Havenwood, near Duke's Head, England. 2 November 1814
The first thing Gwilym, earl of Banallt noticed when he rounded the driveway was Sophie perched on the ledge of a low fountain. Surely he thought, some other explanation existed for the hard, slow thud of his heart against his ribs. After all, he hadn't seen her in well over a year. Nearly two years, and they had not parted on the best of terms. He ought to be over her by now. And yet the jolt of seeing her again shot straight through to his soul.
He was dismayed beyond words.
Beside him, Sophie's brother continued riding toward the house, oblivious.
She heard them coming; she left off trailing her fingers in the water and straightened. Though not before he caught a glimpse of the pale nape of her neck. Just that flash of bare skin, and Banallt couldn't breathe. Still seated on the fountain's edge, she turned toward the drive and looked first at her brother and then, at last, at him. She did not smile. Nor, he thought, was she unaffected.
Nothing at all had changed.
"Sophie!" Mercer called to his sister. He urged his horse to the edge of the gravel drive. Banallt took a breath, prayed for his heart to stop banging its way out of his chest, and followed. He wasn't afraid of her. Certainly he wasn't. Why would he be? She was a woman and only a tolerably pretty one at that. He had years of experience dealing with women. "What luck we've found you outside," Mercer said, leaning a forearm across his horse's neck.
Anxiety pressed in on Banallt which annoyed him no end. What he wanted from this moment was proof she hadn't taken possession of his heart. That his memories of her, of the two of them, were distorted by past circumstance. They had met during a turbulent time in his life during which he had perhaps not always behaved as a gentleman ought. They had parted on a day that had forever scarred him. He wanted to see her as plain and uninteresting. He wanted to think that, after all, he'd been mistaken about her eyes. He wanted his fascination with her to have vanished.
None of that had happened.
Banallt still thought he'd do anything to take her to bed.
Sophie lifted a hand to shade her eyes. "Hullo, John."
She was no beauty. Not at first glance. Not even at second glance. Bony cheeks only just balanced her pointed chin. Her nose was too long with a small, but noticeable curve below the bridge that did not straighten out near soon enough. Her mouth was not particularly full. Thick eyebrows darker than her dark hair arched over eyes that blazed with intelligence. The first time ever he saw her he'd thought it a pity a woman with eyes like hers wasn't better looking. Not the only time he'd misjudged her; merely the first.
She stood and walked to the edge of the lawn. Behind her, nearer the house, mist rose from emerald grass, and above the roof more fog curled around the chimneys to mingle with smoke. Havenwood was a very pretty property.
"My lord." Sophie curtseyed when she came to a halt. Her smile didn't reach her eyes. Banallt saw the wariness in the blue-green depths. She didn't trust him, and she was still angry. Considering his reputation and their past interactions, a wise decision. She knew him too well. Better than anyone ever had.
Banallt relaxed his hands on the reins. Really, he told himself, his situation was not dire at all. He preferred tall women, and Sophie was not tall. In coloring, his bias had always been for blondes, and she was a brunette whose fine-boned features added to one's impression of her fragility. Delicate women did not interest him. She was in every way wrong for him. Havenwood might be a gentleman's estate, but despite the wealth and property, despite that Mercer had important connections, the fact remained Mercer and his sister were only minor gentry. Sophie's marriage had most definitely been a step down for her. His dismay eased. He would get through this ill-advised visit unscathed. He would tell her good morning, or afternoon, or whatever the hell time of day it was, express his surprise at seeing her and be on his way, having just recalled an important engagement.
"You haven't changed," he told her. Good. He sounded stiff and formal. It was not in his nature to abase himself to anyone. Not even to Sophie Evans. His Cleveland Bay stretched its nose in her direction, remembering carrots and sugar fed from her hand, no doubt.
