The moment Sophia opened her eyes, she knew it would be a bad day. All of her sisters would be at the estate for the week and would be excited about the engagement news. Which included a lot of squealing that made Sophia flinch.
She preferred when they were out of the house and married with their own families. The squealing had lessened in recent years as her four eldest sisters started leaving to get married. Katherine, Amelia, Nora, and Ellen were fine when they were on their own, but when they were in the same room, it was nearly unbearable, especially when they were all talking at once.
Not that Sophia needed that to make her want to escape. She already had a reason to sneak out and make herself scarce. And that reason was fast asleep in the next room; even with the thick walls, Sophia could hear her last sister Aimee snoring away.
Slipping out of bed, Sophia crossed to the washbasin and splashed water on her face. The night had been far warmer than she was used to, so it had been hard to sleep. But at this time of the morning, it was cooler and bearable. The temptation to go back to sleep and make up for what she hadn’t had during the night was evident, but then the day would be wasted. And Sophia wanted to be out of the house before her mother and sister started talking about the impending arrival of Aimee’s future husband. It was all they had talked about for the last couple of days, and today was when Aimee would tell her sisters that she would be getting married soon as well.
Sophia didn’t understand it, and she probably never would. She preferred being away from it all. Not that anyone noticed; compared to her sisters, Sophia was a non-entity. She didn’t know how they started like this, but she wasn’t about to argue; it worked to her advantage. Sophia liked being in the background, especially when Aimee was around.
There was a gentle tap on the door, so quiet Sophia almost missed it, and then the door opened immediately to reveal Sophia’s maid coming into the room. She stopped when she saw her mistress.
“Oh! Forgive me, madam. I didn’t realise you were already awake.”
“I thought I’d rise early and go for a walk.” Sophia shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep, and some fresh air might do me good.”
“That and your sisters are coming soon, so you need to prepare yourself a bit more.”
Sophia gave her maid a pointed look.
“Diane, you should not speak about my sisters in such a manner.”
“Forgive me, madam.” Diane’s eyes were twinkling as she headed towards the wardrobe. “Do you want me to help you dress this morning?”
“If you would? And don’t do my stays up so tightly this time.” Sophia gingerly rubbed her side. “I’m sure the bruises haven’t gone away yet.”
“I only did what Lady Westbury wished for you and Miss Burke to have with your attire.”
“You mean she wants to be sure that we can’t breathe, so we’re not able to make proper conversation without getting out of breath?” Sophia quipped. “Just don’t do them up so tight, anyway.”
“Very good, madam.”
Diane got out the undergarments and then the morning dress. She moved quickly and efficiently to get Sophia dressed, helping Sophia brush her hair back and pin it up with a multitude of pins. Sophia was grateful for her maid. The young woman had been in her father’s employ since she was fourteen, and for the last two years she had been Sophia’s personal maid. With the three-year gap between them, Diane often felt like a little sister than Sophia’s servant. Sophia knew that was silly to think, but she couldn’t help it; Diane knew her better than her own family did.
She didn’t ignore her like everyone else.
Once Sophia was ready, she straightened up and looked in the mirror over her dresser. Not too bad. She was passable, although it was clear from the dark circles under her eyes that she was tired. Sophia debated on putting make-up on her face, but she decided against it; that stuff could rot your face if you used it too much, and Sophia liked her face and didn’t want it to peel away before her eyes.
“Right. That’s good.” She turned to Diane. “I’ll be going for a walk. If my parents ask where I am, just say I’m out in the grounds.”
“Will Viscount Westbury actually ask me about your whereabouts?” Diane asked.
Sophia knew her maid was right; Lord Westbury barely registered her presence. She was the youngest of his six daughters, and it was like he didn’t know she was there. Sophia had to work hard to get him to notice her, which was very rarely.
He was a good man but not a very good father. Not that Sophia would say that out loud; she would get into trouble for doing so. Diane was the only person with whom she was confident enough to say something along those lines; her maid wouldn’t say a word about it. She was a confidant.
