Sophie Stanton felt a sharp tug on her wrist, the beaded chain of her reticule digging painfully into her skin before snapping free. She spun around to make a grab for the dirty little urchin who slipped just beyond her reach.
“Stop, thief,” she yelled.
Heads turned. The fashionable shoppers on Milsom St. craned their necks as Sophie hitched up her cambric skirts and pelted after the boy as fast as she could.
Blast and damn!
Racing down the street, she dodged startled pedestrians as she tried to keep the boy in sight. He was fast as a whip, but so was she. She couldn’t let him escape or she’d never see her gold bracelet again. It was nestled in the bottom of her reticule, stowed for a trip to the jeweler’s shop for cleaning and a minor repair. But instead of going straightaway to the shop, she had lingered in front of the display window of Barratt’s and made a perfect target for an enterprising thief.
Sophie dashed up the long promenade running through the center of Bath, ignoring the startled exclamations of three soberly dressed matrons as she flashed by them. If she had the breath to spare she would have groaned. One of them was Lady Connaught, who would no doubt report her latest misadventure to Lady Eleanor before the day was out.
But panic drove her on. Dodging and weaving up the street, she pushed to catch up with the boy. Her heart, already pounding from exertion, beat faster at the thought of losing him—and of losing her mother’s much-loved and valuable heirloom bracelet.
Just ahead, the boy slipped into an alleyway next to a coffee shop. She put on a burst of speed and rounded the corner of the shop, skidding to a precarious halt beside a pile of refuse that partly blocked the entrance to the alley.
The boy had come to a stop in front of a high wall that cut off the lane from the street behind it. He was scanning it, obviously looking for toeholds in the rough brick, when Sophie came up behind him.
“Stop, boy,” she gasped, bending over to catch her breath. Her voice sounded little stronger than a squeak, so she had no hope he would pay her any heed. But the lad froze in position, and then slowly turned as if confronting the devil himself.
They eyed each other across the back of the dingy laneway. The smell of garbage wafting out from dirt-encrusted baskets shoved up against the wall made Sophie wish she hadn’t eaten quite such a large breakfast. The stones under her feet were slick with moisture, dotted here and there with a sticky brown substance that had splashed up to her ankles. She didn’t even want to think about what that substance might be, but she suspected her new and expensive kid boots were ruined.
Repressing her irritation over the likely destruction of her footwear, Sophie drew herself up to her full height—which wasn’t very considerable—and stepped firmly through the muck toward the boy.
And stopped in her tracks at the look of sheer terror on his pinched little face.
She drew in a startled breath, forcing herself to remain still as she studied the urchin before her.
He was small, as small as a child of five or six, but his face looked a few years older—almost the age she had been when her father died. A coarsely-woven shirt several sizes too large gaped open at the strings that looped across his bony chest. The legs of his burlap pants ended in ragged hems trailing around his ankles, and his bare feet were so encrusted with grime they barely looked human.
Her chest squeezed with sympathy as she studied his emaciated limbs. But then she gazed into his small, terrified face and gasped, stunned by what she saw.
He was beautiful, with features so delicate and so perfectly symmetrical that she imagined she was gazing at the face of an angel.
An angel who had been abandoned by his Maker to the depths of hell.
His huge blue eyes blinked back tears.
“Don’t be frightened, lad,” she said, keeping her voice soft. “I won’t hurt you.” She struggled to force a smile to her lips, heartsick at the look of fear stamped on the boy’s face. “You can keep the money and the purse, but there is a bracelet inside my father gave to my mother many years ago. I would be very sad to lose it. Do you think you could take it out and give it to me?”
A bit of color returned to the boy’s ghostly complexion, and his terror seemed to recede under the soothing influence of her voice. He cast a quick glance past her, as if trying to assess his ability to get by and out into the street. Sophie shifted slightly to the centre of the alley, making it plain she would block any attempt to escape. The boy skittered back against the wall, a look of panic returning to his face.
She frowned. For a street thief, the child seemed remarkably timid, but Sophie had spent enough time trailing behind her mother as she did charity work in London to know that most urchins hid their fear behind a mask of bravado.
“I won’t hurt you, I promise,” she repeated. “And I won’t turn you over to the constable.” She smiled and took a small step forward, offering her hand palm up in a gesture of reassurance. “In fact, I’d like to help you—if you’ll let me.”
The boy shrank back against the wall, almost disappearing inside his oversized garments. Her heart wrenched and she stepped forward again, determined now to help this frightened child.
“My name is Sophie Stanton. What’s yours?”
He hesitated while he stared earnestly into her face. What he saw there must have encouraged him, for he straightened his little body and opened his mouth to speak.
