Solving Sophronia – Jennifer Moore

LADY SOPHRONİA BREMERTON GLANCED TOWARD the ballroom doors, calculating her chances of a discreet exit. Her Ladyship the Marchioness of Molyneaux’s invitation to her annual ball held the Saturday after Easter was the most coveted of the Season; therefore, Sophie could hardly claim boredom as her reason for wishing to leave. The Viscount of Kensington and Lord Hawthorne had already claimed a waltz, and three separate countesses had offered to accompany Sophie to A Private View at the Royal Academy. But Sophie didn’t flatter herself that her charms or others’ desire for her company were to be credited for the attention. Rather, her position as a society reporter for the Illustrated London News made the members of England’s upper class either seek her out or deliberately avoid her. The grand clock echoed through the ballroom, chiming eleven. She’d arrived just after nine. Two hours of dancing and socializing should sufficiently please her parents. She looked across the room, trying to catch a glimpse of the feathers in her mother’s hair. Truth be told, her parents would likely not notice her absence—not when her sister had waltzed with the future Duke of Norwood. Moving at a quick pace, Sophie made her escape. She hurried along the edge of the crowded ballroom toward the entrance, giving only polite nods and avoiding direct eye contact with anyone who might hope to bend her ear with a whisper of gossip. Reporting rumors, scandals, and on-dits of the upper class was her occupation, but tonight she had no interest in discovering a story. She already knew what her next report would be, and it was hardly news. She smirked, certain the young lady involved would feign adequate surprise when the announcement was made, as would the other guests.

London Society kept a secret as effectively as a wicker basket held water. Tonight the Marquess of Molyneaux was to announce the engagement of his son and heir, Lord Ruben. The identity of the lucky young lady who would one day become the marchioness was, of course, taken for granted. Lord Ruben and Miss Dahlia Lancaster had carried on the most intentionally visible and highly gossiped-about courtship in decades. Sophie had written so many articles and created enough illustrations of the pair that she was relieved the nonsense would finally come to an end. She would, however, need to endure a conspicuous engagement . and then the wedding. Sophie blew out a breath as she neared the doorway. How she longed to move away from the society columns and turn her skills to uncovering a real story—an important story about something that mattered, not just which member of high Society wore the most extravagant gown or had deliberately avoided a particular soiree to spite a rival. Unfortunately, Mr.

Leonard, the editor of the broadsheet paper, valued Sophie’s artistic ability and access to high-Society events above her investigative skills. “Lady Sophronia?” Drat. The voice was too near for Sophie to pretend she hadn’t heard. She masked her irritation with a pleasant smile and turned. Lord Everleigh stepped around a group of matrons. When he reached Sophie, he took her hand and bowed stiffly. “Good evening.” As usual, the man’s clothing was impeccable. Slender and pale-skinned, he wore his fair hair short, parted smartly on the side. A waxed mustache graced his upper lip.

Sophie inclined her head. “Lord Everleigh.” “I’d hoped to engage your sister for the next waltz.” He released her hand and clasped his own behind his back, glancing toward the dancers. “Have you an idea where I might find her?” Sophie should have guessed his reason for stopping her. She and the future Earl of Kirkham had only exchanged the briefest greetings in the past, and although they moved in the same social circles, she would hardly call the man more than a very remote acquaintance. “I believe she is there, near the west windows.” Sophie lifted her chin toward the far side of the ballroom, where a cluster of young ladies gossiped and preened. Her younger sister, Priscilla, was no doubt the very center of the group. “At least, that is where I last saw her.

” “Very good. Thank you.” He moved as if to leave but stopped, perhaps thinking it rude not to bestow a compliment or at least engage in some conversation. For her part, Sophie was perfectly happy to forego niceties and hasten her departure. “I, ah, enjoyed your latest article, my lady.” Lord Everleigh ran a finger over his mustache and glanced across the ballroom again. “Something about spring fashions on the Brighton Palace Pier, wasn’t it?” He looked down at her and nodded. “Very cute.” Sophie bowed her head so he couldn’t see her nostrils flare. She was so tired of patronizing tones when it came to her work.

