“I danced with young Blakesly yesterday. I am quite sure he purposely stumbled so that he could catch himself on a most inappropriate place on my person. It was most mortifying, but…”
Lady Sophia continued to prattle on, trying to sound bright and cheerful, but her thoughts weren’t on her words. Instead, she was looking down at the gaunt man in the hospital bed. He had been handsome once, she was sure of it. But now his angular face looked thin and bony, and his rich brown curls lay flat against his slick brow. He was a man who should have been surrounded by military honors, but now his companions were pain and dreariness.
“I am quite certain,” she continued, “that Lord Blakesly would not dream of being so impertinent if you had been there. You must rouse yourself, Major Wyclyff. I do believe I need your escort.”
He would never accompany her, she knew. Even were he the picture of health, the major and she did not travel in the same circles. However, it had become a game between them in her last month of hospital visits. While he lay on his sickbed, they would speak of what they would do together when he was better. She spoke of picnics and strolls, of Vauxhall and the museums. And when he tired of that, they would argue politics or religion, spring as opposed to fall, or any other nonsense in between. He liked to argue and, while she did not, she would do anything to help him pass the time while he lay abed, his mangled leg stretched out before him.
For a while, she had believed their silly plans would happen.
But then, a week ago, the major had taken a turn for the worse. His wound turned an angry red. All too soon, his smile faded into a grimace of pain and his skin grew flushed with fever. Yesterday, he had been delirious.
Today, naught but a low moan escaped his parched lips.
He was dying.
Sophia stroked his broad hand, tracing the length of his fingers, her heart feeling frozen within her body. In five years of hospital visits, she had seen many men die. She knew the signs, and knew that her major would not last much longer.
A tear slipped down her face to land on the back of his hand. Blinking, she wiped away the moisture, startled by her reaction. “You see what you have done, Major? I am crying because of you.” There was a touch of amazement in her voice, surprise that his imminent death would move her so deeply. After all, she had never cried before. Not for any of the other soldiers. Not for anyone, including her own father.
“I hold you directly responsible,” she said with mock severity. “You must wake immediately or I shall be forced to take drastic measures. Crushed strawberries on the eyes to take away the redness. Cucumbers to suppress the tendency toward puffiness. My word, think of the expense and time such a toilette requires, Major. Truly, you must wake immediately. I command it.”
She had not expected her words to have any effect. She spoke them to distract herself from what she knew was coming, so it was with considerable shock that she looked up to see his eyes had opened.
They were a mysterious brown, fever-bright, and so intense, she wondered if he had not been possessed by some spirit. No man on the verge of death could look right through one, as though to one’s very soul. She should have been frightened, but for some reason she was not. It was her major lying there, looking at her not only with lucidity, but as though his very life depended upon it.
“Oh, Major,” she whispered. “You have come back to me.”
“Sophia,” he croaked.
She nodded, and then with swift movements she poured him some water, lifting his shoulders and helping him drink. He watched her the entire time, his gaze hotter than his skin, burning her as she eased him back down.
“You must fight your illness, Major,” she said softly. “Fight it as hard as any invading army. His Majesty expects nothing less from one of his finest officers—”
“Marry me.” Even deathly ill, his voice had the ring of command.
Sophia’s hand did not slow as she tugged the wrinkles out of his blanket. “Of course, Major. But you must be able to walk down the aisle, you know.”
He grabbed her hand, pulling it and her gaze up toward his face. “Marry me,” he ordered again.
In five years, she had received dozens of marriage proposals. It seemed to be a favorite pastime among wounded men. At first she had been flustered, but before long, she had developed an answer. To those who would mend, she simply smiled mysteriously. To those who would die, she would swear anything upon their recovery.
“I will wear a long white gown, and you will be in your regimentals,” she said softly. “Everyone will stare because we are so happy together.” She reached forward with a cool cloth, mopping his brow. “But first you must get well.” She smiled down at him, focusing not on his wasted body but on the strength that literally shone in his eyes. “It will take a long time for me to prepare for our wedding, you know. In the meantime, you must swear to get better.”