“Well, if anyone asks, I’m going to be in the grounds. Where’s my notebook?”
“Here, madam.” Diane picked up a slim little book on the bedside table and held it out. “How long are you going to be out for this morning? I want to notify Mrs Ripley when you’ll be returning so she can ensure you have something to eat?”
“I can hear the church clock from here. I’ll start heading back at some point.” Sophia put the notebook and a pencil into her dress pocket. “Don’t worry about it. Mrs Ripley can make anything with practically nothing in her hands. It won’t take her long.”
“Very good, madam.” Diane gave her a curtsy and turned towards the bed. “I’ll straighten out the bedding, and then I’ll get along with my work. If you need me when you get back, let me know.”
Sophia left her room, heading downstairs. While it was late enough that the servants had probably been up for a couple of hours, it was still too early for her family. She couldn’t remember anyone but her waking up before nine in the morning unless it was Christmas or their birthday. Neither were very big events, but the excitement had everyone jumping up and down in glee at knowing it was an important day. Especially when it came to her sisters; they all loved being the centre of attention.
Particularly Aimee. She was probably the worst for it.
Sophia wished things were different between her and her sister. They were close in age, only eighteen months apart, but they couldn’t be any more different. Aimee was short and petite, much like their mother, with raven-black hair and brown eyes with a prickly, abrasive personality that she was quite good at hiding for the most part. Sophia was a redhead like her father, tall and slim, and could keep herself stoic and collected at the best of times. Not to mention she had a rosy-brown glow to her skin, which the ton really frowned upon; women were supposed to be milky-white when it came to their skin, not brown as a nut. Sophia didn’t really care what people thought; she liked the look. She certainly looked healthier for it.
It was a shame things were going wrong between them. Sophia still wasn’t sure why Aimee started behaving differently. When they were little, because they were so close in age, they were close. Aimee was her best friend, and they shared practically everything. Then Aimee came back from her first Season, and she was a completely different person. She was snooty and snobbish, turning her nose up at Sophia and not listening to her whenever her sister started talking about the things happening in the garden. She didn’t even care about flowers unless it was the right one from a suitor. Language, when it came to flowers, meant everything; even Sophia knew that.
She had hoped that her sister wouldn’t turn into another copy of her sisters, all of whom had changed and looked down on everyone once they started entering Society properly. The ton seemed to make people shift personalities. Sophia hadn’t liked it, especially when she went to her first Season a year later. Although she could see why people changed, she was determined that it wouldn’t happen to her. Witnessing what her sisters ended up becoming, Sophia didn’t like it. She preferred not to do it at all.
For the last four years, Aimee hadn’t been her close sister. They had been strangers living in the same house. Sophia didn’t know what to think about that, except that she wanted her old sister back. They used to have a lot of fun, and she felt like she had lost her best friend. Aimee didn’t appear to care. It was all about the money.
Sophia thought it was stupid. What was wrong with being yourself? That had to be allowed at some point. Surely, people didn’t expect the facade to keep going once they were married? Sophia wondered if Aimee would be able to keep it up once she finally did marry.
Then again, given how Lady Westbury and Aimee had been talking the day before, it was going to happen soon. Some poor unfortunate was going to get a surprise once the mask slipped if they liked Aimee as she was before.
Sophia wasn’t going to try and figure out her sister or her family. If they wanted to behave as they were, then it was nothing to do with her. She was content to be on her own and doing her own thing. The viscount ignored her existence, and Lady Westbury barely noticed she was there. The only people who cared where she was were the servants. Sophia knew this was a sad turn of events if the household staff were more family-like than her own family.
If she had been born a boy, then things might have been different. But it was what it was, and Sophia couldn’t change it.
Leaving the house by the side door, Sophia headed across the grounds and up a slope towards the woods bordering their property on one side. It was shady and secluded, a perfect place to sit and look at everything far below. It also made the creativity part of her flow, and Sophia found herself sketching many pictures in her notebook, ready for later.
And she had quite a bit to do before she ended up finishing her painting in the summer house.
