It was the most beautiful fungus Sophie had ever seen.
She would never have described herself as a person
normally interested in fungi. Either one was pro fungus or
anti fungus, as far as she had observed. Usually Sophie's
concentration was solely centered on plants, with her
specialty being flowering plants, but she knew enough
about the realm of fungi to recognize a rare specimen when
she saw one. If she were able to obtain a sample of the
fly agaric mushroom long before any of the area's other
botanists, it would be quite a feather in her cap. Or
would it be a mushroom cap in her feather? Sophie did not
dawdle on details. She wanted the mushroom. That would
She finally gave up hope of observing it from a
respectable distance, since it was carefully hiding itself
under a fallen tree green with moss. Sophie set down her
sketch pad and pencils, removed her broad straw hat and
began to do what she had not done since the first of her
Her blasted panniers made the work difficult, and she was
likely muddying up her gown, yet she did not care when
such a beautiful and extraordinary specimen as the fly
agaric mushroom presented itself like a shy scarlet
princess waiting in the woods to be courted.
Sophie chided herself as she carefully edged closer, over
the bracken and tender forest-floor plants. If she wanted
to be taken seriously as a botanist, she would have to
give up such fanciful notions as fungi princesses and
focus on clear, logical observation. Men might have the
luxury to indulge in pretty comparisons. No one questioned
a man's right to dabble in the sciences. Yet women were an
entirely different matter. Any false move on Sophie's part
would only prove that whatever interest women had in the
study of plants should be limited solely to the planning
Gardens, ha! Sophie almost snorted aloud. She was much
happier here, in the wilds of nature, far from the judging
eyes of social custom.
She inched towards the fly agaricâ€”such a dreadful name for
such a beautiful specimenâ€”unconcerned that she likely
looked ridiculous and undignified. Her mother would
succumb to the vapors if she saw her daughter eagerly
reaching towards a mushroom, all alone in the middle of
the woods. Yet that was exactly why Sophie was not
traveling with her mother. Vapors were quite a nuisance
when there was research to be done.
Almost there. Sophie carefully noted the fly agaricâ€™s stem
structure, its identifying bright red cap with white
scales, the number and definition of the gills under its
cap, its oddly solitary position, the pair of black shiny
boots standing right next to it.
With a startled yelp, Sophie leapt back, landing on her
rump in a flurry of skirts.
A man stood in front of her, wearing said boots, soft
doeskin breeches, a fine but plain dark blue waistcoat,
and a bottle-green coat. Then she looked at his face and
lost all interest in his clothing.
Taken together, the various parts of this man made up a
pleasant whole. An extremely pleasant whole. Though Sophie
was on the ground, she could plainly see that the man was
rather tall. His legs were long and lean, and he filled
out the shoulders of his frock coat in a way that clearly
bespoke a level of fitness unlike any other man Sophie had
ever met. And his face...Sophie was not given to dreamy
interludes sighing over heroes in romantic novelsâ€”yet here
was a man to make a woman sigh. His rich brown hair was
pulled back into a queue, his eyes were a shade lighter
than his hair. He had strong, even features. Yet the thing
about him that made her stomach contract in a strange and
pleasant way was his smile.
She didn't know men could have such beautiful, charming
smiles, full of wit and mischief, and yet be so completely
masculine. This man proved her wrong. There was nothing
calculated about his smile, no empty gesture of friendship
or politeness. No, this stranger, whoever he was, truly
seemed to enjoy life, as though it were a merry gift that
kept unfolding in surprising and delightful ways. He
exuded a particularly male charm, an awareness of himself
and his effect on others that was not cocky or obnoxious,
but rather a natural extension of the pleasure he found in
the world. He made her want to smile, too. So she did.
"I would be most flattered by your smile, my lady," the
man said with a chuckle, "save for the fact that you were
smiling in exactly the same way at a mushroom not moments
Sophie felt deflated. Her face must have shown as much,
because the mysterious gentleman immediately stepped
forwardâ€”carefully over the mushroomâ€”and offered her his
"My apologies, my lady. I have been teasing you when, like
a churl, I have left you sitting on the ground."
