The Wicked Widow and the Jinxed Jilter

Part 7

Mrs. Hope saw Lord Allingham when he returned on Sunday evening, which had required some planning on her part. "How was your day, My Lord?" she inquired.

"It was very pleasant, thank you. I hope you had a good day as well."

"I did. Did you meet Mr. Warden's guest?" Mrs. Hope always made it her business to find everything out discreetly. She had investigated the matter to see whether her employer had not inadvertently slighted a lady of high birth, because the name of Rutherford had rung a bell. She had discovered that Rutherford was the family name of the Earl of Hartley, which was interesting, because according to her -- though really Lord Allingham's -- books his elder sister was called Sophie. An even more interesting thing was that Lady Sophie Rutherford, not plain Miss, was now the widowed Lady Sophie Burke.

Why was Lady Sophie Burke staying with the Wardens without revealing her title? One did not have to be a genius to conclude it was for the benefit of other people in the village, since she was related to Mr. Warden and one could assume he knew her identity. Of the other people in the village, Mrs. Hope would wager that only Lord Allingham could be previously acquainted with Lady Sophie, as the rest of them did not move in the same circles, except perhaps some of the elderly ladies.

It was a mystery to her why the lady should wish to conceal her presence from Lord Allingham. She did not know how he conducted himself in town, but she refused to believe he could have behaved so abominably that a lady now wished to avoid him. He might have formed an attachment some time, but she would never have thought it would lead to something like this.

"She was indisposed, so I did not see her. I suppose she caught a cold after all." Allingham shrugged. "I was glad for it. I would not have liked to put on my best behaviour for some young lady. You know how they tire me, Mrs. Hope." The last sentence was spoken with much less indifference.

"Yes, I do," she said soothingly. "Though it is your mother who tires you." For the greater part of the year he did not meet any young ladies at all. During the few weeks he spent in town they might tire him, but she was sure he exaggerated the effect they had on his peace of mind.

He nodded in recognition. "My mother is scheming again. What do I do? The only thing I could possibly do is to marry someone, but I have no energy to go looking for someone to marry. I would have to go to town to do so, but I prefer to stay here, yet..."

"Yet there are no ladies here, you think." She knew better. There was that wealthy young widow who was staying with the Wardens and she suspected a previous acquaintance in that quarter. "Forgive my impertinence, but you have not been well lately. You returned from town in high spirits, but it has become less." Her position gave her some privileges, one of which was to look after the Viscount as if he were a son sometimes.

"I...met a lady," said Allingham, inspired by her sympathy. "Her beauty struck me instantly, as did the look of contempt with which she looked upon the crowd. It was a ball, you see, and I was not amusing myself either. I followed her and we spoke. She was quite ill-mannered, but I liked her. I told her she was the finest thing I had ever laid eyes on and she replied that it was all I would ever be able to lay on her. I sent her flowers and she rejected me."

He had not yet forgotten her. Perhaps he ought to, since it was unclear when he would next be in town. Her family might soon start avoiding his family as well, even if his mother never got her way. The future was not bright.

Mrs. Hope did not betray her feelings immediately. "Did you propose anything specific?" she asked, instead of rolling her eyes at the utterly refined way her protégé handled these matters. Perhaps he had indeed lost his heart -- and his common sense.

He shook his head, wondering what he should have proposed.

"Then how was she to know you meant well? She could have thought you wanted her for less honourable purposes." That was by no means uncommon in town, especially not where a young widow was concerned, but she could not say she knew who the lady was. "I know you could not have had such a thing in mind, My Lord, but you must remember that the lady did not know you at all. What is evident to you, may not have been evident to her."

Allingham looked shocked. "No! I did not even know what I wanted. I still do not."

"Who is to say someone else did not ask her strange things before you?" Mrs. Hope pointed out. If her master allowed her such interference, she could only imagine how susceptible he was to anything his mother said. "No harm done, I daresay," she said, to see if he was going to correct her and betray a desire to see the lady again. "The next time you meet her, you should perhaps state your purpose a little more clearly."

He did not think that would happen or work in any ordinary, not plotted way, so he merely looked despondent. As yet he could not see how a little scheming would get him what he wanted. Perhaps he was not desperate enough yet.

Business called him to a nearby town for a day or two and on the road he devised strategies for tricking Lady Sophie into seeing him again. He could for instance follow her carriage and abduct her like a highwayman. If her servants did not kill him then, the lady herself certainly might. He doubted that she would sit or lie still on his horse.

A variation on this theme could be hiring someone to abduct her so he could play the gallant hero who rescued her. The unfortunate disadvantage was that his most helpful friends were now married to his former fiancées and that his remaining friends were not exactly daring or stupid enough to abduct a lady from her carriage, even though they were daring and stupid enough in other matters.

Even if the plan was successful to the point of having Lady Sophie on his horse, he would still come across the same problem -- how was he going to persuade her to remain there?

Another idea was to grant himself access to her private rooms for a chat. It seemed brilliant, but she would not know he came for a chat and she would cry -- or perhaps commit -- murder.

He could send her an anonymous invitation to meet somewhere, but he did not think she would come.

If he could be certain that no other servants would notice, he could try to place himself at the reins of her carriage and take her somewhere where she had no choice but to succumb to a friendly chat over tea.

While it was amusing to fantasise that the schemes would be successful regardless, he knew better than to think any of these plans would ever be carried out.



Part 8

In the following days Sophie restricted herself to drawing scenes from the parsonage garden, not daring to venture further away from the house, especially not beyond the gates. She preferred landscapes, but poultry and the vegetable garden made for a refreshing change to her wood and grassland scenes.

If Louisa had allowed her to help, she might have, but Louisa kept saying she was their guest and she would not allow her to do much. One morning Louisa said she was going to visit all newborns in the neighbourhood and she invited Sophie to come along, as she guessed that the pea plants no longer held any secrets for her. They had been studied from every angle by now.

Sophie agreed. It would give her a better idea of what Louisa's duties were, rather than hearing about her day. She had no reason to think they might run into Lord Allingham. Visiting newborns would not be part of his day.

They set out on foot with a small and useful gift for each baby.

She supposed Louisa would feel very blessed if she had a child, but she was shocked to see that not all mothers were happy. Some already had too many and they feared they would not be able to feed an eighth, ninth, or even tenth child. It was something she had never thought about.

"It always works out," Louisa reassured Sophie when the latter voiced her tentative concern. "They have a good landlord. He will find a position for an older child."

"I am getting sick of that paragon," she said without thinking whether such a bold statement might inspire any questions she would not like to answer. She had heard too much about him that might be construed as goodness.