I am beyond ready to move on to something real. “Thank you, my lord.” “If you’ll excuse me.” He straightened his neckcloth, making the large ruby of his tiepin gleam in the light of the gas lamps, gave another bow, and then strode away. That ruby tiepin, given to him by Lord Ruben—who thought the gem a clever play on his name— identified Lord Everleigh as a member of an elite group: the West End Casanovas. Sophie had first used the appellation in an article, intending it as sarcasm, but the group had been delighted by the moniker and had adopted it as their own. The five Casanovas were extremely handsome and tremendously wealthy young men, each coming from old and established families and each an heir apparent to a high-ranking title. The men had attended school together at Eton and university at Oxford and were considered by all of London to be the most eligible bachelors in the kingdom. They were the future leaders of the country, and nearly every unattached young lady and her mother aspired to catch the attention of one of them. Sophie suspected Lord Ruben, as self-appointed leader of the group, had delayed his engagement for just that reason.

Though he had courted Dahlia Lancaster for two Seasons, his attentions had by no means been exclusively to her. He enjoyed the role of flirt, and Sophie thought he must be reluctant to give up the game and commit to matrimony. Before anyone else could approach her, she quickly made her way through the entrance and down the wide passageway of the grand London home, passing sculptures and paintings but giving them hardly a look as she walked on the thick carpet of a side passage. Surely there was a quiet room where she could find respite from false smiles, petty gossip, and backhanded compliments. Ahead a band of light glowed beneath a door. When she pulled it open and peeked inside, wooden shelves, heavy with leather books, glowed in the light of gas lamps. Before the lit hearth was a deep sofa and plush leather chairs that implored her to set herself at ease, forget her insecurities and frustrations, and pretend the ball was far away. Stepping across the threshold, Sophie felt lighter already. She lowered herself into a soft armchair, rested her head back, and closed her eyes. Even before the newspaper had employed her, she’d dreaded situations in which she was expected to play the games of Society.

Acting one way and thinking another was contrary to her nature, a trait that did little to win friends or the approval of her parents. And the discomfort had only become greater when Priscilla was launched into Society last year at the age of eighteen. Sophie was only two-and-a-half years older, and sisters so close in age naturally invited comparison; next to Prissy, Sophie’s shortcomings felt all the more obvious. She wasn’t tall, blonde, and slender like her sister, but short with drab brown hair, and she struggled to keep her waist shapely, even with the strongest whalebone corset. Hearing a sound, she started from her thoughts, rose quickly to her feet, and looked around the room. On a chair in the darkened far corner, a young woman hunched over with her face in her hands, elbows on her knees. Sophie cleared her throat, uncertain what to say. “I beg your pardon. I did not realize anyone was here.” Now that Sophie saw her, she realized the woman’s breath was coming in gasps, a sound she’d first assumed was made by the fire.

Sophie walked nearer and crouched down as sympathy replaced her unease. “I didn’t mean to intrude.” The woman raised her face, and Sophie recognized her as Miss Hazel Thornton. Though Sophie didn’t know her personally, she had heard the young woman had recently come to live with relatives in London while her father, a general in Her Majesty’s army, was stationed in Africa. Sophie had heard rumors that Miss Thornton had endured some trauma in India and was prone to attacks of panic. She presumed the poor woman was experiencing one at the moment. Sophie raised her brows at the young lady’s chalky complexion and damp forehead. “Are you all right?” “No. I mean yes.” Miss Thornton’s hands shook, and she rubbed her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Lady Sophronia. Yes, I am all right. I just needed a moment away from the crowd.” Sophie nodded. “I certainly understand that.” Miss Thornton closed her eyes and breathed deeply as if calming herself. “Can I get you anything?” Sophie asked. “I could find a servant to bring tea, or . ” Miss Thornton shook her head. “No.

