/ Language: English / Genre:love_history

An Offer from a Gentleman: The Epilogue II

Julia Quinn

Especially Posy Reiling, the decidedly not evil stepsister from An Offer From a Gentleman. She's been living with the Bridgertons for three years, but despite Violet's most fervent matchmaking, she hasn't found a husband. Posy claims she's content to remain a spinster, but Sophie Bridgerton has other plans…

Julia Quinn

An Offer from a Gentleman: The Epilogue II

A book in the Bridgerton 2nd Epilogues series, 2009

At five-and-twenty, Miss Posy Reiling was considered nearly a spinster. There were those who might have considered her past the cutoff from young miss to hopeless ape leader; three-and-twenty was often cited as the unkind chronological border. But Posy was, as Lady Bridgerton (her unofficial guardian) often remarked, a unique case.

In debutante years, Lady Bridgerton insisted, Posy was only twenty, maybe twenty-one.

Eloise Bridgerton, the eldest unmarried daughter of the house, put it a little more bluntly: Posy’s first few years out in society had been worthless and should not be counted against her.

Eloise’s youngest sister Hyacinth, never one to be verbally outdone, simply stated that Posy’s years between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two had been “utter rot.”

It was at this point that Lady Bridgerton had sighed, poured herself a stiff drink, and sunk into a chair. Eloise, whose mouth was as sharp as Hyacinth’s (though thankfully tempered by some discretion), had remarked that they had best get Hyacinth married off quickly or their mother was going to become an alcoholic. Lady Bridgerton had not appreciated the comment, although she privately thought it might be true.

Hyacinth was like that.

But this is a story about Posy. And as Hyacinth has a tendency to take over anything in which she is involved…please do forget about her for the remainder of the tale.

The truth was, Posy’s first few years on the Marriage Mart had been utter rot. It was true that she’d made her debut at a proper age of seventeen. And, indeed, she was the stepdaughter of the late Earl of Penwood, who had so prudently made arrangements for her dowry before his untimely death several years prior.

She was perfectly pleasant to look at, if perhaps a little plump, she had all of her teeth, and it had been remarked upon more than once that she had uncommonly kind eyes.

Anyone assessing her on paper would not understand why she’d gone so long without even a single proposal.

But anyone assessing her on paper might not have known about Posy’s mother, Araminta Gunningworth, the dowager Countess of Penwood.

Araminta was splendidly beautiful, even more so than Posy’s elder sister, Rosamund, who had been blessed with fair hair, a rosebud mouth, and eyes of cerulean blue.

Araminta was ambitious, too, and enormously proud of her ascent from the gentry to the aristocracy. She’d gone from Miss Wincheslea to Mrs. Reiling to Lady Penwood, although to hear her speak of it, her mouth had been dripping silver spoons since the day of her birth.

But Araminta had failed in one regard; she had not been able to provide the earl with an heir. Which meant that despite the Lady before her name, she did not wield a terribly large amount of power. Nor did she have access to the type of fortune she felt was her due.

And so she pinned her hopes on Rosamund. Rosamund, she was sure, would make a splendid match. Rosamund was achingly beautiful. Rosamund could sing and play the pianoforte, and if she wasn’t talented with a needle, then she knew exactly how to poke Posy, who was. And since Posy did not enjoy repeated needle-sized skin punctures, it was Rosamund’s embroidery that always looked exquisite.

Posy’s, on the other hand, generally went unfinished.

And since money was not as plentiful as Araminta would have her peers believe, she lavished what they had on Rosamund’s wardrobe, and Rosamund’s lessons, and Rosamund’s everything.

She wasn’t about to let Posy look embarrassingly shabby, but really, there was no point in spending more than she had to on her. You couldn’t turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse, and you certainly couldn’t turn a Posy into a Rosamund.

But.

(And this is a rather large but.)

Things didn’t turn out so well for Araminta. It’s a terribly long story, and one probably deserving of a book of its own, but suffice it to say that Araminta cheated another young girl of her inheritance, one Sophia Beckett, who happened to be the earl’s illegitimate daughter. She would have got away with it completely, because who cares about a bastard, except that Sophie had had the temerity to fall in love with Benedict Bridgerton, second son in the aforementioned (and extremely well-connected) Bridgerton family.

This would not have been enough to seal Araminta’s fate, except that Benedict decided he loved Sophie in return. Quite madly. And while he might have overlooked embezzlement, he certainly could not do the same for having Sophie hauled off to jail (on mostly fraudulent charges).

Things were looking grim for dear Sophie, even with intervention on the part of Benedict and his mother, the also aforementioned Lady Bridgerton. But then who should show up to save the day but Posy?

