mary softly probed, looking quite intrigued with this side of her quiet companion.
"As I said, nonsense." Sophie had never mentioned the matter to anyone, feeling the utter fool for her silliness. Then looking into Lady Mary's kind face, so full of sympathy, and suddenly wishing for a comforting talk, Sophie plunged into an explanation. "That last summer I went we played games as usual; only this time we were more grown up and some of the girls wanted to do something more venturesome."
"And what drastic thing happened between you and your cousin Jonathan?" the older woman asked, wise in the ways of young girls in spite of her spinster state.
"Jonathan was required to kiss me as forfeit in a game. He proved to be, er, very good at that sort of thing." Sophie blushed again at the memory of the feelings that had raced through her sensitive self as Jonathan kissed her. "Silly twit that I was, I tumbled headlong into an infatuation with the dratted man." She paused to reflect, then added, "He might have been young in years but he was never really as boyish as my other male cousins were. His dark eyes always saw too much. I suspect he was born with that air about him that attracts every female in sight. He was extremely masculine, even then."
"A veritable Adonis, I gather. I look forward to meeting the gentleman," Lady Mary murmured.
"I can only hope that he didn't notice my passion for him. No one has ever teased me about it so I suspect I may have successfully concealed my feelings. But I felt such a fool when a short time later I learned of his entanglement with a very lovely and sophisticated woman in London. I was but sixteen--a rather immature sixteen, at that!"
Sophie shared a look of amusement with Lady Mary and felt better for telling her foolish little history. Somehow, giving voice to the incident brought it into perspective. Surely she could laugh it off now, even if her cousin did recall the event--something she very much doubted.
"And you had melted at his kiss?"
Sophie gave Lady Mary a shocked look. How could this spinster know the turmoil that had swept through the young Sophie at the touch of Jonathan's lips on hers? He had studied her face, bestowing a most unfathomable look. Then, with exquisite slowness, he had claimed her lips in a scorching kiss. Sophie had never been the same since. She had unconsciously measured every man she met against her handsome cousin. There had been a few stolen kisses, but they had been a mere brushing of lips. No one had matched Jonathan, more's the pity.
"I did mention that I was a silly girl, did I not?" Sophie gave the older woman a rueful look.
"Have you changed a great deal since you last saw Viscount Lowell?" Lady Mary inquired as they strolled to the coach and the continuation of their journey.
"It will be difficult to think of him with the title. And yes, I suppose that I have altered in the past four years. I filled out, acquired a bosom, and grew up, for one thing. And I suppose I have attained a modicum of common sense, not to mention a smidgen of polish."
"You did not see him in London for you had no come-out, did you?" Lady Mary observed in a most matter-of-fact way as she settled on the cushioned coach seat.
"No." Sophie examined her neatly gloved hands after she also settled in place. One glove now had a barely perceptible darn in it, something Sir William's daughter ought not to have. But then, no one had ever promised that life would be fair. She was lucky to have a position with a most agreeable lady.
"And he has not seen you since the visit with the infamous kiss?" Lady Mary persisted.
"That is quite true," Sophie said, giving Lady Mary a puzzled look.
"Well! I believe it may prove to be most interesting when the Viscount Lowell gets a look at his little cousin who is no longer an immature girl of sixteen. Rather"--and Lady Mary examined Sophie with an appraising gaze--"he will find a vision of heavenly loveliness, an incomparable from that halo of feathery blond curls to those delft blue eyes and sweet rosebud mouth right down to dainty slippered feet below a pair of remarkably neat ankles. We must find you some perfume to suit you--honeysuckle, perhaps," she concluded in what had to be an aside.
Flustered at the extravagant praise, Sophie murmured, "You are too kind, my lady."
"Rubbish! If there is one thing I am not, it is stupidly kind. I am a calculating, interfering old busybody and I always have a wonderful time." She chuckled and subsided into a silence that Sophie found faintly disturbing.
Sophie paid more attention to the passing scenery now, seeing sights that appeared familiar. She could not prevent a rising excitement from welling up within her. Whether it was the thought that her dear uncle might have remembered her in his will with a much needed bequest or the thought that very shortly she would see Jonathan again after four long years, she didn't know.
How hard she had tried to convince herself that she hated him--hated him for stirring her so, then casually walking off as though he had flitted her world. She had wanted to despise him for his splendid success in London, taking the ton by storm. She had read the gossip columns and had rightly guessed that he was the J-G referred to by the writers, and she had secretly reveled that she had once known him at all, for he blazed a trail through Society that was most spectacular. Dratted man! Beast!
"What a fierce look on your face, my dear. I pity the object of that expression," Lady Mary said, studying Sophie's determined countenance.
