Noble Passions, Book 4
by Sabrina York
Ebook ISBN: B01HS40DEI
[ Regency Romance, MF ]
Searching for adventure, she stows away on a ship bound for Italy…unbeknownst to the man who loves her–the man her brother has explicitly warned away. When he discovers her, passion threatens to explode. But when pirates attack their vessel, there may be no more time.
“No? What do you mean, no?”
Her brother glowered at her across the broad expanse of his desk but Sophia didn’t let it weaken her resolve.
She tipped her chin at an intransigent angle and shrugged. “No. It’s a simple word.”
“Well, why the hell not?” A bellow.
Ewan St. Andrews only bellowed when he wanted to intimidate people. Sophia refused to be intimidated, especially by the likes of him, and certainly not on this issue. And oh, he’d tried to bully her. Dragging her into his study, sitting on the far side of his imposing desk. Making her perch in this narrow, uncomfortable chair as though she were one of his minions called to task over some minor infraction.
No. She would not be intimidated.
“He’s handsome.” Ewan turned to his wife, who stood across the room, dandling little Will on her hip. “Isn’t he handsome, Violet?”
“Very handsome, darling.”
Sophia waved her hand. “Pish.”
“And he’s rich. I had Colin look into it. No prancing popinjay without a farthing.”
“Money is not important.”
Ewan’s brow darkened. “You have no idea what you’re saying, Sophia. Money is everything, especially when you don’t have it.”
“And I said pish.”
“It’s been four years. Four seasons. You’re twenty. Nearly on the shelf. You’ve had twenty-four proposals.”
Twenty-seven, actually. She hadn’t told him about the three who had gone down on bended knee before her when no one was around.
“You’ve said no to them all. Why?”
“I didn’t see it.”
“It? What it?” Ewan raked his fingers through his hair as he did when he was at wit’s end. He raked his fingers through his hair a lot around her.
She shrugged again. “You know. The look.”
His lips flapped, rather like a trout. “The look? What look?”
Sophia tipped her head to the side. “The look I see in your eyes. When you so much as glance at Violet.” His brow beetled and his attention skimmed to his wife. That look flared. Doting and warm. Absolute love. Not the mere flicker of attraction because she was pretty, or the avaricious gleam because her brother was a wealthy and powerful man. But love. For her and her alone. “Yes,” she whispered. “That one.”
“This is absurd. Heinrich is a fucking prince for fuck’s sake.”
“Ewan! Language.” Violet set her free hand over Will’s tiny shell-like ear.
As though Will hadn’t heard that word before.
Sophia wrinkled her nose. “He’s an Austrian prince.” Some obscure little burg in the Alps. She’d rather move to the wilds of India. Africa, perhaps. The colonies? A little thrill trickled through her at the thought. What an adventure that would be. She’d never had an adventure. Not a real one. Oh, how she’d love to—
Ewan stood in a rush, tipping over his chair. He paced the room. It made Sophia dizzy to watch. “You used to be docile. You used to be obedient. Whatever happened to that girl?”
She blinked. When had she ever been docile or obedient? Had he even been paying attention?
“I worked. Slaved. Sacrificed my whole life to create opportunities for you. And this is how you repay me? By being defiant? By saying no? Time and time and time again?”
Ah. Guilt now. Too bad for him she was heartless. “Yes.”
“I… You… We…” It didn’t become him to sputter so.
Sophia stood as well, but only because, in her estimation, this interview was over. There was nothing more to discuss. “I’m not marrying Heinrich von Österreich.”
“See! You don’t even know his name. It’s Wichtigtuerisch.”
He’d completely missed her pun—he often did—but Violet caught it. Her lips twitched and she winked. “Darling,” she said in a soothing voice, bless her. “You didn’t work all your life for Sophia to have a princely husband.”
Lovely. Now he was bellowing at Violet.
She wasn’t intimidated either.
“No. You did not. You slaved and sacrificed so she could have something even more precious.”
“I did?” He frowned. “What was that?”
“Choices. You wanted her to have choices. The freedom to choose her own path. Forge her own destiny.”
He tunneled his fingers through his hair. Again. “What the hell was I thinking?”
“Do you want her to marry just to marry?” She stepped closer to her husband and set her palm on his cheek. Will patted his father as well. “Or do you want her to marry for love? Because I want her to know…”
Ewan’s Adam’s apple bobbed. “Know w-what?”
“What we have, darling.”
She kissed him then and Sophia knew for certain the interview was at an end. Because even though these two had been married for four years, once they kissed they were newlyweds once more.
Violet smiled at her as Sophia took her babbling, drooling nephew from her arms and quit the room, leaving husband and wife locked in a passionate clinch. Heavens. They’d already made three children in the course of their short marriage. They were probably working on number four, even now.