She regarded his outstretched hand. It was large and
beautifully formed, with long square fingers. Though the
stranger spoke like a gentleman, his hand was more work-
roughened than other men she knew, except the gardener at
home. This man had a fascinating hand. She felt as though
she could study it all day, learn its secrets.
â€śAnd now you are applying your excellent observational
skills to my hand," the man said, his voice interrupting
her scrutiny. Sophie's eyes flew to his face, mortified,
but he was not at all offended. "Again, you flatter me.
Please allow me the honor of helping you to your feet."
Sophie slid her muddied hand into his. An immediate deep
thrum shot through her as their flesh touched, like a
plucked string on a viola.
Silently, he pulled her up with almost no effort on his
part, until she was standing squarely on the ground. She
rubbed the bridge of her nose with the tip of her finger,
hiding behind a habitual gesture to find inner
equilibrium. Then she remembered her mother's constant
remonstrance against such a vulgar gesture and quickly
clasped her hands in front of her.
He made her feel a bit off, this stranger, uncertain in a
way she wasnâ€™t used to. And she thought, for just a
moment, that she set his balance off, too.
And then the stranger was once again smiling. Yet Sophie
could detect that he had retreated somehow, that there was
a part of him that had erected a faĂ§ade and used it as a
shield. Against what? she wondered. Her? It seemed
impossible. What threat could she pose to anyone, let
alone a young and handsome man?
"Permit me the honor of introducing myself," he said,
bowing smoothly as if they were in a drawing room and not
a forest glade. "Ian Blackpool, my lady."
Sophie curtsied, an automatic response. The gesture seemed
particularly odd here in the woods of Wiltshire, far from
human habitation and custom. "Sophie Andrews," she
His eyebrows arched playfully as he pressed his hand to
his chest like a courtier. "Ah, the fair nymph of the
woods speaks at last. I was beginning to despair of ever
hearing your dulcet voice. You continue to heap tributes
Frowning, Sophie backed up. She did not like being spoken
to in such a fashion, as though she were an empty-headed
miss who could be charmed with easy flattery. She had
received enough of that kind of attention to last her a
lifetime, and had resolved never to endure it again.
Although Mr. Blackpool was certainly one of the most
handsome men she had ever met, her sense of pride demanded
that she treat him no differently than she would anyone
else offering up meaningless, patronizing compliments. Out
in the field, she wanted life unhindered by pretense, to
create the world as she wished itâ€”as though she were
Prospero and this stranger Caliban.
Taking up her hat and sketch pad, she walked as close as
she could to the fly agaric mushroom. "A pleasure meeting
you," she said quickly, sitting down on the fallen tree.
She ignored the vibration of awareness that moved through
her as she passed him.
She opened her sketch book and, after fishing ink and pen
from her pockets, began to draw the mushroom. She bent
over her work, gazing up only to observe her subject and
shutting Ian Blackpool out of her line of vision. Instead
of responding to her unsubtle hint, he sat right next to
her. Surprised, Sophie had to rein in her impulse to jump
up and spill her ink. For a man she had just met, he
certainly had a way of ruining her composure.
"Iâ€™ve offended you, Miss Andrews," he said, appearing
"Not a bit, Mr. Blackpool. Good day." She resumed
sketching, her hand flying across the page and the nib of
the pen scratching loudly in her meaningful silence. Yet
Ian Blackpool did not move from his seat beside her.
"I can see that I have," he insisted. "Thereâ€™s no use
denying it. Your face is quite pink."
As if on command, her cheeks flushed. Sophie couldnâ€™t
remember the last time someone had made her blush. Mr.
Blackpool grew more discomfiting by the second. She
opened her mouth to dismiss him, but he cut her off.
"If you wish me good day again," he said dryly, "I will
"Have to what?" Sophie interjected hotly. "Give me a
He grinned wolfishly. "That idea has merit."