Heading up the slope, Sophia went into the trees and found the place she normally sat, under a huge oak tree overlooking the small valley beneath her. This was the middle of Cambridgeshire, and this was probably the only hill they had in the whole county. It certainly had a beautiful view.
Settling down and tucking her skirt around her legs, Sophia opened to a fresh page, found her pencil, and began to sketch the scene before her.
Thomas stood at the edge of the Westbury estate and looked down at the house, just on the outskirts of Eaton Socon. So, this was the home of Aimee Burke, the daughter of Viscount Westbury. The woman he had been matched to marry.
And he wasn’t really looking forward to meeting her.
Thomas hated that he was a grown man, closing in on thirty years of age, and he had his parents trying to match him up with a woman he had never met before. He had heard stories about Miss Aimee Burke, but that was about it. And they weren’t really impressive, on his side. Apparently, everyone in the family was a snob. They were always on the lookout for money and how to get more. Viscount Westbury was the richest man of his status in the east of England.
According to his own parents, he was a beneficial contact, and Thomas would do them a favour getting married to their second youngest daughter. Then they would be able to marry into a wealthy family.
He knew they were trying to find someone for him to secure the family’s future, but this was a little too much. Thomas didn’t want to get married. He didn’t really believe in love or marriage. As far as he was concerned, it didn’t exist.
There had been a time a while back where he had thought it did, and Thomas had been willing to embrace it. But that hadn’t happened. And then, in his most vulnerable moment, he had been steered towards a loveless and arranged marriage.
Well, sort of. He still needed to meet Aimee Burke and go through the motions, but he didn’t want to. If his father hadn’t asked him for this favour to help them out, Thomas would have said a few more words that would have been very unkind. He wasn’t good at telling his father no.
Tomorrow, he would go with his father to meet Westbury’s family. They would be introduced for the first time, and then they would have to go through a regular courtship. But the outcome in the end would be the same; whether they liked each other or not, they were getting married.
Thomas didn’t see any way out of it. And he wished there was. Being unmarried sounded more enticing than being married to a snobbish woman.
He wasn’t going to get anywhere just by staring at them. Thomas had said he wouldn’t be long, going out on a walk before going back into the Eaton Socon town centre to meet his family for brunch. He had come out a bit further than he planned, but the scenery was so nice, and Thomas just liked soaking it up. Having grown up in Kent all his life, the furthest north he had gone was to London. This was a novelty for him, even though it was in the same country.
Thomas turned and started to make his way through the trees. He would come out on the other side of the Westbury estate and then find his way back to the path down to Eaton Socon. From what his valet Axel had said, these woods were part of the Westbury estate, but people used them to move back and forth, the boundaries partially splitting the woods. It was like the Westbury ancestors didn’t want to go around the woods and wanted to claim part of it or as much as they could get away with.
He didn’t realise that he wasn’t alone until he came upon a huge oak tree, its branches and leaves spreading high above his head. Thomas stopped and stared at it for a moment. It was absolutely gorgeous, at least two hundred years old, maybe more. The light shimmered through the trees, leaving what looked to be a green glow twinkling on the ground.
There was someone at the base of the tree. A woman, her head bent as she scribbled something in a notebook. The light glinted off her red hair, making it look like burnt copper. It was pretty stunning to look at. Thomas hovered for a moment, taking her in. She had to be one of the townspeople having sneaked away to be on her own; with brown skin like hers, she couldn’t be anything but a regular townsperson who spent her days in the sun. A farmer’s daughter or maid, perhaps? No member of the ton would be seen dead with skin that brown.
Whoever it was, she did sketch pretty speedily, her pencil practically flying over the page. Thomas wished he could move closer to see what she was sketching.
He shifted, planning on leaving her alone, only for his foot to crunch on a twig. Immediately, the girl’s head lifted, and she looked around. Her eyes widened when she saw him, and she scrambled to her feet, dropping her notebook and pencil as she backed away. Thomas held up his hands.
“It’s alright. I’m not going to hurt you.”
