Sat
Jan 12 2013 1:00pm
The Reluctant Countess: New Excerpt
Wendy Vella

The Reluctant Countess by Wendy VellaRegal, poised, and elegant, Sophie, Countess of Monmouth, is everything that a highborn lady should be. But Sophie is hiding a past that is far from royal. When Patrick, Earl of Coulter, realizes that her story doesn’t add up, he resolves to find out the truth of what Sophie and her sister-in-law are concealing. Although Sophie has every reason to avoid him, the handsome and charismatic Patrick awakens something wicked deep within her soul . . . a powerful need that Sophie must stifle in order to protect her place in society.

Despite Sophie’s humble background, the raven-haired beauty has won Patrick’s heart. But what Sophie needs now is an ally. Viscount Myles Dumbly, the disgruntled former heir of Monmouth, is determined to expose Sophie as a fraud to recapture his lost inheritance. Soon Patrick is drawn into a fight for both their lives. Somehow he must find a way not only to rescue Sophie from poverty once and for all, but to keep her in his arms forever.

Get a sneak peek at Wendy Vella's The Reluctant Countess (available January 14, 2013) with an excerpt of Chapters 1-2.

Chapter 1

“If only she had a small imperfection.”

“What?” Patrick, Earl of Coulter, tore his eyes from the top of the stairs to glare at his friend.

“The countess.” Lord Sumner swept his hand in an arc that encompassed most of the assembled guests. “I was saying that some sort of imperfection would detract from her goddesslike beauty. Perhaps a lisp? Alas, no,” he added seconds later. “A lisp would merely make her sweet and beautiful.”

“Idiot,” the earl muttered, propping one shoulder against the silk-covered wall. His gaze returned to where the countess now stood. Poised on the top step of the Duke of Rookvale’s ballroom, she appeared motionless; only her eyes moved as they passed over the guests milling below.

“Perhaps a mole with several long dark hairs,” Lord Sumner mused, “on the end of her little nose?”

 Patrick watched the countess descend. Tonight her raven locks were piled high and clasped with a single diamond pin; several long curls had been artfully teased to lie on one slender shoulder. Created to torment, her dress was cut low in the bodice, allowing a glimpse of the lush curves that lay beneath, and with every step she took the skirts caressed her legs in a swirl of emerald satin. Patrick dreamt about those legs—naked and wrapped around his body. Even from a distance, his muscles clenched at the thought of her lying beneath him, skin gleaming, lips red from his kisses. Bloody woman. From the first glance, she had taken up residence in his head, and he wanted her out. Patrick didn’t obsess over women—he took what he wanted when he wanted it. Usually his affairs were brief yet satisfactory for both parties and he was always the one in control. The countess, however, was another matter. Something about her reached out to him and he wanted her with a desperation no other had made him feel. Yet he would never act on that desperation because the countess was a fraud, and there was nothing Patrick hated more than people who set out to deliberately deceive others.

“Did you just growl, Coulter?”

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Patrick snapped, following the countess’s progress until she reached the bottom step. Once again she became motionless. It was as if she held her breath, yet those eyes moved in every direction, seeking, searching, but for what?

“To be her lady’s maid for just one day,” Lord Sumner sighed.

Reluctantly, Patrick pulled his eyes from the countess once more to look at the man who lounged beside him. Stephen Sumner had been Patrick’s friend since childhood, and knew him better than anyone.

“The woman’s a fraud.” Patrick was subjected to a fierce glare as he finished speaking.

“For pity’s sake, Colt,” Stephen said, reverting to the nickname Patrick had been given in his school days. “Just because she has not fallen prostrate at your oversized feet whilst declaring her undying love, does not mean she is a fraud. Surely you have tasted rejection before.”

“She has not rejected me!” Patrick snapped. Even knowing Stephen was baiting him did not ease his ire. That bloody woman always set him on edge.

“Excellent,” Stephen said. “We know how fragile your ego is.”

“I have no idea why I keep you as a friend.” Patrick shook his head. As Stephen began to speak, he lifted a hand to stall him.

“Three days before the Earl of Monmouth passed away, I paid him a visit at Monmouth Hall. He was in his bed, clearly near death, but still lucid.” He paused to make sure Stephen understood exactly what he was saying. “There was no Countess of Monmouth at that time, Stephen, no wife and most definitely no son.”

“What are you saying, Patrick? That she is some sort of imposter?” Running a hand through his golden locks, Stephen shot his friend an irritated look. “Why must you always suspect people of wrongdoing? Maybe she was away from the estate? Good lord, Colt! The old man was absent from society for years, lived like a recluse. He could have married a whole bevy of beauties and we would have been none the wiser.”

 Shaking his head, Stephen continued before Patrick could interrupt. “Your investigating days are over, and for what it’s worth, I for one like the lady and cannot see her capable of treachery or deceit.”

 Patrick snorted, his disbelief obvious. “You are too trusting, Sumner. There was no wife, I tell you. The old earl’s man of affairs was there, and that obsequious weasel of a nephew who was due to inherit his fortune, but there was no mention of a countess.”

