Authors: Alexandra Hawkins
Tags: #American Light Romantic Fiction, #Romance - Historical, #Fiction, #Romance, #Romance: Historical, #Historical, #American Historical Fiction, #General, #Fiction - Romance
The fact that he was idly contemplating seducing Ravenshaw’s sister sobered Reign. It took several hours before his body relaxed enough for sleep to claim him.
“You must tell me everything!” Fanny whispered as she and Sophia walked the length of her family’s conservatory. Two days had passed since Lord and Lady Harper’s ball, and her friend had been anxious to learn all about Sophia’s encounter with Lord Rainecourt.
“Hush, your mother will hear,” Sophia said, glancing back to catch a glimpse of the older woman seated in front of an easel before the shadows in Sophia’s vision eclipsed the woman. Lady Notley had decided to include her daughter and Sophia in her latest watercolor painting of the conservatory, and Fanny’s protests had fallen on deaf ears.
Sophia did not really mind. She enjoyed the scents of orange leaves, myrtle, camellias, and several varieties of pelargonium that mixed with herbs and fertile earth.
The slate roof and glazed glass walls were part of the old orangery, which
had been constructed in 1724. Fanny’s mother, the Countess of Notley, had been arguing with her husband for years that the old building needed to be torn down. She desired a lighter structure to take its place, one that allowed the sunlight to warm every inch of the interior. Lord Notley had refused. In an attempt to offer his lady a compromise, the earl had added to the older building, which was made up of wrought iron and glass. The countess was unhappy with the results, and the conservatory had become a ridiculous source of contention between husband and wife. The lady vowed to all who would listen to her grievances that someday she would have her glass house.
“Tarry at your task, my girls,” Fanny’s mother said, moving her easel to the left so it did not obscure her view of the two ladies. “Fanny, darling, could you give your skirt a good shake. The lines are all wrong.”
” Fanny said, dutifully adjusting her skirt. She touched Sophia on the elbow and said, “So what did you and Lord Rainecourt discuss?”
Sophia frowned as she pondered the question. “Nothing inspiring to a lady’s heart. He called me a clumsy creature.”
“Oh, how dreadfully rude!” Fanny exclaimed, outraged on her friend’s behalf.
Sophia knelt down and snapped off a sprig of blooming myrtle. She inhaled the pleasing fragrance that reminded her of camphor. “He did not like Mr. Enright very much. In fact, the earl did everything he could to frighten the gentleman.”
“Perhaps Lord Rainecourt was jealous?”
“Ridiculous. I had nothing to do with Mr. Enright’s and Lord Rainecourt’s animosity. The air was literally charged with it. And before you weave romantic intentions into the earl’s actions, let me clear up any misunderstanding. Lord Rainecourt’s desire to dance with me was merely an excuse to deny Mr. Enright my company. Any interest in me was secondary.”
“Are you certain?” Fanny said, sounding unconvinced. “Griffin thought differently.”
“Since Griffin was not there, his opinion is irrelevant,” Sophia said carelessly.
Still, if Griffin had heard rumors, then Lord Rainecourt had been correct when he had told her that their dance would be fodder for the inquisitive
Lady Notley muttered something under her breath, drawing Sophia’s and Fanny’s attention. “No, this will not do at all!” the countess said, her gaze searching for the perfect setting. “Mayhap the fountain. Girls, if you please, go over there and position yourselves on either side.”
The countess smiled as her reluctant models complied. “Yes, much better. The symmetry creates an unspoken harmony. Do you not agree, Sophia?”
Fanny grinned at Sophia, silently daring her friend to disagree.
“Yes, my lady,” was her meek reply, but the countess’s attention had already shifted back to the sketch in front of her.
Both women were familiar with Lady Notley’s
artistic temperament. “Did you reveal your connection to Ravenshaw?”
Sophia laughed. “Are you mad? It seemed prudent to keep that knowledge to myself. The earl might have never learned my family name if Stephan had not stumbled upon us.”
