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Endangering the pristine quality of her new white muslin gown, Sophia Valentine leaned over the stone balustrade, assessed the shadowy distance to the...
Endangering the pristine quality of her new white muslin gown, Sophia Valentine leaned over the stone balustrade, assessed the shadowy distance to the lawn below, and wondered exactly what steps were necessary to “gird one’s loins.” She hovered on the brink of an abyss and felt this was surely the very moment for such an action, if she only knew how it might be done, for tonight she faced several dark dilemmas. Enlarged by an overly active imagination and one too many cups of punch, they seemed monstrous in dimension.
Much to her chagrin, precarious situations were prevalent in Sophie’s life, and good common sense less frequently encountered, appearing long after it was needed, in company with that most frustrating of all commodities: “hindsight.” She was generally in too much haste to stop and find the quality of prudence whenever it was most in need. Her reaction to situations of perceived emergency often created calamity of a genuine nature, rather than any escape from them. She knew all this but couldn’t seem to stop herself. At nineteen, Sophie recognized she had yet to grow into anyone very admirable. She was a young woman with little beauty, many failings, and considerable desire for rebellion with no real direction, and was the first to admit her own shortcomings. But she had occasional signs of hope—when she chanced to catch her reflection in flattering light or heard herself saying something witty. Neither happened often.
Behind her, muffled by French doors, the music of a dignified quadrille currently led the other guests around a ballroom. Soon the rumor of an unseemly encounter would dance its own insidious steps through the crowd, causing Sophie to be pointed out, yet again, as a Young Lady in Need of Firmer Direction. This, however, was the least of her problems. Foremost among all her quandaries was this one: Where, for pity’s sake, were all the real heroes? Where was her fiercely sculpted, steely-eyed knight on a fine black warhorse, charging up to carry her off over his shoulder? Did they exist only in novels? If they were real, they didn’t appear to be looking for her. Perhaps, she mused unhappily, they came only for radiant maidens with cupid’s-bow lips, limpid blue eyes, and alabaster brows. In which case, mediocre girls like she were destined to be cornered by Achingly Polite Milksops, Old Gropers with snuff-stained nose hairs, and the ever-annoying, self-proclaimed Rakehell, who fancied himself irresistible to all women, and whose greatest concern was whether the running at Newmarket was likely to be firm or soft that week.
And then there was James Hartley, a young man of considerable advantages, who had—much to her bewilderment—just proposed marriage. Most folk who knew them both would say it shouldn’t have been such a shock to her, since they’d known each other for years, and he’d paid her many attentions she didn’t deserve. But he had never courted her officially. His grandmama did not approve. Sometimes Sophie thought that was exactly why he’d chased her to London, and she, flattered to have his notice, encouraged it.
Now that he’d actually proposed, the game was over. She’d enjoyed it for the laughs and excitement but never expected to win. It was fun to play in James’s world occasionally. Not so much fun, she suspected, to live there forever, forced to conform to the rules. She saw how it wore on him, and he’d been raised in it, whereas she was just a gawky country girl beneath her fancy new gown.
But this was the time of reckoning. They could no longer go on being merely friends. The cards would be put away, the chips counted. No more playing. Suddenly, it was serious.
She clutched her glass of punch as the brisk air cooled her face, and she struggled with her fears. Surely she was ready to fall in love—better now than at twenty-five or thirty, when she was too old to enjoy it. And there was much to be said in favor of her suitor. She and James had a great deal in common. Both were frequently in a hurry, and both preferred a lively country-dance to a subdued minuet. James, she suspected, had never paid attention to a sermon in his life. As for she, rather than read books written for the guidance of young ladies, she read sentimental novels and silly romances—although she skimmed the pages and never finished any. With a similar desire for mischief and instant gratification, they were, in many respects, two like souls. So she ought to be in love now, with Mr. James Hartley. After all, she could be at the peak of her “beauty,” in which case, she should take this chance, grab James before he realized his mistake.
He was exceedingly handsome and would, one day, come into a large fortune. There was nothing more a young woman like she should dare ask for. However, there was something else she wanted, and it wasn’t the sort of thing young ladies could talk about. Sophie wasn’t even sure she knew the right words.
That evening, James had made love to her for the first time, apologizing profusely throughout the two and a half minutes it lasted. When a couple of stray guests had entered the billiard room and found them using the green baize surface for something other than billiards, Sophie was still waiting for the heavens to part and showers of stars to rain down on her. She was completely unaware that it was already over. So much for the romance and passion for which she yearned.
Soon, whispers of that scandalous encounter would travel the length of Lady Honoria Grimstock’s glittering ballroom, to make yet another black mark against her. A guest of her fine Grimstock relatives, Sophie had been in London precisely one week, and was already accused of showing her ankles in public and using a curse word over a game of whist. But this latest transgression would surely outdo all that. She wouldn’t mind so much if it had been actually worth all the fuss.
Now, here she stood, wondering if she was right to accept his proposal. A small voice inside her was screaming in protest. She began to feel boxed in by other people’s expectations, stripped of her own.
