Matthew glanced at Miss Browne out of the corner of his eye. He could scarcely see her face, hidden as it was within the hood of her cloak, but he imagined that she was not smiling any more than he was. Never in his life had he been so uneasy—or so irritated with his sister. He was convinced that Eva had purposely thrown them together. If only she'd known that Sophia's opinion of him was now worse than it'd been a sennight ago, perhaps she might've reconsidered her scheme. If only she knew who has continually plagued my thoughts these last few days, Matthew thought with a sigh, realizing the irony of his situation. He'd entered Taunton, more determined to think ill of Sophia than he'd been to settle into a quiet, country life, yet he'd succeeded only in garnering her scorn and a growing fascination with her that, to say the least, thoroughly unsettled him.

She at length met his eyes, her gaze as icy as the rain pelting his umbrella. He tightened his grip on the latter and inhaled sharply, though unable to turn away. He noticed then that she was struggling to carry her belongings and quickly volunteered to take them off of her hands. But his offer, which to some would have seemed excessively gallant considering her ungraciousness, was to Sophia merely irritating. She promptly rebuffed him.

He frowned and returned his attention to the falling rain. Whatever he'd done to offend her so—and he really was clueless—he was sure it must've been quite monumental, for he was finding great difficulty in reconciling the cold woman now at his side to the spirited one who'd declared to him, in the house of God, that she was by no means a heathen. He shook his head, remembering how impertinent he'd thought her then. She was not any more well-mannered now, but at least then she'd deigned to speak to him.

He stole another glimpse of her face, confusion suddenly knitting his brow. Why did he even care whether or not she liked him? Had he not, barely a fortnight ago, feared that she'd negatively influence his sister? He was sure that he had, as sure as he was that she was a fickle and inconsiderate woman. He needed only to recall the affair with Mr. Shepard to support his initial estimation of her character. How unseemly of her to have ended their engagement so publicly! Surely, she must've known that she could not escape such an agreement without damaging both of their reputations. If not for her connection with the Winterses, Matthew verily believed that all manner of questions concerning her virtue would have arisen. He pitied the poor, misguided soul who would eventually wed her: if he was a true gentleman, he'd not know until it was too late whether her first engagement had left her a compromised woman.

They soon arrived at the bakery. Matthew ducked beneath the awning and, shutting his umbrella, turned to face the young woman on his mind. He almost started then. She was staring at him, her eyes alight and questioning. A wave of guilt suddenly washed over him. He wondered, rather ridiculously, if she could see inside his head.

"You may return to the milliner's, Dr. Hamilton, if it displeases you to accompany me," she said, her voice cold and even. With an eyebrow cocked, she looked defiant, however.

Matthew held her gaze, the expression on his face revealing nothing of the turmoil bubbling within him. "It would be rather improper of me to abandon you, don't you think, Miss Browne?"

"I think," she replied, slowly assessing him with her eyes, "that you are a man too governed by propriety."

Matthew, immediately taken back, was helpless to prevent the color in his cheeks from heightening. Nothing further escaped his lips. He reached for the handle to the door and, opening it, ushered her into the bakery. Sophia acknowledged his chivalry with a slight nod of her head, which surprised him no less than her remark on his character had. She then hurried toward the counter, leaving him free to dwell on his conflicting opinions of her.

Removing his hat, he raked his fingers through his hair and glanced about the small bakery. It was more crowded than he'd expected, but he suspected that few of the people there were actually customers. The rain, which had begun as a mere drizzle, was now a torrential downpour. He did not blame anybody for seeking shelter from it, wondering how he and Sophia had been able to withstand it themselves.

Upon completing his study, cursory as it was, of the room and finding that no one of his acquaintance was within, he returned his attention to Sophia. He saw then that she was happily engaged in conversation with the baker's wife, seeming perfectly at ease and quite unlike the difficult young woman she usually was whenever he found himself in company with her. Her hair, no longer covered by the hood of her cloak, was disarranged and several loose curls fell to her shoulders, looking soft and unencumbered. In such disarray, she seemed to him somehow innocent, her laughter pleasant and free of sarcasm, her manners unaffected, her expression warm and becoming.

Despite himself, he smiled.

His reverie, however, was short-lived. As though she'd felt him staring at her, she soon glanced in his direction. Their eyes locked and the warmth in hers suddenly disappeared, replaced by cool curiosity. Matthew's expression quickly fell. He attempted to break her gaze, but before he could bring himself to turn away, she left the counter and started toward him. He swiftly replaced his hat, tipping it over the creases in his forehead.