Ah, let them. She adored her nephews and she adored her sister-in-law. No one had ever had a more diligent champion. If anyone could convince Ewan to let Sophia make her own choices, it was Violet.
She resettled Will on her hip, pressing a kiss to his baby-soft curls. His scent wreathed her and she felt a little tug in the region of her heart. She would love to have children of her own someday—and a husband too probably, as apparently they were somewhat necessary in the making of them. But not yet. Not now.
She’d told Ewan the truth—she absolutely wanted the passion she saw glinting in his eyes when he looked at Violet and she would not settle for less.
But there was more to it than that. She hadn’t told him the rest of it. She hadn’t shared her deep dark fear.
The bald fact of the matter was, from everything she had seen, life ended at marriage. At least for a woman. She became a man’s property and strictly under his thumb.
Sophia was far too strong-willed for that.
Besides which, she longed for adventure. Always had.
The only adventure in Violet’s life was discovering Will had left a present for her in his nappy.
Her nose wrinkled. She glanced down at her nephew. “What have you done, young man?”
He gurgled and yanked on one of her curls. She carefully untangled his sticky fingers. Nurse met her in the hall and Sophia passed him off, issuing a dire warning about the fragrant gift.
Ah, yes. What a thrilling life that would be.
Ever since she was a girl, running barefoot and amok in the wilds of Scotland, Sophia had craved adventure. She’d had it too—after a fashion. Hunting with the boys in the woods, exploring caves in the tors, fording wild rivers and climbing unclimbable trees, and then later scrabbling around the hard back alleys of Perth. It had been glorious. But then the worst had happened.
Ewan made his fortune and announced he was sending her to prison. Well, to the confines of a strict finishing school, which was practically the same.
Lady Satterlee’s School for Girls had been abominable. Rules for everything. They governed what she wore, ate and thought. How she spoke. Where she went and when. And worse she was required to wear shoes, always.
The other girls had been odious in their contempt for a Scottish heathen. If it hadn’t been for Violet and Kaitlin, who had befriended her, she didn’t have any idea how she would have survived the torment.
Sophia shuddered at the memory as she made her way downstairs. The sight of a tall and handsome man handing his hat to Duncan stalled her steps.
Ned Wyeth, Violet’s older brother stood in the foyer. He was striking, adorable, utterly scintillating. There had been a time when she would have flown down the steps and thrown herself into his arms. But now…
Now she swallowed her welling excitement and arranged her features into a mask, trying desperately not to think on it. Still, the words crowded her mind.
Off with you, girl. Don’t be such a pest.
She hadn’t cared that he’d said this in the company of his friends. She didn’t give a whit what they thought of her. But ever since she’d met him, on the cusp of her first season, she’d had a tendre for him. His rebuff had scored her deeply. After that, the easy amity, the friendship between them, had waned.
A pity he was so attractive. A pity her heart still trembled at so much as a glimpse of him.
He lifted his gaze and it settled on her. He stiffened. A muscle bunched in his cheek. Disdain, or something like it, swept across his patrician features. He nodded. “Lady Sophia.”
Lady Sophia. Not Soph, or Bugnut or any of the other affectionate names he’d once had for her.
“Ned.” She cleared her throat of some annoying blockage. “What brings you to McCloud House today?” She didn’t dare hope it was to see her. It never was to see her.
“I have business with your brother.”
Ridiculous though it was, her heart plummeted.
“He’s in the study with your sister.” She forced a smile. “I believe they are making a baby.” She said it just to see him wince. It was the only pleasure she had left with Ned, needling him.
He shifted his shoulders back, and my, they were broad. Broader than they’d been the last time she’d seen him. She curled her fingers, stifling the urge to measure the breadth of them with her hands. “I’ll wait.”
Sophia cast a glance around the hall. They were utterly alone. Decorum demanded she entertain him until Ewan was available. “Shall I call for tea?”
His features tightened. Probably at the realization he was saddled with her for the next few minutes. “Tea would be…nice.” His tone intimated anything but.
Stiffening her spine, she led the way to the sitting room and tugged on the bell pull. When Duncan appeared she gave the order for tea and cakes—Ned loved cakes—and asked him to inform Ewan his brother-in-law was here to see him.
“Won’t you sit?” She gestured to the divan.
Ned appeared torn. His gaze flicked from the divan to her and back again. His lips worked. But then he blew out a defeated sigh and perched on the very edge so he could escape quickly, one would assume.
Sophia glared at him.
When he noticed, which took a while as he was avoiding her eyes, he flinched.
“Am I so hideous?” She shouldn’t have asked. Lord help her, she should have held her tongue. But she was bad at holding her tongue and a roiling anger in her gut forced the words up and out.
Oh, of a certainty, she’d made a fool of herself over him during her first season. Granted, he’d led her on—and then rebuffed her—but that was all long ago. She’d learned her lesson. He should be beyond it by now as well. They were both much older and wiser.
