Principal Tainted Bride
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Cover Copy Only trust can save her…. Sailing to London, Sophia Braighton only hopes to escape certain ruin. But when she arrives, her Great Aunt Daphne has other plans for the American-born beauty. Determined to marry off her niece to a man of means, she propels Sophia into London society, not knowing that the young woman’s trust in men is shattered. In fact, Sophia never expects to ever feel anything for a man. Then again, she never expects to find herself in the company of the dashing earl of Marlton…. From the moment he sees Sophia, Daniel Fallon feels alive in a way he has not since his broken engagement. Though the vulnerable beauty shies from the passion burning bright between them, Daniel is determined to court her and make her his bride. And when he learns of the painful secret she harbors, he is equally determined to take revenge on the man responsible. But will the quest destroy him—and his future with his beloved? Visit us at www.kensingtonbooks.com Books by A.S. Fenichel The Demon Hunter Series Ascension Deception Betrayal Foolish Brides Tainted Bride Published by Kensington Publishing Corporation Tainted Bride The Forever Brides A.S. Fenichel LYRICAL PRESS Kensington Publishing Corp. www.kensingtonbooks.com Copyright Lyrical Press books are published by Kensington Publishing Corp. 119 West 40th Street New York, NY 10018 Copyright © 2016 by A.S. Fenichel All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the Publisher, excepting brief quotes used in reviews. All Kensington titles, imprints, and distributed lines are available at special quantity discounts for bulk purchases for sales promotion, premiums, fund- raising, and educational or institutional use. To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models, and are not intended to portray any charact; er or characters featured in the book. Special book excerpts or customized printings can also be created to fit specific needs. For details, write or phone the office of the Kensington Special Sales Manager: Kensington Publishing Corp. 119 West 40th Street New York, NY 10018 Attn. Special Sales Department. Phone: 1-800-221-2647. Kensington and the K logo Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off. LYRICAL PRESS Reg. U.S. Pat. & TM Off. Lyrical Press and the L logo are trademarks of Kensington Publishing Corp. First Electronic Edition: September 2016 eISBN-13: 978-1-60183-964-0 eISBN-10: 1-60183-964-2 First Print Edition: September 2016 ISBN-13: 978-1-60183-967-1 ISBN-10: 1-60183-967-7 VD1_1 Dedication This book is dedicated to those of us who have lost their better half. One day the sun will rise again. For Dave Mansue, who is my sunrise. Acknowledgements Books like this one are from the heart and therefore need a lot of help to see the light of day. I wrote Tainted Bride as part of a healing process. I wanted to let people know that finding happiness after tragedy, any tragedy, was possible. Because my own journey has many turns, I want to acknowledge the people who kept me going and helped me along the way. Eleanor Fenichel (Mom), Harvey Fenichel (Dad), Lou Fenichel, Linda Tugend, Amy Fenichel, Kenny Tugend, Lisa Brown, Debra Kaplan, Clinton Haldeman, Lorraine Mannifield, Bill Kaplan, Keith Mannifield, Stacey Carton, Denise Ragolia Ayers, Dave Mansue, Karla Doyle, Karen Bostrom, Shelly Freydont and NANOWRIMO. Chapter 1 After six weeks of seasickness, Sophia’s legs wobbled on the gangplank. She searched London’s crowded dock for her aunt and uncle. A shame her aching muscles kept her from running to dry land and finding them. She wasn’t above kissing solid ground. Her maid, Marie, and footman, Jasper, hadn’t left her side since Sophia’s mother charged them with her care on the journey. People from every walk of life bustled around the docks, unloading stores and loading supplies for the next journey. A woman in a serviceable dress hugged a young man as he exited the ship from steerage. The mother and son reunion stuck like a knife and she turned away as a child’s screaming pulled her attention to the baby who had also endured the long voyage. At the bottom of the walkway, an older woman in a perfectly tailored burgundy morning dress glanced at something one of her impeccable footmen held. She took the object and pursed her lips. Brown spots marred her tapered hand as she smoothed her bun, though not a hair dared go askew from the perfect coif. She evaluated Sophia down the length of her narrow nose and her frown deepened tightening the profound lines of someone who wore the expression often. When Sophia reached the dock, one of the woman’s footmen approached. “Miss Braighton?” “Yes. I’m Sophia Braighton.” A touch of sympathy in his eyes, he nodded. “Follow me, please, Miss.” He walked her to the woman. Handing Sophia a miniature portrait of herself, she spoke with a deep, formal air of authority. “I’m Lady Daphne Collington, your great aunt on your father’s side. You will be in my charge. Your things may be loaded in the carriage.” Jasper ran off with her ladyship’s footman to load the trunks. Dressed in navy blue livery, he looked better than Sophia, but shabby in comparison to the Collington servants in turquoise and bright white. Sophia handed her miniature back and covered her dismay with a pleasant smile. Taking a deep breath to quash her nausea, she hoped the carriage loading would take some time. The thought of being closeted into another moving vehicle had her in knots. “Lady Collington, where are my Aunt Adelaide and Uncle Cecil? I was given to believe they would be fostering me for this season.” Lady Collington harrumphed. She would never survive the season with her notorious aunt. Unable to go back to Philadelphia, she held her tongue and hoped for the best. No. There was no going back, and with Lady Collington as her chaperone, there would be no hiding away. “I’m not accustomed to being spoken to so frankly by one so young. You are far too direct, a consequence of being raised in the Colonies, to be sure. In addition, you are emaciated and we shall have to do something about those ill-fitting clothes.” Lady Collington scrutinized her. “I have no idea how we will get you married. Skin and bones is not at all the fashion this season. And that hair, blond is much more in style. Is it always so stringy or is it the salt air?” She climbed into her carriage. There was no help for it. She should be happy anyone would have her after her banishment from home. “Marie, will you be comfortable in the carriage with my trunks?” Footmen were loading her trunks into the coach behind the elegant carriage with terrible efficiency. “Of course. The question is, will you?” Sophia forced a smile and leaned toward Marie. “Mother is very fond of Aunt Daphne, but she did warn me that she can be a bit harsh at first blush.” Marie raised narrow eyebrows, bobbed, and strode toward the other carriage. Sophia stepped into the carriage and sat opposite Daphne. Lady Collington straitened the crisp white lace at her collar. “My niece and her husband have gone to the country. The child is ill again.” Sophia’s chest tightened. Best to drop the subject. She would learn more from the servants regarding her cousin than from Lady Collington. “I’m not usually so thin. I’m afraid the voyage was uncomfortable for me.” Lady Collington’s eyes widened before her stern gaze returned. “Seasickness is a matter of the mind. You should be stronger-minded than a common girl and have been able to overcome such a disturbance.” Sophia hoped she didn’t look as stunned by Daphne’s announcement as she felt. Otherwise, she was gaping at the woman. “I see. Have you traveled much abroad then, Lady Collington?” “Why would I ever wish to leave England?” Sophia’s parents had told many stories about her great aunt over the years. The dowager countess was a widow of an earl who had died before Sophia was born. Every time Sophia’s father received a letter from his aunt, he would read it to the entire family. The contents were always severe, but the Braightons found the messages amusing. In a recent letter, she had disclosed that her son, the current earl, had married but chose to stay most of the time in the country. A circumstance the dowager found quite vexing. Sophia hid her amusement. “I cannot imagine. May I call you aunt?” “If you wish, but only in the confines of family and close friends. I assume you have been taught proper etiquette.” Sophia forced a smile. “Oh yes, Aunt. Four years at Mrs. Mirabelle’s School for Young Ladies.” Lady Daphne’s piercing blue eyes narrowed. “This Mirabelle, was she English? I hope your mother did not send you to some Italian to learn manners.” “Miss Mirabelle was very much English, Aunt Daphne.” The carriage began moving, and she tried to ignore her nausea. “I was under the impression that you quite liked my mother. She has always seemed very fond of you, whenever she speaks of England.” “Of course I like your mother. She is a delight and I regret my nephew chose to take his family to America. I advised him strongly against it. That does not mean I would wish your manners to be in the Italian style. It would make my work much more difficult. English men have a certain expectation of a wife, you know.” “Yes, Aunt.” Looking forward to a bed that didn’t move while she slept was her only solace. Daphne gave her a hard look. “Do you not wish to find a husband?” “I’ll do as you tell me, Aunt.” It was a strain, but Sophia was too tired and sick to argue with a woman who’d never understand. “Of course you will.” Daphne ran her finger under her collar where the satin and lace caused an angry rash. They travelled the rest of the way to London’s Grosvenor Square in silence, though she felt Aunt Daphne’s gaze on her the entire drive. As Sophia stepped down onto solid ground, she covered her giggle with her hand. There would be no more rocking of boats or carriages for a while. The thirty-foot ceiling in the foyer was capped by a crystal chandelier glittering like a crown. Polished to a high shine, the wooden railing of the curved staircase enrobed the space. “This is your home? No one else lives here with you?” Even with the massive sitting room on the right and library to the left, the walls closed in on her. It was all as grand as her father’s stories had indicated. Daphne cleared her throat. “Upon his father’s death, my son, the Earl of Grafton, gifted me this townhouse, since it had long been my home in London. He purchased another for his new wife.” “It’s so big.” How would she, Sophia Braighton from Philadelphia, ever fit in such a place? She stepped across the white marble with grey veins. Black accent tiles formed geometric shapes in the floor and walls of the entry. “There will be plenty of time to explore the house, Sophia. You must be exhausted and I would like to rest as well. Mrs. Colms, the housekeeper, will show you to your room.” A large woman in a gray dress and white cap stood off to the side. “Tonight I’ll have your meal sent up, but in the future, I expect, you will prefer to dine with me. We shall not accept any invitations for balls or dinners this week, while you recover from your journey. However, we do have a picnic in three days, which we will attend.” “Thank you, Aunt Daphne. I am tired.” She took a few steps then turned, overcome by a sudden feeling of guilt for all the trouble she would likely cause Aunt Daphne. Exhaustion and the idea of resting in a bed that didn’t sway with the waves of the ocean might have had a hand in her emotional state, but she hated to be a burden. “I’m sorry to have been foisted on you in such a way. I do appreciate your willingness to sponsor me this season.” She threw herself against her Great Aunt Daphne and wrapped her arms around her. Lady Collington gave Sophia’s back one quick pat before dropping her hands back to her sides. Sophia ended the awkward embrace. Her face warmed over her impulsive show of affection for a woman she had never before met. Lips tight and eyes wide, Daphne cleared her throat. She kissed Daphne’s cheek and rushed up the steps with no idea where she was supposed to go. From below, Aunt Daphne said, “Show the girl her room.” Mrs. Colms ambling