"You've met?" Mercer asked. His mount danced sideways, but he settled his gelding quickly. He was a competent horseman, John Mercer was. And far too alert now. A dutiful brother, Mercer was, looking out for his sister. Well. There was nothing for it, he was here after all, and Mercer had reason to be suspicious.
"Lord Banallt was a friend of Tommy's," Sophie replied when Banallt did not answer. She pressed her lips together in familiar disapproval. Sophie had seen him at his worst, which was quite bad indeed. Legendary, in fact. The Lord only knew what was going through her mind right now. Actually, he thought he knew. It was not much to his credit.
"I didn't realize," Mercer said. Now he had the same wary eyes as his sister. The line between connections that were tolerable and connections that were not was sometimes all too fine. Mercer must be wondering if that slender gap had been breached. A widowed nobleman with a long-standing reputation as a rake was one thing. A gentleman might overlook a scandal or two in the career of such a man. But a rake with a heretofore unknown acquaintance with your sister was altogether different. Particularly when said sister was already well-connected with scandal.
A look passed between Sophie and Mercer that made her mouth go thinner yet. If she was unhappy living with her brother, Banallt thought, this was something in his favor-- if he went through with the madness that had begun flirting with him the moment he saw Sophie sitting at the fountain. That same compulsion had brought him here, all the way from London by way of Paris.
"We met once," she said. "Only once in seven years."
"Twice, wasn't it?" Banallt said in a lazy voice. If she was lying to her brother, which she was, then he had hope. In fact, he had visited Rider Hall exactly three times. Well. Three times her late husband had known about.
"Was it?" she replied. Her voice could have frozen Hell at noon twice over. He knew that voice well, and hearing it again made him want to smile. So many memories. She was the first woman ever to arouse his intellectual interest. Suffice it to say he typically admired women for other attributes than the quality of their minds. Perhaps his downfall had begun the moment he heard her speak with crisp indifference for his consequence. She spoke her mind, she did. She wore her hair differently now, smoothed back from her forehead with fewer curls than he remembered. How like her to do so little to enhance her looks. "I don't recall."
"Sophie," her brother said with eyes that narrowed as he looked at her. But Mercer was no match for his sister's chill. No one was. "I should think you'd want to mention that."
She rolled her eyes. "John, for goodness sake." Her familiar no-nonsense tone fit perfectly with her features. Prim. Modest. Completely unremarkable. She was like a governess scolding some young charge.
Banallt stared at her, more fascinated by her than he'd been by any other woman. His obsession with her bubbled up from wherever it was he'd tried to lock it away. He had been in the intimate company of women of undisputed beauty, but not one of them, not even the most exquisite, had made his stomach drop to the bottom of the earth as did one glimpse of Sophie.
"What does it matter," Sophie asked her brother, "if I met Lord Banallt before you did or, for that matter, whether we met one time or three?" She threw a hand in the air, and Banallt felt smugly certain she recalled exactly how many times they'd met. "Or even a dozen?"
"Mercer," Banallt said. He shifted on his saddle. "I'd no idea your sister was Mrs. Thomas Evans." The lie rolled from his tongue like warm butter.
The thing was, Mercer was right to be suspicious. He and Sophie were both lying, for one thing. For another, any woman who confessed to knowing him stood a good chance of having been to bed with him. John Mercer was not fool enough to think his sister would be excluded from the likelihood. Well. And so. The truth was he wished Mercer's suspicions were well-founded.
"That much I understand, my lord." Mercer smiled. "It's my sister's silence I wonder at. You're all anyone has talked about since first we heard of your arrival at Castle Darmaed. For pity's sake, she practically lived at Darmead when we were children. Your hair would curl, my Lord, if you'd heard even half the stories she told about you and your ancestors."
Sophie shrugged as if the talk-- more like gossip --was a matter of no importance. Her attention was on her brother, giving Banallt an unrestricted view of her inelegant nose and the slant of her sharp cheekbone. Today's cold and foggy weather suited her, the grey brought out the bronze in her dark hair and gave the faintest pink to her cheeks. Had he not come to Havenwood to discover whether the unthinkable had, indeed, befallen him? He was far more than bewitched. Damn the world to hell and back for it, too.
