Chapter Twelve

Breathing a sigh of relief, Lord Markham wished his mother and sister goodnight and let himself into his room. Lady Ashington largely ignored him, but that was not entirely unexpected. During the carriage ride home, the chill emanating from that lady nearly froze him solid. It was a wonder Emily had not noticed and commented, as it was so blatantly obvious. No matter, his sister was just grateful he had saved her from a fate worse than death. Marriage to the lecherous St Albans.

Peter decided he must speak to his father on the morrow about his mother's rather underhanded ways of finding Emily a husband. He doubted his heart could cope with any more close calls, such as the one he had averted this evening. Perhaps, he could encourage Captain Smythe to declare his intentions. Discreetly of course. Peter just found it strange that Lady Ashington did not approve of the match, considering she had tried to bring about an alliance between the two families for years.

All of his remaining brain cells, however, ceased to function when he noticed the thin strip of light shining underneath his wife's door when he had accidently wandered into their shared sitting room. His mouth went dry and he found sudden difficulty in swallowing. She had waited up for him. He had not thought she would. Hastily, he went back to his room and began divesting himself of his clothing. He had given Travers the night off as he could quite easily prepare himself for bed, but on his nightstand was some fresh water and he noticed his robe laying on the bed waiting for him. Without bothering with a nightshirt, he slipped the robe up his arms and over his shoulders and secured the gold brocade ties. His unruly body had already responded to the tender morsel awaiting him in her room in the most primitive of ways. He could barely restrain himself as he quietly entered her room. Had in fact barely restrained himself all evening. It was a wonder he did not take Lady Darnley up on her most generous offer, but he found he could not. Strange.

The only woman he currently wanted lay in her bed—fast asleep.

He stood by the bed for several moments, his gaze fairly caressing her face. Her hair tumbled in a silken fall over her pillow. Sooty lashes stood out in stark relief against creamy, white cheeks. Cherry red lips pursed in a perpetual kiss. Her nose wrinkled. Did her dreams cause her to do that? He reached out a gentle hand to sweep a chestnut curl off her face.

He knew well this emotion he was feeling at the sight of her. Lust. Most definitely lust. His desire for Lady Darnley had evidently ceased to exist, and he had somehow transferred that desire to his wife. That—he did not mind so much. However, this other emotion he was feeling he did not know and did not like. Could it be—pity? He supposed any person would if they had learned all that he did about his wife's guardian. It had affected him the entire night. However, it was as annoying as it was unwelcome.

For it was this emotion that waged a constant battle with lust within him, and it was pity that was the victor. He could get into his wife's bed. He should get into his wife's bed. He should damn well wake his wife up and do what he had come in here to do in the first place. Consummate his marriage. But he could not. He could only remove the novel she still held in her grasp, kiss her gently on the forehead, blow out the candle she had accidentally left burning and had drawn him in here like a siren song, and return to his room to spend the most uncomfortable night of his life. Unsatisfied.

Damn it all to hell!

For Sophie, finding breakfast the next morning proved to be an exercise in futility.

As she made her way down the hallway from her rooms, she had to resist the urge to turn the other way and take the servants stairs, rather than the main staircase down to the lower levels. Well-learned habits were hard to break it seemed. Once in the entrance hall, she proceeded toward the dining room. However, when she arrived she found no evidence of the morning meal. She frowned. True, it was still early morning, but surely, the servants should have laid out a repast by now. Thoroughly confused, she slowly returned to the entrance hall where she found the butler, Crawford, coming from the rear of the house.

"Excuse me, Crawford," she said softly. "My apologies, but I believe I am a trifle lost. I cannot seem to find breakfast."

Crawford stopped and turned a forbidding frown toward her. Truthfully, the butler frightened her. That worthy gentleman practically looked down his nose at everyone, she thought, completely conscious of his position in the hierarchy of the household. She resisted the urge to take a step back.

He bowed. "Of course, my lady," he replied haughtily. "His lordship usually breaks his fast in the breakfast parlour. However, the ladies prefer a tray in their rooms at a later time."

