Sophie Crestwood felt nothing could be worse than having a father who gossiped like a goose and a mother who read gothic novels. Although it could be amusing at times, in truth she was long past her first Season and the only Crestwood at Leatherbury weathering serious reservations about her ability to find a husband.
Life at Leatherbury trotted along rather slow compared to Town, but she liked it that way despite worrying about her lack of opportunity in the rolling hills of Higfield. Then there was Jack. He stood behind her, soaked and dripping water onto a lilac rug that protected the floorboards of her room.
She turned from her looking glass and pointed at the puddles. ''Where have you been?''
''Swimming," he said without sorrow. He swiped at the copper cowlick that hung perpetually over his right eye to radiate more innocence.
Sophie was not ashamed of her youngest sibling, merely exhausted by him. In the farthest recess of her heart, he amused her, although he knew everything there was that tried her patience. Whatever she fancied disappeared. Things she did not fancy found their way under her bed or into the ivory armoire beside her dressing table. At her elbow rested a soft, folded, cloth. She handed it to him with a flick of her wrist. ''What will Papa say when he learns you've skipped your Latin again?''
Jack dried off the best a twelve-year-old boy cared to do and handed her back the damp cloth. ''Mr. Lyman doesn't care if I do my studies or not. He's overcome with his new volume of poetry and Margaret.''
''Margaret?'' Sophie's mind imagined housemaids with round cheeks and hips, and she flushed with understanding.
''Guess what I discovered?'' Jack dared.
''No,'' he said, ignoring her wit. ''I went over the rock wall to Pembroke and walked up to the house.''
''Pembroke? Jack, you could have been shot. Someone lives there now.''
''Do I look like a hare? Besides, no one was in the woods anyway.'' Jack cocked his head toward the door to hear if any of the servants were eavesdropping. ''It's all commotion at Pembroke Hall don't you know.''
Sophie put a hand on her hip. ''You ginger-haired devil.''
''It's true. Mad Murdock's heir has come home. I seen the carts and wagons myself. There were heaps of strange looking things like we saw at the Bazaar.''
Sophie maintained her look of severity, more at his grammar than his spying, but a morbid curiosity caused her to utter, ''And?''
"Oh, I didn't see him as such, but the servants were there.'' Jack grinned with such wickedness his brown sun spots glowed. ''They wore monkey jackets and tar caps and had pigtails down to their backsides.''
"That doesn't make them pirates." Sophie gave a little shake of her head. ''They are men who've come home to rest until the press gangs hunt them down again.'' A short ride from Portsmouth, Higfield was no stranger to the Navy press.
"They looked like pirates,'' Jack insisted in a loud whisper. His moss-colored eyes shined. "They was so fresh I could smell the salt and tar."
''I know what I seen.''
''What you saw,'' Sophie corrected. Jack exercised a terrible grammatical habit, not to mention vocabulary when he became irritated or excited. It gave him the air of a lowly Jack Tar, an idea he relished.
''They're brown and withered like bad fruit, and one had a fishhook hanging from his ear. It's a whole band of buccaneers from the Indies. They've come to hide out at Pembroke Hall.''
Sophie's breath escaped in a laugh. ''You, dear brother, have been listening to rumors. Why would they come to England? The gibbets are here. The poor man living there now just happens to be a captain who's inherited, and it's about time, too. Why I've watched Pembroke crumble to the ground my entire life. I imagine it was grand once upon a time, but--''
''Papa?'' Sophie chided him, for everyone knew Mr. Crestwood's penchant for embellishment. ''Go change your clothes before you catch a chill.'' Sophie pointed to the door.
''Pretty Sophie,'' Jack muttered, ''you don't know nothin' at all.''
''I know you shall be late for supper, and Papa will complain about it until the very last candle goes out.'' She shut the door behind him and finished pinning up her hair without any help. Where was Margaret when she actually needed her? ''Pretty Sophie,'' she sniffed.
Despite her grimace, Jack's compliment pleased her. She was neither gifted with a great mind like their elder brother, Richard, nor as fearless and brave as Jack. Her music and netting were very well indeed, but any young lady could claim those accomplishments.
