An Offer from a Gentleman
Book 3 in the Bridgerton Series
Will she accept his offer before the clock strikes midnight?
Sophie Beckett never dreamed she’d be able to sneak into Lady Bridgerton’s famed masquerade ball—or that “Prince Charming” would be waiting there for her! Though the daughter of an earl, Sophie has been relegated to the role of servant by her disdainful stepmother. But now, spinning in the strong arms of the debonair and devastatingly handsome Benedict Bridgerton, she feels like royalty. Alas, she knows all enchantments must end when the clock strikes midnight.
Ever since that magical night, a radiant vision in silver has blinded Benedict to the attractions of any other—except, perhaps this alluring and oddly familiar beauty dressed in housemaid’s garb whom he feels compelled to rescue from a most disagreeable situation. He has sworn to find and wed his mystery miss, but this breathtaking maid makes him weak with wanting her. Yet, if he offers his heart, will Benedict sacrifice his only chance for a fairy tale love?
It suddenly made sense. Only twice in his life had he felt this inexplicable, almost mystical attraction to a woman. He’d thought it remarkable, to have found two, when in his heart he’d always believed there was only one perfect woman out there for him. His heart had been right. There was only one.
Inside the Story
- Eagle-eyed readers will find mention of the Duke of Ashbourne and the Earl of Macclesfield (heroes of Splendid and Everything And The Moon, respectively) in one of Lady Whistledown's columns. Neither Alex nor Robert actually appears in the book, though.
- It took a while to come up with a good title for this book. The most humorous suggested title came from the folks at Barnes & Noble, who suggested Sophie's Chase.
- The shoe on the cover is a real shoe! I picked it out on a website featuring wedding couture and emailed the URL to my editor (who was married in shoes by the same designer!)
- When I was in college, I had a teaching assistant from England whose last name was Crabtree. I liked the name so much I decided to give it to the caretakers of Benedict's cottage.
- All the terms and phrases in the fencing scene are correct and approved by my husband, who was captain of the varsity fencing team at Harvard. (He also fenced in the Junior Olympics!)
- When I was writing Violet's story for The Bridgertons: Happily Ever After, I rewrote the jail scene from An Offer from a Gentleman from Violet’s point of view. That scene never made it into the final book, but I've posted it, and you can read it here on juliaquinn.com.
Enjoy an Excerpt
An Offer from a Gentleman
Everyone knew that Sophie Beckett was a bastard.
The servants all knew it. But they loved little Sophie, had loved her since she’d arrived at Penwood Park at the age of three, a small bundle wrapped in a too-big coat, left on the doorstep on a rainy July night. And because they loved her they pretended that she was exactly what the sixth Earl of Penwood said she was– the orphaned daughter of an old friend. Never mind that Sophie’s moss green eyes and dark blond hair matched the earl’s precisely. Never mind that the shape of her face looked remarkably like that of the earl’s recently deceased mother, or that her smile was an exact replica of the earl’s sister’s. No one wanted to hurt Sophie’s feelings –or risk their livelihoods– by pointing that out.
The earl, one Richard Gunningworth, never discussed Sophie or her origins, but he must have known she was his bastard. No one knew what had been in the letter the housekeeper had fished from Sophie’s pocket when she’d been discovered that rainy midnight; the earl had burned the missive mere seconds after reading it. He’d watched the paper shrivel and curl in the flames, then ordered a room made up for Sophie near the nursery. She’d remained there ever since. He called her Sophia, and she called him “my lord,” and they saw each other a few times a year, whenever the earl returned home from London, which wasn’t very often.
But perhaps most importantly, Sophie knew she was a bastard. She wasn’t entirely certain how she knew it, just that she did, and probably had her entire life. She had few memories of her life before her arrival at Penwood Manor, but she could remember a long coach journey across England, and she could remember her grandmother, coughing and wheezing and looking terribly thin, telling her she was going to live with her father. And most of all, she could remember standing on the doorstep in the rain, knowing that her grandmother was hiding in the bushes, waiting to see if Sophie was taken inside.
The earl had touched his fingers to the little girl’s chin, tipped her face up to the light, and in that moment they both knew the truth.
Everyone knew Sophie was a bastard, and no one talked about it, and they were all quite happy with this arrangement.
Until the earl decided to marry.
Sophie had been quite pleased when she’d heard the news. The housekeeper had said that the butler had said that the earl’s secretary had said that the earl planned to spend more time at Penwood Park now that he would be a family man. And while Sophie didn’t exactly miss the earl when he was gone –it was hard to miss someone who didn’t pay her much attention when even he was there– she rather thought she might miss him if she got to know him better, and if she got to know him better, maybe he wouldn’t go away so often. Plus, the upstairs maid had said that the housekeeper had said that the neighbors’ butler had said that the earl’s intended wife already had two daughters, and they were near in age to Sophie.
After seven years alone in the nursery, Sophie was delighted. Unlike the other children in the district, she was never invited to local parties and events. No one actually came out and called her a bastard– to do so was tantamount to calling the earl, who had made one declaration that Sophie was his ward and then never revisited the subject, a liar. But at the same time, the earl never made any great attempt to force Sophie’s acceptance. And so at the age of ten, Sophie’s best friends were maids and footmen, and her parents might as well have been the housekeeper and butler.
