The Scoundrel Takes a Bride: A Regency Rogues Novel (27 page)

BOOK: The Scoundrel Takes a Bride: A Regency Rogues Novel
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Nicholas joined her, his body brushing against hers as he positioned himself over
the hole. “We were never lucky, Sophia. That much I can assure you.”

“I’m in!” William yelled enthusiastically, his voice echoing off the walls of the
cave.

Sophia lingered against the heat of Nicholas, savoring the contact as it warmed her
skin. “If we are to rely on your reasoning, then the sketch will not be found.”

“Sophia,” he turned to look at her with a mix of empathy and frustration, “we are
leaning over a chalk cave, in the middle of Petworth’s grounds, with nothing more
than the hope of evidence in an old sketch standing between us and abject failure.
If I do not have you to rely upon for optimism, who do I have?”

Sophia smiled. “All right, then. Since you’ve made such a valiant and convincing plea,
I suppose I’ve no choice in the matter.”

He grinned at her reply and gestured toward the hole. “I believe William is ready
for further instructions.”

“Oh yes,” Sophia said, feeling foolish for having delayed. “William,” she called,
“are you near the footholds?”

“Yes, my lady. I’m standing right in front of them.”

Sophia shifted her weight until she was looking into the cave once more. “Excellent.
Now, bend down until you can see the very last hold.”

The lamplight moved lower, indicating William’s progress. “All right.”

“Now walk your hand to the middle of the hold, then from that point, directly to the
bottom of the wall. You should come upon a slightly raised section.”

“Aye, there it is!” he yelled up to them. “It’s a circle.”

Sophia gripped the grass with tense fingers, wanting to join in William’s excitement
but afraid to do so quite yet. “Grasp the circle as best you can and turn it to the
right. Then pull.”

She held her breath, waiting for the young man to say something, fearing she’d only
dreamed the second sketch out of sheer desperation.

“Breathe,” Nicholas commanded, his voice thick with absolute conviction.

“I’ve got something,” William reported, his enthusiasm audibly deflated. “Only a bit
of paper, I’m afraid.”

Sophia pushed up and launched herself at Nicholas with exuberance, her arms encircling
his waist. “I was so afraid it would not be there,” she said fervently.

“As was I,” he admitted as he peered down at her, his full lips curved into an apologetic
grin.

“Here it is,” William announced as he emerged from the hole.

Sophia hastily released Nicholas and stepped back.

“No crown jewels, to be sure,” William added, handing the roll of parchment to Sophia.

She tugged gingerly at the faded red ribbon around the paper, untying it with careful
hands. “Oh, I don’t know about that,” she replied, unrolling the brittle parchment
to reveal a complete, if sketchy, portrait of the masked man as he conversed behind
a dressing screen with a woman wearing a ball gown.

June 5

“I’m very angry with the three of you,” Sophia said in a stern voice. “You know that,
don’t you?”

Nicholas continued to gaze up at the dark sky, amazed
by the seemingly million stars sewn into its swath of silken blackness. “Whatever
for?”

The two lay side by side on the Petworth Manor lawn, basking in the hushed silence
of the late hour.

“While I slept tucked up tight in the nursery, you boys crept from the house and had
all sorts of adventures without me—that’s what for,” Sophia explained, slapping him
on the arm.

Nicholas captured her hand in his and tugged until Sophia was settled against him,
her head resting on his chest. “Oh that. Well, it wasn’t my decision.”

“Langdon’s?” Sophia ventured, her arm wrapping about his waist.

Nicholas began to draw lazy circles along her spine with his finger. “Of course. Late
night wanderings were far too dangerous for you. Even then you were his princess in
a high tower.”

Sophia squeezed him possessively.

“Even more so now,” he lamented, the stars suddenly subdued.

“Nicholas?”

He’d dreaded this moment since they’d awoken in each other’s arms that morning. Interviewing
the remaining servants and making a final search of the attic for clues had occupied
their day, while dinner and an impromptu dance in the kitchens had kept them busy
throughout the night.

Nicholas breathed in Sophia’s floral scent. Perhaps they might stay in each other’s
arms right there, suspended in time.

“Nicholas?” Sophia said again.

He sighed deeply. “We will have to tell Langdon—once we’ve captured the Bishop. We
cannot put him in such a difficult position.”

“How will we possibly keep our feelings hidden from
him?” she asked, rubbing her cheek against his linen shirt. “What if he grows suspect …”

Nicholas felt Sophia’s breath hitch as she began to cry. “Shh,” he murmured, tightening
his hold. “I know this will sound cruel, but we cannot risk all that we’ve worked
for by drawing attention to ourselves. Do you agree?”

“Yes,” Sophia whispered. “You’re right—I know it is for the best. I simply cannot
bear to think what he will feel when he learns of us.”

Nicholas looked up at the sky once more, his bloody emotions threatening to get the
best of him. “He will feel betrayed, Sophia. Cuckolded. Taken advantage of.”

It was precisely what would consume Nicholas if he were Langdon, the knowledge of
his brother’s impending pain piercing his chest like an arrow through his heart. “He
will suffer whether we tell him now or wait until the Bishop is ours.”

A tear ran from the corner of his eye and slipped down his face, reaching his unshaven
jaw. “Goddammit.”

Sophia released his waist and reached up, settling her hand on his cheek. “I am meant
to be with you. Not Langdon. In time he will come to understand. He has to.”

“And if he does not?” Nicholas asked, afraid of her answer.

“I will not give you up,” Sophia replied with conviction, placing her palm on the
ground and pushing up until she came eye to eye with him. “Not now. Not ever.”