“Well, good for her. If she got that old goat to marry her before he passed away, I’d say she deserved his money.” Stephen followed Patrick’s gaze back to where the countess now stood. “The woman is obviously a lady, so let it be, Patrick; no good can come of your meddling.”

“Me, meddle? I’m insulted.” The wounded expression on Patrick’s face belied the wicked twinkle in his eyes.

Laughing at the foul comment Stephen hissed in his ear, Patrick lifted both hands in surrender, his demeanor once again serious.

“All I’m saying is that I quite liked that ‘old goat’ as you so delicately put it, and because I was one of the last to see him alive I feel in some way connected to him. Something about the countess does not seem right, and if she is a charlatan I will expose her as one.”

“Well, if you want to investigate further I suggest you make haste to put your name on her dance card, as her circle is forming,” Stephen urged.
 With a look of distaste, Patrick eyed the men moving to intercept the countess and then pushed off the wall to join their ranks.

 

 “I feel like a piece of raw meat being hurled to the ravaging masses, Letty,” the Countess of Monmouth murmured out the side of her mouth to the lady resplendent in puce walking beside her. “Even after two weeks, my heart is thumping out of the bodice of my very low-cut dress.”

“Now, Sophie, we have been through this already. Your dress is conservative when compared with others on display, and very pretty, too.”

Sophie concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Lady Letitia Carstairs made small comforting noises as she guided Sophie through the crowds.

“I feel as if someone is going to scream ‘Charlatan!’ from the rooftops, while pointing a finger at me,” Sophie whispered as a familiar feeling of impending doom once again gripped her.

“Only three people know, Sophie, and one of those is dead and the other two are you and I, my dear. Surely you can see we are not about to be found out, and on that note, what we did was perfectly legal, so stop worrying.” Letty once again patted Sophie’s hand. This was a soothing gesture she did numerous times every night to her young companion.

“And the priest, Letty, we cannot forget him.”

“He is a man of God, Sophie, he will tell no one.”

“Dear lord! It’s him, and he’s coming my way,” Sophie gasped, her eyes watching the Earl of Coulter as he walked through the crowd toward her.

What was it about the man that disturbed her? Whenever he turned those dark eyes on her, she felt as if they could see right down to her very soul. Black as a starless night and fringed by thick lashes, they could make a woman swoon when they were lit by laughter. The earl moved with an athletic grace that was often lacking in tall men, and anyone in his way simply stepped aside to allow him access.

 Instinctively, Sophie shuffled two steps closer to Letty. He unsettled her and she was unsure why. It was almost as if beneath that polished veneer lay the real earl, a ruthless man who would not hesitate to expose an imposter like her. Her cloak of practiced, icy civility always seemed to slip whenever he was nearby.

“So he is, my dear.” Letty patted her curls and smoothed a nonexistent wrinkle from her dress. “Smile now and remember to speak slowly and without profanity,” she chided. “Never forget that you have them all fooled, my dear. Why just yesterday, I overheard Mrs. Liversporth scolding her daughter for her deplorable lack of polish and holding you up as a paragon of bearing,” Letty said, giggling like a schoolroom miss. “It is a quite a feat, considering not a day goes by without you tripping over your feet or tearing a hem.”

“I am glad that you can find some amusement in this horrible situation. Every evening I am sure that I will fall down the stairs of whatever room we are entering and land at the feet of every affluent member of society with my skirts up over my head, showing the polite world my knickers.”

“Now, dear, you know that is not going to happen. Rather a miracle, really, you being able to hold yourself so still that it appears you barely draw breath. Quite a clever trick, considering . . .”

“Oh lord! He is getting closer,” Sophie interrupted Letty by grabbing the older woman’s arm—wanting desperately to run and hide.

For two years they had lived a life that she had no right to be part of, and each day she waited for someone to expose her. Lately, Sophie believed the Earl of Coulter would be that person. Staring at his elegantly clad form as he drew near, she was sure he suspected something.

“Lady Carstairs, Countess, as always it is my pleasure to see you this evening.” The earl bowed deeply before them.

His expression was composed, facial features pleasant, yet to Sophie it seemed he could see right through her to the scared, poverty-stricken girl she had once been. She looked at the top of his sable brown curls, which he wore unfashionably long, the ends brushing his large shoulders. Everything about the earl was big, thought Sophie, eyeing his hands as they reached for one of Letty’s. He stood well over six feet and his feet could squash both of hers without too much effort. Sophie shivered, suddenly feeling like a very small fly in the presence of a large spider. His cheekbones were high and wide and his nose long, but not overly so. His jaw was square and the slash of a dimple in his cheek did little to deviate from the picture of intense masculine beauty.

Patrick lifted first Lady Carstairs’s hand and then that of the countess to his lips; the telltale tremor in the latter revealed how his presence unsettled her.

“Lady Carstairs, I was just telling Lord Sumner how I had the pleasure of seeing your brother three days before his passing, and that it is a memory I will always treasure,” Patrick said, with just the right amount of respect in his voice.