“My n-name is T…”
His stuttering reply was interrupted by a noisy bang, as a door in the wall beside them swung open and crashed into the bricks. A scullery maid—obviously from the coffee house—suddenly stepped out, throwing the contents of a large pail into the alley.
Sophie jumped, biting off a startled shriek as the rancid contents of the slop bucket splattered across the front of her dress. In the same instant the little boy took flight. Leaping forward, she caught the edge of his sleeve as he found a toehold on the wall, hoisting himself away from her. For a moment she had him, but the material of his shirt shredded between her fingers. He pulled away, scrambled to the top of the wall and disappeared in the blink of an eye.
“Lord, miss, but you gave me a fright! Whatever can you be doing out ‘ere in this nasty alley?” cried the scullery maid.
“Damn and blast!” This time, Sophie didn’t bother to hold in the curse. The scared boy had started to trust her, and now she would probably never see him again.
Or the priceless bracelet that had been in her family for generations, and that she had worn almost every day since Mamma had given it to her on her seventeenth birthday.
The gloom she had been trying to fend off ever since her brother’s wedding finally settled over her like a dank London mist. How could she have allowed this to happen? Mamma would be devastated, and the rest of the family would see it as yet another example of her careless regard for what really mattered. She was making a muddle of things these days, and disappointing her family no end. They only wished to see her happy and settled but, for some reason, she just couldn’t seem to comply. And she didn’t know how to fix it.
“Lord, miss, let me help you.” The scullery maid pulled a dirty rag from the waist of her apron and rubbed it vigorously down the front of Sophie’s skirt. The rank drippings smeared into a streaky mess across the bodice and waist of the apple-green fabric.
“Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Sophie choked out. “It’s really a very old dress. I only wear it when I’m running errands.” She backed away, wondering why she felt the need to explain herself to the gape-toothed maid.
In fact, the dress—like her boots—was new, recently arrived from her favorite modiste in London. She very much doubted even a long soak in vinegar would remove the revolting stain from the delicate cambric.
Waving a vague goodbye to the woman, Sophie turned and hurried from the laneway. She rushed out into the street, not bothering in her haste to look either right or left.
And proceeded to crash into a very hard, very broad male chest.
“What in the hell?”
A deep voice rumbled the question somewhere above her head. Sophie sucked in a breath, every nerve ending in her body coming to a sharp, almost painful awareness. Then she heard an exasperated, all-too-familiar growl.
“I thought that was you. Sophie, you are wearing your spectacles. Presumably they keep you from blundering about like a bull in a china shop. What in God’s name were you doing in that alley?”
Even though her glasses had been knocked askew, Sophie would have recognized that gravelly voice and the smell of expensive tobacco anywhere.
Simon, Earl of Trask.
The man she had been madly in love with since the age of twelve. The same man who aggravated her so much at times she could barely think. That particular note of censure in his voice always set her teeth on edge, so it took a brief struggle to resist the urge to punch him in the arm. She had found out long ago that punching the earl had the same effect as punching a rock.
Adjusting her spectacles, Sophie drew herself up to her full height, just below his chin. She had been called many things by her tiny coterie of devoted admirers—angel divine, fairy, wood sprite. Only Simon would call her a bull in a china shop.
“A thief ran off with my reticule. I was simply trying to retrieve it,” she replied with as much dignity as she could muster.
His dark eyes sharpened with concern. “Are you injured?” He took her arm and pulled her towards him for a better look. “Did you fall?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m fine. The thief was just a little boy.”
A strange expression crossed his face as he took a large sniff. Just like a retriever, Sophie thought crossly.
“What is that smell?”
She began to bristle under his critical gaze, but then sighed with resignation. “It’s me. A scullery maid came out into the alley and threw a bucket of slop all over me.”
He snorted. “That’s typical. Well, you can’t go walking through the streets of Bath smelling like this. I have to get you home before anyone sees you.”
The chances of that happening were non-existent, since several people she knew had already passed by in the last few minutes, inspecting her with avid curiosity. She had no desire to tell Simon about all the others who had seen her running through the streets of the town like a madwoman.
“Yes, Lord Trask.”
Simon waved at a hackney that approached from the other side of the street.
“Oh, don’t get so starchy, Sophie. You know your mother would hate it if you went parading through the streets looking like this.”
Lord. There was no point in trying to maintain her dignity around the blasted man. He simply knew her too well.
“Yes, Simon,” she replied, biting back the grumpy tone that threatened to creep into her voice.
He ushered her across the street to the waiting hackney. She saw him cast a quick glance up the street and then wince when Nigel Dash, one of his oldest friends, waved tentatively at them from the door of a linen-draper’s shop. Simon practically threw her inside the carriage. He hated gossip and scandal, and her escapade today would generate both.