His eyes slipped shut. They did not close willingly, but slowly, as if he fought with everything in him. Then all was still except for the harsh rasp of his breathing.
Sophia sat back down beside him, her hand still clutched in his. She sighed softly, believing she had heard the last words he would ever utter. But moments later, when she thought him long since asleep, he whispered two words.
“Lady Sophia, what can your humblest servant say?” Lord Blakesly droned. “Your smile glows like polished pearls. Your hair falls in neater folds than the greatest cravat. And as for your laugh…”
“It tinkles like the bell on a dainty swine,” quipped Lydia from her left.
Sophia slowly turned, her gaze landing on her dearest friend, who had apparently just joined her circle of admirers. Seeing Lydia’s bright eyes and animated expression, Sophia knew the young woman wanted to speak with her. Unfortunately, the gentlemen would not let her through. Instead, Lydia had contented herself with tossing witticisms into the group, hoping that at least some of them would get the hint.
Normally such a situation would have earned at least a smile. Especially since Blakesly seemed more boorish than usual tonight. But Sophia had no heart for even the slightest twist of her lips. Indeed, she seemed to have little strength for anything lately.
“Ah, listen, Lady Sophia,” inserted Blakesly, as he pointed limp-wristedly in the direction of the orchestra. “A waltz. I believe—”
“I am in desperate need of some lemonade, my lord. Could you not please…” She didn’t need to say more. Though disappointment pulled his sallow face downward, Blakesly managed to straighten with almost military speed, his eyes darting about the ballroom for the nearest servant.
“Any feat, my lady. Any desire. Any—”
“Lemonade, Blakesly. Please.”
With a swift nod, the young boor waded off into the crowd. Unfortunately, plenty more fops surrounded her, each one eager to take Blakesly’s place. All the while, Lydia hovered on the periphery, her impatience obvious.
“Perhaps,” her friend offered, “you could accompany me to the withdrawing room.” Lydia glanced regretfully at the men circling Sophia. “Please forgive me, gentlemen, but I fear I must take my friend away from you.”
Good-natured groans rang out, some more heartfelt than others, but Sophia could do no more than nod. Indeed, that alone took Herculean effort. She was forced to smile insincerely, pushing her way through the crowded ballroom. By the time she and Lydia reached the stiflingly hot withdrawing room, exhaustion had almost consumed her.
“Thank Heaven it is empty,” said Lydia, scanning the small room. Not even a servant waited in the tiny space.
Sophia shrugged, her thoughts disjointed. “They don’t even seem like people to me anymore,” she murmured softly.
Sophia waved vaguely back toward the ballroom to indicate the overdressed souls that were England’s ton. “Just birds. Bright, dull, fat, or thin, it doesn’t matter. They are all the same: here one moment, gone the next. Birds.”
Lydia frowned, her elfin face pinching with annoyance. “You went back to the hospital today.”
Sophia lifted her gaze, startled out of her numb emptiness. “No. I have not been there in a month. Not since…” Her voice faded away.
“Since your major died. Sophia, this is outside of enough. I swear you have become downright cold since that poor man’s death.”
“Cold,” murmured Sophia. “Yes, that is the word for it. I feel cold.” And alone.
“Sophia!” Lydia exclaimed, clearly exasperated with her friend’s inattention. “I have news!”
Sophia did not even raise her eyes. “Percy has offered for you.”
Lydia’s mouth dropped open in stunned surprise. “Yes,” she gasped. “How did you know?”
Sophia nearly groaned aloud. How could she not have known? Indeed, in five Seasons of parties, five long years of dancing and dressing and displaying herself, there was little that Sophia could not guess. Though the faces and the names changed, the gossip remained the same. Those who married and those who did not seemed exactly the same. The boys who bored her seemed obsessed with exactly the same things. Indeed, the bitter game of who was more important, more beautiful, more perfect than anyone else seemed exactly the same, and exactly as insubstantial, as the year before.
“It just doesn’t seem real,” she whispered.
“That is how I feel!” her friend exclaimed, clearly misunderstanding. “When Papa told me, I nearly fainted with excitement. Oh, Sophia, I am to be wed!”