“Yes, Melton told me of your visit, my lord.” Letty had a soft smile on her face. “It pleased him greatly to see you one last time; he cared for your grandmother deeply.”

Three days! Oh dear, this was not good. Lowering her eyes to the Earl of Coulter’s slate and ivory satin waistcoat, Sophie fought for calm.

“I did not have the pleasure of seeing you there, Countess, or the current earl, your son.”

Sophie’s tongue quite suddenly seemed to swell to twice its normal size, thereby blocking anything articulate from leaving her mouth. “Ah . . . ah,” she stammered.

“Indeed, my lord, my sister-in-law and nephew were visiting a friend with me at that time. I am very fond of them both,” Letty said steadily, her eyes never leaving the earl’s face.
 Patrick had the distinct impression that he had just been warned off by Lady Carstairs, for there was a decidedly militant look in her faded blue eyes.

“Ah of course, well, that explains their absence then,” he replied in an appeasing tone, not believing a word the old lady said but choosing to leave the matter alone, for now.

Patrick once again smiled, noting that the countess had gone very still. She seemed very uncertain and gripped by a sort of fear as she drew herself inward and appeared almost statuelike.

“May I have this dance, Countess?” he asked noticing her admirers closing in from both sides.

“Of course, my lord,” Sophie said, relieved that she did not stutter.

Even her voice was pure sin, Patrick thought. She spoke in a soft little growl that made all his senses stand to attention. She did not possess the cultured drawl that others affected. Leading her onto the floor, he was pleased when the first strains of a waltz floated through the air. Swinging her into his arms Patrick used unnecessary force and was rewarded with her soft body pressing against his.

“Excuse me, my lord, I . . . um slipped.” Sophie placed her hands on his chest to lever herself backward. Muscles clenched beneath her fingers and she quickly drew them back. Even through her evening gloves, she could feel the heat from his solid chest.

“The fault was mine, Countess, please accept my apologies.”

Sophie lowered her head and concentrated on the shiny buttons of his waistcoat. He was toying with her—there was a knowing gleam in his eyes. The man had a way of reducing her to a mass of quivering nerves in seconds. Find your backbone, Sophie, she could hear Letty’s voice inside her head.

Patrick had an urge to wind one of her black satin curls around his fingers; he wanted to explore the scent and texture of it.

“How does your son fare here in London, Countess?” He could almost believe her free of treachery when she looked at him with such an innocent expression in her beautiful eyes. The deep green of leaves after rainfall, they appeared clear of deceit. He waited for her to offer a polite but singular comment in reply to his question, as was her standard response to most questions.

“He is well, my lord. His aunt and I took him on his first London adventure,” she said, offering him a wide smile. “Yesterday we visited the museum and Gunter’s Tea Shop, I fear Gunter’s, with its delicious iced delicacies, was by far the best treat.”

Patrick realized this was the first time he had seen such a look of joy on her face. It was also the first time he had noted her dimples, which told him she did not laugh freely. Rarely had he heard more than a few words spill from her lips. Obviously, the love she felt for her son was very real.

“He is very lucky to have such a caring mother, Countess.” Patrick watched the smile fall from her lips as he spoke.

“It is I who am lucky, my lord; both Timothy and Lady Carstairs are very special to me.”

Another warning; Patrick noted the flicker of anger in her eyes. What was she hiding? He would find out—that was never in doubt. Patrick had spied for the Foreign Office and had been very good at his job. By comparison, discovering the countess’s secrets should not be overly taxing. Spinning her in a turn, he felt her evening slipper land on top of his shoe.

“Forgive me, my lord!”

He had noticed that dancing was something she did well, yet was not comfortable with, as if she had only been doing it for a short time.

“The fault was mine, Countess,” he said, steadying her. He had caught her counting steps at the Belton soiree three nights ago. She, of course, had responded to his raised brow of inquiry with the elevation of one haughty eyebrow of her own and then had continued dancing beautifully, making him wonder if he had imagined the entire episode. Patrick almost applauded the air of disdain. He had noted the slight tilt of her head to avoid direct eye contact when she was uncomfortable. She spoke only when necessary, and then as little as possible. The countess was an accomplished actress, but Patrick was not fooled. He might want her in his bed, but that did not alter the fact that she was a charlatan and he was going to expose her as such.

“I would be honored if you would allow me to take you driving through the park on Wednesday afternoon, Countess.” Patrick tightened his grip as she stumbled again.

“I . . . ah . . .”

“Excellent.” As if he had commanded it, the music ceased and Patrick quickly led her back to Lady Carstairs.

“Thank you, my lord, for the dance,” Sophie said, finally finding her voice.

“The pleasure was all mine, Countess.”

“I am afraid I must decline your invitation for Wednesday afternoon . . .”

“What invitation, my dear?” Letty asked, joining her sister-in-law and instinctively placing her hand in Sophie’s.

“I have invited the countess to come driving with me on Wednesday, Lady Carstairs.”

“Oh, but of course you must go, my dear,” Letty urged, completely oblivious to Sophie’s distress.

