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An Unexpected Visitor | Friday September 16th, late afternoon


Sophia de la Cerda
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The Toledo Residence

 

 

Though she hated to admit it, Sophia was exhausted after her shopping trip with Darlene. After changing into a more comfortable gown, she took her sketchbook to the drawing room and instructed her servants to bring a bowl of fruit. She often munched on fruit between meals, but that was not the reason she wanted it. When it arrived, she sat it upon a table that had been moved in front of the pastel brocade chaise lounge she usually rested on. She added a pretty porcelain vase that contained a single red rose and then arranged both items in a pleasing way.

 

When she was done, she relined upon the chaise and began to sketch, allowing her thoughts to roam free until they were interrupted by a knock on the front door. Sophia was not expecting any visitors and figured that Esteban had invited over one of his acquaintances to discuss business. It was a rather common occurrence. An Ambassador’s work was never done.

 

Only a few minutes later, she heard footsteps approaching the drawing room. Lifting her charcoal from her sketchpad, she looked toward the door just as the butler entered with her former guardian. She had been wanting to speak to him since last season, but the chance had never arisen. A bright smile lit up her features as she painstakingly rose and crossed the room. “Lord Kingston!” she exclaimed. “What a lovely surprise!”

Edited by Sophia de la Cerda
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Feeling more himself after his brief sojourn in the chapel to gather his thoughts, he made his way into Windsor town. It was familiar and comfortable to him, more so than courtiers shoved into castles. He had decided that a visit to Sophia was in order. He had not checked the now Lady Toledo in some time, and she had never just been a duty to him as his ward; he owed her father for helping his grandfather when they were in exile and that family loyalty was never discharged. 

 

He knocked at the door and was greeted by a servant who took his hat and cloak. Underneath he was in a pale lavender and silver brocade justacorps over a dark, slate blue waistcoat. 

 

The servant led him to the drawing room where a very large Sophia rose to greet him.

 

"I hope I am not interrupting your repose," he said in return. He looked at her as she came toward him. "I fear that being in the north of England seeing to the duties of His Grace's Lord Lieutenancy, I have missed much in changes. It seems the baby is now almost ready to arrive."

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  • 2 weeks later...

Lord Kingston truly was a welcome sight and his presence dispelled her fear that he wanted nothing more to do with her now that his duty to her had been done. Even though the bond between their families ran deep, Sophia had not been a model ward and had caused him so much trouble that he had probably regretted agreeing to her father’s dying wish. And he had a life of his own. Eventually he would marry some lucky young lady and have children. With any luck, they would be better behaved than she had ever been.

 

As she reached him, she held up her hand to be kissed. “A visit from you is never an interruption, my lord. I confessed I have missed you. His Grace must trust you implicitly to allow you to handle his affairs in the North. The two of you seemed inseparable last season. I am surprised that you have enough time to serve both him and the King.”

 

She placed one hand on her baby bump. “It looks that way, but I still have two months to go. I fear I will be bedridden before I am due. Oh, but where are my manners? Come in and have a seat.” There were two richly upholstered chairs on either side of the chaise. “Would you like me to send for refreshments?”

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Francis kissed her hand when she offered it. 

 

"Is Lord Toledo here? I would like to give my congratulations and well-wished to him too," Francis asked, making sure the servant was present to hear the question. He did not wish to be seen to want to be alone with her or there when Toledo was not in some purposeful way.

 

He sat down in the chair by the foot of the chaise rather than the top. With the way things were, he was intimately aware of appearances and wished to maintain a proper distance.

 

"Kings and dukes have grand expectations, so my time is not as much my own as it has been in the past. I have duties to both that cannot be put second to anything. It is not lack of desire to see and check up on you. I take your father's legacy and goodwill toward my family very seriously," he added. 

 

"How are you feeling?" he asked. Then he commented, "It is best for the child to make sure that you rest. I know that must be difficult for you." He smiled. She had never been one for patience or lack of activity. "You do not wish to risk your own life, either, for complications with pregnancies can be dire, so do take care of yourself." 

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“My lord husband does not spend much time at home during the day. His duties take him elsewhere. I haven’t seen him much since he became an Ambassador. It is a very demanding job. He may come home while you are here. If he does not, I shall convey your congratulations to him. Or you can speak to him at the next court event."

 

Pushing her sketchbook and charcoal aside, Sophia sat down on the chaise but did not recline upon it, as it did not seem proper to lie down in the company of a gentleman, even if she was heavily pregnant and the gentleman in question was like a brother to her. When she first arrived in England, she cared nothing for propriety, but much had changed since then.

 

“I understand completely. You are quite fortunate to be in such an enviable position.” She smiled impishly. “I always knew you would make a splash at court.” Sophia had read those broadsheets and believed that jealousy had been the motivation behind all those terrible and quite ridiculous lies.

 

Francis asked how she was doing and she barely suppressed an eye roll when he spoke of resting. “No matter how hard I find sitting still for long periods of time, I would never do anything to harm this baby or myself. I do go on walks frequently because the baby kicks a lot and I think the cadence of my footsteps calm him as much, or perhaps more, than my singing.”