Louisa gave her friend a sideways glance. "I thought you were sick of society." Perhaps Sophie meant certain people only. One had great trouble not wondering who precisely.

Sophie made no comment. She could never say anything that fooled Louisa, so she refrained.

"Are you tired yet?" They were walking everywhere, even though they had paused for their visits. Louisa was not sure if Sophie was used to it. "One more visit, in one of the workmen's houses down there. There are many small children in this household, so you may prefer to stay outside. I do not know how you like such a crowded little room and so many dirty little hands on your gown." It was too much to expect that all those little hands would be clean.

Sophie was too proud to back out already. "I will give it a try."

However, she was not prepared to find Lord Allingham in the small room, with several little bodies clinging to him. His person was indeed so much obscured from view by the children that she had come too far over the threshold to turn back without him noticing.

Louisa, who was looking out especially when she saw him, was curious about the looks of shock and recognition that passed between the two, but she had to devote her attention to the new mother.

After he had gently shaken off the children, Lord Allingham bowed to Sophie, who could only stare. "All that glorious hair...under a bonnet," he said softly. The sound of his voice could not carry over the racket the children made and Louisa would not hear him. He could easily make this comment.

Sophie, on the other hand, heard him loud and clear. She could not say anything in response.

"Why, Lady Sophie?"

"I am a widow." And she was in the countryside. There was no need for pretty bonnets. There would not even be a need for pretty bonnets if she had known she would see him.

"I did not mean your bonnet, Miss Rutherford." She had taken another name with the purpose to avoid him. He was certain of that. It was another type of rejection, already before she had seen him.

She set down the basket and left the house. It was too small, too noisy and the feelings of being locked in were too strong for her to bear staying. Outside in the sunshine she could breathe again. It was to be only for a brief moment, because Lord Allingham followed her -- and inevitably some of the children.

"You are still as beautiful as the first time," he said. He could see her features better in the daylight and they could only inspire such a compliment.

Sophie pressed a hand to her chest, feeling trouble to breathe again. He had such kind eyes, but he said the strangest things. "Must you torture me like this?"

"Good God, woman! What is it with you?" Allingham exclaimed in a rare burst of agitation. "I am only saying you are the most beautiful creature in the world. Nothing else. I am not offering to show you the nearest haystack!" As soon as he had said it he wished he had not. This could not be what Mrs. Hope had meant.

"I wish you were," she said haughtily. "Then I would at least know what you wanted from me." Now, she had no idea what he was after.

Allingham glared at her and held out his arm. "Shall we go, My Lady?" He had his pride, unfortunately.

Her heart shot up into her throat, but she could not waver. She had to stand firm. He would have to be the first to lose face and prove he was indeed a cad. She accepted his arm.

As they walked in silence, Allingham wondered how he could extract himself from this situation and what was more important, how he could make the best of this encounter. It was uncertain whether they had the same expectations of the trip. One did not ask a lady how she had interpreted a potentially scandalous suggestion when there was a chance of shocking her by revealing there were more interpretations than merely the literal one.

He did not want her to run away from him another time and he was prepared to be as scandalous as she requested. It was too much to hope for a third meeting.

Fortunately there were no farmhands in sight near the haystack. Allingham would not have liked to see them witness him taking a lady here. "Well, here it is," he said superfluously. It was now up to her. He was her servant.

Walking at the arm of a man who thought she was the most beautiful creature in the world, but who offered no conversation, had not proved to be such a hardship. Sophie was almost sorry to have arrived. She had been wondering what he would do once they got to their destination, reminding herself that he was a cad. Her gloves had come off as a precaution. Scratching through fabric was never very effective.

She studied the structure with a modicum of interest. "I see," she said enigmatically, but feeling confused about his purpose. He had stopped well short of the haystack and he had no apparent intentions. "I would never take you to Italy to be my guide." She preferred a little more explanation on her tours, rather than simply be told she had arrived at the sight.

"Good, for I have no interest in Italy." Rather, he had no interest in being taken to Italy by a widow, but it had not come out to express that.

She looked him up and down archly. Judging by his attire it remained to be seen whether he had any interest in cultured places at all. "I had never supposed that. Presumably your interest in haystacks is slightly more developed?"

He tried to guess her purpose. Why did she think he had an interest in them? Presumably she thought he frequently visited them. He would indeed pass a few if he made the tour of his estate. "They are excellent places for stacking hay."


"Why?" He repeated her question in confusion.

"Do not give me such a blank look. Give me an explanation." It would definitely be preferable to things she did not even wish to imagine.

Back at the workmen's houses they were told that Mrs. Warden had not stayed. One of the older children had told Mrs. Warden that her friend had gone away with Lord Allingham and while she had waited for a bit, eventually she had needed to go on.

"You would not leave me here," Sophie said. She knew he had wanted to take her back to Louisa, but now that Louisa was gone, she did not know what would happen.

"I was going to," he answered, but he frowned. He would have to take her back to the parsonage now. Cursed Louisa. He wondered what she knew or suspected. She would never have left if she had not suspected at least a little. She would never left her friend alone in this manner, even if the friend had disappeared. Considering that she had left a message for them with the children, she must have counted on their return and she could easily have waited.

"What will Louisa think of me?" Perhaps she should have thought of that before she had insisted on being taken away, she realised and rolled her eyes at herself.

"I can be trusted." At least he could conclude that much after reviewing his behaviour. He felt a little more reassured by now. She had to be able to trust him now. He had wondered why a lady who did not want to be with him would take off her gloves and he had guessed her purpose when she had unconsciously tested the sharpness of her nails. What was she thinking? That he could avert his eyes?

She gave him a pitying look. "Yes, you took a lady to a haystack and you only waxed eloquent on farming and estate management."

"I feel more passionately about your beauty, but I cannot wax half as eloquent on it," Allingham said coldly, not understanding why she took exception to gentlemanly behaviour, nor why she derided him for having answered a question she had asked herself. She had asked about hay.

"I am aware of that. You are rather blunt."

He offered her his arm again and they walked down the lane. "But honest." Since she did not sound too disapproving of blunt honesty, he felt that perhaps he ought to stick with this.

It reminded her of his concise letter. "Did you really keep my letter?" It would be both unsettling and flattering. She was not sure which emotion prevailed and wished it was the former.

"I did."

"Why?" It had not been written in a very charitable spirit, nor with any attention to style and composition. "Surely you have better-written examples to emulate."

He had kept it because it was a sample of her handwriting and perhaps he was sentimental. If ladies kept letters nobody cared. Why should anyone care if he did? "Just in case."