Just a moment of quiet, and I will be well.” Sophie was not convinced. She pulled a chair closer and sat, hoping conversation would provide a welcome distraction from the young woman’s distress. “I believe I’ve heard you attend nurse-training school. Is that right, Miss Thornton?” “Yes.” She looked down, and a flush covered her neck. “But I’ve had to suspend my attendance due to . panic episodes.” Sophie grimaced, thinking she’d brought up an issue too sensitive. “Oh, I’m sorry.

” “Silly, isn’t it?” “Absolutely not.” Sophie placed a hand on the arm of the young lady’s chair. “If these episodes prevent you from being who you’re meant to be, they are a completely legitimate concern.” She gave an encouraging nod. “And I believe you write for the society column.” “I do.” Sophie pinched her lips together, feeling a resurgence of frustration. “But I intend to move on to something more . important.” “If that is your wish, I hope you do.

” Miss Thornton smiled. Sophie noticed some of the color had returned to the young woman’s face. Her trembling seemed to have lessened. “Thank you, Miss Thornton. And I hope you are able to return to nursing school.” The ladies continued in conversation, and Sophie was surprised when she glanced at the clock on the mantel and saw the hour was past midnight. She turned back to her companion and was about to comment on the passage of time when, across the room, the windowed door leading to the garden swung open. A young woman in a lavender gown stepped inside, looked back before closing the door, then leaned against it and exhaled heavily. When she glanced across the room and saw Sophie and Miss Thornton, the woman’s eyes went wide. “Hello, there.

” Sophie knew the woman to be a Miss Elizabeth Miller, though she had not formed more than a polite acquaintance with her. Dahlia Lancaster, the young lady who was any moment to be engaged to Lord Ruben, was Miss Miller’s cousin. “I take it you are escaping the ball as well?” Sophie smiled wryly at the happy coincidence of the three meeting up in the library. “Yes.” Miss Miller flicked a strand of hair from her face. “Luckily I managed to get away before Lord Chatsworth asked for another dance. The nerve of that man . utterly pretentious.” She stopped and closed her mouth, clasping her hands before her as if just now remembering her manners. “How do you do, Lady Sophronia? Miss Thornton?” She inclined her head to each of the women in turn.

Sophie smiled at the outspoken young lady and motioned her forward with a sweep of her arm. “Very well, and please, do join our little band of fugitives.” “How do you do, Miss Miller?” Miss Thornton’s voice sounded much steadier than it had an hour earlier. “You look very pretty this evening. What a beautiful gown.” Miss Miller waved her hand in the air dismissively, then grimaced. “I thank you for the compliment, but if I could remove this infernal corset without completely disrobing, I’d throw the contraption into the fire.” She pressed both hands at the sides of her waist and took a breath that Sophie knew from experience must only partially fill her lungs. “Honestly, whoever decided a woman was only fashionable if her breathing was restricted had a brain the size of . ” She trailed off, her gaze moving around the room.

“Oh my. What a marvelous library.” Sophie shared a smile with Miss Thornton as their new companion strolled around looking through the different books and periodicals. Miss Miller dug through a stack of broadsheets on a side table. “I don’t suppose the marquess keeps a copy of the Women’s Suf rage Journal, do you?” Sophie laughed at the idea. “I wouldn’t imagine the most outspoken parliamentary member opposing women’s voting rights keeps that periodical on hand.” The two shared a grin. The library door opened, and Miss Vivian Kirby entered. Seeing the others, she stopped on the threshold, pulling back. “Oh, I was just—” Her gaze landed on the woman beside Sophie.

