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Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish
  • Текст добавлен: 9 октября 2016, 02:06

Текст книги "Lady Sophie's Christmas Wish"

Автор книги: Grace Burrowes

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Текущая страница: 12 (всего у книги 20 страниц)


It would change everything, if Sophie had been a virgin—and it would mean she’d misrepresented her circumstances.

“Are you sore this morning?” he asked, picking Kit up and holding the baby high above his head. “Good morning, My Lord Baby.”

“I am tired and hoping your journey to the countryside passes uneventfully.” She watched as he raised and lowered the baby, her expression a trifle guarded.

“Sophie, am I the first man you’ve allowed carnal intimacies?” He put the question casually, keeping his attention to appearances on the baby.

She frowned, just a flicker over her features. “I am not a virgin, if that’s what you’re asking.” It was exactly what he’d been asking, though her wording was in the present tense. “Does that child need his nappy changed?”

“He does.” Vim lowered the baby, still dissatisfied with Sophie’s answer but not knowing quite how to clarify matters without interrogating her very directly.

He was still uncomfortable when less than an hour later they stood in the aisle of the stable, Sophie holding a bundled-up Kit in her arms.

“Goliath will see you safely to Kent,” she said, stroking a hand down the beast’s neck. “He delights in romping through the snow, and I know you will let no harm befall him.”

Vim’s pockets held piping hot potatoes; his traveling satchel sported a considerable quantity of bread, cheese, stollen, and even a stash of marzipan Sophie had produced from one of her pantries. His feet were warm and dry and likely to stay that way, as she’d insisted he keep a pair of her brother’s marvelous wool stockings, and she’d even tucked a bottle of fine brandy among his belongings, as well.

And for all these comforts, his heart, which he’d long since considered beyond such nonsense, was aching. For her, for himself, for what was not going to be.

“This is the price we pay for our pleasures,” he said, keeping his voice down so Higgins and Merriweather wouldn’t overhear. “We part, and it’s… difficult.”

She nodded, her lips thinning in telltale self-discipline. Vim glanced over his shoulder and saw both grooms had taken themselves elsewhere. “Come here, Sophie Windham.”

She went into his arms, a perfect bundle of woman and baby and warmth, and everything Vim’s sojourning heart had ever wanted to come home to. She was home, she was…

Not interested in a permanent position as his wife. He’d almost considered asking her to be his mistress, but Sophie was too dear, too worthy of his respect for him to proffer such an arrangement.

“I’ll send the horse back as soon as the roads clear.”

Her shoulders dropped on a sigh. “Just send him over to Morelands.”

“Morelands?” It was a large property less than four miles from Sidling. The Duke and Duchess of Moreland had been legendary for their hospitality even in his youth, though Vim had been in the family home only once and was at pains to recall the family name.

And wasn’t it just divine irony that Sophie would be employed by the very family who’d hosted the scene of Vim’s worst nightmares all those years ago?

“It lies in Kent,” she said, resting her cheek against his chest. “You’ll not overtax yourself today? You’ll warm your feet before you do lasting damage to them?”

“I will warm my feet.” He kissed her cheek and stepped back, lest he fall to his knees and start begging her to reconsider his proposal of marriage. She’d made her position gently but firmly clear, preferring the independence of her employment over what a stranger might offer her on appallingly short acquaintance.

“Sophie, if you need anything, anything for you or Kit, you’ll send to me?”

She nodded but did not give him her word.

He would never hear from her again.

He kissed the top of the baby’s fuzzy head and turned to check the girth on the makeshift saddle adorning the massive horse’s back.

“Thank you.” Sophie kept her voice low and her features from view by virtue of nuzzling the baby.


“I made some Christmas wishes, foolish, extravagant wishes. You have made many of them come true.”

“Then I am content.”

It was the most resoundingly false lie he’d ever told.

* * *

Down the barn aisle, Miss Sophie was pretending to groom her remaining precious, the one-eyed Sampson. What she was really doing was crying, crying like her heart would break, crying on the great beast’s smelly neck, and hiding it like she always hid it.