Playing for time, she’d sent James off to find her velvet shawl, but he would return all too soon; hence the necessary girding of loins. A decision must be made.
If they hadn’t been caught on that billiard table, would he still have proposed, or had he been cornered into it, much as she felt the same pressure to accept?
Her mind sputtered and sparked with questions, flaring to life and petering out, like fireworks in rain. Would it be fair to him? She really couldn’t think what he saw in her.
And what if, somewhere out there…?
The punch made her light-headed. Swaying, she looked down again over the balustrade. Darkness had yet to descend but was only a breath away as dusk finally surrendered its sultry grip and slid behind a distant line of precisely manicured hedge. She should have worried about catching cold, but the crisp, uncluttered night air was a welcome relief from the stifling warmth and thick, waxy perfume of the ballroom.
She blinked drowsily as her gaze searched the lawn below. She thought she saw someone standing there, staring up at her. As the next brittle breath shattered in the cool air around her mouth, the shadows shifted again, and the shape was gone. Although she dismissed the vision as a result of too much punch, her heartbeat took on a new rhythm, and it seemed to say, Jump, jump, jump, and I’ll catch you, over and over again.
She glanced back through the glass-paneled doors and saw James strolling around the perimeter of the dance, looking for her. A young maid, holding a tray of empty glasses, stood aside for him to pass, but he stopped. And then Sophie saw him slyly check over his shoulder before raising a hand to the girl’s blushing cheek. He stroked it with one finger and gave her chin a tweak. It was a brief gesture and went unnoticed in the crowded ballroom, but Sophie, standing on the outside looking in, saw it all. He whispered in the girl’s ear, and her lashes fluttered, her blush deepening. She was a plump, well-developed girl, slightly younger than Sophie. Her hair was very dark, almost raven. So were the adoring eyes she raised to James Hartley’s face.
Sophie stepped back and stumbled against the balustrade.
As she clutched the mossy stone, she turned and gazed out over the wind-ruffled ivy. That vast lawn undulated softly, daubed by alternate splashes of moonlight and shadow, a magical carpet waiting to carry her far away.
Jump, jump, jump, and I’ll catch you.
It would be a considerable leap, but suddenly flight into the unknown was preferable to facing the predictable future.
She heard voices below, people moving about in the quilted shadows.
“Where ’ave you been, boy?”
“Trimmin’ the ivy, sir.”
“You shouldn’t still be out here now. What can you see to trim in the dark? Oh…” There was a pause. “I see what kept you, young scoundrel!”
She heard a low “ouch” followed by a mumbled curse. “You didn’t ’ave to do that, sir. Now me ears are ringin’.”
“And so they should be.”
“I weren’t doin’ no harm. Only lookin’.”
“Listen, boy, these fancy folk don’t want their evenin’ spoiled by seeing the likes of us about. Remember what I told you? We’re not to be seen, only the results of our hard work.”
And the young man answered, “Then we don’t exist to people like them? People like her—up there?”
Alarmed, she stepped away from the balustrade. Since she’d been unable to see them, she’d assumed they wouldn’t see her either.
“That’s right, boy,” came the distracted reply. “No. Leave that now and get out o’ sight. You can fetch it in the mornin’.”
The rustling stopped, the voices drifted away, and a great heaving sadness settled in Sophie’s throat, because she wanted to shout down to the boy, but she couldn’t. It wouldn’t be proper, and she was in enough trouble as it was. Taking her anger out on her long white evening gloves, she wrenched them off as if they contained stinging nettles. What was the point of trying to look coolly elegant, when, on the inside, she was an ill-tempered, dissatisfied hussy?
Soon James would realize where she was and come to fetch her; time was running out. Could she marry him and be happy? Could she make him happy?
He was only a few feet from the French doors now, his gaze scanning the dancers, but she couldn’t go back into that stifling ballroom. She needed just a few more moments alone, in peace. Swept up in the desperate drama of the moment, she drained her cup of punch, tucked her skirt over one arm, and climbed up onto the mossy ledge, where she swayed slightly.
The door handles behind her began to turn with a loud squeak. She hated subjecting her new gown to the possibility of a stain or a tear, but there was nothing else to be done—there was no other way out. And so she leapt from the balustrade into the fast-creeping darkness, expecting, in the fearlessness of youth, to escape the fall with nothing more than a few grass stains.
“Fresnia did a wonderful job of creating a swoon worthy love story about everyday folks. A Miss and a Mister. Quite simple and perfect. ” - Fall in Love with Books...
“Fresnia did a wonderful job of creating a swoon worthy love story about everyday folks. A Miss and a Mister. Quite simple and perfect. ” - Fall in Love with Books
“Adorable and unexpected.” - In the Hammock Book Reviews
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“Fresina has drawn her protagonists with impeccable skill… Stylish, witty dialog.” - Library Journal
“Well worth the read.” - Long and Short Reviews
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The farm setting and daring heroine make for a unique historical romance... pleasingly edgy.
“Eminently witty and readable prose. ” - Publishers Weekly
Length: 6.875 in
Width: 4.1875 in
Weight: 6.56 oz
Page Count: 384 pages