Sheffield cornered Sophia against the tree tucked in the dark recesses of the garden.
“Well, I suppose you will do.”
“Do for what?”
“The kiss I was promised.”
“I have not promised you a kiss.”
“No, you did not. However, your friend lured me into the garden to compromise her. Since she has broken our engagement to trifle with Wildeburg, I have been left abandoned. Therefore, because a kiss was promised, somebody must fulfill the bargain. So, that leaves you.”
“You are absurd, no gentleman would suggest such an offer was made.”
“I’m not feeling very gentlemanly at the moment, since Lady Sidney passed me over for a mere marquess. As her best friend, Sophia, it falls on to you to console me.”
They were hidden in the shadows. Sophia tried to sneak around him, but his body surrounded hers. His hands rested on the tree against her sides, trapping her between the rough bark and his hard body. She gasped as he bent his head to press his mouth to hers. They were warm as they coaxed her lips apart. When his tongue slipped inside, she tasted the whiskey on his breath. As his tongue stroked hers, Sophia felt herself softening into him. Without realizing her actions, she wrapped her arms around his neck drawing him in closer to their kiss. She heard his moan vibrate off her lips as Alex pulled her away from the tree and enclosed her into his arms.
He only meant to scare her. But his bruised ego fought against the moral code of a gentleman and he'd threatened her with a kiss. If it were not for her interfering, he would still be engaged to Sidney Hartridge. Instead he was once again in the market for a bride. He knew Lady Sophia Turlington aided Wildeburg with winning the affections of Lady Sidney. For that he decided to make Sophia pay. A kiss would warn her against trifling with his life.
How was he to know she could kiss like a skilled courtesan? Her lips should be illegal. He caught her gasps in between his moans. Each stroke of his tongue against hers lighted a fire inside his body for more. He needed to pull back. Since he only meant to frighten her, he didn't want it to go any further, or be burdened with her for a wife. It would appear his search would need to begin again. With a reluctance he couldn't explain he separated himself from her.
As Sophia stood there wild-eyed and gasping for air, he noted her hair had fallen around her shoulders. She presented quite a picture. If she were any other woman and not a vindictive shrew, he would finish what he started. It was a pleasant evening for a tryst in the garden. But Lady Sophia didn't meet his requirements for a duchess. Then there was her mother. He shuddered as he imagined his life married to this lady with her fire-breathing dragon of a mother always present. No, thank you.
He stood before her, raking his eyes over her appearance. With the look of displeasure upon his face, he must have concluded that she didn't stand up to par. Sophia’s hair tumbled around her shoulders and she knew her dress was wrinkled from being wrapped in his embrace. However, her dignity was still intact. She lifted her head with pride and raised her chin. Where in return he cocked his eyebrow in disapproval and smirked at her. Then had the audacity to turn and saunter away, but not before he drawled a snide remark.
“Not what I expected, but it will do.”
Sophia stood watching as he walked into the darkness. She pressed her hands to her cheeks and felt the warmth of her blush. She took a few steps backward deeper in the shadows. Her thoughts were a jumbled mess. As her temper rose, she couldn't decide when her anger toward Sheffield turned to being angry with herself. How easy she fell into his arms. Did she not learn anything from their earlier encounter? Her hands fluttered to pull her hair into place. When he ran his hands through her tresses, he'd scattered her hair pins across the lawn. How long were they locked in their passionate embrace? It seemed a few moments, but Sophia knew it to be longer than either of them suspected. Her mother would be searching for her. She must finish repairing herself before she returned to the ballroom. Her palms kept smoothing the wrinkles in her dress over and over as her mind replayed the kiss. How an earth was she attracted to such an irritating, over-bearing ass? What made this even worse was that Alexander Langley had no idea the woman he kissed this evening was the same lady he seduced last week at Madame Bellerose’s establishment.
She wandered out of the shadows with her head bent deep in thought, and she ran into somebody. Sophia stood still, afraid of who would regard her in such a mess. She could very well be ruined tonight, with no gentleman to claim her hand in acceptance. Oh, she was no fool to think that the Duke of Sheffield would step up and honor her with a marriage proposal for stealing a kiss. No, he would be an arrogant fool and abandon her to the disapproving ton.
Sophia's body sagged in relief as she looked up to see Lord Roderick Beckwith’s concerned face.
“Phee, who did this to you?”