A heated blush stole up her face at her inadvertent faux pas. Even though he may not have meant it as such, his implication was clear—because she did not sleep half the day away then she was not a lady. Well! She would certainly show him and anyone else who dared to make her feel as though she did not belong. She straightened her spine and lifted her chin, every inch of her demeanour showing generations of noble blood pouring through her veins—a Duke's blood. A Fulham she may be, lowly daughter of a baronet, but half of her was a McHeath as well, a line unbroken since Charles I of Scotland and England had bestowed the Dukedom on one of her distant ancestors in 1643. And his subsidiary titles went back further than that. What he had done to deserve it, however, she was not entirely certain. No one had ever told her, even though she had asked countless times.

She smiled sweetly and replied, "Thank you, Crawford, if you would be so kind as to show me the way."

"Please, follow me," he said. He turned on his well-shod heel and led her toward the back of the house, where he showed her into a brightly lit room decorated in buttercup yellow. Certainly more cheerful and far less austere than the formal dining room, she thought wryly. On one side of the room sat a sideboard fairly groaning under the weight of sumptuous fare: coddled eggs and crispy bacon, steak and kidneys, toast and marmalade, and tea and coffee, depending on preference. In the middle of the room sat a circular table made of satinwood, at which the Earl was indeed sitting, partaking of his own breakfast whilst perusing the morning paper.

The Earl rose on her entry and gave her a proper bow at complete odds with such an informal setting. Sophie faltered a step before executing a somewhat shaky curtsy. "I apologise, my lord," she said. "If you wish to be alone with your paper, I shall come back later."

Lord Ashington pulled out the chair next to his and motioned for her to sit down. "Nonsense, my dear," he boomed heartily. "I shall be pleased to have your company since I am quite bored with my own." He turned to the butler. "Pray, return to your duties, Crawford, I shall serve my new daughter."

Sitting down, Sophie stared at him in astonishment as he went to the sideboard and made several selections. Not daughter-in-law, said as though it left a bitter taste in his mouth, but daughter, as if she really was one of the family. Puzzled, Sophie could only speculate as to the reasons. Surely, the Earl would have just as much cause to resent her presence in their lives as his wife and son—if not more, quite truthfully, for it was he, Lord Ashington, who her uncle had tricked so deviously.

Returning to the table, Lord Ashington placed an almost overflowing plate down in front of her. She really did not know how she would consume all it contained, but she would certainly try, if only to avoid insulting him. Stunned by the effortless ease in which he treated her, she could only watch, speechless, while he resumed his seat. It really was the warmest welcome she had received since her arrival, apart from Lady Emily and Lady Aylesbury. However, they really did not matter, as Lady Emily did not know any better and Lady Aylesbury did not even live there. Finally, she found her voice. "Thank you, my lord," she said softly. And she did not mean just for the meal.

Lord Ashington smiled warmly at her, his emerald green eyes twinkling in merriment. "Think nothing of it, my dear, it was my pleasure," he replied. "You slept well, I trust? Your rooms, they suit you?"

"Oh, yes, I slept very well, thank you, and the rooms are lovely," she replied. "Tell me, Lord Ashington, do you usually break your fast alone, for I do not wish to impose?"

"I assure you, my dear, you are not an imposition. However, my wife and daughter are usually still abed at this hour and when they awaken they normally take a tray in their rooms. So, alas, I break my fast alone."

Sophie smiled ruefully. "So I have been told," she said. "I thought that perhaps I should do so as well."

"Nonsense, Sophie. I may call you Sophie, may I not?" he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he continued, "You are still used to country hours, I perceive. I am certain that when you begin to attend the social rounds, as my ladies do, then I shall lose the pleasure of your charming company as well."

Sophie shook her head in denial. "Oh, no, my lord, I have never been able to sleep any longer than I did this morning." She did not yet have the confidence to tell him that she never slept in because her aunt and uncle did not allow her to. Usually, she had a long list of chores to do so she needed to rise early in order to get them done. Oftentimes she went to bed completely exhausted, only to resume the same ritual the following day. Her new life as Viscountess Markham stretched out before her as barren as a hot, dry desert, with not a thing to look forward to except social obligations, presumably with a woman who despised her. How was she to cope?