He went pale as her question registered. “H-hideous?” His throat worked.
She leaped to her feet and paced the room. “For God’s sake, Ned. Our siblings are married. We have to see each other on occasion. Can you not, at least, be civil?”
“I am perfectly civil.”
She gored him with a glare. “Are you?”
“I most certainly am.”
Her snort rounded the room.
“What do you want from me, Sophia?” The words seemed ripped from him, torn in a bloody mass, but when she glanced at him, his face was emotionless, cold.
“A smile now and again would be nice.”
He fixed his teeth in a grimace.
“A real smile.”
A scratch at the door heralded Duncan with the tea tray. He looked rather absurd, that great mountain of a man—the once-criminal who now served as her brother’s butler—carrying the delicate silver tray with its shivering cups and accoutrements. He set it on the table and bowed before quitting the room. Sophia couldn’t help but notice the glare he sent to Ned—or Ned’s responding wince. She also noticed Duncan did not close the door.
What a farce.
As though Ned needed a warning to behave himself with her.
She could have the plague as far as he was concerned.
She retook her seat across from him and poured the tea, though she really should have rebelled against decorum and made him pour his own. It was a nonsensical rule that ladies had to pour. Men had fingers.
Without asking, she added his sugars and milk. He took the cup and downed it, glancing around as though seeking reprieve.
“Honestly, Ned.” It was hopeless.
Ridiculous, in fact. Ewan wanted to marry her to a prince, for pity sake. Even if Ned were interested in her, he had little to recommend him but good family. His brother was a duke but Ned was hardly in line for the title since Edward had his heir. And a spare.
Aside from that, Ned was a rebel. A rakehell. Or so her brother averred when he was in his cups. According to Ewan, Ned slept his days away and spent his nights in a wild bacchanal of women, wine and song.
Likely he had all manner of fascinating adventures.
It was hardly fair.
She shoved the plate of cakes at him and he took two.
Unfair that, as well.
As a lady on the market, she had been advised to forgo cakes as they had an unfortunate tendency to collect around her middle, and if she wanted to catch a husband—
She helped herself to a cake as well. It was delicious, an exquisite mix of lemon and mint. It made her feel decidedly better. Or at least a touch rebellious.
The uncomfortable silence was punctuated only by their chewing and alternate sipping. To break it, and because she burned to know, she asked, “Why do you need to speak with Ewan?”
Ned grunted and swallowed. “I need him to intercede for me.”
Sophia blinked. “Intercede?”
His handsome face wrinkled in chagrin. “I got myself into a bit of a pickle.”
Oh, dear. How utterly unfair. Men were always allowed to get themselves into pickles. Sophia was guarded as though she wore the crown jewels. “I should love to get into a pickle,” she said, refilling their cups.
“I lost a bit too much at faro and, well, Edward was furious.”
“Why should Edward be furious?”
Ned had the grace to flush. “Because he had to pay the debt. As if that weren’t bad enough, there was the bit about the horse.”
“I bought a horse.” His eyes lit up at that. He’d always loved his cattle. “Ah, Soph, he’s a beauty. An Arabian stallion. Perfect for stud. Races like a champ. Byzantium is his name.”
“Mmm. How regal.”
“Why ever would Edward mind that?”
Ned’s enthusiasm crumpled. “I didn’t ask him first. There wasn’t time, you understand. He was on auction. And damn Charles for bidding me up. He knew I wanted him.”
“Still, why would Edward care?”
“He had to pay for that as well.
Sophia chuckled. “How much was it?”
Ned ran a finger around this collar. “That hardly signifies. The point is, Edward has decided I need…seasoning.”
“Seasoning?” She wrinkled her nose. What on earth was seasoning?
“He’s sending me to Italy.”
Her heart stalled. Her breath caught in her throat. A sudden, unaccountable panic rippled through her, dancing shivers over her skin. “I-Italy?”
He stood and paced to the mantel, leaning against it in a classic pose, so beautiful it made her chest hurt. “A Grand Tour.” He blew out a breath. “I don’t want to go, Soph. I have a life here. Friends. All right, Edward, and Ewan for that matter, don’t care for my friends, but they’re my friends, don’t you know. I’m a grown man, for pity sake. I should be allowed to choose my own friends, make my own decisions—”
“I so agree.” She clasped her hands and hid her smile at his adorable snit. He’d called her Soph again.
“You do?” His expression lit up.
“I do. You should also be allowed to lose tremendous amounts…of your own money.”
He frowned at her.
She was used to his frown. She did not allow it to affect her. “How long will you be gone?” she asked, because somehow it was vital to know.
He shrugged. “Two, three years.”
In three years she would be married, probably to some prancing prince. Ned would be lost to her forever—
Ruthlessly, she scuttled the thought. She was over him. She was. He’d slayed all her feelings the day he’d broken her heart. “That’s—that’s a very long time.”