footfall pounded up the steps and down the hall. She opened the door to a bedroom with sun filtering in and the scent of flowers. “If you require anything, ask me or one of the staff, miss.” “Thank you.” Everything was clean and new in the room complete with fresh-cut flowers. Kinder thoughts of her severe aunt warmed her heart. Aunt Daphne had gone to the trouble of having new, cream-colored curtains hung and fresh linens purchased. A small writing desk appeared new as well and a supply of paper, quills and ink sat on one side. The palest pink damask covered the walls and it too was fresh and new. Already in the room unpacking gowns, Marie grumbled over how they would all need to be taken in. She hoped for an under-maid who sewed tolerably well. Her window overlooked orderly gardens. Every bush groomed to perfection. Roses bloomed as if by command. Would she too be expected to do everything perfectly? Fear over how much she would disappoint Aunt Daphne tightened around her heart. Disappointing another family member loomed unbearable. Threatening tears stung her eyes. “Marie, leave that for now. I would like to nap a while.” Marie gave her a pitying look. “Shall I help you undress, my lady?” “No. I’ll just lie down atop the coverlet. Come and wake me in two hours, please. Oh, and when you chat with the servants, would you inquire as to the nature of my cousin’s illness?” With three gowns slung over her arm, Marie slipped out of the room. Sophia leaned back against the mountain of expensive pillows. She missed her mother and father. She longed for home, but it was the home of years gone by, not the place recently left behind. Her father’s house hadn’t changed in that time, but she was different and everything familiar tainted. Sophia cried in spite of her determination to be brave. Finally, exhaustion overtook her and she slept. Someone pulled her away. A heavy weight covered her and a hand pressed over her mouth. She couldn’t scream or even breathe. She smothered and struggled to free herself. Excruciating pain erupted between her legs. Her father’s angry screams rose above a commotion of banging and her mother’s crying. Mortified and afraid, she curled into a ball on the hard floor. Every inch of her body hurt. Then, mercifully, the world went black. She woke from the same nightmare that had haunted her for the past three years. Perspiration soaked her dress and her heart raced as she gasped for breath. Hair stuck to her face and neck. Blinking the room into focus, she lay still while the worst of her terror passed. The banging from the nightmare continued. Someone was tapping on the door. “Enter.” Sophia sat up. Marie stepped inside. “I have ordered you a bath, Miss.” “Thank you, Marie. I would adore a real bath.” She stood and stretched. The sun cast a blush over the manicured garden. The shadows of tall shrubberies, with their crisp shapes, stretched long across the walkways. She had slept far longer than two hours. Marie supervised the arrival of the bath and buckets of water. “I spoke to her ladyship’s maid. The air in London does not agree with your young cousin. They have taken her to the country, where she has less trouble breathing. That is all the staff here knows. I’ll have a meal sent up when you are finished with your bath.” “Thank you.” She sank into the bath. Warm, rose-scented water washed away the nightmare’s effects. By the time she pulled herself out, she was too exhausted to eat much. Marie bundled her into the soft down bed and sleep claimed her almost before her head hit the pillow. * * * * Sophia woke gasping. Daylight pierced gaps in the window dressing. In times of great stress, the dream haunted her sleep with more frequency. Finding herself the ward of Lady Daphne Collington was certainly stressful. She struggled from bed and pulled the drapery back. According to her parents, London weather was dreary, but the sun shone on the maze of shrubs below as if daring her to be grim. She readied herself to face the day. In the breakfast room, Daphne sat tall and elegant. Her cheeks were high and her hair arranged into a neat bun. She must have been even more stunning when she was young. “Good morning, aunt.” Sophia walked to the sideboard and filled a plate with boar's head ham, oyster patties and bread. The room faced the street and was flooded with light from the high windows. The enormous table must have been a remnant from a time when many more people resided under the roof. She sat to Daphne’s left. “You are looking better, Sophia. I trust you slept well.” Daphne spoke over her crisp newspaper. “Oh, I feel fine. I couldn’t ask for a more pleasant room. Thank you, Aunt Daphne.” Daphne waved a hand and kept her expression stern. “You may explore the house today if you wish. I generally take a walk in the park each day after calling hours. You may join me, if you feel up to it.” “I would like that very much.” Daphne nodded and returned to her paper, while sipping coffee. A cup of chocolate arrived via footman and Sophia was grateful to Marie for thinking to inform the cook of her preferences. “Stupid girl” Aunt Daphne muttered. Sophia’s heart raced. She had not chipped the fine china or even scratched one delicate flower from the edge of the plate. How had she managed to disappoint so quickly? “I beg your pardon?” Daphne handed over the newspaper. “Elinor Burkenstock has ruined herself. Her poor mother must be beside herself. She will never get that nit married off now. You should take note, Sophia. That type of behavior will not be tolerated while you are in this house.” Sophia breathed. This reporter has it on good authority that the fine gathering at the Addison’s Ball was marred by dreadful behavior. Sources say Miss EB was caught in a compromising position with Sir M, by none other than Lady P. This reporter is shocked by the blatant disregard for propriety displayed by Miss EB… The account went on, but it was so confusing, she stopped reading and looked at Daphne. “I don’t understand all of this Miss EB, Sir M and Lady P business.” “It is a rather silly code the paper uses to avoid being outright slanderous. Meaningless, really, since everyone knows everyone else, at least by reputation. Miss EB is, of course, Elinor Burkenstock. Sir M is Sir Michael Rollins, a man of questionable honor and, by all accounts, little means. Lady P is Lady Pemberhamble, the most outrageous gossip in all of England. It really is a shame. The stupid girl will be put on the shelf, or if by some miracle her father can force a marriage with Rollins, she will then be married to a libertine.” “I’m surprised this gossip interests you, Aunt.” Lady Collington’s lips tipped up in what might have been a smile, but it vanished. “I do not perpetuate gossip, my dear, but reading about it is part of how we get by here in London without being bored to tears. Besides, the girl’s mother, Virginia Burkenstock is a particular friend of mine. Was it so different in Philadelphia?” Three years ago, people she’d thought were her friends had abandoned her at the first sign of scandal. Sophia’s father had squashed the truth, but still, rumors circulated for a season. “No. I suppose not, but I don’t like the malice behind such rumors. For all we know, there might be little truth to the story. But because her family was unable to hush it up and it made it to print, she’ll be ruined.” “What would you suggest, Sophia?” Aunt Daphne raised one imperialistic eyebrow. Sophia smoothed the fine white tablecloth. “You said Mrs. Burkenstock is your friend. So, you know this girl. Is she worth helping?” The second dark grey eyebrow joined the first. “She is a lovely little thing, if not the brightest of the season. She probably was lured away for a kiss and Lady P was waiting in the wings to catch them.” Sophia shivered with memories and her skin roiled as she rubbed them away. A stolen kiss was minor compared to her experience, but this Miss Burkenstock would suffer and Sophia’s heart wrenched. “Would you be opposed to my helping her?” “It is risky to associate yourself with someone whose reputation is soiled, especially since you are just arrived in town.” Daphne looked out at the street and smoothed her hair from temple to chignon. “But, I believe this little misstep might be swept under the carpet, if she had friends willing to stand by her. I’ll support your desire to help, as long as Miss Burkenstock does nothing else to embarrass herself or her family.” Sophia’s heart leaped, not only because she would be allowed to help a stranger, but more so, because her stern aunt had shown a softer side. She jumped up, rounded the table, and kissed Daphne’s cheek. “It is very uncommon, this constant show of affection, Sophia.” Daphne’s tone returned to its prior harshness. Sophia’s cheeks warmed. “I apologize, aunt. Would you prefer I did not kiss or hug you?” “I did not say that.” If Daphne had feathers, they would be ruffling. She pursed her lips, which drew her cheeks in severely. “I merely noted it is uncommon.” “Yes, Aunt.” Delight warmed the rest of her. Her great aunt was exactly as papa and mamma had always described. “May we call on Miss and Mrs. Burkenstock this morning? It would be good to show immediate support, don’t you agree?” “Are you certain you are up to going into society today?” “I would not want to attend a ball just yet, but I think a morning call would not be too taxing and I should have an appropriate day dress.” “Very well. Get ready and I shall have the carriage brought round in one hour.” Chapter 2 Sophia’s parents had said London would be damp and dreary, but so far, that was not the case. The sun warmed her and nothing was as wonderful as standing on terra firma. The Burkenstock townhouse stood only a few blocks away from Collington House and would have been an easy walk, but they took the Collington carriage emblazoned with the crest for all to see. Daphne informed her walking to pay a call was not done. A stooped butler with bushy gray eyebrows met Sophia and Lady Collington at the door. Wide-eyed, he stared at them. “The lady of the house is not taking any calls today.” If they were left standing in the doorway, she was to blame for the embarrassment it would cause Aunt Daphne. Her stomach churned like she was back on the sea. Lady Collington gave him a scathing look. “We will be admitted. Go and inform your lady I am here and don’t you dare leave me standing on the stoop like some chimney sweep.” He turned sheet white, seized her card, and admitted them. “Please wait in the red parlor, my lady. I shall inform Mrs. Burkenstock of your arrival.” The home was not as ornate as Collington house, but it was charming and simple pieces made it homey. The red parlor had only one red chair amongst all the brown and green furniture. Daphne sat straight as a tree with her hands in her lap, her face a mask of serenity. Sophia tried to sit still, but it was impossible. She walked to the window. The house sat close to the street and the parlor faced only the side of another townhome. “Perhaps we should not have come, Aunt.” “Be still, Sophia. It is as if you are a rabbit caught in a trap. It is only a morning call, not the inquisition. Try to act like a lady.” The door opened and a woman with blond hair pulled back in a chignon trudged in wringing her hands. Red swelling ringed her blue eyes and flushed her cheeks, but Mrs. Burkenstock displayed a practiced smile. “Lady Collington.” Aunt Daphne remained sitting and nodded. “Mrs. Burkenstock, may I introduce my niece, Sophia Braighton?” Sophia curtsied. “How do you do, Miss Braighton? I’m afraid you have caught us on a difficult day.” Mrs. Burkenstock said and her voice broke. Sophia forced a smile. “Virginia, sit down and call for tea. Tea always makes things seem a bit more tolerable.” Virginia sat near Aunt Daphne. Tea arrived and she poured. Virginia relaxed as if the tea had indeed made something better. They sipped their tea speaking of the fine weather and people Sophia did not know until a girl arrived, her blue eyes and pert nose red and swollen. “Miss Braighton, this is my daughter Elinor.” Elinor curtsied with the grace of a swan. “Nice to meet you, Miss Braighton. Hello, Lady Collington. It was nice of you to call