* This prologue about how Sophia ended up at Rougemont was cut after I wrote the first draft. It was too long, too dark, and most people hate prologues, I hear. It’s never been seen by an editor, and it was one of my first attempts at writing fiction. It might be craptastic — I should probably be embarrassed — but I thought fans of Song for Sophia might find Sophia’s backstory interesting. Please pardon its warts and blemishes.
“So, he wants scandal and ruin, then? So be it!” Sophia tossed away the newspaper printed in French. Her father knew her too well; likely there were also pieces in English, German and Italian — wherever papers were circulated and gossip spread.
Fragments of the offending print shouted back at her from its haphazard landing place, Miss Anne-Sophia Duncombe of Eastleigh, Hampshire has been reported missing… why Mr. Conrad Cox, solicitor for the family, declined to comment… rumors that the heiress was in truth kidnapped… candid assumptions, Lady Chauncey, her infamous mother, was spotted alone in Versailles…
For three months Sophia had eluded her devil of a father, and now her punishment for outwitting him: public ruin. He was trying to flush her out, at the expense of her reputation. She could never show her face in a respectable drawing room again.
Sophia pried her fingernails from her clenched palms as she tried not to think about his private punishment. Months later, and still the anger burned white-hot, as did the scars on her back.
Any affection for him had been snuffed out the same time most girls in braids were gathering wildflowers and bouncing on their papa’s knee. Sophia’s earliest memories were of cowering in the library to hide from Lord Chauncey’s fits of drunken rage and watching her mother nurse bruises on her face and arms.
With a heavy sigh, Sophia lowered herself into the tepid bath and watched out the window of her beachside cottage in the country north and west of Lille. Of course Lord Chauncey hadn’t found her. She’d led his investigators on a wild chase through Hanover, Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, and Versailles. The bank notes she’d drawn made it appear she had gone north when she’d gone south instead. They would be searching in all the wrong places for her, because they were looking for a lady, and Sophia took care in appearing to be anything but.
She stared the writing desk and the letter from Italy atop it. She’d been so certain that biding her time as a novice until her father either drank himself to death or got himself killed in the army was the best way. Her only way. The Mother Superior had been very accommodating in her correspondence — surely it had nothing at all to do with Sophia’s considerable inheritance, which would be endowed to the abbey once she took her vows.
So it seemed Sophia had only to be on her way.
And yet she did not leave. Twice she had made and canceled travel arrangements. The uncomfortable truth: she was incurably a lord’s daughter. Sophia loved her scandalous Gothic novels, loved riding and jumping fences. She adored playing the piano and arguing over politics and history with the men.
Could she never again glut herself on chocolate cream and strawberries then spend an entire morning on her back in a garden, lazing away in the sunshine? Could she cut her hair and hide it under a wimple? Never wear red, and put away her beads, combs and lacy fans forever? And would she miss a good flirt behind the curtain with a beautiful man at a party?
No, never. If she never saw another male human being as long as she lived, then good riddance. They were ruled by crude forces, went out of their minds with it, and couldn’t be trusted.
But other pleasures Sophia was not so eager to place on the altar of freedom. The dead silence in the sparse room was testament that prisons came in all shapes and sizes. She spoke to no one, and so had starting talking to herself, like a lunatic.
It had taken months for it to happen, but she’d become lonely. So much that it burned every hour of time, made her stomach sink as though in a deep pit. And that made room for the fear, ever itching at the back of her thoughts by day and swallowing her whole at night.
This was not freedom.
With her parents both notorious public figures, there was no place in Christendom where Anne-Sophia Duncombe could hide. She slapped the bath water as a revelation tumbled in her mind.
I shall no longer be Anne-Sophia Duncombe.
Her skin was not quite dry when she seized the newspaper article to search for the name of that so-called family solicitor. Hands shaking, she pulled out a fresh sheet of paper. Men dashed off on a stallion to make right the world; women sat at a desk and wrote a letter.