A bell rang for supper. Ignoring it, she frowned. Very little, Sophie worried, lied beneath the fair complexion and deep-set eyes that mirrored her movements as she smoothed down the pleats of her gown. "Pretty as a doe," was how Jack described them when feeling complimentary. "Dull as church," he amended when being a dog.
Sometimes Leatherbury and its occupants rubbed up against one another's nerves like harsh wool. Besides Jack's efforts, this occurred most often at the supper table while Papa mused over the latest tittle-tattle, and it began quite early this late afternoon.
"Carrots,'' Mr. Crestwood said with pleasure. ''We haven't had a crop like this in so many years.'' He closed his eyes like they melted over his tongue.
''They are very good, Papa,'' Jack agreed, although they were from the cellar, last year's, and quite chewy.
This only encouraged Papa, who informed them his last dinner at Lady Mary's estate was no comparison when it came to the carrots at Leatherbury. Their carrots had not been half so capital, if he did say so himself, and didn't Mrs. Crestwood agree?
"Of course, you're right," murmured his wife, "I do not prefer the carrots at Oak Grove.''
Sophie raised a brow and glanced at her mother because this was a perfect opening for a little teasing, but Mama had a faraway look which meant her thoughts were back in the library with her most recent novel.
''I don't remember the carrots at Oak Grove," said Sophie in a loud voice. She studied Jack and saw his mind scrambling for more conversation. He was waiting for an opportunity to speak, so he could draw away attention from the fact he'd neglected his studies, much like he had done at boarding school. She knew her brother would argue the pursuit of a naval career necessitated the skills of wading and floating more than schooling.
''How were your lessons this afternoon, Jack?'' She smiled as she took another bite of carrots and decided they tasted very good indeed.
''I don't recall,'' Jack replied. ''Papa, any news from Pembroke?''
''Ah,'' said their father, raising his fork in the air, "Sir Edward's heir arrived just yesterday from the Indies. They say it took four carts to bring his belongings up from Portsmouth, and there are more on the way. Can you believe it? How many things can a man possibly keep aboard a boat?''
''A ship. He's a captain, Papa,'' Jack reminded him. ''He can use the entire hold to stow his valuables if it pleases him.''
''A captain, that's right.'' Mrs. Crestwood's comment surprised them all. She cleared her throat, took a drink, and set the goblet back on the oblong table with a light hand. "No doubt Mr. Murdock has led an exotic life.''
''Captain Murdock,'' Jack said under his breath.
Papa nodded. "Yes, and to be an heir, too. It makes no sense at all. How he came into his epaulets, one can only wonder. Sir Edward was never keen on the Navy. Speaking of the son,'' Papa said in a conspiratorial voice, "I understand the sins of the father have followed him home.''
Sophie glanced at her father's drink with a wary eye.
''It must be he is the rightful heir," said Mama, in a vocal stream of thought, ''though I'm sure news of Sir Edward taking a second wife did not reach here at all. I would have read about it.''
''I've been made to understand,'' her stout husband insisted, ''he had an eye for the ladies of the Caribbean." He gave her a scandalous grin. "Hmm? Ha-ha!"
''Papa,'' Sophie exclaimed, but she could not stop from smiling.
''Mr. Crestwood, please,'' said his wife, blinking fast, but her lips curled up with the admonition. "It's indeed a quixotic notion, but if he is the new owner of Pembroke Hall then he is most certainly worthy of it unless there has been some undiscovered intrigue.'' Mama leaned forward in her seat like one of them might share something to drag her thoughts away from the shadowy figures and dense fogs in her books.
Papa shared his gift for sniffing out news the way a hound tracked down a fox. ''He did not need the Navy with his family name, so he must have gone to sea under some other circumstance."
''According to Mrs. Porter," offered the seldom chatty Mrs. Crestwood, "the family's holdings in the Indies were lost years ago. A violent storm or earthquake, or perhaps a horrific fire burned the plantation to the ground. It must have been tragic.'' She hesitated then looked down at her plate with pity in her eyes.