“Don’t pay no mind, nipper.” Higgins grinned at the baby in his arms. “Lady Sophie is due a few tears, unlike some wee people who have their every need met before it needs meeting. She’s spoiling you proper, she is.”

“Miss Sophie said the nipper has taken to crawling already,” Merriweather observed from where he was cleaning a muddy girth across the snug little tack room. “Best day of the lad’s life was when that worthless Joleen went haring off.”

“Spare the girl a prayer. That Harry was none too steady.”

“Horny bastard. Bet he had her breeding again, and the nipper not even a year.”

Which would explain why Joleen had taken the desperate and shrewd step of abandoning her child in Miss Sophie’s care.

“Miss Sophie will do right by the lad.”

Merriweather glanced up from the girth. “Be a bit of a surprise when her brothers show up and find her sporting a bebby on her hip.”

Higgins used a gnarled finger to chuck the baby’s wee chin. “Be some surprises all around before the sun sets this day. Mark me on this, nipper.”

Merriweather winked, and they shared a grin while Kit chortled gleefully and grabbed for Higgins’s nose.

* * *

“You’ve grown ominously silent,” Val observed.

Westhaven rode to his brother’s left, because it was St. Just’s turn to break the trail ahead. The merchants along The Strand had done what they could to clear a path, but with so much snow on the ground, there was simply nowhere to put it all. Two horses could pass comfortably most places, but not all.

“I’m trying to decide which part of me is the most frozen,” Westhaven replied. “It’s a toss-up between my bum-fiddle and my nose.”

“I lost awareness of my nose before we hit London.”

Westhaven glanced at Val’s gloved hands. “Your fingers are not in jeopardy, I trust?”

“Heaven forfend! Ellen would be wroth, which I cannot allow.”

“I cannot allow much longer in this perishing saddle.”

“We’ve little enough light left.” Val glanced at the sky, which was turning a chilly sunset turquoise. “The Chattells will likely be sitting down to dinner, and didn’t Their Graces give the staff at the mansion holiday leave?”

“I gave them holiday leave.” Which was an idiot notion when compared with imposing on the neighbors for hospitality. “They get four weeks off, we pay them for two, and everybody has pleasant holidays. The crew at Morelands takes leave in late summer, before harvest.”

“I’ll have to implement something like it at Bel Canto, assuming I don’t turn into an icicle before spring. I don’t relish being Chattell’s uninvited guests.”

“You’re married,” Westhaven said, lips quirking up. “You’re safe, Valentine. Of no interest to the debutantes at all.”

“Yes, but they all come with mothers and aunts and older sisters… St. Just, halt if you please.”

St. Just twisted in his saddle, his horse coming to a stop without a visible cue. “We’re going to take in the fresh air, are we? It grows dark soon, in case you were too busy composing tunes in your head, Baby Brother.”

“I want to drop off this violin. The repair shop is just down that alley.” Val swung a leg over his horse’s back and climbed down into the snow. “I won’t be but a minute.”

“Might as well rest the horses,” St. Just said, nudging his beast out of the middle of the beaten path. “Westhaven, can you dismount?”

“I cannot. My backside is permanently frozen to the saddle; my ability to reproduce is seriously jeopardized.”

“Anna will be desolated.” St. Just waited while Westhaven swung down, then whistled at an urchin shivering in the door to a nearby church.

“We’ll just get the feeling back into our feet, and the saddles will be chilled sufficiently to threaten even your lusty inclination.” Westhaven led his horse to the side of the street, such as it was.

“Cold weather makes Emmie frisky.” St. Just assayed his signature grin. “We have a deal of cold weather up in the West Riding, so I’ve learned to appreciate it. Let’s at least find a tot of grog while Baby Brother sees to his precious violin.”

“The George is just up the street. I’ll be along in a minute.”

But St. Just could not just toddle on and wet his whistle. No. He must turn to Westhaven, hands on his hips, and cock his head like a hound trying to place a far-off sound. “And what will you be about while I’m swilling bad ale?”