She hated sleeping. Her twisted, sweat-soaked sheets in the morning were a grim reminder that she had once again relived the worst of her personal hells:
Sophia stood outside the grand entrance of Eastleigh before a line of stoic servants, watching her father’s carriage roll to a stop. She wrung her hands, and it seemed her mother standing beside her itched to do the same.
She supposed most families rejoiced when their soldier returned home, but Sophia wished her father had met his end in Pashtun. He followed the British army wherever in the world the action was, yet each time he had the nerve to come home unscathed.
What would he do when he discovered she still had no husband to present, and worse, no son? He had made it clear the wouldn’t allow her twenty-and-fifth birthday to pass without those blessed events, and that had been almost five years ago.
She suspected he was eager to liquidate Eastleigh estates to finance his exploits — she’d heard foul rumors — but he could not legally do so without breaking the entailment on the property, by means of an heir… his grandson, who didn’t exist.
His letters had been sporadic at best, but the door opening on his carriage made the words, Suffer consequences most severe, ring in her head.
She wasn’t surprised, only embarrassed, when Lord Chauncey exited the coach backward nursing a bottle. Two more men in disheveled uniforms stumbled out after him in the same manner. They spoke only to each other, ignoring the ladies of the house. Sophia followed her mother inside and tried not to hold her breath.
Lord Chauncey was indisposed for the rest of that day and most of the next, but the time of reckoning came when the butler announced that they were all expected to dinner that evening. The moment she entered the dining room, she knew her father had full command of himself. He ordered her to sit next to a heavily-whiskered man whom he introduced as her “future husband,” one of the two officers she’d seen exiting the carriage yesterday.
The men howled in laughter. Sophia’s first thought was to turn and run, but her mother caught her eye and gave her a withering expression that warned to be silent and obey. Lady Chauncey already had one swollen mark on her left cheek.
Sophia endured the meal in silence. The men discussed battlefield warfare while gruesomely dissecting the game birds on their dinner plates.
Chauncey slapped the table, making her jump. “What did I tell you, Sir Lowdry? Is my little Italian rose not fit for your castle?” His cold gaze flashed over hers then glanced away.
The man named Lowdry gave her a blatant once-over then answered while chewing a mouthful of meat, “Aye! She’s in bloom, indeed, but I’m afraid her petals are blocking my view of the stem!” The men went berserk, slapping their hands on the table and shouting.
Sophia stood to leave the room. The other soldier choked on his mouthful and spit it onto the table. The men also found this hilarious, and Sophia didn’t think they noticed her slip out of the room.
Hot with anger, she ran through the house and out the back door, not stopping until she was inside the hothouse.
Sophia tried to concentrate on reciting the Latin names for her exotic imported flowers to keep from losing her composure, but it didn’t help. Eucharis grandiflora, Gaillardia aristata… The cruel glare Lowdry had pinned her with from across the table had raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck. It had raked over her nerves, and she couldn’t stop shaking. Ipomoea indica, Passiflora caerulea…
A sudden draft blew out the lantern. Another light threw shadows across the ceiling, and she heard the door shut. “Mama?” she called, but the approaching footsteps were too slow and too heavy to be her mother’s.
Around the corner came Lowdry, carrying a lantern in one hand and a bottle in the other, wearing a sneer that made her blood run cold. She retreated as he came toward her, stinking of whiskey and wheezing for breath.
He set the bottle and lantern in the nearest plant box. “Chauncey sent me to persuade you.”
Sophia had backed herself into the wall. Her heart stopped as she realized she was cornered — she’d missed her chance to run. How could she be so stupid?
With a dark chuckle Lowdry slapped his arms on the wall, caging her head in between, then he pawed a hand across her mouth.
She jerked away, but he pinned her by the throat with one hand and grabbed a fistful of her hair with the other. He inhaled the strands inside his nostrils then wrenched her jaw, forcing her face to his, raising her on her toes while a strange cramp pinched her neck.