She shook her head, refusing to give him the name of the man who kissed her so thoroughly. Not only thoroughly, but with her fervent response.
“No Rory, I am fine. Just a little mishap. I stumbled over a root and fell into a tree. As I regained my balance, my dress caught on a piece of bark. Then before I knew it, my hair tumbled down. I cannot find a single pin in this darkness.” Sophia rambled on hoping that she distracted him enough so that he no longer looked at her with suspicion.
“Mmm,” he responded, searching the ground around them.
“Would you be a dear and send word to Mama about my accident?”
“Yes, but let me escort you to my carriage. It should have returned by now. I promised Sidney I would come look for you.”
“Oh, what a mess this evening has become. First Sidney’s engagement to Sheffield has broken off. Then Wildeburg spilled her plans for her secret experiment. You are not cross with her, are you? I realize she deceived your friendship, but it was for love, Rory.”
“I understand her actions. While I do not approve of them, I do stand by her need for justice. Especially since it concerns Sheffield and Wildeburg. Two men who deserve her wrath. It will be a pleasure to read her thesis in the London Times.”
Sophia remained quiet. Rory plainly wasn’t aware of Sidney’s love for Wildeburg. Sidney herself didn't fully understand her own emotions. Sophia had avoided Sidney all week because of her shame. Tomorrow morning would be soon enough to repair their friendship. She needed to guide Sidney into opening her heart to love. There was nothing she could do tonight.
Rory was able to escort her out of the garden and into his carriage without encountering a soul. After a good night’s rest, she would help Sidney achieve her quest for love. When Sidney was settled, she would have to find a way to forget the duke’s kisses.
Sophia arrived at Sidney’s the next morning to find her friend in deep thought at her desk. She had parchment strewn all across the room. One finished piece of paper sat before Sidney as she stared at the words. Phee wandered to her side, kneeling on the floor.
“I love him.”
“I know you do, honey, and I am pretty sure he loves you too.”
Sidney sighed, “I know.”
“He is waiting below in the garden for you. Your mother would like for you to come below.”
“No, I must have your help.”
“Anything, what can I do for you?”
“First, I want to apologize for being so caught up in my experiment that I have ignored your troubles. Please confide in me, Phee.”
“There is nothing to tell. I think it was the sense of loss I felt as I watched you fall in love with Wildeburg. I feared our friendship had reached an end.”
The lie slipped so easily from Sophia's lips. The last thing she wanted Sidney to discover was of her two encounters with Sheffield. Sidney needed to focus on her own problems, not to be drawn into Sophia's mistakes. Because mistakes they were. Mistakes that must stop. As long as she avoided Sheffield, then there would be no more secret trysts. No more kisses. No more gasps and moans as he stroked her to life. No more passion. Passion was an emotion that tempted her into dangerous liaisons with dukes who could ruin her.
“What nonsense, Sophia Turlington. Our friendship will never falter no matter who comes into our lives.”
Sidney wrapped Phee into a hug as they laughed at her friend's silliness. Phee knew the dynamic of their friendship would change. Their bond wouldn't be broken, but now Sidney’s life would include a husband. Which would leave Phee sharing less time with her friend.
“What are your plans?”
“First, I need you to distract Mama so that I can make an escape. Then you can deliver this note to Wilde and persuade him to return home.”
“Where are you escaping to?”
“I need to sneak into Wilde’s home. I also need your assistance with that too.”
“Leave your mama to me. I have a juicy bit of gossip that will send her out the door to discover if there is any truth to what I have spoken. Then we will spirit you off to your ruination. I told you this would be trouble from the start.”
Sidney laughed. “That you did.”
Sophia descended the stairs, going in search of Lady Hartridge. She found her in the parlor peering between the curtains and into the garden. She kept sighing as she regarded the man on the bench.
“Isn’t it so romantic of him to wait for her?” Sophia whispered over Lady Hartridge’s shoulder as she also stared out the window.
“Oh, it is. But it is also such a scandal. Our Sidney is ruined and so is the family name.”
“Nonsense. Lord Wildeburg will make right by Sidney. Then the ton will gossip about their love match for years to come.
“Do you think so?”
“Yes. Now Mama wanted me to deliver a message to you regarding Lady Pembroke. She is rumored to be dipping into the Ladies of Mayfair’s Homeless Children’s funds. It appears she lost at cards and owes a huge sum to Lord Holdenburg.”
