There were some pieces of advice, Sophia White reflected as she clung to the overturned coach's wheel in the middle of the half-frozen river Aire, that one should simply not ignore. Heaven knew she'd been warned that this particular journey was a poor idea, and at the moment she could certainly attest to the fact that her friends had been correct about that.
Above her on the partly submerged left-hand side and now roof of the mail coach, the driver seemed far more interested in retrieving satchels of correspondence than in the dozen people splashing about around him. "Stop that and give me your hand," she ordered, the rush of the cold water leaving her breathless.
"I already lost the horses and the Christmas turkeys," the driver grunted, his voice thready through the wind and blowing snow. "If I lose the mail, it'll be my job."
"But you can lose your passengers?"
"If I was you, miss, I'd stop arguing and swim to shore like the others. It ain't that deep."
Shivering, Sophia opened her mouth to protest that the top--or side--of the coach was much closer than the shore, but a whipped-up wave of water poured into her lungs. Coughing, she decided that the coachman's advice fell into the "should be followed" category. And since she'd missed her chance to listen to her employer and all her friends who'd told her not to journey to Yorkshire in the middle of December when she already had an obligation in Cornwall in mid-January, this time she needed to pay attention.
Her legs were numb, but with a deep breath she pushed off from the coach and began a half-swimming walk to the nearest shore. Chunks of ice dislodged by the coach's demise and the swift current pushed at her, sending her flailing toward the solid section of ice beyond. Most of the men were already on shore; evidently chivalry didn't include fishing freezing women out of chest-deep water during a snowstorm.
Abruptly beginning to worry that the water would shove her under the jagged-edged ice and drown her, Sophia clenched her chattering teeth, hiked her dragging, tangled skirts up around her hips, and pushed forward. A drowned turkey bumped into her bare thighs, making her lose her footing. Her shoe lodged into a pile of tumbled rocks, and with a curse she stepped out of it. Her next footstep, though, found the bottom missing, and she went down.
Icy water closed over her head. The slight amusement she'd felt earlier at the pure absurdity of the moment vanished along with her air. Oh, she should have stayed in London. She should have listened to Lady Haybury when that wise woman had told her she would find more trouble than welcome in York. She knew that the Duke of Greaves had only invited her to a holiday party because he liked to make a stir; asking to have the Duke of Hennessy's bastard daughter in attendance wasn't an act of kindness. But a chance to see an old friend, to experience one last, magnificent holiday, would have been worth it--though her plans would hardly matter if she drowned.
Someone grabbed her shoulder and hauled her upright. Sophia gasped air into her lungs, her drenched hair draping across her face. She seized onto the arm that had caught her and squeezed it while she fought to get her feet back under her.
"Steady," a deep voice ordered. "I have you."
Even through the shock of the icy water she recognized the voice. "Your Grace?" she gasped, shoving her drenched, twisted red hair out of one eye.
The lean, handsome face just inches above hers looked at least as astounded as she felt. "Sophia? Miss White, I mean. Are you injured?"
"No, Your Grace. Thank you for inviting me to Christmas." With her standing chest deep in rushing water, the howling snowstorm blowing all around them, it seemed a ridiculous thing to say, but being saved from certain death seemed to have rattled her brain loose.
He flashed a brief grin at her. "Thank me later. For now, hold on to me."
"You'll have to pry me loose," she stated, attempting a return smile and instead inhaling more water. Coughing, she decided it would be wiser to be brave in silence, at least until they were out of the river.
Adam Baswich had jumped into the water to rescue her, though he hadn't known who she was. For someone as famously controlled as the Duke of Greaves, the act itself was rather surprising. And certainly fortuitous. But at the moment, she just wanted to be out of the freezing cold water. Sophia held on to his back, her shaking fingers dug into his shoulders, as the group of men on shore hauled in the rope he had tied around his waist. Greaves was as wet as she was, but when she tucked her frozen face into his spine he felt warm, and his large frame stopped the wind from blowing snow into her eyes.