Fanny hesitated, almost reluctant to ask her next question. “What exactly did your brother stumble upon when he discovered you and Lord Rainecourt outdoors?”
A wistful smile tugged the corners of Sophia’s mouth as she thought of the earl’s kiss. No man had ever touched her in such a manner—both tender and demanding. “I was dizzy from the waltz. Lord Rainecourt thought the night air would help,” Sophia lied to her dearest friend.
She did not know what prompted her to behave so dishonorably. Fanny would have kept Sophia’s secret. Nevertheless, Sophia had been stunned by her brazen response to the earl’s kiss, and she wanted more time to dwell on what had occurred between them before she confided to Fanny.
Fanny was obviously very disappointed in the earl. She had expected more from one of the Lords of Vice. Sophia brought the spray of myrtle up to her nose to conceal her smile.
She slipped her other hand behind her back and crossed her fingers. “No, I am afraid not.”
“Rumor has it that your appearance at the Harpers’ ball upset Lord and Lady Burrard.”
Reign had suspected there had been more to Dare and Frost’s invitation to spar in one of Jackson’s training rooms at No. 13 Bond Street, but he had agreed because the temptation to pummel Frost was irresistible.
However, Frost always proved to be a challenging opponent—strong, agile, and possessing skills that complemented Reign’s. Their sparring matches were a test of endurance rather than brute strength. After the third contest, the muscles in Reign’s arms were thrumming and his body was drenched in sweat. He bowed out of a fourth match and allowed one of the naive spectators to tangle with Frost.
Even winded, his friend could trounce any arrogant puppy.
Reign presented both wrists to the waiting attendant so the man could free his hands from the padded gloves. He shot his friend an exasperated look. “Nothing new there. My very existence upsets Burrard and his wife, Dare.”
Impatient with the man’s clumsy fumbling, Reign brought his right wrist to his mouth and used his teeth on the bindings. He spat out the leather thong. “Enright was there, too. Though personally, I did not care about upsetting the gent at all.” He pulled off the remaining leather glove and handed it to the attendant.
“What was Enright lurking about for?” Dare’s face darkened with anger. “I thought he was abroad.”
Both Reign and Dare glanced over at Frost
when several shouts distracted them. Frost had landed two solid punches to the young nobleman’s face, causing the man to stagger backward into the arms of two spectators.
Reign winced in sympathy.
“Apparently, Enright’s circumstances have improved since I last saw him.” Reign shrugged, not really concerned about Enright’s return to England. He had lost interest in the man, and if Enright had a modicum of sense, he would not do anything to change Reign’s mind.
Dare snorted. “You are being generous.”
“Not exactly,” Reign countered. “There is no challenge in thrashing a coward.”
The apparent victor of the latest contest, Frost strutted toward his two friends, accepting congratulations and praise from the lingering spectators.
“Who is a coward?” Frost asked, tilting his face so the attendant could wipe the sweat from his brow and chin.
“Congratulations on your victory,” Reign drawled as he nodded toward the viscount’s dazed and slightly bloodied opponent. “You do know that’s one of Howland’s younger sons?”
The Marquess of Howland was rather prickly when it came to slights aimed at his family, both real and imagined. He had once threatened to shoot a man just for sneezing on him. Another tale claimed that he had ordered his wife’s favorite spaniel to be hanged from the nearest tree for
pissing on his boots. Rumor had it that the gentleman had been wearing them at the time.
Frost glanced back at the young nobleman and chuckled. “Howland prefers to level his challenges at weaker quarry, and I doubt I qualify,” he said without a trace of arrogance. “Though if he can find his shriveled cods, he is welcome to try.” Once his padded leather gloves had been removed, he took the towel from the attendant and scrubbed his face and chest. “So who is the coward not worthy of thrashing?”
Dare gave him a measured look. “Enright.”
Frost discarded the towel and sneered. “Oh, I do not know, Reign, you might want to reconsider. Breaking the bastard’s nose sounds appealing.”