“It is.” He fiddled with his cuffs. “I am hoping Ewan will help Edward see some sense. He was rather angry.”
“I imagine so.” The bit about Edward being angry. Not the bit about Ewan helping him see sense. That bit was ludicrous.
Ned dropped back onto the divan, this time sitting fully rather than perched on the edge, but his demeanor was rather deflated. “I don’t want to go, Soph.” He scrubbed his face with a palm. “I don’t want to leave.”
She didn’t want him to go. Ah, no, her heart cried out, but her tongue stayed silent. Instead, she forced a smile. “It sounds like a wonderful adventure.” She tried ignore the sudden boil of jealousy and resentment. She’d have jumped at the chance to sail the world.
Ned barked a laugh. “You always did love adventure, Bugnut,” he said with a fond smile, but then, as though he’d realized what he’d done, he stiffened up like a poker.
His retreat annoyed her tremendously. So much, in fact, she responded with, “I’ll be married when you return.”
It was gratifying, watching him pale. It meant nothing, but it was gratifying all the same.
She sipped her tea. It was cold. “Ewan has a prince in mind.”
Ned took another cake, then set it back on the plate. “Nothing less would satisfy him.”
“Naturally.” Her response was tinged with bitterness but she doubted Ned caught it. He was studying the plate of cakes again. “Heinrich von Wichtigtuerisch from the Österreich.”
“Ah.” Ned nodded, but she caught his grimace. “I met him. A fine man. Fine man.”
“Austria,” she said musingly. “I wonder what it’s like.”
““It’s very far.”
Silence welled between them. He slapped his knees. “Well, where the hell is your bother?”
“Such language, Ned.”
He met her eyes. His expression, or lack thereof, scored her to the soul. “My apologies, Lady Sophia.”
She loved that she could still make him grin.
Regret and a hint of heartbreak swept through her. “If you go to Italy, this is likely the last time I shall ever see you.”
He stilled. Stared at her. She fancied she saw some inkling of desperation in his eyes as well, but it was only a fancy. He blinked and his expression turned cool and remote once more. “I certainly wish you well, Lady Sophia,” he said.
“And I you, Ned.”
Their gazes tangled again but only for the briefest moment. He opened his mouth as though he would say more, but just then Ewan blew into the room. There was no other way to describe it. Like a westerly gale, he swept in. And glared.
First at her and then at Ned.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“I came to—”
“And why are the two of you unchaperoned?”
Sophia bristled. Unchaperoned? This was Ned. There was no such requirement. “We were having t—”
Ewan rounded on Ned again. “I thought I told you—” He glanced at Sophia and stopped abruptly, leaving an opportunity for Ned to respond.
“I need to talk to you, Ewan, if you please. I came to talk to you. It’s urgent.”
Ewan crossed his beefy arms and eyed his brother-in-law askance. “Urgent to you or urgent to me?”
Ned’s throat worked. “To me, of course.”
“Did you lose more money?”
Ned paled. “No, I—”
“Because Edward told me about that debacle. And the horse. And the fight on Rotten Row—”
“He insulted my mother!” It was a well-known fact Ned’s mother had had a scandalous liaison with her husband’s brother, the previous Duke of Moncrieff. Several liaisons. Seven at least, if one were counting Wyeths.
“Irrelevant.” Ewan glowered. “You have a responsibility to the family name. A responsibility to behave with respectability.”
Ned gaped at him. “Seriously? This, from Ewan St. Andrews? The McCloud?”
Oh dear. Not wise.
For a certainty, he had been, at one point, a wild Scottish brigand, but he had worked hard to earn and maintain a modicum of propriety, to secure a reputation amongst society. Throwing his past in his face was hardly the way to gain his support.
“Ned,” she said.
Ewan whirled on her. “Why are you still here?” he snapped.
She crossed her arms. “I live here.”
“Why are you in this room?”
Sophia tipped her head to the side and offered a charming grin. “Because the two of you are entertaining.”
“Out!” He jabbed a finger at the door.
She pouted. “Really, Ewan. Can’t I watch?”
She picked up the plate of cakes and plodded to the door. “I never get to have any fun,” she said in jest.
Though it wasn’t a jest. Not really.
Nothing seemed very funny right now.
She glanced over her shoulder at Ned as she closed the door. He stood, strong and stalwart, bravely facing Ewan’s wrath. There were few men in the world who could do that.
He was so handsome and so dear.
It broke her heart to know she might never see him again. That he would be heading for Italy, possibly this very day if Ewan’s expression was any measure of such things. And if she ever did see him again, she might well be married to some toad of a man from the hinterlands of the Alps.
She glanced down at the plate of cakes, which she planned to eat—one after the other.
It was not fair.
Not fair at all.