"We have to climb up onto the ice to reach the shore," Greaves said, his voice strained. "Move around in front of me."
It took several attempts to get her fingers to uncurl. "I'm trying."
"Try harder. This isn't healthy for either of us."
"I'm aware of that, Your Grace." She clenched her jaw. "Unlike you, I didn't dive in on purpose."
With her water-laden skirts tangling at her legs and trying to drag her under water again, Sophia couldn't do much but not fight him as the duke simply hauled her around in front of him. "I could never resist a damsel in distress," he panted in her ear.
The fatigue and panic beginning to press at her faded a little. "Yes, I'm certain I look quite irresistible at the moment."
She was certain she felt his breathless chuckle against the back of her neck. "You have no idea. And I apologize," he said, then before she could ask what he was apologizing for, he placed both of his large hands under her rump and heaved her up onto the ice.
With a surprised wumpf she sprawled onto the hard, frozen surface. She'd once seen drawings of the seals on the beaches of the Orkney Islands, and Sophia was certain she very much looked like one as she flopped on the ice, gasping for air. A moment later the Duke of Greaves hauled himself up beside her.
"I apologize again," he panted, and reached over to tug at her dress.
Wet material slapped against the back of her knees, and she realized the gown must have been hiked up her bare backside in a very unbecoming manner. "Oh, dear," she coughed out, pushing herself into a sitting position. "If I were less frozen, I would likely be mortified. As it is, thank you."
A swift, surprised grin touched his mouth and then was gone again as he stood to offer her both of his hands. Disheveled midnight hair obscured the eyes she knew to be a deep, ocean-colored gray, but he didn't seem to notice either that or her scrutiny as he pulled her to her feet. Her legs felt wobbly as a newborn's, and she sagged against him. And to think, she generally scoffed at females who pretended weakness or light-headedness in order to enlist the aid of a big, strong man.
"I'm so sorry," she muttered, belatedly righting herself again. "But truthfully, if I'd fallen on you intentionally, I would have fixed my hair first."
"Your hair is quite … spectacular," he returned, wrapping an arm around her waist and half lifting her as with the assistance of the rope he plowed up the snowy bank. "It's your lips turning blue that has me more concerned."
Immediately someone threw a heavy blanket over her shoulders, and she wrapped it close around her. Sophia shivered, certain the cold wind must be turning the water that drenched her clothes and hair and skin to ice. A snow-encrusted turkey scampered by squawking loudly, the coachman's assistant close on its heels.
"Poor thing," she muttered, "learned how to swim just to escape drowning, and it's still to be someone's Christmas dinner." It seemed a great deal of effort for very little reward. In a sense, she was in the same predicament. She only hoped a holiday at Greaves Park would be worth her efforts. The memories would have to last her a lifetime, after all.
"I rank you freezing to death over a half-drowned fowl. Evans!" The duke gestured at one of the dozen dry men interspersed with blanket-wrapped ones along the bank. "Get Miss White into a wagon and escort her to the house. I need to see the rest of the passengers to the inn."
A tall fellow in a heavy coat, his floppy-brimmed hat secured to his head by a thick woolen scarf, took her by the shoulders. "Can you walk, miss?" he asked.
Sophia watched as the Duke of Greaves vanished into the blowing snow, becoming just another of the bulky dark shapes hurrying around the growing cluster of horses and vehicles. Undoubtedly there were other foundering passengers waiting for heroic rescue. She blinked. "Yes. I've thrown a shoe, but I can walk. Thank you."
Evans guided her to a wagon and without warning lifted her into the back of the old vehicle. From somewhere he produced an additional blanket which he tucked around her legs and feet before he clambered up beside the driver. In a moment they were bumping along the same road she'd traveled before the collapse of the old stone bridge had interrupted the journey in a rather spectacular manner.