"Oh!" exclaimed Sophie, compelled to laugh at her own thoughts. "I was being foolish again, I fear. Perhaps it is this countryside that turns my normally sensible self into that of a silly girl?"
"Somehow I doubt it," Lady Mary murmured. She settled back against the beautifully cushioned squabs to rest, closing her eyes.
Sophie took advantage of the quiet to decide how she might best face her cousin--and the others in attendance. For all she knew every member of the family who had enjoyed her uncle's company on those lovely summer holidays would be here. In a way that would be excellent. She might avoid seeing anything of Jonathan, except from a safe distance.
It could not be helped. The coach at last turned through the impressive stone pillars upon which hung exquisitely worked iron gates. They proceeded up the avenue at a stately pace, much to Sophie's pleasure.
"My dear girl, when you said your beloved uncle was well-to-do, you did him a disservice. This is a magnificent setting for what appears to be an equally magnificent house." Lady Mary seemed most impressed, as well she might.
Looking ahead to see the familiar house, its central block rising above the two spacious wings on either side, Sophie felt a constriction in her throat. Uncle Philip would not greet her at the door with a generous hug and pats on her head anymore. Not that she would ever visit here again; Uncle Philip was now part of her past.
"I must say, that fountain is quite splendid," Lady Mary said, sounding reluctantly stirred.
Somehow Sophie managed to enter the house without disgracing herself. Newfound maturity prevented her from bursting into tears at the sight of the black cape draping the hatchment on the front door.
"Welcome, Miss Sophie," intoned Biggins, Uncle Philip's faithful butler of many years. "You will be in your old room and your guest"--he looked at Lady Mary with a measuring eye and continued respectfully--"will be housed in the Rose Room."
"Dear me, I quite forgot myself. This is Lady Mary Croscombe, Biggins. She is my employer," Sophie concluded, daring the old retainer to say a word about her new status.
"You will both be welcome guests. It is a sad time for all of us," he said with a knowing look at Sophie's eyes, brimming with tears.
"Is the new Viscount Lowell in residence?" she asked, although she guessed the answer.
"Indeed, Miss Sophie," the butler replied while ushering the two women over to the housekeeper, his good wife, Mrs. Biggins.
Sophie calmed her emotions while she and Lady Mary were ushered up the grand staircase to the first floor, then along to the east wing, where the guest rooms were located. The house was silent; even their footsteps were hushed by the thick carpet beneath them.
Lady Mary gave an approving glance at the serene luxury of the Rose Room when escorted there by the quiet Mrs. Biggins.
"Have James bring up our luggage, please," Sophie instructed politely. "He is still here, is he not?" she thought to add, for much could happen in four years.
"Indeed, miss. You are to go as soon as may be to the library. The will's to be read this evening. Everyone ought to be here by then." Knowing that Sophie knew the location of her old room, the housekeeper silently returned to the lower regions of the house.
After settling Lady Mary and the redoubtable Wickens in their suite, Sophie went along the hall until she reached the room that had always been hers when visiting her uncle.
"It is just the same," she said to herself, surprised that it was unchanged when she had altered so greatly.
An unfamiliar maid entered with a pitcher of hot water and an inquiry as to when Sophie might return downstairs, where she was wanted.
"Just give me a few moments to wash and repair the damage from traveling and I shall be there," Sophie promised. Why it was so necessary for her to present herself without delay puzzled her, but she knew better than to query a maid.
Placing her bonnet on the dresser, Sophie ran a comb through her curls, then removed her spencer. The white muslin had fared better than expected. Of course the skirt was creased from sitting, but there was no dust clinging to its folds. Splendid coaches appeared to guard well against excessive dust.
She trailed her hand on the reassuring solidity of the oak banister as she walked slowly down the curved stairs. Biggins gave her a nod when she reached the bottom, and she obediently went along the hall until she reached the library. Here, she paused before the closed door, noting her heart had begun to beat an anxious tattoo within her chest. It was merely a summons to appear. Perhaps the solicitor had a private bequest to offer before the others arrived on the scene. Curiosity high, she turned the brass knob to open the door and enter.
It was a high-ceilinged room filled with shelves containing a modest number of books--for a house this size. Her uncle had not been what you might call a great reader, but he had often pointed out books he thought might interest her. She had spent long hours here, especially on that last visit when trying to evade the others. Jonathan in particular.
The room appeared to be uninhabited at the moment. She was about to leave when a voice halted her flight.
"So you came after all. I made a small wager with myself."
Sophie reluctantly turned to face Cousin Jonathan, seated in a high-back chair near the window on the shadowed far side of the room. "And did you win?"
He blinked, then slowly said, "I believe I did."
