Authors: Julianne Maclean
My dear sister Clara,
London society is so much more complicated than I could ever have known! Every night is a different ball or assembly, and a different swirl of glittering jewels and rustling gowns. Though I fear I am making social blunders left and right I am having some measure of success in my (or rather, Mother’s) objective. Mother is beside herself with glee at the attentions I have been receiving from a few gentlemen she finds, supremely suitable as husband material.
But my dearest sister, it is so hard for me to even look at any gentleman but a certain duke, who, if I may confess, makes my heart beat so that I fear it can be seen across a ballroom. He is James Langdon, the Duke of Wentworth, and though I may sound dramatic, he makes me feel as no man ever has before.
But I must push these feelings away. I sometimes hear whispers about his dark past, and he is quietly called the Dangerous Duke. Oh Clara! I am secretly overjoyed that he may love me, and at the same time terrified of his attentions. I have waited so long for my true love, and now I must resist him to protect my heart.
If only I knew how to proceed…
Your devoted sister,
“Sophia,” he said, taking her hand and
holding it between both of his. “It’s a beautiful
name. I enjoy the sound of it.”
“I enjoy the sound of it, too, James—when
say it.” Her voice simmered with beguiling allure. “I would like it even more if you said it again.”
All at once he felt as if he were falling from a very high place. Apprehensions pierced through him, for none of this was going as he had planned. “
He gazed down at her hand and turned it over. With his finger he drew a little circle in her palm. He felt her body shudder, and her stimulation shivered through him as well.
He hungered for more. So much so, it ached. It was damned inconvenient. This was a business arrangement. She knew it. He knew it. He should not forget that.
Yet his attraction to her was mounting at a shockingly brisk pace…
An Imprint of
this one is for you, Stephen,
for being my hero every day.
And special thanks to
my fabulous new editor, Kelly Harms,
my gorgeous agent, Paige Wheeler,
and my dear cousin, Michelle,
whose friendship I could not do without.
The London Season, 1881
With a sigh of resignation, Sophia Wilson realized she had unwittingly hurled herself not only across an ocean to London, but from a sizzling-hot frying pan into a fierce and fiery blaze. She was about to enter the Marriage Mart.
She moved with her mother into the crowded London drawing room, elegantly adorned with silk tapestries and bouquets of roses tied with ribbons, and a host of other useless knickknacks skillfully arranged to make perfect idleness the only option. Squeezing her fan tightly in her gloved fist, she prepared herself— after a month of intense English etiquette training—for the introduction to the earl and countess of something-or-other, then dutifully smiled her best smile.
“That wasn’t so terrible, was it?” her mother whispered afterward, assessing the room as she spoke.
Sophia could almost hear her mother’s thoughts aloud as she formulated the evening’s strategy:
An earl here… a marquess there
The weight of Sophia’s responsibility hung over her then, like an iron chandelier dangling from a single screw, ready to drop at any moment. She was an American heiress, and she was here in London to ensure her family’s acceptance into high society back home and ultimately change their lives forever. She was here to marry an English lord.
At least, that was what she had promised her mother when escape had become her only hope. For Sophia had turned down four proposals in the past year—very good ones, in her mother’s frequently professed opinion—and her mother had begun to bang her head against the wall. The last gentleman had been a Peabody, and good gracious, a Wilson marrying a Peabody would have been a
like no other. It would have secured an invitation to the Patriarch’s Balls. Mrs. Astor—
Mrs. Astor—might even have paid the bourgeois Wilsons a call. The high-society matriarch would have hated it, of course.
All this marital desperation because Sophia’s family was one of many
families to try to break into the impenetrable old New York society.
, they were called. The
. They knew what they were, and they all wanted in.
Sophia gazed despondently at the hordes of strangers in the room, listened distractedly to the cool, reserved English laughter, if one could call it laughter. Her sisters certainly wouldn’t.
She sighed, reminding herself how important it was to find a man she could love before the end of the Season. She had made a deal with her mother so the poor woman wouldn’t make herself ill again. The only way her mother would let Sophia off the hook regarding the Peabody proposal—without having an “episode” and calling the doctor again—was with the promise of a bigger fish. Since bigger fish were found exclusively in London—bigger fish with titles, no less—here they were.
Sophia only hoped she could find a romantic fish, a handsome fish, a fish who would love her for herself, not her money.
“Allow me to present my daughter, Miss Sophia Wilson,” her mother said as she introduced her to a group of ladies, each with daughters of their own by their sides.
For a moment, the Englishwomen were silent as they took in her appearance—her Worth gown, her emerald-cut diamond pendant, her diamond-cluster drop earrings. None of the English girls wore such extravagant jewels, and they gazed at her with envious looks on their faces. Sophia felt suddenly like a fish herself—very much out of her familiar waters.
“You’re from America?” one of the women said at last, flicking open her fan and fluttering it in front of her face, waiting somewhat impatiently for Sophia’s reply.
“Yes, from New York. We’re guests of the Countess of Lansdowne.”
The countess, as it happened, was also American, and in New York, she was known as one of the very best “social godmothers.” She had married the Earl of Lansdowne three years previous and had somehow managed to fit into London society as if she had been born and raised here. The Wilsons had known Florence in New York before she had married the earl. Florence, too, had been on the outside looking in, had received the cold shoulder one too many times, and now took great pleasure in thumbing her nose back at those same high-nosed Knickerbockers. She secured her revenge by assisting the so-called
, like Sophia and her mother, up the long and often slippery social ladder, and sending the families home to New York with impressive English titles in their bursting beaded reticules.
“Yes, we’re familiar with the countess,” the taciturn Englishwoman replied, exchanging a knowing nod with her companions.
