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The Duke's Accidental Elopement: A Regency Romance by Louise Allen (1)

Chapter One

 

 

 

Love at first sight was not something that Sophie Haydon believed in – not, that is, until nine-thirty in the evening of the thirtieth of March. The sensation hit her like a sharp finger in the chest and she could only be thankful that she was wearing a veil. The fine net which shielded her hot cheeks from the rest of the audience also, thankfully, hid her from the gaze of the gentleman whose appearance was having such an effect on her well-schooled emotions.

There were at least forty members of the Quality seated in varying degrees of discomfort on the gilt chairs in the salon of Lady Newnham’s Town house in Mayfair. The audience – thankfully not paying attention to Sophie as she sat in confusion in a corner – was responding to the speaker in one of two ways. Either they were listening with rapt attention to Dr Theophilus Eustace’s account of the flora and fauna of Lower Brazil, or they were attempting to mask their boredom with expressions of polite interest. Brazil was certainly a novelty but not, unfortunately, as described by Dr Eustace.

It was always a lottery attending her ladyship’s monthly Philosophical Symposia, as she liked to call them. Lady Newnham was quite capable of producing the latest dashing and dangerous poet for a reading, but equally one might encounter a dry-as-dust lecture on the archaeological remains of ancient Thrace or the habits of the European bison.

The object of Sophie’s sudden passion appeared, to her surprise, to be listening intently, his dark eyes on the map at which Dr Eustace was gesticulating. She had to admit to herself that it was his dark good looks which had first attracted her. They would have riveted the attention of any adult female with a pulse. His broad shoulders sat easily within the fashionable cut of his dark blue evening coat, there was scarcely room to accommodate the length of his legs between the rows of chairs and his profile was one of almost Classical perfection.

Sophie was no more immune to a handsome man than the next young lady – indeed, four years ago that had been her downfall – but it had been the recognition of a kindred spirit that had so fixed her interest. The man was behaving outwardly with perfect decorum, occasionally bending his head to catch a whispered comment from his male companion, otherwise sitting with his attention on the speaker. Yet somehow she could tell he was sharing her amusement at the absurdity of this modish audience, perched uncomfortably on their spindly salon chairs, listening to a badly delivered talk of quite astounding mediocrity, instead of dining or dancing at Almack’s or taking a hand of whist at the card tables in the clubs.

The attractive laughter lines at the corner of the man’s eyes and mouth crinkled now and again and his shoulders shook with suppressed laughter at the speaker’s more pompous pronouncements. As she watched, he folded his arms across his chest as if the act would contain his amusement. Tearing her gaze away, Sophie forced herself to attend to the talk rather than imagine what it would be like to be enfolded in those arms.

‘And I am sure I am right in saying that no one could er... fail to share... yes, share, my excitement at my discovery that not only is the Lactarius family of fungi flourishing in this area – lying as it does between the highlands and the southernmost plains – but that a particular favourite of mine, Lactarius volemus, is common, nay, widespread, at the edges of deciduous woodland. As you will all be aware, this species may be distinguished by a faint smell of herring.’ Dr Eustace whipped off his eyeglasses and beamed in triumph at his bemused audience, one or two of whom broke into half-hearted applause as the wretched man appeared to expect some acknowledgement for this revelation.

This was too much both for Sophie and for the object of her desires. She choked as quietly as she could into her lace handkerchief, but the tall man was unable to suppress a snort of laughter which, at a look of reproach from his companion, he hastily converted into a fairly convincing cough.

Oh, it would be such fun to share that ridiculous moment with that man, she thought wistfully. Of course, she chided herself, what she was feeling was not love, goodness knows she had learned long ago just how empty that emotion was. No, it was the perception of intelligence, the recognition of the ridiculous, a sense of fun. People with a sense of humour, let alone a sense of fun, were in very short supply in Sophie’s life and had been for some time.

Dr Eustace, apparently blissfully unaware of his effect on the majority of his audience, had finally wound his tedious way to his conclusion and was offering to answer questions. Sophie sighed; there would be no escape for at least another half-hour as a small number of Lady Newnham’s guests showed every sign of having found the night’s entertainment fascinating and were already plying him with queries.

Sophie dabbed the tears of laughter from her eyes while managing to keep the veil in place. As the good doctor droned on she sighed, perhaps more loudly than was polite. Surely there was no way the sound could have reached the attractive man’s ears as he sat two rows in front and well to her left? Yet he turned his head slowly and scanned the audience as if looking for the perpetrator. His eyes could not possibly penetrate the gauze yet Sophie felt as though he looked directly into her face. He turned back almost immediately, but her heart was pounding and her cheeks burned anew.