But now she was getting sisters for real.
Oh, she knew she could not call them her sisters. She knew that she would be introduced as Sophia Maria Beckett, the earl’s ward, but they would feel like sisters. And that was what really mattered.
And so, one February afternoon, Sophie found herself waiting in the great hall along with the assembled servants, watching out the window for the earl’s carriage to pull up the drive, carrying in it the new countess and her two daughters. And, of course, the earl.
“Do you think she’ll like me?” Sophie whispered to Mrs. Gibbons, the housekeeper. “The earl’s wife, I mean.”
“Of course she’ll like you, dearling,” Mrs. Gibbons whispered back. But her eyes hadn’t been as certain as her tone. The new countess might not take kindly to the presence of her husband’s by-blow.
“And I’ll take lessons with her daughters?”
“No point in having you take your lessons separately.”
Sophie nodded thoughtfully, then started to squirm when she saw the carriage rolling up the drive. “They’re here!” she whispered urgently.
Mrs. Gibbons reached out to pat her on the head, but Sophie had already dashed off to the window, practically pressing her face up to the glass.
The earl stepped down first, then reached in and helped down two young girls. They were dressed in matching black coats. One wore a pink ribbon in her hair; the other yellow. Then, as the two girls stepped aside, the earl reached up to help one last person from the carriage.
Sophie’s breath caught in her throat as she waited for the new countess to emerge. Her little fingers crossed and a single whisper of, “Please,” whispered over her lips.
Please let her love me.
Maybe if the countess loved her, then the earl would love her as well, and maybe, even if he didn’t actually call her daughter, he’d treat her as one, and they’d be a family truly.
As Sophie watched through the window, the new countess stepped down from the carriage, her every movement so graceful and pure that Sophie was reminded of the delicate lark that occasionally came to splash in the birdbath in the garden. Even the countess’s hat was adorned by a long feather, its turquoise plume glittering in the hard winter sun.
“She’s beautiful,” Sophie whispered. She darted a quick look back at Mrs. Gibbons to gauge her reaction, but the housekeeper was standing at strict attention, eyes straight ahead, waiting for the earl to bring his new family inside for introductions.
Sophie gulped, not exactly certain where she was meant to stand. Everyone else seemed to have a designated place. The servants were lined up according to rank, from the butler right down to the lowliest scullery maid. Even the dogs were sitting dutifully in the corner, their leads held tight by the Keeper of the Hounds.
But Sophie was rootless. If she were truly the daughter of the house, she’d be standing with her governess, awaiting the new countess. If she were truly the earl’s ward, she’d be in much the same place. But Miss Timmons had caught a head cold and refused to leave the nursery and come downstairs. None of the servants believed for a second that the governess was truly ill. She’d been fine the night before, but no one blamed her for the deception. Sophie was, after all, the earl’s bastard, and no one wanted to be the one to offer potential insult to the new countess by introducing her to her husband’s by-blow.
And the countess would have to be blind, stupid, or both not to realize in an instant that Sophie was something more than the earl’s ward.
Suddenly overcome with shyness, Sophie shrank into a corner as two footmen threw open the front doors with a flourish. The two girls entered first, then stepped to the side as the earl led the countess in. The earl introduced the countess and her daughters to the butler, and the butler introduced them to the servants.
And Sophie waited.
The butler presented the footmen, the chef, the housekeeper, the grooms.
And Sophie waited.
He presented the kitchen maids, the upstairs maids, the scullery maids.
And Sophie waited.
And then finally the butler –Rumsey was his name– presented the lowliest of the lowest of maids, a scullery girl named Dulcie who had been hired a mere week earlier. The earl nodded and murmured his thanks, and Sophie was still waiting, completely unsure of what to do.
So she cleared her throat and stepped forward, a nervous smile on her face. She didn’t spend much time with the earl, but she was trotted out before him whenever he visited Penwood Park, and he always gave her a few minutes of his time, asking about her lessons before shooing her back up to the nursery.
Surely he’d still want to know how her studies were progressing, even now that he’d married. Surely he’d want to know that she’d mastered the science of multiplying fractions, and that Miss Timmons had recently declared her French accent, “perfection.”
But he was busy saying something to the countess’s daughters, and he didn’t hear her. Sophie cleared her throat again, this time more loudly, and said, “My lord?” in a voice that came out a bit more squeaky than she’d intended.
The earl turned around. “Ah, Sophia,” he murmured, “I didn’t realize you were in the hall.”
Sophie beamed. He hadn’t been ignoring her, after all.
“And who might this be?” the countess asked, stepping forward to get a better look.
“My ward,” the earl replied. “Miss Sophia Beckett.”
The countess speared Sophie with an assessing look, then her eyes narrowed.
And narrowed some more.
“I see,” she said.
And everyone in the room knew instantly that she did see.
“Rosamund,” the countess said, turning to her two girls, “Posy, come with me.”
The girls moved immediately to their mother’s side. Sophie hazarded a smile in their direction. The smaller one smiled back, but the older one, whose hair was the color of spun gold, took her cue from her mother, pointed her nose in the air, and looked firmly away.