“B-but did we not promise to take Timmy to the park on Wednesday?”

“I will take Timmy,” Letty said firmly. “We will look forward to your visit, my lord. You may call for Sophie at two o’clock.”

Patrick smiled, then bowed and walked away.

“Calls to mind a large jungle cat, all feral grace and beauty,” Letty whispered.

“He suspects something, Letty, I am sure of it,” Sophie chewed her bottom lip.

“Stop gnawing on your lip, dear. He may suspect, but what can he do? My brother died two years ago and shortly before that he married you. We have the certificate to prove it and even the powerful Earl of Coulter can do little to change that and why would he bother?” Squeezing Sophie’s hand, she continued. “I think it is you he is interested in and that makes you nervous, and who would not be when confronted by such a man. Why, he makes me feel quite heated all over.”

“Letty, you are wicked.”

“I may be old, child, however I am not dead.”

“Old,” Sophie scoffed. “I think you use that as an excuse when you wish to manipulate me.”

Laughing, Letty merely waved her fingers at Sophie and walked toward her friend Lady Beatrice Bottomley. Her parting words caused Sophie’s lips to twitch. “So my late husband often told me, dear. Now get ready, you are about to have company . . . lots of it.”

Soon Sophie’s hand was claimed and she was quite content to dance each set; at least then she barely had to speak and could do little to trip herself up should a difficult question arise.

 

Chapter 2

Sophie was never at her best in the morning. She watched Letty pull funny faces across the breakfast table at Timmy. His high-pitched squeals of delight had her wincing and then reaching for another fortifying sip of tea.

“I am still astounded you managed to hold a maid’s position in Melton’s household for so many years, Sophie.”

Stifling a yawn, Sophie took another sip of tea before she responded. “It is the late nights. When I was in service, I am sure I got a lot more sleep than I currently do.”

Letty watched her sister-in-law miss her mouth completely and tip several drops of liquid down the front of her dress. It really was some feat that Sophie had managed to fool the highest-ranking members of society. Handing Timmy a piece of toast, she then offered Sophie her own napkin, as hers was now soaked with tea.

“Did you burn yourself?”

“No, but I fear this dress will need another wash.”

By day, Sophie, Countess of Monmouth, struggled to maintain the appearance that her position in society demanded. Letty watched a long curl pull free of its pins to trail down Sophie’s spine. She often walked around their town house in a state of disrepair, and only made a move to rectify this if she was out in society.

“I am sure Miss Lloyd will be able to remove the stain, dear, do not fret,” Letty said, handing Timmy another finger of toast.

“I wonder if she has heard of . . .”

“If you recite another recipe for stain removal or boot-blacking in my presence, young lady, I will be sorely vexed.” Letty softened her words with a smile.

“’Tis who I was for many years.”

“But it is not who you are now,” Letty added firmly.

Sophie nodded and began to nibble her own toast, while Letty read the morning paper and fed Timmy at the same time.

“Fee, Fee!” Timmy squealed waving a finger of toast at Sophie, who in turn poked out her tongue, which had him gurgling with laughter.

“M-may I have the carriage, Letty? I wish to visit Morton’s bookstore this morning.”

“Of course, dear. Bea is visiting and we will take Timmy into the gardens while you are gone.” Sophie beamed at her, given the prospect of a new book.

Letty, too, still felt momentary qualms over what they had achieved two years ago, but her qualms were not the same as Sophie’s. She felt no shame over the efforts the two women had undertaken to secure their futures and that of Timmy. Letty’s only worry was for Sophie and her ability to keep up the façade she was now forced to endure for the rest of the season. Letty noticed that Sophie rarely stuttered now, unless she was agitated or upset. Looking at the dark smudges under her sister-in-law’s eyes, she knew the toll each evening took upon her. Not once had Sophie slipped up; everyone now thought of her as the unattainable Countess of Monmouth. They had certainly practiced for many hours, and in this her sister-in-law had been diligent, studying every book Letty had given her and following every step she was taught.

“You must buy as many books as you like, Sophie, you know money is no object.”

Lifting Timmy from his chair, Sophie busied herself wiping his hands.

“I know, Letty, but it does not come easily to me . . . this . . . this spending,” she whispered into Timmy’s curls.

“Now, dear, we have been through this before.”

Timmy was now clutching several handfuls of Sophie’s hair, his laughter making both women smile.

“I know—it just never gets any easier.”

“Are you unhappy, Sophie?”

Silence greeted Letty’s words as she watched Sophie ruffle Timmy’s hair and blow on his cheek, something the young boy loved. Seeing them together, a picture of youth and innocence, merely reinforced Letty’s belief that the decisions she had made to secure all their futures had indeed been the right ones.

Letty had lost her husband more than ten years ago. He had woken one morning complaining of chest pains and by nightfall her beloved Henry was dead. Unfortunately, they had not been blessed with children; therefore, Letty had been left with neither money nor a home. Henry’s nephew had inherited everything she had believed hers and had not offered to provide for Letty. Were it not for her brother’s insistence that she live with him, she would have been destitute.