Breathing heavily, she stared at him, her cheeks turning a lovely pink. For a moment, Thomas was left staring. She was very beautiful. Astonishingly so. Even with her shock, there was a grace about her that just seemed to wrap around her. Brown eyes were wide, openly staring in his direction, her mouth open. Tall and slim, she cut a very fine figure.
If she had been a ton member, she would be turning heads the moment she entered the room. Thomas could see that happening.
Realising where his thoughts were going, he shook himself and gave her a smile.
“I apologise for interrupting you. I was just surprised to find you here.”
She didn’t immediately respond, still gawking at him. Thomas lowered his hands and gave her a slight bow.
“I’ll leave you to it, miss. I won’t bother you any further.”
“It’s fine.” Her voice was soft, almost lyrical. Thomas had never heard anything like it, especially with how smooth her tone was. “You can do what you like. While some of this land actually belongs to Viscount Westbury, the boundary line is disputed. As far as I’m concerned, this is public for everyone.”
“And he’s never caught you here?”
Her mouth twitched in a slight smile.
“I’m very good at not being noticed. It’s a habit.”
Thomas could hardly believe that. He couldn’t see someone ignoring such a beautiful woman as her. Even if she was a servant.
“I’ve not seen you around here before,” she said.
“You’re not a local, are you?”
Thomas told himself to stop staring; otherwise, he would have her running away from him, and he didn’t want that. He cleared his throat.
“I’m not. I’m from Kent.”
“Kent?” Her brow furrowed. “What are you doing all the way up here? Visiting family?”
“Sort of. We’re staying somewhere in town. On a road called The Paddock?”
“Oh! That’s Baron Beauchamp’s home.” She peered at him curiously. “You’re a friend of his?”
“My father is. They have something called a standing invitation, where either one can just turn up to visit for as long as they want, and they will be welcomed with open arms.” Thomas shrugged. “It’s something that’s come from their younger days. I don’t ask questions.”
They stared at each other for a moment. Then Thomas noticed her notebook still on the ground. Stepping towards the base of the tree, he noticed that she moved back from him again. Was she nervous about him? Thomas didn’t want her to be scared of him.
Then again, if she were a servant, and she now knew he was a member of the ton, she had every right to be nervous. There were certain protocols to follow, and everyone was scared of putting a foot wrong; Thomas had been doing it all his life, so he understood.
He picked up the notebook, snagging the pencil as well. Then he perused the pages. She seemed to be drawing small bits as if putting them aside for later. She had drawn roots, flowers, even a twig. The attention to detail was extraordinary. Thomas had only ever seen this from people training to become artists. Women were not permitted by law, but it was clear from what Thomas saw that women were just as good as men.
“These are good.” He glanced up at him. “Do you draw in your spare time?”
“I …” Her cheeks went even redder, and she chewed her lip. “You could say that. I like to draw and paint.”
“My parents tell me it’s useless and that I should find something more worthwhile to do. But I just love to draw.” She held out a hand. “Can I take my notebook, please?”
“Oh. Of course.” Thomas handed it over, along with the pencil, trying not to jump when she almost snatched both away. “You should go to the royal art academy. You would be able to rival any of the men there.”
“The only women permitted inside who aren’t servants are prostitutes who are the models. And while women get paid better than men for posing as a model, it’s considered shame money.” She didn’t look at him, hugging the notebook to her chest. “I’m not prepared to shame myself into becoming a model.”
Thomas hadn’t realised that the models posed with no clothes on. Now he had an image of her posing naked, lying out on cushions while several men sat around sketching her. Feeling his face going red and something tightening in his breeches, he coughed and partially turned away.
“I … I suppose that’s my cue to leave.”
“You don’t have to …”
“I should. People would get the wrong idea if they came upon us. Besides, I don’t want to keep you.” Thomas gave her a bow and a smile, which seemed to make her blush even more. “Good day, miss. And good luck with your drawing.”
“I … thank you,” she murmured faintly.
