|The One That Got Away
Featuring the novella, Much Ado About Twelfth Night, by Liz Carlyle
Avon , November 1, 2004
|Excerpt from the novella Much Ado About Twelfth Night
(in The One That Got Away)
Love’s Labor Takes a Troubling Turn.
Sophie had risen, and strolled toward the french windows which opened onto the terraced lawns. It was a warm night, with a breeze strong enough to stir the heavy velvet draperies which were drawn half open. Sophie stood there for a long time, simply watching the room and sipping at her coffee. It was almost as if she were waiting for something.
Then, for an instant, a footman distracted Edward with a question about the coffee. When he turned back, he barely caught the flash of green silk which slipped between the velvet panels and into the night.
Sophie had gone outside?
Edward considered it but a moment before excusing himself. It was the perfect opportunity, he told himself, to make that apology. To be alone with Sophie, away from prying eyes. Perhaps if they were alone, she would even go ahead and make her offer. Of course he meant to say no. Still, he reasoned, it would be best for both of them to just get it over with. And on the heels of that thought, Edward found himself wondering if Sophie still looked lovely in the moonlight.
He reached the draperies and slipped silently through. But he’d gone only a few feet into the gloom when his heart almost stopped. A decidedly masculine voice was carrying on the breeze from the shadows. Sophie was meeting someone? Good Lord.
A gentleman would have turned back, or perhaps announced his presence with a tactful cough. But for once in his life, Edward did not do the gentlemanly thing. Instead, he slid into the shadows like a blade through butter, melting soundlessly into its depths. He was good at it, and he did not have far to go. At the end of the terrace, a man sat sprawled across the wrought iron bench which overlooked Sheriden’s west lawn. Edward could see Sophie’s bare shoulders reflect the moonlight as she floated through the night toward him.
Damn Oliver’s eyes! He was taking his flirtation just a tad too far. This time, Edward meant to throttle him. But it would not do to make a scene just now. Instead, he would stay near. Just in case Sophie needed him.
But she didn’t look as if she needed anyone. She moved with perfect confidence as she gathered her skirts and sat down.
Edward crept closer. At once, he realized it was not Oliver whom she’d joined. Relief flooded through him when he recognized Sophie’s brother’s voice.
It was a short-lived emotion.
“You’re still confident you can get him, Sophie?” Will’s words were soft, but unmistakable. “What will it take?”
“Money, Will.” Sophie’s voice was grim. “Pots of it. But everyone has his price. I just have to figure out what Edward’s is without insulting him.”
Too bloody late, thought Edward. But a strange sense of mortification was stealing over him. Sophie was awfully damned confident he’d marry her, wasn’t she?
In the darkness, he heard Will chuckle. “Well, I’m deuced glad it’s your job, Soph, and not mine,” he whispered. “Old Rythorpe looks a bit fierce to me.”
“I think it’s just that he’s under a vast deal of pressure,” she answered. “Don’t worry, Will. I’ll manage Edward.”
Her brother hesitated. “Perhaps you ought to be careful, Soph.”
Sophie shrugged. And then, the conversation took a very strange turn. “He really is quite fine looking, isn’t he?” Sophie said, her tone warming a little.
In the moonlight, he could see Will open his hands expansively. “I’d say so, but you’re the better judge,” he said. “You are still pleased at the prospect of having him, Sophie?”
Sophie laughed lightly. “Oh, I think I’ll be well satisfied.”
Edward felt frozen in place, appalled. Well satisfied—? Good God! Had she no shame?
Then Sophie dropped her voice to a whisper. “To tell you the truth, Will, I still get a little shivery just looking at him.”
Will snorted. “Lud, Soph! You sound sixteen again.”
Sophie elbowed him sharply in the ribs. “And to imagine I’d almost forgotten what he looked like! Did you notice those long, strong legs? That glorious mane?”
“But a tad ragged,” countered Will. “He could certainly be better groomed. And I didn’t much care for his coat. Very ordinary, I thought.”
Ordinary! That puppy thought his coat was ordinary? The damned nerve! But the words had a familiar ring.
“He’s been a little neglected, I fear.” Sophie dropped her voice. “But the truth is, Will, his looks don’t much matter to me anymore. It’s the pedigree I’m after.”
“Well, I know that, Soph!” her brother answered. “But looks don’t hurt.”
“Oh, Will!” Sophie laughed. “With his bloodlines, you could just throw a feed sack over that shaggy mane and make good use of the parts that matter.”
Will gave a groan of disgust. Edward felt his blood run cold. He forgot to breathe. Good God Almighty! Was this what was said of him these days? That the Marquess of Rythorpe was in such dire straits, he’d sell his own cock to the highest bidder?
“Sophie, you’re beginning to sound vulgar,” he heard Will say.
Vulgar? She’d surpassed vulgar eons ago. The moment she fell out of her carriage and into his arms.
“I’m simply stating the facts, Will,” Sophie countered. “He’s a tad long in the tooth now to be of much use for anything else. But I’d be a fool to overlook his lineage. Just imagine the possibilities! What a breeder he will be!”
No, thought Edward grimly. Not in a million years.
But he was imagining it, and it disgusted him. Suddenly, he itched to turn Sophie St. John over his knee and wear the hide off her backside with his bare hand. How dare she speak so crudely of him? Or anyone else, come to that? She wasn’t supposed to sound like those jaded women of the ton who’d had far too much experience in other men’s beds. She was his little Sophie. Or so he’d thought.