"How far is it to Greaves Park?" she called, ducking her nose beneath the edge of the blanket. Originally she'd meant to leave the mail coach at the close-by village of Hanlith and then hire a cart or a hack to take her to the estate. The ride now hadn't cost her the expected shilling, but she would rather have been warm and dry.
"We're nearly to the carriage road now," Evans returned, twisting in his seat to look at her. "Not ten minutes past that."
"How in the world did His Grace happen to be out here? And with all of you?"
"His Grace rides nearly every day, whatever the weather. We were in the village for onions and potatoes and heard the commotion. It's a lucky thing, miss."
Oh, she agreed with that. And considering she hadn't had much expectation of kindness or even polite conversation once she arrived at Greaves Park, her hopes hardly felt dashed by a dunking in the river. She'd journeyed from London to Yorkshire for only one reason--or two, she supposed--and that hadn't changed. "Do you know if Keating and Camille Blackwood have arrived yet?"
"You'd have to ask Udgell about that, miss. I don't have much to do with the house."
Even with the blankets, now that she was still and not fighting for breath, the cold began to seep into her bones. She needed to get out of her wet clothes, but that would have to wait until they reached Greaves Park. Resolutely she tucked her feet closer to her body and concentrated on thoughts of how grand it would be to see Camille Pryce--or rather Blackwood, now--after six months.
Whether Greaves had invited her as a favor to his good friend Keating Blackwood or because he thought she would be a good way to stir up a bit of scandal for his friends, she was supremely grateful to have been asked to the Christmas holiday. After years of being bounced from place to place, of simply waiting for her fellow boarding school residents or supposed friends to discover that she was the Duke of Hennessy's illegitimate daughter, she'd finally found a true friend in Camille.
The fact that she and Camille had both been forced into employment at The Tantalus Club only meant that they had a connection neither of them would have otherwise expected. Yes, the club was scandalous because it only employed lovely young ladies--some of very good birth and all of them well educated--but that had been Lady Haybury's point when she'd opened the club. Scandal drew customers, or members, or whatever they chose to call themselves. They came, and they gambled and ate and spent their money, and ruined women like Camille and her had a place they could call a home. And an income, and freedom enough to live however they chose.
The club also granted them protection from the outside world--to a point. Or so she'd believed until just under a fortnight ago. She shook herself.No thinking about that now. It wouldn't do her any good, and she meant to enjoy herself while she could.
On the tail of her thought the wagon crested a small rise and the valley beyond came into view. Peripherally through the blowing snow she noted where wilderness softened into a large formal garden, now heavily dusted with white and fronted by a small frozen lake. On the far side of that lay a substantial wood of oak and elm, twisted and knotted by Yorkshire's harsh weather despite the relative shelter of the shallow valley. At the center of it all, catching and holding her gaze as it emerged from the murky gloom of snow and twilight, stood a light-colored, sprawling behemoth.
Dozen and dozens of windows gazed out from the huge rectangular center section of Greaves Park and the narrower east and west wings that rose from the snow at either end, forming a tremendous, chimney-dottedH. She'd driven past Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire once, and Greaves Park made that magnificent building look like a cottage.
The white and gray stone made the estate house seem almost part of the snowstorm around it, emerging and vanishing again in the changing light of dusk. In fact, it reminded her of those silly gothic tales her friend Emily Portsman kept in her room at The Tantalus Club. A shiver only half from the cold ran down her spine.
"Don't you fret, miss," Evans abruptly commented. "Mrs. Brooks, the head housekeeper, 'll have you inside and warm and dry in no time."
Perhaps Evans could read minds, or perhaps he was merely accustomed to the overwhelmed awe of first-time, half-drowned visitors to the estate. Either way, the conversation drew her away from her own overwrought imaginings. "How many servants does His Grace employ?" she asked, her teeth chattering so badly she wasn't certain she made any sense at all.
"More than enough to see to everything you could ever need, Miss White. We may be out in the wilds of Yorkshire, but don't you worry about that."