No more was said, and Sophia did her best to smile, the evening suddenly stretching before her like a long, monotonous road with carriages halted and lined up for miles.
At that moment, a hush fell over the room, followed by a few scattered whispers:
It’s the duke
Is it the duke?… My word, it
All heads turned toward the door.
The majordomo’s deep, booming voice announced, “His Grace, the Duke of Wentworth.”
As Sophia waited for the duke’s entrance, her American opinions about equality bucked in her head.
Duke or ditch digger, he’s still just a man
She rose up on her toes to see over people’s heads and get a peek at the highest-ranking peer in the room, but leaned back when one of the young English girls in her group whispered in her ear: “Avoid him if you can, unless you want to marry into a nightmare.”
Sophia faced the girl, who paled and took a step back, discouraging any further conversation.
Shaken by the girl’s comment and more than a little curious about it, Sophia turned her attention back to the door. Women were curtsying. Through the crowd, she could see skirts billowing onto the floor. Finally, someone stepped aside, and Sophia found herself gazing across the room at a most impressive and magnificent man.
Dressed in a black suit with tails, white shirt, and white waistcoat, he prowled into the room like a hungry panther, nodding politely but impassively at all those who were curtsying and bowing in his path.
While Sophia gazed at his strong, arresting face—all smooth planes and sharp angles—her heart began to flutter in her breast. It was as if she were looking at a great work of art, feeling robbed of breath by an inconceivable thing of beauty. It seemed impossible that anyone could have created such a face; and yet, someone had. A woman. A mother, who had years ago given birth to divine perfection.
She continued to watch him, taking in everything about him—his self-assured bearing, his calm, aloof presence.
His hair was midnight black, thick and wavy and spilling freely onto his broad shoulders. Long and disordered, it was distinctly unfashionable. Scandalous almost. Sophia raised a delicate eyebrow. No one in New York would ever be seen in public in such a feral-looking state, she thought, but this man was a duke, and he could no doubt do as he pleased. No one would dare contradict him or cut him.
That’s what made London different from New York, she supposed. One could be eccentric if one was blue-blooded, and nothing could take away from one’s social standing.
The crowd was silent—in awe it seemed—as the imposing man made his initial sweep about the room. Then the assembly resumed its quiet conversational hum.
Sophia, however, was not yet ready to take her eyes off the tall, compelling man. She couldn’t get over the way he moved, with such smooth confidence and grace. Catlike.
His green eyes were catlike, too, she noted. Clever and discerning. Cynical and dangerous. Sophia shivered with a confusing mixture of excitement and fear. Instinct told her she would not wish to cross him.
As he moved with a fair-haired gentleman to the other side of the room, Sophia turned to the young woman beside her. “What did you mean,” she whispered to her, “about the nightmare?”
The woman gazed over her shoulder to glance at the duke. “I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s merely drawing room gossip.”
“Were you teasing me?”
The woman’s breast rose and fell with apparent frustration over the fact that Sophia would not relinquish her inquiry. “No, I was warning you.” She leaned in and whispered, “Some call him the Dangerous Duke. They say he has a black heart.”
The woman’s brow furrowed with deeper frustration. “Everyone. They say his family is cursed. A cruel lot, all of them. Just look at him. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Sophia turned to gaze in his direction again. She watched his eyes. He slowly blinked, gazing with disdain at everyone who passed in front of him. “I wouldn’t know.”
Yet her instincts warned her that he was indeed a dangerous man. There was no light in his eyes, only darkness and what looked like a deeply buried, simmering contempt for the world.
She did not wish to meet him, she quickly decided.
Judging by the height of her curiosity and her fascination with him—more importantly, the way her insides were presently fluttering with foolish, juvenile butterflies—it would be a mistake. She wasn’t certain she would be strong enough to keep those butterflies from gaining control over her intellect, and she needed to choose a man with her head, not her passions, for she had always believed that passions could not be trusted.
She gazed back at him again and watched him bow elegantly at a lady as she passed by, then felt her skin prickle.
Yes, he would undoubtedly be very dangerous to Sophia.
Regaining her composure, intent to return to the conversation at hand, Sophia glanced uneasily down at her mother.
Heavens. She, too, was staring over someone’s shoulder at the duke.
A surge of dread pushed through Sophia.
Her mother was salivating.
James Nicholas Langdon, the ninth Duke of Wentworth, Marquess of Rosslyn, Earl of Wimborne, Viscount Stafford, stepped out from behind a potted tree-fern and gazed intently across the crowded drawing room. Lady Seamore’s ivory plumed fan clacked open to obscure his view, and with some irritation, he tilted his head to the side to see around her.
For something had caught his eye.
“Who is that woman?” he asked the Earl of Whitby, who stood behind him, absentmindedly twirling an emerald ring around on his finger.
“She’s the American,” Whitby replied. “The one they call ‘the Jewel of New York,’ with the dowry big enough to support Buckingham Palace. Or so I’m told.”
James stared at those engaging, blue eyes, the full impertinent mouth. “
“You sound surprised. I told you she was beautiful. Didn’t you believe me?”
Without replying to the remark, James watched the golden-haired beauty glide across the room toward Lord Bradley, their host. Introductions were made, and the American woman’s eyes flashed as she smiled. She wore a silver-and-chestnut silk brocade gown that caught the light, and pearls at her neck, with an obscenely large diamond pendant that dangled in the cleft of her engaging bosom.
He let out a jaded sigh. “Another American, here for the peer-hunting season. How many is that, now? Three, four so far? What are they doing—writing home to all their friends on the frontier? Telling them to please come quickly, there are titles to be had for those who can pay?”