How did You know?
“How in hell….”
Sophia had certainly taken him off guard and had hit a nerve. What had he said? What did she know? How did she know?
She was too damned observant, or he had been too careless in the way he had stated something. The latter he realized. He would have to answer, of course. This young woman had discovered, in less than an hour, what others had never known in the years of knowing him and observing him, except Charles had almost given him a heart attack when he had suggested the same thing, just minutes before marrying Selena.
“I did not notice, at the time. We were too… involved.” She chuckled at what he was suggesting, and he realized that he had responded before he had even thought about the question. She had allowed him to walk into that one, had boxed him in, and in a way he could not easily avoid, so he met it, head on.
“Yes, I was in love. Once. I have thought about her every day that I was at sea.”
So, he had met her just before he went to sea.
“Yes, she is…was…beautiful.” He realized that he should not be too specific in any way. Charles must have let it slip. Or she had picked it up from something he had said. “There, you have found out my secret.
“It happened a long time ago, just before I went to sea.” He had better be careful what he said, though she could not possibly guess. He thought for a few moments. “Though it seems like yesterday. Yes, she was beautiful, and probably still is. I have not seen her since I went away, but there was much more to her than that. She was also one of those women that were the downfall of young men like me. Unattainable, of course. And trouble! She did not even see me. She was the main reason that I was sent into the navy, and before I brought all hell down upon my family and my own head. That was one dalliance that would never have been tolerated.” He sighed heavily.
“I am beginning to fear that I should never have come back here. The sea was much safer, kinder, and likely to cause me less pain.” He sounded sad. She did not press him further. She had hit a nerve but did not understand how.
“Miss Crowther, Sophia, did anyone ever tell you that you are an exceptionally dangerous woman.” She looked surprised. “Yes, you are very dangerous. Dangerous to someone like me. You ask perceptive and searching questions. And whoever it was who had the folly to describe you as a member of the weaker sex, was nothing less than a great fool. I think I already know you better than that. You are not, as you say, only a woman, nor would I suggest that your opinion might be unreliable or based upon emotion. You are quite unimpressed with the likes of me and were able to see behind the façade that I have thrown up ahead of me about my character deficiencies. You also, far too easily, winkled out of me my most closely guarded secret. That, makes you very dangerous indeed to one such as me, with you having read my character so well. Now, what else might I have courage I say about you?” He looked at her closely, as though measuring her in some way. She began to blush under his close scrutiny.
“Too soon to tell. You have yet to learn the worst of me, I can promise you that. No, it is not what you might expect. You will revise your own opinion of me drastically enough when I have been here longer. But not for any reason that might come to you at this moment.”
She ventured onto more solid ground to change the subject. “You made three conquests, this afternoon, I would say.”
“Only three? I had hoped to make four, or more.” He was smiling at her. She found herself blushing again. Her heart was beating far too loudly, and he must surely hear it.
“So, three conquests already. Then I shall have to make do with those. But then what is the use of a reputation for being a lady’s man if one cannot make use of it on all ages? Besides, I am rusty from years at sea. I need the practice, and better to start with the youngest, most impressionable and easier conquests, and work my way up from there.” He was having fun with her again.
“And I would have said that they were the hardest of all to impress!”
“I think we both know that that is not true, Sophia. I don’t impress you at all, but nor should I. Oh, dear. I seem to be losing my touch. You can see right through me. You have not stammered once, or blushed, and begged to be excused, even when the conversation threatened to become quite warm; did become quite warm. I know I should not have told you, quite as expressively as I did, about Mary and me. You also drank the much stronger beer, which I had drawn for myself, while I had to settle for the small beer. Something Nurse will warn you about, is never to let me serve you beer or wine. She will warn you that I am likely to try and get you inebriated.” She looked up at him and smiled.
“I wonder why?” She wondered nothing of the kind. “I am beginning to suspect that your own nurse does not know you at all. She appears to confuse the rebellious young man she once knew, who delighted in putting the house in uproar—your brother told me—with the very different man you have become; confident, settled, assured. I believe that you are what is known as a paper tiger, sir, and you are doing it deliberately to confuse us all and to stop us finding out about the real you.” He waited for her to continue.
“I once asked your brother about you. I could get away with so much, and was allowed to ask anything, being as young as I was.”
He smilingly interrupted. “And with you, not being at all backward. Don’t forget that. He must have been quite impressed with you, as I am. You barely blushed when I talked about Mary and me, going at it ‘hammer and tongs’.” She chuckled at his expressiveness.
“Like ferrets, sir. You said you were going at it like ferrets, though I have heard the word ‘weasels’ used in the same context.”
“Quite.” He had slipped again.
“I think your brother told me more about you, at that time, than he might have intended to. He was the one who said that, like all sailors, you went off to sea to escape a woman.”
Yes, his brother had guessed that he had fallen in love but, fortunately, had not known with whom.” He continued to smile at her.
“What else did he tell you about me?”
“He said that if you were to stand in his place, I would not be able to tell which brother, was which. I thought he meant more in terms of temperament or disposition, despite what the naval records said of you. I am at a loss therefore, why you try so hard to set the house against you, when it is not your nature. I saw you with the children, don’t forget that.” He looked closely at her. She was now the one smiling. He was glad to see that. She could not have smiled like that for far too long.
“Force of habit. Yes, you did get my measure, didn’t you? But now that we have broken the ice a little, and you have had chance to judge me, and have found me to be wanting of character”—she had thought nothing of the kind— “I have a simple request of you.” He could put if off no longer.
As she waited, he seemed to change in front of her eyes. Gone, was the man of mischief, who could laugh with children and even make fun of himself. Gone was the smile, and the bantering mood. His voice became precise, and the look in his eyes had changed. There was no hesitation.
“I would like to see Lady Penfield, your sister, as soon as possible!” There, he had now said it.
She had that feeling again, that she did not know him at all, and might never truly get to know him. He was in complete command of the circumstance; a situation he was used to. It was something that was not open for discussion. This was the man she had first expected to meet; a man who was used to demanding, and getting, his own way without question, and god help anyone who stood in his way!