Uncomfortable with the direction of the conversation, she said, "I do hope you do not mind, but I borrowed a book from your library last evening. You have a wonderful collection."

Lord Ashington beamed in delight, startling Sophie so much that her fork suspended in the air midway between her mouth and her plate. "Of course not, my dear," he said heartily. "You are more than welcome to borrow as many as you wish. No one has taken an interest in my library since Charlotte married four years ago. Tell me, what is it that you are reading? Pray, do not say it is one of those horrid Gothic affairs. Emily adores them, but I find they are a waste of time and paper."

Sophie could not help but laugh at Lord Ashington's exuberance. "I must agree with you, my lord," she replied. "On the contrary, I am reading Shakespeare, Hamlet to be exact." She thought longingly of her copy of A midsummer night's dream, probably still in the hayloft at Cloverfield where she left it on the day her life changed forever.

"Wonderful, wonderful, another devotee of Shakespeare, I cannot credit it," he said. "We must attend the theatre one night."

"Father, we must do something about—" Lord Markham strode into the room, but broke off his sentence when he spotted Sophie seated with his father. He raised an enquiring eyebrow. "Oh, hello, my dear, I had not thought to see you so early this morning."

Despite his mild tone, Sophie bristled at his greeting, as much for his words as for his expression. Extreme astonishment flashed across his face, before his well-honed social mask slid back into place. Honestly, what was it about the Quality's preoccupation with how long their ladies slept? It really was most peculiar. However, Sophie showed none of her ire as she replied, "Good morning to you, my lord, I see you have matters to discuss with your father. I shall leave you then."

She moved to rise from her chair, but before she could do so, Lord Ashington placed his hand on her arm to stay her. "Pray, sit and finish your meal. Whatever it is that Peter wishes to speak with me about may wait," he said. He pinned Peter with a steely glare. "Sophie and I were just discussing the possibility of attending the theatre. I thought perhaps tonight, as Hamlet is playing at Drury Lane. What say you, Peter?"

"An admirable endeavour, Father," he replied. He knew not what he had said or done to cause Sophie to feel as though she had to flee the room like a doe caught in the carriage lamps, or, indeed, what had raised his sire's annoyance, but he would ignore it—at least for now. If anything, it should be he who was feeling out of sorts, since he went to bed unfulfilled, and the cold bath he had this morning did help matters. "However, I was hoping you might attend the Llewellyn's soiree with us this evening."

Lord Ashington waved a negligent hand. "I do not believe I have sent them my acceptance. No matter, I shall escort Sophie to the theatre and then we shall meet you there afterward. That shall have to suffice."

During the discourse, Sophie had been watching the byplay between father and son like one would watch a closely fought badminton game—all wide eyes and unable to look away in case she missed something. Oh, how she wished they would not speak about her as though she were not even there. Did she not have a say in what she wished to attend? Well, viewing a Shakespeare play performed by professional players did sound enticing, she decided, but she would make it clear that Lord Ashington was not obligated to take her. "Please, Lord Ashington, if you have other commitments then I understand completely. Do not worry about me; I shall be perfectly content here. Perhaps we may go at a later date."

"Nonsense, my dear," Lord Ashington replied, patting her paternally on the hand. "Having such a lovely and charming companion for this evening would please me greatly," he chuckled, "and I far prefer the excitement of the theatre to a dull soiree anyway. So, you see, we are not doing anything I do not wish to."

Sophie smiled with genuine pleasure. "Then, all there is left for me to do is accept your kind offer gratefully, my lord. Thank you," she said. "Now, if you would excuse me, I must await Lady Aylesbury. She is collecting me in," she glanced at the ormolu clock on the mantle, "oops, five minutes ago." Sophie placed her knife and fork carefully on her plate, and pushed her chair back to stand. Lord Ashington and Lord Markham stood as well.

However, before she could leave the room, Lord Markham said, "Before you leave, Sophie, I wish to speak with you."