Papa's conversation frothed along with his wife's encouragement like a tidal wave. "I doubt it was a natural event. It's no secret Sir Edward spent the family fortune on gaming and drink, the poor devil. He always did like to sport, even before he went..."
His voice faltered, and he scowled as if recalling a memory but shook himself out of it the way a horse tossed its head. Sophie looked at her mother who frowned over her half-eaten meal. Papa carried on: "Pembroke's heir must keep up some manner of business in St. Kitts, else he lies heavily in debt.''
''Pirating,'' offered Jack. "He is a captain after all, even if it ain't the Navy."
Mama's head jerked up, and her eyes held a curious light. "No, I could never believe it." She repositioned herself in her chair and picked up her fork. Papa, looking both pleased and aghast, declared, ''We shall soon find him out.'' He stabbed another carrot.
''Poor Captain Murdock,'' Sophie said, chuckling as she did so. ''He's only just arrived and already his title is questioned, his income decided, and his career open to speculation.''
"The word is he is no poor man, my dear.'' Papa looked around the table and lowered his voice. ''I hear tell he intends to refurbish Pembroke Hall to its original glory. It will take a great deal of money.''
''Well, he could not do so on a lieutenant's pay,'' Jack said.
Papa's smile gleamed in agreement.
''Let us presume he is respectable,'' Sophie decided. "You should call on him and welcome him home, Papa. Then we shall puzzle it all out."
Her father frowned again and fell silent. In the peculiar quiet, Mama said without looking up, ''He must have come into his fortune some other way.''
"Buccaneering,'' Jack repeated, and though Sophie raised her eyes to the aging plaster ceiling, this time neither one of her parents corrected him. Her father looked both excited and appalled, while her mother's expression remained distant.
''When will Richard come again, Papa?'' Sophie wondered, to change the direction of their coarse conversation. Her elder brother had been married over a year, and his visits to Leatherbury had been few and far between.
"Lavinia writes they will not be able to return in time for the assembly,'' said Mama. No one could deny the disappointment in her tone.
''They won't attend?'' Sophie grimaced. ''I do miss Lavinia. I'd hoped they would stay with us for a time.''
''Yes, we need them here,'' her father harrumphed. "Besides,'' he nodded at Jack, ''we could use an extra man in our fishing party.''
Jack glowered at his plate. ''Which Richard don't like to fish or hunt,'' he said, using his vulgar deckhand vernacular. ''I'm twice the shot he is.''
"Oh, ho!'' laughed Papa, ''I see a contest in our future.''
''He's no match, Papa,'' Sophie agreed. She leaned across the table. ''Jack's quite the marksman and fisherman, too, but Richard is better with accounts.'' Jack gave her a rueful look.
''It's true,'' she said with a shrug. ''You're as poor at figures as your sister.''
''I am not,'' he said, his ire rising.
''Now, boy,'' said Papa, for Jack's temper, was as well acknowledged as his sister's candid observations.
''My dear,'' their mother interrupted, eyeing her son with consolation, ''you do not need to be a good shot to be a clergyman. Your living is waiting for you to come of age thanks to Lady Mary. After Oxford, you will get your inheritance and settle at Oak Grove, and there in its elegant parsonage you'll raise a lovely family with a pretty little wife who will be grateful for the situation.''
''Which may well be above her own,'' Papa added. "It's a fine situation for you, Jack.''
Sophie bit her lip as their words fluttered through the air and settled across the table like dry leaves. Jack stared down in silent exasperation. Mama's lips were pressed together in a stiff line. Margaret chose that moment to enter with another course.
''Treacle-dowdy,'' exclaimed Sophie with pretended delight. ''I've waited all the day long!''
The next morning Sophie went to the library and pulled out the only book of maps at Leatherbury. It did not offer up a great many details, but the islands of the West Indies were carefully drawn and labeled. She wondered where their new neighbor had lived. Antigua? Tortuga, perhaps? Her mind raced. St. Kitts, Papa had said.
Someone had drawn a black flag beside a little dot. Jack, no doubt. Poor boy. Sophie knew her parents believed Jack's dreams of seamanship to be a passing fancy, but he had set his heart on a naval career before he was out of strings.
