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:: A Loyal Companion by Barbara Metzger
A Loyal Companion by Barbara Metzger
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SPOILED AND UNGOVERNED, FITZ WAS NOT SUITABLE COMPANION FOR A LADY OF FASHION....
And certainly no proper chaperon. Fitz begged to disagree--after all, a dog was a true Incomparable as far as friendship, loyalty, and protection--and soon lovely Miss Sonia was plucked by her rusticated roots and packed off, dog and all, to London. Perhaps there she would find a husband to tame her free-spirited ways--and keep her out of trouble.
Sonia, however, always had a soft spot for the underdog, and Darius Conover was such a fellow. Scorned by society for a scandalous deed, Conover was not redeemed even by his heroics in battle. Until he met Sonia and Fitz, two passionate souls undaunted by even the most odious circumstances--and decidedly determined to undo the shackles binding his heart.
Sonia took an inordinate amount of time selecting an outfit to wear to go for a romp in the square with her dog and some children. Goodness, she chided herself, she wasn’t trying to fix Lord Warebourne’s interest or anything, she just wanted to be friends with the man. Besides, he mightn’t even come. She finally selected a rose-colored walking dress with its fuller skirt and higher neck than many of her new clothes. She pinned a bunch of silk violets under the brim of her chip-straw bonnet, and tied its pink ribbons along her cheek. She took her maid along with her as well as Ian, the footman, so she broke no minor rules, on her way to break major ones. She also brought a ball, so Fitz and the girls could play on their own. She sat on a bench near the Ware House side of the little park, Fitz at her feet, and waited.
He came, following slowly behind the excited children, who immediately ran laughing and tumbling after Fitz and the ball. Darius bowed stiffly, then took a seat on Sonia’s bench, as far from Miss Randolph as possible without toppling off. He did not look in her direction. To a casual observer, they would appear chance-met strangers enjoying the day. Ian stepped behind a tree with the nursemaid, Meg, but Maisie Holbrook very properly kept vigil from the next bench over, keeping Miss Randolph quite in view if not exactly in hearing, while she mended a bit of lace in her lap.
Sonia studied the major while he observed the noisy game of catch. He seemed even more careworn today than she remembered, older, harder. He sat rigidly erect, military fashion, only his injured leg angled for comfort. Sonia could feel his disapproval and wondered if she had made a mistake, asking him to come where he had no wish to be. She never meant to add to the officer’s discomfort.
She was about to call to Fitz, to leave Major Conover to his solitude, when he frowned, then spoke, still without looking at her. “The dog does not seem to be in a decline, Miss Randolph. He hardly favors the leg at all.”
Sonia looked to where Fitz was barking and jumping, chasing the ball. “No, sir, and I am sorry the children told you such a bouncer. I did want to thank you properly for saving him, however, and to apologize for that scene at Atterbury House.”
“No need, I am sure.” He cleared his throat. “Miss Randolph, I appreciate your attention to the children. They are in alt over their new friends. I don’t know which impressed them more, your kindness or Fitz’s repertoire of tricks. Now they won’t be so miserable until I can find them a puppy of their own. Or a kitten. There is some disagreement among the ranks, so the decision is still pending. I do thank you, ma’am, but this”—holding his hands out to encompass the park, the bench, his own presence—“was not well done of you. You must be aware by now that I am not fit to be in your company. I heard your own grandmother make that plain.”
Sonia raised her chin. “I make my own friends.”
“You are very young and foolish, then.”
“I am eighteen, and old enough to know when someone has done me a great service. Fitz means the world to me, you see.”
“He is a lucky dog to win such affection.” He stood to leave. “Still, I cannot let you—”
“Please, don’t go yet,” she pleaded. “At least tell me how you found Fitz. The children’s tale was all full of brave derring-do, mixed in with monkeys and schoolboys and opera singers. That sounds like quite a bumblebroth, even for Fitz.”
Darius could not resist the appeal in her voice. He made the mistake of turning to her. Deuce take it, he knew he shouldn’t look at those blue eyes, or catch a hint of those adorable dimples. Or note how the pink ribbons of her bonnet brought up the tinge in her velvet cheeks. And those silly violets nestled in gold curls. Gads, he loved violets. He was lost. He’d tell her about the dog’s addlepated exploits, then he’d leave. For good.