Posy, who had been ignored for most of her life.

Posy, who had spent years feeling guilty for not standing up to her mother.

Posy, who was still a little bit plump and never would be as beautiful as her sister, but who would always have the kindest eyes.

Araminta had disowned her on the spot, but before Posy had even a moment to wonder if this constituted good or bad fortune, Lady Bridgerton had invited her to live in her home for as long as she wished.

Posy might have spent twenty-two years being poked and pricked by her sister, but she was no fool. She accepted gladly and did not even bother to return home to collect her belongings.

And as for Araminta, well, she’d quickly ascertained that it was in her best interest not to make any public comment about the soon-to-be Sophia Bridgerton unless it was to declare her an absolute joy and delight.

Which she didn’t do. But she didn’t go around calling her a bastard, either, which was really all anyone could have expected.

All of this explains (in an admittedly roundabout way) why Lady Bridgerton was Posy’s unofficial guardian, and why she considered her a unique case. To her mind, Posy had not truly debuted until she came to live with her. Penwood dowry or no, who on earth would have looked twice at a girl in ill-fitting clothes, always stuck off in the corner, trying her best not to be noticed by her own mother?

And if she was still unmarried at twenty-five, why, that was certainly equal to a mere twenty for anyone else. Or so Lady Bridgerton said.

And no one really wanted to contradict her.

As for Posy, she often said that her life had not really begun until she went to jail.

This tended to require some explaining, but most of Posy’s statements did.

Posy didn’t mind. The Bridgertons actually liked her explanations. They liked her.

Even better, she rather liked herself.

Which was more important than she’d ever realized.

Sophie Bridgerton considered her life to be almost perfect. She adored her husband, loved her cozy home, and was quite certain that her two little boys were the most handsome, brilliant creatures ever to be born anywhere, anytime, any…well, any any one could come up with.

It was true that they had to live in the country because even with the sizable influence of the Bridgerton family, Sophie was, on account of her birth, not likely to be accepted by some of the more particular London hostesses.

(Sophie called them particular. Benedict called them something else entirely.)

But that didn’t matter. Not really. She and Benedict preferred life in the country, so it was no great loss. And even though it would always be whispered that Sophie’s birth was not what it should be, the official story was that she was a distant-and completely legitimate-relative of the late Earl of Penwood. And even though no one really believed Araminta when she’d confirmed the story, confirmed it she had.

Sophie knew that by the time her children were grown, the rumors would be old enough so that no doors would be closed to them should they wish to take their spots in London society.

All was well. All was perfect.

Almost. Really, all she needed to do was find a husband for Posy. Not just any husband, of course. Posy deserved the best.

“She is not for everyone,” Sophie had admitted to Benedict the previous day, “but that does not mean she is not a brilliant catch.”

“Of course not,” he murmured. He was trying to read the newspaper. It was three days old, but to his mind it was all still news to him.

She looked at him sharply.

“I mean, of course,” he said quickly. And then, when she did not immediately carry on, he amended, “I mean whichever one means that she will make someone a splendid wife.”

Sophie let out a sigh. “The problem is that most people don’t seem to realize how lovely she is.”

Benedict gave a dutiful nod. He understood his role in this particular tableau. It was the sort of conversation that wasn’t really a conversation. Sophie was thinking aloud, and he was there to provide the occasional verbal prompt or gesture.

“Or at least that’s what your mother reports,” Sophie continued.

“Mmm-hmm.”

“She doesn’t get asked to dance nearly as often as she ought.”

“Men are beasts,” Benedict agreed, flipping to the next page.

“It’s true,” Sophie said with some emotion. “Present company excluded, of course.”

“Oh, of course.”

“Most of the time,” she added, a little waspishly.

He gave her a wave. “Think nothing of it.”

“Are you listening to me?” she asked, her eyes narrowing.

“Every word,” he assured her, actually lowering the paper enough to see her above the top edge. He hadn’t actually seen her eyes narrow, but he knew her well enough to hear it in her voice.

“We need to find a husband for Posy.”

He considered that. “Perhaps she doesn’t want one.”

“Of course she wants one!”

“I have been told,” Benedict opined, “that every woman wants a husband, but in my experience, this is not precisely true.”

Sophie just stared at him, which he did not find surprising. It was a fairly lengthy statement, coming from a man with a newspaper.

“Consider Eloise,” he said. He shook his head, which was his usual inclination while thinking of his sister. “How many men has she refused now?”

“At least three,” Sophie said, “but that’s not the point.”

“What is the point, then?”

Posy.

