To Marry the Duke
American heiress Sophia Wilson leaves Old New York for a Season in London. Her goal: to marry into the English aristocracy and help improve her family's social standing in America. Sophia knows her marriage will be a business transaction—her father will provide a generous financial settlement in exchange for a title—but secretly, what she desires most of all is to marry for love.
Love is the last thing on James Langdon's mind. The darkly handsome Duke of Wentworth comes from a menacing past and has learned to avoid his passions at all cost. But his castle in the north is falling into disrepair and what he needs is a swift cash infusion, not to mention an heir. A business transaction with a beautiful American heiress seems the perfect solution.
All goes according to plan until James finds himself enchanted by his spirited new wife, who demands far more from him than the title of duchess. Sophia wants his heart, but his heart is hidden away, shrouded in the darkness of ominous family secrets. James will go to any lengths to protect the dukedom. Soon, he and Sophia must choose between the marriage they thought they wanted and the passion-filled union that could change them forever.
Release date: October 13, 2009
Publisher: Julianne MacLean Publishing Inc.
Print pages: 388
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To Marry the Duke
The London Season, 1881
With a sigh of resignation, Sophia Wilson realized she had not only hurled herself across an ocean from America 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. 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 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 by a single screw, ready to drop at any moment. She was an American heiress, and she was here in London to secure 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 three 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 coup like no other. It would have secured an invitation to the Patriarch’s balls. Mrs. Astor—the 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 new families to try to break into the impenetrable old New York society. Arrivistes, they were called. The nouveaux riches. They knew what they were, where they stood, 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 their daughters 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 envy. Sophia felt suddenly like a fish herself and very much out of her familiar waters.
“You’re from America?” one of the women said at last, flicking open her fan, fluttering it in front of her face and waiting 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. In New York, she was regarded as the very best “social godmother,” because three years earlier, she had married the Earl of Lansdowne and managed to fit into London society as if she had been born and raised there. The Wilsons had known Florence in New York before she 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 upstarts, like Sophia and her mother, up the slippery social ladder, and sending them home to New York with impressive English titles in their bursting beaded reticules.
“Yes, we’re familiar with the countess,” the 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 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 is the duke.” 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 steal a glimpse of 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 spotted 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, her heart began to flutter in her chest. 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 physical 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 wild, 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, but this man was a duke, and he could no doubt do as he pleased. No one would dare criticize, 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.
As he moved toward a fair-haired gentleman on the other side of the room, Sophia turned to the young woman beside her. “What did you mean,” she whispered, “about the nightmare?”
The woman gazed over her shoulder to glance at the duke. “I shouldn’t have said anything. It’s merely 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 along with what looked like a deep simmering contempt for the world.
She did not wish to meet him, she quickly decided.
Intent upon returning to the conversation at hand, Sophia glanced uneasily at her mother. Heavens. She, too, was watching the duke.
A surge of dread made its way through Sophia’s bloodstream.
Her mother was all but salivating.
* * *
James Nicholas Langdon, the ninth Duke of Wentworth, 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 twisting an emerald ring around on his finger.
“She’s the American,” Whitby replied. “The one they call ‘the Jewel of New York,’ with a dowry large enough to support Buckingham Palace. Or so I’m told.”
James stared at those engaging blue eyes and her tall slender figure. “She’s the heiress?”
“You sound surprised. I told you she was beautiful. Didn’t you believe me?”
Without replying to the remark, James watched the golden-haired woman 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.
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 willing to pay?”
Whitby moved to stand beside him. “You know as well as I do that Bertie enjoys a novelty, especially one with wit and charm, and what the prince wants, the prince gets.”
“And the Marlborough House Set is only too happy to oblige him.”
At that moment the heiress laughed, revealing a warm, infectious smile.
Whitby raised his chin at her. “She and her mother are residing with the Countess of Lansdowne for the Season.”
“The Countess of Lansdowne, of all people,” James replied dryly. “Another American huntress—one who has already bagged her title. She’ll coach the new recruit, I suppose.” James knew the countess all too well, and subtlety was not her strong suit.
James and Whitby walked across the room together. James wasn’t even sure why he had decided to come here tonight. He’d always despised the London Marriage Mart, for he was not seeking a wife, nor did he wish to ever seek one. He loathed being pursued by the avaricious mothers of single daughters, who would marry their babies off to a reputed monster just for the pleasure of knowing their own blood would run in the veins of a future duke.