Edward suppressed a bitter laugh. Good Lord, in his heart, he’d come home hoping she was still sweet and seventeen, hadn’t he? What a damned fool he was. Sophie knows how the world works, Oliver had said. Well, apparently, she did. But she obviously didn’t know that Grandmama Euphemia had already tipped her hand.
Yes, now that his bloodlines were of use to her—now that he was the Marquess of Rythorpe instead of some obscure army officer—it seemed she might condescend to share his bed. No, it was worse, even, than that. She thought she could buy him. Well, by damn, he’d sooner burn in hell.
Suddenly, Will rose and stretched his arms wide. “Well, Soph,” he said on a huge yawn. “I’m for bed. You coming?”
Disappointed and disgusted, Edward turned and walked quietly back toward the french window.
“I think I’ll stroll along the terrace and take the air,” came Sophie’s distant answer. Her voice sounded oddly wistful.
From the shadows, he watched Will stride across the flagstones, through the open window, and back into the salon. In the distance, he could hear the heels of Sophie’s slippers as she paced back and forth along the terrace edge.
His rage was melting away now, leaving only a familiar, ice-cold fury. He wondered what Sophie was thinking as she walked. And on his next breath, he found himself wondering if she were cold. The breeze had grown stiffer, the air more chill. Sophie wore only her green silk gown and a gossamer shawl about her shoulders.
And he was a fool to give a damn. What should it matter to him if she were standing out here stark naked, dripping wet, and hacking with consumption? But it did matter. It still mattered. Perhaps it always would, and that angered him even further.
Just then, the sound of Sophie’s footsteps grew more distinct. Christ! Was she coming straight toward him?
Edward slid behind one of the stone pillars which supported the balustrade above. He wondered if she would see him. Probably not. But he could see her, a faint shadow floating nearer in the gloom. He must remain perfectly quiet, he told himself. Perfectly motionless.
And then, without even meaning to, Edward cleared his throat, and stepped squarely in front of Sophie.
The Marquess of Rythorpe was the last person Sophie expected to see as she made her way toward the salon. But when the broad, immutable shape slid from the shadows to block her path, she knew instinctively that it was he. Her every nerve ending tingled with awareness.
He propped one shoulder against the pillar, looking far more indolent than usual. Fleetingly, she wondered if he’d had too much to drink at dinner. “Good evening, Sophie.” His voice was a low rumble in the dark. “Shouldn’t you be inside with the other guests?”
“Good evening, Edward.” Her voice sounded suddenly breathless. “I was just enjoying the night air.”
He stepped unmistakably closer. “Some say the night air can be dangerous,” he murmured. “Besides, it is not at all the thing for young ladies to be roaming about alone in the dark. Or have customs changed whilst I was abroad?”
Sophie did not back away as she should have done. “Will was with me.”
Sophie could feel Edward’s eyes burning into hers. He sounded not at all himself. Could he have overheard her conversation with Will? No, their voices had been soft. And surely they would have heard his approach.
“Thank you for your concern,” she said quietly. “I feel perfectly safe here at Sheriden.”
“Indeed, yes,” she muttered, moving as if to go around him. “Pardon me, I wish to go in now.”
But he had no intention of allowing her to pass. She sensed it. His broad shoulders blocked out the light from the window. She could feel his gaze rake over her, even in the dark. When he set his hands on her bare shoulders, she knew she should turn away.
But she did not. “My lord?” she said, looking up at him uncertainly.
“Edward,” he corrected, the word a low growl. Then his mouth came down hard over hers.
Sophie tried to gasp, but his grip on was unassailable, his mouth hot and urgent as it moved on hers. Somehow, she jerked her head away, but he forced her face back into his and kissed her again.
Alarm seized her. She tried to protest, but Edward’s mouth opened over hers, capturing the sound. His tongue slid deep inside her, an intimacy which shocked her. In response, her stomach bottomed out, and her knees went weak. A traitorous warmth went spiraling through her body. The sharp, heated scent of soap and male sweat filled her nostrils. The dark shadow of his beard raked across her skin; a heady, exhilarating sensation.
She must have made a sound of pleasure. In response, Edward gave a little growl of satisfaction somewhere deep in his chest, and settled one hand against the small of her back, drawing her hips to his. Suddenly, Sophie realized she was not fighting it. Fighting him. She was not shoving against his chest, or kneeing him between the legs as she ought to have done.
Instead, she was kissing him back, her face turned up into his, greedily drawing his tongue into her mouth and sliding her own sinuously against it. She could feel his breath, hot and hard on her face. She could feel the swell of his erection against her belly as the heat of his hand burned into her spine. Could feel herself melting. Melting against him, into him, her body molding hungrily to his as she slid into a languorous, sensual stupor.
But her awakening was rude and cold.
As quickly as he’d begun it, Edward jerked his mouth from hers and stepped back, his heels clicking firmly on the flagstones. His hands had fallen to his sides. The warmth and scent of him was gone, leaving Sophie to feel suddenly cold and deeply ashamed.
“And that, my dear Sophie,” he murmured, “is why young ladies should not venture into the dark alone.”
Then the Marquess of Rythorpe slid back into the shadows from whence he’d come, leaving Sophie standing alone in the dark, more shaken and confused than she’d ever been before. Good Lord! She had come to Sheriden to buy a horse. She certainly had not counted on this!