"Am I taking too long, doctor?" she said as she approached him. "Is that why you are fixing me with such a forbidding look?"

Matthew blushed and lowered his eyes to the floor. "I believe you are mistaken, Miss Browne. I am sure I cast you no such look."

She tilted her head to one side and studied him carefully, an eyebrow quirked and a smirk threatening to curl from her lips. "I suppose you're right," she said at length, forcing him to once again meet her gaze. "I see now that gravity lies not only in your eyes, but also in your countenance and your carriage. Such a look as you have cast me is the same look you would cast a hound or a painting. You do not mean to offend or scrutinize, do you, doctor? You are merely looking. Whether or not such glances are forbidding is beyond your control. You cannot help your gravity, I imagine, any more than I can help my impertinence. Both, it would appear, are innate."

He smiled. "You think that I am inherently serious, Miss Browne? You do not believe that one can learn to be serious? Or, in your case, impertinent?"

"What is it that you are implying? That I was taught to be impertinent?"

"I cannot conceive of a better explanation. Babies certainly are not impertinent or serious. I'm sure, as a child, I was wont to laugh and amuse my parents. And I daresay, at one or two years old, you were not spouting such bold remarks as you are doing now."

She took a step forward, her eyes bright and animated and her expression one of defiance. An unfamiliar feeling rose in Matthew's chest, suffusing his entire body. Barely a week had passed since she'd last looked at him in such a way, yet he had to admit, he'd missed her pert ways terribly. Both her rudeness and her selfishness were still intolerable, but her boldness was refreshing, her wittiness incomparable, her opinions sometimes ridiculous but oftentimes arguable. He could not deny it any longer: he, the puritanical and fastidious Matthew Hamilton, was hopelessly attracted to Miss Sophia Browne—and the realization was frightening enough to blanch his face.

"Perhaps not," she said in response to his last comment, "but perhaps I was thinking bold thoughts. You certainly cannot contradict me."

"No more than you can corroborate yourself, Miss Browne," he replied softly and then shifted his attention to the umbrella in his hand. He began to idly tap the tip of it against the floor.

Sophia followed his gaze, her brow contracting. "May I conclude, then, that you are relinquishing this argument, doctor?"

"This argument," he replied, casting her a fleeting yet not altogether unfeeling look, "has outgrown our present setting. I fear that, if we do not end it now, it will soon border on the inappropriate."

Sophia, though discerning the warning behind his words, could not react as he'd hoped. Rather than agreeing with him wholeheartedly, she simply smiled to herself and, with mischief in her eyes and self-satisfaction in her voice, said, "Of course. We must always endeavor to remain within the confines of convention, mustn't we, Dr. Hamilton?"

Matthew clenched his jaw. His eyes, though devoid of anger, were dark and impassive as he lifted them to her face. The smirk he saw brightening the latter immediately confirmed to him the implication of her words: she was mocking his unwavering attention to decorum. But he chose not to defend himself, agreeing with her remark, sarcastic as it was, too much to repudiate it. "Indeed."

She arched an eyebrow, but said nothing, narrowing her gaze to the box, which was wrapped in brown paper, in her hands instead. Idly, she began to tug at the string securing the wrapping paper, ignoring him until an awkward yet brief silence had passed. She then returned her attention to him and said, "We have kept your sister and my niece waiting long enough, wouldn't you say? Let us hurry back to the milliner's." As she spoke, she strode past him and reached for the doorknob.

Matthew quickly followed her. The storm, from what he saw, had not lessened in severity; rain continued to pummel the bakery windows, streaking them and turning the snow on the pavement into impassable sludge. His greatcoat was somewhat damp from their earlier excursion in the downpour. He had no desire to soak both it and his jacket. Staying her hand before she'd had the chance to open the door, he said, "We really ought to wait until the storm subsides before returning to the milliner's. We should not have braved it in the first place. Eva was rather silly to have suggested it." He glanced at her profile as he spoke and, much to his surprise, discovered that she'd turned an unusually dark shade of red. Her eyes, having glued themselves to the door, were likewise dark. Matthew immediately followed her gaze and before long, heard himself gasping. Her hand, he'd found, was trapped between his and the handle to the door. He instinctively released it, burying his fingers in his pocket and sheepishly bowing his head.

"I daresay we shall catch cold," he added awkwardly, "or even worse, pneumonia."