"Why can you not wax eloquent on my beauty?" Sophie wondered what was compelling her to ask these questions. She must be a vain creature, as superficial as the worst of them, wanting gentlemen to flatter her with empty words. She had always considered herself sensible. What a joke that now turned out to be.

"Such falseness is not in me."

"Falseness?" she gasped. He had he been lying about her beauty all the time? That would be quite a trick, to lie and make her believe it, so that she would ask vain questions he could mock her for.

"When I said passionately, I did not mean your beauty makes me speechless and breathless. It does not make me start comparing you to the moon and stars, or even to a flower. That is all poetic language with no meaning," he explained patiently. His attempts to produce it had all ended up in the fireplace. He had concluded it was not his style and that he wanted nothing to do with it ever again.

Sophie was considering his answers. "Sending flowers is not false?"

"You would not hear me when I said the words. I thought you might require some more emphasis to convince you that I really was serious."

He might have wanted to convince her he was serious, but she still did not know what he was serious about. "I did hear you, but I keep my distance because I am used to such comments, especially from gentlemen who chase me into unused passages. Usually they have nothing good in mind." That was somewhat of an understatement.

"Such as?"

"Lord Allingham, you cannot have survived three engagements and not know!" she exclaimed, colour creeping into her cheeks because she was not keen on elaborating.

He shrugged. "Obviously my fiancées were not so appealing to me as to shower them with attentions of that nature, or I would have married them -- I mean, one of them. When I was young, I was fascinated by a chambermaid, but -- I only wished to know what these gentlemen say to you." Some of his acquaintance might indeed not stop at saying she was beautiful. At least, that was what they said. It could have been boasting.

"A chambermaid?" she asked, choking. Lord Allingham was unbelievable.

"I think I was sixteen. Am I forgiven?"

"That depends. What happened?" Sophie was glad to change the topic away from gentlemen's attentions she had suffered, forgetting her apparently not so firm notion of not wanting anything to do with him.

"Not much. My father gave me a good dressing down and told me that a chambermaid would make a deplorable countess," he said dryly.

"Did it make any impression at age sixteen?"

"The dressing down did. The characteristics of a suitable countess did not. My father and I still disagree." That would be on the rare occasion that they discussed it. He suspected that was only after his mother had put his father up to it.

Sophie looked shocked. "You would still like a chambermaid?"

"If I still wanted them, women of the age and abilities I want are not still chambermaids. There are preciously few women of the age I want anyway, suitable countesses or otherwise," Allingham said in dissatisfaction. "Besides, what is a suitable countess, or viscountess as long as my father is still alive? She must be able to live here and in town. The two places are vastly different, yet she must be comfortable in both locations and be able to handle her duties. One of those dainty parlour puppets is not for me."

Sophie grinned when she thought of the face of such a puppet upon beholding her spouse in his favourite attire. The puppet would faint at the lack of refinement. Indeed. They were not for him. She thought of another thing. "If you even have age restrictions imposed on your suitable woman, you are complicating your search. I take it you do not like young girls -- nor very old women, for you must think of your heirs."

"I am not searching. And young girls are not wise."

"You want a wise wife too." She sounded almost incredulous.

He realised his list of requirements seemed impossible, especially to someone who had presumably had no other requirements than old and rich. "I shall drop that requirement when I reach the age of fifty or sixty and I have not met her. I will then settle for a marriage of convenience with a young gold digger."

"Much like me?" Sophie inquired, too sweetly. "I was seen as a gold digger." She did not say it had been her father's idea. If she said so, Lord Allingham would probably throw her own words back in her face and say she should not blame her father, probably even less so because he was no longer living.

"Good for you. You gave me the inspiration for the idea. However, I do not want one now when I still have thirty or more years of meeting her at breakfast and possibly other meals."

"You could not bear a disagreeable wife at breakfast?" She mentally added agreeable to his odd list, as well as a note that he equated gold diggers to disagreeable women. If she could sketch a picture based on his list, it would be that of a not so young, agreeable and wise lady, who did not care about his fortune, but who must feel at ease everywhere. She could see the drawing in her mind. The only thing she was uncertain of was the colour of that halo.

He could be brief about that. "No."

Sophie gave a tired sigh, as if he was really asking too much. "I suppose you insist on loving her too?"

"Maybe you would get along with my mother," he suggested. "Not only that, but I insist that she love me back." That was really the toughest requirement.

"I can imagine it so well," she said reflectively. "Enter this young, or not so young, lady, who has worked so hard to be able to boast of an endless list of accomplishments and then she finds that you -- a Viscount, no less -- do not care for accomplishments at all. You only want to be loved. That is not a part of a lady's upbringing. She has no idea what you mean! Exit floundering and confused young lady stage left. Exit eternal bachelor stage right."

He smiled at her description. "So be it."

"I think you are safe from a marriage of convenience, though, because I never thought you had enough wealth to attract a proper gold digger. A daughter of an impoverished gentleman, perhaps, but with your age requirements such girls will long be married. They will not have opted for insecurity. I think you are going to have to look in spinster circles. Or at farm girl Bess." She remembered the fresh-faced girl on the cart, together with whom she had dried herself in front of Mrs. Hope's fire. She was not really reassured about that connection, especially not now that he had claimed a fascination for a chambermaid.

He gave her an inquisitive look. "Farm girl Bess is engaged to farmhand John. A very unlucky couple, as they were going to be married as soon as their house was built, but it was struck by lightning and it burnt down. They are now praying she will not have a child before the house is rebuilt, because her father's house is more than full already."

"But you are such a generous paragon of a landlord that you will offer them a wing of the Hall," Sophie said sarcastically. It made her uncomfortable to think of his good deeds for some reason. "Rather than advise them to stay out of the haystack."

He was to blame for any indecent turn her thoughts were taking and he would be even more to blame if he did not cut them off. "That is Warden's job. I do not deal in morals."

Sophie snorted. She was going to make a comment about his three engagements, but she decided it would no longer be original or creative. "Why are we having an amiable conversation?" she suddenly wondered. She was mocking him at every turn, but it was not unpleasant.

"This is you at your most amiable? And I certainly never said we could not. Why are you known as Hartley's idiot sister?" There was nothing idiotic about her self or her ideas -- and he did not think this was her most amiable behaviour either, however much she might like him to think that.

"Why does this surprise you?"

"You appear to be in full possession of your wit and senses."

"You may guess my brother was responsible for the nickname and I believe I have already told you how highly I esteem his common sense, quite as highly as he esteems mine."

"How could that be!" he exclaimed. Hartley was not really clever. "You understood all my explanations."