Sophie set her pen down in astonishment. "I believe you
are one of the most bizarre men I have ever met."
"You flatter me."
"I do not," Sophie insisted hotly. "I don't believe in
flattery. And," she added, gazed at him pointedly, "I
donâ€™t like it when people give me extravagant compliments."
"So," he said, "I did offend you."
"Yes," Sophie admitted.
"By complimenting you."
"When you say it like that, it sounds ridiculous."
"Not a bit," he said, echoing her early words.
Sophie trailed her fingers along the petals of a wood
anemone as she sought to explain herself. "Compliments
are handed out to women like sweets are given to children
in order to keep them quiet until dinner. People, men
especially, think that if they heap all manner of flowery
words on a woman, they wonâ€™t actually have to talk to her,
that she will be pacified with the verbal equivalent of a
"Something tasty and filling but ultimately unhealthful,"
Mr. Blackpool concluded.
Sophie nodded. "Exactly. Iâ€™ve had a bellyful of flattery
and now my stomach hurts."
"What is the tonic for such indigestion of the soul?" he
asked with a gentle smile. He plucked a blade of grass
and began to chew it thoughtfully.
He wasnâ€™t making fun of her. He honestly wanted to know
how to help. "Talk to me like a person, not a woman," she
replied. "Donâ€™t let my gender prove an obstacle to real
conversation. Let us exchange ideas and philosophies.
They are the meat on which I would much rather feed, not
He nodded contemplatively, looking at her with a newly
realized respect. She liked seeing it, from him,
"You speak good sense," he said with a nod. "I would wish
for the same for myself." He shifted his weight, brushing
his shoulder against hers as he did so. Sophie again felt
that strange strumming awareness resonate through her
body. If anything, the sensation had grown more intense.
Shyly, Sophie cradled her sketch pad closer to her chest,
as though trying to shelter herself. She did not want her
gender to influence her behavior, but she became aware of
how alone she was with this attractive man, the size
difference between them, and the warm curiosity of his
brown eyes. She felt as though she should go, but she was
reluctant to part company with Mr. Blackpool now that they
had settled their dispute. Prospero did not want to leave
"Perhaps," she said, struggling with her awareness of
him, "I was being rather waspish just a moment ago."
"On the contrary, youâ€™ve every right to speak your mind."
He contemplated the fly agaric mushroom. "Your interest
in this red fellow has something to do with your dislike
of being patronized, Iâ€™d wager."
Her eyes widened at his perception as she nodded.
Straightening her spine, she announced with self-conscious
pride, "I am a botanist."
He tipped his head respectfully. "A noble calling."
"I think so," she said, waiting for his disapproval.
Surely it would come, as it had with so many before him.
She continued to wait, but it did not arrive.
"Yet your friends and family donâ€™t agree," he said
instead. Ian Blackpool seemed a most singular man.
His understanding of her predicament sent a rush of
gratitude through her, and a release of long-pent
frustration. "A woman has no place in botany, they say."
Distracted, she stood and began to pace. "Especially a
woman of breeding," Sophie added, the word becoming a vile
insult. "They would rather see me mindlessly tinkering in
a garden, planning rose beds and topiary, than making real
scientific discoveries, and actually contributing
something to the world." She stopped pacing and brushed
the loosened strands of fair hair from her face. Forcing
herself to be calm, she added, "Iâ€™m not being impartial.
My family wishes me well, but they know that there are few
venues open to a woman in the sciences. None, actually."
Mr. Blackpool rose and came to stand a few feet away from
her. He gave her a long, assessing look that made her
flush deeply. "And how do your sweethearts feel about
your botanical pursuits?" he asked.
"Sweethearts?" Sophie echoed as her mouth dried.
His smile was lazy and intimate. "Surely a pretty young
woman such as yourself has sweethearts," he said. "Trust
me, love, that I am not giving you an empty compliment."
He reached out and gently brushed the bridge of her nose,
where she had accidentally smudged some dirt. Sophie
watched his gesture, completely hypnotized by its
"Iâ€™ve had suitors before," she rasped. "None that would
qualify as sweethearts, exactly."
