Waistcoats & Weaponry Page 20

“You could have fooled me!”

“Now I’ve gone and offended you again.”

“You have. And things used to be so jolly between us.”

Soap looked down at her, his eyes bright sparkles from the depths of the gunnysack. “Even a crafty little thing like you can’t change the inevitable.”

Sophronia’s mouth firmed and she got a distinct glint of determination in her eye. It was an expression most had learned to be wary of. Not Soap, though. “We’ll see about that.”

Unexpectedly, Soap laughed. “Only you, miss, would try to stop us all from growing up.” With that he skulked off down the hallway.

Sophronia was left thinking the whole encounter very odd.

She made her way back to bed, fortunately not having to explain anything to Dimity—her friend was fast asleep.

Sophronia’s mother sent the pony cart with Roger and another stable hand to act as escort. It wasn’t a stylish means of transport. Preshea would tease them mercilessly if she found out. However, Dimity and Sophronia were off school grounds before Preshea was even awake. Most everyone on board was dead to the world at six a.m., at which entirely uncivilized hour Sophronia and Dimity caught the goods lift groundside. They clutched sandwich boxes and flasks of tea—necessary sustenance for the long journey ahead.

Bundled in oiled mackintoshes, with hatboxes and carpetbags full of ball gowns tucked under for protection, the two young ladies were the last to arrive.

Roger and compatriot sat on the front box. Both were shrouded head to toe against the bitter cold and ceaseless drizzle. Roger gave them a limp wave of greeting. He looked thoroughly miserable. He’d have driven half the night to collect them all so early. The other stable hand had his nose buried in a dirty handkerchief and didn’t even look up.

Inside the cart, nearest the driver’s box, sat Pillover, Dimity’s younger brother and escort to the ball. It was embarrassing to bring one’s brother for a dance partner, but it was the best she could do at short notice. Any finer feelings between her and Lord Dingleproops had been crushed under the weight of a Pickleman-driven misunderstanding. All the better for it, thought Sophronia, who didn’t like Lord Dingleproops, and not solely because of his reluctant chin and Pickleman leanings.

She did, however, like Pillover. He was a morose sort, a general failure at most aspects of life, particularly—to his great trial—at being both evil and a genius. Pillover could invent things, and he wasn’t stupid, he was simply too nice. This was a shortcoming he found depressing.

He grunted at them, having long since elected to treat Sophronia as he did his sister, with a lack of deference and mild splats of brotherly affection.

Sitting as far away from Pillover as possible was Felix Golborne, Viscount Mersey. There was no love lost between the two boys. Sophronia was under the impression that this was mainly because Pillover was younger, practically middle class, and not a member of the Pistons. Felix was the oldest son of a very prominent family, a full Piston in bad standing, and deliciously sinister. The Pistons were a club of sorts, members of which distinguished themselves via fancy waistcoats, black eyeliner, and Pickleman politics. Although currently Lord Mersey looked more damp and disgruntled than anything else, the kohl about his eyes having run to form sad rivulets down his cheeks. His bronze-beribboned top hat was sagging. Sophronia could feel her cheeks flush. This transport was miles beneath his dignity, and to have him sit waiting in the rain… How would she ever live it down?

Piston or not, Viscount Mersey was still a gentleman. Noting their approach, he jumped down to assist them. His expensive black boots became all over splattered.

“Miss Temminnick, Miss Plumleigh-Teignmott, delightful to see you both. It has been too long.” He tipped his hat. The hat dripped on him.

Dimity blushed becomingly. Sophronia mastered her embarrassment enough to smile apologetically. “Good morning, Lord Mersey, terrible weather, isn’t it?”

“I’ll say!” His voice had dropped since she’d last seen him, and he was taller by a good few inches. He didn’t tower over her the way Soap did, but he was exactly the right height to dance well.

Lord Mersey assisted Dimity first.

“Good morning, Pustule,” she greeted her brother affectionately.

“Hoy up, Fatty?” was his gloomy response. Pillover was certain to be even more grumpish than usual. His customary occupation when traveling was to bury his nose in a book, but it was raining too much to read in the open cart.

“Agatha not with you?” he asked.

Dimity blinked at him. It was not like Pillover to distinguish between females, let alone ask after one.

“What? I like Agatha. She’s no fuss and doesn’t chirrup on. Unlike some people I know.” Pillover huffed.

“She’s well. I’ll tender your regards, shall I, brother dear?”

“No need to fuss.”

Dimity sat next to him, bumping his shoulder with hers. Then, showing some modicum of delicacy, she dropped the subject. They began to talk softly of family and friends. This was a stratagem on Dimity’s part to allow Sophronia private time to reacquaint herself with Felix.

Roger slouched, watching the aristocrats settle into as much comfort as was afforded under the circumstances. Then, at Sophronia’s nod, he clicked the pony into a brisk walk.

Sophronia, laboring under the guilt of such incommodious transport, opened the conversation consciously at a disadvantage. Lady Linette would have been shocked. “I do beg your pardon, my lord, for this. Carts are challenging, even on the best sort of day. The family carriage, please understand, was required to ferry Ephraim’s intended from the station. Mumsy does so wish to make a good impression.”

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