"Yes, My Lord," she said contemptuously, not wanting to be complimented. "But you spoke of farming!"

Her contempt amused him. He had spoken of -- nay, even waxed eloquent about it, in her own words -- estate management and thus he was not fooled by her reduction of the subject to simply farming. "It is a complicated subject."

"And I suppose that makes you a scholar."

"Why, no. Head farmer would suffice." Modesty was one of his virtues. It came in very useful now. His life had taken a turn for the better and he was even strong enough to withstand this lady's blunt insults. Whatever her motivation, it was not cruelty.

"You are no fun to insult," Sophie decided.



Part 9

Louisa Warden had not gone home when she found Sophie and Henry had disappeared. She had gone to Allingham Hall to visit Mrs. Hope. She could have waited for them to return, but a mischievous voice in her head had told her to leave them to themselves. Henry could be trusted to take Sophie home.

After the greetings were out of the way, she came down to business. "Do you know anything about Lady Sophie Burke?"

"That is your guest, is it not? The so-called Miss Rutherford?"

Louisa was not surprised that Mrs. Hope had found out the truth. It was not very difficult for an interested party. She focused on the more important things first. "Is she here?"

"No, she is not. Is she missing?" Mrs. Hope asked. The lady seemed to like walking alone. It could well be that she had lost her way. If so, she could organise a search.

"Well ... I was on my baby round and Lord Allingham was with the Finns, but as soon as Lady Sophie saw him, she left the house and he went after her. I have not seen them since. One of the children said they talked of a haystack, but I do not really think..." her voice trailed off uncertainly.

Mrs. Hope winced. "No, I cannot imagine it. The children must have got it wrong."

"Yes, I suppose. I did not follow them to the haystack, if that is where they went at all." Perhaps she should have done it all the same. Suddenly she was beginning to wonder if she had done the right thing in coming here to gossip.

The housekeeper looked sympathetic. "No, I can imagine that you did not."

"So, I have lost Lady Sophie. I thought perhaps Allingham had taken her here instead. If she is not here, she must be home. He cannot have left her, can he? I could not believe he would. I came to talk about the two of them, really. How did you know who my guest was?"

"I looked up the Rutherfords ... it was easy. Why the other name?"

Louisa frowned. "She did not give us the real reason, I think, but I think she wanted to avoid him because Lady Catherine Rutherford, her sister, is Lady Maye's next project." Perhaps it made Sophie jealous for some reason.

Mrs. Hope nodded with interest. "He mentioned the project, but not the name of the unlucky girl. He also did not mention the name of the lady with whose beauty he was very much impressed." She gave her visitor a significant look.

That caused Louisa to lean forward. "Nor to us, but..." She had ideas regardless.

Mrs. Hope had them too. "If there had not been such a lady they both knew, and if something had not occurred between them, I think the two would have met and spoken openly about those plans of their mothers', do you not think, Mrs. Warden?"

After a pot of tea and much philosophising, Mrs. Hope and Mrs. Warden agreed that they should do anything in their power to find out what was going on. "As she is a friend of yours, it would be so nice to have her around very often, do you not think?" Mrs. Hope asked.

"But in your house, Mrs. Hope?"

She made a dismissive sound. "I am but the housekeeper. She seemed friendly enough -- thanked me very kindly, although she was quite severe on Lord Allingham -- and I know Lord Allingham will not make a wrong choice. He could have done that long ago, after all. He will have to do some work before she appreciates him, but ... she is not exactly dull, is she, Mrs. Warden?"

"Not on a good day," Louisa agreed.

"And they are out together now? Lord Allingham will not have left her to wander all alone. They must be better acquainted by now."

"I want to trust in their goodness and not think he abandoned her because she was too impossible. She is not very comfortable with his admiration. He may not survive voicing it again, because her temper may not survive hearing it," Louisa said a little fearfully.

Mrs. Hope clicked her tongue. "Would she in that case, if she were truly so cruel, not simply have come here under her own name to face him once and for all? Believe me, Mrs. Warden, one serious and cruel rejection from her and Allingham would never try again. I do not think he is such a fool and therefore I do not think her responses to him were too discouraging, which they could have been if his admiration had been really disgusting to her."



Part 10

"I suppose I should walk you all the way to the parsonage," Allingham said. He felt reluctant to separate from her already, no matter what she said. If she said no, he would insist.

"Now you will tell me I can find the way on my own."

"Perhaps. We have arrived at my house." Allingham Hall indeed rose up before them after a turn of the path. He paused. "If you want to go on your own, you must follow this path in that direction and you will reach the road. Turn right and you will be home." A gentleman should not force his company on a lady too much. He could, however, steer her into seeking it.

"What if I need an escort?" she asked, trying to sound neither helpless nor artificial.

"When it comes to a difference of opinion between the two of us, we shall let good manners decide. I will escort you, as is my duty. Perhaps you would get lost."

Sophie gave him a glare for his high opinion of her. She thought she would be able to remember directions that consisted of one turn to the right. However, there was no harm in allowing him to come with her as far as the gates. "Despite your bluntness, I think you are indeed as safe as you claim to be."

They walked on. The sunlight filtered by the trees made for a beautiful scenery around them. Sophie admired the vivid greens of the trees and shrubbery alongside the path. They looked unreal in this light, almost as if she had picked the wrong colour for a painting. She might want to give painting this path a try, especially the bits where the flowers grew. It was so nice and green with those trees on both sides. "Is this your land?"

"It is." He was still thinking about her compliment, if that qualified as such. In matters of friendship she abhorred pretence, she had said, but that begged the question -- was this a matter of friendship?

"Do I require your permission if I want to draw this?" She gestured around.

Allingham weighed his answer. Under normal circumstances nobody would require his permission. Yet he would not say he ever met Lady Sophie under normal circumstances. If she did him the favour of asking, he would do himself the favour of abusing the opportunity to make a request. "If you take your bonnet off and if you give me a portrait of yourself, you may come here as often as you like."

The requests were unusual, although she had sensed before that he was a great admirer of her hair. It was indeed a rare colour. Involuntarily she touched a lock of hair that she knew to be visible. "Are you serious?"

"Very." But his eyes were laughing.

She removed her bonnet, mostly out of curiosity about his reaction, but he did nothing except look very pleased. "What would you do with a portrait?"

"What does one generally do with one?" He looked at her hair. The sunlight made it especially beautiful. It was much prettier now than at the ball. Perhaps someone could paint her as she walked along this path.

"Look?" She crumpled her bonnet in her hands, thinking he would never allow her to put it back on again. She could have done him no greater favour, judging by that grin.