Sophie let out a heavy breath over the drawings. It was her duty to marry well. Mr. Crestwood was a country gentleman with a generous income, but it had not increased when he won his wife's consent so many years ago. If only he'd been titled. Sophie was certain that was all that was lacking in her favor. Her family was respectable. They had a good living and were settled in her father's ancestral home in Higfield, a stone's toss from Guildford, almost equally between London and Portsmouth. It was a convenient location, but none of it had made her a young bride. She had tried, really, she had and so cheerfully, but--
Sophie looked up from her contemplations. Margaret stood at the door wringing a cloth in her chubby hands. "Mr. Lyman can't find Master Jack.''
''That boy!'' Sophie slid off the honey-colored sofa and set the book back on its shelf. ''I have a good idea where he may be found.'' She snatched a bonnet and shawl then strode out the back of the house beyond the kitchen garden.
Once through the gate, she forgot her urgency and slowed her pace, skipping across the greening pastures beyond Leatherbury. A silvery light shined over the land like it knew winter had kissed the world goodbye for good.
Sophie strolled through scattered groves of trees until the woods began to thicken. Uncertain of her direction, she stopped for a time and studied the landscape. She tried to recall the direction of the small lake her brother so loved. It was rather a large pond, but the family insisted on calling it a lake. She assumed this was because it sounded grander, but it was only a murky green body of water with some good fish and a few waterfowl.
Looking ahead, the view stopped her in her tracks. It was not the lake, but the crumbling grey peaks of Pembroke in the distance. Sharp, formidable chimneys stood frozen above the hills hinting at some foreboding curse. They were dark and ragged, grasping at the sky with angry fingers as if intent on pulling the heart out of heaven itself. She swallowed and took a step into a pool of light.
The sun warmed the morning pleasantly enough so there was no chill creeping through her layers. In her favorite walking dress and faded spencer, Sophie clambered over the dilapidated stile that bridged a stone wall separating one pasture from another. On one side lived Leatherbury, warm and busy, with happy animals and eager flower buds. On the other side slept Pembroke.
Sophie looked up the hill at the towering manor, trying to imagine life within or without its walls. Pembroke answered like a giant shadow challenging the day. She suspected the foundation was ever more gnarled with weeds and ivy than when she last saw it, holding itself prisoner on its very own property. It seemed forever doomed to crumble away and sink into the earth like a ship into the sea.
The rumbling sound of hoofbeats made Sophie turn her head to look. From out of a copse of trees blocking her view, appeared a rider on a dark bay mount. The gleaming horse slowed to a trot and spying her, its master veered it off toward the echelon of stone and approached her.
Sophie stepped back against the wall, leaning into the cool rocks for support. When he came to a halt within a few paces, the man removed his cocked hat, a black Naval-looking issue with a pretty blue cockade. It stood out, just as his bright eyes stood out against his tanned features. Unlike the neat bicorn, his long and wild hair looked unkempt.
She had imagined the dark silhouette would take the shape of a specter, perhaps with a sickle in its grip; instead the man appeared to be a gentleman, although not an altogether cheerful looking one. Other than his hat, he was rather too brown and rumpled.
The horse snorted and turned its head to look. The rider studied her, too. Sophie pushed off the wall and stepped forward.
''You are from Leatherbury?'' he assumed in a flat tone.
''Miss Crestwood of Leatherbury,'' she informed him, trying to maintain her poise. Her attempt was foiled by an examining gaze with eyes so pale she could not tell their color. She couldn't look at him without glancing away and back again.
''Then, Miss Crestwood of Leatherbury, I recommend you and your family reacquaint yourselves with the boundaries of your estate.''
Her mouth dropped open at the ill-mannered admonition. Sophie stared up at the horseman from beneath the brim of her bonnet, aware she was mussed and the hem of her skirt damp with morning dew. One of her ribbons, frayed at the end, fluttered up in her face, but she did not shoo it away. ''I am looking for my brother,'' she said, trying to gather up enough dismay to feel slighted. ''I assure you I am within the boundaries of my home.''