Sophia protested and flailed but gagged on his gusts of putrid breath. Her hands raked down his sweat-slicked neck as she tried to shove him away. When her strength proved futile against his, she squirmed against his crushing hold on her jaw, but he grabbed her wrists and shoved her against the wall.
Lowdry yanked her forward and slammed her back again, then again, punctuating each blow with a grunt. She swooned from the hit. Her head cracked the glass panel. She kicked at him, but he was too drunk to care. He jammed a beefy thigh between hers, pinning the small of her back against the cold glass.
He let go of one of her wrists and thrashed the shoulder of her dress, scoring her skin and rending the fabric. The more she gasped and struggled, the wider he wore his sneering smile.
Black with fury, she raked her nails across his eyes, and he bellowed in protest. His fist swung out of nowhere — it connected with a jarring crack. Her head spun and flashed alternately with pain and vertigo. Her knees gave out, he let go, and she collapsed to the ground.
She cried out, and moving her jaw felt like chewing on needles. Her lungs squeezed but drew no air. A hope flashed in her mind: Fritz, the alpha of her guard dog pack. She’d seen him patrolling the park when she’d come outside.
She drew a breath to shout a command, but Lowdry knocked the air from her lungs as he rolled her onto her back with his foot, followed by the impact of his knee into the tender flesh of her belly. He drunkenly dropped himself on top of her.
She coughed, gasped, and tried to squirm away while Lowdry pinned her shoulders to the ground. She shouted, “Wächter, kommen! Gefahr!” Guardians, come! Danger!
Barking sounded right away, but from afar.
Lowdry struck her face again, watering her eyes and blurring her vision. She struggled against him with her elbows and knees, desperately flailing and clawing. She called, “Gekommen! Angriff jetzt!” Enter! Attack now!
The deafening shatter of glass was followed by staccato bass-toned barking.
Fritz leapt and caught Lowdry in the back of the neck. Sophia scrambled out of the way as he fell, face to the ground, pinned by the enormous, infuriated dog. Fritz lashed his head back and forth and danced on his paws, gripping the flesh of Lowdry’s neck.
“Braver hund,” Good dog, she rasped. “Braver.” She was terrified by the feral growls ripping from his throat, his wolfish muzzle bared and bloodied, and his hackles raised in a warlike mane. The sickening snapping sounds made her look away.
Sophia panted and heaved as she crawled, trying to see through the patchwork of blurred shapes in her vision. Which way? She crawled toward the draft, ignoring the burrs stabbing her palms—
The hothouse door bounced on its hinges and shattered the glass panel behind it. Sophia choked on a scream and startled to see Lord Chauncey. He wore his riding clothes and carried a horsewhip in his hand. His once handsome face was pumped red with fury, his features distorted in a mask of rage she knew all too well.
With a curse he drew his pistol, aimed the barrel over her head, and shot. Sophia instinctively moved to cover her ears at the deafening roar, then heard Fritz whimper in a high-pitched tone she’d never heard before. She tried crawling back to him and found with detached horror that her limbs were not working properly. A nerve-cold, numb void where her sense of touch should be… she discovered shards of glass sticking out of her palms and shins.
Fritz would not let release his grip on Lowdry; he snarled at Lord Chauncey and skittered backward, dragging a gurgling Lowdry. Sophia desperately tried to shout to him but her throat speared with gritty pain, and she coughed instead. Her eyes caught the motion in eerily slow time as her father took aim and shot again. The hothouse fell silent. Fritz dropped to the ground, limp.
“No!” her voice cracked. She scrambled over to the dog and lifted his thick neck in her arms. He was dead. “No,” Sophia moaned, “No, no…” Her heart stabbed with hatred. Terror morphed into grief. “Fritz,” she cried, as warm blood coated her hands and arms.