"What did these suitors think of your passion?" he asked
warmly, rubbing his fingers together as though recalling
the feel of her skin beneath them. At her blank look, Mr.
Blackpool explained, "Your passion for botany."
Sophie felt like she was playing a game where she did not
know the rules. Mr. Blackpool not only knew the rules, he
was cheating. Yet she was determined to prevail, prove
that she was capable of managing herself in all things,
not merely the scientific. "They proved to be even less
understanding than my parents," she said, tipping up her
chin. "After my next birthday, I shall be an official
hopeless case, and completely unmarriageable."
He abruptly stepped back and laughed casually, though to
Sophie the laugh sounded strained. She got the impression
that she had trumped him, but did not feel particularly
pleased about it. "I never mentioned marriage," he said
with an abstracted grin. "Only sweethearts and suitors."
He had done it again, that barrier he had put up when
their hands had touched. Sophie did not consider herself
an unusually sensitive individual, yet she found that Mr.
Blackpoolâ€™s strange dance between intimacy and distance
unsettled her. Even more unsettling was her awareness of
his feelings, an almost complete stranger. Ever since
they had made contact, she found herself aware of him.
"I have established that I shall never marry," she said
with resolve. "It seems as though no man wants a botanist
for a wife."
"Youâ€™re quite serious about botany, to give up hopes of a
husband and a family in order to pursue it." He crossed
his arms over his broad chest, taking her in.
Sophie thought about the children she would never have,
the long years of solitude with no one such as Mr.
Blackpool to grow old with, and the fact that her
sacrifice for science might never be recognized because of
her gender. It was cruel. A sharp longing and sadness
pierced her thinking of it. Yet she loved her work with
the kind of ardor she supposed most people felt for their
sweethearts. Sophie once read that Queen Elizabeth
considered herself married to England, so strong was her
determination to have complete control over herself and
her country. Sophie had decided she would take botany for
a husband for the very same reasons. She had to continue
her scientific pursuits and would not relinquish her
rights to herself. And if the nights were long and her
bed lonely, and the love of a man for a woman something
she only read about in novels, it would have to be enough
knowing the work waited for her every morning. "I am
quite serious," she replied gravely.
He nodded with equal solemnity and held out his
hand. "May I look at your work?"
She hesitated, her hands wrapped around the binding of her
sketchbook. Only a few people had ever seen her botanical
drawingsâ€”her Uncle Alforth, and a fellow botanist she
corresponded with in France as "Andrew Sophey"â€”but never
an unknown man. Sophie was proud of her work, spending
nearly all of her waking time devoted to it, but she felt
as though she were exposing a very personal part of
herself to Mr. Blackpool.
She wanted his good opinion. Yet she also knew that she
would have to harden herself to criticism if she wanted to
make any headway as a botanist. If he didnâ€™t like her
work, she would survive, she would become better for it.
"Of course," she answered, handing him the folio.
What followed were some of the most harrowing moments of
Sophieâ€™s life as she stood at Ian Blackpoolâ€™s shoulder and
watched him leaf through the accumulation of the past year
spent in the field, studying flowering plants until her
eyes were sore, her fingers cramped, and her mother
decried that her youngest daughter would never find a
Each page was devoted to a single plant, with carefully
detailed drawings and Sophieâ€™s tiny notes filling all
available space. When sheâ€™d had the luxury, Sophie had
used watercolors to get the most accurate depiction of the
plant, but most of the work was in black ink. Even now,
watching Mr. Blackpool silently examine her sketches,
Sophie was overcome by her devotion to this science, and
how much she loved learning about the growing green things
of the earth.
He looked at each page, his brow furrowed but his
appearance unreadable. He even examined her sketch of the
fly agaric mushroom, created a few minutes earlier. At
last, he carefully closed the cover and turned the book
over. The intimate sight of her sketchbook clasped in his
hands made Sophieâ€™s stomach do a little flip, as though he
held the living embodiment of her soul. She tried to keep
her own face blank as she waited for his response.