The man gazed off into the distance behind her. ''I beg your pardon,'' he said with a slight apologetic cough, ''but your boundaries are the low-lying stream several metres beyond the grove, to where I suspect I've just chased your brother from my orchard.''
"Please accept my apologies then.'' Sophie kept her tone stiff.
She twirled away toward the stile to escape his censure, wondering why she did not debate with him that the wall had been the boundary for ages. Everyone knew it, even the cows. She was a Crestwood from Leatherbury, and she knew it. Who was he to tell her differently?
She pivoted back on her heel. ''And you are?'' She inclined her head and raised her chin, just like Lady Mary did when she questioned some poor, culpable soul.
The man shifted in his saddle like he might slide off the horse, and the animal whinnied and stamped its feet. ''Captain Edward Murdock of St. Kitts and still you are trespassing on my property.''
Sophie swallowed. Her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. Captain Murdock, Jack's imagined buccaneer, with a look of disapproval on his sun-browned face was anything but gracious. Gathering her skirts, she turned her back in a proud cut. She dared not look; she would not be angry or show any offense. He would feel awful, she just knew it, when he realized he'd made a horrible mistake. How cold and cruel and above all rudely suspicious to behave like she was intruding with some wicked scheme in mind. The poor man was misinformed.
A small flash of something round and black flew past her head. She winced, just as the horse snorted in pain. The mount squealed and reared, and Sophie watched in dismay as it forced the captain to cling desperately to the reigns to keep from falling off. The look on his set jaw could have lit a match. He called down the beast, but it was no good. Taking a deep breath, she called out, ''Welcome to Higfield, Captain Murdock." He was too busy to reply.
Another shot fired from the grove like a miniature cannonball and smashed into the stone wall with a crack. Sophie jerked at the explosive sound and watched the startled horse race back up the pasture hill in the direction it had come. The rider flailed as he struggled to stay astride.
Sophie's hand flew up to her mouth to stifle a laugh. She looked in the direction of the unseen attacker and made a face of furious warning less someone be hurt. Once over the stile, she strode into the woods to find Jack.
He was waiting for her underneath a giant walnut tree, with a grin on his face. ''Capital aim, wouldn't you say?''
Sophie could not hide her amusement, but she tried to sound stern. ''You could have killed one of us, and you spooked his poor horse!''
''I hit his mount right where I intended.''
''What will Papa say,'' Sophie asked, ''when word is sent to Leatherbury? Oh Jack, what trouble you've made for us now. This isn't boarding school. That was Captain Murdock himself.'' She snatched her brother's arm and forced him to escort her through the trees.
''I was defending my sister.''
''Gentlemen don't hide behind trees and lob nuts. Really, Jack, if he is truly angry he might call you out.''
''Me?'' Jack spread his hands out in an innocent gesture. ''I'm just a lad.''
''No, you are a young man, and it's time you start acting the part. If you want to convince the family you are fit for a naval career you must quit running through the forest like Robin Hood.''
''Mama did mention the army,'' Jack reminded her. ''I am going to sea, but at least she's opened her mind to something other than a cassock.'' He led his worried sister by the hand through a maze of young saplings and tangled briars that would soon droop with fat berries.
''Leatherbury is this way, Sophie. You've no direction at all. At least look up and follow the sun.''
"I have good sense, of which you have none. We best hurry and get you back to Mr. Lyman before he tells Papa.''
''I'm sure he won't notice.''
''He has noticed, and he's sent Margaret to find you. They've probably alerted the entire household, and now we will run into Old George if we're not careful.''
''That old fool? I'm twice the gamekeeper he is.''
''Just because he's losing his sight doesn't mean he can't track down the likes of you.''
Jack shook his head in disagreement. ''I've been dodging Old George for years now. It's the pirate next door that's the problem.''
''You can't say he's a pirate, Jack. It's a vicious lie."
''Did you see the dagger at his side?''
''Gold, covered in jewels, and glimmering in the sunlight.'' Jack lost himself in a slow, pensive daydream.
''You are such a romantic, silly boy. He's probably uneasy about poachers since he's just arrived. Pembroke's been deserted for years.''
