Waistcoats & Weaponry Page 29

“I thought my accent was rather good!”

“Soap, and I don’t mean to be rude, but you do know you are of African descent, don’t you? What if your mask slips?”

Soap shrugged. “I like your costume, miss. You look a treat, almost like you was one of us down below.”

“You’re impossible! Why, I… Wait a moment. You were Roger’s friend, on the box! How did I not know it was you?”

“I bundled completely up and I slouched so you wouldn’t recognize my posture. And I stayed quiet so you wouldn’t know my voice.”

“How did you persuade Roger to go along?”

Soap grinned. “You think I don’t have just as many tricks as you, for all your education?”

That was fair; he had taught Sophronia a whole mess of dirty fighting techniques.

“Who are you? You upstart poodle faker!” demanded Felix, interposing himself between Soap and Sophronia in an overbearing white knight way.

Sophronia was instantly annoyed. Felix should know she was perfectly capable of dealing with things!

“That is none of your concern,” replied Soap, sounding even more the toff, his speech patterns influenced by Felix’s upper-crust accent.

“Oh, now, if you are focusing in on my lady here, I should make it my concern.”

“Ho there!” said Sophronia, in a low hiss, attempting to get both young men to lower their voices and not cause a scene. “I’m no one’s lady, thank you kindly. Despite what my mother thinks.”

The boys ignored her, squaring off rather like two hounds after the same smelly old carcass.

“Oh, really,” said Sophronia, annoyed at being ignored. “I’m not really important in this situation, am I? You two simply wish to bicker.”

This was probably unfair to Felix, who didn’t recognize Soap. Where did Soap get such an outlandish outfit? Felix would consider a sootie so far beneath him as to be unworthy as a rival, if he knew.

Soap, on the other hand, had taken an active dislike to the young viscount the moment Felix entered Sophronia’s life.

Things might have gotten quite out of hand, except that Pillover pulled up, panting. “Oh, Sophronia, thank goodness. Save me? Please? All those young girls, in pastels, talking about the weather. I shall go jump off a bridge, I swear I shall. Do you have bridges in Wiltshire? They chatter, they chatter worse than Dimity ever did. Oh, the chattering! The chattering, it haunts me.”

That broke the tension.

Felix looked at Pillover as if he were some yappy dog.

Soap chuckled.

“Well,” said Pillover truculently, “if we’re secretly engaged, she’s obliged to save me.”

Sophronia did not want to leave Soap and Felix together. “Oh, Pill, I really would like to help, but we seem to be in the middle of some kind of whose-top-hat-is-the-biggest contest.”

Pillover looked between the two young men in question. “Well, I don’t know who you are, sir,” he addressed Soap, “although I respect the courage of a man who wears satin breeches that tight, but in the end you’ll have to cede to Lord Mersey. He’s too much of a peer, you understand? And a bit of a prick as well.”

“Pillover!” gasped Sophronia.

“Well, he is. Girls never see it, but it’s true. All I’m saying is, he’s going to win no matter what you do, stranger. So you might as well give up.”

Felix looked as if he had been given some kind of caped weasel—part gift, part insult, part utter confusion. “Thank you, I think.”

Pillover glared at him. “Pistons! Trouble, the lot of you. Now that’s settled, you’ll save me, Sophronia?”

“Pill, I don’t think you’ve solved the problem.”

“People tell me that all the time.” He turned about. “Oh, belter, here they come!” A gaggle of pastel puffs mixed with wings and very pretty flowered masks headed purposefully in his direction. Though, to be fair, they might also be after Lord Mersey.

Sophronia followed Pillover’s gaze, only to have her attention caught by a hubbub at the door to the ballroom. Within a very brief space of time, it escalated into a loudly voiced argument of the type that ought never be conducted in public, not even between tradesmen. It had everyone’s attention. Even Felix and Soap left off their animosity to focus on the astounding breach in social etiquette.

Frowbritcher and a human footman were barring the door against some highly excitable interlopers.

“How thrilling, I do believe someone is trying to infiltrate our party,” Sophronia said. “I had no idea an invitation was so desirable. Mumsy will be pleased. We have arrived in society at last.” She realized that might sound like bragging. “Or there is nothing on at the theater this evening.”

Then she caught sight of one intruder. The lady wore no mask and displayed no extravagance of fancy dress. She wasn’t trying to attend the ball; she was trying to get inside for some other reason. She turned to face the crowd.

“Good gracious me, Lady Kingair!” said Felix.

“Sidheag!” said Sophronia at the same time.

Standing to either side of Sidheag, visible only when the ebb of the throng allowed for it, were two huge wolves. One of them had a top hat tied to his head. The other was bigger and shaggier. And hatless.

“Captain Niall?” squeaked Sophronia.

“And a strange werewolf,” added Soap.

Felix looked alarmed. “Werewolves? Unknown, uninvited werewolves? Here? How revolting.”

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