He gave a few terse directions to the driver before climbing in after her. He sat as far from her as he could, jammed against the side of the carriage and practically sticking his head out the window. The smell was bad, but it annoyed her nonetheless that he made such a show out of it.
This incident, sadly, was entirely typical of her. Simon had known her since she was a child, and clearly still regarded her as little better than a grubby twelve-year-old, forever tumbling out of trees and falling into lakes. Lately, whenever he spoke to her it seemed to be to deliver a reprimand or scolding. He refused to understand that she was a woman grown—after all, she had been out now for almost four years.
Not that it really mattered, since he would never look at her as anything more than an annoying female relation. More like a sister than anything else. Simon’s tastes ran to voluptuous and sophisticated young matrons and widows of the ton, not to skinny misses who wore glasses and obviously didn’t know how to behave. The only thing she had in common with his established flirts was that she adored him, too.
Fortunately for her pride, however, not as openly as they did.
She slid her gaze sideways, covertly studying the man who always made her skin prickle with heat. Simon was only a few inches above average height, but he had the hard, muscular body of an avid sportsman. His broad shoulders and powerful arms strained the cloth of his beautifully tailored coat, while his sinewy legs, sheathed in breeches and riding boots, took up most of the space in the small carriage.
Those who were jealous of both the earl’s prowess in the field and, she suspected, in the bedchamber sneered that he looked like a blacksmith, with his coal-dark hair, fierce black eyes, and brawny physique. But Sophie thought he looked absolutely perfect, and if he hadn’t such a knack for annoying her, she would likely spend all her time in his company fluttering about like a schoolgirl with a mad crush.
His deep voice made her jump in her seat.
“Why did you chase the boy? You could have been hurt, not to mention the gossip that could result from your actions. Proper young women don’t go about chasing thieves.”
Sophie froze, casting desperately about in her mind for some reason to explain her rash behavior. She simply couldn’t bear to reveal she had lost her gold bracelet, not yet, anyway. And especially not to him.
She opened her eyes wide, hoping she looked both distraught and innocent. “I know, Simon. But my, ah, coral bracelet was inside. The one Robert gave me after Papa died.”
Please, God. Don’t strike me dead for telling such an awful lie.
He twisted in his seat to look at her, his handsome face softening in sympathy. That made things even worse.
“I’m sorry, Puck. That was a bad piece of business.” He took her hand and gently rubbed a smudge of dirt from the inside of her wrist, his calloused fingers sending a throb of sensation over her pulse.
“Don’t call me Puck.” Her reply was automatic. He had taken to calling her that many years ago, likening her to the mischievous sprite from her least favorite of the Bard’s works.
“I’m sure Robert could find you another bracelet just like it,” he said in an excruciatingly kind and patronizing voice.
“I don’t want another one! I want that one.”
A muscle in his jaw twitched, as if he struggled to tamp down his impatience.
“Sweetheart, you can’t go off on a wild goose chase through the streets of Bath as if you were a child in the woods at your grandfather’s estates. I know we’re not in London, but there are unsavory elements in this town who wouldn’t think twice of harming a gently bred lady. You must learn to control your impulses.”
Sophie retreated into a stony silence, aware she was acting like a child but unable to help herself. The last thing she needed on this day—of all days—was another lecture from him.
Simon turned his head to gaze out the window, seemingly unperturbed by her attempt to ignore him. After several useless minutes spent trying to regain her dignity, Sophie realized she might as well climb down from her high horse. Nothing could ever pierce Simon’s implacable reserve.
“When did you arrive in town?” she asked.
“This morning. I had only just left my rooms in Milsom St. when I saw you pelting down the street like a madwoman.”
Sophie ignored the last part of his answer. “You’re not staying with your aunts?”
Normally when Simon came to Bath he stayed with his elderly aunts, Lady Eleanor and Lady Jane, at their elegant townhouse in St. James Square. The two women were also Sophie’s godmothers. After Robert and Annabel’s wedding, they had asked her to come for an extended visit in Bath. Sophie had leapt at the opportunity, hoping the change in scenery would ease the restlessness bedeviling her.
“No,” Simon replied. “I thought it best to take lodgings of my own, since you are staying with them for the next month. I do not wish to intrude on your privacy.”
Her gloom deepened. No doubt he wished to take his own rooms so he could see his latest mistress while in town. Or else he found her so irritating he had no desire to reside in the same house with her.
The hackney pulled to a stop in St. James Square. Simon handed her out, escorting her up the honey-colored terrace steps to the front entrance of his aunts’ house. Sophie made a half-hearted attempt to smooth down the front of her demolished skirt as he knocked on the door.
