“You have a visitor, my lord.”
Damien Beecham, Viscount Quint, did not bother looking up at his new butler, his attention instead focused on the rows of letters in front of him. He had to get this idea down. Now—before it was too late. “Pass on the usual response, Turner.”
The butler cleared his throat. “I beg your lordship’s pardon, but the name is Taylor.”
Quint grimaced. He could hardly be faulted for forgetting the lad’s name, could he? Taylor had only been on the job for a few days. Or was this further proof of Quint’s worst fear becoming a reality?
Nearly three months since the shooting. Three months and he was no better. Oh, the wound had closed, the fever abated, yet everything else that followed had only worsened.
He exhaled and dipped his pen in the ink pot. The invocation he’d adopted these past weeks went through his head: Remain occupied. Engage your mind while you can. Prepare for the worst. He looked back down at his cipher. “Apologies, Taylor. No visitors. Ever. Until further notice, I am not receiving callers.”
“She said your lordship might say no, and if so, I was tell you her name—the Lady Sophia Barnes. I was also to mention she planned on coming in whether your lordship allowed it or not.”
Quint felt himself frown. Sophie, here? Why? Displeasure was quickly replaced by an uncomfortable weight on his chest. He could not face anyone, most especially her. “No. Definitely not. Tell her—”
Before he finished his sentence, Sophie charged into the room. Smothering a curse, Quint threw down his pen, came to his feet, and snatched his topcoat off the chair back. He pulled on the garment as he bowed. “Lady Sophia.”
He’d known her for years—five and three-quarters, to be precise—and each time he saw her, he experienced a jolt of heady awareness. There’d never been a more remarkably remarkable woman. She had short honey-brown hair that gleamed with hints of gold in the lamplight. Tall for a female, she had long, lean limbs that moved with purpose, with confidence. Her nose and upper cheeks were dusted with freckles that shifted when she laughed—which was often. People fell under the spell of that laugh, himself included.
“Lord Quint, thank you for seeing me.” Holding her bonnet, she bobbed a curtsy in an attempt to give the impression of a proper young lady. No one who knew this particular daughter of a marquess would ever believe it, however. She and Julia Seaton, the Duchess of Colton, were close friends, and the two of them had landed in one absurd scrape after another over the years. Last he’d heard, the two had required rescuing from a gaming hell after a brawl erupted.
“As if I’d had a choice,” he said dryly.
She laughed, not offended in the least, and Quint noticed Taylor, mouth agape, hovering near the threshold, eyes trained on Sophie. Good God. Not that Quint hadn’t experienced the same reaction in Sophie’s presence a time or two. “That’ll be all, Taylor. Leave the door ajar, will you?”
The butler nodded and retreated, cracking the heavy door for propriety. Ridiculous, really, when the entire visit was already deuced improper. “I hope you at least brought a maid, Sophie.”
“Of course I did. She’s in the entryway, likely planning to flirt with that baby you call a butler.” Her lips twisted into a familiar impish half-smile. Once, she had given him that smile, leaned into him, and parted her lips . . . right before he’d kissed her.
The memory nearly distracted him from the fact that he didn’t want anyone in the house. Bad enough he had to keep the staff. “I am not receiving callers,” he told her. “And this is not going to help your reputation.”
She waved her hand. “No one worries over a spinster nearing thirty years of age. Now, shall we sit?”
He happened to know she was only twenty-seven, but no use quibbling with her. He glanced about. Books, papers, and various mechanical parts littered every surface. Not to mention there were the three heavy medical volumes on his desk—all on mental deficiencies. With rapid flicks of his wrist, he closed each one and moved the stack to the floor behind his desk. He then came around and cleared a chair for Sophie.
“Thank you.” She lowered gracefully into the seat and arranged herself, bonnet in her lap. “I apologize for barging in. Your butler did try to turn me away, but I haven’t been able to locate you elsewhere. You’ve become something of a recluse.”
Better to be a recluse than take a trip to an asylum. He sat in his desk chair and said, “I have been occupied.”
A tawny eyebrow rose. “So occupied you missed the opening lecture at the Royal Society last Tuesday?”
“I had a conflict,” he offered, lamely.
“A conflict? With what? You’ve never missed one of the opening lectures before. Not in recent memory, at least.”
He tried not to react, though he wanted to grit his teeth. “I did not realize my schedule was your concern.”
She sighed. “Oh, dear. I’ve upset you already—and I haven’t even arrived at the purpose of my visit.”
“Meaning that learning the purpose will only upset me further?”
“Yes, I daresay you shall not approve, but I’ve nowhere else to turn.”
“Why do I feel a pressing need to close the door before you speak?”
She shot to her feet, so Quint started to rise as well. “No,” she said, “please, stay seated. I think more clearly when I am standing.”
Reluctantly, Quint lowered. He had no idea what she wanted, but with Sophie it could be nearly anything.
Whatever her troubles, Quint did not care. Could not care. A healthy distance between himself and others must be maintained, especially with anyone who’d known him before the accident. Therefore, he’d hear her out and then show her to the door.
He waited as she traveled the study floor, slapping her bonnet against her thigh. Nervous, clearly. Her dress was both expensive and flattering, yet her boots were worn. No jewels. A practical woman underneath the trappings of a lady.
And he hated that he still found her interesting, even after she’d so thoroughly rebuffed him more than three years ago.
“What in God’s name is that?” She pointed to an abandoned teacup on the desk.
He shot up and grabbed the forgotten porcelain container, which held a greenish-brown gelatinous mixture comprised of various herbs and spices. It looked every bit as terrible as it had tasted. He set the cup inside his desk drawer.
“Why are you here, Sophie?”
She folded her arms over her chest, a motion that called attention to her small, enticing breasts. He forced his eyes away as she spoke. “I would normally approach Colton or Lord Winchester with this request, but as you know, they are both unavailable. You are the only person I can ask.”
“Your flattery overwhelms, madam.”
She stopped and pinned him with a hard stare. “I did not mean to offend you, as you well know. Stop being obdurate.”
“Fine. I readily acknowledge I am to serve as the last resort. Pray, get it out, Sophie.”
She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin. “I need you to serve as my second.”
© Joanna Shupe