"I would look. It must be a portrait without a bonnet."

"You are strange," she commented. "What if I did not ask you permission?" She supposed he was easy enough to allow her regardless, but if she did not ask permission she would not have to submit a portrait.

"It is a gentlemen's agreement."

"I am a lady," she said archly. She did not have to stick to a gentlemen's agreement and perhaps giving him a portrait was out of the question anyhow. The good manners that he had spoken of perhaps forbade it.

"They are merely a different sort of gentleman and can be trusted as well, I hope."

"I did not give you an answer about the portrait." Or was this the gentlemen's agreement of which he was speaking?

"It is yours to give. I can only ask once," he said and looked away.

Sophie suddenly felt confused and she remained silent until they came upon the gates of the parsonage, wondering if she could find it in her heart to refuse. There was something to be said for making another person happy. Seeing a happy grin might be addictive.

At the gates, Allingham bowed to signify this was the end of the trip. He could not go any further.

"Thank you for the escort," she whispered as if she were a modest young lady. She was not, but the whisper was no affectation.

"It was my pleasure," he said dutifully, not knowing what else he could say. "Thank you, Lady Sophie." Then he turned and retraced his steps along the road, back to Allingham Hall.

Sophie stared after him for a few seconds. She could not make sense of his character. He could not stand up to his mother, yet he was a cad who was safe to walk around with and who grinned when she did him a bizarre favour. Were these things compatible?

She realised she had not given him a definite answer on the portrait, but he might just have thanked her for giving him one -- or was that for the walk? The bonnet?

Frederick Warden saw them from his study and he frowned when he saw his friend take his leave and go. He stepped out of the room and waited for Sophie to enter the house. "Why did Allingham not come in?" he asked. It was unusual.

She looked confused. "He was only escorting me to the parsonage because I got separated from Louisa." She set foot on the stairs to flee from his scrutiny. She did not want to be asked how she had been separated and how she had come to be with Allingham instead. It was all too complicated. He might even start inquiring what they had talked about.

"How? Where is she?" Naturally he was more concerned about his wife than about the dealings between two of his friends.

"I do not know. She was visiting a baby. I did not stay long in that house. It was very full." Sophie shot up the stairs and locked herself in her room. There she sat in front of the window, staring out on the garden and the road. She did not want to hear the discussion between Louisa and Frederick when Louisa came home.

Louisa arrived home half an hour later, with such a conspiratorial attitude that Frederick drew her into the study instantly for a private greeting and some questions. "Where were you?"

"You know I went out to visit the newborns," she soothed, wondering why he was so concerned.

"Sophie said you two got separated. She did not tell me more, so I was a little worried, even though I supposed she would have told me more if there was anything to worry about."

She gave him an extra embrace for his concern. "Yes, I lost Sophie at the Finns. Henry was there and they went outside together. I thought it was because it was a bit noisy and crowded, but when I was done I did not see them anymore. One of the little ones talked about their having gone to a haystack." Louisa bit her lip. She had no idea how her husband was going to react.

Frederick's eyes bulged.

She chuckled. "I did not check that story. If it was true I am sure there was a good explanation for it. I went to see Mrs. Hope in case they were there. They were not."

"They parted at the gate," he said slowly, still recovering from the notion. "Half an hour ago. He did not come in."

Louisa looked very excited at what she was about to divulge. "She rejected him in town. Sophie! We are sure of it. Mrs. Hope said he had not been clear about his intentions, so it was no wonder that the lady rejected him. She would simply not have known what he wanted from her. And who can wonder, if it was indeed Sophie! You said she always had an aversion against marriage." She could well imagine Sophie behaving a little prudently around admirers.

"And doubtlessly you and Mrs. Hope have now taken it upon yourselves to help the poor fellow court the lady?" The outcome of the chat would be no surprise to him. He did not really have to ask.

He thought he could also see how some assistance might have a good effect, since the happy couple had no longer been very reluctant to meet each other. From his window they had seemed a little more acquainted by now, but with some tension between them as they had parted. Perhaps the tension was due to Louisa's supposition that Sophie had rejected Allingham. He would have been cautious around her as a result.

She smiled sweetly. "Indeed. But did Sophie say where she had been?"

"Of course she did not, but given that they were half an hour earlier than you, I do not think they got into any trouble, if that is what you are afraid of." Frederick would think that it took a little longer than that to get in and out of trouble.

"Of course they did not. My opinion of them is not so low that I would suppose such behaviour to be a possibility. But did they get along? Did they talk at all or did they walk in icy silence?" Louisa could imagine the proud tension on either side that forbade them to speak to each other. She truly had a mission in that regard.

Frederick could see his wife assume a vacant expression that she would call dreamy. "I was spying from behind the window, Louisa! I could not hear what was being said, but I could see that it was not much. Oh, bonnet and gloves in hand. Does that satisfy your romantic notions? Perhaps she had hit him with the bonnet or the gloves."

He had meant to be teasing, but Louisa took the remark more seriously.



Part 11

Allingham considered Mrs. Hope to be the only available authority to consult on the matter of approaching ladies. Louisa Warden would otherwise have been his first choice, but her friendship with Lady Sophie would make her biased and perhaps not as discreet as she used to be.

Besides, there was something comfortable in speaking to someone who would undoubtedly give a response in his favour. "I took your advice and I believe being honest about my intentions worked, Mrs. Hope," he said. "Especially about what my intentions were not, which required a less than well-mannered phrasing, but thankfully the lady does not appear to be overly delicate."

"Of course it worked," she replied, much relieved. "You are a good man, My Lord, and I am sure a lady cannot fail to recognise that if you speak from the heart. May I be so bold as to ask what the situation is now?" He could not be engaged yet, could he? Just one walk could not have accomplished that and certainly not if there was a mention of less than well-mannered phrasing.

"She still insults me in half of her replies, but she at least listens -- and she has not physically attacked me." As pathetic as it sounded, he was inclined to think these good signs. He felt quite good.

Mrs. Hope frowned at the latter. "Attacked you? A lady?"

"I said she was not overly delicate. I believe I ought to be grateful for my harmless disposition, or you would have seen me return with my face all scratched open. Is it not a good sign that I came back unscathed?" Allingham asked with a happy grin.

His housekeeper could not mirror his happiness. "Is she a good and gentle lady, do you think?"

Allingham looked more reflective at that question. "If I were a lady who was chased into unused passages more than once by gentlemen who said I was beautiful, I do not think I would give them the benefit of the doubt either and behave in a gentle manner with them."