Fritz was ripped from her hands — her father yanked her to her feet by the hair. He towered over her but closed the distance by lifting her painfully to the tips of her toes with his thick arm gripped in her hair, yelling foul insults in her face. Lowdry moaned on the ground, making pitiful sounds drowned out by her father’s shouting.
Sophia was too enraged to be frightened of him. Her head swam with unfettered rage, and she flailed against him. “You killed Fritz! You villainous rat! Diseased carcass of a demon! I hate you!“
With a growl through his clenched teeth, he yanked down on her hair, and she fell to her knees. The shocking, icy pain alerted her she’d come down hard on the glass edges again. She snarled back and clawed at his unyielding hand.
“You’ve just spoiled your wedding night, Sophia.”
She spat at him and wrestled against his hold even though it only gained her a new flavor of pain in the roots of her hair.
“Apologize to your husband, Sophia. There will be an heir of Eastleigh. Tonight.”
“Never!” she shouted, her lungs searing. “I will die first!”
“Spread your legs first and drop a brat, you ungrateful whore. Then you can go to hell.” He struck her in the back with the horsewhip. Lowdry had already ripped her dress; the whip branded her exposed flesh. Sophia swallowed a sob and her eyes spilled fresh tears as he whipped her again.
“Damn you!” she screamed, but he struck her again, and again.
Sophia lost the energy to protest under the assault of the whip and could only shriek in agony. The blows were a raw lightning bolt through her, each somehow more vivid and scorching than the last.
She became paradoxically warm and cold; the chill air blowing through the broken panels oddly cooled her flayed skin, yet her shoulders and neck dripped with streams of scalding blood. There was too much of it pooling around her hands and face, both Fritz’s and her own. The same dark color, a useless thought.
Choking, panicking, the instinct to writhe was utterly crushed by the force of her father’s hand still wrenched in her hair. Now she could hear the whip landing on her back but felt nothing except a white-hot searing. It crept through her veins like poison then swept back through with an awful coldness.
Drifting, surging, down and down into a deep pit… it pulled, and she couldn’t fight it. Before she succumbed to blackness, she heard her mother’s screams. Then, nothing.
Sophia awoke to diaphanous shapes waving in shades of brown and gold. It took her a moment to comprehend she was looking at her mother’s dressing room sideways, because she was lying on her front, on a chaise lounge.
Her body screamed in pain, and a deep breath in proved unwise. She whimpered as she tried to get up. The skin on her back burned and seared, followed by a breathtaking stab that seemed to hollow out her bones.
“Shh!” came her mother’s voice. “Just rest here.”
She could barely think through the pain. It took all of her effort to breathe, and even that hurt. Her last conscious memories flooded her mind in reverse order. Panic robbed her of breath, and gasping made the white-hot feeling return in a wave.
Her mother knelt beside her, revealing a swollen eye and cut lip. Deep purple bruises mottled both cheeks. “Oh, Sophie, I am so sorry! They said they were going to the drawing room for drinks. I had no idea.” Her voice shook. “I heard the dog barking and had an awful feeling…” She pressed a handkerchief to her mouth, dabbing the blood from her cracked lip.
“Fritz?” Sophia could only manage a whisper.
“I had Winston bury him under the willow by the mausoleum.”
The grief came as a shock, even though she’d seen Fritz take a shot to the neck and die bleeding in her arms. Moisture pooled at the bridge of her nose, but she lacked the energy to weep.
Her mother said, “I have locked us in my room. Chauney says he will wait one more day for you to come to your senses, after which you will be wed to Sir Lowdry and taken to his castle in Northumberland.”
She fought a gasp. “I will not do it.”
“I don’t think he intends to leave you any choice, Sophia, but I—”
“He will drag me to the church at gunpoint, bound and gagged? He can go ahead and shoot!” Her breath sounded like an eerie hissing.
“Sophia, all he cares about is the money. Perhaps—”
“We must leave at once! Help me up.” Sophia grasped where she thought the arm of a chair was, but her hand met air.