Drat it all. She must have sounded like some pointy-nosed, spoiled prima donna. Which might have been fun, except that she doubted her performance could compare to the actual noblewomen who'd already arrived there. "I only meant that it must take a small army to keep up such a grand house."
Evans faced her again, his bundled-up expression quizzical. "Near fifty then, I think. Udgell or Mrs. Brooks'll know better than me."
She nodded, much preferring to be a curiosity over some easily deciphered chit--even one who'd evidently just displayed her bare, frozen arse to half of Yorkshire. Finally the wagon stopped at the head of the wide, semicircular drive, and Evans hopped to the snowy ground with enviable ease. Sophia couldn't even feel her legs any longer. That hardly mattered, though, because the servant lifted her out of the back of the cart before she could do any more than gasp her surprise. Evans carried her up the trio of shallow granite steps to the massive front door. Under other circumstances, with two other people, this would have been terribly romantic, she was certain.
The heavy oak door opened just as they reached it. "Evans," a reedy male voice intoned, "what have you there? We are not a charitable estab--"
"This is Miss White, one of His Grace's guests," the groom returned breathlessly, shifting his grip a little around her knees. "The bridge finally let loose and tossed the entire mail coach into the river. Drowned nearly a dozen turkeys, and--"
"Stop talking and follow me," the absurdly tall, thin butler interrupted, turning his back and heading for the curved, mahogany-railed staircase at the rear of the foyer. "Roger, find Mrs. Brooks immediately."
A footman scampered off into the depths of the house. Sophia nearly began a protest that she could manage on her own, but she closed her lips before she uttered a sound. It was a very grand, very tall staircase, and at the moment she doubted she would have been able to drag herself up to the first landing.
More servants fell in around them, and she began to feel as though she were leading a parade of hot water buckets, pillows, coal-filled bed pans, and what looked like someone's oversized night rail. The bed pan looked especially blissful, and she could almost imagine how the warm metal would feel against her chilled feet.
They reached a large bedchamber, and after a brief conversation a short, rotund woman chased the male servants and all but one other maid out and closed the door behind them. "There we are," she said in a warm voice that didn't much feel like it belonged in the large, cold house, stripping the wet blanket from Sophia's shoulders and handing it to the second maid. "They might at least have sent for the coach and kept you out of that dreadful howling wind."
With the blanket gone, cold air rushed in around Sophia, and her already stiff muscles tightened so much she creaked. She shuddered, then nearly fell to the floor as Mrs. Brooks and the other woman began pulling at buttons and untying ribbons. She was too cold even to care when her gown fell into an icy puddle on the hardwood. Now the remainder of Yorkshire had seen her bare arse. Together the two servants half dragged her to the large, cast-iron bathtub and plunked her down into the steaming water.
"Oh! Oh … goodness that's nice," she chattered, sinking chin deep into the water. "And I didn't mind the cart. I'm only grateful His Grace arrived before I ended like the poor Christmas turkeys."
"Don't you even try to talk, Miss White. We'll have you warm and dry and tucked into bed in no time."
"Actually, I think I'd like to stay in the bath for a bit," Sophia countered, all the attention beginning to make her uneasy now that she didn't feel in imminent danger of freezing to death. "And I can tuck myself into bed. Truly. Thank you so much for your help."
Mrs. Brooks opened and closed her mouth again, then nodded. "As you wish then, Miss White. If you require any assistance, pull the bell. Gilly or I will see to you."
The other maid, a petite blonde with a dash of freckles across her nose, dipped a curtsy. "I'll set your gown out by the fire to dry, miss."
"Thank you. And please. It's just Sophia." Even without these odd circumstances, she and servants had a bond that none of Society's proper misses would ever dare to claim. Her mother had been a duchess's maid, after all.