"I have never, never seen anything so..." he said, and
stopped, casting about for the right word.
Mentally, Sophie filled in the blank for him. Dreadful.
Ridiculous. Absurd. A hundred disparaging adjectives
crowded her mind.
Her hand flew to her mouth in surprise.
Reopening the sketchbook, Ian Blackpool began to randomly
flip to different pages, respect and wonder evident in his
expression. "The detail is incredible," he said,
indicating various sketches. "The way in which youâ€™ve
captured the root structure and described how they work,
itâ€™s remarkable. You clearly know an extraordinary amount
about what makes plants grow." Their gazes met over the
open book, holding fast with the intensity of his
"Do you really think so?" Sophie asked, breathless with
happiness. Her pleasure in his pleasure was so powerful,
she did not quite know what to do with herself. Before he
could answer her question, she continued in a giddy
rush, "Iâ€™ve read just about everything, Theophrastusâ€™
Inquiry into Plants, Tournefortâ€™s Institutiones rei
herbariae, and, of course, all of Linnaeus. Iâ€™m a fervent
believer in his classification system. And I didnâ€™t bring
my herbarium with me today, but Iâ€™ve organized it exactly
as Linnaeus describes in the Philosophia botanica. But
Iâ€™ve been thinking thatâ€”" Sophie stopped, realizing that
she was chattering on like a ninny. She laughed a little
at herself. "Iâ€™m unused to having someone to talk to
about botany," she explained. "Uncle Alforth tries to
look interested, but he just wants to encourage me. I can
see his eyes glaze over whenever I start nattering about
fructification, or some such nonsense."
"Clearly, it isnâ€™t nonsense," Ian Blackpool said, his
mouth quirked wryly. "You have a great talent for
botany. It would be a terrible shame if you didn't
continue in your work."
Sophie ducked her head, shy under his genuine
appreciation. It felt better than any other compliments
she had ever received. "Thank you." Her eyes dropped
down, traveling over his lean form with a frank
appreciation she had never experienced. She noticed for
the first time that stalks of wild plants were poking out
of his pockets. "Youâ€™ve been collecting some samples of
your own," she exclaimed with delight, happy to return to
a subject she knew well. "Dog-violet and primrose and
burdock. Are you also a botanist?" Sophieâ€™s heart began
to speed up at the prospect of finding a kindred spirit,
especially one so handsome.
He glanced down at his pockets, seeming to have forgotten
about their contents. "No, not at all," he said with a
rueful smile as Sophie felt a twinge of
disappointment. "Merely a dabbler in the realm of healing
herbs. I was also looking for specimens when I came
across you in the depths of your own research."
"Have you read Gerardâ€™s Herbal?" asked Sophie.
"Iâ€™m mostly using folk wisdom as my guide." He handed her
back the sketchbook, and Sophie took secret pleasure from
feeling the echo of his body heat in the leather
cover. "Whatâ€™s a young woman doing unaccompanied in the
middle of nowhere?" he asked suddenly. "You could meet
with all kinds of nefarious characters out here. Me, for
example. How do you know Iâ€™m not some villainous
kidnapper who abducts young women and makes them his love-
slaves?" He leered menacingly.
A nervous giggle escaped Sophie. "Of course you arenâ€™t,"
she said, then added half-fearfully, half-hopefully, "are
"No," he said with a hint of regret, "but I could be.
Scientific endeavor aside, shouldnâ€™t you have some kind of
chaperone or guardian with you? A father, a brother?"
She looked guilty. "Uncle Alforth. I left him sleeping
at the inn at Little Chipping. He doesnâ€™t know Iâ€™ve gone
out. But," she protested in her defense, "weâ€™re going
home tomorrow and Iâ€™ve only got the rest of today to
finish my survey of local plants." Sophie opened her
sketchbook again to study her drawing of the fly agaric
mushroom and was surprised to find it so vividly
rendered. She had only spent minutes drawing it, and yet
somehow she had been motivated to sketch it with an
"And how is your survey progressing?"
