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Dorchester Leisure Books
December 2006
On Sale: November 28, 2006
Featuring: Sophie Andrews; Ian Blackpool
325 pages
ISBN: 0843957387
EAN: 9780843957389
Paperback
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Romance Historical

Also by Zoe Archer:

Wicked Temptation, June 2014
Paperback / e-Book
Dangerous Seduction, December 2013
Paperback / e-Book
Winter's Heat, October 2013
e-Book
Skies of Gold, August 2013
Paperback / e-Book
Sweet Revenge, June 2013
Mass Market Paperback / e-Book
Sinner's Heart, April 2013
Paperback / e-Book
Skies of Steel, October 2012
e-Book
Lady X's Cowboy, September 2012
e-Book
Demon's Bride, May 2012
Paperback / e-Book
Skies Of Fire, April 2012
e-Book
Devil?s Kiss, December 2011
Paperback / e-Book
Collision Course, April 2011
e-Book
Stranger, December 2010
Mass Market Paperback / e-Book
Rebel, November 2010
Mass Market Paperback / e-Book
Scoundrel, October 2010
Mass Market Paperback
Warrior, September 2010
Paperback
Half Past Dead, January 2010
Paperback
Love in a Bottle, December 2006
Paperback
Lady X's Cowboy, February 2006
Paperback / e-Book

Excerpt of Love in a Bottle by Zoe Archer

Wiltshire, England
1763

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 show them.

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 twenty-three years.

She crawled.

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 of gardens.

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 agaric—such a dreadful name for such a beautiful specimen—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 agaric’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 novels—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 before."

Sophie felt deflated. Her face must have shown as much, because the mysterious gentleman immediately stepped forward—carefully over the mushroom—and offered her his hand.

"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.

“And 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 wasn’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 façade 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 answered.

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 upon me."

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 it—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.

"Good day."

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.

"I’ve offended you, Miss Andrews," he said, appearing troubled.

"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. "There’s no use denying it. Your face is quite pink."

As if on command, her cheeks flushed. Sophie couldn’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—"

"Have to what?" Sophie interjected hotly. "Give me a spanking?"

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 don’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 won’t actually have to talk to her, that she will be pacified with the verbal equivalent of a sweet."

"Something tasty and filling but ultimately unhealthful," Mr. Blackpool concluded.

Sophie nodded. "Exactly. I’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 wasn’t making fun of her. He honestly wanted to know how to help. "Talk to me like a person, not a woman," she replied. "Don’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 empty sweetmeats."

He nodded contemplatively, looking at her with a newly realized respect. She liked seeing it, from him, especially.

"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 the island.

"Perhaps," she said, struggling with her awareness of him, "I was being rather waspish just a moment ago."

"On the contrary, you’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, I’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 don’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, "I’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 masculine sensuality.

"I’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. Blackpool’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. Very aware.

"I have established that I shall never marry," she said with resolve. "It seems as though no man wants a botanist for a wife."

"You’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 drawings—her Uncle Alforth, and a fellow botanist she corresponded with in France as "Andrew Sophey"—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 didn’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 Sophie’s life as she stood at Ian Blackpool’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 husband.

Each page was devoted to a single plant, with carefully detailed drawings and Sophie’s tiny notes filling all available space. When she’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 Sophie’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.

"Amazing."

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 you’ve captured the root structure and described how they work, it’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 admiration.

"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, "I’ve read just about everything, Theophrastus’ Inquiry into Plants, Tournefort’s Institutiones rei herbariae, and, of course, all of Linnaeus. I’m a fervent believer in his classification system. And I didn’t bring my herbarium with me today, but I’ve organized it exactly as Linnaeus describes in the Philosophia botanica. But I’ve been thinking that—" Sophie stopped, realizing that she was chattering on like a ninny. She laughed a little at herself. "I’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 isn’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. "You’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?" Sophie’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 Gerard’s Herbal?" asked Sophie.

"I’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. "What’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 I’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 aren’t," she said, then added half-fearfully, half-hopefully, "are you?"

"No," he said with a hint of regret, "but I could be. Scientific endeavor aside, shouldn’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 doesn’t know I’ve gone out. But," she protested in her defense, "we’re going home tomorrow and I’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 astonishing passion.

"And how is your survey progressing?"

"Very well," Sophie said, beaming at Ian Blackpool’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 didn’t know it was open to the public."

"Uncle Alforth knows Philip Miller, the curator. Mr. Miller even gave me a copy of The Gardener’s Dictionary, though I’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 the country."

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 I’d like to see before autumn sets in. Also, I was thinking—what’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?"

"Five o’clock."

If Sophie’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 wasn’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 I’m not at the inn. He promised my mother to keep a better eye on me."

"Clearly he takes his duties seriously," said Mr. Blackpool dryly.

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. "I’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 afternoon.

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. Contradictions.

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.

Excerpt from Love in a Bottle by Zoe Archer
All rights reserved by publisher and author

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