"Indeed," said Mrs. Hope. "Her life might not be as easily ruined as some others', but her faith in gentlemen might be. You will not take advantage of her, My Lord. The outcome may be much to your liking, but she will not respect you for it."

The Wardens did not ask Sophie anything outright when she came down for tea. She had been expecting questions and she was so relieved by their absence that she did not suspect anything else. She merely drank her tea quietly and listened to the latest parish news that Louisa was telling Frederick. They exchanged news every day, so by now Sophie was able to recognise a few names and the stories made some more sense to her.

She listened more attentively when the new house of someone named John came up and she assumed he was the John of Bess that Allingham had mentioned. Nothing bad was said about anybody, not even about the builders, whose progress was deemed admirable. Lord Allingham's financial assistance to the unlucky couple was deemed equally admirable, but Frederick's simultaneous innocent glance at Sophie coincided with her frown and she quickly looked at her tea, missing an exchange of looks between the Wardens.

Fortunately the topic was soon abandoned. Sophie did not listen carefully anymore, because she was thinking of the otherwise apparently virtuous gentleman's request for her portrait. What was he going to do with it? He said he would look at it, but where would he hang it? Guests to his house might ask who she was and how would he explain himself?

"You are very quiet today, Sophie," Louisa asked after tea, when Frederick had gone out and the two ladies sat in the drawing room with some work. "Is something the matter?"

"Not at all." Sophie was colouring in half-finished sketches and she concentrated on picking the right colours.

"Did he see you home safely?" Louisa could not believe that anything untoward had passed between the two, but Sophie's silence was strange. She had not spoken more than four words. Seven now.

"Yes, he did," Sophie said curtly with her head bent. That was all she was prepared to say.

Louisa laid her work aside and stood beside her. "Are you certain?"

Her tone forced Sophie to look up. "Absolutely. Why do you think otherwise?"

"You are so quiet. I am by no means ignorant of the liberties gentlemen may take with ladies. I would never expect it of Henry, but ... it happens more often than you think. I should hate to think that a friend..." This was her friend too, so she had to ask if anything had made Sophie uncomfortable. "But it might not have been on purpose..."

"I could point out several gentlemen in town who presume a widow is always lonely. A widow also has no believable defence, should she speak, so why not take advantage of that?" Sophie asked sarcastically. "Louisa, I can tell the difference between purpose and accident."

"Have they ... ?" Louisa was shocked.

"They have tried and met with my nails." Sophie shrugged. "But it was not very pleasant anyhow, because on the whole they are much stronger than I am -- and they usually smell of strong liquor."

Louisa barely dared to ask. "And Henry?"

She shook her head and smiled faintly. "He is more likely to shock a lady by dwelling extensively on the ins and outs of crop rotation."

Her friend looked relieved. "So he did not make you uncomfortable?"

Sophie decided that the bonnet request was not worth mentioning, since it had not made her uncomfortable at all, whatever Louisa might think of it. She might look differently at Allingham if she discovered he made such odd requests of ladies, while it had not been like that at all. "I did him the courtesy of listening and now I am quite the expert on crop rotation. I suppose he considered me too delicate to hear about cattle breeding, but it may also be that he did not have enough time."

Louisa smiled in relief. "You will find out if you go on another walk with him." She told herself she should not be encouraging such behaviour, really, but it was a pity that Mrs. Hope and she had just decided that they should.

"I had no plans in that direction," Sophie responded calmly. "We met purely by accident." That they had walked off together had not really been an accident, however.

"Did you discuss Lady Maye's plans?"

Sophie had almost forgotten about them. She had certainly forgotten to bring them up during the walk. "No, we did not. Why should we? She is not likely to succeed if he stays here and I did not receive the impression that he is eager to trade these surroundings for a refined London drawing room, with or without an engagement hanging over his head."

Sophie brushed her hair in front of the mirror. Was it really such a stunning colour? She would have to give Allingham the benefit of the doubt and accept it was stunning to him.

She reached into her jewellery box and took out his letter. Her devoted servant. While that was good to know, she did not yet see what purpose she might have for him.

Perhaps he had not even acted as her devoted servant. He had been polite and courteous, but he had also been saying a great many things one was not supposed to mention to a lady. Farming was generally something ladies had no interest in. And haystacks -- Sophie had heard they were places of ill repute, although in the sunlight the place had seemed quite harmless.



Part 12

The next morning Sophie wandered off a little further, onto the grounds of Allingham Hall. Having obtained permission, it would be safe now and she did not think she would run into the owner, especially not if she did not go to where they had walked the day before.

It was sheer bad luck that two hours later, when she walked back without having seen a human soul, she happened upon a man leaning over a fence looking at sheep.

She wondered if she should call a greeting, but it might be someone she did not know. It might be best to pass unnoticed. The sheep alerted him to her presence, however, and he turned.

He bowed, but she had to ask him something. "Why do you dress like an ordinary farmer?"

"That is so you do not take another route when you perceive me from afar," Allingham answered.

"Oh!" she exclaimed. His eyes unsettled her most. They were actually looking at her kindly, when one expected another expression to accompany those words -- disappointment, anger, mockery. Kindness was unnerving. "I may not."

"Really?" He raised his eyebrows.

Sophie studied his appearance. Perhaps he was not dressed like a real farmer, but he would certainly not be granted access to any decent house in these clothes. They were old and simple. The face above them was much less so. She had never looked much at his face, preferring to find fault with his attire. "Methinks you would not spend thirty minutes tying your cravat," she said, seeing a good escape from his face.

"Not likely," he answered, fingering his bare neck. He had not known he was going to meet her. Perhaps he ought to have reckoned with the possibility.

"Do you ever look in a mirror?"

"I am sorry to spoil your image of me. I do."

"What do you see?" She tried to look at him as if she were looking in a mirror. It was the eyes again.

"Me." He looked down at her seriously. "Whatever I wear."

"Is that a lesson?" If it occurred to her to think of it as such, she supposed it was a lesson she had needed.

"If you need one." He turned back towards the sheep. "They look fine, do they not? They looked quite miserable two weeks ago."

She had no option but to hang over the fence as well since he continued to speak to her. "How can you tell? I certainly cannot tell that these are happy sheep," she spoke a little mockingly, not wanting to be interested, but feeling it anyhow.

He gave her a little smile. "You have not seen them often enough." He pointed at one. "That one looks worse than that one. See?"

"Are you trying me out?" Sophie asked after intensive peering at the two sheep, which was difficult because they moved about and they all looked alike. "So you can laugh at me when I say yes? I see no difference. I think I even lost them in the shuffle. That one is fatter than that one," she said, pointing at two of them. "But it may just be its wool."