Knowing that he should walk away now before he was unable to, Thomas turned and started to make his way back towards the path he had taken into the woods. If he had stayed any longer, he would have ended up staring at the girl, and then it would have turned into an awkward situation for them both. Thomas didn’t want to ruin it by prolonging his stay.
Although he would like to see her again. Even if it was just to get her name.
Sophia wandered back to the house in a daze. She had been so stunned by that gentleman’s arrival that she couldn’t concentrate on her sketches. Instead, she decided to go back to the house and sit in her studio, wondering what had just happened.
Normally, there were very few people who came across her. Sometimes a farmer looking for a sheep that had run off or someone who had got lost. Even though most of the woods were for public use, because of her father claiming a bit of it, others tended to keep their distance so they didn’t get into trouble. This was the first time Sophia had met a gentleman in such a way.
And he was certainly a gentleman from the way he dressed. The cloth his breeches and jacket were made out of was clearly expensive. Not one of the most expensive fabrics Sophia knew about, but close enough. He came from a wealthy family, and the way he held himself said a lot about him; he was confident about his status in the world and didn’t care what people thought.
Even with that, he was very kind. Sophia noticed how gentle he was with her, and how respectful he had been speaking to her and handling her notebook. He thought she was good at drawing? Sophia hadn’t shown her pieces to anyone except her family and the household staff, and it was only in passing whenever they came into the studio. While the servants praised her work, her family rolled their eyes or said it was alright in a flippant tone. Sophia hadn’t known whether to believe them or not.
But with this man, she believed him when he said her work was good. It left her both stunned and feeling warm inside. Butterflies had woken up and fluttered about her belly, leaving Sophia unsure how to behave.
Then again, that might have something to do with how good-looking he was. Sophia was considered tall by society’s standards, and she was often on a similar level when it came to looking gentlemen in the eye – something they were all uncomfortable with – but he was far taller than that. Sophia had actually needed to tilt her head back to look at him. Curly black hair went with the square jaw, the light brown eyes that twinkled when he looked at her, the soft-looking mouth that seemed very easy to smile … he certainly looked a fine figure of a gentleman. Even with the slightly sticky-out ears. It just seemed to accentuate his features.
Sophia felt like a fool for how she behaved. She couldn’t recall saying anything embarrassing other than going on about artists’ models being naked. That was definitely not something she should know about. Thankfully, the gentleman didn’t say anything about it. He probably wasn’t aware of it, so it couldn’t be that embarrassing.
It was a shame she hadn’t found out his name. Then again, if he was staying at Baron Beauchamp’s residence, maybe she could find out who he was; Diane’s brother worked there as a footman. Maybe he could tell her who the gentleman with the sticky-out ears was.
Who knew that something like that would be attractive?
Sophia was on the lawn and crossing to the terrace when she heard a loud shriek, and two small girls came running out onto the terrace doing what looked to be slapping at each other before darting away with multiple squeals. A tall, slightly plump woman in her thirties with pale red hair came out after them, followed by a young maid barely older than Sophia and looking just as exhausted.
“Oh, for goodness sake! They do play so roughly!” Even across the grass, Sophia could hear her very plainly. “Janet, go and make sure they don’t ruin their clothes before brunch.”
“Yes, my lady.”
The maid dropped a quick curtsy and hurried off after the little girls, who had jumped down the steps and across the grass, charging towards Sophia.
“Aunt Sophia! Aunt Sophia!” The slightly bigger of the two practically jumped into Sophia’s arms, making her drop her notebook. “Come and play chase with us! Mother won’t play, and Janet is too tired to do it.”
“Hello, Clarissa.” Sophia gave her niece a hug before lowering her back down. Then she embraced the smaller girl. “Olivia.”
“Please play with us, Aunt Sophia,” Olivia pleaded, pouting and trying to look innocent. Sophia laughed.
“You’re going to wear me out before I’ve done anything, you two.”
Both girls were now clasping their hands and giving her pleading expressions. They knew Sophia couldn’t resist; she did love her nieces and nephews, especially her eldest sister’s children. At nine and seven, they were more lively, and Sophia could easily converse with Clarissa without getting bored; she was a very intelligent girl.