“I’ll be stopping at that sweet shop yonder, before they close up for the day.”

Fortunately, it was too cold for a man to blush creditably.

“You’re thinking of sweets when the George will have a roaring fire and libation to offer?” The ragged child came trotting over from the church, and St. Just fished out a coin. “Keep an eye on the horses.”

“Aye, g-guv. I’ll watch ’em close.”

“For pity’s sake.” Westhaven unwound his scarf and wrapped it around the child’s neck. “We won’t be long.”

They couldn’t be long, or Westhaven’s ears would freeze off. “As it happens, I own that sweet shop. Go get your grog, and I’ll meet you back here in ten minutes.” He walked off, hoping his brother would for once take an unsubtle cue.

“You own a sweet shop?” St. Just fell in step beside Westhaven, all bonhomie and good cheer.

“Diversification of assets, Kettering calls it. Get your own sweet shop, why don’t you?”

“My brother, a confectioner. Marriage has had such a positive impact on you, Westhaven. How long have you owned this fine establishment?”

It was a fine establishment, which was to say, it was warm. The scents of chocolate and cinnamon thick in the air didn’t hurt, either.

Westhaven waited silently while St. Just peered around the place with unabashed curiosity. There was a prodigious amount of pink in the decor, and ribbon bows and small baskets and tins artfully decorated.

“You own a bordello for sweets,” St. Just observed in a carrying voice likely honed on the parade grounds of Spain. “It’s charming.”

“Unlike you.”

“You’re just cold and missing your countess. One must make allowances.”

Mercifully, those allowances meant St. Just kept quiet while Westhaven purchased a quantity of marzipan.

“You aren’t going to tell the troops to carry on, God Save the King, and all that?” St. Just asked as they left the shop. He reached over and stuffed his fingers into the bag of sweets Westhaven was carrying.

“Help yourself, by all means.”

“Can’t leave all the heavy lifting to my younger brothers.” St. Just munched contentedly on some of the finest German confection to be had on earth. “Why didn’t they know you were the owner?”

“Because I don’t bruit it about.”

“You don’t want to be seen as dabbling in trade?”

Westhaven took a piece of candy from the bag in his hand, wondering if the marzipan would freeze before his brothers consumed it all. “I do not want to be seen as owning a sweet shop. Sweet shops are not dignified.”

He marched forward to meet Valentine at the horses, his older brother’s laughter ringing in his ears.

* * *

“Ouch, blast you!”

The blow to Sophie’s chin was surprisingly stout, considering it had been delivered by a very small, chubby baby heel, but it left Sophie wanting to hurl the infant’s bowl of porridge against the hearth stones.

“That hurt, Christopher Elijah.” She grasped his foot and shook it gently. “Shame on you.”

He grinned around the porridge adorning his cheeks and kicked again. Sophie tried one more spoonful, which he spat out amid another happy spate of kicking.

“Time for you to romp,” she said, wiping his mouth off with a damp cloth. And then time to play with him, read to him, and tuck him up in his cradle, while she…

Sophie’s gaze drifted to the window to see darkness had finally fallen. Yesterday had been a day for tears; today was a day beyond tears. She’d missed Vim yesterday; today she ached for him in places she could not name, even in Latin.

Personal, feminine, silent places she feared had the ability to ache without end.

She tidied up the baby’s supper mess and lifted him into her arms. “You do feel heavier, sturdier, but this is doubtless my imagination.”

That his nappy needed changing was by no means a product of her imagination. She tended to him in the laundry, realizing that in just a few days, the whole untidy business had become routine to her.

“You are a good baby,” she said, picking him up and bringing him nose to nose. “You are a wonderful baby. Time for you to conquer the carpet, hmm?”

And time for her to tidy up Valentine’s room, because surely her brothers would be arriving tomorrow, and surely she did not want them asking any more awkward questions than necessary.