''I'm not romantic, Sophie. The fellow ain't been here a week, and already he guards his estate like a bull.''
''Perhaps he was riding out to get a feel for it.''
''He already knows the boundaries,'' Jack insisted.
''Yes, it's true.'' Sophie reflected on Captain Murdock's confident knowledge of the stream bed she had maneuvered around and then the stone wall. ''I imagine he's studied Pembroke's papers.''
''You mean maps. All pirates can read maps.'' Jack eyed her with gravity.
Sophie gave him a teasing smile back. ''You sound like Mama. She was reading that Robinson Crusoe this morning.''
"I read it ages ago.''
''Then I suppose you must know everything about which you assume: Captain Murdock is indeed a pirate, the stone wall is the estate's boundaries, and you are well on your way to an infamous naval career.''
Affronted, Jack let go of her arm and darted toward Leatherbury. It had come into view in the distance.
''Jack!'' Sophie cried with exasperation, but he did not look back. Huffing in the warm air and put out with wandering boys and boundaries, she marched back home and up to her room to change her dirty gown and not think about Captain Edward Murdock of St. Kitts.
Gilded paper with small bouquets of salmon-colored flower buds adorned the breakfast parlor walls at Leatherbury. They made morning affairs pleasant and garden-like, even on damp spring days. Sophie felt a touch of affection for the room as she slipped into her seat.
Papa could not contain himself over the latest rumors from Town. He was a man of endless information, mostly the kind that had little utility, but as it was his duty to find an eligible match for his only living daughter, he had no qualms seeking out any detail that would assist him in accomplishing his design. Although sometimes to Sophie's great consternation, he was not as delicate as he was practical, she understood it had to be done.
"I hear," he said, smacking his lips over a three-minute egg, "Lady Mary will have a guest visit Oak Grove this year of whom everyone will be eager to be introduced."
When no one at the table raised their eyes in any way of hopeful interest, he continued louder than before. "The nephew, Henry Billingham, is coming to the country." He caught Sophie's eye and offered her a broad grin. "Not just to tour the estate he has inherited, I understand."
"First Sir Edward's heir, now Mr. Billingham will come. Two gentlemen of fortune," said Mama with interest.
"Yes, it's true," Papa said rather hastily because he had not thought of it before. Sophie tried to beam at them both, but she found she pressed her lips together and looked down at her plate much like Jack did when her parents showed interest in his future affairs.
At last, she managed to say, "Poor Lady Mary. How distressing, to have her home pass from her husband to another with her still dependent on its living."
"We saw him on the rare occasion when he was a boy, but it was years ago. Mr. Porter tells me Billingham finished his studies at Oxford and will have an inheritance from his father of five thousand pounds. It's unfortunate his aunt should be widowed, and that the elder cousin died suddenly, but he also inherits Oak Grove now, too."
"Two incomes. How uncomfortable he must be with his good fortune." Sophie looked at her father and smiled then glanced around the room to find something to hold her interest. Jack leered back at her, wide-eyed.
"My," said Mama, when it became obvious her husband waited for someone to respond, "that is a tidy sum indeed, at least five thousand a year, and to inherit such a great house, too." She also looked at Sophie who found the cuckoo clock to her liking. She studied the brass hands and willed them to move forward so the funny bird would waddle out. Papa leaned back in his chair and tucked his thumbs under the folds of his banyan.
"Pity all of Lady Mary's daughters are married," Sophie offered. Her father narrowed his eyes at her and grinned like they shared a secret. "It will not do to make assumptions for the poor fellow," she added at his steady gaze. She felt rather on the defensive.
"I assure you," Papa said, "Lady Mary has a great many years of life yet, and Billingham insists she remains at Oak Grove. But I have not told the best part. I have been informed Billingham has welcomed the idea of being introduced to certain ladies of his aunt's acquaintance."
Papa dropped his hand on the table with a muffled clap and drew in a sharp breath, expended from his triumphant announcement. Mama looked at Sophie, and the corners of her mouth turned up with some small amusement. Sophie smiled back but said nothing.
"I wonder if he's very ugly," Jack mused, "with pockmarks and a nose that drips all hours of the day, no matter the weather."
