Home > The Roguish Baron (Diamonds in the Rough #9)

The Roguish Baron (Diamonds in the Rough #9)
Author: Sophie Barnes





“Jack’s coming home.”

Sophia’s pulse leapt in response to the words being spoken. She did not want to relish the news her friends were sharing, nor did she wish to look forward to the coming weeks with eager expectation. Jack Lancaster, Baron Hawthorne, did not deserve to be pined for. She ought to forget him. And yet...

“When is your brother due to arrive?” Her stomach fluttered in anticipation of what Jack’s sisters might say. At the age of twenty, the twins were only two years younger than Sophia, and although they were the daughters of an earl while she was nothing more than the local vicar’s foster child, they’d played together often while growing up and had remained close into adulthood.

Felicity, the more vocal twin, leaned forward. Unlike her sister, Kaitlin, whose hair was as black as Jack’s, Felicity had their mother’s auburn curls. “Tomorrow, so he can get settled before the rest of the guests arrive for the house party.”

The house party had been their father’s idea. Apparently, after declaring his daughters’ debuts and subsequent Season a failure, he’d invited five gentlemen to visit his home for the next few weeks. The intention behind it was obvious and had caused both Felicity and Kaitlin to look uncomfortable when they’d mentioned it to Sophia during their last get-together.

“So soon?” Sophia clutched her cup and tried to ignore the frantic beat of her heart.

“We’re hoping you’ll join us for dinner on Saturday,” Kaitlin said with a gentle smile. “So we’ll not have to face all the men Mama and Papa have invited alone.”

Sophia took a hasty sip of her tea. See Jack? Dine with him at Eastgate Abbey? Relive the pain of his indifference?

She’d rather toss herself into a frozen lake.

“Thank you,” she told her friends, her voice not nearly as firm as she wished, “but I fear I must decline.”

Felicity and Kaitlin shared a look. They flattened their mouths and straightened their backs. Whatever levity they’d shown before vanished beneath a layer of determination.

Sophia steeled herself.

“We thought you might,” Felicity said.

“So we made a plan,” Kaitlin added.

Unease slid down Sophia’s spine. “How do you mean?”

“Well, we think it would be splendid if you and Jack were to marry,” Felicity said.

Sophia stared at her friend. Her grip on her teacup tightened. “No.”

“But you’ve been in love with him since forever,” Kaitlin said.

“Feelings change,” Sophia said.

“Have yours?” Felicity asked.

She wanted to say yes and deny the yearnings of her heart, but she couldn’t. Felicity and Kaitlin were her dearest friends, and she’d never lied to them about anything. “No.”

“Good. Because we would like nothing better than for you to become our sister.” Felicity smiled while Kaitlin snatched up a biscuit and bit it in half.

Sophia sighed. “He doesn’t see me as a potential match and never will. For a good reason, if I may remind you.”

“I disagree,” Felicity said. “Mama and Papa have both welcomed you into our home.”

“As your friend,” Sophia pointed out. “Not as a candidate for the future Lady Hawthorne. No upstanding family would ever approve of their child marrying down.”

“You’re the best person there is,” Kaitlin argued.

“I am an orphan with no connections.” Sophia shook her head. She’d always known she was a fool for dreaming of Jack.

“That’s not true,” Felicity said. “Mr. and Mrs. Fenmore are both highly respected.”

“As they should be, but neither of them is my relation.” Sophia closed her eyes briefly against the reality of her situation. The vicar and his wife had raised her after finding her inside their church. According to what they’d told her, she’d managed to topple the basket she’d been in, and was tangled in her blanket on the cold stone floor. Her desperate cries had gone straight to the Fenmores’ hearts. And although they’d already had a son of their own, they’d never made a distinction between her and Edward, had raised them as though they were siblings by birth. She had nothing but love for them, but that didn’t mean she was blind to her situation.

“Semantics,” Felicity said as if she could brush aside every rule upon which Society rested. “We know you and Jack would be perfect together. Hence the plan.”

Against her better judgment, Sophia decided to humor her. “What does this plan of yours involve?”

“Getting Jack to pull his head out of his—”

“Kaitlin,” Felicity chastised. She gave her younger sister a hard look, then turned her attention back to Sophia. “It is our belief that Jack could be persuaded to make you an offer of marriage.”

“How romantic,” Sophia muttered. “Perhaps we should tie him up too and force him to speak his vows?”

“Based on observation,” Felicity went on, ignoring Sophia’s remark, “he cares for you a great deal.”

“I disagree.” The manner in which they’d last parted had proven the opposite. But Sophia had never shared Jack’s last words to her with anyone. Instead, she’d carried that pain alone.

“He never kept us company growing up, unless you happened to be there,” Kaitlin said. “And after he went away to school, he’d always ask after you when he visited, until we invited you over.”

“Once you arrived, he’d light up,” Felicity said. “Have you forgotten how close the two of you were with your inside jokes and the way you’d always finish each other’s sentences?”

A knot formed in Sophia’s breast. Her fondest memories were of Jack, of him teaching her how to whistle, of the two of them fishing together while Kaitlin and Felicity chose to pick berries with Edward. Jack had even shown her how to whittle, allowing her to make a few cuts on the wooden rabbit he’d later gifted her for her birthday. The small figurine was her most prized possession.

Later, when Jack came home on holiday from Eton, they discussed his studies at length. The five years between them had never seemed to matter. And since she’d always read up on politics and philosophy during his absence, she’d been prepared to discuss his subjects of choice. She’d even kept abreast of all the news, just for the pleasure of seeing the look of surprise in his eyes when she referenced a bill passed in Parliament or some new scientific discovery.

“That was a long time ago,” Sophia said in response to Felicity’s question. “It’s been four years since Jack’s last visit to these parts.”

Kaitlin knit her brow. “Has it really?”

“During which we’ve not been in touch at all.” Sophia set her cup aside and folded her hands in her lap. “A lot can happen in four years. I do read the gossip column, in case you weren’t aware. So I know of Jack’s reputation.”

“Journalists write a great deal of things,” Felicity said. “It isn’t always true.”

“And even if it were,” Kaitlin put in, “I don’t see the issue. After all, Jack’s hardly the first man to have a few dalliances on his way toward matrimonial bliss.”

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