this morning.” With the same hair as Virginia, her skin was fair and bright. Aunt Daphne nodded. “Sophia is my niece from America. I think the two of you will get along well together.” Taking a seat across the room, Elinor separated herself from the conversation area. Sophia joined her on the settee. “I have just arrived from America.” “Yes. Your aunt said as much,” Elinor whispered. “I haven’t any friends in London.” Elinor met Sophia’s gaze directly. Her eyes narrowed. The stare continued until Sophia found herself fidgeting. She clasped her hands together to keep still. “Why have you come?” Her tone was politer than the question. “Well, I have no friends and it seemed you need one just now.” A weak grin touched Elinor’s lips, but a tear escaped down her cheek. “Shall we take a turn in the garden while my aunt and your mother chat?” Sophia asked. Elinor nodded and blubbered an explanation of where they were going. They rushed out of the room before her tears flowed uncontrollably. The gardens were a bit unkempt, comforting, compared to the tailored gardens outside her new window at Collington House. They found a small bench. Elinor drooped down and wept into her hands. Golden ringlets bounced around her face as she shook. Sophia patted Elinor’s back. Crying wouldn’t help the situation. “That will do, Miss Burkenstock.” “You should call me Elinor, if we are to be friends.” Elinor gasped between sobs. “Wonderful and you will call me Sophia. I understand you have had a difficult few days, but you can’t sob the rest of your life away because some libertine stole a kiss.” Elinor blushed and turned her chin down toward her shoulder. “He did not exactly steal it.” “Oh? You like Mr. Rollins, then?” Elinor sighed. “He is so beautiful and charming and he dances like a dream. Mother said to forget him, since his father squandered all their money, but I just thought to have one real kiss before I found a suitable husband.” “Do you have a dowry?” Elinor sniffed and wiped her tears. “Yes. Why do you ask?” “Do you think, perhaps, he is merely a fortune hunter?” Elinor looked into the trees, as if this were the first time she’d considered the possibility. “I do not care. He has land and if he needs money, then why should he not marry into it? Women go about marrying for money and position all the time and no one faults them for it. For that matter, so do a lot of men. Perhaps he has a mind to build up his family fortune again? After all, it is not his fault his father was irresponsible.” “Perhaps he has a mind to gamble, drink and who knows what else,” Sophia said. Elinor frowned. “I wish I knew which it was. Then, perhaps, I may convince my father to let me marry Michael. I do not wish to be a fool in front of all of London.” Few fools worried about appearing foolish. Sophia liked her honesty in spite of all the dramatic weeping and fretting. A young woman about Sophia’s age stood a few feet away listening to the conversation. She swept amber-gold hair off her brow. Intelligent green eyes didn’t blink as she stared back at Sophia. Elinor jumped up, threw herself into the girl’s arms and began howling all over again. Sophia sighed and stood. “I had just gotten her to stop.” She half-smiled as she patted Elinor’s back. “Stop crying, dear. It will all be fine. Introduce me to your friend.” Elinor straightened and wiped her face. “Oh goodness, you must think me the worst hostess.” “Not at all.” “Lady Dorothea Flammel, Miss Sophia Braighton from America.” They both curtsied, dipping their heads slightly. Dorothea glared. “When did you arrive in London, Miss Braighton?” “Yesterday morning.” “And how do you know Miss Burkenstock?” She smoothed her impeccable skirt. “We have just met. You must have seen my aunt, the Dowager Countess of Grafton when you arrived.” “Indeed.” She stood like a statue looking down her pretty nose at Sophia. “What brings you out today? You must be quite exhausted after your journey. Where did you say you were from, Australia?” Elinor gasped. “America, as I’m sure you heard a moment ago. May I ask you a question, Lady Dorothea?” She nodded and waves of golden hair bobbed gently as if commanded to before settling back into a perfect frame for her heart-shaped face. Elinor looked from one to the other with a mix of wonder and anxiety. If Sophia had not been so focused on Lady Dorothea, she would have laughed. “Are you intentionally being rude because you are worried that I mean Miss Burkenstock ill will, or is this your normal disposition?” “Would it make a difference?” The amusement in Dorothea’s eyes didn’t reach her lips. “Of course it makes a difference.” Sophia needed to make acquaintances, though she hoped she would find a friend or two. She’d found a friend and an adversary. Not a bad morning. London would be a forlorn place if she were friendless at every ball and picnic. “If your rudeness is only to protect Miss Burkenstock, then I’ll make every effort to prove to you I mean no harm. I saw the article in the paper this morning, as I’m sure you did and I felt Miss Burkenstock needed a friend. I spoke to my aunt, who told me she was a fine young lady and my aunt agreed to show her support.” “My goodness, that is so kind of you.” Elinor’s tears flowed again. Sophia and Lady Dorothea continued to meet each other’s gazes. Sophia pretended there was a spec on her white gloves. “However, if this level of rudeness is how you normally go through your day, then I have no time or desire to get to know you better. Therefore, I’ll hereafter ignore you to the best of my ability.” “My, but you do make speeches, Miss Braighton.” Dorothea smiled. “I think we shall attempt a friendship, if that would suit you. You are the first interesting person I have met in an age. I would be pleased if you would call me Dory.” “Thank you, Dory. I’m Sophia.” “Oh, thank heaven that is over.” Elinor took a dramatic breath. “Now, what are we to do about my reputation? After all, I’m the one who is ruined.” “Indeed.” Dory nodded. “Tell us exactly what happened, Elinor.” Her fair skin turned bright pink, but she spoke excitedly, as if she’d waited a lifetime to tell someone her news. “Well, Michael and I danced at the Addison ball two nights ago. Actually, we danced twice. I would have danced with him a third time—he is such a wonderful dancer and so nice to look at—but mother forbid it. It was quite hot in the ballroom and he asked me if I would like to go out on the veranda.” Elinor’s eyes glazed over with the memory of a man who had destroyed her chances of making a good match. Sophia forced herself not to scoff aloud. “Of course, I agreed. It was stifling hot and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by his closeness. I thought some air might be just the thing. But, when we reached the veranda, Michael said it was too crowded and there was no place for us to talk and wouldn’t I like to have some quiet?” Dory smoothed the already crisp skirt of her morning dress. “I’m surprised you would have agreed to this, Elinor.” “I knew I should have said no, but his eyes were so warm and sweet. He really seemed to like me and I like him so much.” She wrapped her arms around her middle and watched a butterfly settle on a pink rose. “We found a small parlor, which was empty. When he took me in his arms, I just couldn’t bring myself to push him away. In truth, I did not want to. We kissed and it was as if my entire world had been whittled down to that moment in time.” She flung her hands up. “Then, that awful woman came in. She smirked at us and left without a word.” Sophia didn’t understand how anyone could want to be that far out of control. Anger over being caught by Lady Pemberhamble, she understood. The part about not wanting him to stop and the world shrinking, bah, what bunk. “What did Mr. Rollins do then?” Dory swatted at a mosquito. “He kissed my nose and told me not to worry. He said everything would be all right and I should trust him. Then he brought me back to my mother.” “Perhaps he intends to offer for you,” Dory said. New, louder sobs erupted from Elinor. “He left town. He sent a note and left town.” How such a grating sound emerged from such a pretty girl, was a mystery. “Stop crying!” Dory and Sophia said in unison. Suppressing giggles, they grinned at each other. Dory rolled her eyes and pulled a handkerchief from her reticule. She handed it to Elinor who blew her nose loudly. “What did the note say, Elinor?” “It said, ‘I must leave London for a while. Trust me, Michael.’” She wept louder. “But, how can I trust him? Why did he leave town? What am I to do?” Dory stood and put her hands on her hips. “First, you will stop this crying, as it is beginning to try my nerves. I know you like him, but he has little means, according to the gossip, so he is not really a good match. However, you have money, so it might work. The fact that he has left town puts you in an awkward position. Since we do not know his intentions, we shall proceed to repair your reputation without regard to Sir Michael Rollins. Are you attending the Watlington ball?” Elinor gaped. Sophia covered a giggle with a cough. “I…I was supposed to, but now mother thinks it’s best if we do not go out in society. I’m…to…be put on the…shelf.” She gasped around her sobs, before screaming with renewed tears. Resisting the urge to throttle her, Sophia patted Elinor’s hand. “You’ll not be put on a shelf, dear. You can’t stay in this townhouse indefinitely. That will only confirm what the paper reported. I’ll ask my aunt if we can attend the Watlington ball and you will convince your mother you should also attend. Then we’ll begin to repair the damage.” Dory nodded and the three rejoined the women in the red parlor. * * * * Wednesday, they attended a picnic in the park. Aunt Daphne introduced Sophia to a dozen people they met in a grassy space near the Serpentine. A gentleman with dark red hair, which beamed in the sunshine, approached her. She steadied her nerves. His sea-blue eyes and engaging smile warmed her skin more than she liked. However, as hard as she tried she didn’t recall his name. She prayed she would be able to carry on the conversation long enough someone would say it and save her an awkward moment. “Would you like a glass of wine, Miss Braighton?” His grin made her smile back. Of course he remembered her name, he only had one new name to memorize. She could just ask him for his name, but then everyone would know what a dolt she was. “No thank you, sir. I do not take wine.” “No? How very odd.” “Is it?” “Most young women are quite anxious for wine rather than lemonade.” He poured himself a glass of dark burgundy. Sophia shrugged. “My mother is Italian, so wine was always on the table. I never acquired a taste for it. My mother would say—” She dropped her voice, softened her vowels, and rolled her tongue, creating a heavy Italian accent. “Bella, everyone drinks wine. It is good for the heart. Try it. Try it. You will learn to like it.” Lady Collington nearly smiled. “That is a very good imitation, Sophia. For a moment I thought your mother had joined us.” In a deep English accent, Sophia said, “Leave her be. It is no crime to be sober, at least not in America.” Oh, how she missed Papa’s warm smile and sage advice. “Your father to a tee.” Daphne clapped her hands and laughed. Her admirer beamed at her. His teeth were white and straight and he never took his gaze off her. “Can you impersonate only family members, Miss Braighton?” She returned to her own voice. “Anyone whom I have heard speak.” Everyone turned toward her. She mimicked the German lady from the market and then Miss Mirabelle from her charm school. She demonstrated some other people from Philadelphia, whom she imitated well and everyone clapped. “That’s very good. Can you try someone we all know, your aunt for example?” “People are often not fond of being mimicked.” The idea of insulting anyone made her want to run and hide. She would be in real trouble if she alienated Aunt Daphne. Just get through the season without any scandal. Daphne waved her gloved hand. “Go ahead, niece. I can take it.” Sophia sat flagpole straight on the blanket. She pursed her lips, pulled her shoulders back and clasped her hands. “Firstly, it is never proper to go into society before ten in the morning. I cannot countenance why anyone would wish to step out of doors before that hour.” Lady Collington hadn’t said those exact words, but the tone, accent and vocal similarity was good and everyone applauded, including the subject of her impersonation. “However did you learn such a thing?” he asked. She shrugged and spoke in a facsimile of his voice. “It’s something I have always excelled at.” In her own, she said, “A silly game to amuse my brother.” “It is very amusing. Would you care to walk with me down to the river, Miss Braighton?” She looked at Aunt Daphne, who nodded. “Thank you, I would like that.” The butterflies returned. For the life of her, she still didn’t remember his name. As they walked, she reviewed the earlier introductions and it was as if a blanket were drawn over her memory. He waited until they were out of earshot of the picnickers. “May I ask you a question, Miss Braighton?” “I believe you just have.” “I supposed that is true. Another, then?” She nodded, but gazed at the water and prayed for divine intervention. “Do you have any idea what my name is?” She spun toward him. Her heart leaped in her throat and she tried, but was unable to find words to respond. He gently pushed her chin up closing her gaping mouth. “I…I’m sorry. I cannot remember the names of anyone I met today. The introductions were made so fast. I was nervous and didn’t pay close enough attention.” She continued to ramble. He offered his hand. “Shall we start again?” She smiled and took his hand. “Miss, may I present myself to you? I’m Thomas Wheel.” He bowed deeply and formally removing his hat and sweeping it to the side. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Wheel. I’m Sophia Braighton. I hope we shall be great friends.” She curtsied so low he might have been a duke rather than a rich gentleman. “I suspect we shall be friends, Miss Braighton.” They continued their walk along the Serpentine. “Did you know all along that I didn’t remember your name, Mr. Wheel?” “I must admit, I suspected it from the first. Beside your gift for impersonation, you also have a gift for showing everything you feel in your expression. You are quite easy to read. I advise you never take up gambling.” She turned her head away. “Most wouldn’t consider that a gift. It’s more a curse, to have the entire world know what I’m thinking.” He shrugged. “Most people are not paying any attention to anything which does not relate directly to them. I think you have little to worry about here in London. You will find almost everyone is so self-involved they will barely see your face.” “You noticed.” “Ah yes, well, I’m one of the few people in London who acknowledges the fact that my life is terribly dull. Therefore, I spend all my time analyzing other people. Really it is an absurd vocation and I’m terribly ashamed.” He didn’t look at all ashamed. In fact, his eyes were alight with glee. “I do not believe you.” She giggled. “Perhaps my interest in you is unique.” “I’m not certain I believe that either, but it is kind, so I’ll accept the answer and say, thank you.” After a short walk, they returned to the picnic. * * * * The carriage rumbled along the road back to Collington House. Horses, carts and people going about their days filled the cab with noise, but Daphne’s voice cut through. “Mr. Wheel might be an excellent catch. He comes from a well-respected family. His father made a fortune in shipping and he has improved the family fortune with his new ideas. Since your family is also in shipping it would be a fine match. I would approve of you seeing more of him, if you wish.” The carriage jerked and pulled around a corner. Sophia grabbed for purchase on the cushion. Thomas Wheel had a nice smile and easy manner. However, he was tall and broad and could overpower her easily. She clutched the seat tighter to keep any shake from her voice. “He’s nice, I suppose.” Daphne raised one eyebrow. “You do not like him. Most women find him quite charming. He holds no title, but neither do you.” “He is charming and I really don’t care about titles, Aunt. I’m sure he is a wonderful catch.” Aunt Daphne crossed her arms over her chest and pursed her lips. She sat straight as an arrow even as the carriage took another sharp turn. “Indeed, he is.” * * * * Perched on the edge of Sophia’s bed, Aunt Daphne inspected as Marie pulled out dress after dress from the wardrobe. With each offering, she shook her head and waved the item away. “These frocks may be fine in the wilds of the colonies, but they will never do in real society. The Watlington ball is in a few days and none of your dresses will do.” “Well, they are all I have, aunt.” Sophia kept her tone even. “You know the United States is no longer considered colonies of England?” Daphne waved a dismissal. “We shall go immediately to Madam Michard and see what can be done with the greatest haste. You will need a full wardrobe for the season, but perhaps we can get a gown or two rushed so you have something for the Watlington’s. Then we must attend Fallon’s, as well. The daughter is making her debut and it will be the event of the season.” A mere hour later, they were ensconced in Madam Michard’s shop with yards of material draped before Sophia. The proprietress had squeezed her curvaceous figure into a satin gown of red with black lace and the frock barely contained her. Lace strained at both her bust and hip but eased at her minimal waist. Madam insisted the new French style, worn without a corset, was the only possible style to do the young miss’s figure justice. However, Daphne insisted a light corset would be worn at all times. She wouldn’t have her niece traipsing around in the nude. The dress was revealing enough. Doing away with tight corsets in favor of the light ones sounded rather wonderful. She tried on a pale green dress with a low neckline. The satin fell straight down from just below her breasts. Dark green ribbons hung in the same line and swayed with every move. The outline of her body was alluringly visible. She flushed with pleasure at the idea of going to a ball in such a gown. Either Lady Daphne was not as old fashioned as she pretended to be, or she was impatient to unload Sophia before the season was out. Madam Michard smoothed her dark hair and smiled in the mirror over Sophia’s shoulder. Her thick French accent warmed her words. “Do you approve of the style?” Sophia admired herself in the glass. “It’s so beautiful. I have never worn a gown so stunning. I fear I can’t possibly do it justice.” “It will do.” Lady Collington told Madam Michard. Madam Michard stood behind Sophia and met her gaze in the mirror. “You should look harder into the glass, mademoiselle. You would see the dress pales in comparison to the wearer.” Being attractive had only brought sorrow to Sophia’s life. Still, it was a lovely compliment and the dress gave her confidence that she could get through her season in London. Madam Michard suggested other colors of fabric and ribbon that would suit. They ordered at least a dozen dresses and scheduled three for delivery the next day. It was a stroke of luck those three had just been finished as samples of the new style and needed only minor alterations. Madam Michard was probably paid handsomely to have the gowns ready with such unprecedented speed. * * * * Sophia was gowned, coifed and ready to leave for the Watlington ball. She barely recognized the woman staring back from the mirror. She wore the pale green she had modeled in the shop and her hair was intricately curled and braided with green ribbons and pearls twined throughout. Her color was high with the excitement of her first London ball and even if she were the only one to notice, she would say, she looked rather pretty. Mr. Wheel had called that morning and agreed to come to the ball. She was happy he had agreed, but only her vanity enjoyed the attention of a handsome admirer. She was flattered by his consideration and she liked him, but he didn’t make her heart flutter or her stomach tighten in the way Elinor described. Perhaps that kind of infatuation would never happen to her. Just as well. As Sophia descended the staircase, Daphne beamed up from the bottom. “You are going to be a diamond of the first water this season, Sophia.” “Do you think so?” “Mark my words. No man will be able to resist. You will have an offer of marriage before the month is out. We can only hope it is the right offer.” “Yes, Aunt Daphne.” She was careful to keep her eyes downcast as she quietly accepted her wrap from Wells, the butler. They arrived at the ball twenty minutes later in a crush of carriages. The Watlington butler announced, “Lady Daphne Collington, the Dowager Countess of Grafton and her niece, Miss Sophia Braighton,” The room quieted as they descended into the ballroom, down a grand staircase. At eye level from the top of the steps hung a crystal chandelier as big as most parlors. She forced her mouth closed to keep from gaping at it. “Do not stare, girl. If our hostess catches you looking at it, she will bore you for several hours with stories of where each and every crystal came from and how long it takes to light the hideous thing,” Daphne’s lips barely moved as she gave the warning. She patted the front of her silver hair though not one strand was out of place. “I have never seen anything like it.” Glairing light poured from the oversized crystal eyesore. It filled the entire ceiling and stretched as tall as the roof of her Philadelphia home. A very tall man would have been able to touch the lowest crystal. It was impossible not to stare at the thing even though it hurt her eyes to do so. “Of course not. How could there be more than one of those monstrosities in the world? It’s as if one took a horse and stuffed him into the upstairs parlor. It may be a beautiful horse, but once it’s in the parlor, it’s just a great beast that no one can take their eyes from.” Sophia giggled behind her hand and followed Daphne to meet their host and hostess. The Earl of Watlington and his wife were both rotund in the extreme, but pleasant enough. They smiled happily and the earl kissed Sophia’s gloved hand. Daphne walked over to a clutch of women sitting on one side of the room. Sophia joined Elinor and Dory on the other side of the ballroom. Elinor’s pale blue dress set off the color of her eyes and enhanced her milky skin. “No one will ask me to dance. No one will even talk to me.” “I forbid you to cry.” Dory spoke through a grin and tugged on the lace sleeve of her lavender gown. Her golden hair hung in perfect ringlets and her eyes sparkled devilishly. Elinor pouted. “Dory already has several dances filled and I have none. None.” “Have you seen Mr. Wheel?” Sophia searched the room. Dory’s eyes widened. “Mr. Wheel? You are not even in London a full week. Do not tell me you have set your cap for Thomas Wheel already. He is on the top of the mammas’ eligible bachelor list.” “No. Not for me. For Elinor.” Elinor shrieked, “I do not want to marry Mr. Wheel. I don’t even know him well. I met him on only two occasions and while he was respectable, he is not for me. I could never like him enough to marry him. He is always so clever and everyone knows his interests lie in music and business. He would suit Dory much better, but of course, he’s untitled. The countess would never approve.” Sophia put up a hand. “You are not going to marry him. For goodness sake, Elinor. He will simply dance with you and that will make other men know it is all right to dance with you. Soon this entire thing will start to go away.” A young man with black hair and sweat dappling his fore head stopped and asked Dory for a spot on her dance card. She waved her matching lavender fan over the lower part of her face and batted her eyes. It was an amazing transformation. The white lace around her color fluttered with the fanning. As soon as the man bowed and walked away, Dory’s smile turned genuine. “That is brilliant, Sophia. But how do you intend to get him to dance with her? Besides, he may not even come to this ball. He and his friends rarely come to these things. They do not like to be pushed around by all the mothers who want to marry off their darling daughters.” Sophia giggled. “Don’t