“Sophie?” Letty prompted when the girl remained quiet.

“I am not unhappy. How could I be when Timmy and I no longer face a future of poverty?” Lowering Timmy to the floor, she watched him walk unsteadily round the table. “It is just that I am so scared of failing you in some way. I fear exposure, and then the ridicule and humiliation that would surely follow.”

“Oh Sophie . . .”

“Not for us, Letty, but for you,” Sophie rushed to add. “I think the sooner I can leave London and retire to Monmouth, the better for us all.”

Letty clasped her sister-in-law’s hands before she spoke. “Now you listen to me, child, for I will only say this once more.”

Sophie nodded, her eyes solemn.

“You have given me something I never thought to have, a family to love as my own. I have happiness in my life, and you and Timmy have given me this. I can also live my life in society, Sophie, amongst friends whom I hold dear, and this, too, would have been denied me had we not wed you to my brother.”

A single tear trailed down one of Sophie’s cheeks as she looked into the face of her dear friend.

“Oh, Letty, you must know that Timmy and I love you, too.”

Both women stood and embraced, and it was Letty who spoke next.

“Now I want to hear nothing further on this matter, child, we will do what must be done in London, then I will see you safely home to Monmouth. Yes?” she finished as she gave Sophie’s shoulders a small shake.

“Yes,” Sophie whispered.

“Now go to Morton’s and then to that shop which has all those funny little knickknacks and dolls you love.”

Sophie looked surprised. “Now how did you know about my interest in dolls and knickknacks?

“I have seen the books in your room, Sophie, and the way you inspect every cabinet and nook of every grand house we enter at night,” Letty said, with a knowing look. “I want you to purchase a doll, Sophie, as I suspect it will be your first.”

Sophie just smiled and then, with Timmy in her arms, she left the room.

 

“I wish to visit some other shops, Robbie, if you would like to walk the horses for a while,” Sophie said as she left the bookshop and approached Letty’s carriage.

“You make sure to stick close, Jenny, we don’t want any trouble,” Robbie said to Sophie’s maid as he took her books and placed them in the carriage.

Sophie sighed loudly. It really was too bad that Letty had chosen to use the Monmouth servants to accompany them to London.

“You can count on me, Mr. Robbie,” Jenny declared, coming to stand beside her as if to prove that she was more than equal to the task.

“I will be fine, Robbie, please don’t fuss.”

Of course the problem was that at one time, Sophie had been one of them, and Letty, feeling that Sophie would be more secure surrounded by faces she knew, had enlisted a handful of them to accompany her to London.

“Now, Soph . . . I mean Countess, Lady Carstairs has asked that we keep an eye on you,” said Robbie as his eyes creased at the corners and his head tilted slightly to the side. His expression was similar to that of an adult addressing a small truculent child. “That Jack Spode made those nasty threats before we left Monmouth and Lady Carstairs says we must always be on the lookout in case he tries to harm you.”

Sophie shivered at the mention of Jack Spode’s name. He was a part of her past she wanted to forget, yet the memories of his physical threats and verbal tirades were still as clear in her mind as if they had taken place only yesterday. Drawing in deep, steadying breaths, Sophie pushed thoughts of him aside—she would not allow that man to spoil her day.

“I will walk the length of these shops.” Sophie waved one gloved hand to indicate the buildings before her. “Please meet me there,” she added, pointing to the end.

Ignoring the clucking coming from Robbie, Sophie turned on her heel and walked into the first shop. She did not often go out on her own, and most especially not into fashion establishments. Today, however, she wanted to get Letty a gift, something special that went a small way toward thanking her for all she had done for Timmy and herself.

 She found just the thing in a display of brooches. It had the two things Letty cherished most—roses and diamonds. Miniature versions of three long-stemmed pink roses were bound with white gold and centered with a sparking gem. It was beautiful and simple; everything that her sister-in-law would love.

With her purchase wrapped and tucked safely in her reticule, Sophie collected Jenny and started toward the shop with the knickknacks. She had first noticed it when Letty had brought her shopping two days after they had arrived in London. Back then, Sophie had been too terrified of the big city to explore it. Now, she was more than ready. The sign in the window said Draven’s Delights, and a small bell tinkled as she walked inside.

“Welcome, my lady,” a voice called, and Sophie’s eyes searched around the room for its owner. “My name is Mr. Draven, please feel free to look your fill.”

Sophie clenched her teeth together to stop her jaw dropping open. He was tiny. She was not overly tall herself, but this man reached her chin. He wore a vibrant yellow jacket and white knee breeches. So many colors made up his waistcoat that Sophie did not even try to catalogue them. His hair was pulled forward in the latest style and formed a frame for a sweet cherubic face decorated with a pair of startling blue eyes. He was a strange combination of adult and child.

Nodding, she headed for the first glass cabinet, her eyes already feasting on its many delights. This one housed small figures of birds and animals, but it was the next one that caught her attention.

“Do you have a house at your residence that you wish to furnish?” Mr. Draven queried.

“House?” Sophie reluctantly pulled her eyes from the cabinet.