Sophia released a shuddery breath. "I suppose you're right," she whispered. "You would know best, wouldn't you?" And then, without looking at him, she started for one of the windows in search of a clearer prospect of the street.

Setting her purchases on the windowsill, she removed her gloves from the folds of her cloak and hastily donned them, highly perturbed by the feelings that the slightest touch from him had invoked in her, the sensations that'd coursed through her veins. How can he have such an effect on me? she thought, failing desperately as she racked her brain for a logical explanation. Did she not despise him and his self-righteousness? His constant adherence to propriety?

Her questions were soon forgotten, however, when he joined her in front of the window. "I beg your pardon, Miss Browne," he said softly, hands clasped behind his back, eyes trained on their distorted reflections; "I did not mean to upset you."

He was not very close to her, but every breath that escaped his body reached her ears; every movement, however slight, caught her eye. "I know," she replied, sighing as she absently tugged at the ends of her glove. "You need not apologize."

He nodded and then, unable to help himself, added, "I am right, however. Such weather should not be trifled with."

Without thinking, Sophia scoffed and shook her head exasperatedly. "Of course not. No one would dare contradict you, sir—least of all me."

As she spoke, she glanced at him, noting with no little surprise that a smile had crossed his lips, softening his features and illuminating his dark brown eyes. He looked, in that instant, quite handsome. Blushing, she promptly returned her attention to her gloved hands.

He removed his hat and, setting it beside her belongings, gestured toward the box she'd purchased at the counter. "Why did you not send a servant to buy it for you?"

"Do you suppose me lazy as well as impertinent, doctor?" Sophia replied archly, despite herself.

Matthew laughed. "You are too easily offended," he said with some feeling. "I was merely curious as to why you would needlessly exert yourself, that is all."

"I see," replied she, briefly gauging the validity of his initial remark before continuing, "Well, Dr. Hamilton, may I ask you a question myself?"

"Certainly, if it coincides with the question I have posed."

"Indeed, it does." She paused momentarily and then cleared her throat, eliciting from him another hearty chuckle. "Would you not agree that a thing is done best when one does it oneself?"

"Ah," he said, comprehension suffusing his face. "So, you are distrustful as well!"

"How astute you are, doctor! I wonder that you are not a detective." Having returned her attention to the window, she now lowered her head in an attempt to hide from him the broad smile adorning her face. This is utter madness, thought she, that I should be sporting with the good doctor! She briefly speculated whether Rebecca had ever dared to jest with him and then, something akin to envy darkened her expression, turning her smile into venom.

But as quickly as the emotion had manifested itself, it faded, replaced by slowly dying warmth. With his affections clearly lying elsewhere, she would only frustrate herself in thinking fondly of him. She sighed and, brushing the loose strands of hair from her eyes, turned once more in his direction.

Upon finding herself the subject of a careful study, she nearly started.

Matthew, with his brow furrowed in contemplation, was fixing her with an intent look, biting his bottom lip as though he wished to speak, but could not. The longer she held his gaze, however, the cloudier his eyes grew. At length, unnerved by the silence, she composed herself and said, "Am I so hideous that you cannot help staring at me?"

Her question only deepened the creases in his forehead and for a few seconds, he merely gazed at her in confusion. "I beg your pardon?"

"I said," replied she with a teasing smile, "am I so hideous that you cannot help staring at me?"

"Hideous?" His expression turned incredulous. "Of course I don't think you're hideous. And I did not even realize that I was staring at you. Pray, forgive me." The latter was spoken softly, almost absently.

His eyes, Sophia noticed then, were no longer fixed on her face. She immediately followed his gaze, turning her head toward the nearest corner of the room.

"Mr. Shepard?" she soon heard herself murmur, the sight of the fair-haired man startling her enough that she forgot to curtsey.

"Miss Browne, how do you do?" He was leaning against one of the window frames, alone but for his valet, who stood nearby, an umbrella in hand. He momentarily glanced at Matthew and civilly, if not coldly, bestowed upon him a similar greeting.

After clumsily assuring him of her sound health, Sophia continued, "You too are well, I hope. I do believe several days have passed since you last called at Heathersfield." Truthfully, she'd not noticed the hiatus in his daily calls until Clara had mentioned both it and its cause at dinner the other night. But now that she was privy to the cause, the notion of engaging in conversation with him did not entirely trouble her.