say it so derisively, Dory. The three of us are those very daughters.” Dory laughed also. “I know, but it does not make it less true. How do you know he will come?” “I asked him to and he said he would.” “He will not come.” Elinor brushed a pale strand from her face. “Of course he will,” Sophia said. “No, he won’t.” Now she was pouting. “He has just arrived.” Dory nodded at the grand stairs. The butler introduced Thomas and the room erupted with chatter so loud she could not hear the name of the man next to him. He was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. His hair resembled dark gold and that silly chandelier’s light sent shimmers of firelight through his unruly waves. Both men wore black evening dress with simple white cravats. Her stomach flip-flopped, her arms prickled with goose bumps and she had trouble catching her breath. “Who is that with him?” Dory grinned wickedly and spoke in a whisper. “That is Lord Daniel Fallon, The Earl of Marlton.” Chapter 3 “I cannot believe I let you talk me into attending this ridiculous ball, with that ridiculous chandelier.” The Earl of Marlton blistered at Thomas. Thomas smirked. “Don’t point at the thing. We’ll end up spending the entire night fending off stories of crystals from Austria. I have other plans for this evening.” “Yes, so you said, a goddess with a gift for humor. So, where is this icon of beauty and merriment? What did you say she does, juggle? Most unladylike.” “She is an excellent mimic, as I’m sure you remember. She is there.” Thomas nodded toward the right. “Standing with Lady Dorothea and Elinor Burkenstock.” “The chit who was caught with Michael?” “Indeed.” He nearly stopped in his tracks and forced his feet forward before anyone took notice of his awe. She was tall for a woman, with hair so dark it looked black, except the candlelight from the grotesque chandelier set off shimmers of red and gold. Her skin was like honeyed cream. Completely out of sorts and out of character, Daniel clung to control before he made a fool of himself. Thomas bowed to the ladies. “May I present Daniel Fallon, The Earl of Marlton. Marlton, I believe you know Miss Burkenstock and Lady Dorothea. This is Miss Sophia Braighton from America. Daniel bowed, his heart racing. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Braighton.” Her gown revealed the swell of perfect round breasts as she curtsied. “My lord. It’s nice to meet you.” “My friend has spoken of nothing else since meeting you.” He ached to touch her and discover if her skin was as soft as it appeared. “I’m sure he has exaggerated.” She would not meet his gaze, the floor and her shoes seeming more interesting. Daniel wanted to continue the conversation, but she excused herself and pulled Thomas aside. The two spoke in hushed whispers. Beating his lifelong friend to a pulp was not out of the question. He clenched his hands into tight fists, battle ready. Thomas frowned, but then adjusted his face to a gentlemanly smile and bowed before, of all people, Elinor Burkenstock. He asked the girl to dance. She accepted politely and the two swept off to join the other dancers while the crowd whispered and twittered. No doubt over how the popular and wealthy Thomas Wheel had chosen his first dance partner of the evening, a girl ensconced in scandal. Daniel hated these events. However, there was some symmetry in one of them cleaning up Michael’s mess. In spite of her American accent, her whisper near his ear set him on fire. “Will you also dance with my friend, my lord?” He looked into eyes, golden like a tigress’s. “Would that please you, Miss Braighton?” “It…It would please me very much.” Her voice was musical, low and warm. At least he wasn’t the only one out of sorts. His palms itched to wrap her up and calm every worry until she was pliant in his arms. “Then I shall claim the next dance, if you will agree to add me to your dance card this evening.” She nodded and cast her eyes down depriving him of her gaze. He ached to touch the rosy flesh and see if it was as warm and soft as it looked. He knew he was wearing a stupid grin. Waiting to hold her for the dance would be the death of him. Desperate to cover his ridiculous desire for the American, he turned toward Lady Dorothea. “Lady Dorothea. I have not seen you in years. You are obviously well. How is your brother?” A crooked grin brightened Dory’s face. She looked from him to Sophia and back again. “Markus married while you were abroad, as I’m sure you’ve heard. He and Emma are happily ensconced in the country. They prefer the country house to London. I believe they will spend only a fortnight here all season and that only because my mother insists. You should visit them. I know my brother would be happy to see you.” He nodded. “I will visit them as soon as I can.” She stepped closer. “You are also a good friend of Sir Michael Rollins, are you not?” Her brother, Markus, and Michael Rollins were part of his inner circle of friends. They, with he and Thomas, had been inseparable throughout school. “You are aware that I am.” “Would you happen to know where he has taken himself to?” Dory asked. “My lady, I’m sorry to tell you I do not. Even if I did, I would not divulge the information. If Sir Michael does not wish to be found, then we shall leave him in peace.” His tone broached no argument. Sophia said, “Your friend is a coward.” He stared her down, expecting an immediate apology from her, but the tigress only looked back at him. “Miss Braighton, while you are by far the most beautiful woman I have ever encountered, I’ll not allow you, or anyone, to slander my friends.” “It’s only slander, if what I say is untrue, my lord.” Something flickered in her honeyed gaze when he’d called her beautiful. Perhaps joy, but likely vanity. All women loved a compliment. He didn’t know why he flattered her. He had no interest in the girl, or any other untried debutante, for that matter. She was beautiful, but they were all the same. Jocelyn had taught him that. He wouldn’t be made the fool ever again. “Since you have only just arrived in London, you may not be aware the Sir Michael is a war hero. He is most certainly not a coward. I think it would be best if we changed the subject. I would not wish to argue on our first meeting.” She shrugged. “Next time perhaps? Or must one wait until the third meeting? I always forget that rule. There are so many here in London.” She was delightful and he laughed. Many in the crowd turned. Lady Dorothea stepped a few feet away. “Where in the Americas did you live, Miss Braighton?” “Philadelphia.” He smiled. “I quite liked the city and I did not notice a lack of rules to be found in society at large.” When she smiled, her face was so bright with joy he struggled not to stumble over his own feet. Part of him wanted to move toward her, but his brain signaled danger. She intrigued him, but he stood his ground. “You’re right. Rules, rules and more rules.” Her voice lilted. “You have traveled to America?” “I spent a year there. I was in Philadelphia for several weeks. I only arrived back in London last month. How I miss the open sea.” He breathed deeply, recalling the smell of the ocean. Her nose wrinkled and all the pleasure went out of her face. “You did not enjoy the voyage?” “I’m afraid I was ill the entire time. I must have lost a stone during the crossing.” She pressed her fist to her stomach and pulled a face. Though she was slim, her gown revealed curves. “If this is the result of your illness, I think you should travel more often, Miss Braighton.” Her blush started in her cheeks and spread to the root of her hair and down until it disappeared beneath her intriguing gown. His mouth turned dry as a desert. “I must embarrass you more often, Miss Braighton. The result is the most charming thing I have ever seen.” She touched her cheek. “I wish I could stop that. I’m out of practice, not being out in society much the last few years.” “No? How strange. Were you ill on land as well as at sea?” His gut tightened and not with lust as it had since seeing her, but genuine concern for her health. Thomas and Miss Burkenstock returned and Sophia let out a long breath. The stiffness of her stance eased, as if she’d been saved from having to answer. Every thought in her head was clearly readable in those stunning eyes and kissable lips. Daniel kept his word and asked Elinor for the next dance. Relief and longing washed over him as he walked away from Sophia. * * * * “Will you grace me with a dance now, Miss Braighton?” Thomas asked. She inclined her head and they walked to the dance floor. It was a minuet and they had little time to speak. Sophia was glad for the time to think. What was happening to her? The earl walked in and her mind drifted toward thoughts of him. Her heart pounded and heat infused her cheeks. The dance ended too soon. She would have to dance with Daniel Fallon. Escape seemed the only option. “Shall we get some lemonade, Mr. Wheel?” “As you wish.” They walked to the refreshment table. “How long have you known the earl?” The heat of the ballroom or the fine weather would have been much safer subjects. “Which earl do you mean, Miss Braighton? I know quite a few gentlemen with that title.” He smiled. “You know perfectly well which one.” “Have I lost you already? Well, it would not be the first lovely I have lost to Daniel, but perhaps, you will be the last.” “Don’t be absurd. I barely know him. He was very gracious to dance with Elinor.” “I also danced with the silly girl.” “You did it as a favor to me and don’t call her silly. She’s a lovely girl and if your friend hadn’t abandoned her, she would not be in this position.” * * * * From across the room, her eyes filled with fire and she gestured right and left as she spoke to Thomas. He shouldn’t care about their conversation. It would be easy enough to leave the ball and go to his club as he and Thomas originally intended for the evening. Daniel wound his way through the crowd toward her. As soon as she saw him, she frowned. Seeing him displeased her, yet she was happy and animated with Thomas. Perhaps he had interrupted an intimate conversation. Friendship be dammed, he was going to pummel Thomas. “Have you abandoned poor Elinor?” Her tone was like a mother scolding her child. “Poor Elinor? Pardon me, Miss Burkenstock had a long line of dance partners awaiting her availability. Your plan seems to have worked.” He accepted a glass of lemonade, choked on the sour libation and put it back on the table. “Oh, how wonderful.” She clapped her hands and smiled. His heart might explode. “Now explain to me why your friend would leave in such a rush?” She looked from one to the other. “Does Mr. Rollins often make promises to young women and then run for the hills?” “Never before that I’m aware of,” Thomas said. A waltz began. “I believe you have promised me a dance, Miss Braighton.” Her hazel eyes grew as large as saucers. She scanned the room. “I…I don’t have permission to dance a waltz.” He followed her gaze to where Lady Collington sat amongst a group of dowager-aged women. The Countess of Grafton watched with an unreadable expression. He offered his arm. “It will be fine. I’m a great admirer of your aunt.” Once she was in his arms and spinning around the floor to the count of three, she quieted. Most young unmarried women spent the entire dance trying to impress him with all of their accomplishments. Sophia didn’t look up and bat her eyelashes or smile and try to press closer. Her warmth seeped through the thin fabric of her gown. The newest fashions left little to his imagination. He was on fire. She sparked in him feelings he’d sworn never to entertain again. She cleared her throat. “What did you mean when you said you are an admirer of my aunt?” “She is unique. I like someone who is not a sheep in the crowd and Lady Collington is an original. Some call her the cruel countess and perhaps they have some cause. She can be quite biting if vexed. She can also be a fierce and loyal ally. I quite like her.” “The cruel countess. I suppose I can see why she’s gained that moniker.” “Is she unkind to you?” “No. Aunt Daphne has been very kind and thoughtful in her way. I just wish she would not have to be disappointed.” Sophia sighed