“Small domicile for your little people,” Mr.Draven urged, pointing to several dolls sitting on the shelves before them.

Sophie looked at him blankly.

“Doll’s house,” he prompted.

“Oh no, I have yet to obtain one,” she whispered, taking the small doll Mr. Draven handed her. It had wheat-gold curls and blue eyes made of glass and was dressed in a long white nightgown as if ready for bed. It was perfect in every way, right down to the little fingernails, which were painted pink. Lifting first the arms and then the legs, Sophie knew she had never wanted anything quite so much in her life, then immediately felt silly for her reactions. A doll at her age? What was she thinking?

“You must buy it!”

Clutching the doll close, Sophie turned to see who was standing behind her.

“Sorry, I did not mean to frighten you. I am Miss Pette; we have not been introduced, but I have often seen you at social gatherings.”

“Of course.” Sophie sank into a curtsy. “I have seen you also. How do you do?”

“I have a doll’s house that Mama says I spend far too much time with for a grown woman. However, it is not a child’s love I have for my collection, but that of a woman who admires something so perfect,” Miss Pette said with a wide smile that made her brown eyes twinkle. “Like someone who collects fine art or books, I just like to look at them, not play with them. Would you like to come and see it some time?”

Sophie thought she would like nothing more than to visit with Miss Pette and see her doll’s house, and was very surprised by the observation. She was usually on guard with strangers.

“Of course, I realize you are a countess and therefore would not be interested in seeing my doll collection . . .”

 “No!” Sophie rushed in, noting that Miss Pette suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Please, I would love to see it.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Sophie reiterated.

She could be very pretty, Sophie thought, looking at the young woman before her. She remembered seeing her sitting with the other girls who sat around the walls night after night, often never receiving an offer to dance. The few times Sophie had noticed her, her dark auburn hair was pulled back in a severe knot with little or no adornment and her gowns were shapeless, doing little to enhance her figure. Not that Sophie was any great authority on fashion, but she had learned a little in her time as a countess.

She guessed Miss Pette was close to her own twenty-two years, well past marriageable age.

“Is this not the most beautiful little jacket you have ever seen? I have just the young man for it; his name is Charles.” Miss Pette held up a tiny coat.

Sophie moved forward to examine the intricately sewn little garment.

The next hour flew by for Sophie as she and Miss Pette, who had urged Sophie to call her Amelia, oohed and ahhed over the contents of every cabinet. By the time Jenny had intervened and drawn attention to the time, the two ladies had become firm friends.

“I shall look forward to your visit, Sophie.” Amelia gave her a quick hug before rushing out of the shop with her maid behind her.

With her doll clasped under one arm, Sophie said goodbye to the now smiling Mr. Draven, then started toward the place where the carriage waited. Meeting Amelia had been wonderful and for once Sophie had not been tongue-tied and forced into her habitual haughty behavior.

“Countess, what a pleasant surprise to find you here, and all alone.”

Every muscle in Sophie’s body clenched at the nasal drawl. Shooting a glance up the road, she thought briefly of picking up her skirts and fleeing to safety. Instead, she wiped all expression from her face, drew in a deep breath, and turned.

“My lord.” She slipped into an elegant curtsy.

“I am surprised my aunt lets her most treasured possession out unescorted.”

Ignoring the snigger coming from the female clasping his arm, Sophie lifted her chin and looked at her cousin by marriage. He was a most repulsive individual. Greasy slicked-back hair and small beady eyes that darted in several directions, a loathsome creature Sophie had every reason not to trust.

“Thank you, my lord, it is truly a compliment to hear you call me a treasured possession,” Sophie said, composing her features into a blatantly false smile.

“I meant no compliment, madam!” Viscount Myles Dumbly snapped. Small drops of spittle flew from his mouth and Sophie instinctively took a step backward. He followed.

“You have ruined my life, Countess, and you will pay for that!”

Even standing on a busy street with people walking around her, Sophie suddenly felt very alone. Jenny was behind her, but really, what could she do if Myles threatened her physically? No, Sophie was alone. Looking out the corner of her eye, she tried to find Robbie, but could see no sign of her carriage. Retreat was her only option, for although she could defend herself if need be, Myles would surely hold the advantage and without Letty she was not safe with the viscount. His stance was threatening and his eyes filled with rage.

“I fail to see how I have ruined your life, my lord, when upon the death of my husband you inherited a title that comes with several properties and a more than substantial remuneration,” Sophie stated as calmly as she could. “Now I must return to my carriage. Please excuse me.” Her heart was beating so hard it hurt.

“Not so fast, Countess; I will have my say!”

Sophie felt her fragile newfound confidence shatter as the Viscount released his companion and grabbed her arm.

“Un . . . unhand me at once, sir.” Sophie knew her words sounded desperate, fear clawed at her throat as she struggled to control her breathing.

“I will uncover the truth, Countess, and then you will be sorry . . . very, very sorry.”

She tugged her arm, but he would not release her.