Her pleasure instantly changed to wariness as she eyed him. "As you wish, my lord," she said.

He must have read her expression accurately, for he replied gently, "It is nothing too serious, merely the subject of your allowance."

"Allowance, my lord?" she squeaked.

"Yes, allowance. Every quarter I shall give you one hundred pounds to spend on any frippery and furbelow you wish. Do you visit the modiste today?" he asked. At her hesitant nod, he continued, "Then, have her send the bills to me and I shall pay them. I shall await you in the library. Please meet me there after you have retrieved your pelisse and bonnet."

"Thank you, my lord," she whispered, and then whisked herself out the door in a flurry of primrose muslin. But not before she heard Lord Ashington say, "What a charming young lady, Peter, if I did not know any better, I would surely think she was not related to Sir George, or that nodcock son of his, at all."

She did not hear Lord Markham's reply, but if Lord Ashington's last words did not cause her to float up the stairs, rather than the way she dashed up instead, then the thought of one hundred pounds per quarter to spend as she wished certainly would. Heavens, an allowance, she thought as she reached her rooms. She could not conceive of such a thing. Did every wife of a gentleman receive such an exorbitant sum? She knew not who she could ask, however, that would be the height of rudeness. So she would just accept her good fortune with grace.

Once she had donned gloves, pelisse, and bonnet and collected her reticule, she quickly dashed back down the stairs, where she found Crawford just opening the door to admit Lady Aylesbury.

Lady Aylesbury laughed daintily when she saw her. "Pray, Sophie, you need not rush on my account," she said. "I spend so much time here that I practically live here. Do I not, Crawford?"

"You certainly used to, my lady," he replied with a deadpan expression.

At that, Sophie stopped in her tracks. Had Crawford just made a sally? If he did, he had more of a sense of humour than Sophie had given him credit. "My apologies, Charlotte, but I must see Lord Markham before we depart. I shall be but a moment."

Lady Aylesbury waved her hand and said, "No matter, we still have time before my appointment. I shall await you here."

"No need, my dear girl," Lord Markham said, coming from the direction of the breakfast parlour. Of Lord Ashington, there was no sign. He stopped in front of Sophie and handed her some coins. "Here you are, my dear. I thought I would save you the trip to the library. I shall give you the rest when you have more time."

While Lord Markham chatted with Lady Aylesbury, Sophie placed her precious coins in her reticule and then said to the butler, "Please, pass on my appreciation to Cook. Our repast was truly wonderful."

Well, such a prettily said compliment from the new Lady Markham raised her standing considerably in Crawford's esteem. So much so, he waved away the hovering footman and handed her up into the waiting carriage himself, even unbending enough to bestow a small smile upon her. Perhaps they were a trifle hasty in their judgement of her, he mused as he went back to his post at the door. He would do much more than merely inform Cook, he would mention it at dinner so the entirety of the servants would hear.

Sophie settled back against the plush velvet squabs and tilted her face to the sun. Rather than use an enclosed carriage, as Sophie had expected, they were travelling in a glorious barouche painted navy blue with the wheels picked out in yellow. The Aylesbury crest decorated the sides in gold. Two magnificent matched blacks pulled the elegant equipage, their smooth gait easily negotiating the ever-increasing traffic of carriages, drays, and riders at the Coachman's expert direction. Two footmen, dressed in the Aylesbury colours of tan and gold, stood at attention on a platform behind the carriage, grasping hold of special handles to ensure they did not fall off.

Unable to stop herself, Sophie gazed about her in awe, every bit of her feeling as though she were a child in a sweet shop. Even though she had ventured out occasionally during her brief, yet turbulent, visit six years ago, she never had the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of the bustling metropolis at her leisure. Whenever she left Fulham House, it was under close guard, at night, and her uncle had only allowed her to go to her entertainment and then return at a reasonable hour. On that point, he was most insistent and Sophie often wondered why.