“You shall be a beautiful bride,” she replied automatically. But as Sophia stared at her friend, seeing Lydia’s face flushed with joy, she couldn’t help but wonder. When had she herself last felt so happy? So filled with life? In her heart, she was pleased for her friend. Truly, she felt glad for Lydia’s happiness.
So, why did it seem so meaningless to her—as if she had spent five years of her life, five Seasons among the ton, in a child’s game? Instead of play tokens, she’d traded gossip. Instead of moving wood figures around a board, she had traveled from party to party, carefully acting according to Society’s rules. And now, she was oh so weary of it all. “Oh, Sophia,” cried Lydia, her expression filled with sympathy, “You should not despair. You shall get married, too. I know it. Perhaps Lord Kyle will finally come up to scratch.”
“Reginald?” Her thoughts twisted, trying to understand her friend’s thoughts. “Why would I wish to marry him?”
Lydia did not hear her; she was too caught in her own fantasy. “Why, it shall be wonderful! You and I could have a double wedding. We shall be like sisters. And our children will grow up together. And come out in the same Season. Or perhaps I shall have a son, and your daughter could marry him. Oh, that would be wonderful! Can you not envision it?”
Indeed, Sophia could, and the thought filled her with horror. An entire second generation trapped in the same meaningless circle of noise and prattle. “Oh, heavens, Lydia, do not even think it!”
Lydia stopped, her mouth hanging open at her friend’s harsh tone.
Sophia tried to calm her thoughts, but her words tumbled out nonetheless. “I assure you,” she said coolly, “I have no interest in marrying Reg.”
“But I thought you grew up together.” Lydia’s eyes fluttered in confusion. “Just like Percy and I did.”
“Of course, Reg and I are friends. Or we were. But then there was that scandal with that girl and the Scotsman and he…” She raised her hand in a helpless gesture. “He left.” She leaned forward, touching her friend’s hand as her thoughts returned to the bright collage of people just outside the door. “Eventually, they all fly away. We women are always abandoned.”
Lydia’s face contorted in horror, her lower lip quivering with tears. “Oh, Sophia, how can you say such a thing? Percy would never…He would…”
Sophia felt shame flood her soul, and she immediately moved forward, gripping her friend’s hands. “Oh, Lydia, of course not! Percy is as constant as the sun. He would never leave you alone.” She pulled her friend into a fierce hug. “He adores you. Oh, please do not let my horrid mood affect your happiness.”
But Lydia would not have any of it. She shoved Sophia away with surprising fierceness. “I blame it completely on those visits to that dreadful hospital. You have become so strange since then.”
Sophia allowed her hands to fall away from her friend, her body and her thoughts crawling to a stop. It was as if she became encased in ice, chilling even her words as she spoke in a low whisper. “I am so sorry, Lydia. I never meant to hurt you.”
“I am not hurt. I am angry! You have become so maudlin. I don’t know who you are anymore. But whoever it is, I don’t like you.” And with that Lydia stomped away, abandoning Sophia in the suddenly chill room.
As arguments went, this was a minor one. Sophia knew she could mend the breach with a simple shopping trip. But she had no heart for it. Indeed, she could barely contemplate the expedition, much less embark upon it. So rather than follow her friend back into the glittering ballroom, she remained where she was, sitting in the corner, her thoughts silent as death.
Unfortunately, even that respite was denied her. Within moments, her mother came to search her out, admonishing her for abandoning her admirers, and chatting as brightly as any magpie. Too quickly, she shooed Sophia back into the ballroom. It took a scant two minutes more before the same circle of men surrounded her, their droll banter sounding like so much chirping—all notes with no meaning. And then Lord Kyle appeared at her side, her childhood companion as foppish and nonsensical as the rest. Moreso, in fact, because they had once been friends.
While he prattled on about the fold of some man’s cravat, Sophia thought of the major. It was unfair, she knew, to compare Reg—a rich, pampered rake—to an injured soldier lying in his deathbed, but she could not stop herself. Even feverish, the major’s words had always touched her.
His most trivial banter seemed more real to her than the most serious discourse with Reg.