“Alright. But can you give me a few minutes? I want to change my clothes. I’ve been out walking.”
“And sketching.” Olivia picked up the notebook. “Are you going to show us your new painting, Aunt Sophia?”
“Only if your parents say you can come in, and someone is there to watch you.”
“It’s probably going to be Father. Mother won’t let us do anything that gets our clothes dirty. She thinks we’ll knock over lots of paint in there.”
“I don’t have much paint out. It’s not scattered around the room.”
“That’s what Mother said.”
Sophia wasn’t surprised; Katherine didn’t like anything creative. She patted her nieces’ heads.
“Let me put my notebook away and change, and then I’ll join you. Alright?”
“Alright!” Clarissa grabbed Olivia’s hand. “Come on, Olivia! Let’s race to the tree!”
Both girls took off just as the maid Janet joined them. The woman groaned and trotted off after them. Sophia watched them go, feeling some sympathy for Janet. Clarissa and Olivia were adorable children, but they were very precocious. They would exhaust even the fittest of people.
She made her way to the terrace and went up the steps. Katherine was there, watching her with slight bemusement.
“I don’t know why you entertain them, Sophia. They should be sitting down and being quiet, not running around staring at little paintings.”
“It’s something that interests them,” Sophia replied smoothly, ignoring the barb in her direction. “There’s nothing wrong with cultivating an interest. I’m happy that they’re so keen and inquisitive.”
“You wouldn’t if you lived under the same roof as them. My husband says there’s nothing wrong with it, either, but I don’t see how it’s meant to be good for a little girl.”
“It’s called developing interests and knowing what you like to explore, Katherine.”
Her eldest sister sniffed, looking Sophia up and down. The tallest of her other sisters, the two of them were on the same eye-level.
“When you become a mother, you’ll understand. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. You haven’t had any type of interest from gentlemen, and it’s been a little over three years since you had your first Season. You’ll be lucky to find any gentleman willing to put up with a plain girl like you.”
Sophia tried not to bristle. She knew she wasn’t plain, especially not compared to her sisters. And from the way that mysterious gentleman had been looking at her. But with her sister saying it and giving her that look, it did sting. Sophia wished her closest family members weren’t so good at cutting her down.
“I’m sure it will happen when it happens, Katherine,” Sophia responded coolly. “Until then, I’m content with things as they are. I’m not going to force it.”
“Maybe it’s for the best. It will be difficult to find anyone for you, especially not with your … interests.”
Sophia fixed a bland smile on her face.
“You know, you’re more like Mother than you realise, Katherine. If you’ll excuse me? I need to change.”
She headed indoors, hoping Katherine wouldn’t realise she had just been insulted before Sophia got to the stairs. Then again, Katherine and their other sisters adored their mother. They didn’t see her sharp comments and putdowns as anything insulting. They all prided themselves on honesty.
Sophia just saw it as a way to cover up the fact they were simply bullies. She still struggled to believe she had been raised in the same family, yet she was completely different.
There was more to life than money and finding someone who could further their family in Society. Surely, they all knew that. Until Aimee went off to London for her first Season, Sophia had thought they were the two who had managed to be lucky and not be snobby and rude. Then Aimee came back, and it was like she was a copy of their sisters and mother. They broke apart, and Sophia had lost her closest ally.
She still had Diane, but Sophia still missed Aimee. Even when she was being rude and obnoxious, almost like she was trying to be hurtful, Sophia still missed her.
Whoever ended up marrying her would need help after a while. Then again, all of their sisters had been married for quite a while, and they all had children. How they had stayed married and what could be considered happy, Sophia had no idea. She had half-expected any of her siblings to live separately from their husbands after a while.
Maybe they did, and she just didn’t know it. If they were still firmly in their lives, they deserved medals.
Sophia knew she was being cruel to think of her sisters in such a manner, but she couldn’t help it. They hadn’t been kind to her for some time. Even when Sophia was just a child when Katherine married, just a little girl, they had sneered at her. It was almost like they relished being mean to the youngest daughter.