“Right,” he said slowly.

Sophie leaned forward, her eyes taking on an odd mix of bewilderment and determination. “I don’t know why the gentlemen don’t see how wonderful she is.”

“She’s an acquired taste,” Benedict said, momentarily forgetting that he wasn’t supposed to offer a real opinion.

What?

You said she’s not for everyone.”

“But you’re not supposed to-” She slumped a bit in her seat. “Never mind.”

“What were you going to say?”

“Nothing.”

Sophie,” he prodded.

“Just that you weren’t supposed to agree with me,” she muttered. “But even I can recognize how ridiculous that is.”

It was a splendid thing, Benedict had long since realized, to have a sensible wife.

Sophie didn’t speak for some time, and Benedict would have resumed his perusal of the newspaper, except that it was too interesting watching her face. She’d chew on her lip, then let out a weary sigh, then straighten a bit, as if she’d got a good thought, then frown.

Really, he could have watched her all afternoon.

“Can you think of anyone?” she suddenly asked.

“For Posy?”

She gave him a look. A whom-else-might-I-be-speaking-of look.

He let out a breath. He should have anticipated the question, but he’d begun to think of the painting he was working on in his studio. It was a portrait of Sophie, the fourth he’d done in their three years of marriage. He was beginning to think that he’d not got her mouth quite right. It wasn’t the lips so much as the corners of her mouth. A good portraitist needed to understand the muscles of the human body, even those on the face, and-

“Benedict!”

“What about Mr. Folsom?” he said quickly.

“The solicitor?”

He nodded.

“He looks shifty.”

She was right, he realized, now that he thought on it. “Sir Reginald?”

Sophie gave him another look, visibly disappointed with his selection. “He’s fat.

“So is-”

“She is not,” Sophie cut in. “She is pleasantly plump.”

“I was going to say that so is Mr. Folsom,” Benedict said, feeling the need to defend himself, “but that you had chosen to comment upon his shiftiness.”

“Oh.”

He allowed himself the smallest of smiles.

“Shiftiness is far worse than excess weight,” she mumbled.

“I could not agree more,” Benedict said. “What about Mr. Woodson?”

“Who?”

“The new vicar. The one you said-”

“-has a brilliant smile!” Sophie finished excitedly. “Oh, Benedict, that’s perfect! Oh, I love you love you love you!” At that, she practically leapt across the low table between them and into his arms.

“Well, I love you, too,” he said, and he congratulated himself on having had the foresight to shut the door to the drawing room earlier.

The newspaper flew over his shoulder, and all was right with the world.

The season drew to a close a few weeks later, and so Posy decided to accept Sophie’s invitation for an extended visit. London was hot and sticky and rather smelly in the summer, and a sojourn in the country seemed just the thing. Besides, she had not seen either of her godsons in several months, and she had been aghast when Sophie had written to say that Alexander had already begun to lose some of his baby fat.

Oh, he was just the most squeezable, adorable thing. She had to go see him before he grew too thin. She simply had to.

And it would be nice to see Sophie, too. She’d written that she was still feeling a bit weak, and Posy did like to be a help.

A few days into the visit, she and Sophie were taking tea, and talk turned, as it occasionally did, to Araminta and Rosamund, whom Posy occasionally bumped into in London. After over a year of silence, her mother had finally begun to acknowledge her, but even so, conversation was brief and stilted. Which, Posy had decided, was for the best. Her mother might have had nothing to say to her, but she didn’t have anything to say to her mother, either.

As far as epiphanies went, it had been rather liberating.

“I saw her outside the milliner,” Posy said, fixing her tea just the way she liked it, with extra milk and no sugar. “She’d just come down the steps, and I couldn’t avoid her, and then I realized I didn’t want to avoid her. Not that I wished to speak with her, of course.” She took a sip. “Rather, I didn’t wish to expend the energy needed to hide.”

Sophie nodded approvingly.

“And then we spoke, and said nothing, really, although she did manage to get in one of her clever little insults.”

“I hate that.”

“I know. She’s so good at it.”

“It’s a talent,” Sophie remarked. “Not a good one, but a talent nonetheless.”

“Well,” Posy continued, “I must say, I was rather mature about the entire encounter. I let her say what she wished, then I bid her good-bye. And then I had the most amazing realization.”

“What is that?”

Posy gave a smile. “I like myself.”

“Well, of course you do,” Sophie said, blinking with confusion.