 

She sighed. “My views on pregnancy are not the same as the average Englishwoman’s, but that is inevitable when you grow up in a different culture. We Germans are a sturdy and practical lot. You would not believe all the superstitions they have over here. If I heeded them, I would be covered in goo and smelling like pee.” Sophia laughed. “No wonder Englishwomen go into confinement.  Nobody can stand to be around them."

 

There was a matter she wished to discuss with Francis, but that could wait for a bit. She wasn’t even sure how to bring it up. “Congratulations on your new title, by the way. When we first arrived, I don’t think either us expected to rise in status in only a year. I don’t know that I deserve it, but you certainly do.”

 

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"I am not certain what sort of a splash I am making right now."

 

Francis listened carefully to what Sophia said about the baby. He did not know much about such matters. Only what most men knew. At some point there should be a lying in, and his former ward was very large. Thankfully, such was not his problem any more. He had shared his care for both of their health and that was far more than enough.

 

"Do not forget, that it does not matter that you are German, now, my lady. You are married to a Spanish lord and living in England. Those are the customs you will be judged by, as I am sure you know," he said gently with a chuckle and a smile. "Though, I have no idea what good goo and pee would do."

 

As to his title, it would be more felicitous if it did not accompany slanderous writings and gossip.

 

"I thank you, truly, and I am glad that you think so. I surely never thought to ever have such fortune let alone this sort of fortune in just short of two years. And you deserve a happy life, so I am grateful you are content with your match. It was your choice that achieved it, if you recall." 

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“You are making a good splash,” Sophia assured him. “Those lies that are being printed about you are trying to ruin it. His Majesty, Lord Buckingham, and all the courtiers you have impressed know that you are a fine and upstanding gentleman. And your friends will always support you. Anyone with more than one brain cell will know those broadsheets for what they are … inane drivel spouted by men who are jealous of you. Pay them no attention. Sometimes silence is the best reaction.”

 

Francis had advice for her too. “I am trying, but I will not go against my instincts. No matter what the English say, walking my puppy and monkey daily will do no more harm to the baby than lying still in bed. In fact, it is probably healthier. Maybe I am so large because the baby thriving by getting fresh air.”

 

Sophia’s smile remained steady. She would not tell Lord Kingston that her marriage was not as happy as he believed it to be. “You could have refused me. I was almost sure you would.” She leaned toward him. “You seemed to want me to wed an Englishman. Why did you finally agree, if you don’t mind my asking?”

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Francis raised a delicate blond brow at her question

 

"I did attempt to refuse you, and I did not wish you to marry someone foreign to England or Germany," he said, honestly. "As a matter of honor, I had to speak to the Duke of Cumberland about the marriage to Toledo, for his assent. I did not feel I could make such a judgement on my own."

 

He contemplated whether to tell her the entire truth of his reasoning. He rubbed his lips together.

 

"You did not wish any of the Englishmen who expressed interest and were of a rank to merit a betrothal...and I was afraid you would dishonour yourself before you could be married and then be excluded from society altogether. I did not wish to see such a thing happen. Not residing with me, I had little way of control over you. Doolittle clearly did not understand the customs of the nobility enough to keep you safe from your own adventurousness and teach you self-control." He offered a nod and a sigh. "That reasoning and Cumberland's assent was why I relented in my own desires and what I thought would be your lord father's desires for your match. But Lord Toledo has been elevated since then and is an honorable and influential man."

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Sophia listened to Francis’ explanation. So it was the Duke of Cumberland’s opinion that had prompted his consent. Being foreign himself, he would not be against a foreign match. She would have to thank him when she next saw him. Or perhaps it was better to let it go. He had probably forgotten all about the young German singer who had wanted to marry a Spaniard.

 

As Francis continued, she felt regret that she had caused him so much trouble, but her remorse was quickly eclipsed by anger. Had he really believed that she was so wanton that she would just throw away her most precious gift without a single thought? Did he think she was that stupid? Or that a spanking would set her straight?

 

Yes, she had freely bestowed her virginity upon her beloved Prince, but they were in love and he had offered her marriage with one of his associates that enabled them to still see each other. Sophia would have rather married Juan, but that would have put her in danger and she would have had to stay in Spain.

 

When her former guardian finished speaking, she sat for a few moments in silence and then got up and began to pace. “My father sent me to England because the King had married a German and he thought that other high-ranking nobles would follow his lead. He didn’t want me to marry lower than an Earl.” That was what he had told her on her deathbed, anyway.  In case any servants were listening, she didn't mention the scandal she had caused in Venice, which was also one of the reasons he had sent her away.

 

“He would have refused those Englishmen who were interested in me. None of them had a title and nor did they possess great wealth or influence. As far as I know, they still don’t. And one of them …” She stopped and faced Francis, her eyes spitting ice-blue fire. “One of them almost killed me!”

 

Sophia resumed her pacing. Her hormones were even in more of an uproar than they had been when she was a maiden. “The only gentleman I truly wanted was not allowed to court me.” She was speaking of Douglas, whom she still loved and probably always would. “I loathed living with the Doolittles. Mistress Ellen and I fought constantly. I don’t think you knew how unhappy I was. I had to take matters into my own hands, and I saw both ambition and intelligence in Lord Toledo’s eyes. That was why I chose him.” How easily the lies flowed from her lips.