“I did not gain the title I wanted! I should have been the Earl of Monmouth and inherited all the estates, yet I received a mere portion of what should rightfully have been mine.” He pushed his faced closer to hers until only inches separated them.

Sophie wondered how a street that had until recently been filled with people could now suddenly seem so devoid of them.

“I knew nothing of you until my uncle passed away!” Myles continued, his fingers biting into her arm. “You changed his will, you and that reprobate aunt of mine.”

“Do not dare speak of Letty like that!” Sophie felt her own anger rise at the mention of her sister-in-law. She would protect Letty with her life if need be.

“Countess, I believe your carriage awaits you.”

Sophie jumped as a hand cupped her elbow. Looking up, she encountered the black eyes of the Earl of Coulter and thought fleetingly of fainting. Dear lord, not him. Now she was humiliated as well as terrified. But now you are safe, Sophie, a small voice in her head reminded her. Myles would not harm her with the large earl beside her.

“Thank you, my lord, I . . . I ah . . .”

“Say goodbye to your cousin, Countess,” Patrick said, interrupting her. “Your driver is struggling to contain the horses.”

Patrick looked down his nose at Myles, his eyes moving from the man’s flushed face to the hand he still had clenched on the countess’ arm.

“Release her, Myles . . . now,” he said in a soft tone, which made all the hair on Sophie’s neck stand up. “Or I will break your fingers.” This last remark brought gasps from Myles’s female companion, who was now batting her eyelashes shamelessly at the earl.

Upon hearing Patrick’s words, color flooded the viscount’s face. By the widening of his eyes, it was clear that he understood the danger he was in if he did not comply with the request. Unclenching his fingers instantly from Sophie’s arm, he almost pushed the limb away in his haste to obey the command.

“My name is Viscount Dumbly,” Myles stuttered.

“Old habits die hard it seems, Myles,” Patrick said, taking Sophie’s hand. “To me, you will always be that sniveling, obsequious little weasel whom I knew at Eton. Just be glad I do not tell these two ladies your nickname.”

“You would not dare!”

“You know better than to dare me, Myles.”

“Shall we, Countess?” Patrick then asked the countess, his eyes still on Viscount Dumbly, who was now stuttering, like a simpleton.

“Thank you, my lord,” she whispered. Patrick got the feeling she was relieved to have escaped, even if he was her rescuer.

Patrick was not sure what he had interrupted, but the anger that had emanated from Myles was very real. He had wanted to plant his fist in the viscount’s face as he noted the fierce grip he had had on the countess’s arm. She would have a bruise tomorrow, and that thought made him unaccountably angry, which did not sit well as his own intent was to humiliate her by exposing her as a charlatan.

The Monmouth carriage had alerted Patrick that Sophie or Letty was nearby, so instead of riding past to visit his club as he had originally intended, he had stopped and deliberately tracked her down, intent on using the opportunity to question her further.

Her skirts brushed his legs as they walked and he knew she was unaware of how close she was to his side. Patrick could feel her tremors and he fought the need to wrap his arms around her. Her scent teased him, as did the smooth skin at the nape of her neck beneath her bonnet. His throat went dry at the prospect of running his lips over the soft surface.

She looked alluring today in cream muslin with sprigs of apple blossom, her pelisse in a matching shade. In the light of day she appeared sweet and approachable, worlds away from the ice maiden she was in the evening. He wondered which was the true countess and was angry with himself for caring. Patrick didn’t care for people—his parents had taught him that.

“Are you recovered, Countess?”

“Yes, thank you, my lord.”

Patrick had to lean slightly toward her to hear her whispered words, and he instantly regretted the gesture as he inhaled another lungful of her scent, a subtle hint of roses blended with something he couldn’t put his finger on. Whatever it was, the effect was more disturbing than anything he had smelt before. Hell, he was in trouble.

“My carriage is here, my lord.”

Patrick opened the door and helped her and the maid inside. He deliberately kept hold of Sophie’s hand so she could not pull away. Forcing her to look at him, he held her gaze.

“Until tonight, Countess.” He then lifted her hand to his lips and at the last minute pulled down her glove and kissed her wrist.

“G-good day, my lord,” Sophie stammered as he pulled back and quietly shut the carriage door.

“Dear lord,” Sophie whispered placing her parcels beside her and leaning back against the seat. The heat from his kiss made her hand tingle. He was dangerous to her; he made her forget to think and that was deadly to a woman in her position.

“He is a fine gentleman, my lady.”

Sophie did not answer, because she was of the same opinion as her maid; Lord Coulter was indeed a fine gentleman, and one she must keep at a distance from this moment on.

 

“You look enchanting this evening, Countess.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Sophie mumbled as she looked at her feet.

Bother! These steps were hard; it was taking all her concentration to get them right.

Society thought she was aloof and cold, but in truth Sophie was just scared of slipping up, so she had to be on her guard at all times.

Oh dear, this is the turn with the little intricate steps. I must count quietly.

“Are you well, Countess?”

“Pardon, my lord?” Sophie breathed as she completed the turn successfully.

“You made a small noise that suggested you were experiencing some sort of discomfort, Countess.”