Sophie gulped and smiled again at the friendly girl, but this time the little girl chewed on her lower lip in indecision and then cast her eyes toward the floor.
The countess turned her back on Sophie and said to the earl, “I assume you have had rooms prepared for Rosamund and Posy.”
He nodded. “Near the nursery. Right next to Sophie.”
There was a long silence, and then the countess must have decided that certain battles should not be conducted before the servants, because all she said was, “I would like to go upstairs now.”
And she left, taking the earl and her daughters along with her.
Sophie watched the new family walk up the stairs and then, as they disappeared onto the landing, she turned to Mrs. Gibbons and asked, “Do you think I should go up to help? I could show the girls the nursery.”
Mrs. Gibbons shook her head. “They looked tired,” she lied. “I’m sure they’ll be needing a nap.”
Sophie frowned. She’d been told that Rosamund was eleven and Posy was ten. Surely that was a bit old for taking naps.
Mrs. Gibbons patted her on the back. “Why don’t you come with me? I could use a bit of company, and Cook told me that she just made a fresh batch of shortbread. I think it’s still warm.”
Sophie nodded and followed her out of the hall. She’d have plenty of time that evening to get to know the two girls. She’d show them the nursery, and then they’d become friends, and before long they’d be as sisters.
Sophie smiled. It would be glorious to have sisters.
As it happened, Sophie did not encounter Rosamund and Posy –or the earl and countess, for that matter– until the next day. When Sophie entered the nursery to take her supper, she noticed that the table had been set for two, not four, and Miss Timmons (who had miraculously recovered from her ailment) said that the new countess had told her that Rosamund and Posy were too tired from their travels to eat that evening.
But the girls had to have their lessons, and so the next morning they arrived in the nursery, trailing the countess by one step each. Sophie had been working at her lessons for an hour already, and she looked up from her arithmetic with great interest. She didn’t smile at the girls this time. Somehow it seemed best not to.
“Miss Timmons,” the countess said.
Miss Timmons bobbed a curtsy, murmuring, “My lady.”
“The earl tells me you will teach my daughters.”
“I will do my best, my lady.”
The countess motioned to the older girl, the one with golden hair and cornflower eyes. She looked, Sophie thought, as pretty as the porcelain doll the earl had sent up from London for her seventh birthday.
“This,” the countess said, “is Rosamund. She is eleven. And this” –she then motioned to the other girl, who had not taken her eyes off of her shoes– “is Posy. She is ten.”
Sophie looked at Posy with great interest. Unlike her mother and sister, her hair and eyes were quite dark, and her cheeks were a bit pudgy.
“Sophie is also ten,” Miss Timmons replied.
The countess’s lips thinned. “I would like you to show the girls around the house and garden.”
Miss Timmons nodded. “Very well. Sophie, put your slate down. We can return to arithmetic–”
“Just my girls,” the countess interrupted, her voice somehow hot and cold at the same time. “I will speak with Sophie alone.”
Sophie gulped and tried to bring her eyes to the countess’s, but she only made it as far as her chin. As Miss Timmons ushered Rosamund and Posy out of the room she stood up, awaiting further direction from her father’s new wife.
“I know who you are,” the countess said the moment the door clicked shut.
“You’re his bastard, and don’t try to deny it.”
Sophie said nothing. It was the truth, of course, but no one had ever said it aloud. At least not to her face.
The countess grabbed her chin and squeezed and pulled until Sophie was forced to look her in the eye. “You listen to me,” she said in a menacing voice. “You might live here at Penwood Park, and you might share lessons with my daughters, but you are nothing but a bastard, and that is all you will ever be. Don’t you ever, ever make the mistake of thinking you are as good as the rest of us.”
Sophie let out a little moan. The countess’s fingernails were biting into the underside of her chin.
“My husband,” the countess continued, “feels some sort of misguided duty to you. It’s admirable of him to see to his mistakes, but it is an insult to me to have you in my home– fed, clothed, and educated as if you were his real daughter.”
But she was his real daughter. And it had been her home much longer than the countess’s.
Abruptly, the countess let go of her chin. “I don’t want to see you,” she hissed. “You are never to speak to me, and you shall endeavor never to be in my company. Furthermore, you are not to speak to Rosamund and Posy except during lessons. They are the daughters of the house now, and should not have to associate with the likes of you. Do you have any questions?”
Sophie shook her head.
And with that, she swept out of the room, leaving Sophie with wobbly legs and a quivering lip.
And an awful lot of tears.
In time, Sophie learned a bit more about her precarious position in the house. The servants always knew everything, and it all reached Sophie’s ears eventually.
The countess, whose given name was Araminta, had insisted that very first day that Sophie be removed from the house. The earl had refused. Araminta didn’t have to love Sophie, he’d said coolly. She didn’t even have to like her. But she had to put up with her. He had owned up to his responsibility to the girl for seven years, and he wasn’t going to stop now.
Rosamund and Posy took their cues from Araminta and treated Sophie with hostility and disdain, although Posy’s heart clearly wasn’t into torture and cruelty in the way Rosamund’s was. Rosamund liked nothing better than to pinch and twist the skin on the back of Sophie’s hand when Miss Timmons wasn’t looking. Sophie never said anything; she rather doubted that Miss Timmons would have the courage to reprimand Rosamund (who would surely run to Araminta with a false tale), and if anyone noticed that Sophie’s hands were perpetually black and blue, no one ever said so.