She loved her sisters. That would never go away. But Sophia could confidently say she didn’t like any of them.
Especially Aimee. Once she was married, she would be leaving and moving away. And Sophia would relish the quiet for once. She felt bad for thinking that way, but it would be nice not to go into a room and be insulted all the time.
As long as she was left alone.
Thomas managed to get back to Eaton Socon without too much trouble, although his feet hurt from all the walking. He was used to walking in the countryside back in Kent, but it was flatter there. Cambridgeshire was, apparently, meant to be pretty flat as well.
Someone had lied to him.
As he reached civilisation and went through the streets, which were now starting to get busy with the various stalls and people going about their business, Thomas couldn’t help thinking about the beautiful woman he had come across on his walk. The woman with the notebook and the talented drawings. She could seriously put men to shame with just the small sketches she had. He would be interested to see her create a bigger drawing or even a painting.
It was a shame he hadn’t got her name, but Thomas had been so struck by her beauty he had forgotten his manners. She must have thought he was a bit of a fool for forgetting something like that. Even those who didn’t have a title knew this was rather bad.
There was a good chance they wouldn’t meet each other again, so maybe it was a good thing he didn’t get her name. Thomas didn’t want to have that awkward moment where he was sitting with his supposed future bride and attempting to have any sort of conversation while thinking about someone else.
The problem was, though, he didn’t need to know her name to put her to one side. She could easily fill his head, and Thomas wouldn’t be able to get rid of her.
Interacting with Miss Aimee Burke was going to be rather difficult now.
Dodging a flower seller, who almost shoved a big bouquet in his face that would make anyone sneeze violently, Thomas wished his parents hadn’t chosen her as his future bride. Between Viscount Hawksworth and Viscount Westbury, they had come up with a solution that helped everyone: Westbury needed a husband for his daughter, and Hawksworth wanted his son’s future, and their future, secured. It seemed perfect for them, having their respective children marry and have both wealth and the ability to carry on the family line.
Thomas didn’t see it like that. Especially after hearing the stories of Aimee Burke and her sisters. While her three older sisters had married wealthy gentlemen and had solidified their positions, their attitudes and personalities were well-known. And it wasn’t well-received. Aimee Burke had been cut from the same cloth. Thomas didn’t get along with people who put others down and had scathing remarks about those trying to get on with life. Their tastes were very particular, as were their choice of friends.
Viscount Westbury’s family was well-known, but not for the reasons he would have liked.
Why did his father have to choose their family? Why Aimee Burke, of all people? Thomas could have done without that.
Hopefully, she would also see this as a transactional marriage, one where it was beneficial but not necessarily a love match. Thomas knew he would have to perform his marital duties, which didn’t sit well with him. He had had meaningless affairs, short flings in the bedchamber that left both parties satisfied, but it was with people he found attractive. Aimee Burke, by all accounts, was a beautiful woman, so hopefully that would work in his favour. Otherwise, both sets of parents would be waiting a very long time for grandchildren and heirs.
If that mysterious woman were my wife, it would be a lot easier.
Thomas pushed that aside. He knew better than to think about a woman who was clearly a servant. If she was a member of the ton, with how brown her skin was, then she would be on the fringes. Not an attractive look, apparently.
Thomas had thought the same until he saw it for himself. Now he liked it. It suited her.
Who was she? Maybe Thomas would be able to find out at some point. Or maybe he wouldn’t. It would depend.
But he did find it interesting that his body had stirred towards her. It had been a while since that had happened when he had been with Constance. Almost a year since he had last seen her, Thomas had thought he had lost all ability to find a woman physically attractive. This woman with no name was changing his mind.
Curious. But he wasn’t going to think much of it. He wasn’t about to have his heart broken again. Thomas hadn’t liked it the last time, and he wasn’t about to deal with it again.