Yet, the major was dead. And Sophia had been left behind to listen to a comparison of black cravats and dark blue ones.
Reg had just loudly taken up the part of pure black when Sophia stood up. She did not know what prompted it, but abruptly her body filled with anger. Her cheeks burned and her vision snapped into focus. “I am leaving,” she said.
Reg stared at her, his mouth half open. If she gave him time, she knew he would offer his escort. As it was, no less than three gentlemen presented themselves, offering to find her mother. She simply shook her head.
“I am leaving for Staffordshire in the morning,” she declared to each and every one of them. “And I will never return.” If life was a game, she decided, it was high time she played it according to her own rules.
Major Anthony Wyclyff stood on the London townhouse stoop and stared at the bare doorway in shock. There was no knocker on the door. That meant the family was not at home. But Sophia could not be gone, his mind repeated numbly. She could not have left London.
“But where is she?” he asked aloud.
There was no answer. Indeed, he had not expected one. Still, he turned to glare at his batman Kirby. “Where could she be?” he repeated.
The man remained silent, having no answer. Instead, a voice spoke from the street.
“Lady Sophia has left London.”
Anthony spun around on his bad leg, his eyes fixing on a tall, foppish man, about whom there was something familiar. He searched his memory. Reginald Peters, Lord Kyle. That was the man’s name. They had known each other as children, attended Eton at the same time. It had been years since he’d last seen the man. Kyle was the heir to a rich title. He was handsome, elegant, and adequately educated, while Anthony himself had been thick, heavy, and something of a lackwit in school, especially in the classic languages of Latin and Greek. But, more importantly, Anthony was merely the second son of an earl. After his education, his father had bought his colors, and that was the last he had known of any of his childhood companions.
Yet here was Kyle, greeting him warmly, as if they were still at Eton. “Anthony, old boy, is that you? And in your colors, no less. My, what a figure you turned out to be.”
Anthony nodded stiffly at the compliment, knowing it was a significant one from the dandy before him. But his thoughts remained on his future wife. “Where is Lady Sophia? The Season is barely over. She could not have left so soon.”
Lord Kyle shrugged, leaning negligently against the fence as he spoke. “She has gone to Staffordshire to live with her aunt.”
Anthony stared at the man, seeing the truth in the fop’s eyes, and ground his teeth at the delay. Now he would have to ride halfway across England when he had matters to attend to in London.
“Very well,” he snapped and began to descend the steps. He still had to move carefully. His leg had a constant ache that occasionally turned into sharp pain. Unfortunately, he had no time to coddle the injury, especially now that he needed to travel to Staffordshire. At the base of the steps, he nodded politely to his childhood acquaintance. “Thank you for the information,” he said. He knew he was being unnecessarily rude, but he could not help himself. It rankled him that a mere difference in birth allowed Kyle into Sophia’s inner circle, privy to her movements, whereas he, her future husband, was left standing stupidly on her doorstep.
Unfortunately, Lord Kyle was not dismissed so easily. As Anthony began striding toward his temporary quarters, the man fell into step beside him. Typically, a major in His Majesty’s army would be able to easily outdistance any unwanted company, but Lord Kyle possessed a long stride and Anthony’s injury prevented such escape. Instead, he was forced to continue conversation when all he wanted was to find his bride and get on with his life.
“May I inquire as to your business with Lady Sophia?” Kyle asked. When Anthony slanted him an irritated look, the fop was quick to explain. “I only ask because she and I have been friends for ages. Perhaps I could be of some assistance.”
Anthony frowned. Had Sophia ever mentioned Lord Kyle? They had talked about so much during his stay in the hospital, but the majority of it was muddled. He had been in considerable pain, and yet…“I do not remember her mentioning you.”
“Ah, well, our friendship tends to wane during the Season. There is so much to do that even should we cross paths, our conversation is brief by necessity.” Then he smiled, a fond, nostalgic expression that grated upon Anthony’s nerves. “But our estates align the one against the other. Our families often spend the Christmas holidays together.”
“Well, I would not count on her presence at table this winter,” he ground out, again irritated that Kyle could so easily expect Sophia’s presence. “Come August, she will set sail for India with me.”