"Mrs. Biggins said I was wanted immediately in the library. I do not see the solicitor here. Did you wish to speak to me?" She felt so cold she ought to be shivering, yet she also felt as though she might melt at the nearness of the man she had once adored. She positively had to get away from him before she disgraced herself by doing something stupid. She had tried so hard to hate him and it had been all in vain.
Jonathan rose from his chair and strolled across the room until he stood directly before Sophie. "You have changed since I last saw you."
"One does eventually grow up. You are the same, I believe." Could air actually sizzle? Was it possible for tension to create sparks between people? Fireworks? Or was her imagination galloping away with her?
"I was sorry to learn of your father's death. I would have attended the funeral, but the news reached me some time after the event." He continued to examine her face with disconcerting thoroughness.
"We wished to keep it a simple affair with only close family." Sophie dared him to make a comment on her impoverishment. She thought she might crown him with that vase of summer flowers gracing the Sheraton desk were he to ooze false sympathy at her plight. She ought to have known him better.
"Lawrence is well situated, I believe. And your mother is living with Aunt Emma?" He was all politeness.
"Yes," she replied baldly, waiting.
"You look well. I trust you have, as usual, found yourself on your feet?" His gaze raked her from head to toe, not missing one wrinkle or mend in her gown.
"Indeed. I am companion to Lady Mary Croscombe. She is a very dear lady who enjoys traveling about the country. I am most fortunate in my position." She lifted her chin, daring him to make a slighting remark.
"Good girl," he said softly, then reached around her to open the door. "Dinner will be in one hour, should you care to change."
"I have no blacks, Jonathan. They remained behind when I left home." Again her cerulean eyes blazed with defiance, daring him to belittle her.
"I suspected that might be the case. I instructed Mrs. Biggins to place a selection of gowns in your room, should you wish to change into one of them. They might be a trifle snug. You are not as thin as I recall."
"As I said, people grow up. I changed." She hoped her eyes revealed the scorn she tried to summon.
"You certainly did, brat."
"Oh!" She gave him a scathing look, thinking it might be possible to hate him after all. She swept from the room and up the stairs, borne by her anger--at herself, for still loving that miserable man, and at him, for stirring things best left to wither on the vine.
In her room she opened the wardrobe to find three black gowns of impeccable taste and design within. Selecting one that looked as though it might fit with the fewest alterations, she slipped from her muslin and donned a soft bombazine of the most lovely weight and texture. He had guessed her change better than he'd thought, for the gown was not too snug. Rather, it clung nicely to her curves and yet had a proper decorum about it. She adjusted the lace-trimmed collar, thinking that she could spend three months in such garments with no great difficulty.
Mourning for an uncle depended upon how close one was to the deceased. It ranged from a proper three months for someone like Uncle Philip down to six weeks for an uncle not so cherished to three weeks for an uncle never seen.
A rap on her door was followed by the entry of Lady Mary, also suitably gowned in dull black.
"Goodness, but someone did well by you," Lady Mary commented as she circled her companion.
"It is a lovely dress." Sophie stroked the soft fabric with an appreciative hand. "My cousin provided several for me. I gather he suspected I might have need of such."
"Most considerate of him. Perhaps you will be able to endure this confrontation after all?"
Sophie thought of the meeting earlier and shook her head. "I doubt it."
At dinner she found herself at the opposite end of the table from Jonathan. With no wife to serve as hostess, he had requested that she substitute, since she had been so close to Uncle Philip. Not knowing how to avoid the inevitable speculation this would bring, she agreed and now could steal a glance from time to time at the man who puzzled her so greatly. The array of cousins was not as great as anticipated. The solicitor was hardly the dry, papery man she expected, but rather a youngish gentleman, a younger son of a fine family, no doubt.
When she signaled for the women to leave the table, Jonathan rose as well.
"I suggest we have the reading of the will at once. That will end fruitless speculation."
Hating to be grateful to him, yet thankful he had spoken thus, Sophie led the way, with Jonathan immediately behind her. When he lightly touched her waist to guide her to a library chair it was a wonder she didn't jump through the roof. This was what it must be like when described as being on pins and needles.
The will contained no great surprises. Jonathan naturally inherited the entailed estate. He also received an indecently vast sum of money, stocks, and other property.
Suddenly Sophie heard her name and fixed her attention on the speaker. "To my dear niece, Sophie Garnett, I bequeath the contents of my library." The solicitor gazed at her, waiting.
Books? She had inherited books--a library full of them? Had it not been a serious occasion she would have burst into laughter at the idea of a homeless girl inheriting a library of books. Precisely where was she to house them? In the air?
"You do not have to accept them, you know," Jonathan said wryly.
Sophie glared at him and tilted her chin in battle. "I should be pleased to accept, sir. I have loved many of my uncle's books."