She closed her eyes, and in a moment the bustling and rustling ceased, closely followed by the click and thud of the bedchamber door closing. Ah, warm, steamy bliss. With the surprise and brief terror as the coach pitched headlong into the river, everything had been so busy she'd barely had time to breathe. Chaos and turkeys and shouting men and the heavy, thick crack of ice, the shock when she'd found herself submerged as the coach slowly rolled onto its side--they were all quite lucky that no one had been dragged under the ice and drowned. She'd nearly drowned.
And who would even have noticed? Camille, of course, would have missed seeing her for Christmas, but the new Mrs. Blackwood had a husband and a new life now. The other girls at The Tantalus Club--until the next scandalous chit came along looking for sanctuary and employment. Her aunt and uncle didn't even know where she might be, as far as she knew, and they would care even less. To them she was just a nuisance dropped on their doorstep to eat their food, an unremarkable girl with no prospects and a supremely troublesome parentage.
For once her father would have noticed, and he would likely have been extremely annoyed that his twenty-three-year-old mistake had managed at the last moment to evade his reach now that he'd suddenly decided to notice her. Or perhaps the Duke of Hennessy would only regret that she hadn't perished, after all. Her drowning would have saved him the trouble of following through on his threats to either remove her from The Tantalus Club or to remove the Tantalus from London, the awful, arrogant man.
The door thudded and clicked again. Grateful for the interruption of her unaccustomed morose thoughts, Sophia opened her eyes again. And then she yelped. The Duke of Greaves stood in the doorway, gazing at her with steel-gray eyes.
* * *
Adam Baswich, the Duke of Greaves, stood looking down at the naked young lady in the cast-iron bathtub. Steam rose from the water to straighten the damp strands of unusual scarlet hair that tangled deep red and lush at the top of her head. If she hadn't been wearing the remains of a bonnet earlier he would have recognized her even in the middle of the river Aire; he'd never encountered anyone with hair of quite that color.
Realizing that Mrs. Brooks wasn't present, he hesitated for a brief moment, then moved forward anyway, stopping halfway into the guest bedchamber. Saving a chit's life should grant him some license to speak with her. "Miss White. You're unhurt, I hope?"
She nodded, sinking still lower in the tub so that her lips were only a fraction above the rippling line of water. If they hadn't been chattering, he might have considered them kissable, but that was neither here nor there.
"Bumped and bruised, I think, now that I can feel my arms and legs again. But yes. This is much better than being drowned." She offered a smile that only improved the enticement of her mouth. "And as you're the reason I didn't drown, I think you should call me Sophia."
"Considering that the coachman was saving the mail and the turkeys, aiding you seemed the least I could do," he returned. "I hate when my guests expire while answering my invitations. It puts people off."
"I can see where that might happen."
This seemed an odd and rather amusing conversation to have with someone--a chit in particular--who'd nearly drowned, but on the other hand she would have need of her good humor. "I'm afraid that this was all we were able to recover of your luggage." Putting a sympathetic expression on his face, Adam lifted up the wet, misshapen hat box that dangled by its fraying handle. "I'm sorry. We did search, Sophia."
Sophia White looked at him, then at the box. Then she laughed, her mouth upturning and eyes squinting at the corners in genuine amusement. The sound, her entire reaction, in fact, was completely unexpected, and he frowned, even more intrigued now. Although he didn't have much experience with half-drowned women, he doubted most of them would laugh at additional misfortune.
"I enjoy a good joke," he said. "Is this one?"
Choking a little, Miss White lifted one hand out of the water and pointed at the hat box. "I detest that hat. I only purchased it on a dare and meant to wear it to shock Cammy and your other guests." She chuckled again. "Oh, it's dreadful. I daresay it only survived because Poseidon refused to have it in his river and cast it back upon the shore."
If there was one thing Adam insisted on, it was having his curiosity satisfied. For the moment he put aside the information that she meant to shock his guests. That had been one of the reasons he'd invited her to his party in the first place, actually. With all the misery he meant to inflict on himself this holiday, he deserved a bit of amusement.