 

As suddenly as it had come, her fury disappeared and she slumped back into her chair. “I am sorry, my lord. I should not have said those things. I know I was not a perfect ward, and that I caused you much grief. I don’t blame you for wanting to rid yourself of me.” She lowered her head humbly. “Please forgive me for ruining nearly a year of your life. You deserved much better than that.”

 

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Cumberland had been not fond of a foreign match but the greater issue was the lady's propensity for trouble. Running off with Dundarg had meant she could not be trusted with her honor, because appearances were everything. Kissing bastards was not a way to win an earl or greater. So they had settled for Toledo. 

 

Had he known what she was thinking, and had she not been pregnant, he would have reminded her that fucking was not essential for losing one's honor and being unmarriageable to the higher peers or their sons, but he could not know her anger and her condition would have been too delicate anyway.

 

"I am well-aware of what your father wanted, my lady, and I would have waited for the appropriate gentleman, but you were not eager to wait and were eager to flirt with disaster. And I had no say in the Doolittles involvement as you are aware, and we do not always get a say over every aspect of our lives and must do as duty dictates. That is not a condition limited to women." There were also things gentlemen had to consider. Duties that were not savory. Situations which one did not like. "I did make sure you could stay with my lady mother."

 

Then her rage subsided. He felt a bit badly for giving her, perhaps, a bit too much truth. She was not a little girl anymore. She had asked. But pregnancy was a delicate thing.

 

"You caused yourself much grief and that, in turn, caused mine. I had little control with you not living with me, and Doolittle was not up to the task. I was afraid for you, and afraid of not doing well by your father for what he had asked of me. It was not just your youth in my keeping but all of your future life and happiness. You did not ruin a year of my life, Sophia, and I did not want rid of you. I was simply a poor substitute for a father and a man of more experience in such matters, with young ladies; taking care of someone else's child is not an easy task. I have done it now twice, and I am not even thirty yet. I hope you are not that displeased with me?"

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After her outburst, Sophia wouldn’t have blamed Lord Kingston for storming out of the house and never speaking to her again. But he remained seated and revealed a few things that she had never known. She had assumed that he was willing to pawn her off on the first gentleman who came along in order to get rid of her, even if that gentleman would not have been suitable in her father’s eyes. Her father had wanted only the best for his beloved only daughter and would never have considered any of those men that he had introduced her to at any of the events during her court debut.

 

Now she discovered that Francis had planned to wait for a loftier suitor to show interest in her. Had he simply been using those low-ranking gentlemen to make her look like a desirable match? Men always wanted what they couldn’t have and if she had been surrounded by male admirers who all wanted to marry her, she might appeal to an Earl … or even a Duke, though most of those were either married or much too old for her. So is Juan, and I love him to distraction.

 

There was no excuse for her poor behavior. She could try to convince herself that she had been trying to forget the grief of her father’s passing, or that she hadn't understood the rules of English society, but Sophia knew that her years in Venice had made her a bit wild and she had been too young and stupid to realize that she couldn’t get away with the sort of mischief she had caused in Venice while pretending to be an opera singer. Now she saw the error of her ways.

 

Poor dear Francis, having to deal with a recalcitrant child who wasn't even his.

 

“I wished I could have lived with your lady mother instead of the Doolittles. I was happy when I stayed with her. She could also have given me guidance. I never had a maternal figure in my life. My stepmother was more like a friend. And yes, I know that gentlemen cannot always do as they please. But they have more freedom than ladies, who must obey their fathers or guardians.”

 

Sophia smiled wryly. “I was never good at obedience, and I should have made more of an effort. I was going through a lot then … losing my father, moving to a country where I barely spoke the language, living with strangers who resented my presence. I was self-absorbed, and for that, too, I am sorry.”

 

She could hardly believe that he apologized to her for being a poor guardian. Her ice-blue eyes widened as she listened. She had believed at one point that Francis never intended to follow her father’s wishes … he had been dead, after all ... now she understood how seriously he had taken them. He had felt that he held her future happiness in his hands. And how awful she had been to him! Instead of a meek young lady, she had been a little whirlwind of trouble.

 

If she had been close enough, Sophia would have reached over and squeezed Francis’ hand. “How could I ever be displeased with you? You were good to me, and I felt that you cared for me much more than Sir Cedric did. I always came fourth with him and I think he resented me because I was more beautiful and popular than his own daughters. I know now that I was not easy to handle, and if this child I carry gives me as many problems as I gave you ….” She chuckled. “Then you will have your revenge.”

 

She grinned. “And you did ensure that I was happy by allowing me to marry Lord Toledo. He is now a Conde and an Ambassador. That definitely counts as a ‘big man.’” She had used that phrase to describe a gentleman who was an Earl or higher when she was learning to speak English.

 

“So, tell me. Were you using those other gentlemen as bait so that I would seem popular and attract an Earl? Oh, and should I become Catholic?”

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