"I daresay my absence has not been too keenly felt. Your brother-in-law has his solicitor and Mr. Pratt to advise him in matters in which I cannot."

Sophia nodded and then asked, rather gingerly, "And your wife? How is she faring?"

"She is better," replied the steward, his eyes pale and cloudy. "I appreciate your concern."

The icy manner in which he was regarding her soon discouraged Sophia from further pursuing the subject. But Matthew, whose curiosity had been piqued by the blond man's and her exchange, quickly curbed the silence that threatened to ensue. "Your wife is ill, Mr. Shepard?"

"It is nothing, really, just a little cold."

"I see," replied the young doctor, though somewhat doubtfully. "I trust that her recovery will be a speedy one, then."

"It is my sincerest hope." He eyed Matthew curiously before shifting his attention back to Sophia and likewise scrutinizing her. An unreadable look had taken hold of his gentle features, but both Sophia and her companion were disturbed by it, Matthew so much so that he inadvertently distanced himself from her.

Mr. Shepard looked outside and then said, "I see that the rain has ceased. If you'll pardon me, I must be off. Good day, Miss Browne. Good day, doctor." And, with that, he started for the door, leaving Sophia and Matthew in the midst of bidding him farewell.

Both followed him with uneasy eyes. Neither spoke again until he'd quit the bakery.

Donning his hat, Matthew glanced in Sophia's direction and said, somewhat coolly, "Now, Miss Browne, would be the best time for us to return to the milliner's." The smile that accompanied his words, though meant to quell the awkwardness that'd suddenly settled over them, seemed to Sophia a bit forced. She said nothing and, retrieving her things from the windowsill, followed him toward the door. It was unnecessary to wonder at his abrupt change in demeanor. She knew Mr. Shepard and the questioning look he'd cast Matthew to be the causes.

In silence, they returned to the milliner's, where they civilly and indifferently parted ways.

"We are now within yards of my cousins' estate, Matthew, and you have yet to look at me. I am afraid you must be angry with me."

Without removing his eyes from the passing scenery, Matthew raked a hand through his hair and sighed. "No, Eva, I am not angry with you. I am merely annoyed."

"You could have simply refused to escort her, you know, if you'd thought it a foolish scheme."

"But, my dear sister, surely that would have ruined all of your plans!" replied he with a derisive snort. He'd finally turned in her direction, his eyes narrowed and his lips pursed.

Such gravity, however, had no effect on the girl sitting opposite him. She merely drew her pelisse closer to her torso and smiled at him. "I take it, then, that you and she bickered the entire time you were in each other's company."

Matthew returned his attention to the window and sighed once more. "No," he grudgingly admitted, "she was surprisingly agreeable today." More than agreeable, he wanted to add, sinking in his seat and crossing his arms over his chest.

Eva raised an eyebrow. "Perhaps she is growing on you, Matthew."

"Oh?" said he, laughing incredulously as he laced his fingers beneath his chin and shot her a wry look. "Is she a vine now, Eva, creeping along the surface of my skin and twining herself about my heart?"

The girl laughed. "Your metaphor, brother, not mine."

Matthew scoffed and redirected his gaze to the house appearing in the distance. He'd been unwise in permitting himself to enjoy Miss Browne's company. He would not err again by revealing to his sister the true nature of his feelings for the young woman. In time, they would subside. They must.

As Gabriel pored over his estate figures and Gabby recounted to him her morning, Sophia stared at the hand that, half an hour ago, had touched Dr. Hamilton's. How violently she'd reacted! Blushing as though she'd come across an obscene painting! She simply could not comprehend it. Never had a man invoked in her feelings so frightening and unfamiliar—not even Mr. Shepard, who had often, when they were engaged, not only touched but also kissed her hand.

Not entirely sure that she liked Matthew's effect on her, but knowing that she could not afford to, she at length endeavored to entertain darker thoughts, calling to mind the argument she'd overheard in the milliner's between Rebecca Pryor and the vicar's niece.

Neither Matthew nor Rebecca, she thought, was foolish enough to act as Josephine had suggested, but the mere notion that her nemesis might eventually wed the young doctor left a bitter taste in her mouth. Rebecca, insipid and deceptive as she was, did not deserve him. She was uncertain as to whether or not the dark-haired beauty even wanted him. His wealth and good looks were enough to hold her attention for now, but past experience had taught Sophia that a match devoid of mutual affection would only result in unhappiness for the parties involved.

She hoped, for his sake, that Matthew was so self-righteous for a reason.