The telling of the story, the vegetables, the herring, the scattered newspapers, softened the major’s features and even brought a twinkle to his brown eyes. Sonia was pleased to see the years and worries slip away. She was also happy to have her own instincts confirmed: He was a good man. Sonia couldn’t begin to imagine Lord Berke or any of his friends stopping for a half-dead dog, much less soiling his hands to help the filthy animal.
“I truly am in your debt,” she said.
“No, I think I am in yours.” Darius smiled and gestured to where Fitz and his nieces were frolicking. The ball long lost, the dog and the girls seemed to be taking turns rolling in a mud puddle. Then they went wading in the decorative fountain, splashing water on an irate matron with a beady-eyed mink tippet draped about her neck. Next Fitz took Baby on a ride through the public flower beds, scattering blossoms for the older girls to make into neck chains and hair wreaths. “I have never seen them so happy”
“And I have never seen Fitz behave so badly. Goodness, he knows he’s not supposed to go near the fountains or the gardens. I’m sorry about the little girls’ clothes, Major. I don’t know what’s got into Fitz these days.. Perhaps it’s spring fever. I’ll just whistle him back before someone calls the Watch.” Fitz was now digging a hole in the soft dirt with his powerful front legs, spraying debris on the girls and a clerk who hurried past, cursing. Benice found a stick and came to help dig. Gen and Tina just used their hands.
“No, leave them. I’ve never seen the girls act so…childishly. Especially Benice. They don’t laugh enough.” Just then Fitz turned and nosed Baby right into the hole. Darius laughed out loud at the stunned expression on the little girl’s face.
“Nor do you, I think,” Sonia murmured. She hadn’t meant him to hear, and blushed when he turned back to her.
“Miss Randolph, you are very kind. Your compassion does you credit, but you mustn’t let your tender heart lead you astray. For your own sake, I must go. I can see you have a strong will under that sweetness, but you must not exercise it on my behalf. I am not a charity case.” He spoke gently, to discourage her, not to insult the enchanting young miss. “Truly I do not need your sympathy.”
Sonia stared at the reticule in her lap. “I had hoped to enlist yours.” She untied the strings and withdrew a white envelope and handed it to him. “Tomorrow night is my come-out ball. I wish you would come.”
Darius looked at the envelope and read his name neatly inscribed, Major Darius Conover, Lord Warebourne. He laughed harshly. “Haven’t you heard anything I said, Miss Randolph? Not even the title will keep me from being tossed on my ear.”
“Not at my ball, my lord, not if I invite you myself. I am acquainted with so few people, you see, I should like to have someone familiar there. Everyone else will be Grandmother’s friends.”
“Deuce take it, my girl, you’ll know fewer and fewer if I sit in your pocket. You’ll be cut by them all.”
Her lips formed a determined line. “I am not asking you to sit in my pocket, my lord, just to stand my friend. One dance is all I wish.”
He gave that same humorless laugh. “I cannot even dance, Miss Randolph, with this blasted leg. A fine figure of fun that would make of us, were I to try and fall on my face in front of you and half the ton.”
“I am not permitted the waltz yet, so I shall not be dancing every dance, even if I am asked.”
“Even if you are asked? Are you fishing for compliments, Miss Randolph? You are beautiful, charming, and well dowered. There will be bucks and beaux lined up along the sidewalks of Grosvenor Square just waiting to ask you!”
Sonia’s face was as pink as the ribbons on her bonnet. “I never meant to be so forward, my lord, truly I did not. I just do not know many of those…bucks and beaux, and thought I might be more comfortable sitting out a waltz with someone I know. I’m sorry. It was very improper of me to ask.”
“Miss Randolph, your being here in the park with me is improper, and you dashed well know it. Your handing me an invitation your guardian didn’t issue is deucedly irregular. Asking a gentleman, and I use the term loosely, for a dance would set you beyond the pale. I am beginning to think there is the heart of a hoyden under that demure exterior,” he said sternly, until he caught the beginnings of her dimples. “Are you really comfortable sitting with me?” She nodded.
“Every other respectable female goes off in a swoon if I half nod in her direction. Why aren’t you afraid?”
She countered his question with one of her own: “Do I have any reason to be afraid?”
“Beyond fearing to be tarred with the same brush? No, Miss Randolph, you never need to be afraid of me. Never.”
“There. I knew Fitz wouldn’t befriend a bounder.” She called for the dog and turned to leave, kissing the muddy children and giving Darius one last brilliant smile. “Will you at least please consider the invitation?”
He nodded. That was all he could do, considering Miss Randolph’s smile turned his brain to mush.
Published by: Untreed Reads
Current Reviews: 1
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