Nannies with their charges bustled down sidewalks; ladies, with their maids trailing behind them at a respectable distance, strolled unhurriedly; a few gentlemen doffed their beavers in greeting as they passed. It really all looked very ordinary and rather civilised. However, it was the size and scope of the buildings that caught and held her fascinated gaze. Many towered four stories high, others merely three stories, fairly dwarfing anything around them. Some were even larger than Ashington House, which she did not think at all possible.

All too soon, for Sophie's liking, the barouche halted outside a respectable establishment situated on Bond Street. The Coachman snubbed the ribbons, and then vaulted down off the box to hold the horses' heads. One footman came to hand down Lady Aylesbury and Sophie, before joining the other footman by the door. Lady Aylesbury swept past them and into the establishment.

Sophie cast them a puzzled glance as she entered the shop behind Lady Aylesbury. "Tell me, Charlotte, why do we have two footmen standing outside like sentries?" she asked in a barely audible whisper.

"Well," Lady Aylesbury stopped at the counter and closed the distance between them, "blame Aylesbury for that. He persists on treating me as though I were a debutante rather than a married woman of three-and-twenty. I really should be able to go abroad with only a maid to observe the proprieties, but he insists on a footman accompanying me as well. And today, now that you are with me, he insisted I take two. One for each of us, he said. So I left my maid at home."

"Oh, dear," Sophie said in bewilderment. "But I thought Society allowed married ladies a certain amount of latitude not usually granted to debutantes."

Lady Aylesbury nodded. "Oh, they do," she replied. "However, my husband is rather archaic in his opinions. Apparently, one solitary maid is not sufficient protection for his darling wife. But I prefer to see the silver lining in every situation. So," she grinned, "the extra footman will come in handy to carry all of our packages to the carriage, and the absence of my maid will ensure there is plenty of room to take them home."

"Oh no, I am merely purchasing the essentials today, Charlotte," Sophie said. "I could not possibly buy any more than that."

Lady Aylesbury grasped her hand, squeezing in earnest. "It is all essential, darling, I assure you," she said. "Society is notorious for cutting to shreds ladies who do not measure up to the standard. Usually, I am not a frivolous person; however, even I need to look my best. Otherwise, it reflects poorly on Aylesbury. Now that he has finally inherited and can sit in the House of Lords, he wishes to devote his time to Parliament. If I do not do all I can to support him then he will surely fail."

"So by dressing well, you are helping your husband with his political career?" As much as she tried, Sophie could not keep the note of disbelief from her voice. It all sounded rather ridiculous.

"Well, not completely," she replied. "I also act as hostess at his political dinners. When there is an important debate and Aylesbury needs extra votes to pass a bill, my role is to socialise with the wives, hopefully, to bring them around to my way of thinking. Which, in turn, is his way of thinking, I suppose. It is astonishing how many wives influence their husband's decisions in Parliament. Possibly, more than you would think."

"I am surprised that gentlemen even listen to their wives," Sophie said wryly, turning to the counter and picking up a copy of Ackerman's Repository, "much less actually pass on those opinions to others."

Lady Aylesbury laughed. "I am convinced some of them do not even realise they are doing it. Some of us wives have rather nefarious means of having our wishes met. Although, I am fortunate in Aylesbury, he may be archaic in his views on propriety, but to his credit he does not treat me as though I am a brainless widgeon."

"You are fortunate indeed," Sophie murmured. She absently flipped through the magazine, not even noticing the elaborate and sometimes decadent creations etched on each page. Her thoughts had turned to her husband's rather pompous declaration the day before. Allow him to make the correct decision for her, as he was a man so therefore knew what was best for her. Piffle. See how well that turned out, married to a gentleman of questionable morals, who had quite possibly visited his mistress on his wedding night because he could not bear to visit his wife's bed. She frowned. She did not know if she should feel relieved or annoyed. Relieved, most definitely relieved, she decided.

Lady Aylesbury's huff of impatience brought Sophie out of her reverie. "Oh, where can Madame Suzette be?" Lady Aylesbury asked. "I was to begin my appointment ten minutes ago."

"Perhaps she has been caught up with her previous appointment," Sophie said soothingly. "I am sure it shall not be too much longer."