“No, no, you don’t understand,” Posy said. It was strange, because Sophie ought to have understood perfectly. She was the only person in the world who knew what it meant to live as Araminta’s unfavored child. But there was something so sunny about Sophie. There always had been. Even when Araminta treated her as a virtual slave, Sophie had never seemed beaten. There had always been a singular spirit to her, a sparkle. It wasn’t defiance; Sophie was the least defiant person Posy knew, except perhaps for herself.

Not defiance…resilience. Yes, that was it exactly.

At any rate, Sophie ought to have understood what Posy had meant, but she didn’t, so Posy said, “I didn’t always like myself. And why should I have done? My own mother didn’t like me.”

“Oh, Posy,” Sophie said, her eyes brimming with tears, “you mustn’t-”

“No, no,” Posy said good-naturedly. “Don’t think anything of it. It doesn’t bother me.”

Sophie just looked at her.

“Well, not anymore,” Posy amended. She eyed the plate of biscuits sitting on the table between them. She really oughtn’t to eat one. She’d had three, and she wanted three more, so maybe that meant that if she had one, she was really abstaining from two…

She twiddled her fingers against her leg. Probably she shouldn’t have one. Probably she should leave them for Sophie, who had just had a baby and needed to regain her strength. Although Sophie did look perfectly recovered, and little Alexander was already four months old…

“Posy?”

She looked up.

“Is something amiss?”

Posy gave a little shrug. “I can’t decide whether I wish to eat a biscuit.”

Sophie blinked. “A biscuit? Really?”

“There are at least two reasons why I should not, and probably more than that.” She paused, frowning.

“You looked quite serious,” Sophie remarked. “Almost as if you were conjugating Latin.”

“Oh, no, I should look far more at peace if I were conjugating Latin,” Posy declared. “That would be quite simple, as I know nothing about it. Biscuits, on the other hand, I ponder endlessly.” She sighed and looked down at her middle. “Much to my dismay.”

“Don’t be silly, Posy,” Sophie scolded. “You are the loveliest woman of my acquaintance.”

Posy smiled and took the biscuit. The marvelous thing about Sophie was that she wasn’t lying. Sophie really did think her the loveliest woman of her acquaintance. But then again, Sophie had always been that sort of person. She saw kindness where others saw…Well, where others didn’t even bother to look, to be frank.

Posy took a bite and chewed, deciding that it was absolutely worth it. Butter, sugar, and flour. What could be better?

“I received a letter from Lady Bridgerton today,” Sophie remarked.

Posy looked up in interest. Technically, Lady Bridgerton could mean Sophie’s sister-in-law, the wife of the current viscount. But they both knew she referred to Benedict’s mother. To them, she would always be Lady Bridgerton. The other one was Kate. Which was just as well, as that was Kate’s preference within the family.

“She said that Mr. Fibberly called.” When Posy did not comment, Sophie added, “He was looking for you.”

“Well, of course he was,” Posy said. “Hyacinth is too young, and Eloise terrifies him.”

“Eloise terrifies me,” Sophie admitted. “Or at least she used to. Hyacinth, I’m quite sure, will terrify me to the grave.”

“You just need to know how to manage her,” Posy said with a wave. It was true, Hyacinth Bridgerton was terrifying, but the two of them had always got on quite well. It was probably due to Hyacinth’s firm (some might say unyielding) sense of justice. When she’d found out that Posy’s mother had never loved her as well as Rosamund…

Well, Posy had never told tales, and she wasn’t going to begin now, but let it be said that Araminta had never again eaten fish.

Or chicken.

Posy had got this from the servants, and they always had the most accurate gossip.

“But you were about to tell me about Mr. Fibberly,” Sophie said, still sipping at her tea.

Posy shrugged, even though she hadn’t been about to do any such thing. “He’s so dull.”

“Handsome?”

Posy shrugged again. “I can’t tell.”

“One generally need only look at the face.”

“I can’t get past his dullness. I don’t think he laughs.”

“It can’t be that bad.”

“Oh, it can, I assure you.” She reached out and took another biscuit before she realized she hadn’t meant to. Oh well, it was already in her hand now, she couldn’t very well put it back. She waved it in the air as she spoke, trying to make her point. “He sometimes makes this dreadful noise like, ‘Ehrm ehrm ehrm,’ and I think he thinks he’s laughing, but he’s clearly not.”

Sophie giggled even though she looked as if she thought she shouldn’t.

“And he doesn’t even look at my bosom!”

“Posy!”

“It’s my only good feature.”

“It is not!” Sophie glanced about the drawing room, even though there was precisely no one about. “I can’t believe you said that.”

Posy let out a frustrated exhale. “I can’t say ‘bosom’ in London, and now I can’t do so in Wiltshire, either?”

“Not when I’m expecting the new vicar,” Sophie said.