heavily. Her breasts swelled over the low neck of her gown. “Why would her ladyship ever be disappointed in you?” She shook her head and her silken curls swished from side to side. “You will not tell me? Then I’ll guess. You are not the woman you appear to be. You are really the scullery maid from the Braighton house in America? No? You are her nephew, not her niece?” She giggled. He shook his head. “No, that cannot be it. You are already married?” She watched him and as he guessed, her mouth and eyes grew wider until she burst into a fit of giggles. She was adorable. “Enough.” The sound had his heart beating so rapidly, he might have an episode, as if he was one of those horrible characters from a bad novel. “I’ll tell you, if you promise to keep my secret.” The dance ended, Daniel took her arm and walked swiftly to the veranda. His hand on her elbow left only his white glove separating skin from touching skin. The idea of actually feeling her flesh was heady. The cool night air helped to cool his desire. She breathed deeply, causing her breasts to lift dangerously close to the edge of her gown’s neckline. So much for the cooling effect of the night air. She leaned over the veranda wall and looked out into the shadowy gardens, lit only by torches. There were a few people lingering on the veranda—ladies getting away from the heat of the crowded ballroom and a few couples hiding behind Greek statues and Roman pillars. “Are you cold?” “No.” Her voice was small and far away. He yearned for her thoughts. “You were going to tell me a secret.” Heart-wrenching sorrow filled her eyes and they glistened though no tears fell. She straightened her posture and raised her chin. This woman held herself as if she was a queen. He wanted her more with every second spent in her presence. She spoke for his ears only, but her whisper shook with intensity. “My secret is I shall never marry. I should have told my aunt, but my mother made me promise to try to enjoy the season and not ruin it with such thoughts.” As she said the last words, her voice had dropped into a lush Italian accent. He supposed the accent was her mother’s. Thomas had said her mimicry was amusing, but there was no joke here. Her face was open and she absolutely believed she wouldn’t marry. Of course, it was ridiculous. She was beautiful, smart, funny and quick-witted. He had gleaned all of this in only a short time in her presence. She had the body of a goddess. She would marry and probably well. He was sure she would have offers before the end of the month, if not sooner. “I think you will marry.” Regret dripped from his voice. “No.” Her eyes filled with tears and she moved away to hide in the shadow of one of the pillars surrounding the veranda. His mind screamed at him to apologize and walk away, but his body disobeyed and he followed her into the shadows. He tugged the glove from his hand and gently caressed the soft skin from her elbow to the cap sleeve of her gown. He dropped his hand. She turned, only a breath away. The warmth of her body reached him though they didn’t touch. “Please do not cry.” The soft tone hardly resembled his voice. She moved him in a way no one else ever had. “I won’t. I’m sorry to make such a scene.” She dabbed at her eyes. Once again, the tigress returned, sad, fierce and distant. The tears made her seem even fiercer, somehow making her even more perfect. This was no stuffy debutante, with little thought for anyone but herself. She was soft, emotional, filled with life and he wanted nothing else in the world but to pull her into his arms, to watch her tigress’s eyes close as his lips covered hers. “I think I’m going to kiss you, Miss Braighton.” He inched closer. Her eyes widened and she gasped, as he rubbed his lips lightly against hers. “No.” The word was less than a whisper. “Are you sure?” He asked, pressing his cheek to hers. “I cannot like you.” Her voice was tight and the pitch high. He was curious as to why she believed such a ridiculous thing, but had no opportunity to press further. A feminine throat cleared and he stepped away from her. “Sophia, there you are. Hello, my lord.” Dory Flammel stood only a few feet away. She pulled the Burkenstock girl behind her. “Lady Collington is looking for you. I believe she is tired and would like to go home.” “Of course.” Sophia curtsied. “Thank you for the dance and the chat, my lord. Congratulations on a successful evening, Elinor. Dory, will I see you tomorrow?” “I’ll call in the morning and we can go riding in the park.” Dory winked. Sophia frowned at Dory, gave another hasty curtsy and rushed into the ballroom to find Lady Collington. The Burkenstock girl chased after Sophia and they both disappeared in the crowd. His stomach churned as he watched her go. She had said she would never marry and she specifically couldn’t like him? Unacceptable. When he looked away from the windows, he found Lady Dorothea Flammel watching him. He narrowed his eyes at her assessing ones. “What is it you’re looking at, my lady?” “I’m looking at a man smitten.” Her directness was out of order and yet refreshing among members of the ton. “You see too much for your own good, my lady.” “Some would say I see only what I wish to see, my lord. My brother, Markus, is quite fond of you.” Daniel smiled. “Markus, Thomas, Michael and I were quite inseparable throughout our time at Eton. I still consider all three my closest friends. I do not see Markus much, as I have been away and he is happily settled, but I would bleed for him, should he ask it of me.” Dory cringed. “Let us hope it does not come to that. Will you break my new friend’s heart? I have only known her for a few days, but I’m already quite fond of her. I would hate to see her harmed in any way.” “Are you asking me to extend my friendship with your brother to you, my lady?” “I’ll not ask you to bleed.” “I have no intention of pursuing Miss Braighton.” “I see.” Her tone held just the right touch of doubt. “As I said, you see entirely too much.” She smiled, but it didn’t touch her eyes. The smile might have been for his benefit or the group of people who stepped onto the veranda. She waited for the group to move away. “Did you know Jocelyn was a close friend of mine? I know much of what transpired between you two was kept quiet, but she came to me after you broke off the engagement.” His body stiffened at the mention of the woman he’d once planned to marry. Rage replaced his earlier emotions. She smiled more kindly at him. “She came to my home and cried out her story. When she was finished, I told her I was very sorry for her. I was sorry. Sorry she had been such a fool. Sorry she had such low character, she thought so little of herself and she would give herself away with no thought of honor. Sorry I had misjudged her. I asked her to leave my house and cut off our friendship. She called me terrible names before my brother intervened. It was an ugly scene. Until that moment, I had not realized how important it was to be able to judge a person’s character.” His anger ebbed. “A valuable lesson.” “Indeed.” “I had not realized anyone else was hurt by Jocelyn’s behavior.” “We have something in common, my lord.” “I’m sorry,” he whispered. Dory waved a gloved hand and pushed back a wayward curl. “None of what transpired was your fault, my lord. You should forgive yourself and perhaps, find someone you can trust to marry.” She turned and left him on the veranda, giving him no chance to respond. * * * * White’s Gentleman’s Club was crowded when Daniel and Thomas arrived late in the evening. They found a small table in one of the parlors and ordered brandy. “So, what did you think of my goddess?” Thomas’s eyes twinkled with mirth. Daniel lowered his glass and looked at his long-time friend. “I think I do not care for you calling her that.” Thomas laughed. “I suspected as much. You, my friend, are smitten. The question is, will you do anything about it, or will you continue to let that light-skirt you were engaged to ruin your life?” Pure fury bubbled in his chest. His instinct still told him to defend his ex-fiancée, but he shrugged and steadied his emotions. It was, after all, the truth. “I’ll marry eventually. I have to, but it will not be Sophia Braighton. I will find someone with whom I can have an agreeable marriage. I shall leave Sophia for someone else. I would just prefer if it were not you.” “You are a fool, Dan. I saw the way you looked at her and the way she looked at you. She is going to haunt you for the rest of your life as your one big mistake if you do not pursue your interest.” His gut tightened and a bead of sweat dripped down the side of his neck. “You may be right.” He took a long swallow of brandy. “However, I should rather be a fool privately, than to have my stupidity displayed before all of London once again.” Thomas shook his head. “What do you suppose possessed Michael to leave London? You don’t really think he would run because of being caught with the Burkenstock girl, do you?” Daniel sipped his brandy. “I spoke to him a few days before the incident and I had the impression, he was going to offer for that silly chit. She is quite rich and not terribly hard to look at. I’m not sure why he ran. He did mention something about an opportunity with some grain he was going to buy, in hopes of raising enough money to do some work at his estate in Essex.” Thomas raised an eyebrow. “Maybe he wants to come to the marriage negotiations with more than empty hands and no prospects. He had better hurry. She is rich, quite pretty and none too smart. She may find herself another before he returns.” “If she is so fickle, he is better off without her.” Tipping back his glass, Thomas finished his drink. “The girl has no reason to wait. From what I know, he left her no assurances. It’s not at all the same as what Jocelyn did to you. You had signed a contract. She knew you would marry her. Hell, I think you loved her. She was not the kind of woman who would ever have been faithful and she was not smart enough to be discreet. You are right about one thing—you are better off without Jocelyn.” “I did not love her,” he said softly. “I thought I did for a moment, but it was only lust and desire. She was beautiful and charming. She might have been discreet, but I was just too diligent in my desire to see her. If I had kept away, I would never have discovered them. She claimed to be under the weather. I thought to surprise her and spend the evening in her company, even if it was playing backgammon in the parlor, anything to be near her. What a fool I was. When I arrived, I found her in the parlor, but she and Swanery were not playing backgammon. Their game has been played between men and women since the beginning of time.” “My God, man, you never said anything about having caught her red-handed. What did you do?” Old anger boiled. He still saw his beloved under that sod on the chaise. “What any English gentleman would do. I bowed, punched Swanery in the jaw, turned and left the house.” “What did Jocelyn do?” The ugly hatred he still harbored for the woman bubbled to the surface. “She screamed horrible names at me. She used words I had never heard a woman utter, even in the gaming hells from women of questionable virtue.” “I don’t think there was much question.” Thomas referred to the whores’ virtue. “No and neither was there in regard to Jocelyn. She was every inch the harlot that those women in the gaming hells were. At least with a prostitute you know what you are getting. Jocelyn was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And you are correct, I’m much better off without her. “Michael will turn up at some point, either to claim Miss Burkenstock, or to find a new chit with a fortune. He has no choice. He must repair the damage his father has done.” “You’re right, of course.” Thomas called for another brandy. Chapter 4 Sophia was dressed and ready when Dory arrived the next morning for a ride in the park. Dory’s rich velvet royal blue riding costume fit her snugly and showed off her curves. Sophia wore a similar outfit, though hers was in a dark wine. “Sophia, you and I shall need crops to smack away the admirers. We are the perfect riding duo.” “You look lovely.” “Hello, Lady Dorothea.” Daphne entered