Posy showed her the occasional kindness, although more often than not she just sighed and said, “My mummy says I’m not to be nice to you.”
As for the earl, he never intervened.
Sophie’s life continued in this vein for four years, until the earl surprised everyone by clutching his hand to his chest while taking tea in the rose garden, letting out one ragged gasp, and falling face-first to the stone cobbles.
He never regained consciousness.
Everyone was quite shocked. The earl was only forty years old. Who could have known that his heart would give out at such a young age? No one was more stunned than Araminta, who had been trying quite desperately since her wedding night to conceive the all-important heir.
“I might be with child!” she hastened to tell the earl’s solicitors. “You can’t give the title over to some distant cousin. I could very well be with child.”
But she wasn’t with child, and when the earl’s will was read one month later (the solicitors had wanted to be sure to give the countess enough time to know for sure if she was pregnant) Araminta was forced to sit next to the new earl, a rather dissolute young man who was more often drunk than not.
Most of the earl’s wishes were standard fare. He left bequests to loyal servants. He settled funds on Rosamund, Posy, and even Sophie, ensuring that all three girls would have respectable dowries.
And then the solicitor reached Araminta’s name.
To my wife, Araminta Gunningworth, Countess of Penwood, I leave a yearly income of two thousand pounds–
“That’s all?” Araminta cried out.
–unless she agrees to shelter and care for my ward, Miss Sophia Maria Beckett, until the latter reaches the age of twenty, in which case her yearly income shall be trebled to six thousand pounds.
“I don’t want her,” Araminta whispered.
“You don’t have to take her,” the solicitor reminded her. “You can–”
“Live on a measly two thousand a year?” she snapped. “I don’t think so.”
The solicitor, who lived on considerably less than two thousand a year, said nothing.
The new earl, who’d been drinking steadily throughout the meeting, just shrugged.
“What is your decision?” the solicitor asked.
“I’ll take her,” she said in a low voice.
“Shall I find the girl and tell her?”
Araminta shook her head. “I’ll tell her myself.”
But when Araminta found Sophie, she left out a few important facts…
This year’s most sought-after invitation must surely be that of the Bridgerton masquerade ball, to be held Monday next. Indeed, one cannot take two steps without being forced to listen to some society mama speculating on who will attend, and perhaps more importantly, who will wear what.
Neither of the aforementioned topics, however, are nearly as interesting as that of the two unmarried Bridgerton brothers, Benedict and Colin. (Before anyone points out that there is a third unmarried Bridgerton brother, let This Author assure you that she is fully aware of the existence of Gregory Bridgerton. He is, however, fourteen years of age, and therefore not pertinent to this particular column, which concerns, as This Author’s columns often do, that most sacred of sports: husband-hunting.)
Although the Misters Bridgerton are just that –merely Misters– they are still considered two of the prime catches of the season. It is a well-known fact that both are possessed of respectable fortunes, and it does not require perfect sight to know that they also possess, as do all eight of the Bridgerton offspring, the Bridgerton good looks.
Will some fortunate young lady use the mystery of a masquerade night to snare one of the eligible bachelors?
This Author isn’t even going to attempt to speculate.
Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers,
31 May 1815
As screeches went, it was enough to shatter glass. Or at least an eardrum.
“Coming, Rosamund! I’m coming!” Sophie hitched up the hem of her coarse woolen skirts and hurried up the stairs, slipping on the fourth step and only just barely managing to grab the banister before landing on her bottom. She should have remembered that the stairs would be slick; she’d helped the downstairs maid wax them just that morning.
Skidding to a halt in the doorway to Rosamund’s bedroom and still catching her breath, Sophie said, “Yes?”
“My tea is cold.”
What Sophie wanted to say was, “It was warm when I brought it an hour ago, you lazy fiend.”
What she did say was, “I’ll get you another pot.”
Rosamund sniffed. “See that you do.”
Sophie stretched her lips into what the nearly-blind might call a smile and picked up the tea service. “Shall I leave the biscuits?” she asked.
Rosamund gave her pretty head a shake. “I want fresh ones.”
Shoulders slightly stooped from the weight of the overloaded tea service, Sophie exited the room, careful not to start grumbling until she’d safely reached the hall. Rosamund was forever ordering tea, then not bothering to drink it until an hour passed. By then, of course, it was cold, so she had to order a fresh pot.
Which meant Sophie was forever running up and down the stairs, up and down, up and down. Sometimes it seemed that was all she did with her life.
Up and down, up and down.
And of course the mending, the pressing, the hairdressing, the shoe polishing, the darning, the bedmaking…
Sophie turned around to see Posy heading toward her.
“Sophie, I’ve been meaning to ask you, do you think this color is becoming on me?”
Sophie assessed Posy’s mermaid costume. The cut wasn’t quite right for Posy, who had never lost all of her baby fat, but the color did indeed bring out the best in her complexion. “It is a lovely shade of green,” Sophie replied quite honestly. “It makes your cheeks very rosy.”