He smiled. "So you know that much at least. My friend Lord Stanley would be surprised if someone told him."

"Your friend Lord Stanley is a silly man who is afraid of me," Sophie said with glee. "He thought I was going to pull a dagger from my stocking when I encountered him, as if I have the time to pursue witless men with daggers."

Allingham laughed at the story. "But do ladies carry daggers in their stockings?" And more importantly, did she, as a reputedly dangerous woman?

"I would not know where else we could carry them, if we wished to. Most of the time I do not wish to. Are you interested in the daggers or the stockings? No, I do not want to hear your answer. Lord Stanley was, by the way, the source I wrote about."

He obeyed and gave her no answer about the daggers. "I thought as much, since nobody else knew. I was called home because there was a mysterious illness among the sheep. It seems to have passed."

"I thought you fled town because of your mother."

"That too, but I was glad to have an additional reason, especially for those who did not know about all the scheming."

"Are these your children?" She indicated the sheep. He had cared enough to go home for them and he was now looking at them to see how they were doing.

"Do they look like me?" he inquired. "I always thought we looked too different."

"You do not have white curls."

"Thankfully not. I have never found that particularly attractive."

"How about blonde curls?"

"Such as your sister's? No. I thought you knew by now that I quite like dark red."

Sophie looked away in embarrassment. Yes, she knew, but admitting it was a different matter.

"Whatever her hair colour, I do not recall meeting your sister, so her personality made next to no impression on me. Besides, she is at least ten years my junior, perhaps even fifteen."

She looked back at him and studied his face to guess his age. "Yes, that is what I should think. But does that matter at the breakfast table? I am certain that young girls can be agreeable breakfast companions." Although he made them sound undesirable.

"Certainly. I have a few cousins who are excellent company and quite clever, but they are deficient in other matters."

"Which matters?"

"It is perhaps not fair to call them deficient," he said reflectively. "Unless I mean deficient in age. But they are very representative of girls their age, which means we have very little in common. Perhaps by the time we are old they may have caught up."

"But you could never marry one like that," Sophie deduced.

"Their company could be agreeable, but nothing more than that. I can foresee myself growing quite vexed with their inability to be responsible in matters of housekeeping, if I think of the worst of my cousins." He wondered if he should clarify that he was otherwise not easily vexed.

"I see. You are afraid that an infantile Lady Allingham will waste all her money on whims, such as a complete and ugly redecoration of the ballroom, that she will be unable to keep the servants in check and that she will care nothing for your sacred tenants, is it not?" At least two were characteristics she had observed in acquaintances, although age was not always a deciding factor.

"Not only the ballroom," he replied. "An infantile Lady Allingham would not stop at that. She would hire a landscape architect and have trysts with him in the conservatory."

"How old are you?" Sophie asked boldly. "How did you grow that way? I have never met someone as cynical as you -- except me, of course. You have such a bleak view of the world and of Lady Allingham in general. Why do you not take a nice wife of your own choosing and have trysts in the conservatory with her yourself?"

"Take a wife! You have such a bleak view of women. There are some who want a say in the matter, you know. You seem to think they are all docile creatures." He was talking to one who was most definitely not and the direction her thoughts were taking was most unladylike at times.

"So do you, if you think the landscape architect can order them into the conservatory," Sophie countered.

"There is no ordering in a tryst -- I assume," he quickly added, lest she thought he was familiar with them.

"How old are you?" she repeated, thinking it safer to change the subject. "You have not answered."

"I had engagements sprung on me at twenty-five, twenty-eight and thirty-one," he smiled. Sometimes he wondered if the regularity was a product of an insane mind.

"Thirty-four," she said instantly, seeing the pattern.

"Very good. Ancient, no?"

"Being advanced in years myself, I would not quickly say so."

"You are on the good side of thirty," he estimated. There would be many years before anyone would call her advanced in years.

"Barely. But that is the bad side for you, is it not?" He seemed to like older ladies. She was not sure why she was even asking. She had no designs on him.

"That is academic." He was sure she had no intentions of ever becoming Lady Allingham, so her age was unimportant, be it good or bad.

Sophie did not answer and looked at the sheep again. "Are you lonely?"

"I beg your pardon?" That was one of the last questions he would have expected, especially given the conversation they just had.

"I asked if you were lonely."

"I know only this state that I am in now, so I do not know. Why are you asking?" He was loath to give an honest answer, not being able to predict what she would do to it.

"Many gentlemen always assume me to be lonely and they are in fact right, but I never agree that it can be remedied by chasing me with their port-smelling faces and fat bellies," she said in a particularly sharp voice.

Allingham was too stunned to speak.

"Perhaps I have shocked you. I was reminded of the matter by some questions Louisa asked about your conduct."

He looked even more stunned now. "Had she any reason to doubt it?"

"No, but she thought I was shocked by something that had happened when I was merely unwilling to talk. Her question reminded me of gentlemen who did misbehave and their idea that I had to be lonely. I was wondering about loneliness in general now."

"I..." he stared at her, still with wide eyes. "I never intended for my conduct to give rise to such suspicions, especially not in a close friend like Mrs. Warden." She should know him better than that.

"I assure you she did not want to believe it." Sophie perceived that he might be seriously offended by that apparent lack of trust. "I was to blame for the impression of discomfort. She was merely crossing off options."

"Discomfort? After our walk? Then I must certainly blame myself. Was it the portrait? Or the fact that I asked you to take off your bonnet?" It had not registered with him consciously that she should have been wearing one now as well, but it dangled somewhere on her back. "I apologise."

"I was glad to have a reason to take it off," she confessed. "As you see, I do not always like it. I cannot reproach you for much."

"But the discomfort?" His relief was merely tentative.

"That was inspired entirely by Frederick's asking why you had not come in and where Louisa was. It made me feel rather oblivious and guilty that I had no answer."

"Oh. I see." Allingham looked a little more relieved. "If you cannot reproach me for much, what can you reproach me for?"

"I cannot really reproach you for telling me I am beautiful all the time, but I have to say it made me very uncomfortable in the beginning." She took a moment to examine what she was saying. In the beginning? Only then? "When we met again I thought it no wonder, if you could only compare me to sheep and farm girls."

He was not at all offended by that comment, but he smiled. "I have seen more than that and you do not do yourself justice if you think you only compare favourably to sheep."

"You always flatter me exceedingly." Sophie sounded puzzled.

"Because you are exceedingly beautiful and that is all I flatter you with." He would not call her sweet-tempered or well-mannered.