"Of course, you are right," Lady Aylesbury replied with a sigh. "She does have assistants; however, they only sew and take measurements. Madame is the only one who designs. We should find something flattering for you in Ackerman's whilst we wait." She began to thumb through her own copy of the fashionable publication, stopping only several pages in with a coo of delight. "Oh, do look, Sophie, this riding habit shall be perfect for you. In a silver grey, I think, but instead of gold braid, perhaps white?" She tapped the fashion plate with a long, slender finger.

However, before Sophie even had the chance to glance at it, an altercation erupted from the direction of the fitting rooms. "Incompetent fool!" an imperious voice shrieked. "This gown barely fits and it is completely the wrong colour. I never wear this shade of blue."

Charlotte barely glanced up from her magazine, but Sophie's mouth was agape at such rudeness.

"Oui, my lady," said a soothing, heavily accented voice. "Impossible my girls cannot fix today. We just let out the seams a little. Tres bien. All will be well by luncheon."

"Oooh, how dare you imply I must have gained weight!" snapped the first in outrage. "Impossible. You must have measured and cut the material incorrectly. I never deal with bacon-brained idiots. Cancel the order. I shan't be back."

"Good Heavens," Sophie murmured in shock. "Who is that?"

"Lady Darnley," Charlotte responded automatically. Her eyes lit up at the sight of an evening gown that would enhance her own figure. "A diamond of the first water she may be, but her character leaves a lot to be desired. There are others as well, but she is the worst."

"Whoever would receive such a harridan?" Sophie asked. If this Lady Darnley were the standard she must aspire to become a lady then Sophie would rather not become one. Rude, arrogant, and altogether a nasty person, Sophie thought.

Charlotte laughed lightly and then turned her full attention to her sister-in-law. "Oh, do not think for a minute that she shows this side of her wretched personality to Society. No, this bad behaviour she reserves for tradesmen and social inferiors. Watch when she comes out, see what she does if she spots us."

Forestalling Sophie's response was Lady Darnley herself, who chose that moment to exit in high dudgeon. Sophie barely refrained from staring, as the lady, indeed, was a diamond, but could not resist a comprehensive glance at the epitome of perfection. Even with her features twisted in fury, Lady Darnley was still beautiful. Golden ringlets framed her face in a short style. Modishly gowned, her figure both invited protection and demanded caresses. But no visual charms could erase the image the lady's temper had created. Sophie would not have liked her even if she had not borne witness to such a scene. There was just something about her that she could not like.

Charlotte returned to perusing her magazine as though not a thing had occurred, as did Sophie, but her mind was no longer on fabrics and patterns.

And as Charlotte had predicted, Lady Darnley had indeed spotted them. She swept gracefully toward them, her hands outstretched with every appearance that she was happy to see them. The fury that had been so prominent on her face mere moments before vanished completely, replaced by such a look of angelic innocence that Sophie had trouble believing it was the same person. However, her eyes gave her away. They were almost the colour of obsidian, holding a hard, glittering aspect that Sophie could barely resist shrinking from.

"Dearest, Lady Aylesbury. How lovely it is to see you." Gone was the shrieking harpy from earlier, in its place was a veritable siren. Low, modulated tones caressed in perfect diction. Ignoring Charlotte's regal nod, she turned to Sophie with a mock look of welcome. "Forgive me for not waiting for a proper introduction, but when I saw you I could not resist making myself known to you. I am Lady Darnley and you must be darling Peter's new wife." She seemed to choke on the last word.

Taking her cue from Charlotte, Sophie inclined her head. "Do you know my husband well?" She must know him well enough to use his given name in public. Unconsciously, she asserted her claim on Lord Markham. Neither did the gentle reminder of her lover's married state escape the other woman's notice.

Lady Darnley's lips tightened imperceptibly. However, none of her inner thoughts showed as she laughed. The sound pealing out like a wind chime caught in a gentle breeze. "Oh, yes. Darling Peter is such an especial friend. In fact, he has quite been my saviour since my dearest Lord Darnley went aloft, leaving me all alone. I do not know how I would have coped these two years past without his assistance."