“No, wait. I was trying to tell you, Chauncey doesn’t know you’re
awake. I will go down in a few hours and tell him I fear you are comatose, that he
has killed you. That should stall him a few more days. Then when you are well enough to go, we will wait until he is sleeping, and we shall run away for good.”
“I want to go now. Please, mother!”
Helena winced, her eyes darting to Sophia’s back. It must be worse than she thought. “Tonight I will sneak in a doctor for you. He has not allowed it, but there has to be something that can be done. Do you want a drink? Just to take off the edge? It
always works for me.” The humor in her voice had a bitter edge. She rubbed the side of her chin and rolled her lips as though checking for loose molars.
“No,” Sophia lied. “The pain isn’t bad. I can manage it.” It was essential to keep a sharp mind, and the last thing she needed was to be passed out drunk. But that gave her an idea… “Mother, could you send Ellen to the hothouse? I saw last night — the poppies have grown seed pods.”
Helena grimaced. “You are not going to make opium.”
“With or without your help.” Sophia tried to roll onto her side. “Either we drug him or shoot him — but that would make a mess. I’ll do it, mother, if I must crawl down the stairs and out of the house, dragging my bloody bandages. I will not stay here another day.” She shifted her weight and tried to swing off the cushion—
Helena cursed and caught her at the hip, gingerly pushing her back while Sophia whimpered again. “All right! Fine. We shall manage it somehow.” Her mother steadied a hand low on her shoulder, avoiding her back. She glanced at the clock. “I shall speak to Ellen when she brings the dinner tray. It should be any moment now.”
Sophia nodded then tried to slow her breathing. Her eyelids hurt. Whispering woke her and made her head spin. She’d only been asleep a half hour, but it felt like days. Ellen knelt on the floor, spilling pods from a sack. Helena ducked down and pointed, whispering back.
“Split the pods with a knife,” Sophia croaked. “Drain the syrup and cook it over the lantern flame until it’s dried and hardened.” The other two women looked at Sophia with bewildered expressions then traded glances. “Dissolve the chunks into cognac and pour it back in the bottle.”
“I hardly dare ask how you know how to do this, Sophie.” Helena scowled but held the tin over the lantern flame, one hand covered in toweling and the other waving away fumes.
“I enjoy the sight of poppy blossoms,” she bluffed. It had been Mr. Dubriel, one of Helena’s former paramours who had taught Sophia all sorts of alchemy. “Such vivid colors.” Sophia closed her eyes against the dry, sandy feeling of her eyelids scraping with every blink. “It must be cognac, or else the flavor won’t be strong enough to mask the opium.”
Helena adjusted the seal to make the bottle appear unopened then held it up to the light, inspecting the cork. “At least we won’t have to wonder if he will drink it all.”
Sophia nodded off again and woke to the sound of the door clicking shut. Ellen stood wringing her apron, speaking to Helena. She caught sight of Sophia and half-whispered, “It is done. All three of them, passed out cold on the floor, my lady.”
“Were you found out, Ellen?” How was it possible her voice sounded even worse than before?
“I doubt it, my lady. They were half sloshed already when I brought in your cognac.”
“Good. I would hate for you to go to jail for my crimes.” Then Sophia begged Ellen to sit and talk while Helena kept watch at the door, listening for footsteps even though Lord Chauncey should be deeply asleep.
The murmuring voices worked on Helena; she nodded off to sleep. Sophia said to Ellen, “Pack my case, the small one. Only the essentials so it is light enough to carry.”
The housekeeper hurried about the room with her lips pursed. If she was apprehensive about helping Sophia escape, asking her to take Lady Chauncey’s keys from her pocket was like asking her to steal the holy grail.
“Ellen. Look at me.” Sophia paused, trying to swallow over the knot in her throat. “Do you think I can afford a half-witted effort? If I am to get away, I must well and truly disappear.” A dry clawing sensation tickled her throat, and Sophia’s eyes watered as she resisted the instinct to cough. “I need money. Lots of it.”