"Sophie," Mercer said. "Let's serve tea in the conservatory, shall we?"
"As you like, John." She spoke coolly and Banallt didn't know if she did so to allay her brother's suspicions, unfounded though they were as to any past sexual connection, or whether because she was bitterly displeased that Banallt had come to Havenwood. God knows she was justified in thinking him here for no good purpose.
Banallt urged his horse up the drive, ahead of Mercer so as not to reveal his uneasy state of mind. Whatever else he did, he owed her an apology. Would she forgive him? And if she did not? He might well regret his decision to come here. He'd made a mistake. They'd never have met, not in a thousand years, if she hadn't been married to that bounder Tommy Evans. Met they had, and Christ, he fell hard. Precisely, he thought, because she was so unexpectedly opposite of everything. The opposite of his expectations, the opposite of his desires, the opposite of any woman ever to flit into his imagination.
She was still dainty. Still slender. Still with eyes that made a man think of nothing but looking into them a moment longer. Still wary and reserved. He knew her as he had never come to know any other woman. He knew she longed for love and that her life up to now had not been one to make her think she might ever have it. He still wanted to take her into his arms and swear she would never want for anything again. None of which he had ever done, despite that he never had considered a woman's marital status an impediment to an affair. Nor his own either. Her opinion on the matter was quite the opposite.
Rather than catching up to Banallt, Mercer stayed behind to say something further to his sister. He heard the tension in their voices, but not the words themselves. He gave his Bay Chestnut the signal to stop when he heard Mercer riding after him. Damn. A man of his experience of life was too old for butterflies. The question now was wether Mercer had been tasked with sending him on his way. He mastered himself and the chill inside him felt comfortable, like a favorite coat. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sophie cross the lawn, heading toward the house.
"Sophie never mentioned she knew you," Mercer said when he'd caught up.
He gave Mercer an icy stare. "Should she have?"
"You tell me."
"Like any good rake, Tommy Evans kept his mistress in London and his wife in the country." He tried to recall whether Sophie had ever talked about her family and concluded he'd known only that she had an elder brother who lived at Havenwood. "London was where he preferred to be. In those days, so did I."
Mercer said nothing, and Banallt didn't know what to make of the man's silence. How unfortunate that Mercer was easily as intelligent as his sister.
"I was in Kent twice, as I recall. Perhaps three times. I met your sister then, when Evans brought me to Rider Hall to hunt." They had not, to his memory, done much hunting, unless one counted choosing a whore at the local bawdy house as hunting. More like shooting fish in a barrel.
Banallt sighed. Mercer most assuredly did not see. "Forgive me if I am blunt. But Evans was more interested in whoring and gaming than in his domestic bliss. As was I. In those days."
"But you met her."
So, Mercer did suspect they'd been lovers. He wished they had been because then he'd not be here, making a fool of himself.
"Naturally we met. I thought her-- " What was he to say? Heartbreaking. And then intriguing, and at last, utterly beguiling. "-- charming." He had not for a moment expected Tommy Evans's wife to be anything but a foolish, empty-headed female of the sort that kept a man in London month after month. He had arrived at Rider Hall a rake unfettered by scruples of any kind. Blissful in his ignorance that his life was to be set on end.
"There's scandal attached to her," Mercer said. The bitter way he spoke made Banallt look sharply at him. Mercer had a history of Sophie, a knowledge of her past that Banallt did not. He knew a different Sophie, a woman Banallt had but glimpsed through a door left ajar, then swiftly and decisively closed. He envied Mercer the knowledge. Deep waters here, treacherous to navigate."Were you aware they eloped?"