His pronouncement had the desired effect. Lord Kyle stopped dead in his tracks, his bored expression wiped clean. He gaped at the major. “Truly! Whatever for?”
Normally, Anthony would not have said it. He certainly would not have done so with a smirk that fairly begged the man to doubt him. But he was frustrated and in pain, and he so much wanted to put this particular irritation in its place. “You may wish us happy, Kyle. Sophia and I are to be married. I have the special license in my pocket. And then we are away to India in service to His Majesty.”
This time Lord Kyle did not gape at him. There was a moment’s hesitation, time enough for Anthony to believe he had at last silenced the man, but then Lord Kyle burst into laughter. He actually guffawed. Right there in the middle of the street. The peal was loud, musical, and filled with a good humor that seemed to burn painfully into Anthony’s soul.
“Ah,” sighed a merry Lord Kyle when he could at last draw breath. “Truly, I have always loved your sense of humor, old chap. You did not use it much at Eton, but when you did, I swear you kept us amused for days.”
Anthony did not respond. He merely remained still, his cold stare the very one he used to discipline unruly recruits. Bit by slow bit, it had its effect. Lord Kyle’s laughter faded until it was replaced by a dawning horror.
“Good God, you cannot be serious,” the man finally gasped.
Anthony let his heavy glare speak for itself.
“But I was with her the day before her departure. I assure you, Lady Sophia does not consider herself engaged.” When Anthony did not comment, the fop actually took a step forward. “She has foresworn all men, declared herself on the shelf, and is happily content in the solitary state.”
“She has sworn to marry me.”
Kyle shook his head in dismay. “My God, man, you make it sound like a military tribunal. Are you feeling quite the thing?”
“I am quite well, thank you,” Anthony snapped. Then he spun on his heel and began walking away as quickly as his injury would permit. He did not allow his expression or demeanor to alter. No one, and certainly not the silly Lord Kyle, would ever suspect what terror now chilled his heart.
Could Sophia have forgotten? Could she have allowed their engagement to slip from her mind? Impossible. A woman did not forget a proposal of marriage.
But she had never returned to the hospital. She had visited daily, and then not a word. He assumed she had begun preparations for their wedding. Indeed, she had said as much. But to leave for Staffordshire? Without word?
“She spoke quite clearly,” he said aloud to himself. “We are to be married.”
“Then perhaps you ought to inform Lady Sophia of the matter,” Kyle offered from slightly behind him.
Anthony turned on the man, his anger a palpable force between them. “I intend to do just that,” he practically bellowed, planting his fists on his hips.
Kyle’s grin widened. “Oh, yes, I can see you have not changed since Eton. Your smooth manner is sure to win so great a prize as Lady Sophia.”
Anthony felt his hands clench into fists. “We will be married!”
“Of course you will,” returned Kyle smoothly. Then he leaned forward. “I wager she shall have you booted out on your ear in a trice.”
Anthony clenched his teeth, trying to control his fury. Mentally, he listed all the things he needed to do before heading for Staffordshire. The catalogue was much too long. He needed to complete this business with Sophia immediately. But then Lord Kyle’s arrogant voice slipped into his thoughts.
“I wager a monkey you find yourself disengaged within a fortnight.”
It was not so much the bet itself, but the insinuation behind it. The suggestion that he, Anthony Wyclyff, a decorated major in His Majesty’s army, was not good enough for Lady Sophia. And more than that, that this popinjay, this fribble in elegant clothing, had the right to her presence at Christmas merely because he had the fortune to be born first.
“Wager a hundred guineas or a thousand, whatever you like,” he practically growled. “Sophia and I shall be wed before I set sail for India.”
Lord Kyle quickly extended his hand. “Done! A
thousand guineas that she tosses you out on your ear.”
Anthony glared at the man’s long, elegant hand, seeing that it was neat and free of calluses. Kyle had never done a day’s hard labor in his entire life, and yet he thought he could wager on Anthony’s future. It was ridiculous.
“Come, come, Major. Surely your virility is worth a thousand guineas?”