“Oh, good. I’m so glad you like it. You do have such a knack for picking out my clothing.” Posy smiled as she reached out and plucked a sugared biscuit from the tray. “Mother has been an absolute bear all week about the masquerade ball, and I know I shall never hear the end of it if I do not look my best. Or” –Posy’s face twisted into a grimace– “if she thinks I do not look my best. She is determined that one of us snare one of the remaining Bridgerton brothers, you know.”
“And to make matters worse, that Whistledown woman has been writing about them again. It only” –Posy finished chewing and paused while she swallowed– “whets her appetite.”
“Was the column very good this morning?” Sophie asked, shifting the tray to rest on her hip. “I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.”
“Oh, the usual stuff,” Posy said with a wave of her hand. “Really, it can be quite humdrum, you know.”
Sophie tried to smile and failed. She’d like nothing more than to live a day of Posy’s humdrum life. Well, perhaps she wouldn’t want Araminta for a mother, but she wouldn’t mind a life of parties, routs, and musicales.
“Let’s see,” Posy mused. “There was a review of Lady Worth’s recent ball, a bit about Viscount Guelph, who seems rather smitten with some girl from Scotland, and then a longish piece on the upcoming Bridgerton masquerade.”
Sophie sighed. She’d been reading about the upcoming masquerade for weeks, and even though she was nothing but a lady’s maid (and occasionally a housemaid as well, whenever Araminta decided she wasn’t working hard enough) she couldn’t help but wish that she could attend the ball.
“I for one will be thrilled if that Guelph viscount gets himself engaged,” Posy remarked, reaching for another biscuit. “It will mean one fewer bachelor for Mother to go on and on about as a potential husband. It’s not as if I have any hope of attracting his attention anyway.” She took a bite of the biscuit; it crunched loudly in her mouth. “I do hope Lady Whistledown is right about him.”
“She probably is,” Sophie answered. She had been reading Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers since it had debuted in 1813, and the gossip columnist was almost always correct when it came to matters of the Marriage Mart.
Not, of course, that Sophie had ever had the chance to see the Marriage Mart for herself. But if one read Whistledown often enough, one could almost feel a part of London Society without actually attending any balls.
In fact, reading Whistledown was really Sophie’s one true enjoyable pastime. She’d already read all of the novels in the library, and as neither Araminta, Rosamund, nor Posy was particularly enamored of reading, Sophie couldn’t look forward to a new book entering the house.
But Whistledown was great fun. No one actually knew the columnist’s true identity. When the single-sheet newspaper had debuted two years earlier, speculation had been rampant. Even now, whenever Lady Whistledown reported a particularly juicy bit of gossip, people starting talking and guessing anew, wondering who on earth was able to report with such speed and accuracy.
And for Sophie, Whistledown was a tantalizing glimpse into the world that might have been hers, had her parents actually made their union legal. She would have been an earl’s daughter, not an earl’s bastard; her name Gunningworth instead of Beckett.
Just once, she’d like to be the one stepping into the coach and attending the ball.
Instead, she was the one dressing others for their nights on the town, cinching Posy’s corset or dressing Rosamund’s hair or polishing a pair of Araminta’s shoes.
But she could not –or at least should not– complain. She might have to serve as maid to Araminta and her daughters, but at least she had a home. Which was more than most girls in her position had.
When her father had died, he’d left her nothing. Well, nothing but a roof over her head. His will had ensured that she could not be turned out until she was twenty. There was no way that Araminta would forfeit four thousand pounds a year by giving Sophie the boot.
But that four thousand pounds was Araminta’s, not Sophie’s, and Sophie hadn’t ever seen a penny of it. Gone were the fine clothes she’d used to wear, replaced by the coarse wool of the servants. And she ate what the rest of the maids ate– whatever Araminta, Rosamund, and Posy chose to leave behind.
Sophie’s twentieth birthday, however, had come and gone almost a year earlier, and here she was, still living at Penwood House, still waiting on Araminta hand and foot. For some unknown reason –probably because she didn’t want to train (or pay) a new maid– Araminta had allowed Sophie to remain in her household.
And Sophie had stayed. If Araminta was the devil she knew, then the rest of the world was the devil she didn’t. And Sophie had no idea which would be worse.
“Isn’t that tray getting heavy?”
Sophie blinked her way out of her reverie and focused on Posy, who was reaching for the last biscuit on the tray. Drat. She’d been hoping to snitch it for herself. “Yes,” she murmured. “Yes, it is quite. I should really be getting to the kitchen with it.”
Posy smiled. “I won’t keep you any longer, but when you’re done with that, could you press my pink gown? I’m going to wear it tonight. Oh, and I suppose the matching shoes should be readied as well. I got a bit of dirt on them last time I wore them, and you know how Mother is about shoes. Never mind that you can’t even see them under my skirt. She’ll notice the tiniest speck of dirt the instant I lift my hem to climb a step.”
Sophie nodded, mentally adding Posy’s requests to her daily list of chores.
“I’ll see you later, then!” Biting down on that last biscuit, Posy turned and disappeared into her bedchamber.
And Sophie trudged down to the kitchen.
A few days later, Sophie was on her knees, pins clamped between her teeth as she made last-minute alterations on Araminta’s masquerade costume. The Queen Elizabeth gown had, of course, been delivered from the dressmaker as a perfect fit, but Araminta insisted that it was now a quarter inch too large in the waist.