“Why that … I knew she couldn’t be trusted to hold on to the mission’s funds. I will go to her house right now to collect what money she hasn’t gambled away. She will rue the day she used the orphanage’s charity for her own sins.”
Sophia smiled as she watched Lady Hartridge rant about the devious sins of the loose ladies of the ton. How gambling ruined even the most Christian of women. This part of her plan worked. Now on to step two. Once Sidney’s mother rushed from the room and ordered the footmen to ready the carriage, Sophia stepped into the hall and waved to Sidney that the coast was clear. Sidney flew down the stairs and into Sophia’s waiting carriage. She then went outside to deliver the note hidden in the folds of her dress to the gentleman waiting in the garden.
When she came upon him, it was to see the once cocky gentleman who'd charmed the skirts off most women sitting dejected on the bench. She settled next to him, holding out Sidney’s letter. He took the note and started to unfold it. Sophia rested her hands on his, stopping him. For their plan to succeed, she needed to convince him to return home immediately. They would follow discreetly in her carriage, since neither one of them knew where exactly he resided.
“Wilde, it would be in your best interest to leave. Sidney has written you an explanation. She would like you to return to your townhome to read it. She has explained the reasons for her actions and hopes that you will let the rumors settle before returning. Her greatest fear is that her father will call you out in a duel. Sidney doesn’t wish for either of you to come to harm over her obvious mistakes.”
“If that is what she wishes. I am only here at her command.” He rose from the bench and offered his hand for Sophia to rise.
“Cheer up, Wilde, not all is lost.”
Wilde attempted to smile at his new friend, but his heart wasn't into the light banter they usually exchanged. He'd sat throughout the night in the rain for any sign of Sidney’s forgiveness. But none came. He continued to wait on the bench through the morning, but still nothing. Now Sidney had sent her friend to get rid of his presence. He had ruined any chance at winning Sidney’s love. At that moment exhaustion took hold. He would take Sophia’s advice and return home. After a few hours of rest and a change of clothes he would return again to wait for Sidney.
“I will take your word on that, my lady.” He pressed a kiss upon her knuckles as he escorted Sophia to her carriage.
Sophia waited for Wilde to walk out of sight before she motioned for her footman to come closer. She directed him to inform the carriage driver to follow Lord Wildeburg at a discreet distance. Soon they were off at a slow pace as they moved through the streets of Mayfair. Sophia sat across from Sidney, watching the excitement fill her eyes as they made their way closer to their destination. Sophia held no envy, but a sense of delight that her serious friend finally opened her heart to the giddy feeling of love. For a while Sophia was unsure if Sidney could even feel the emotion. She was usually caught up in the scientific affairs of her father. Always debating the gentlemen of the ton on issues no lady should be privy to. However, Sidney was unlike any lady Sophia had ever known and she was proud to call her a friend.
Soon the carriage came to a complete halt. Sophia peeked out from the curtains to watch Wildeburg stride into an elaborate townhome. Her mouth opened in shock as she looked upon the grand home. Even as wealthy as her parents were, they owned nothing as magnificent as this. She was joined at the window by Sidney, who gasped as she took in the house she was soon to invade. Sophia rapped on the roof of the carriage and directed them to drive around to the alley behind the house.
When they reached the back of Wilde’s home, Sidney started to laugh. Before her in the garden was a trellis reaching upward to an enormous balcony. On the balcony rested a small table with a couple of chairs. It had to be his room. She grabbed a sack on the seat next to her. It was a surprise to lure Wilde into her arms. Sidney grabbed Phee’s hands and gave them a gentle squeeze.
“Thank you, and I owe you.”
Phee laughed. “Yes, and a big one at that. Now go get your heart’s desire, Sidney Hartridge.”
Sophia watched Sidney run across the garden and climb the trellis. When she reached the top and swung over the railing, Sidney turned to wave. Sophia returned it and ordered the driver to return her home. The gentle sway of the ride lulled her into a recurring daydream. The same dream that invaded her sleep throughout the nights over and over. With Sophia being pulled into his arms and kissed tenderly with a passion only they shared. Sophia touched her lips as if she could still feel Sheffield's upon hers. Kissing. Tasting. Exploring. Only it was no daydream, but a nightmare she needed to forget. If she kept musing over these emotions, they would only lead her to heartache.