"Evans mentioned something about that." Crowed about it. He'd eloped with an heiress. Some dull and starry-eyed seventeen-year-old who was his before they crossed the border into Gretna Green. Even if they'd been caught, he'd have been forced to marry her. Respectable heiresses did not run off in the night with men to whom they were not married.
"It was a scandal here."
"Elopements generally are," Banallt said. Poor Sophie. She'd squandered her love and her money over the anvil. Tommy put her away in Kent and dedicated himself to spending seventy-thousand pounds sterling as fast as he could.
"And then there was Evans's death," Mercer said, opening that distant door again and offering another glimpse of Sophie. Banallt was fiercely opposed to learning anything to Sophie's detriment. "If he was an acquaintance of yours, I'm sure you heard."
"No, actually. I've only recently returned from Paris. He died while I was away." His curt reply seemed to satisfy. Thank God.
When they got around the corner of the house and were heading for the stables, Mercer pulled up. Banallt did the same. He knew what was to come and, like Mercer, he did not care to have the servants overhear. This was a discussion best had quickly and in privacy. One of the grooms came out of the barn, but retreated when he saw them in conversation. Mercer leaned forward. "I know your reputation, my lord."
Banallt waited to hear if he was to be sent away. His mount, well-trained beast that it was, remained utterly still. There was no defense possible for his past. He'd been warned off more than once in his life, and by men with more reason than Mercer to be angry and fearful. But Mercer surprised him by meeting his eyes directly, and for that Banallt liked him.
"You've come to Duke's Head for the first time in your life." There was steel in Mercer's voice. Another groom turned a corner from the rear of the stables, glanced their direction and disappeared inside the outbuilding. "People talk about a thing like that."
Banallt cocked his head in acknowledgment. Mercer had no choice but to connect Banallt's presence here with his sister. He was right to do so.
"I hope," Mercer said softly, "that scandal does not come down on us again."
Oh, well done. Mercer's oblique warning ranked among the best he'd ever had from a concerned relative. More than oblique enough to be taken for concern about Sophie's behavior rather than his. "My wife has been dead for some time now. I have no heir and no desire to see the title go elsewhere. A man in my circumstance must put his mind to marriage." That, he thought, was rather well done of him.
Those green eyes of Mercer's were unforgiving. "From among the young ladies of Duke's Head?"
From where they'd stopped, Banallt could see servants moving inside the conservatory. He was amused that Mercer could not bring himself to ask the obvious. Well. He'd had enough of warnings and insinuations. He met Mercer's eyes. "I did not come to Duke's Head on a lark."
"I thought not."
Banallt took a breath. One never liked to show one's hand too soon. But there it was. "I intend to marry your sister."
Mercer's eyes widened, but he had something of Sophie's fortitude. "My lord." He inclined his head. "Just so we are perfectly clear, are you asking for my consent or my blessing?"
"Either will do." His heart thudded again. If only the matter could be resolved so easily. What he wanted, though, was for Sophie's too-intelligent brother to stay the hell out of his way.
Mercer leaned forward, then resettled himself on his saddle. The leather creaked as he did. "They say you're likely to be raised in the peerage."
"I am quite content with my present title," he said. If he went from earl to Marquess or even higher, then he was content with that, too.
Mercer frowned, and for an instant, Banallt saw him as the young man Sophie had spoken of. But only for an instant. Mercer returned to what he was; an impediment to something Banallt desired. "Suppose you marry Sophie."
"Yes," he murmured. "Suppose I do."
"Setting aside my conviction that such a marriage would make no one happy, least of all my sister, my nephew might be a Marquess or perhaps even a duke."
"Or merely a lowly earl."
"With fifty or a hundred thousand a year in his pocket."
"Closer to a hundred thousand," Banallt said. Triumph flashed through him. He urged his horse toward the stable. "Console yourself, Mercer, by writing her a settlement to ease your conscience."
"I'm sure you've bought women for far less." Mercer said.
Well, yes, actually. But having Sophie as his wife was worth any price.