Romance Writers of America Rita Finalist - Best Long Historical 2003
"An exceptional read - hitting all the right notes. Fans of Stephanie Laurens will be captivated." Vickie Denney, ReaderToReader.com
"One of the finest books I have had the pleasure to read this year."
Historical Romance Writers.com
American Heiress Series Book One
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
Read an excerpt...
The next morning, Sophia awoke early after a restless sleep. She ate a light breakfast and ventured outside to wander in the gardens. Lansdowne House - one of the few private London mansions to have its own gardens - was shrouded in a thick, yellow fog, as was the rest of the city. She felt the damp coolness of the air on her skin, imagined that her hair was turning a bit frizzy, but what did it matter? she thought, as she stepped over the flat stones that traced a path through a grove of towering Elms.
She was alone now, thank goodness, away from the questioning looks of Florence and her mother. They had left the Assembly early the night before because she'd told them she felt unwell. They were unconvinced. She was not quite sure what else to say about it now. She was thoroughly ashamed of her behavior and could not bear to think of her mother knowing about it. Or her father. He would be so disappointed in her.
Just then, the clatter of hooves alerted Sophia to a visitor. The iron gates to the house swung open in the distance, and a large coach entered the courtyard, a coat of arms emblazoned upon its doors. There was a flurry of activity - groomsmen running out of the stables to tend to the horses, a footman in everyday livery scooting down the front steps to greet the guest.
Sophia watched from the garden as James - wearing a sleek black overcoat and top hat - stepped gracefully down and looked up at the house.
What was he doing here? she wondered in a panic. It was not the proper time of day for a social call. If he was here, it was an important matter of business.
Ten minutes later, Sophia, perched nervously on a bench under a tree, watched James exit the house and settle his black hat upon his head. He crossed the courtyard toward the gardens. He knew exactly where he was going - straight toward her.
Sophia's heart began to pound against her ribs. He looked like some dark, seductive creature against the grayness all around him - the stone mansion, the gravel courtyard, the fog, the mist. She could barely move from her place on the cold bench. All she could do was watch him walk toward her, growing closer and closer with each sure stride.
He stopped a distance away, fifteen feet perhaps. He removed his hat and held it at his side. "Are you not cold out here, Sophia?"
She swallowed hard. "It's quite refreshing actually."
Heavens, what did a girl say to a beautiful duke dressed in black, the morning after she'd behaved like a trollop in his arms?
He took a few steps closer. "You're not punishing yourself, I hope."
When she said nothing, he took a few more steps closer.
"Because if anyone deserves to be punished, it is I." He sat down beside her and his nearness made her whole body turn to sticky honey. She couldn't seem to find a single word to say.
"I've spoken to your mother," he said matter-of-factly. "She was kind enough to tell me where you were. She also gave me permission to speak to you about something rather....consequential."
He laid his hat down on the bench and reached for her hands, which were like ice. He rubbed them and warmed them between his. After a moment or two, he kissed them. All Sophia's senses leaped to life. The feel of his warm lips upon her skin made her tremble with longing - longing to be in his arms again, to be swept away by the enormous, powerful lust she felt every time she looked at him.
He gazed into her eyes. "You must know why I have come."
Speechless, she waited for him to continue....
"I've come, Sophia, because I wish to ask you to be my wife. To be my duchess." He lowered his head to her hands and kissed them again - a long and lingering kiss.
Sophia wasn't sure she could breathe, let alone speak. She had dreamed of this moment, but not quite like this. "Is this because of what happened last night?" she asked. "Because I don't wish to be a wife you were forced to marry."
He gave her a compassionate look that told her he had expected such a response. "I would be lying if I said last night had nothing to do with this. It has a great deal to do with it - but only because I realized that I could not bear another moment thinking that you might return to America, or that you might marry some other man, or that I would never have the chance to hold you in my arms again. I was bewitched last night, Sophia. Bewitched. I could no more have stopped kissing you than I could have stopped breathing. You are the most intriguing woman I have ever known and I need, more than anything, to know that you will belong to me and no other."
She gazed unblinking at his face. Had she heard him correctly? Had he said he was bewitched?
Of course the doubts came hurling at her all at once. "Did you speak to my mother about a....a settlement?"
He stared at her a moment, then stood and cupped her chin in his hand. The intimacy of the gesture made her head spin with desires. "Is that what you think? That I want you for your money?"
She gazed into his eyes, searching for truth. Was all this planned? Had he seduced her the night before to ensure her acceptance of his proposal? She did not know him well. Perhaps he was like all the rest - pretending to be interested in her when all he really wanted was her dowry. She could see it in their eyes.
But James....what did she see in his eyes? She wasn't sure. She thought she saw desire, but was she seeing only what she wanted to see? Was she blinded by her attraction, which perhaps was just a physical thing? If only she had more experience in these matters. She'd never felt such lust before. She was not capable of judging its integrity. What if it passed in a week's time? What if she later discovered he really was as devilish as all the gossips claimed - an accomplished rake who knew exactly how to seduce a young, innocent woman with money?
"I don't know," she replied at last. "Surely all of London must know what I am worth. Whitby knows."
"Ah, Whitby." He lowered his hand to his side and looked away, toward the house. "Are you thinking of him now?"
"No!" she blurted out. "It's not that. It's just that I thought because Mother told him, everyone must know."
His chest rose and fell with a deep breath. "I am here because I cannot comprehend the idea of not having you." He met her gaze directly. "And that is the truest thing I have ever said to you."
Cannot comprehend the idea of not having you. Nor could she comprehend the idea of not having him. Having. What did that mean exactly? To have and to hold.... What she wouldn't give to have him hold her now.
"James, I'm not sure. This seems sudden."
He took her hand again and kissed it many times. "Please, Sophia. Marry me and make me the happiest man alive. Come to my castle and be the greatest duchess my family has ever known. You told me once that you were in awe of England for its history. Come and be part of it - live it, become it. You wanted to see it from inside the very heart of it. You can, if only you will be my wife."
Sophia sucked in tiny little breaths between parted lips. Was this real? Could she actually walk into a fairy tale and marry her prince charming? Then, with no further contemplation, a response spilled out of her mouth.
"Yes, James, I will be your wife."
The whole world disappeared, just for a second, then it returned with the blissful awareness that he was going to kiss her. He pulled her into his arms and pressed his lips to hers, and she felt transported as if on a cloud. She was going to be his wife! They would spend the rest of their days loving each other, living happily ever after! She glanced up at the house and smiled, for her mother was watching from an upstairs window, jumping with joy.
* * * Note to Readers: This isn't the happy ending for Sophia. She has quite a ways to go yet...
To Marry The Duke