“Thank you, I am quite well,” Sophie said with a small tight smile. She must try harder to stay silent whilst dancing in the future.

Sophie’s dance partner was Viscount Sumner. He was a man, unused to being ignored. Handsome, with eyes the color of the ocean and long dark eyelashes, he had a head full of blond curls, which often had the girls sighing, and of course a vast fortune, which aided his cause. She had seen others laughing with him, and knew he had a lively wit that she would enjoy. However, she also had a fear of ending face-first on the dance floor with her skirts over her head if she missed a step, so she rarely conversed while negotiating the dance floor. Of course, dancing was the only time a woman could really get to know a gentleman, and Sophie’s reluctance to talk had gone a long way toward building her reputation as an ice maiden.

Patrick watched as Stephen waltzed Sophie up and down the room. The viscount had made several attempts to converse with her and she had rebuffed each one. Holding herself erect, she merely kept a polite smile on her face while looking over his shoulder, or occasionally, when she thought no one was looking, down at her feet. After yet another attempt, Stephen looked up at the ceiling as if seeking divine intervention. Patrick had observed her dancing with several different partners now, and noted her trepidation as the steps grew more difficult. What the hell was that woman’s story? And why did he care so much?

“That woman is frozen from the inside out!”

Patrick looked at Viscount Sumner as Stephen moved to lean on the wall beside him. To many, Viscount Sumner was a devil-may-care peer whose biggest concern was the color of his waistcoat. Patrick, however, knew him differently.

Two of their estates bordered each other and for Patrick, Stephen and his family had been the only light in an otherwise dark and bleak existence. When they were old enough, and against Stephen’s family’s express wishes, he and the viscount had enlisted. After proving themselves, they had been conscripted to spy for the foreign office. Often behind enemy lines for long periods at a time, Patrick had soon realized that the viscount was a man with a sharp mind and equally sharp right hook. He was one of the few people Patrick would trust with his life. A rarity for him, after a childhood spent with a father who had taught him to trust no one.

“She is everything I will not search for in a wife, Colt,” Stephen declared with a disgruntled expression. Taking a glass of champagne from a passing waiter, he swallowed a large mouthful.

“I am not so sure, Stephen.” Patrick glanced at his friend.

“How so?” the viscount questioned, raising an eyebrow.

“Watch her for a while, and then tell me what you think.”

Stephen sent his friend a searching look, then shrugged. He turned his body so that he had a clear view of the countess.

Mr. Talbot led her onto the floor for the next dance. Moving his eyes to her face, Stephen watched her lips move as she negotiated the difficult steps.

“She is counting.”

“Yes,” Patrick said, watching Talbot fail in his efforts at conversation with Sophie.

When had she become Sophie?When you realized that you have no wish to harm her, merely claim her as your own.

“Talbot looks as frustrated as I,” Stephen said when the dance finished. He watched as Sophie moved toward a group of four ladies. “Look at her hands; she keeps opening and closing them and then tucking them into her skirts. How strange,” he added. “It is as if she is holding her breath to keep herself still.

“She doesn’t offer a comment unless one is addressed to her. Very odd,” Stephen mused, turning once again to face Patrick. “I noticed Lady Carstairs keeps a close eye on her, and that the countess only smiles when she is near. Good lord, Patrick!” Stephen said, standing upright suddenly and looking at the mass of moving people before him. “If they realize that she is not actually an ice maiden, she will be eaten alive.” Stephen’s face now had a worried frown.

“So in light of your discovery, what conclusions would you draw?” Patrick asked quietly.

“I could almost believe she is scared witless and extremely uncomfortable in this setting,” Stephen said, his eyes still on Sophie. “I know it sounds strange, but it is almost as if she is some how new to this,” he added, waving his hand around the room. “Or is it that she suffers from a crippling shyness?”

“Hmmm,” Patrick murmured. “An interesting point, my friend, but of course we will keep our findings to ourselves.”

“Are you suggesting I gossip, Coulter?” Stephen inquired, while trying and subsequently failing to look offended.

Patrick snorted but remained silent.

“She reminds me of you.”

The words were spoken softly, but Patrick heard them.

“You had that look permanently etched on your face for the first year you entered society,” Stephen said quietly.

He didn’t want to ask, but something made him.

“What look?” Patrick queried.

“Trepidation, almost as if you were waiting for the axe to fall.”

And Patrick knew Stephen was right, because inside he had felt that connection with Sophie from the first. He remembered the gut-gnawing fear of failure that he had felt all those years ago. It had taken months to go away, and in that time he had earned the reputation of a man who loathed small talk and was hard to befriend, not unlike his countess. Patrick wondered, when had he begun to think of Sophie as his countess?

Copyright © 2013 by Wendy Vella

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Wendy Vella is a lover of all things romantic and a sucker for a happy ending. She has been married to her own dark brooding hero for twenty-eight years and shares her home with two wonderful children, two dogs, and anyone else who happens to visit. Born and raised in a rural area in the North Island of New Zealand, Wendy loves the beaches and lush green rolling hills of her homeland.

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