Sophie clenched her gloved hands together tightly in the lap of her discreetly drab conker-brown walking dress until she had regained her composure. What was it about this man that was so unsettling? It was ridiculous, a fairy tale to feel like this, she scolded herself. She would never see him again and all she was doing was storing up discontent for herself. Over the last six months since she had returned to London she had schooled herself to expect little happiness, to be glad of the limited opportunities for entertainment that were open to her. Now it was as if she had opened Pandora’s box, releasing dreams and unattainable desires.

Even the staid atmosphere of Lady Newnham’s monthly afternoon reading circle for ladies, which had led to this evening’s invitation, was something to be eagerly anticipated in her constrained life. Her elder brother George’s suspicious mind could find nothing dangerous in her attendance at such activities – during the hours of daylight, of course – although virtually everything else was forbidden. George, once alerted to what he saw as the moral instability of his younger half-sister, took his role as guardian very seriously indeed.

Daytime gatherings in attendance on his wife were one thing, but for his sister to be out in the evening was absolutely forbidden. However, it had not taken Sophie long to discover that once she had retired to her room after dinner no one wasted any further thought on her. Sir George and Lady Haydon, should they be spending a rare evening at their own hearthside, saw no reason to include her in their domestic activities, supposing Sophie to be occupied blamelessly with her sewing or a book of worthy sermons.

But Sophie's bedchamber overlooked the garden and, with careful timing and the secret acquisition of keys, it was perfectly possible to whisk down the back stairs, out of the kitchen door, through the garden gate and within seconds be in Berkeley Square. Hackney carriage drivers might look askance at unaccompanied young ladies at that time of night but, whatever they thought her purpose might be, they were quite willing to take her money.

Once or twice a week, after scanning the newspaper and George’s journals for notices of public talks, she would slip out, enjoying her freedom, although the most excitement she could hope for was a lecture at the Royal Society.

The scrape of chair legs on the polished boards jerked her back to the present. The dark man was getting to his feet to ask a question. Sophie took full advantage of a perfectly legitimate reason for looking at what was happening right in front of her. He must be more than six feet tall, she decided and he was built on athletic lines. His clothes were from an excellent tailor, and no valet could hope for a better figure to dress, but there was something about him which suggested that this was no dandy and the way that he looked was, in fact, of indifference to him. Perhaps it was his hair – dark, slightly wavy and a touch overlong, or perhaps it was simply the way he held himself with an easy, negligent grace.

As he began to speak she thought that his voice was no disappointment. It was strong, deep and well modulated and with a hint of irony that she suspected was habitual. ‘Dr Eustace, may I begin by saying that rarely, nay, never, have I spent an evening such as this.’

At his side his companion groaned softly while the doctor preened at the supposed compliment.

‘The reference to the fungus – Lactarius volemus, was it not? – smelling of herring intrigued me. I am anxious to know, in case I should ever come across it, is that the smell of fresh herring, or the kippered variety?’

His companion sank his head in his hands, but the questioner’s profile displayed nothing but intent interest as he sat down again and the doctor began to reply.

‘My dear sir, what a fascinating question! It shows indeed the depth of your interest. I had never analysed this in sufficient detail, that is obvious, but if I am forced to pass an opinion, I would hazard that there is a slight hint of smokiness.’

Sophie, fighting a losing battle against hysteria, closed her teeth on her handkerchief and slipped from the room, thanking providence that she had arrived late and was therefore sitting close to the doors.

The hall, although populated by a host of scantily-clad Classical statues, was mercifully free of footmen. Sophie gave way to her emotions, threw back her veil and stood sobbing with laughter into her much-abused handkerchief. ‘Kippered herring,’ she repeated weakly. ‘Kippered...’

Behind her a door opened and closed and she hastily shrank behind a statue of Aphrodite, keeping her back turned in the futile hope that she would escape attention. A voice she had heard only minutes before said with concern, ‘Madam, are you unwell? May I be of assistance?’

It was the tall man. Sophie spun round, found herself standing almost on his toes, looked up into dark blue eyes and gasped, ‘Herring.’

He grinned back at her, his face alight with laughter. ‘I know, I should never have done it, but it was too much to resist. Sydney has made me come outside before I disgrace myself again.’ There was a sudden increase in the sound of voices from the salon. ‘Oh lord, they will be coming out for supper in a moment, quick, come with me.’

He took Sophie’s arm and with great assurance opened a door in the panelling, walked down a short corridor and emerged into an orangery. Across the glassed courtyard which sheltered them Sophie could glimpse the supper room while faintly from behind them she could hear Lady Newnham thanking the speaker amidst a smattering of applause for his fascinating insight into the natural history of Brazil, and inviting her guests to partake of the light supper laid out in the adjoining room.

The orangery was warm and fragrant with the smell of damp loam and growing things. Sophie found that the gentleman had let go of her arm and she stepped back instinctively. He was very big, very close and suddenly the intimacy they had shared with their laughter unsettled her.

He seemed to sense it, for he stepped back too and gestured to a white iron bench between an orange tree in a tub and a small fountain. ‘Please, will you not sit down for a moment, Miss…?’