“Miss Thornton, your uncle asked me to find you, to inquire as to whether you are recovered from your . ” She looked at the others, perhaps wondering if she ought to mention the young lady’s affliction in front of them. “Are you quite all right?” “Much better,” Miss Thornton said. “Thank you.” Miss Kirby rested her hand on the doorknob as if making ready to exit and close the door behind her, but she paused, looking at the shelves of books. “I apologize for the intrusion.” She spoke without taking her gaze from the bookshelves. “It was not my intention to interrupt.” “There is nothing to interrupt,” Sophie said. “Unless you are opposed to a respite from a crowded ballroom.

” “Come in and make yourself welcome!” Miss Miller said with a wave. Miss Kirby stepped inside, closing the library door. She gave a polite nod and greeted each of the women in turn. She was tall, her movements extremely graceful, and surely one of the loveliest women Sophie knew. A few years older than Sophie, Miss Kirby was a studious person who seemed to keep to herself. From the comfortable way she moved along the shelves, Sophie decided that visiting a library during a ball was perhaps a regular occurrence for the woman. The few encounters they’d shared had given Sophie the impression of a socially awkward person who always wanted to discuss the latest scientific discovery. Miss Kirby looked closer at a particular volume. “Sir Humphry Davy. I wonder if this includes his writings on electrochemistry,” she muttered, lifting the heavy book.

As the women settled in, half of them chatting and half of them reading, Sophie considered the gathering—four women of a similar age and status, while well-connected, didn’t quite fit the mold to which Society would have them conform. She felt a rush of warmth, a feeling of camaraderie with the group. Though they were all quite different in temperament and interests, these women were just like her. “Oh, what have we here?” Miss Miller pushed aside the pile to pull out a broadsheet. “The Illustrated London News. And my cousin’s face is right on the front page.” She turned the paper toward Sophie. “Is this your artwork, Lady Sophronia?” “It is.” Sophie automatically tightened her shoulders, bracing for criticism. “A very good likeness,” Miss Thornton said, crossing the room for a closer look.

“You have quite a talent.” Miss Kirby looked up from her book and tipped her head, studying the picture. “I agree. I’ve always considered your illustrations to be exceptional. Though, I admit, I rarely care for the content of the articles.” “Neither do I,” Sophie said, not the least bit put off by the woman’s direct comment. She’d take honesty over manners any day. “My hope is working for the society column will lead to a position as a news reporter.” “That is indeed a worthy cause,” Miss Miller said. “You could report on the plight of the poor, the residents of the rookeries whose homes are being demolished to make way for the railroad, or the lack of women represented in local government.

” She shook the paper and tapped it with her finger. “This, this is all nonsense. In two months will anyone bother to recall which hat Dahlia wore to the Queen’s garden reception, whether her underskirts were trimmed with French or English lace, or who accompanied her to the opera? Of course they won’t. Society only cares about the latest scandal, not the true suffering directly beneath their noses.” She scowled. “But I hope to change that, to do something more, just like you, Lady Sophronia. I intend to establish a finishing school for underprivileged young ladies. Poor children miss so many opportunities, as their entire purpose is survival. They have few chances of bettering their situations, especially the young girls.” “I hope for more as well,” Miss Kirby said.

“Unfortunately, the scientific and academic communities rarely acknowledge a woman’s work. If I could—” Her words cut off when the door opened and Dahlia Lancaster herself burst into the library. The four ladies stared, and Miss Kirby fell silent. Miss Lancaster’s eyes were frantic as she looked from woman to woman and finally rested her gaze on her cousin. “Oh, Elizabeth, here you are.” Her shoulders slumped, and her voice came out as a whine. “Oh, whatever am I to do?” Miss Miller blinked and put the broadsheet behind her back. “Cousin, this is the library. Surely you’ve made a mistake. Your friends—” “Friends!” Miss Lancaster’s voice was dangerously close to a shriek.