Baron Beauchamp’s house was near the river, the backdrop very pretty when approaching from the front. Just beyond the large townhouse, standing alone from the others, was the River Ouse, calmly trickling along happily. Thomas could watch it all day from his bedchamber window and not get bored. There was something serene about it.
As Thomas approached, a clattering of horses’ hooves and some snorts were coming from the stables. Diverting his course, he entered the courtyard to see Pierce Shore and Edwin Ford by their respective horses, dressed ready to go riding. Pierce looked around as Thomas approached them. He gave him a wide grin.
“Thomas! We were beginning to think you would never get out of bed, but it looks like you’ve been out of bed for a while.”
“I woke early and thought I’d go for a walk.” Thomas turned towards Edwin, stroking his horse’s nose. “Are you sure you should be going out, Edwin? We did travel quite a way yesterday.”
“My horse is ready to go for a ride, and I want to go out.” His little brother grinned at him before nodding towards the house. “Besides, Mother and Father are discussing your prospective marriage with Baron Beauchamp. I thought it was best that we made ourselves scarce.”
“I’m sure they’re going to drag me in there once they realise I’m back.”
“I’m glad it’s you they’re deciding as Miss Burke’s husband and not me.”
“That’s not amusing, Pierce.”
“I think it is. Now, her sister, the only one unmarried, however …” Pierce waggled his eyebrows. “I’ve heard she’s a pretty one as well. And far sweeter than her other sisters.”
“It’s probably a lie,” Edwin snorted. “She’s more than likely the same as the others, and we’re just being told things to believe otherwise.”
“I don’t think that’s the case.”
Thomas grunted and clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder.
“It more than likely is. And I thought you were going riding.”
“We were.” Baron Beauchamp’s son gave him a sly smile. “Unless you’d like to come along? We can wait for you, and it won’t take long.”
Thomas was about to say he wasn’t going to come along – he had just come back from a long walk, and his feet did hurt – but now he was aware of his parents discussing his potential marriage. They would certainly drag him into it, and Thomas was very reluctant to be around them. They knew his views on it, and while Thomas agreed to it so they could secure the future of the Viscountcy, he didn’t necessarily want to go through with it.
“Let me get my horse out.”
“The servants can saddle him up quickly.” Pierce signalled to two stable lads nearby, who hurried off to the stalls. “We’ll be out of here in no time as long as we take the route that doesn’t take us past the window.”
“You still think they’ll drag me in once they see me?”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.”
Thomas caught sight of Edwin grinning at him. He looked like he was trying not to laugh. Thomas scowled at his brother.
“I really wish I was the younger son. Then I shouldn’t be going through this and marrying a woman I’ve never met.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re not. Because this is far too amusing from my point of view.”
“I hate you, Edwin.”
Edwin laughed and climbed up into the saddle, a gentle breeze ruffling his dark curls.
“Hurry up and get ready. I want to do some exploring, and we can’t do that standing here talking.”
“A Viscount’s Sinful Touch” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
The fiery Sophia Burke never embraced marriage as a possibility. With her sisters always getting all the attention, she could enjoy an independent life that would never exchange for any suitor. As if she could have known that soon the most seductive man would walk into her life to set her whole world on fire. Yet, this flaming encounter was about to become more scandalous than she ever expected.
The only man who ever awakened her sizzling desire is her sister’s prospective beau…
Heartbroken and despondent, Thomas Ford agreed to a match between him and Aimee Burke to please his father. On his way to meet his future fiancée, though, he accidentally walks into a tempting lady who immediately catches his interest. As sparks fly between them, Thomas realises that he has made a terrible mistake; he fell in love with the wrong sister.
Will he manage to tame his tantalizing passion for his fiancée’s younger sister?
As Sophia’s and Thoma’s lives fatefully intertwine, they will not be able to stay away from each other and their sinful attraction will prove to be vital. With their forbidden romance about to destroy their beloved ones as well as their own reputation, will they manage to find a way to be together? Will they surpass their fears and prejudice to give a chance to the flaring romance that has conquered their souls?
“A Viscount’s Sinful Touch” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.
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