As insults went, it was a minor one. Anthony had no need to prove himself to anyone, much less this jack-a-dandy. But his long illness had weakened him, and anger made him reckless. He grabbed the man’s hand with the same motion he used to draw a blade.
“Done,” he said, his voice holding the ring of steel. “A thousand guineas that Lady Sophia is mine by August!”
“Die, you wretched tormentor of women!” Sophia cried, and her voice echoed in the small clearing of the dark, Staffordshire wood. With great glee, she lofted her most hated corset high into the air, then gleefully tossed it up into the night sky.
She watched it fly, hurled heavenward where it hung, suspended just for a moment, as if being perused by God, then tumbled downward into the pit. In her mind’s eye, Sophia imagined the corset as rejected, judged evil by the Almighty, and then spat downward into Hell.
“Amen!” she cried. Then Sophia reached down to the bag at her feet, quickly grabbing another hated corset. She felt its familiar weight, saw the dangling, pale ivory strings, even paused a moment to stroke the hateful whalebone ridges. Into the pit it went. Next, she upended the sack, tossing in anything she owned that had stays, itched, or had to be laced in any way.
“Never again shall you touch my skin!” she cried.
She watched as the night seemed to absorb the offensive items, obliterating them from existence. In her imagination, all the rules of a restrictive and vindictive London society went the way of her corsets and stays. Every cruel matron, every gossip-ridden soul was rejected by God and tossed into the hole at her feet.
Grabbing her shovel, she lifted up a spadeful of dirt. “Gone and done!” she crowed. Then she tossed dirt in, imagining every one of her hateful memories suffocated beneath the earth. She giggled with true joy as she listened to the steady thud of the soil as she began to bury them all.
But it was not enough. Sophia wanted more. So, with a sigh, she pulled off her too-tight walking boots and kicked them straight into the black hole. They disappeared before she drew another breath.
“I must get rid of it all,” she said softly. All the sniping, lecherous leers, the inane round of parties and social calls, and, most importantly, all the ridiculous rules that hemmed in a young lady on every side. Those restrictive and judgmental codes of conduct designed for a lady who wished to be wed; they no longer applied to her, just as corsets and laces would no longer cut off her breath. She was on the shelf, too old to marry, and that suited her just fine.
Still, she did not want her delightful ritual to end. Unfortunately, there was very little else to bury except for the clothing on her body. And she did not wish to get rid of her dress. She had made it herself—a simple muslin drape. It was a most comfortable attire, especially suited for ritual sacrifices of unpleasant underclothing.
There had to be something else. But what?
Suddenly, she knew. It would be difficult. Furniture was not an easy thing to drag out of one’s house, but she would manage. Then it would all be well and truly gone.
Major Wyclyff shifted uneasily on his horse. The saddle cut painfully into his injured leg, and he knew he would be stiff and sore in the morning. But, for now, he wished only to think of his destination and his bride-to-be.
Sophia. Even her name was refined. She was cool, composed, and everything that would be perfect to his diplomatic post.
He had it all planned. He had entered Staffordshire a little less than an hour earlier and had quickly settled his gear and batman into the nearest inn. Then he had mounted his horse and come here, to Sophia’s current residence, scouting out the lay of the land. He wished to be completely prepared when he visited her tomorrow.
He would arrive at tea, the most civilized time for social calls. Then he would speak with Sophia, telling her that he was now well enough to marry. The wedding, thanks to his special license, could be dispatched with immediately. And last, they would remove together to India.
Perfect. And precisely planned.
Anthony smiled, seeing a neat lifetime ahead of himself and his wife. The thought even managed to take his mind off his pain.
He saw the torches stuck into the ground long before he reached the clearing near the Rathburn home. Their illumination glowed brightly in the clear night. Frowning, he narrowed his eyes, trying to make sense of the shadows in the flickering light. Had some gypsy or poacher fashioned a campfire to roast his dinner? Surely not so close to a residence.
Then, to his shock, he saw a large shape pass out through the door of the Rathburn manor.
Anger burned swift and sure through his body. This was no gypsy cooking his dinner. This was a thief, stealing items directly out of the house!