“How can you call them my friends?” She rushed across the room and dropped onto the sofa, burying her face against the arm and sobbing. Sophie could guess what the others were thinking as they looked between one another and then at their weeping intruder: Why was the young lady alone? Sophie didn’t think she’d ever seen her without Prissy and the rest of their group of close friends, the Darling Debs—Sophie had bestowed the nickname for the group in her articles, and just like the West End Casanovas, the name had been adopted happily by those it referred to—so where were the other ladies? And even more pressing and bewildering questions arose: Why wasn’t Miss Lancaster in the ballroom for the announcement of her engagement? What had happened? Miss Miller folded the broadsheet and set it on the side table, then sat beside her cousin, putting an arm around her shoulders, and voiced Sophie’s thoughts. “Cousin, whatever is the matter? Where is Lord Ruben? Shouldn’t you be—?” “He’s marrying Lorene.” Miss Lancaster’s voice was muffled as she spoke against the sofa arm. “I don’t . ” Miss Miller glanced at the others. “What do you mean, dear?” Miss Lancaster lifted her head and wiped tears from her cheeks. Her eyes were red. “Lord Ruben, my Lord Ruben, is engaged to Lady Lorene Stanhope. The marquess announced it just now.

” Sophie and Miss Thornton gasped. Miss Miller put a hand to her mouth. Miss Kirby watched Miss Lancaster thoughtfully. “Had you any idea?” Miss Miller said after a lengthy and rather uncomfortable pause. Miss Lancaster shook her head. “None. He . we . I thought we . that I .

” Her lip quivered and her face crumpled. She laid her head back on her arms and cried. Though not titled, Dahlia Lancaster’s family was old and wealthy, and all of Society considered her to be not only the most beautiful debutante but also the most accomplished. That she would be Lord Ruben’s wife had been taken for granted. Sophie’s heart sank. Even though Miss Lancaster certainly wasn’t one of her favorite people, she couldn’t imagine the humiliation the young lady must have endured standing in the ballroom while the engagement was announced. “Those arrogant Casanovas.” Miss Miller scowled. “I am sorry, Miss Lancaster,” Miss Kirby said. Sophie sat in a leather wing chair on one side of the couch.

Miss Thornton, from her matching chair on the other side, lifted a hand as if she might pat Miss Lancaster’s head, but lowered it again. She bit her lip, and her expression mirrored the others’ confusion at how to console the young lady. Miss Lancaster spoke after a long bout of weeping. “I don’t understand. What am I to do now?” She took Miss Miller’s offered handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes, sniffling. “My heart is shattered, and I . I simply can’t go on.” She choked on a sob. “I just can’t.” “You most certainly can.

” Miss Miller sat taller and spoke in a commanding voice. “The world will not end because you do not marry Lord Ruben.” Miss Lancaster twisted the handkerchief in her hands. “But how could he do this? He loves me.” “Men of his rank do not always have the privilege of marrying for love,” Miss Thornton said in a gentle voice. “Perhaps it is best that you found out now what sort of man he is, instead of once you were married,” Miss Kirby offered. Miss Lancaster glanced at her and then shook her head. “I shall never marry,” she said in a small voice. “Not after this.” Sophie winced.

The young lady’s reputation should remain intact, but Dahlia Lancaster’s name and humiliation would certainly be on everyone’s lips. A scandal indeed. The poor woman sighed. She looked down at the handkerchief she was twisting and, noticing a ruby bracelet on her wrist, she loosened it and slipped it over her hand. “He gave the very same bangle to Lorene. He has . they’ve kept their relationship secret. She was my dearest friend, and he . ” Her lip quivered, but this time a spark of anger lit her eyes. Sophie recognized the look.

Frustration at knowing one was powerless to change her situation was all too familiar. Miss Miller took the bracelet and studied it, shaking her head. Sophie’s stomach was heavy with discouragement. All of these women wanted something different from the hand they’d been dealt, and all felt powerless to do anything about it. “Well”—Miss Miller handed back the bracelet—“this could be a good opportunity.” “Yes,” Sophie agreed. “You have a chance to do something new, to focus on yourself and your own ambitions.”

.

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