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Love at first sight was not something in which Miss Sophia Haydon believed - not, that is, until 9.30 in the evening of the thirtieth of March. The sensation hit her with the force of a blow, and she could only be thankful for her discreet veil. The fine net which shielded her blushing cheeks from the rest of the audience also, thankfully, hid her from the gaze of the gentleman whose appearance had had such an unexpected effect upon her well-schooled emotions.
There were quite forty members of the Quality seated in varying degrees of comfort on the gilt chairs arranged in the salon of Lady Newnham's modish Town house in Mayfair. That audience, far from paying attention to Sophia as she sat in confusion in one corner, was responding to the speaker in one of two ways. Either they were listening with rapt attention to Dr Theophilus Eustace's dry account of the flora and fauna of Lower Brazil, or they were attempting to mask their boredom with expressions of polite interest. Brazil was distant enough to be a novelty in this year of 1816, but not, unfortunately, as described by Dr Eustace.
It was always a lottery attending her ladyship’s monthly Philosophical Symposia, as she liked to call them. Lady Newnham was quite capable of producing the latest dashing and dangerous poet for a reading, but equally one might encounter a donnish exposition on the archaeological remains of Lower Thrace or the habits of the European bison.
The object of Sophia’s sudden passion appeared to her surprise to be listening intently, his dark eyes on the map at which Dr Eustace was gesticulating. It was not the man's good looks which had first attracted Miss Haydon, although they were undeniable. His broad shoulders sat easily within the fashionable cut of his dark blue evening coat, there was scarcely room to accommodate the length of his legs between the rows of chairs and his profile showed a classical perfection that must constantly set hearts aflutter.
Sophia was no more immune to good looks than the next young lady - indeed, four years ago that had been her downfall - but it had been more the recognition of a kindred spirit that had so attracted her. The man was behaving outwardly with perfect decorum, occasionally bending his head to catch a whispered comment from his male companion, otherwise sitting with his eyes upon the speaker. Yet somehow she could tell he was sharing her amusement at the absurdity of this modish audience, perched uncomfortably on their spindly salon chairs, listening to a badly delivered talk of quite astounding mediocrity, instead of dining and dancing at Almack's or taking a hand of whist at the card tables in the clubs.
The attractive laughter lines at the corner of the man's eyes and mouth crinkled now and again and his shoulders shook with suppressed laughter at the good doctor's more pompous pronouncements. As she watched he folded his arms across his chest as if the act would contain his amusement. Tearing her eyes away Sophia forced herself to listen to the speaker at the front of the salon rather than imagine what it would be like to be enfolded in those arms.
‘And I am sure I am right in saying that no-one could er…fail to share…yes, share, my excitement at my discovery that not only is the Lactarius family of fungi flourishing in this area – lying as it does between the highlands and the southernmost plains - but that a particular favourite of mine, Lactarius volemus, is common, nay, widespread, at the edges of deciduous woodland. As you will all be aware, this species may be distinguished by a faint smell of herring.' Dr Eustace whipped off his eyeglasses and beamed in triumph at his bemused audience, one or two of whom broke into half-hearted applause as the wretched man appeared to expect some acknowledgment.
This was too much both for Sophia and for the object of her desires. She choked as quietly as she could into her lace handkerchief, but the tall man was unable to suppress a snort of laughter which, at a look of reproach from his companion, he hastily converted into a fairly convincing cough.
Oh, it would be such fun, she thought wistfully, to share that ridiculous moment with such a man. Of course, she chided herself, what she was feeling was not love, goodness knows she had learned long since just how empty that emotion was! No, it was the recognition of intelligence, the recognition of the ridiculous, a sense of fun. People with a sense of humour, let alone a sense of fun, were in very short supply in Sophia's life and had been for some time.
The handsome man was getting to his feet. With a perfectly legitimate reason for staring Sophia took full advantage of it. The gentleman must be all of six foot tall, and built on athletic lines. His clothes were a credit to the best tailor in London, and no valet could hope for a better figure to dress, but there was something about him which suggested that this was no dandy and the way that he looked was, in fact, of indifference to him. Perhaps it was his hair – dark, crisp, slightly wavy and overlong, or perhaps it was simply the way he held himself with an easy, negligent grace.
His voice, as he began to speak, was no disappointment to Sophia. It was strong, deep and well-modulated and with a hint of irony that she suspected was habitual. ‘Dr Eustace, may I begin by saying that rarely, nay, never, have I spent an evening such as this.’ At his side his companion groaned softly while the good doctor preened at the supposed compliment.
‘The reference to the fungus - Lactarius volemus was it not? – smelling of herring? I am anxious to know, in case I should ever come across it, is that the smell of fresh herring, or the kippered variety?’
His companion sank his head in his hands, but the tall man’s profile displayed nothing but intent interest as he sat down again and the doctor began to reply.
‘My dear sir, what a fascinating question! It shows indeed the depth of your interest. I had never analysed this in sufficient detail, that is obvious, but if I am forced to pass an opinion, I would hazard that there is a slight hint of smokiness.’
Sophia, fighting a losing battle against hysteria, closed her teeth on her handkerchief and slipped from the room, thanking providence that she had arrived late and was therefore sitting close to the doors.
The hall, although populated by a host of scantily clad classical statues, was mercifully free of footmen. Sophia giving way to her emotions, threw back her veil and stood sobbing with laughter into her much-abused handkerchief. ‘Kippered herring,’ she repeated weakly, ‘Kippered…’
Behind her a door opened and closed and she hastily shrank behind a statue of Aphrodite keeping her back turned in the hope that she would escape attention. A voice - a voice she had heard only a moment before - said with concern, ‘Madam, are you unwell? May I be of assistance?’
It was he, the tall man. Sophia spun round, found herself standing almost on his toes, looked up into those dark blue eyes and gasped, ‘Herring!’
He grinned back broadly, his face alight with laughter. ‘I know, I should never have done it, but it was too much to resist. Sydney has made me come out, he says he will never forgive me or speak to me again.’ There was a sudden increase in the sound of voices behind and scraping of chairs. ‘Oh lord, they will be coming out for supper in a moment, quick, come with me.’