As Sir George's travelling carriage rolled along the cobbled London Street, Sophie had much to reflect upon. After her uncle's initial announcement, she had fled upstairs to pack her meagre possessions, not willing to keep her uncle waiting any longer than she had to. Otherwise, she would be treated to another one of his blazing tirades.
Sophie was not actually surprised by her uncle's announcement. After all, she had been expecting such news for a better part of six years. What did surprise her, however, was why it took so long.
Trepidation swelled in increasing intensity as another thought occurred to her. It was true that once she married, her uncle's guardianship would end. But would Lord Markham be any different from her uncle? Would she only be trading one master for another? Her knowledge of men was not vast, but her experiences with them so far proved them cruel and selfish creatures. Apart from her father, of course. He had doted on his only daughter.
“We have arrived,” Sir George announced, as they stopped outside a three-story town house on Upper Brook Street.
Sophie swallowed the lump that formed in her throat as she stepped down from the carriage. Sir George stepped down beside her and catching her arm in a vice-like grip, propelled her up the stairs and into the house.
Nothing had changed at the London residence of the Fulham family since Sophie had been here six years ago. The same dour butler greeted them and relieved Sir George of his greatcoat, hat, and cane. All of the footmen and maids that passed averted their eyes at seeing their employer. Not even a sound came from the direction of the kitchens, which were usually a hive of activity at this time of the afternoon. Sir George ruled his household with an iron hand and woe betide the person, whether it is family or servant, who flouted his authority.
For most of his life Sir George resented being born the second son, resented his older brother Charles and the relationship he shared with their father, and resented his appealing and genial nature. It seemed everyone that encountered Charles came away with their spirits soaring, no matter what their troubles had been to start with. In contrast, Sir George's inflated arrogance alienated people as soon as he opened his mouth.
After her father's death when she was ten, Sophie had been shocked when Sir George had moved into Cloverfield with his family. Clarence treated her with indifference. Sir George treated her with contempt. And Aunt Harriet, captivated by her own self-importance as Lady Fulham, treated her as an unpaid housekeeper. Sophie sometimes wondered whether that was on Sir George's order and not something she had thought of herself.
Now she was back in London, a pawn in Sir George's all-consuming passion for acceptance into the highest circles of the haute ton. He craved power and respect, and with Sophie wed to Viscount Markham he would achieve it by association. To Sophie's mind, the idea did seem implausible, but it was the only explanation she could think of. She would be mortified if she knew Sir George had additional motivation for wishing this wedding take place.
Sir George cleared his throat, a deep staccato sound guaranteed to set Sophie trembling. “You are to go to your room and stay there. Under no circumstances are you to come downstairs until you are presentable for visitors. I have engaged the services of a modiste for some new gowns. She will be here on the morrow.” His lip curled into a sneer, his pale blue eyes travelling over her outdated gown with disdain. “I cannot have your betrothed believing he is wedding a servant.”
Sophie's shoulders slumped. For a fleeting moment, her heart had leapt in her chest, thinking her uncle was finally showing some paternal affection for her. But no, he would only be outfitting her as a potential Viscountess for his own perverted conceit.
Sophie squared her shoulders and lifted her chin in uncharacteristic defiance. “No, Uncle. We cannot have my betrothed believe that you have treated me as a servant since you came to live in my home.” She turned swiftly and started up the stairs, but Sir George grabbed her arm, spinning her around until she almost fell. She shrunk back against the balustrade, as Sir George's flaccid cheeks became an unhealthy shade of purple.
Sir George grabbed her arms and shook her so hard her teeth rattled. “How dare you! Have you not had food in your stomach? A roof over your head? You have not even begun to pay for living off my largesse. Payment in full is now due. Marriage to Lord Markham will accomplish this quite nicely.” He was breathing so heavily that Sophie thought he might expire.