in a green morning dress ready to set out to make her calls. “Will you be joining us in the park, my lady?” “I’ll follow in my carriage, but leave you once we arrive. I have several errands to attend to and a few calls to make. Two footmen and Sophia’s maid will accompany you for the remainder of your ride.” “I have also brought a footman and my lady’s maid, Countess. I feel we shall be very safe indeed.” Dory's voice lilted with sarcasm. Daphne pursed her lips. “Dorothea Flammel, I have always liked you. I think you are an original, but do not try to charm me as you do the dunderheads in the ton, or I shall change my opinion of you. You are smart and that is why I approve of the friendship emerging between you and my niece. Do not make me rethink my view.” Dory didn’t flinch. She curtsied bowing her head. “I would never dream of insulting you, Lady Collington. I think you are also quite extraordinary. I’m glad you approve of Sophia’s and my new friendship. I would hate to have to go behind your back to continue to see your niece.” Not even the countess resisted a chuckle. “Shall we go, girls?” Once mounted, Sophia said, “You are too bold for your own good, Dory. She’s not called the cruel countess for nothing. She can ruin your reputation if she chooses.” Dory shrugged her straight shoulders. She sat a horse as if born riding. “Your aunt is fierce, but fair. Look what she did for Elinor. If she didn’t admire Elinor in some way, she would never have put her name and yours in jeopardy by helping. I would never do anything that was really bad form, therefore I believe I will always remain on the ‘cruel countess’s good side.” Riders, walkers, and people in carriages out to see if there was any gossip hindered their progress at the gates of the park. Aunt Daphne said her goodbyes, leaving three footmen and two maids to follow an appropriate distance behind Sophia and Dory. They finally got away from the larger crowd. Sophia kept her eyes forward in spite of the fact that everyone seemed to be watching her. “Will Elinor’s reputation make a full recovery?” A loud sigh accompanied Dory’s shrug. “Not unless Michael Rollins returns and offers for her. If someone else offered and she accepted, that would do as well. However, I don’t think she will accept another this season. Elinor can seem like a muttonhead, but she is smarter than she lets on. She is also very loyal. She fancies herself in love with Sir Michael and, until she is certain he will not make good on his advances, she will have no other.” “How can you be so sure?” Loyalty to a man who left in her time of need made no sense. “I have known Elinor since the cradle. Our families’ country estates are next to each other. When we were ten, she stood outside my house all day waiting for me to apologize for calling her a name. She was so sure I would apologize, she would not leave. Eventually, the guilt got to me and I ran outside and begged her forgiveness.” Sophia pictured the two little girls working out their argument. She loved the idea of a lifelong friend even if she had none to compare. “What did Elinor say?” “She hugged me and said she had already forgiven me. We are the closest of friends. When I tell you she will wait for Sir Michael until all hope is lost, you may believe it.” “Ladies,” The Earl of Marlton’s deeply familiar voice, cut into their conversation. “You are the most stunning pair I have ever seen.” He rode atop a black stallion. His black hat and coat were impeccable and he grinned down at them from his enormous horse. Even his cravat remained tied to perfection. The great beast threw his head back and stomped his foot, while blowing out his great nostrils. “I think your horse would prefer if you did not stop to chat, my lord.” Sophia kept a cautions eye on both man and beast. Daniel jumped down and handed the reins to his footman. “I’m sorry if Mangus frightened you. He is a bit high spirited and much prefers the country to London.” “What brings you to the park this morning, my lord?” Dory asked, smiling her most wicked smile. “I decided a bit of air and exercise was in order. You had mentioned you would be taking a morning ride. I confess, I had hoped to meet you, since Miss Braighton and I were engaged in an interesting conversation last evening, before the countess’s desire to cut the evening short.” No. She must have misunderstood. He couldn’t have come to the park expressly to see her. “Oh, I’m sure your evening continued unhindered, my lord. Don’t all men go to their clubs and drink until dawn after the ballrooms empty out?” His smile was bright and his eyes lit up with mirth. His full laugh rumbled out. She was drunk from the sound. “We do, of course, but I felt quiet unsatisfied.” The word unsatisfied triggered Sophia’s temper. Men always looked to their own satisfaction with little care about others. She gripped her reins too tight and her horse pranced. “In that case, I’m sure there were those who might have taken care of that, as well.” Something about him made her speak when she should be quiet. She wished the words back immediately. She had said too much the night before and now she felt exposed. If only he hadn’t come to the park. Tears pressed behind her eyes and her throat tightened. She pressed her finger to the corner of her eye and commanded herself not to cry. He took a step back. “Is it an American custom to insult new acquaintances, or is this just an inclination of yours, Miss Braighton?” She turned her head to avoid his gaze, dismounted and allowed a footman to take the reins. She walked a short distance away. She cursed her loose lips. Now she would have to apologize and she was not even sorry. She had only stated the truth. He took up space in a way no one else did. Standing behind her, his warmth surrounded her. “You’re angry with me?” She rubbed her arms. “I’m confused by your obvious anger.” “I suppose I should apologize.” Once she banished her unshed tears, she turned to face him. “Only if you are sorry and I can see from your eyes you are not.” His smile made her stomach do a pleasant flip. “I do apologize for my outburst, my lord.” She used the practiced tone of her days at Mrs. Mirabelle’s School for Young Ladies. He frowned. “I accept, even though you do not mean it. I believe it was very hard for you to make the attempt and I’ll be the bigger man and not challenge your sincerity.” “Thank you.” She felt her mouth turning up in a smile in spite of her embarrassment. “Would you like to tell me why you have such a low opinion of my sex?” “No.” He smiled brightly. “I have noticed that you say ‘no’ without further explanation quite a lot.” She felt her cheeks warm. “I believe ‘no’ is a complete sentence and needs no other qualification, my lord.” Dory interrupted. “The two of you are causing quite a stir.” Carriages and riders alike slowed to get a good look at whomever his lordship was speaking to so intimately. Dory took Sophia’s arm. “Perhaps this conversation might continue in a few days at Lady Cecelia’s ball. I do believe both Miss Braighton and I will be there. I’m sure you will not miss your own sister’s debut, my lord.” “I’ll be there.” He never took his eyes from Sophia. He bowed to them both, launched himself into the saddle of the beast he called Mangus and trotted away without another word. Sophia stood for a long time, staring out over the lush trees of the park. Dory was like a long lost sister, but she wished she were alone. She could not face him at his sister’s ball. She had allowed him to kiss her and lost her temper. He must think her a fool. She must learn to keep her feelings to herself especially in the face of a man she barely knew. Dory cleared her throat and a wide grin spread across her face. “I believe you have taken the Earl of Marlton off the marriage market, Sophia. You two will make quite a stir.” Sophia spun around so fiercely her dark hair came loose from the pins holding it. “I don’t want to make a stir. I don’t care what he does and I will absolutely never marry him.” Tears sprang into her eyes and soaked her face. She dashed them away, mounted her mare and road toward Collington house at a clip. Dory called her name. Horses clomped behind her. As soon as she reached the steps to Collington House, Sophia dropped down from her mare without assistance and ran up the front stoop. Once Wells opened the door, she rushed through and up the curved stairway. She didn’t want company, but Dory trudged behind her. She longed for time to brood and perhaps have a good cry. Once in Sophia’s chambers, Dory turned to speak to Marie, who had rushed up the steps as well. “Marie, your lady will not need you for now. We will ring if there is a need.” Marie curtsied and stepped out of the room. Dory closed the door behind her. “What on earth is wrong, Sophia?” Dory demanded. “Nothing. Oh, Dory, go home. I’ll be fine by the next time we meet.” She loathed the begging quality in her voice. Dory sat on the edge of the bed and watched while Sophia paced back and forth across the fine rug. “I will not go, so you may as well tell me why you dislike the Earl of Marlton so intensely.” “I don’t dislike him.” Tears were running freely down her face now. She tried to dash them away, but more followed and she gave up her efforts. “But you will never marry him?” “I won’t marry at all. Never.” She plopped herself down in a chair near the empty hearth. Dory got up, crossed the room and knelt in front of her. “Why not, Sophia? What happened to make you so set against it? Not to mention how rude you were to the earl who you just told me you do not dislike. No one has said you must marry him. Did he do something on the veranda last night that upset you?” “He kissed me.” Her voice shook. “Was it terrible? John Allendale kissed me last week and I found it quite pleasant. I was not rude, though I did stop him rather quickly.” “No. It was very nice. Lovely, actually.” She whispered and wiped the tears from her cheeks. “I don’t understand,” Dory said. Sophia’s chest was so tight, she gripped the front of her riding habit and tore open the jacket. In her haste, several buttons skittered across the floor. Telling one person the truth even if it was a mistake would let off the pressure building inside her. She took a breath and met Dory’s gaze. “I’m not a virgin. I know you will hate me now that you know and that’s why I didn’t want to tell you.” The words tumbled out of her mouth in a rush. Now that Sophia had said it out loud, she felt stronger. “I did, so much, enjoy having you as a friend and I would appreciate it if you kept my secret. I would so hate to embarrass her ladyship.” Dory sat back on her heels and looked up at Sophia. Shock registered in her clear green eyes. Pity or maybe sorrow created deep creases around her downturned mouth. “I’m still your friend, Sophia. Would the blackguard not marry you?” Chills ran up Sophia’s spine at the mention of the life she might have had. “He offered, but my father tossed him from the house and I thanked god he did. I cannot imagine a worse hell than being married to that horrible man.” She shuddered with another violent chill. Dory stood and turned away. Sophia’s heart sank. She had ruined one of only two friendships she had in London. Dory’s back was rigid and her hands fisted. She turned and stared at Sophia with narrowed eyes. Maybe she would strike her. “He forced himself on you.” Sophia only nodded. The night in her father’s study rushed back to her memory pushing more tears to the surface. “How old were you?” Dory knelt before her again. Sophia was surprised at how angry Dory seemed. Angry at a man she didn’t even know. “Sixteen. It was my first season out.” Her heart slowed its pace. Dory hadn’t rushed from the house the minute she heard of Sophia’s shame. She didn’t call her the terrible names that rolled through Sophia’s own mind. Dory had knelt before her with sympathy. “He should have been shot for what he did to you. How did your father not kill him?” For the first time since that horrible night, she had told someone outside her mother and father the truth. Her imagination had painted a picture of the result that included shame and remorse. Dory stared at her eyes wide and hands shaking as she gripped hers. Sophia’s