“How is that?” Sophie asked, speaking through her teeth so the pins wouldn’t fall.
Sophie adjusted a few pins. “What about that?”
Sophie pulled out a pin and stuck it back in precisely the same spot. “There. How does that feel?”
Araminta twisted this way and that, then finally declared, “It’ll do.”
Sophie smiled to herself as she stood to help Araminta out of the gown.
“I’ll need it done in an hour if we’re to get to the ball on time,” Araminta said.
“Of course,” Sophie murmured. She’d found it easiest just to say “of course” on a regular basis in conversations with Araminta.
“This ball is very important,” Araminta said sharply. “Rosamund must make an advantageous match this year. The new earl–” She shuddered with distaste; she still considered the new earl an interloper, never mind that he was the old earl’s closest living male relative. “Well, he has told me that this is the last year we may use Penwood House in London. The nerve of the man. I am the dowager countess, after all, and Rosamund and Posy are the earl’s daughters.
Step-daughters, Sophie silently corrected.
“We have every right to use Penwood House for the season. What he plans to do with the house, I’ll never know.”
“Perhaps he wishes to attend the season and look for a wife,” Sophie suggested. “He’ll be wanting an heir, I’m sure.”
Araminta scowled. “If Rosamund doesn’t marry into money, I don’t know what we’ll do. It is so difficult to find a proper house to rent. And so expensive as well.”
Sophie forbore to point out that at least Araminta didn’t have to pay for a lady’s maid. In fact, until Sophie had turned twenty, she’d received four thousand pounds per year, just for having a lady’s maid.
Araminta snapped her fingers. “Don’t forget that Rosamund will need her hair powdered.”
Rosamund was attending dressed as Marie Antoinette. Sophie had asked if she was planning to put a ring of faux blood around her neck. Rosamund had not been amused.
Araminta pulled on her dressing gown, cinching the sash with swift, tight movements. “And Posy–” Her nose wrinkled. “Well, Posy will need your help in some manner or other, I’m sure.”
“I’m always glad to help Posy,” Sophie replied.
Araminta narrowed her eyes as she tried to figure out if Sophie was being insolent. “Just see that you do,” she finally said, her syllables clipped. She stalked off to the washroom.
Sophie saluted as the door closed behind her.
“Ah, there you are, Sophie,” Rosamund said as she bustled into the room. “I need your help immediately.”
“I’m afraid it’ll have to wait until–”
“I said immediately!” Rosamund snapped.
Sophie squared her shoulders and gave Rosamund a steely look. “Your mother wants me to alter her gown.”
“Just pull the pins out and tell her you pulled it in. She’ll never notice the difference.”
Sophie had been considering the very same thing, and she groaned. If she did as Rosamund asked, Rosamund would tattle on her the very next day, and then Araminta would rant and rage for a week. Now she would definitely have to do the alteration.
“What do you need, Rosamund?”
“There is a tear at the hem of my costume. I have no idea how it happened.”
“Perhaps when you tried it on-”
“Don’t be impertinent!”
Sophie clamped her mouth shut. It was far more difficult to take orders from Rosamund than from Araminta, probably because they’d once been equals, sharing the same schoolroom and governess.
“It must be repaired immediately,” Rosamund said with an affected sniff.
Sophie sighed. “Just bring it in. I’ll do it right after I finish with your mother’s. I promise you’ll have it in plenty of time.”
“I won’t be late for this ball,” Rosamund warned. “If I am, I shall have your head on a platter.”
“You won’t be late,” Sophie promised.
Rosamund made a rather huffy sound and then hurried out the door to retrieve her costume.
Sophie looked up to see Rosamund crashing into Posy, who was barreling through the door.
“Watch where you’re going, Posy!” Rosamund snapped.
“You could watch where you’re going, too,” Posy pointed out.
“I was watching. It’s impossible to get out of your way, you big oaf.”
Posy’s cheeks stained red, and she stepped aside.
“Did you need something, Posy?” Sophie asked as soon as Rosamund had disappeared.
“Could you set aside a little extra time to dress my hair tonight? I found some green ribbons that look a little like seaweed.”
Sophie let out a long breath. The dark green ribbons weren’t likely to show up very well against Posy’s dark hair, but she didn’t have the heart to point that out. “I’ll try, Posy, but I have to mend Rosamund’s dress and alter your mother’s.”
“Oh.” Posy looked crestfallen. It nearly broke Sophie’s heart. Posy was the only person who was even halfway nice to her in Araminta’s household, save for the servants. “Don’t worry,” she assured her. “I’ll make sure your hair is lovely no matter how much time we have.”
“Oh, thank you, Sophie! I–” “Haven’t you gotten started on my gown yet?” Araminta thundered as she returned from the washroom.
Sophie gulped. “I was talking with Rosamund and Posy. Rosamund tore her gown and–”
“Just get to work!”
“I will. Immediately.” Sophie plopped down on the settee and turned the gown inside-out so that she could take in the waist. “Faster than immediately,” she muttered. “Faster than a hummingbird’s wings. Faster than–”
“What are you chattering about?” Araminta demanded.