“Goddammit,” Nicholas muttered a second time as more tears fell. “A happy ending.
Is that what you’re proposing?”

Sophia kissed him, the full intent of her pledge communicated in the soft, sacred
gesture. “I would settle for nothing less—which means I have one more request. One
that you might not like.”

The sweet taste of her disappeared from Nicholas’s mouth, replaced with bitter apprehension.
“Is this to do with my drinking?”

“Yes. I told you I would not give you up, and I meant it. Not one moment of your life
will be wasted in the company of brandy—not when you could be spending it with me.”

“I’m afraid, Sophia,” Nicholas admitted, the warm night breeze making him feel even
more vulnerable than his words did. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop.”

Sophia lowered herself and rested her head once again upon his chest. “It’s not a
matter of stopping your drinking. It’s a matter of starting to live the life you were
meant to lead.”

19

June 9
E
N ROUTE TO
B
EECHAM
H
OUSE
M
AYFAIR
L
ONDON

“How is your great-aunt?”

Sophia stared at Langdon seated across from her in the warm carriage and tried to
decipher his words.

She’d returned from Sussex two days before and still could not regain the usual sensible
rhythm of her days—to be expected, yes, but no less troubling.

“There has been improvement,” Sophia replied vaguely, belatedly remembering she’d
gone to Petworth under the pretense of visiting an ill aunt.

She discreetly wiped at perspiration beading above her lip while silently chastising
herself. Why had she not prepared in advance for Langdon’s polite inquiries? She’d
frittered away the hours earlier in the day, occupied with a tray of letters and calling
cards until there’d been barely enough time to dress for the Beechams’ ball. Lettie
had enlisted a housemaid’s help in order to finish Sophia’s hair and see to the jewelry.

“And yet, you seem disappointed,” Langdon added thoughtfully.

“Oh no,” Sophia assured him. “It is simply a pity to
see Great-aunt Harriett trapped inside. She lives for her garden, you see.”

Langdon nodded in reply. “Well, I do hope I’ll have the opportunity to meet her someday.
Perhaps at our wedding?”

Sophia wanted to scream. Or cry. Or both.

“Oh, you have met her before, don’t you remember?” she replied, fidgeting with her
reticule.

“When I was a child, Sophia. And if I’m being completely honest,” Langdon said, crossing
his legs, “no, I do not remember her. Why has she never come to London for a visit?”

Sophia removed a painted fan from her reticule and attempted to cool herself. “Great-aunt
Harriett was never one for travel. Nor for town. As she is so fond of saying, she
‘prefers the fine fresh air in the country to the smoggy environs of the capital,’
and at her age, I do not blame her. Better to stay comfortably settled in one’s familiar
surroundings, I say.”

She held tight to the fact that she truly was in possession of a great-aunt named
Harriett, who did indeed prefer not to travel. The woman was, as she always had been,
healthy as the draft horses who worked her land, even at her advanced age of ninety
and three. Still, one never knew when a cold or ailment of the stomach might strike.

Sophia closed her eyes and concentrated on the minuscule amount of relief the fan
was providing from the evening’s heat.

Langdon nodded. “Ah well, as I said, let us hope Great-aunt Harriett considers coming
to London for the wedding. Speaking of our wedding, I’m planning a trip to Wales to
visit your father.”

Sophia’s eyes flew open and she quickly turned to look at Mrs. Kirk—as if she might
be of some use.

“Forgive me if I’ve embarrassed you by speaking of
our marriage in front of Mrs. Kirk.” Langdon uncrossed his legs and leaned forward.
“It’s just that I think of her as family. Besides, I am sure she is as tired of waiting
for such news as everyone else.”

Lettie turned to take in Langdon, a polite smile curving on her lips. “My lord, it
is happy news, indeed.”

Sophia clasped her companion’s hand under concealment of her skirts. She knew that
Lettie could say no more on the topic; she had no right to comment beyond congratulations,
and doing so would only look odd and improper.

“Are you speechless, Sophia?” Langdon asked good-naturedly, clearly unaware of the
reaction his comment had elicited. “Surely you are as anxious as I to finally wed.
Not that I see it as a burden, mind you. But setting the date for our union has eluded
us for long enough, wouldn’t you agree?”

The bodice of Sophia’s cream silk gown seemed to slowly shrink, squeezing her chest
uncomfortably. “Yes,” she whispered, barely able to manage even that.

Langdon smiled brightly. “Was that a yes to being speechless, or yes to the idea of
becoming my wife? I know which one I would prefer.”

The Beechams’ townhome came into view as the carriage turned up South Street. Sophia
fixed her gaze on the stately home in a vain attempt to quell a rising tide of nausea.

“Are you quite all right, my lady?”

Sophia heard Mrs. Kirk’s question. She could not answer, as the carriage began to
slowly spin around her. She grasped the lacquered window frame in order to stay upright,
barely aware of her fan falling to the floor of the coach.

Langdon reached across and steadied her. But his touch only deepened the growing sense
of panic and dread in Sophia.

“Lettie, please,” Sophia asked in a panicked plea as the suddenly intense heat and
stuffiness of the carriage became unbearable. “Please, I cannot breathe.”

“My lord, please look away,” the woman instructed Langdon, reaching for the buttons
on Sophia’s dress. She made quick work of the row before moving on to the corset beneath.

Sophia panted, struggling for air. The sudden release of the ribbon ties allowed her
to drag in several deep breaths and fill her lungs. She fell back onto the seat and
squeezed her eyes shut.

BOOK: The Scoundrel Takes a Bride: A Regency Rogues Novel
3.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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