"Jack." Mama scolded him with a word and her soft tone.
Sophie's nose curled up in distaste.
"I'm sure no gentleman of fortune would ever lower himself to such a description," said Mama. The idea an heir could be so repugnant was impossible in her ardent mind. "Sophie will have every opportunity to examine him herself when he arrives." She glanced at her daughter. "Lady Mary has already promised me Sophie will be his very first introduction."
Sophie blushed that she should be the topic of so intimate a conversation while absent. It appeared Mama knew just as much about Papa's announcement, if not quite a bit more.
Jack held his tongue and pretended to find the whole thing ridiculous, but Sophie knew he'd secretly become fond of country maidens. He was noticing love and attraction, although it had not affected his desire to run off to sea. He was still a boy after all, although society would soon see him different.
"Then I will look forward to his re-acquaintance," Sophie replied to her family around the table, "leaky nose and all." From the corner of her eye, she noticed her mother's grimace. "Would it please you, Mama?"
"It would," said the lady though she added with a sigh, "but let us be hopeful Henry Billingham is the most handsome gentleman ever to set boots on the grounds of Oak Grove. Oh, what a great house!"
A gentleman, mused Sophie. Another one. Captain Murdock, she realized, was all but forgotten this morning. Or so he was until Jack kicked her shin under the table and said with a cheeky grin, "No pirate there. I wager he's dull as church."
"It will be a beautiful evening for a dance. If the clouds do not all blow off, it shan't be too cold, either. You must wear your best white muslin with the lavender ribbon in your hair."
"It's my best new dress," disagreed Sophie, the night of the country dance, but Mama would not be swayed. After complaining of the evening chill sure to come, her mother offered to loan her a beautiful shawl with colorful swirls of slate and salmon.
In fairness to herself and her family, Sophie had been introduced to several eligible bachelors in the past year, but overall, they had been homely, conceited, or shamelessly desperate. Those beneath her income were no temptation to her father. To those who had a good family and respectable inheritances, he was polite and receiving. But to no end, his proper ambition and duty to his daughter had yet to yield any results. It would be a shame, Sophie thought, as the Crestwoods rode the short distance to Guildford, to be born with agreeable looks and a suitable family for no useful purpose at all. She imagined Mama might start reading Shakespearean tragedies if her daughter did not marry soon.
Papa was in a foul mood, grumbling to Mama as the horse pulled them toward the assembly hall. It dampened Sophie's excitement, and she hoped his love of gatherings and conversation would help him forget himself.
He'd spent most of the day distraught over reports of Jack's expeditions into the woods during scheduled times with his tutor. "I shall send Jack away again," said Papa, furious a private tutor should fail in his duty to Leatherbury. "Lyman came so well recommended. I heard all about him at the Red Fox. They were so unhappy to lose him in Yorkshire."
Jack's adventures had already caused his dismissal from a reverend's boarding school in Guildford. In hiring the young clergyman, Mr. Lyman, Papa hoped to better prepare Jack for Harrow School outside of London.
Jack could have saved himself from trouble, but rather than send his tutor packing and have Margaret scolded or worse, he kept the knowledge of Mr. Lyman's distractions to himself. Following her brother's example, Sophie kept it secret, too.
Twisting a loose thread from her reticule taut around her finger, Sophie listened to her mother and father chatter about their friends until the carriage had its turn to pause at the doors that swung open into the assembly rooms. They were helped and hurried indoors melting into the throng. It seemed everyone who lived within miles of Guildford had come out, anxious to celebrate the excitement of the new Season. Candles draped each room with smoking scent, and clusters of conversation echoed off the ceilings.
Sophie abandoned her parents and skipped up a flight of narrow stairs to the open space for dancing where musicians tuned their instruments and couples had taken the floor. The long, oblong room had a pitched ceiling with exposed beams and a row of several windows that looked out over the street below. At one end, a crowd of ladies and gentlemen were complimenting one another as their gazes roamed around the mob. The cool evening air had not yet dissipated, but Sophie knew it would soon warm up with so many friends crushed together.