“Well, cease your prattle immediately. I find the sound of your voice particularly grating.”
Sophie ground her teeth together.
“Mama,” Posy said, “Sophie is going to dress my hair tonight like–”
“Of course she’s going to dress your hair. Quit your dilly-dallying this minute and go put compresses on your eyes so they don’t look so puffy.”
Posy’s face fell. “My eyes are puffy?”
Sophie shook her head on the off chance that Posy decided to look down at her.
“Your eyes are always puffy,” Araminta replied. “Don’t you think so, Rosamund?”
Posy and Sophie both turned toward the door. Rosamund had just entered, carrying her Marie Antoinette gown. “Always,” she agreed. “But a compress will help, I’m sure.”
“You look stunning tonight,” Araminta told Rosamund. “And you haven’t even started getting ready. That gold in your gown is an exquisite match to your hair.”
Sophie shot a sympathetic look at the dark-haired Posy, who never received such compliments from her mother.
“You shall snare one of those Bridgerton brothers,” Araminta continued. “I’m sure of it.”
Rosamund looked down demurely. It was an expression she’d perfected, and Sophie had to admit it looked lovely on her. But then again, most everything looked lovely on Rosamund. Her golden hair and blue eyes were all the rage that year, and thanks to the generous dowry settled upon her by the late earl, it was widely assumed that she would make a brilliant match before the season was through.
Sophie glanced back over at Posy, who was staring at her mother with a sad, wistful expression. “You look lovely, too, Posy,” Sophie said impulsively.
Posy’s eyes lit up. “Do you think so?”
“Absolutely. And your gown is terribly original. I’m sure there won’t be any other mermaids.”
“How would you know, Sophie?” Rosamund asked with a laugh. “It’s not as if you’ve ever been out in society.”
“I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time, Posy,” Sophie said pointedly, ignoring Rosamund’s jibe. “I’m terribly jealous. I do wish I could go.”
Sophie’s little sigh and wish was met with absolute silence… followed by the raucous laughter of both Araminta and Rosamund. Even Posy giggled a little bit.
“Oh, that’s rich,” Araminta said, barely able to catch her breath. “Little Sophie at the Bridgerton ball. They don’t allow bastards out in society, you know.”
“I didn’t say I expected to go,” Sophie said defensively, “just that I wish I could.”
“Well, you shouldn’t even bother doing that,” Rosamund chimed in. “If you wish for things you can’t possibly hope for, you’re only going to be disappointed.”
But Sophie didn’t hear what she had to say, because in that moment, the oddest thing happened. As she was turning her head toward Rosamund, she caught sight of the housekeeper standing in the doorway. It was Mrs. Gibbons, who had come up from Penwood Park in the country when the town housekeeper had passed away. And when Sophie’s eyes met hers, she winked.
Sophie didn’t think she’d ever seen Mrs. Gibbons wink.
“Sophie! Sophie! Are you listening to me?”
Sophie turned a distracted eye toward Araminta. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “You were saying?”
“I was saying,” Araminta said in a nasty voice, “that you had better get to work on my gown this instant. If we are late for the ball, you will answer for it tomorrow.”
“Yes, of course,” Sophie said quickly. She jabbed her needle into the fabric and started sewing but her mind was still on Mrs. Gibbons.
Why on earth would she wink?
Three hours later, Sophie was standing on the front steps of Penwood House, watching first Araminta, then Rosamund, then Posy each take the footman’s hand and climb up into the carriage. Sophie waved at Posy, who waved back, then watched the carriage roll down the street and disappear around the corner. It was barely six blocks to Bridgerton House, where the masquerade was to be held, but Araminta would have insisted upon the carriage if they’d lived right next door.
It was important to make a grand entrance, after all.
With a sigh, Sophie turned around and made her way back up the steps. At least Araminta had, in the excitement of the moment, forgotten to leave her with a list of tasks to complete while she was gone. A free evening was a luxury indeed. Perhaps she’d reread a novel. Or maybe she could find today’s edition of Whistledown. She’d thought she’d seen Rosamund take it into her room earlier that afternoon.
But as Sophie stepped through the front door of Penwood House, Mrs. Gibbons materialized as if from nowhere and grabbed her arm. “There’s no time to lose!” the housekeeper said.
Sophie looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “I beg your pardon?”
Mrs. Gibbons tugged at her elbow. “Come with me.”
Sophie allowed herself to be led up the three flights of stairs to her room, a tiny little chamber tucked under the eaves. Mrs. Gibbons was acting in a most peculiar manner, but Sophie humored her and followed along. The housekeeper had always treated her with exceptional kindness, even when it was clear that Araminta disapproved.
“You’ll need to get undressed,” Mrs. Gibbons said as she grasped the doorknob.
“We really must rush.”
“Mrs. Gibbons, you…” Sophie’s mouth fell open, and her words trailed off as she took in the scene in her bedroom. A steaming tub of water lay right in the center, and all three housemaids were bustling about. One was pouring one last pitcher of water into the tub, another was fiddling with the lock on a rather mysterious-looking trunk, and the third was holding a towel and saying, “Hurry! Hurry!”
Sophie cast bewildered eyes at the lot of them. “What is going on?”