‘Haydon. Sophie Haydon.’ Sophie sank down thankfully and dabbed uselessly at her eyes again. The handkerchief was beyond redemption.

 

‘Here, please take this, my valet always sends me out with at least two.’ Hal proffered an immaculately pressed square of linen. Miss Haydon took it with a smile of thanks, dipped a corner in the basin of the fountain and dabbed at the tear-tracks. He noticed that the linen came away quite clean without a trace of powder or rouge. It seemed Miss Haydon owed none of her fresh-faced looks to the paint box. He surveyed green eyes, long dark lashes and a tumble of russet curls. Charming.

‘I realise this is extremely unconventional, but under the circumstances I hardly feel that waiting to be introduced by Lady Newnham is sensible.’ He bowed, ‘Hal Wyatt, at your service, Miss Haydon.’

‘The Duke of Weybourne?’ She clearly tried, and failed, to keep the recognition out of her voice, and a slight touch of colour came to her cheeks.

‘I see you have heard of me,’ Hal said ruefully. ‘May I sit down? I can assure you, you have no need to scream.’

Miss Haydon straightened her shoulders and said, somewhat crisply, ‘I have no intention of screaming, Your Grace. According to my sister-in-law you are a notorious rake with whom no woman is safe: however, I doubt if even you would attempt to seduce a lady in Lady Newnham’s orangery. Do, please, sit down.’

So Miss Haydon is as unconventional as she is lovely. Her clear green gaze was defiant, almost as if it concealed a secret.

Hal sat and swung his quizzing glass idly at the end of its ribbon in the most soothing manner he could think of. Rakes about to pounce did not play with their quizzing glasses. ‘Am I acquainted with your sister-in-law?’

‘Lady Haydon? I think not, Your Grace. I cannot imagine you would move in the same circles.’

‘Good God, not George Haydon’s wife? Miss Haydon, I can assure you that your sister-in-law’s knowledge of my character is not based on any personal experience.’

For a moment he thought she would protest at his outrageous remark, but then a small snort of laughter escaped her. ‘I never thought so for a minute. The thought of Lavinia having any sort of illicit relationship is too preposterous to defend. Besides, she would never spare the time for an affaire. She is devoted to perfecting the art of social climbing whilst advancing my two nieces into Society. I imagine my sister-in-law bases her opinion of your character on the gossip of her friends.’

'As I would not wish you to feel any anxiety at being alone with me, I think I should also assure you, Miss Haydon, that although I certainly kicked over the traces as a young man, I am no longer practising as a rake.’

Miss Haydon appeared to be taking an interest in this staggeringly improper conversation out of simple curiosity. There was clearly another question on the tip of her tongue and Hal waited patiently for her to frame it. ‘Are you then a reformed rake?' she enquired with apparent innocence. ‘And is attendance at lectures on the flora of Brazil part of your reformation?’

In the subdued light of the branches of candles which were placed in niches around the walls, he could see the white gleam of her teeth. ‘Minx,’ he said appreciatively. This really was a most unusual young lady. She was not flirting with him, she was teasing him, giving as good as she got in a way that was strangely artless. ‘No, attendance at such lectures is not part of a process of penitence or reform. I was lured along by my very good friend Lord Sydney – who, believe me, is going to pay dearly for this. Or, at least, for the earlier part of the evening. I find it is improving greatly.’ He stood up and offered her his arm. ‘Shall we go in to supper?’

For the first time Sophie looked alarmed. ‘Oh, no, Your Grace, I had not intended to stay. I am not dressed for a supper party, and besides…’

Hal looked at the undeniably sober walking dress, the simple cut of which did nothing to disguise a very trim figure. ‘If we just get rid of this bonnet...’

Before she could resist, his fingers tweaked the ribbons under her chin and the bonnet was discarded on the chair, revealing the full impact of her head of russet curls. ‘You should not hide such glory,’ he murmured, freeing one wayward tendril which had insinuated itself around her pearl ear-drop.

She gasped and stepped back, coming up against the edge of the bench. Hal threw up both hands in rueful apology. Innocent, remember, you idiot! ‘I am sorry, that was most improper of me. But really, Miss Haydon, who do you think is going to even glance at your dress when you look like that?’

She blushed at the compliment, but gave him a severe look. ‘Please do not talk nonsense, Your Grace.’ Then, to his delight, she relented. ‘I suppose a very little supper would do no harm, but I cannot stay long.’

‘Then shall we go in?’ He again offered her his arm and this time Sophie rested her fingers lightly on his sleeve and allowed herself to be conducted across the orangery and into the supper room.

Hal scanned the crowd. ‘May I fetch you a drink, Miss Haydon? Ratafia, perhaps, or orgeat?’

Sophie murmured, ‘Orgeat, thank you, Your Grace.’ She sounded nervous and he hesitated before he left her. But surely she could come to no harm in this eminently respectable gathering?

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