A chunk of Posy’s biscuit fell off and fell into her lap. “What?”

“I didn’t tell you?”

Posy eyed her suspiciously. Most people thought Sophie was a poor liar, but that was only because she had such an angelic look about her. And she rarely lied. So everyone assumed that if she did, she’d be dreadful at it.

Posy, however, knew better. “No,” she said, brushing off her skirts, “you did not tell me.”

“How very unlike me,” Sophie murmured. She picked up a biscuit and took a bite.

Posy stared at her. “Do you know what I’m not doing now?”

Sophie shook her head.

“I am not rolling my eyes because I am trying to act in a fashion that befits my age and maturity.”

“You do look very grave.”

Posy stared her down a bit more. “He is unmarried, I assume.”

“Er, yes.”

Posy lifted her left brow, the arch expression possibly the only useful gift she’d received from her mother. “How old is this vicar?”

“I do not know,” Sophie admitted, “but he has all of his hair.”

“And it has come to this,” Posy murmured.

“I thought of you when I met him,” Sophie said, “because he smiles.”

Because he smiled? Posy was beginning to think that Sophie was a bit cracked. “I beg your pardon?”

“He smiles so often. And so well.” At that Sophie smiled. “I couldn’t help but think of you.”

Posy did roll her eyes this time, then followed it with an immediate, “I have decided to forsake maturity.”

“By all means.”

“I shall meet your vicar,” Posy said, “but you should know I have decided to aspire to eccentricity.”

“I wish you the best with that,” Sophie said, not without sarcasm.

“You don’t think I can?”

“You’re the least eccentric person I know.”

It was true, of course, but if Posy had to spend her life as an old maid, she wanted to be the eccentric one with the large hat, not the desperate one with the pinched mouth.

“What is his name?” she asked.

But before Sophie could answer, they heard the front door opening, then it was the butler giving her her answer, as he announced, “Mr. Woodson is here to see you, Mrs. Bridgerton.”

Posy stashed her half-eaten biscuit under a serviette and folded her hands prettily in her lap. She was a little miffed with Sophie for inviting a bachelor for tea without warning her, but still, there seemed little reason not to make a good impression. She looked expectantly at the doorway, waiting patiently as Mr. Woodson’s footsteps drew near.

And then…

And then…

Honestly, it wouldn’t do to try to recount it, because she remembered almost nothing of what followed.

She saw him, and it was as if, after twenty-five years of life, her heart finally began to beat.

Hugh Woodson had never been the most admired boy at school. He had never been the most handsome, or the most athletic. He had never been the cleverest, or the snobbiest, or the most foolish. What he had been, and what he had been all of his life, was the most well liked.

People liked him. They always had. He supposed it was because he liked most everybody in return. His mother swore he’d emerged from the womb smiling. She said so with great frequency, although Hugh suspected she did so only to give her father the lead-in for: “Oh, Gertrude, you know it was just gas.”

Which never failed to set the both of them into fits of giggles.

It was a testament to Hugh’s love for them both, and his general ease with himself, that he usually laughed as well.

Nonetheless, for all his likeability, he’d never seemed to attract the females. They adored him, of course, and confided their most desperate secrets, but they always did so in a way that led Hugh to believe he was viewed as a jolly, dependable sort of creature.

The worst part of it was that every woman of his acquaintance was absolutely positive that she knew the perfect woman for him, or if not, then she was quite sure that a perfect woman did indeed exist.

That no woman ever thought herself the perfect woman had not gone unnoticed. Well, by Hugh, at least. Everyone else was oblivious.

But he carried on, because there could be no point in doing otherwise. And as he had always suspected that women were the cleverer sex, he still held out hope that the perfect woman was indeed out there.

After all, no fewer than four dozen women had said so. They couldn’t all be wrong.

But Hugh was nearing thirty, and Miss Perfection had not yet seen fit to reveal herself. Hugh was beginning to think that he should take matters into his own hands, except that he hadn’t the slightest idea how to do such a thing, especially as he’d just taken a living in a rather quiet corner of Wiltshire, and there didn’t seem to be a single appropriately aged unmarried female in his parish.

Remarkable but true.

Maybe he should wander over to Gloucestershire Sunday next. There was a vacancy there, and he’d been asked to pitch in and deliver a sermon or two until they found a new vicar. There had to be at least one unattached female. The whole of the Cotswolds couldn’t be bereft.

But this wasn’t the time to dwell on such things. He was just arriving for tea with Mrs. Bridgerton, an invitation for which he was enormously grateful. He was still familiarizing himself with the area and its inhabitants, but it had taken but one church service to know that Mrs. Bridgerton was universally liked and admired. She seemed quite clever and kind as well.

