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Home > An Offer From a Gentleman (Bridgertons #3)

An Offer From a Gentleman (Bridgertons #3)
Author: Julia Quinn

Prologue

Everyone knew that Sophie Beckett was a bastard.

The servants all knew it. But they loved little Sophie, had loved her since she’d arrived at Penwood Park at the age of three,  a small bundle wrapped in a too-big coat, left on the doorstep on a rainy July night. And because they loved her, they pretended that she was exactly what the sixth Earl of Penwood said she was—the orphaned daughter of an old friend.  Never mind that Sophie’s moss green eyes and dark blond hair matched the earl’s precisely. Never mind that the shape of  her face looked remarkably like that of the earl’s recently deceased mother, or that her smile was an exact replica of the  earl’s sister’s. No one wanted to hurt Sophie’s feelings—or risk their livelihoods—by pointing that out.

The earl, one Richard Gunningworth, never discussed Sophie or her origins, but he must have known she was his bastard.  No one knew what had been in the letter the housekeeper had fished from Sophie’s pocket when she’d been discovered that rainy midnight; the earl had burned the missive mere seconds after reading it. He’d watched the paper shrivel and curl in the flames, then ordered a room made up for Sophie near the nursery. She’d remained there ever since. He called her Sophia,  and she called him “my lord,” and they saw each other a few times a year, whenever the earl returned home from London, which wasn’t very often.  But perhaps most importantly, Sophie knew she was a bastard. She wasn’t entirely certain how she knew it, just that she did, and probably had her entire life. She had few memories of her life before her arrival at Penwood Park, but she could remember a long coach journey across England , and she could remember her grandmother, coughing and wheezing and looking terribly thin, telling her she was going to live with her father. And most of all, she could remember standing on the doorstep in the rain, knowing that her grandmother was hiding in the bushes, waiting to see if Sophie was taken inside.

The earl had touched his fingers to the little girl’s chin, tipped her face up to the light, and in that moment they both knew the truth.

Everyone knew Sophie was a bastard, and no one talked about it, and they were all quite happy with this arrangement.

Until the earl decided to marry.

Sophie had been quite pleased when she’d heard the news. The housekeeper had said that the butler had said that the earl’s secretary had said that the earl planned to spend more time at Penwood Park now that he would be a family man. And while Sophie didn’t exactly miss the earl when he was gone—it was hard to miss someone who didn’t pay her much attention even when he was there—she rather thought she might miss him if she got to know him better, and if she got to know him better, maybe he wouldn’t go away so often. Plus, the upstairs maid had said that the housekeeper had said that the neighbors’ butler had said that the earl’s intended wife already had two daughters, and they were near in age to Sophie.

After seven years alone in the nursery, Sophie was delighted. Unlike the other children in the district, she was never invited to local parties and events. No one actually came out and called her a bastard—to do so was tantamount to calling the earl, who had made one declaration that Sophie was his ward and then never revisited the subject, a liar.

But at the same time, the earl never made any great attempt to force Sophie’s acceptance. And so at the age of ten, Sophie’s best friends were maids and footmen, and her parents might as well have been the housekeeper and butler.

But now she was getting sisters for real.

Oh, she knew she could not call them her sisters. She knew that she would be introduced as Sophia Maria Beckett, the earl’s ward, but they would feel like sisters. And that was what really mattered.

And so, one February afternoon, Sophie found herself waiting in the great hall along with the assembled servants, watching  out the window for the earl’s carriage to pull up the drive, carrying in it the new countess and her two daughters. And, of course, the earl.

“Do you think she’ll like me?” Sophie whispered to Mrs. Gibbons, the housekeeper. ‘The earl’s wife, I mean.”

“Of course she’ll like you, dearling,” Mrs. Gibbons whispered back. But her eyes hadn’t been as certain as her tone. The  new countess might not take kindly to the presence of her husband’s by-blow.

“And I’ll take lessons with her daughters?”

“No point in having you take your lessons separately.”

Sophie nodded thoughtfully, then started to squirm when she saw the carriage rolling up the drive. “They’re here!” she whispered.

Mrs. Gibbons reached out to pat her on the head, but Sophie had already dashed off to the window, practically pressing  her face up to the glass.

The earl stepped down first, then reached in and helped down two young girls. They were dressed in matching black coats. One wore a pink ribbon in her hair; the other yellow. Then, as the two girls stepped aside, the earl reached up to help one last person from the carriage.

Sophie’s breath caught in her throat as she waited for the new countess to emerge. Her little fingers crossed and a single, “Please,” whispered over her lips.

Please let her love me.

Maybe if the countess loved her, then the earl would love her as well, and maybe, even if he didn’t actually call her daughter, he’d treat her as one, and they’d be a family truly.

As Sophie watched through the window, the new countess stepped down from the carriage, her every movement so graceful and pure that Sophie was reminded of the delicate lark that occasionally came to splash in the birdbath in the garden. Even the countess’s hat was adorned by a long feather, its turquoise plume glittering in the hard winter sun.

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