Anthony spurred his horse on. Fear for Sophia clutched at his throat. He could only pray she was safely away from home. But what if she were here? What if the thief had harmed her? The thought was insupportable.
As he drew closer to the clearing, Anthony could hear the grating of something heavy pulled over stones. What was it? He could not see what was being dragged or who was dragging it, but they had come from the house. Of that he was sure.
Could it be a body? Fear overcame his military sense. Rather than taking a moment to assess the situation, he drew his sword and kicked his heels hard into his stallion’s sides. Demon obediently broke into a gallop, bursting like an avenging angel into the clearing.
It took less than a second to size up the situation. He saw one person, a woman cursing as she pulled at something immense. It was not a body as he had feared. Instead, it looked something like a desk flipped on its side, its drawers and lid flopping about like a broken toy.
Narrowing his gaze, he focused more on the woman. As she was between him and a rather large torch, her contorted body was a dark shadow outlined by a brilliant orange glow. Still, he caught the shape of crudely shorn locks and a pert little nose.
He reined in his horse mere inches from her, glaring down at the woman as he bellowed, “What are you doing? By God, if you have harmed Sophia, I will split you from end to end!”
He waited, expecting the woman to drop the furniture and immediately flee. Most sane people did when he used that tone of voice. But she merely lifted her head and frowned at him.
“I am burying corsets,” she said calmly. “And you are in the way.”
“I beg your pardon?” he said stiffly. Then he squinted, trying to shield his eyes from the glare of the torch while still seeing her clearly. He only partly succeeded. He saw a white, breathless smile and long, dirty legs exposed by a rip in a shapeless smock.
“My corsets. I never liked them, you know. Awful contraptions.” Then she straightened. “And you are ruining it. Go away.”
Anthony frowned. Something about her voice teased at him, reminding him of…But he shook his head. The woman could not be Sophia. His future wife would never be out of doors at such an hour, acting like a Bedlamite. Right now, she was no doubt drinking tea, her maiden aunt probably nearby, reading aloud books of poetry. In the meantime, this thief seemed intent on making off with her furnishings.
“Put everything back!” he ordered, brandishing his sword.
“I will not!” she snapped.
Furious, Anthony jumped from his saddle, intent on forcing the woman to comply. He hit the ground hard, the impact jarring his already strained leg, but he ignored it as he took a threatening step forward.
Except the ground was uneven, the earth soft and muddy from the recent rains. It eroded beneath his feet. “Wha—!” was all he managed as he stumbled and slipped into a deep pit. His sword went flying, as well as his grip on anything solid. He was rolling end over end, but then he abruptly stopped, landing on his shoulder at the very bottom.
“Oh, bother!” he heard her exclaim from above him. “Really, you must get out so I can throw in the escritoire.”
He ignored her words, having already concluded that the woman was mad. Still, even madwomen could be dangerous, and he was bound to protect Sophia, even from the likes of this deranged creature. He pulled himself painfully to his feet, frowning as he felt strange items beneath him. He felt fabric and ribbons, but then his hand ran across an item sticking straight out. It was long and hard and had the unmistakable feel of bone.
Bone? The very thought was chilling.
“What is in here?”
It was at that moment that he chanced to look up. “Good God!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing?” It was a stupid question. He could see quite clearly what she was doing. She was still dragging what he now saw was a large and rather heavy desk—right toward the lip of the pit.
“Stop that!” he roared.
“But if I get this on the very edge, you can climb up. Do not worry about scratching it. I intend to bury it in any event. It is a silly thing with all sorts of nonsense cubbies perfect for the inane correspondence that I wrote day after miserable day. Truly, what can be more symbolic than getting rid of it?”
Then she grunted, clearly straining as she pushed the heavy wooden piece to the edge of the hole. Anthony watched in horror as the item teetered. Good lord, if it tumbled down on him, it would kill him immediately. And she likely couldn’t see where he was.
“Have a care not to come too close until I have it settled!” she called needlessly, but Anthony wasn’t listening. He was well beyond the point of being careful. He was already scrambling out of the muddy pit as fast as his injury would allow.