Her lips pursed again, then Ellen shook her head in resignation. She crossed herself then shook the key at Sophia. “Which notes?”
“Three thousand pounds.” The urge to cough again nearly won out, until Ellen pressed a cup to her lips and she drank. That helped, but now her throat stung. “Bring me a pen, and I can sign Lord Chauncey’s hand. I’ve done it before on the merchant bills.”
When Ellen returned, she opened the door slowly so the hinges wouldn’t creak. Lady Chauncey snored softly, slumped in the chair by the door. Clutching her apron, Ellen revealed the wad of folded notes. She held them up on a book while Sophia painstakingly signed her father’s signature, trying not to smear the paper with blood seeping from the cuts on her palms and wrists. There — she’d just given herself three thousand pounds. Getting the money from a bank would be the easy part.
Sophia bit her lip against crying out as Ellen sat her up then bound her torso in tight linen bands. The housekeeper went uncannily silent, reaching for yet more bandaging, further convincing Sophia her back must truly be terrible. It felt like someone had heated white-hot needles in a fire then shot them into her back, but if she made a point of thinking about it, it burned worse.
“You’ll see a nurse about these…” clearly Ellen didn’t know what to call the injuries left on her back by her father’s riding crop. “I fear they’ll fester with infection.”
“Once I’m far enough away, I promise to find help. That’s why the money is important.” Thinking about using post stops and hostels to travel anonymously kept the rage at bay. She felt it simmering, like a lid rattling on a boiling pot, and she couldn’t afford to lose her wits to anger.
Her mind worked through details — she couldn’t take her own carriage, but it would be a while before anyone noticed the service hack missing. They would look for her on the train, which was why she wouldn’t take it. And then how could she register as a passenger on a steamer without drawing curiosity? Even the fabric of her clothes made her conspicuous.
“Your wool dress, Ellen. It’s perfect.”
“Beg pardon, my lady?”
“I need you to give me your dress. And who here might have a widow’s veil? Can you find one?” If a lady’s silk gown would give her away, so would her battered face. How to fit gloves over her bandaged hands was another matter, but first things first.
Comprehension crossed Ellen’s face, and she nodded as she turned again for the door.
“And the ruby necklace from Lady Chauncey’s apartments. In case I need to sell it. I didn’t think about my father tracing the bank notes — I can only use them once I’m ready to leave a place.”
“Where will you go?” Ellen wrung her apron again, a nervous habit.
“Everywhere. Nowhere.” Not for the first time, guilt rattled her conscience for leaving her mother, but Sophia had no choice. What she had planned, what she must do, was far too risky. They would be safer apart, because Chauncey would indeed come looking. “And you must convince Lady Chauncey to leave. Don’t let her make excuses. Once he finds me missing, he will punish her for it.”
Ellen’s face went pale; clearly she hadn’t thought that far ahead. While Lord Chauncey had yet to lay a hand on the staff, he had no scruples about beating the stuffing out of his wife. Sophia sent up a prayer that Helena would run far away, and have the good sense to stay hidden.
“That’s all then. Goodbye, Ellen.” She wished she could embrace the housekeeper; it went without saying that she would likely never see Ellen again. It was an easy friendship Sophia was suddenly aware of taking for granted. “I won’t write — it’s best if you don’t know where I am. But under duress tell them I’m bound for Portsmouth.” So she could avoid Portsmouth and sail from Dover instead.
From there she would be Jane Smith the widow, then Anna Jones the governess in Hamburg. Victoria Goethe the courtesan in Prague would speak German with an Italian accent. Nan Hammond the tourist would make her way to the shores of Santorini, where the artists mingled with the bohemians… Her years spent traveling would serve her well, and whatever she lacked in resources she would make up for in sheer determination.
And if all else failed, she could fall upon her mother’s Italian relatives and beg them to hide her in a convent. Because she would rather be a nun than a pawn in her father’s filthy scheme.
She would rather be dead.