Charlotte gently tugged on Sophie's hand, finally realising the impropriety of her brother's wife conversing with her brother's lover. Especially since they had gained somewhat of an audience. Not only had Madame Suzette emerged from the rear of the establishment, but also several more patrons had chosen that moment to enter the shop. They all looked on, agog, at what was unfolding before them.

Charlotte was not the only person in Society who knew of Lord Markham's relationship with the blonde haired beauty. Most of the ton did, in truth. However, she would not be the one to tell her sister-in-law. She liked her too much. And she fervently wished no one else would find the need to either. She did not doubt for a moment that this little tête-à-tête would spread through drawing rooms faster than a brush fire through dry grasses.

In clear dismissal, Charlotte turned from Lady Darnley and said, "Ah, Madame Suzette, allow me to make known to you, Lady Markham, my brother's wife. I recall I am here only for my fittings, however, dearest Sophie requires a new wardrobe."

However, Lady Darnley was loath to leave without parting a final shot. "Do not worry, my dear, I am certain in time dearest Peter shall become your especial friend as well," she said snidely, loud enough to be heard clear across the shop. She then turned on her elegantly shod heel and swept out the door, gay laughter following in her wake.

Puzzled by Lady Darnley's last comment, Sophie turned to the modiste. Jet-black hair swept high off her forehead and neck and secured into a bun accentuated high, Gallic cheekbones. Eyes the colour of a spring morning deliberately slid up and down Sophie's person, designs to flatter the statuesque figure in front of her already beginning to form in her agile mind.

Slowly, she nodded. "Oui, oui, magnifique. Somezing special I believe. Lady Markham, you will set zee fashions, not follow zem," Madame Suzette declared. She shared a look with Charlotte that Sophie could not even begin to interpret.

However, Charlotte could. She had to refrain from laughing out loud at the perfect revenge the modiste would have on Lady Darnley. By dressing Peter's wife as elegantly as possible, any compliment paid to her would poke a direct dart into Lady Darnley's pride. Her tantrum could not have come at a better time, and it would be dearest Sophie who would benefit the most. Glorious.

Sophie quickly forgot the rather strange meeting with the shrewish Lady Darnley, as over the next two hours she submitted to the measuring of her person, the draping of fabrics over her shoulder to ascertain their effect on her complexion, and the limitless pinning of gowns Madame had already made that she maintained would be absolutely perfect for Lady Markham. All Madame had left to do was sew them to fit.

Fortunately, one of these creations was a lovely evening gown made of blue silk that changed colour to silver in certain light. Its sweeping lines and lack of embellishment would only accentuate Sophie's height, rather than detract from it, and as Sophie gazed at herself in the looking glass, she decided this gown would be one she would wear on her debut into Society with her father-in-law. If Madame would be so kind as to complete it whilst they waited. Which, of course, she would be more than pleased to do, sending them off a mere half an hour later with not only the evening gown, but a further day gown, afternoon gown and a ball gown. It really was the least she could do, considering she now had an entire wardrobe to fashion for the rather charming Lady Markham, which included the aforementioned riding habit, along with her intimate apparel, gowns, outerwear such as pelisses and spencers, and everything else a lady of fashion might require. The rest, she assured them, she would have delivered by the end of the week.

Sophie thought it quite an optimistic time frame. However, Charlotte did not give her time to dwell on how the modiste would achieve the seemingly impossible. Instead, she dragged Sophie to hatters for her bonnets, glovers for her gloves, and cobblers for her slippers and half boots. Stockings, garters, and all the other fripperies she might need, Charlotte decided to purchase at the Pantheon Bazaar.

By the time Charlotte had concluded they had had enough and told the Coachman to return to Aylesbury House, exhaustion had overcome Sophie to a shocking degree. Whoever would have thought shopping could be so tiring? Well, Sophie thought, at least she knew now why ladies of quality slept half the day away. They had no more energy left.

It was not until later that Sophie once again thought of Lady Darnley, but dismissed her from her mind as nothing of import. She could never have predicted the seemingly accidental meeting would begin a chain of events that would unleash a scandal Society would speak of for years to come.