“No! Wait—” she cried as she saw him.
But it was too late. In her efforts to help him, she lost control of the desk. With a ponderous groan, it shifted and began slipping, heading directly toward him.
Fortunately, he was prepared. Jumping rapidly out of the way, he narrowly missed being clubbed in the head by one of the desk’s legs as it crashed past. Unfortunately, the madwoman was also reaching for him, effectively blocking his best escape route up to solid ground. He scrambled, and she reached. He grasped her helping hand and pulled hard, using all his strength to escape the now tumbling desk.
It was too much. She was stronger than she looked. With her pull and his push, he practically shot out of the pit. Then, before either could adjust, they were flying together, tumbling through the mud, rolling one on top of each other as they fell away from the hole.
It was a few seconds before he could stop their movements, and by that time, they were both covered in filth and gasping for air. He’d landed on top, her long, pliant body warm beneath him, her eyes wide with surprise.
“Well, this certainly was not part of the ritual,” she said with a low chuckle. The sound was rich, and despite the circumstances, he could not stop his reaction. His body heated as her movements played against it.
He meant to speak, but all he could manage was a strangled groan as he slowly tried to shift off of her. The strain of their acrobatics had set his leg to burning with the intensity of a brand, and despite the enticements of his current resting place, his awkward position only intensified the pain. He had to get off of her, but the slightest movement sent bolts of agony through him.
Nevertheless, he persevered, gritting his teeth as he struggled to respectfully disentangle himself from her. It was agony on many different levels, and he was soon sweating with the strain.
She remained silent throughout the entire wriggling and shifting experience, no doubt as aware as he was of her every curve and hollow. But before he could disengage from her completely, he felt the soft tremors invade her body, the slight gasps and jerks as she began to cry.
“Damn,” he said softly, feeling extremely awkward as he finally rolled onto the soft grass nearby. “Where did I hurt you?”
His question produced a fresh surge of muffled sounds, and there passed some few moments before he realized she was laughing, not crying. By that time, her hilarity was quite audible as she guffawed like a soldier in his first drunk.
“Madame,” he began.
“My, but I have done it correctly now!” she said between laughs. “I have actually cavorted upon the ground with a man!” She curled on her sides, holding them tight as the laughter poured out of her.
“Madame!” he said stiffly. “I rescued you from tumbling into the pit. I certainly did not cavort—”
“Yes,” she interrupted. “Yes, you did! And I heartily thank you for the experience. It was the perfect ending for my ritual.” She pushed halfway up from the ground, her weight resting on her elbow, as she continued to giggle. “Aunt Agatha will be so proud of me! Do say you will come for tea.”
Anthony blinked as he stared at the long column of her neck. Clearly, she had lost her mind. He sat up slowly, keeping his injured leg straight before him. Then he patted her hand, trying to make the touch reassuring. “Give me a moment to rest, then I shall help you bury…whatever it is you lost.”
She lifted her head as she focused on him. “Lost?
Whatever do you mean? Did you lose something?” Then she looked about her, scanning the woods as if to find some item hidden beyond the trees.
“Of course, I have not lost anything!” he said, exasperation making his voice short. “You have!” She turned and stared at him.
“The bones,” he clarified. “In the pit.”
“Bones?” she asked, clearly confused. Then, suddenly, her expression brightened. “Oh, those. What about them?”
He was perilously close to shouting. “Whose bones are you trying to bury?”
She merely blinked at him. “I have no idea whose bones those are. Some poor whale, I believe, sacrificed for the sole purpose of torturing me.”
Her words made no sense, but he sifted through the nonsense to light upon one word. “Whale?”
“Yes. Those are whalebones. From my corsets.”
“Exactly!” She clapped her hands, as if he were some slow student only now catching on to his sums.
It was too much for him. He exploded, leaning forward despite new bolts of pain in his leg. “Do you mean to tell me you nearly killed me so that you could bury your corsets?”
“And my boots. And my escritoire,” she responded calmly. “We must not forget the escritoire. It was extremely heavy.”
Then, in the single most irritating moment of an entirely unbelievable conversation, the most terrible thing happened.
He recognized her.