He hoped she liked to gossip. He really needed someone to fill him in on the neighborhood lore. One really couldn’t tend to one’s flock without knowing its history.

He’d also heard that her cook laid a very fine tea. The biscuits had been mentioned in particular.

“Mr. Woodson to see you, Mrs. Bridgerton.”

Hugh stepped into the drawing room as the butler stated his name. He was rather glad he’d forgotten to eat lunch because the house smelled heavenly and-

And then he quite forgot everything.

Why he’d come.

Who he was.

The color of the sky, even, and the smell of the grass.

Indeed, as he stood there in the arched doorway of the Bridgertons’ drawing room, he knew one thing, and one thing only.

The woman on the sofa, the one with the extraordinary eyes who was not Mrs. Bridgerton, was Miss Perfection.

Sophie Bridgerton knew a thing or two about love at first sight. She had, once upon a time, been hit by its proverbial lightning bolt, struck dumb with breathless passion, heady bliss, and an odd tingling sensation across her entire body.

Or at least, that was how she remembered it.

She also remembered that while Cupid’s arrow had, in her case, proven remarkably accurate, it had taken quite a while for her and Benedict to reach their happily ever after. So even though she wanted to bounce in her seat with glee as she watched Posy and Mr. Woodson stare at each other like a pair of lovesick puppies, another part of her-the extremely practical, born-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-blanket, I-am-well-aware-that-the-world-is-not-made-up-of-rain-bows-and-angels part of her-was trying to hold back her excitement.

But the thing about Sophie was, no matter how awful her childhood had been (and parts of it had been quite dreadfully awful), no matter what cruelties and indignities she’d faced in her life (and there, too, she’d not been fortunate), she was, at heart, an incurable romantic.

Which brought her to Posy.

It was true that Posy visited several times each year, and it was also true that one of those visits almost always coincided with the end of the season, but Sophie might have added a little extra entreaty to her recently tendered invitation. She might have exaggerated a bit when describing how quickly the children were growing, and there was a chance that she had actually lied when she said that she was feeling poorly.

But in this case, the ends absolutely justified the means. Oh, Posy had told her that she would be perfectly content to remain unmarried, but Sophie did not believe her for a second. Or to be more precise, Sophie believed that Posy believed that she would be perfectly content. But one had only to look at Posy snuggling little William and Alexander to know that she was a born mother, and that the world would be a much poorer place if Posy did not have a passel of children to call her own.

It was true that Sophie had, one time or twelve, made a point of introducing Posy to whichever unattached gentleman was to be found at the moment in Wiltshire, but this time…

This time Sophie knew.

This time it was love.

“Mr. Woodson,” she said, trying not to grin like a madwoman, “may I introduce you to my dear sister, Miss Posy Reiling?”

Mr. Woodson looked as if he thought he was saying something, but the truth was, he was staring at Posy as if he’d just met Aphrodite.

“Posy,” Sophie continued, “this is Mr. Woodson, our new vicar. He is only recently arrived, what was it, three weeks ago?”

He had been in residence for nearly two months. Sophie knew this perfectly well, but she was eager to see if he’d been listening well enough to correct her.

He just nodded, never taking his eyes off Posy.

“Please, Mr. Woodson,” Sophie murmured, “do sit down.”

He managed to understand her meaning and lowered himself into a chair.

“Tea, Mr. Woodson?” Sophie inquired.

He nodded.

“Posy, will you pour?”

Posy nodded.

Sophie waited, then when it became apparent that Posy wasn’t going to do much of anything besides smile at Mr. Woodson, she said, “Posy.

Posy turned to look at her, but her head moved so slowly and with such reluctance, it was as if a giant magnet had turned its force onto her.

“Will you pour Mr. Woodson’s tea?” Sophie murmured, trying to restrict her smile to her eyes.

“Oh. Of course.” Posy turned back to the vicar, that silly smile returning to her face. “Would you like some tea?”

Normally, Sophie might have mentioned that she had already asked Mr. Woodson if he wanted tea, but there was nothing normal about this encounter, so she decided simply to sit back and observe.

“I would love some,” Mr. Woodson said to Posy. “Above all else.”

Really, Sophie thought, it was as if she weren’t even there.

“How do you take it?” Posy asked.

“However you wish.”

Oh now, this was too much. No man fell so blindingly into love that he no longer held a preference for his tea. This was England, for heaven’s sake. More to the point, this was tea.

“We have both milk and sugar,” Sophie said, unable to help herself. She’d intended to sit and watch, but really, even the most hopeless romantic couldn’t have remained silent.