Keeping half his attention on Miss White, he set the box down on a chair and with his boot knife cut the string holding it closed when the wet knot wouldn't budge. Once he'd removed the lid, he reached in and pulled the sopping wet thing out into view. It was blue, with what looked like the remains of two bright blue ostrich feathers arching over the top of it and shading two concentric rings of red and yellow flowers. A faux bird--either a sparrow or a bullfinch--nested in the center of the yellow, inner ring. "Good God." She was absolutely correct. The hat was hideous.
Even considering the ugly hat, her reaction wasn't anything he'd anticipated. After all, he'd just informed her that everything she'd brought with her to Yorkshire was gone. Perhaps she hadn't understood that. Or perhaps that had been hysterical laughter, though he abruptly doubted that. Previously acquainted with her or not, he was beginning to suspect that Sophia White had rather more facets to her than he'd expected.
Adam took a breath. "Well, it's not a disaster yet. I'm certain we'll be able to find something for you to wear." Setting aside the hat, he noted that if he took a step or two closer he would be able to see her bare legs beneath the water. He had no objection to seeing them again, actually, but it seemed a bit like taking advantage.
"Camille is nearly my size," she commented, sending a glance at the towel across the foot of the bathtub. "I know she would lend me a gown."
"Mrs. Blackwood isn't here."
Her pretty green eyes blinked. "That complicates things somewhat, doesn't it?" She sighed, her mostly submerged shoulders rising and falling beneath the thinning curtain of steam. "Perhaps one of your other guests could be persuaded to lend me a castoff, then, until Cammy arrives. Or I'd be happy to purchase something from one of the maids."
So in the space of a very few minutes she'd lost her clothes and the presence of her dearest friend, but Sophia White didn't seem overly concerned by any of it. Adam almost hesitated to tell her the rest, but he had the distinct feeling that the news was more of a tragedy for him than for her. Aside from that, Miss White didn't seem to overset easily. But then again, her entire future didn't hinge on the next few weeks. He wasn't so lucky, himself.
"You are my first guest, Sophia," he said aloud. "And until the storm stops and the bridge can be repaired, you shall be my only guest."
This time uncertainty crossed her expression, and he could practically hear her thoughts. Was she trapped at Greaves Park for the winter? Was there anywhere she could go to escape her situation? He could answer all those questions, of course, but he wanted to hear her ask them aloud, first. Sophia White might be a child of unacknowledged parentage, and one who worked in a profession most of his peers considered highly unacceptable, but there were times a few months ago when he'd actually found her amusing. And interesting. Had it been a façade, or was she actually as good-humored and practical as she pretended?
She spent a moment gazing at him, then wrinkled her nose in a thoughtful scowl. "Well. Unless I'm to remain submerged in the bath until spring thaw, I shall have to hope that Mrs. Brooks liked me well enough to allow me to alter one of her old dresses. Unless you have a supply of onion or potato sacks to hand, of course."
Considering how rarely anyone accomplished the perturbing feat of surprising him, Adam couldn't quite believe that she'd done so unintentionally--though under the circumstances, unless she'd taken a powder keg to the bridge, she'd had no idea what awaited her on the road to Greaves Park. "You mean to tell me that as long as someone has enough charity to lend you a gown, you have no other concerns over your situation?" he asked, unable to keep the well-honed skepticism from creeping into his voice.
"I am somewhat concerned that you've barged into my bath without so much as knocking," she returned promptly. "But I'm also aware of precisely what sort of female everyone thinks me." She tilted her head, a straying strand of her autumn-colored hair dipping into the water as she assessed him. "Is that why you came in here? I'm still dreadfully cold, you know."
Hm. Perhaps it had crossed his mind, but he wasn't about to admit to it. "You are the friend of my friend's wife, Sophia. I wasn't aware that you would be naked."
"Fair enough. And considering that you pulled me out of a river, even if I were prone to be otherwise offended, I certainly wouldn't be now."