Mrs. Gibbons turned to her and beamed. “You, Miss Sophia Maria Beckett, are going to the masquerade!”
One hour later, Sophie was transformed. The trunk had held dresses belonging to the late earl’s mother. They were all fifty years out of date, but that was no matter. The ball was a masquerade; no one expected the gowns to be of the latest styles.
At the very bottom of the trunk they’d found an exquisite creation of shimmering silver, with a tight, pearl-encrusted bodice and the flared skirts that had been so popular during the previous century. Sophie felt like a princess just touching it. It was a bit musty from its years in the trunk, and one of the maids quickly took it outside to dab a bit of rosewater on the fabric and air it out.
She’d been bathed and perfumed, her hair had been dressed, and one of the housemaids had even applied a touch of rouge to her lips. “Don’t tell Miss Rosamund,” the maid had whispered. “I nicked it from her collection.”
“Ooooh, look,” Mrs. Gibbons said. “I found matching gloves.”
Sophie looked up to see the housekeeper holding up a pair of long, elbow-length gloves. “Look,” she said, taking one from Mrs. Gibbons and examining it. “The Penwood crest. And it’s monogrammed. Right at the hem.”
Mrs. Gibbons turned over the one in her hand. “SLG. Sarah Louisa Gunningworth. Your grandmother.”
Sophie looked at her in surprise. Mrs. Gibbons had never referred to the earl as her father. No one at Penwood Park had ever verbally acknowledged Sophie’s blood ties to the Gunningworth family.
“Well, she is your grandmother,” Mrs. Gibbons declared. “We’ve all danced around the issue long enough. It’s a crime the way Rosamund and Posy are treated like daughters of the house, and you, the earl’s true blood, must sweep and serve like a maid!”
The three housemaids nodded in agreement.
“Just once,” Mrs. Gibbons said, “for just one night, you will be the belle of the ball.” With a smile on her face, she slowly turned Sophie around until she was facing the mirror.
Sophie’s breath caught. “Is that me?”
Mrs. Gibbons nodded, her eyes suspiciously bright. “You look lovely, dearling,” she whispered.
Sophie’s hand moved slowly up to her hair.
“Don’t muss it!” one of the maids yelped.
“I won’t,” Sophie promised, her smile wobbling a bit as she fought back a tear. A touch of shimmery powder had been sprinkled onto her hair, so that she sparkled like a fairly princess. Her dark blond curls had been swept atop her head in a loose topknot, with one thick lock allowed to slide down the length of her neck. And her eyes, normally moss green, shone like emeralds.
Although Sophie suspected that might have had more to do with her unshed tears than anything else.
“Here is your mask,” Mrs. Gibbons said briskly. It was a demi-mask, the sort that tied at the back so that Sophie would not have to use one of her hands to hold it up. “Now all we need are shoes.”
Sophie glanced ruefully at her serviceable and ugly work shoes that sat in the corner. “I have nothing suitable for such finery, I’m afraid.”
The housemaid who had rouged Sophie’s lips held up a pair of white slippers. “From Rosamund’s closet,” she said.
Sophie slid her right foot into one of the slippers and just as quickly slid it back out. “It’s much too big,” she said, glancing up at Mrs. Gibbons. “I’ll never be able to walk in them.”
Mrs. Gibbons turned to the maid. “Fetch a pair from Posy’s closet.”
“Hers are even bigger,” Sophie said. “I know. I’ve cleaned enough scuff marks from them.”
Mrs. Gibbons let out a long sigh. “There’s nothing for it, then. We shall have to raid Araminta’s collection.”
Sophie shuddered. The thought of walking anywhere in Araminta’s shoes was somewhat creepy. But it was either that or go without, and she didn’t think that bare feet would be acceptable at a fancy London masquerade.
A few minutes later the maid returned with a pair of white satin slippers, stitched in silver and adorned with exquisite faux-diamond rosettes.
Sophie was still apprehensive about wearing Araminta’s shoes, but she slipped one of her feet in, anyway. It fit perfectly.
“And they match, too,” one of the maids said, pointing to the silver stitching. “As if they were made for the dress.”
“We don’t have time for admiring shoes,” Mrs. Gibbons suddenly said. “Now listen to these instructions very carefully. The coachman has returned from taking the countess and her girls, and he will bring you to Bridgerton House. But he has to be waiting outside when they wish to depart, which means you must leave by midnight and not a second later. Do you understand?”
Sophie nodded and looked at the clock on the wall. It was a bit after nine, which meant she’d have more than two hours at the masquerade. “Thank you,” she whispered. “Oh, thank you so much.”
Mrs. Gibbons dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief. “You just have a good time, dearling. That’s all the thanks I need.”
Sophie looked again at the clock. Two hours.
Two hours that she’d have to make last a lifetime.
End of Excerpt
Awards & Achievements
- Three weeks on the Publishers Weekly Mass Market bestseller list, reaching #8.
- Bestselling Original Historical Romance of 2001, Waldenbooks
- An Offer From a Gentleman was #14 on the New York Times bestseller list for July 22, 2001. This was JQ's first appearance on this prestigious list, and every single one of her novels since then has been a New York Times bestseller.
- Six weeks on the USA Today bestseller list, peaking at #15.