Mr. Woodson didn’t hear her.

“Either of them would be appropriate in your cup,” she added.

“You have the most extraordinary eyes,” he said, and his voice was full of wonder, as if he couldn’t quite believe that he was right there in this room, with Posy.

“Your smile,” Posy said in return. “It’s…lovely.”

He leaned forward. “Do you like roses, Miss Reiling?”

Posy nodded.

“I must bring you some.”

Sophie gave up trying to appear serene and finally let herself grin. It wasn’t as if either of them were looking at her, anyway. “We have roses,” she said.

No response.

“In the back garden.”

Again, nothing.

“Where the two of you might go for a stroll.”

It was as if someone had just stuck a pin on both of them.

“Oh, shall we?”

“I would be delighted.”

“Please, allow me to-”

“Take my arm.”

“I would-”

“You must-”

By the time Posy and Mr. Woodson were at the door, Sophie could hardly tell who was saying what. And not a drop of tea had entered Mr. Woodson’s cup.

Sophie waited for a full minute, then burst out laughing, clapping her hand over her mouth to stifle the sound although she wasn’t sure why she needed to. It was a laugh of pure delight. Pride, too, at having orchestrated the whole thing.

“What are you laughing about?” It was Benedict, wandering into the room, his fingers stained with paint. “Ah, biscuits. Excellent. I’m famished. Forgot to eat this morning.” He took the last one and frowned. “You might have left more for me.”

“It’s Posy,” Sophie said, grinning. “And Mr. Woodson. I predict a very short engagement.”

Benedict’s eyes widened. He turned to the door, then to the window. “Where are they?”

“In the back. We can’t see them from here.”

He chewed thoughtfully. “But we could from my studio.”

For about two seconds neither moved. But only two seconds.

They ran for the door, pushing and shoving their way down the hall to Benedict’s studio, which jutted out of the back of the house, giving it light from three directions. Sophie got there first, although not by entirely fair means, and let out a shocked gasp.

“What is it?” Benedict said from the doorway.

“They’re kissing!”

He strode forward. “They are not.”

“Oh, they are.”

He drew up beside her, and his mouth fell open. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

And Sophie, who never cursed, responded, “I know. I know.

“And they only just met? Really?”

“You kissed me the first night we met,” she pointed out.

“That was different.”

Sophie managed to pull her attention from the kissing couple on the lawn for just long enough to demand, “How?”

He thought about that for a moment, then answered, “It was a masquerade.”

“Oh, so it’s all right to kiss someone if you don’t know who she is?”

“Not fair, Sophie,” he said, clucking as he shook his head. “I asked you, and you wouldn’t tell me.”

That was true enough to put an end to that particular branch of the conversation, and they stood there for another moment, shamelessly watching Posy and the vicar. They’d stopped kissing and were now talking-from the looks of it, a mile a minute. Posy would speak, and then Mr. Woodson would nod vigorously and interrupt her, and then she would interrupt him, and then he looked like he was giggling, of all things, and then Posy began to speak with such animation that her arms waved all about her head.

“What on earth could they be saying?” Sophie wondered.

“Probably everything they should have said before he kissed her.” Benedict frowned, crossing his arms. “How long have they been at this, anyway?”

“You’ve been watching just as long as I have.”

“No, I meant, when did he arrive? Did they even speak before…” He waved his hand toward the window, gesturing to the couple, who looked about ready to kiss again.

“Yes, of course, but…” Sophie paused, thinking. Both Posy and Mr. Woodson had been rather tongue-tied at their meeting. In fact, she couldn’t recall a single substantive word that was spoken. “Well, not very much, I’m afraid.”

Benedict nodded slowly. “Do you think I should go out there?”

Sophie looked at him, then at the window, then back. “Are you mad?”

He shrugged. “She is my sister now, and it is my house…”

“Don’t you dare!”

“So I’m not supposed to protect her honor?”

“It’s her first kiss!”

He quirked a brow. “And here we are, spying on it.”

“It’s my right,” Sophie said indignantly. “I arranged the whole thing.”

“Oh you did, did you? I seem to recall that I was the one to suggest Mr. Woodson.”

“But you didn’t do anything about it.”

“That’s your job, darling.”

Sophie considered a retort, because his tone was rather annoying, but he did have a point. She did rather enjoy trying to find a match for Posy, and she was definitely enjoying her obvious success.

“You know,” Benedict said thoughtfully, “we might have a daughter someday.”

Sophie turned to him. He wasn’t normally one for such non sequiturs. “I beg your pardon?”