Was that an invitation? He hoped so, but he had a few questions he wanted answered, first. Of course if he'd been a true gentleman, now that he did know she was naked, he likely should have left the room. Instead he hooked his ankle around a chair, dragged it closer, and sat. "You're well educated."
She nodded, looking up at him from beneath long lashes. "I am quite well educated."
"And yet I recall one evening at The Tantalus Club when you complained to Lord Effington that if that Cleopatra chit ever showed her face in London, she would regret attempting to steal the Nile from us."
Her mouth lifted at the corners. "And Lord Effington laughed so hard at me that he didn't even notice he'd lost seven hundred pounds at faro to the club." She lowered her gaze briefly before her green eyes met his squarely again. "Should I dissemble, then? It gives me an aching head after a while, but I can pretend stupidity if it benefits me."
In the company of Keating Blackwood and Camille, Adam had once escorted Sophia to the Tower of London and had even untangled a lion cub's claws from her hem. He couldn't recall that she'd said anything ridiculous, or if he'd been lured into saying anything haughty or condescending in return. The fact that he was attempting to recall several brief conversations with her, however, spoke volumes. She'd just elevated herself from mildly interesting to intriguing. "I prefer that my guests be themselves," he said aloud. "So I suppose I shall converse with whichever face you choose to show me."
"I just showed you my actual face, so that will have to do, I'm afraid."
All of the ladies of The Tantalus Club were beauties; the owner, Lady Haybury, only hired the most tempting of chits. The fact that they were untouchable except by their own choice made them even more attractive to most of the lordlings of Mayfair. Some of the young ladies came from good homes and bad circumstances, and all of them were well spoken and charming.
He'd noted months ago that Sophia White was an attractive young lady, just as he'd noted that she had a very unattractive parentage. In the same way, he noted now that she didn't blush and hide when a man disrupted her bath, and that she'd looked him over from head to toe at the same time she'd stated that she wasn't offended by his presence, but was simply too chilled to leave the bathtub.
A living, breathing conundrum, when he'd expected--at least for the time being--a tiresome, fluttery, complaining headache. As for tomorrow, well, that remained to be seen.
"So I am your only guest."
"You are. For the moment, anyway." He drew a breath, wondering if she realized just how … vital that made her to him at the moment. "But you are not the only female in residence. My sister arrived a week ago. As I am unmarried, Lady Wallace hosts my Christmas gatherings. I don't invite guests in order to deliberately ruin their reputations." Not this year, at least. He had particular need for a female of sterling reputation.
Color had begun to touch her cheeks again, though the amusement in her eyes faded a little. "I suppose the proper thing for me to do would be to volunteer to leave Greaves Park for Hanlith, since your large house party is now a small family gathering."
"That's not necessary." In fact, under no circumstances did he wish her to leave him alone with his sister. A week had more than sufficed to provide him with all the family interaction he could tolerate. Before he could tell her that, however, that compelling smile of hers made him pause.
"Good," she returned, "because I think the holiday will be much more enjoyable here."
"I would have to agree with that." Belatedly Adam shook himself. Whatever seductions he might have had in mind, they could wait until the chit with the stunning red hair and unexpected wit had a chance to dry off and warm up. After that … well, Christmas was for opening gifts, after all. He stood. "I will see to it that you have a suitable wardrobe."
"I will see to my own wardrobe. If you begin dressing me, I'll feel … obligated to you. Even more than I already do."
People rarely turned down his offers of generosity. He didn't make them very often. And while it annoyed him, he had to respect her wishes. And her. "As you will, then. I'll send Mrs. Brooks back in to tend to you. Work your wiles on her if you wish a gown. I'll have Mrs. Beasel the cook save a potato sack, just in case."
Sophia snorted, then belatedly attempted to cover the sound with a cough. "Thank you, Your Grace."
In the doorway, he stopped again. "You are quite welcome, Sophia."
Copyright © 2012 by Suzanne Enoch