“They will honor my confidences,” she said to the baby as she carried him to the parlor. “I will explain I needed solitude. Westhaven hid in his business endeavors, Valentine at the piano, and Devlin in the stables, but where was I to hide when I needed peace and quiet? Where was I to have any privacy? Taking tea with Her Grace? Shopping with my sisters? Parading about Town on the arm of my papa?”

Good heavens, she sounded almost… angry.

She sat on the sofa with the baby in her lap.

A lady never showed strong emotion, except she had shown strong emotion, with Vim… Weeping had been the least of it.

A bump sounded from the direction of the kitchen, making her jump, suggesting she’d spent the entire day half listening for just such a sound.

A sound suggesting Vim had once again returned?

Another bump, and the muted sound of voices.

She put Kit in his cradle. “I will be back momentarily. Behave.” She put his hand up to his mouth, and he obligingly slipped two fingers between his lips. “Good baby.”

Closing the parlor door behind her, Sophie hurried to the kitchen, only to find her three brothers stomping snowy boots, muttering, and bringing in the damp and cold as they shed outer garments.

“Sophie!” Val spotted her first and abandoned all ceremony to wrap his arms around her. “Sophie Windham, I have missed you and missed you.” He held her tightly, so tightly Sophie could hide her face against his shoulder and swallow back the lump abruptly forming in her throat.

“I have a new étude for you to listen to. It’s based on parallel sixths and contrary motion—it’s quite good fun.” He stepped back, his smile so dear Sophie wanted to hug him all over again, but St. Just elbowed Val aside.

“Long lost sister, where have you been?” His hug was gentler but no less welcome. “I’ve traveled half the length of England to see you, you know.” He kissed her cheek, and Sophie felt a blush creeping up her neck.

“You did not. You’ve come south because Emmie said you must, and you want to check on your ladies out in Surrey.”

Westhaven waited until St. Just had released her. “I wanted to check on you.” His hug was the gentlest of all. “But you were not where you were supposed to be, Sophie. You have some explaining to do if we’re to get the story straight before we face Her Grace.”

The simple fact of his support undid her. Sophie pressed her face to his shoulder and felt a tear leak from her eye. “I have missed you so, missed all of you so much.”

Westhaven patted her back while Valentine stuffed a cold, wrinkled handkerchief into her hand.

“We’ve made her cry.” St. Just did not sound happy.

“I’m just…” Sophie stepped away from Westhaven and dabbed at her eyes. “I’m a little fatigued is all. I’ve been doing some baking, and the holidays are never without some challenges, and then there’s the baby—”

“What baby?” All three men spoke—shouted, more nearly—as one.

“Keep your voices down, please,” Sophie hissed. “Kit isn’t used to strangers, and if he’s overset, I’ll be all night dealing with him.”

“And behold, a virgin shall conceive,” Val muttered as Sophie passed him back his handkerchief.

St. Just shoved him on the shoulder. “That isn’t helping.”

Westhaven went to the stove and took the kettle from the hob. “What baby, Sophie? And perhaps you might share some of this baking you’ve been doing. The day was long and cold, and our brothers grow testy if denied their victuals too long.”

He sent her a smile, an it-will-be-all-right smile that had comforted her on many an occasion. Westhaven was sensible. It was his surpassing gift to be sensible, but Sophie found no solace from it now.

She had not been sensible, and worse yet, she did not regret the lapse. She would, however, regret very much if the lapse did not remain private.

“The tweenie was anticipating an interesting event, wasn’t she?” Westhaven asked as he assembled a tea tray. While Sophie took a seat at the table, St. Just hiked himself onto a counter, and Val took the other bench.

“Joleen,” Sophie said. “Her interesting event is six months old, a thriving healthy child named… Westhaven, what are you doing?”

“He’s making sure he gets something to eat under the guise of looking after his siblings,” St. Just said, pushing off the counter. “Next, he’ll fetch the cream from the window box while I make us some sandwiches. Valentine find us a cloth for the table.”

“At once, Colonel.” Val snapped a salute and sauntered off in the direction of the butler’s pantry, while Westhaven headed for the colder reaches of the back hallway.