"Very well," Sophie said, beaming at Ian Blackpoolâ€™s
continued interest. "Uncle Alforth took me on special
holiday to visit the Chelsea Physic Garden and I spent
several days there."
Mr. Blackpool looked surprised. "I didnâ€™t know it was
open to the public."
"Uncle Alforth knows Philip Miller, the curator. Mr.
Miller even gave me a copy of The Gardenerâ€™s Dictionary,
though Iâ€™m not a gardener. He said he wished his own sons
were as fascinated by plants as I."
Almost under his breath, Ian Blackpool said quietly, "You
are quite fascinating."
Sophie found herself blushing again. She still was not
comfortable receiving praise, particularly from this man,
and returned the conversation to safer subjects. "I hope
to go to the new gardens at Kew on our next trip. I hear
that they are going to be the grandest botanical garden in
Sensing her discomfort, he followed her down the more
comfortable path. "Do you travel with your uncle often?"
"Whenever Mother allows. I hope her good favor lasts the
rest of the summer. There is so much more Iâ€™d like to see
before autumn sets in. Also, I was thinkingâ€”whatâ€™s that?"
she asked, hearing a musical chime.
He pulled a pocket watch from his waistcoat and consulted
its dial. "The striking of the hour," he explained.
"Good God!" Sophie cried. "What time is it?"
If Sophieâ€™s mother had been around, she would have
collapsed after hearing her youngest daughter curse
roundly. Fortunately, Mrs. Carolyn Andrews was nowhere in
the vicinity, and Sophie was left to curse as she
pleased. Which she did, though she wasnâ€™t at all
pleased. She was quite frantic.
"I had no idea so much time had passed," Sophie said
miserably, snapping her sketchbook shut and gathering her
hat. "Uncle Alforth has probably awakened by now and will
be in a dead panic if Iâ€™m not at the inn. He promised my
mother to keep a better eye on me."
"Clearly he takes his duties seriously," said Mr.
Sophie shot him a look that said his sarcasm was not
appreciated. She began to rush back towards the main road
and the village of Little Chipping where she and her uncle
were staying. She had not taken three steps before she
turned, hastening back towards Mr. Blackpool.
"It has been wonderful meeting you," she said
breathlessly. "Iâ€™m sorry we cannot continue our
conversation. I enjoyed it immensely."
"Likewise," he said. Taking her hand, he bowed over it
and pressed a kiss to her knuckles.
She was aware of only the marvel of his lips against her
skin, everything else fell away in a focusing of
sensation. Her eyes widened. The only time she had ever
experienced a similar feeling was when she encountered a
rare plant specimen, but even that seemed a pale echo of
what she experienced now. Other men made the gesture
empty, a courtly relic that usually irritated her. Not
Ian Blackpool. A wealth of promise lay behind the
touching of his mouth to her hand. "It has been an
extreme pleasure, Miss Sophie Andrews."
It was a promise that would never be fulfilled. Sophie
gazed at him for several moments, trying to memorize every
plane of his gorgeous face, and the image of this
handsome, strong gentleman truly looking as though he
enjoyed talking with her about the one subject most dear
to her heart. If only she could stay. But Uncle Alforth,
who was so good to her, was waiting.
Casting one last longing glance at Ian Blackpool, Sophie
dashed off through the woods. Even if she remained a
spinster, she would always have the memory of this
It was not until she was nearly half way to the village
when she realized she knew very little about her brief
companion in the woods. She had been so excited by the
prospect of someone genuinely interested in her work,
she'd neglected to learn anything about him. Where he
came from, if he was a gentleman of leisure or a man of
business, and if he was a man of business, what kind. His
clothes were of good quality, though a trifle worn, and he
carried a slightly dented pocket watch with a gold case.
Perhaps it was best this way, so her memory would not be
tainted by the mundane world. Ian Blackpool could forever
remain her paragon of a real man.