Yet this evening, something had lured him out into society....
James paused beside the marble mantel, draped with a gold-fringed valance and topped with a vase full of carefully arranged white feathers. He couldn’t help looking at the American again, all flash and glitter.
“You’ve met her?” he asked.
Whitby watched her as well. “Yes, at an assembly three nights ago.”
“And what about the prince?”
“He met her last week at the Wilkshire Ball. He danced with her twice—in a row I might add—and from what I hear, her silver salver has been overflowing with ivory cards ever since.”
James leaned an elbow upon the mantel and watched her converse easily with their host.
“You’re not declaring an interest, are you?” Whitby asked, sounding surprised.
“Of course not. I rarely declare anything.”
But perhaps tonight, he thought, there was some element of interest shifting around inside his head. Shaking things up. She certainly was exceptional to look at.
He let his gaze wander leisurely down the length of her gown, over the soft curves of her body. Such slender arms she had, beneath those tight white gloves. She held a champagne glass in dainty hands, but rarely sipped from it.
“Is your mother still nipping at your heels about taking a wife?” Whitby asked, interrupting his private observations.
James brought his mind back around. “Daily. Though I doubt I’ll have to answer questions about any Americans. Mother enjoys running the house too much. She’s hoping for some little insignificant chit—British, of course—who won’t complain or attract any attention, one who’ll be content to stay in the shadows.”
James nodded amiably at Lady Seamore as she passed by on her way into the gallery, where a recently acquired Rembrandt was on display. It was widely known in the best houses of London that the painting had come from the Marquess of Stokes—who had been forced to sell off a cartload of art to keep his estate from falling into disrepair. It was indulgently whispered in drawing rooms everywhere that his wife had not spoken a single word to him since.
“An American, especially one as flashy as that one,” James added, trying not to think any more of the Marquess of Stokes and his money problems for it touched a nerve of his own, “would be Mother’s worst nightmare. My worst nightmare, too, I suppose. If I ever decided to marry, I would choose a woman who would fade into the wallpaper and let me forget that I’d walked down the aisle.” A group of gentlemen in the far corner laughed at some private joke, then the noise in the room fell to a conversational murmur again.
“You’re the only peer I know who says, ‘if I was ever to marry,’” Whitby commented. “You are such a rebel, Wentworth. You always were.”
“I’m not a rebel. I just don’t have it in me to be anyone’s doting husband. I want to put it off as long as possible, or perhaps avoid it altogether.”
“Marriage… Oh, how hard could it be? You live in a house large enough that you’d never have to see her, except when you wish it.”
James scoffed at the simplicity of Whitby’s opinions. “I dare say women are a little more complicated than that. Most don’t like to be ignored, especially if, God forbid, they fancy themselves in love with you.”
Whitby nodded at a gentleman as he passed, then leaned in closer to James. “A wife can be a business matter, if you handle it properly.”
“Perhaps. But I am fortunate enough to have a younger brother to fall back on, as far as an heir is concerned. Martin will definitely marry. He’s not like me or Father. He’s softhearted and he enjoys falling in love.”
Somehow Martin had escaped what James had inherited—the passionate nature that had dragged his ancestors into a dark, inhuman hell on earth. James couldn’t help hoping that his younger brother’s calmer nature would put an end to the cycle of violence. At times, James felt as if he was merely holding down the fort, so to speak, managing the dukedom until Martin was old enough and wise enough to understand that he was the family’s greatest hope—the most promising link in the hereditary chain.
Whitby conceded, and James knew he had distracted his friend from asking any more intrusive questions.
The heiress turned to glance in their direction just then, and he found himself unexpectedly locked in her gaze. Her eyes were enormous and bewitching. He couldn’t bring himself to look away. He was rapt with fascination.
The attraction unnerved him exceedingly. He had not felt a pull quite like it in years. Since he was a defiant adolescent, to be exact. These days he never played games with young, marriageable women. He kept his affairs discreet and respectable, limiting himself solely to lovers who were already married.
After a time, the heiress nodded cordially toward him. He inclined his head in return, then she calmly returned to her conversation with Lord Bradley.
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