“You look a bit fatigued, Sophie.” St. Just studied her with a brooding frown, all hint of teasing gone. His brows knit further as his gaze went to the hearth. “Is that a pair of my favorite socks set out to dry? They’re a bit large for you, aren’t they?”

Westhaven emerged from the back hallway, a small box in his hand. “Somebody has decimated my stash of marzipan. If His Grace has given up crème cakes for German chocolate, I’ll be naming my seconds.”

Valentine returned from the corridor. “Somebody left my favorite mug in the linen closet. I thought you favored more delicate crockery, Sophie.”

In the ensuing moment of silence, Sophie was casting around desperately for plausible reasons why all this evidence of Vim’s presence in the house was yet on hand, when the back door opened and slammed shut.

“Sophie, love! I’m back. Come here and let me kiss you senseless, and then, by God, we’re going to talk.”

Oh dear.

Oh, good heavens.

Vim emerged from the darkness looking weary, handsome, and very pleased—until his gaze traveled to each of the three men glowering at him.

“Who the hell are you?” Westhaven’s voice was soft, but he did not sound sensible in the least.

“And what makes you think you’re going to be kissing my sister?” St. Just added, hands on his hips.

“And what on earth could you have to speak with Lady Sophia about?” Valentine asked, crossing his arms.


Three things penetrated the surprise Vim felt at seeing Sophie in company with three large, undeniably attractive men.

First, they resembled her, each in a slightly different way. Around the eyes, for the darkest one; something about the chin in the one with lighter hair; and the shape of the nose for the leanest one. And green eyes. All four had green eyes.

Brothers. These were her brothers. The thought brought relief and resentment too: where had these stout fellows been when Sophie had been stranded here, trying to cope with a baby and a snowstorm and a stranger under her roof ?

The second realization was that the mews had shown a number of hoofprints in the snow. He’d handed his horse off to Higgins and not remarked all the stable traffic. Had he paid attention, he might have been warned that Sophie was no longer alone.

But then the third realization sank into his brain: LadySophia.

“Your horse started off sound enough,” he said, addressing her directly and ignoring the glowering idiots cluttering up her kitchen. “The farther I got from the river though, the more he felt off. Not lame, exactly, but not sound, either. I did not want to leave him to the indifferent care of a coaching inn or livery, so I brought him back. Whatever the difficulty, he seemed to work out of it as we approached Town. How fares Kit?”

The teakettle started to whistle, but Vim kept his gaze locked on Sophie.

Lady Sophia. The implications reverberated through his mind: the daughters of earls, marquises, and dukes were ladies, as were the wives of peers. Wives were permitted a great deal of latitude unmarried women did not enjoy…

“Sophie, as you appear acquainted with this person”—the fellow with the chestnut hair put an edge of condescension on the word—“will you introduce us?”

From down the hall, an indignant squall sounded.

“I’ll get him.” Sophie sent Vim a pleading look when she brushed past him. “And there had better not be any broken crockery when I get back.”

The brother who’d asked for introductions had a scholarly look to him, and he’d watched Sophie go with something like concern in his eye.

“Vim Charpentier.” Vim stuck out a hand and tried not to make it a dare. He was outnumbered, for one thing, and Sophie did not want broken crockery, for another.

“Westhaven.” The man nodded but did not extend his hand. “My brothers, Devlin St. Just, Earl of Rosecroft, and Lord Valentine Windham. We are assuredly not at your service until we get an explanation for your very presuming greeting to our sister.”

And if Sophie’s brother was Lord Valentine Windham, and she was Lady Sophia Windham, then that narrowed down the family title to a marquis or a…

God in heaven, it was almost funny.

“Explanations will wait until Lady Sophia rejoins us,” Vim said just as she emerged from the hallway with Kit in her arms.

“Hello, lad.” Vim had to smile at the way the baby started bouncing in Sophie’s embrace and reaching his arms toward Vim. “I missed you too.”

