Chapter 11

Her constant guarding at the window of her shop bore fruit, but she didn't want it to when she saw the Aberley crest on an approaching down the street. Of course, there was no reason he would be here by chance.

As she watched, she saw the carriage stop and the small, black door open. Lord Aberley's dark hair was seen first, stepping out before he put his hat one. His eyes sought her through the window immediately and he tipped his fingers to the rim of his hat in greeting.

With her arms crossed, Sophie refused to acknowledge him. Why couldn't she just walk over and lock the door? Because it was childish. What she needed to do was to face down this man.

"Lord Aberley," she said as he walked through the door. "What a pleasant surprise. Can I assume you are here to buy some sheet music?"

He didn't speak for a moment and simply stood by the door, then closed the door behind him, and Sophie wished he wouldn't. She didn't like them being alone, even in the fishbowl which was her shop. It wasn't that she expected him to be a danger to her, but he was here for a reason—and it was unlikely he had come unarmed.

"So nice of you to speak to my brother," she said tersely. "I hope he successfully conveyed my sentiments to you."

His steps were heavy as he walked closer and Sophie shifted her eyes away and out onto the street through the window. She liked him coming closer even less. It was strange to think she had been married to this man—had been intimate with this man at one point. She had tried her best to develop feelings for him, but had never succeeded, which was a blessing. But then how could anyone develop feelings for a man that was so cold?

Memories of Doug and his sweetness stole into her mind.

"I have come to appeal to your better judgment," he finally said, his voice deep and clear.

Sophie chuckled at the unexpected sentiment. The man truly was deluded—but then he'd believed she would essentially sell her son for a sum of money, so it wasn't perhaps surprising. "I believe I have made up your mind. What is your objection to actually taking a wife? You certainly got rid of the one you had in a hurry."

"I despise deception."

"Deception?" she said. Well, perhaps it had been. She didn't know how the marriage had come about, but it had been her brother's doing, so there might well have been so deception involved. For some reason, this man had let Oliver foist a bride on him, and it had something to do with his sister, because the moment she died, her divorce was set in motion. Oliver had somehow blackmailed him into it.

"You claim there was no deception involved with our marriage?"

"There probably was. I simply wasn't aware of it." Young and naïve had been her claims. A handsome lord was going to marry her. It had been every fairy-tale come true. Except the prince was made of ice, and then took the first opportunity to dispose of her. "I think we should agree that it was an unfortunate event and we should never mention it again."

"Except the marriage produced a child."

"No, my child. There is no court in the world that would argue with me, when he could perfectly reasonably have been Doug's child." Provided he was born a month or so early.

"Except he is the spitting image of me."

Sophie stepped away, turning her back on him. Mr. Lawrence had said the law did not care about who Alfie looked like. Doug was his legal father. It was lies and she hated participating in it, but she had no choice.

"And now I offer him a life beyond anything you could ever offer, and you are unreasonable and turn it down. Even your family think you are unreasonable."

Well, Oliver would, who really would sell Alfie for the wealth and position he felt he was owed.

"I could say the same for you," she finally said, turning back to him. "I am offering him a life beyond anything you could ever offer."

"A life staying one step ahead of poverty? If you are lucky. One thing goes wrong and your house of cards comes crashing down. Or is that when you expect me to come to your rescue?"

"I expect nothing of you but your absence. You've managed well so far, so let's go back to that."

Stepping away, he slowly moved around the shop, surveying her merchandise. "Your situation is precarious. You don't seem to understand that."

She understood full well, but she had hope and she guarded against their livelihood and life being destroyed. It wasn't by any means ideal, but it was what they had, and they had to make do.

"Anything could come along and destroy anything," he said. There was a warning in his voice, but she didn't understand what he was implying. "Such as a new landlord coming in and raising the rent. Or he simply doesn't want a music shop on the premises. This is a great location and you are barely keeping your head above the water as it is."

"But I am."

"I own this building now, by the way," he said, turning to her with a smile so he could see her expression. Odious man. "I could have you out of here tomorrow if I wished."

Sophie stood with her back straight and her head held him.

"See, wealth gets you all sorts of things you need."

"Somehow it hasn't managed to secure you a wife," she said, changing the topic to something a bit safer. His look was chiding her.

"The point of all this is to do without a wife, I think," he said. "I personally find the idea distasteful. You are such mercenary creatures."

"If only Alfie had been born a girl, you would have absolutely no interest in stealing my child."

"I am stealing nothing—simply claiming what is mine."

"He is a child," she said, her voice booming. "He does not belong to you. He is not an object. This is the reason there is no way on this green earth that I will let you raise my son. You are a despicable human being and I am asking you to leave my shop."

"Technically, it's my shop." He certainly wasn't leaving on her inducement.

"Well, I suggest you sell the building immediately."

"And why would I do that?"

Taking a step closer, her ensured he heard. "Because if you do anything to threaten my shop…" With a deep breath, she calmed herself, annoyed that he had made her lose her temper. "Let me inform you how things are."

"Please do."

"So the position Alfie and I are in, and you really have to claim or relevance to either of us, legally or otherwise, is that if our lives becomes untenable here, we will have to liquidate all my assets—and I do have enough. And then we will purchase two tickets to America—or Australia—and go there to build a new life for ourselves."

"Australia? With every convict we've managed to rid ourselves of?"

"And yet, the bulk of them are better behaved than you. But yes, we will leave England and probably never come back, so don't push me, because I will. I have no particular attachments, and I will do what I see as best for my son. And to be honest, I find the idea of a world without you and your kind quite appealing."

"Spoken like a dyed in the wool Chartist."

She wasn't a Chartist, but she had some sympathies. Who didn't of those who made their daily bread by their own work. But her objections were different in nature. "I have enough experience with your kind to know there is nothing there worth aspiring to. Nothing."

In all seriousness, if he became too much of a problem, she would do exactly as she said and simply sail away from England. It would be stressful and scary heading off to a land unknown for a future she couldn't foresee, but she would do it if she had to.

"You are a ridiculous woman," he finally said. It was his turn to lose his temper.

"So go ahead; raise the rent if you must. Do whatever you feel you need to do and I will respond in kind."

"How in the world did I get saddled with the most unreasonable woman in the world?"

"That is between you and your sister and whatever hold my brother had over you. It was and is nothing I care to know about."

Pent-up anger tensed the man ahead of her, and she knew she had won this round of whatever twisted and disturbing game this was.

"And how do you know I won't chase after you?" he finally said and Sophie's eyes widened in exasperation.

"You would never handle living without the comforts of your cossetted life. And you are only doing this because you see it as an easy solution to your problems. Well, it is not. I am not rolling over for you. I will fight you until my last breath. This is not the way to get your heir, so just give up."

"No," he said sharply, his voice echoing off the walls.

"The worse thing," she said. "I know you're doing this in large part to be spiteful."

Now it was his turn to raise his eyebrows. "Did it ever occur to you that I have some obligation to my child?"

"Did it ever occur to you?" she challenged.

"Leaving him to face hardship and poverty because of a deranged mother is not fulfilling my duty to him."

Sophie crossed her arms again. "Then you had better leave us alone and hope that nothing comes and disturbs the little idyll we have."

"You are deranged," he said and marched out of the shop, leaving the door open behind him.

It felt a little like a hollow victory, but it was a victory. He'd done his worst and she had faced him down. Now she simply hoped he took her threat seriously, because it was very frightening to consider sell off everything and head out to shores unknown.