He gestured to the lovebirds on the lawn. “Just that this could be excellent practice for me. I’m quite certain I wish to be an overbearingly protective father. I could storm out and tear him apart from limb to limb.”

Sophie winced. Poor Mr. Woodson wouldn’t stand a chance.

“Challenge him to a duel?”

She shook her head.

“Very well, but if he lowers her to the ground, I am interceding.”

“He won’t-Oh dear heavens!” Sophie leaned forward, her face nearly to the glass. “Oh my God.”

And she didn’t even cover her mouth in horror at having blasphemed.

Benedict sighed, then flexed his fingers. “I really don’t want to injure my hands. I’m halfway through your portrait, and it’s going so well.”

Sophie had one hand on his arm, holding him back even though he wasn’t really moving anywhere. “No,” she said, “don’t-” She gasped. “Oh, my. Maybe we should do something.”

“They’re not on the ground yet.”

“Benedict!”

“Normally I’d say to call the priest,” he remarked, “except that seems to be what got us into this mess in the first place.”

Sophie swallowed. “Perhaps you can procure a special license for them? As a wedding gift?”

He grinned. “Consider it done.”

It was a splendid wedding. And that kiss at the end…

No one was surprised when Posy produced a baby nine months later, then at yearly intervals after that. She took great care in the naming of her brood, and Mr. Woodson, who was as beloved a vicar as he’d been in every other stage of his life, adored her too much to argue with any of her choices.

First there was Sophia, for obvious reasons, then Benedict. The next would have been Violet, except that Sophie begged her not to. She’d always wanted the name for her daughter, and it would be far too confusing with the families living so close. So Posy went with Georgette, after Hugh’s mother, who she thought had just the nicest smile.

After that was John, after Hugh’s father. For quite some time it appeared that he would remain the baby of the family. After giving birth every June for four years in a row, Posy stopped getting pregnant. She wasn’t doing anything differently, she confided in Sophie; she and Hugh were still very much in love. It just seemed that her body had decided it was through with childbearing.

Which was just as well. With two girls and two boys, all in the single digits, she had her hands full.

But then, when John was five, Posy rose from bed one morning and threw up on the floor. It could only mean one thing, and the following autumn, she delivered a girl.

Sophie was present at the birth, as she always was. “What shall you name her?” she asked.

Posy looked down at the perfect little creature in her arms. It was sleeping quite soundly, and even though she knew that newborns did not smile, the baby really did look as if it were rather pleased about something.

Maybe about being born. Maybe this one was going to attack life with a smile. Good humor would be her weapon of choice.

What a splendid human being she would be.

“Araminta,” Posy said suddenly.

Sophie nearly fell over from the shock of it. “What?”

“I want to name her Araminta. I’m quite certain.” Posy stroked the baby’s cheek, then touched her gently under the chin.

Sophie could not seem to stop shaking her head. “But your mother…I can’t believe you would-”

“I’m not naming her for my mother,” Posy cut in gently. “I’m naming her because of my mother. It’s different.”

Sophie looked dubious, but she leaned over to get a closer peek at the baby. “She’s really quite sweet,” she murmured.

Posy smiled, never once taking her eyes off the baby’s face. “I know.”

“I suppose I could grow accustomed to it,” Sophie said, her head bobbing from side to side in acquiescence. She wiggled her finger between the baby’s hand and body, giving the palm a little tickle until the tiny fingers wrapped instinctively around her own. “Good evening, Araminta,” she said. “Very nice to meet you.”

“Minty,” Posy said.

Sophie looked up. “What?”

“I’m calling her Minty. Araminta will do well in the family Bible, but I do believe she’s a Minty.”

Sophie pressed her lips together in an effort not to smile. “Your mother would hate that.”

“Yes,” Posy murmured, “she would, wouldn’t she?”

“Minty,” Sophie said, testing the sound on her tongue. “I like it. No, I think I love it. It suits her.”

Posy kissed the top of Minty’s head. “What kind of girl will you be?” she whispered. “Sweet and docile?”

Sophie chuckled at that. She had been present at twelve birthings-four of her own, five of Posy’s, and three of Benedict’s sister Eloise. Never had she heard a baby enter this world with as loud a cry as little Minty. “This one,” she said firmly, “is going to lead you a merry chase.”

And she did. But that, dear reader, is another story…

About the Author

JULIA QUINN started writing her first book one month after finishing college and has been tapping away at her keyboard ever since. The New York Times bestselling author of nineteen novels for Avon Books, she is a graduate of Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges and lives with her family in the Pacific Northwest. Please visit her on the web at www.juliaquinn.com.

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