She passed him the baby, a gesture he was sure had more to do with preventing her brothers from putting out his lights than anything else. Still, it felt good to hold the child, to see that somebody was glad to know he’d not frozen in some snowbank.

Sophie spoke softly as she eyed the baby in his arms. “Westhaven, Rosecroft, Lord Valentine, may I make known to you Mr. Vim Charpentier, late of Cumbria and bound for Kent. The storm stranded him here, and I needed help…”

“Sophie.” Vim spoke quietly and willed her to meet his gaze. “I suggest we see the child settled first and then have a civil discussion with your brothers. They are no doubt hungry, and you are entitled to a few moments to compose yourself.”

She twisted her hands and said nothing, her gaze meeting his only fleetingly.

“A sound enough plan,” the dragoon said—Rosecroft, or St. Just. “Valentine is stealing all your marzipan, Westhaven. I believe you mentioned naming your seconds?”

The tension eased fractionally at what Vim took for a jest—or sword rattling, but not a genuine threat. He turned with the baby. “We’ll be in the parlor with Kit.” He did not reach for Sophie’s hand. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.

Lady Sophia’s hand.

“Leave the damned door open,” Lord Valentine said. It was a marginal comfort that Sophie ignored her brother’s admonition and closed the damned door when they reached the parlor.

“It will let in the worst draft. Valentine has no children yet, you see, and it wouldn’t occur to him Kit will be on the carpet—”

“Sophie.” He made no move to touch her. She fell silent and sank to her knees on the rug and blankets.

“They’ll think the worst,” she said. “I don’t want them to think ill of me, Vim. Mr. Charpentier, oh—bother. What do I call you?”

He stopped short in the process of turning Kit loose among his blankets. “If I’m to call you Lady Sophia, you might consider calling me Lord Sindal.”

Her brows flew up, then down. “You’re titled?”

“A courtesy title, much like your own, but humbler. I’m heir to the Rothgreb viscountcy. Baron Sindal.”

“Oh. My goodness.” She did meet his gaze then, and he saw understanding and relief in her eyes. “You did not tell me because you thought I was just a what… a lady’s companion? A housekeeper?”

“Something like that. Mostly I thought you were lovely.” He still did. “What do we tell your brothers, Sophie? They’ve left us these few moments out of respect for you, but they’ll be in here any minute, crockery be damned.”

“I suppose we tell them as little as possible.”

It wasn’t what he’d wanted to hear, though the constraints of honor allowed him one further attempt to secure his heart’s desire. “I will offer for you, if that’s what you want.” Offer for her again. He kept the hope from his voice only with effort.

Though from the severe frown Sophie displayed, a renewed offer wasn’t what she sought from him. “I won’t ask it of you.”

He was marshalling his arguments mentally when Lord Valentine came to the door, a tray in his hands. “You will pardon me for not knocking.” He lifted the tray a few inches and shot Vim a challenging look. “Scoot over, Soph. Westhaven is counting his candies, and St. Just is fetching some libation. What’s the little blighter’s name?”

“Kit. Christopher Elijah Handel.”

Valentine lowered himself to the sofa, which had the agreeable result that Sophie shifted closer to Vim on the carpet. “Any relation to the composer?”

“I doubt it.”

“Relax, Sophie.” Lord Val nudged her with his toe. “The elders will take their cue from you, or I’ll make them wish they had. May I offer you a sandwich, Charpentier? Even a condemned prisoner is entitled to a last meal.”

The smile accompanying this gracious offer would have suited one of the large feline denizens of the Royal Menagerie.

“My thanks. Sophie, would you care for a bite?”

“That’s Lady Sophia, to you, Charpentier.” Lord Valentine’s reminder was quite, quite casually offered.

Sophie reached for the sandwich while she shot her brother a glare. “Thank you, Lord Sindal.”

She took a ladylike nibble then passed the sandwich back to Vim as Lord Valentine placidly demolished his own portion.