Reign picked up his shirt and pulled his head through the opening. “Later, perhaps. Besides, Enright is expecting me to do something about him. At the Harpers’ ball, it was rather amusing to watch him twitch and stammer as he made his disgraceful escape from the ballroom. If I am lucky, he will trip and break his damn neck.”
Frost arched a brow. “Need some help?”
Reign’s dark blue eyes hardened. “Enright is mine. Leave him to me.”
“And what about Ravenshaw, and his dull-witted sister?”
Frost meant well. Still, Reign had to fight back the sudden urge to punch his friend in the jaw for insulting Lady Sophia. He stepped forward until
he was inches from Frost’s face. “The lady is far from dull-witted, and neither she nor Ravenshaw is your concern.”
Reign glanced down at Dare, who gave him a pitying glance. His defense of the lady he barely knew was more telling than if he had shouted his feelings aloud.
Sophia had assumed that Lord Rainecourt would avoid her after their unfortunate encounter at Lord and Lady Harper’s ball. While Stephan’s threats might have annoyed the earl, she suspected that their tangled family history would encourage the man to keep his distance. No one knew for certain who had fired the first shot that awful night she was struck down and her parents were slain, but she was compassionate enough to accept that while many people concluded it was Reign’s father who had murdered her mother and father, he, too, had lost a parent.
So when he stepped in front of her at Lady Wold’s fete, Sophia could merely gape at him. Fanny had been delayed by one of her cousins, but she expected her friend to return at any minute.
Remembering her manners, Sophia slid into a graceful curtsy. “Good afternoon, Lord Rainecourt.”
He bowed. “Lady Sophia.” Without permission,
he placed her hand on his bent arm. “I thought we were beyond formalities. Reign will do.”
Sophia blushed as she lowered her gaze to her hand on his arm. Vitality and strength coursed through his veins like blood. “My friend should be joining me soon.”
“Already trying to rid yourself of me, eh?”
After the violent clash with her brother, the earl’s teasing only served to fluster her. “Not at all. I just did not expect to see you again after Stephan—” She inhaled sharply and mentally chastised herself for mentioning her brother. “Oh, never mind.”
“Did your brother cajole you into confessing about our kiss?”
“What kiss?” she asked, feigning puzzlement.
Reign chuckled. “Ah, so that is the way of things.”
The earl was laughing at her, but Sophia was in no mood to be teased. “Lord Rainecourt, you know better than most that my brother does not require a reason to despise you. The Rainecourt name will suffice.”
He guided her away from the house toward the lawn, where targets had been set up for the archery contests that were planned. Sophia cast a longing glance at a table that displayed numerous bows and quivers stuffed with arrows. When she had been younger, she had once asked her brother Henry to teach her how to handle a bow. He had laughed at her request. Although he had
not meant to be cruel, Henry saw the endeavor as a waste of his time.
“Do you like archery?”
Lord Rainecourt’s question brought her up short. Sophia had not realized that her gaze had remained fixed on the table. “Does not everyone?”
Sophia saw a flash of white teeth before her companion pulled her toward the table. “Then let us put your skills to the test.”
“Uh, no”—she was getting awfully tired of being dragged about by this gentleman—“my lord . . . Reign, I cannot.”
The earl snorted. “Like you cannot dance the waltz? Something tells me that you can do anything when you have your heart set on it.”
He turned to a servant. “Let me see that one,” he said, pointing to one of the shorter bows laid out on the table. Reign extended the bow out in front of him and tested the weight. He frowned. “What about that one?”
“You cannot make me do this,” she hissed. “Have you forgotten that my poor eyesight will render it impossible for me to concentrate on yonder target?”
Where is Fanny?
“Yes, this one will do,” he said with satisfaction. “Here, my lady. Hold it thusly.” Reign demonstrated what he expected of her.
The yew bow was almost as long as she. From nock to nock, the length was just under five feet.
Sophia gasped in amazement. “It is heavier than I thought.” She shook her head. “No, I cannot do this,” she said, attempting to push the longbow into the earl’s hands. “If your purpose is to mock me, my lord, I will not—”
She fell silent at his quiet command.