"That is true," she conceded. "But nonetheless, how would you feel if I constantly called you the handsomest man of my acquaintance?"

"There is more consensus on the beauty of women than on that of men, so I might not take you seriously or consider your judgement to be representative. It seems as if every man has at least one champion, despite what I think of his looks." The ladies he knew were never in agreement.

"How do you rate yourself, My Lord?" Sophie studied his face and figure. He would not be at the lower end of her scale.

"I do not smell of port and I have no belly, yet I spend too much time out of doors to be an exceedingly pretty boy -- they are almost like girls anyway." He no longer had that sort of skin. Perhaps he even had wrinkles.

Sophie laughed. "You would not easily pass for a girl. Still, you did not answer my question. How would you feel under such a constant assault of praise?"

"I might think you a little odd at first, but if you persisted I should wonder if you had a point."

"That is what you want me to think," she chided. "Now for real."

"But it is academic. You would never say it." He could not imagine that, at any rate.

"Your attire usually distracts from your looks."

"Detracts?" He sounded teasing, but in a way he was interested to hear if it influenced her opinion of him. She was too clever for that, he was tempted to think.

"Distracts. I would have to think back to the ball when it was dark. Spur of the moment judgements are more honest, do you not think?" She could not remember what she had thought of his looks then. Perhaps her opinion had undergone some changes.

"I accept your answer. Are you more used to my judgements now, Lady Sophie?" He offered his arm for a walk. They could not stand looking at these sheep forever.

Sophie accepted, without knowing where they would go. It did not matter. "I am afraid I shall grow quite conceited if you keep it up."

"I doubt that. Have you heard from your family yet?" he asked, curious if there was any news on the engagement scheme.

"They have no idea where I am, so they cannot write. If I had mentioned a trip to Allingham, they would have followed me and made my presence known to you. I did not think your living in the same village was a decent reason to decline the invitation, but I had no idea the Wardens were so intimate with you as to call you by your Christian name. What else do they know about you?" She looked anxious. He might be as loose-lipped as she was. "Did you tell them about..."


"The engagement plan? The flowers?"

"Yes on both accounts, but I did not say the lady was you."

"But so far we have merely acted as though it was me. They will know by now." She would have to think whether that was good or bad.

They had walked some distance in silence, each trying to figure out what to do next, although it was quite pleasant not to talk as well. Sophie was rather fatigued by now, having set out more than two hours before, and she began to drag her feet.

"Are you tired?" Allingham asked, when he noticed a decrease in their pace.

She did not want to be seen as someone who quickly complained. "A little. I was on my way back after two hours or so."

"I am sorry. We went completely the wrong way in that case." He had taken her onto a more scenic route, judging that she liked beautiful sights.

"Oh, did we? I am not as familiar with these surroundings as you are." That was nonsense, because she had not even looked where they were going. She would not have noticed any familiar surroundings either. It was beautiful, but it might be anywhere.

"Shall we head back directly or do you wish to sit down for a while?"

Sitting down sounded very appealing. "A few minutes would be comfortable."

He took off his coat and spread it out for her in the least muddy place, under a few trees. "We are indeed a bit further from home than a few minutes."

She sat down after some hesitation. She had been looking the other way and suddenly his coat was on the ground, giving her no opportunity to protest. "I may not be able to get up now. I am sure I can, but I do not yet feel like it. Are you not cold without a coat?" she asked, looking at his shirtsleeves.

"It is not very cold, or else I would have worn an overcoat." He sat down on the grass.

She observed that the ground was not very dry there either. "Do you not care about your trousers?"

"They are not my best pair," Allingham with a good sense of understatement.

"Really?" she smiled. "I would not have noticed."

"Will the Wardens be concerned if you stay away for three hours?" It seemed a bit long for a walk to him.

"I would not want them to be my keepers. I think they were going out as well. If I am not back for tea they might have a reason to be worried, but not before then."

"Have you drawn anything yet today? You do not seem to be carrying anything."

Sophie looked hesitant. "I am carrying something -- purely by accident." She removed her medallion and gave it to him. "You can take it out. I never look at it myself."

He looked puzzled, but opened the medallion. Inside was a miniature of Sophie, in colour and without a bonnet or cap. He knew he had asked for a portrait, but now that she gave him one, he did not know if he could accept it. "Are you certain?"

"I am. You can return the medallion to me another time. I am scheduled to leave on Saturday." That was only three days from now, she realised. It was much sooner than she wished. There was something vaguely agreeable about these walks.

Apparently Allingham had the same feeling. "Saturday?" he exclaimed. "Already?" He wished she would stay longer. They had just begun to be on a better footing. There were far fewer insults coming his way already. What would he do if she went away? He might have to put one of his foolish plans into action anyway.

The sound of a carriage approached and they waited for it to pass, glad for the distraction that allowed them to postpone a reaction. Sophie got up and hid behind a tree. If the carriage stopped this move would be pathetically suspect, but that was a chance she had to take.

"That was my parents' carriage," he said in shock when it had passed. The family crest on the side had been unmistakable.

"I shall not leave on Saturday," Sophie announced, joining him again. It was not likely that his parents would have left by then and the mess they would have created would certainly not be sorted. She was glad to have an excuse not to go. There was business to do.

While he was happy with her answer, it was overshadowed by the fact that one or both of his parents had come. They visited too rarely for this visit to be for a good purpose. Very likely it would have something to do with an engagement of sorts.

"Should you not go to meet them? Why were you not recognised? Were we seen?"

He blinked at the sudden barrage of questions. "The coachman may have seen us, but he did not turn his head. The occupants of the carriage did not see us either, I think."

"Should you not go back?" she pressed, as anxious and curious as he was. If she could, she would go with him and judge the situation for herself.

He was less eager. "I shall wait until you are ready to walk."

"I can walk already."

Sophie had resisted all protests and declared herself ready to walk again. Since she had started walking, Allingham had had no choice but to catch up with her. "You are going in the wrong direction."

She groaned and turned.

"That is wrong as well." He could not wear his coat because it was dirty from lying on the ground, so he hung it over his arm and offered his other arm to Sophie to lead her through the shrubbery, which might be inconvenient at first, but they would soon reach some meadows and traversing them was the fastest route to the parsonage. He shivered when her fingers touched his bare forearm.

"You are cold," she observed.

"No, it is your fingers." Briefly he touched them with his other hand. They were indeed cold.

"Should I put on my gloves? I forgot." She had stuffed them into her pocket when she had sat down and her free hand searched for them.

"No, leave them off. Who knows when you might need them," he said with a little smile at her.

She stared at him. How could he know why she had taken them off? And how could he be amused?





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