“You might have waited for us,” St. Just said. He, too, had arrived carrying a tray, but this one had a decanter and several glasses on it. Westhaven brought up the rear, closing the parlor door behind him.

One lowly servants’ parlor had probably never held quite so many titles at one time nor so much tension. Sophie’s expression would have suited a woman facing excommunication, but her brothers were apparently satisfied to put off her trial until they’d eaten.

“Another bite, Lady Sophia?” Vim held out the second half of his sandwich, mostly to aggravate her brothers.

“Thank you, no. I’ve had quite enough to eat today.”

“Is he teething?” Westhaven asked the question as he took a place in the wing chair near the fire. His brothers—just the two of them—took up the entire sofa, leaving Vim, Sophie, and the baby on the floor.

“I don’t know,” Sophie said, passing out the remaining sandwiches.

“He drools a great deal,” Westhaven observed. “If he hasn’t sprouted fangs yet, he will soon, and you can forget forever after whatever pretenses you had to peace of mind. Where were you thinking of fostering him?”

Lord Val started to pour drinks. “The Foundling Hospital ought to take him. His namesake set the place up with a fine organ, and Kit probably fits their criteria.”

St. Just looked preoccupied, and the sandwich Sophie had passed him only a moment ago was nowhere in sight. “What criteria are those?”

“He’s a firstborn,” Lord Val said. “His mother is in difficulties though otherwise of good character, and his papa is nowhere to be found.” He passed Vim a drink as he spoke.

“He won’t be going to the Foundling Hospital,” Vim said. The relief on Sophie’s face was hard to look on. “Soph—Lady Sophia will find him a family to foster with in the country.”

St. Just sat forward to accept a drink from Lord Val. “Is that what you want, Sophie?”

Vim did not answer for her, though he saw the indecision in her eyes.

“I think that would be best for Kit. A fellow needs brothers and sisters, and fresh air, and a family.” To a man, Sophie’s brothers found somewhere else to look besides their sister’s face.

“We have larger concerns to occupy us,” Westhaven said, dusting his hands. “I’m sure Their Graces will assist in finding a situation for the child, but your circumstances here, Sophie, leave much to be explained.”

He took a sip of his drink, letting the silence stretch with the cunning and calculation of a barrister. Vim wanted to put a staying hand on Sophie’s arm, or even cover her mouth with his hand, but the sodding buggers were right: they needed to get their story organized if Sophie’s reputation wasn’t to be tarnished beyond all repair.

“The storm helps you,” Lord Val said, lifting his sister’s hand and putting a drink in it. “Nobody was out and about, nobody was socializing.”

“Hardly anybody,” St. Just said. “We called at the Chattell’s, and a tipsy footman told us the family had departed for Surrey, and you were headed for Kent with your brothers.”

“It’s accurate,” Westhaven said, “provided nobody inquires too closely about the timing.”

Lord Val sat back, his drink cradled in his lap. “How do we explain him? If he’s Sindal, that makes him old Rothgreb’s heir, though a grown-up version compared to the one I recall from years ago.”

“You’re on your way to Kent?” St. Just asked.

“I am.”

“Then to Kent you shall go, traveling in company with us.” St. Just glanced over at Westhaven, suggesting Westhaven occupied a place of authority regarding family matters.

“That will serve,” Westhaven said. “But confirm for us, first, Charpentier, or Sindal, that you are half brother to Benjamin Hazlit.”

Benjamin, who according to Sophie had handled some administrative matters for Their Graces—which could mean anything. That these men would know of the connection between brothers was… curious.

“Hazlit is my half brother,” Vim said. “He is not in Town at present, to my knowledge.” There was no telling with Ben. The man never outright lied, but he raised discretion to a high, arcane art.

Lord Valentine cocked his head and regarded his sister. “Does this complicate matters, that he’s related to Hazlit?”

“Watch him!” Westhaven was half out of his chair as all eyes turned to Kit. Sophie was calmly prying the dangling end of an embroidered table runner from the child’s grasp, while the men in the room collectively sat back and took a sip of their drinks.

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