“You will want to come in, I assume, to call upon your aunts,” she said.
“Not right now. Please tell Aunt Eleanor I’ll wait on her first thing tomorrow. I have some urgent business to conduct in town. I was on my way there when you accosted me.”
“Accosted you!” she snapped, irritated by the gratuitous poke. She drew in a breath, preparing to unleash her standard lecture on his lack of filial devotion, when the door behind them swung open.
“Good afternoon, my lord, Miss Stanton. Would you care to step inside?” asked Lady Eleanor’s butler.
“No, thank you, Yates. I was just leaving,” Simon informed him. Yates, though, was perusing Sophie’s dress with an expression of barely repressed alarm.
“My lord, your aunts long to see you,” Sophie insisted. “It’s been ages since you’ve been to Bath. Now that you are here, why cannot you step inside for a few minutes?”
Simon’s eyebrows drew together in a heavy scowl. He reacted like that whenever she lectured him, especially in front of the servants. He thought it yet another example of her lamentably unladylike behavior.
“As I explained a moment ago,” he said in that same patronizing voice, “I have an urgent appointment in town. Now go inside, Sophie, and get cleaned up. You look like something dragged you backwards through a bush.”
Her temper finally broke free. “Oh, go to the blazes, you pompous ass!” Spinning on her heel, Sophie stalked past a stunned Yates. Glancing over her shoulder, she felt a surge of satisfaction at Simon’s outraged look.
Well, he deserved to feel her temper. And at least this time, she had truly gotten the last word.
* * *
Simon made a point of always knowing what he wanted, and what he wanted right now was to haul Sophie into his aunt’s drawing room, pull her across his lap, and paddle her round little bottom. Naturally, being the disciplined man that he was, he controlled the impulse.
After a brusque nod to Yates, Simon strode back to the waiting hackney and directed the driver to take him to his bank in High Street. Perhaps he could have taken a few minutes to call on his aunts, but he had no intention of facing them—or Sophie, for that matter—until his temper had regained its normal equilibrium.
He muttered under his breath, recalling the way she had glared down her small, straight nose at him, spectacles askew across her flushed cheeks. How did the exasperating little thing always manage to make him lose his temper? She’d been doing it for years, and he found himself no closer to an answer. He must be insane for even contemplating what he was about to do.
But then he thought of her pretty eyes and the sadness in them when she told him about her bracelet, and the familiar, almost primitive urge to protect her swam up to the surface.
Sophie had wonderful eyes—amber, shot through with flecks of green—and they sparkled with whatever emotion she felt at the time. Spectacles usually hid their depths, but Simon had learned to ignore the gold frames long ago.
Her few suitors had called her an angel or, even more extravagantly, a fairy queen. For an angel, though, Sophie could be appallingly bad-tempered, a character flaw he’d been aware of since the day he had pulled her from the lake on General Stanton’s estate.
She had been twelve at the time, rowing in a small boat near the shore with her brother Robert, giggling and shrieking with the annoying high spirits so often displayed by girls of her age. Simon had just returned from a hard ride across the downs, passing by the lake on his way back to the house. When Sophie stood up to call to him, the boat had rolled, tipping the girl and her brother into the lake. Robert had popped up immediately, but Sophie slipped under the surface of the water.
His heart had seized with fear when he saw her bright mop of auburn hair disappear from view. But he threw himself into the lake and found her immediately, cradling her against him as he swam to the nearby shore.
After she had recovered, Sophie had been mortified. When he tried to cheer her up, telling her she looked like a drowned rat, she stared at him with red-rimmed, unblinking eyes. Then she lashed out and kicked him—actually kicked him—in the shins. It had hurt, too, since he had pulled his boots off before diving in, and her sturdy half-boots were heavy with water. She pulled herself from his arms and stomped off to the house, her little stick figure rigid with fury.
Sophie was definitely more sprite than angel, and he’d acquired several bruises from her over the years to prove it.
The carriage came to a halt before his bank. He absently paid off the driver, his mind returning to the problem of Sophie and her bracelet. In spite of what she thought, he did understand what the loss of her trinket meant to her. After all, he had helped Robert pick the damn thing out not a month after her father died. But he wouldn’t allow her to risk her safety or her reputation, for any reason. This latest episode provided ample evidence that she simply couldn’t be trusted to take care of herself.
Sophie would balk at his interference, but she’d have to get used to it. He’d come all the way to Bath with the firm intention of wedding her, and even though he wanted—no—needed her lands, that didn’t mean they couldn’t have an agreeable marriage. If it was the last thing he ever did, he’d mold her into a suitable and contented wife. For her own sake, as well as his.