heart lightened and the pain long in her chest eased. “I think father would have enjoyed exceedingly to have killed him on the spot.” “I thought you Americans went around shooting each other willy-nilly.” A small giggle escaped. She put her hand over her mouth. “Not generally.” Dory paced with clenched hands. “All right, then. If you do not want to marry, then we shall devise a plan so you will not have to. Will your father not allow you a small income?” “He would, but mother insisted I come to London and try to find a husband. She said I must put the incident behind me. But really, I can’t. I can’t stand the thought of a man touching me.” The night before rushed to her memory and her skin tingled. “Though, when the earl kissed me it was quite soft and enjoyable.” “I wish I knew more about such matters. My mother has been very closed-mouthed on the subject. However, I must believe that a rape is not the same as whatever one would have with a husband. I’ll give the matter of your remaining unmarried some thought. In the meantime, do not worry so much. No one has offered for you, so there is no reason you should not enjoy your season. If someone does offer, then we shall think of reasons why each and every one is not suitable. I can be clever when I need to. I’ll send your maid in and order you a bath. I shall call on you tomorrow with Elinor.” Sophia jumped up. “Oh, don’t tell Elinor. Please.” “Of course not.” Dory hugged her. “We shall just come for a visit and discuss gowns for the Fallon ball.” Sophia wanted to hug her new friend and never let go. She couldn’t have dreamed anyone would take her part, let alone fight on her behalf. “I’m glad you’re my friend, Dorothea Flammel.” Dory smiled. “I am as well.” Once Dory left, Sophia called for a bath and Marie helped her undress. She closed her eyes and sank deeper into the warm water. Perhaps everything would be all right. The idea of a small house, either here or in Philadelphia, crept into the back of her mind. She would like to be in the country, where she might grow a garden and no one would gossip about her lack of husband. That would be perfect. No husband meant, no children to ever call her mother and in turn, none of the grandchildren her mother coveted so desperately. Perhaps not perfect. * * * * The dress glimmered in the color of rich butter and gave her skin a golden glow. Marie had outdone herself styling Sophia’s hair, entwining crimson ribbons and crystals through her dark tresses. The same color ribbons flowed down from just below her breasts, which mounded above the scooped neckline. But the cleverly made dress would keep her safe from embarrassment. The Fallon’s London home was larger than Collington house. Upon entering, there were two grand staircases that curved around an oval foyer. The wood gleamed and a tasteful chandelier hung in the center. Its crystals polished to a miraculous shine illuminated the entry. To the right, the ballroom took Sophia’s breath away. Aunt Daphne joined the dowagers where they clustered together like hens. Sophia found herself standing alone watching the dancers and staring in wonder at the beauty of the house. His presence warmed her even before he spoke and her spine stiffened. Her stomach did a little flip in spite of her resolve to be unaffected by him. “Do you like it?” He spoke softly just behind her left ear. The ceiling had to be forty feet tall, with golden arches and a fresco of kings and queens enjoying a picnic in the park. Tall glass doors lined one entire wall and silk curtains gleamed in the candlelight. The sound of his voice gave her a quiver inside. It took her several beats before she found her voice. “It’s a lovely house. Do you live here?” “No. I have a home not far from here. My stepmother and sister live here.” Her interest piqued. “Was that part of your father’s wishes?” He shrugged and his broad shoulders creased the crisp lines of his black jacket before everything settled into place as if ordered to do so. It was as if he commanded his clothing to obey and the cloth wouldn’t dare defy. “I really have no idea. My mother enjoys living here when she is in town and I like for her to be happy.” “You get along well with your stepmother, then?” His smile warmed his face and sent a quiver through her belly. “My own mother died giving birth to me and my father remarried when I was five. Janette is the only mother I have ever known. She raised me as her own and gave me a wonderful little sister, whom I adore. Why should we not get along?” She constantly said the wrong thing. “I did not mean to imply anything, my lord. It is only that you have no legal obligation to keep them housed and many men in your position would not bother to care for a stepmother and half-sister.” With a shrug, he met her gaze. “I suppose that is true of many.” “But not you.” She wished she could find a cruel streak in him, walk away and not think of him again. It would be much easier to ignore a man who would put the women who depended on him out in the street. But he obviously loved his family and that fact made him even more endearing. She forbade herself to like him. “Would you like to meet my mother and sister?” he asked. Before she could stop herself, she nodded. For some reason, she wanted to meet his family. Though, for the life of her, she couldn’t imagine why. He was nothing to her. He walked only a few steps before stopping suddenly. She stumbled and gripped his arm tighter to keep her feet. Looking up, she found him staring down at her. His eyes shone with intensity making her heart pound. The music changed to a waltz and he bent his head an inch from hers. “Perhaps a dance first, Miss Braighton? I hate to let an opportunity to hold you in my arms slip away.” “I wish you would not say such things.” “Is that a yes, or a no, to the dance?” His eyes filled with mirth. She nodded and they circled the dance floor. In his arms, it was difficult to think of anything she decided before the ball. She planned to avoid him and, if she did run into him, she would be cool and polite. However, now that his hands were on her and his heat radiated through the flimsy material of her gown, she longed to be close to him. There was safety in Daniel’s embrace. A word she never thought to apply to any man besides her father. “Why do you wish I would not say such things to you, Sophia?” He whispered closer to her ear than was appropriate. Running was her best option, but she stood her ground. “You should not call me Sophia. It is not right and I have not given you permission to do so.” “It seems impossible for me to behave correctly with you, Sophia. I promised myself I would avoid you, but as soon as you entered the ballroom I was aware of your presence and I could not keep away. I do not know what draws me to you and believe me, I would prefer to be indifferent to your allure. I felt this way once before and it ended quite badly.” He shook his head and his posture stiffened, not at all like his flirtatious manner of a moment before. Her heart raced and she was certain he could hear her heart pounding, but she couldn’t think of a thing to say in response to his personal admission. He smiled. “You must think me a fool.” “No.” He laughed. “There is that word again. If you were English, you would elaborate.” “Yes, you are a long-winded bunch. However, my father is English and my Mother Italian and I’m American, so, ‘no’ will often do.” She missed her family and the wonderful differences that made them unique. “I suppose it shall have to.” He whirled her around one last time before the music ended. He bowed. She curtsied. The crowd watched with avid interest. He escorted her back across the crowded ballroom. One fact about his admission nagged at her. “Why did it end?” “I beg your pardon?” “You said you felt this way once before and it ended badly. I wondered why it ended.” “Would it be rude of me to say that I would rather not say?” He towered over her and stared into her eyes. His closeness filled her head with vanilla, spice and another scent uniquely his. She breathed deeply to commit the scent of him to memory. “Not if it is to protect the lady.” Without a word, he led her across the ballroom. Elegant and petite, with chestnut hair, and bright eyes, Janette Fallon beamed luminously at her stepson. She didn’t look old enough to have been Daniel’s mother for over twenty years. He bowed and kissed her cheek. Adoration shone in his eyes. If she never married, she would never have a son who would look at her that way. Her blood chilled and she closed her eyes against the wave of sorrow. She swallowed, took a breath and pushed those thoughts aside. “Mother, I would like you to meet Miss Sophia Braighton. Miss Braighton, this is my mother, Lady Janette Fallon.” His smile warmed and his gaze softened as he made the introductions. Lady Marlton stared so long that Sophia braced herself against the urge to fidget. Her gaze was not unkind and a small smile remained on her lips as she assessed Sophia from head to toe. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Braighton.” “Thank you, Lady Marlton. It’s an honor to be here.” Janette’s eyes widened. “You are American. Have you just arrived in London?” It was Daniel who answered. “Miss Braighton is Lady Collington’s great niece, Mother.” “I see.” Janette’s smile brightened. “I seem to remember that your aunt had a nephew who left for America the year I made my debut. He was married to a lovely Italian girl. I also recall that Charles Braighton made quite a good deal of money in shipping. Is that your father, Miss Braighton?” She loved that someone knew of her parents. It was almost like they were there. “Yes, my lady. My parents and my brother are still in Philadelphia.” “You have a brother? How marvelous.” Now her eyes were bright, the marriage market mamma coming to the surface. “Is he older or younger than you, my dear?” “Mother, Cissy is only making her debut tonight. Don’t go sending her off to America just yet.” Sophia giggled. “Anthony is older but only by one year. I’m afraid he’s not quite ready for marriage.” Still grinning Janette shrugged. “Perhaps a bit too young for Cissy, but one never knows.” “Mother, you are incorrigible.” She frowned, but her eyes were still twinkling with humor. “I’m a mother with two unmarried children. It is completely normal to try to find them suitable mates. In fact, it would be remiss of me if I did not.” He beamed at her. “Perhaps, but it is the unabashed way you go about it that is tiresome, dear mother.” “Why should I not be shameless? If I’m not, then what will become of my daughter?” The lament was met with a chuckle from Daniel. He tipped his head to one side. “Here is the wastrel now. I’m sure Miss Braighton can see why you are so worried. How will we ever get her married off?” The girl who approached was as petite as Janette with the same hair and eyes. Her skin was fair and unmarred and she had a pert little nose and a strong chin. For a girl of perhaps sixteen, she walked with decided confidence. She saw Daniel and her eyes lit up. Her joy made her even more stunning as she hugged and kissed him. “You came. I’m so glad.” “I would not miss your debut, sweetheart.” Sophia thought about her own brother’s expression when he learned of her plans never to marry. He’d been upset with her and disappointed that she refused to do her duty. She couldn’t tell him the reasons. She was too afraid of what he would think of her, or worse, he might decide to do something rash and get himself in trouble. No, it was better he didn’t know, even if it meant he thought she was disobedient and willful. The Fallon’s affection made her long to see her own brother and beg his forgiveness. Daniel made introductions, but Sophia was miles away in her own thoughts and snapped out of it when she heard her name repeated. “I’m so sorry. It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Fallon.” Lady Marlton stared her head tipped to the side. “You must miss your own family very much, Miss Braighton.” Daniel’s mother’s intuitiveness surprised her. It was either that or everyone could read her thoughts as Thomas had said. “I do, but my aunt has been wonderful and I’m enjoying London immensely.” “I wonder if you and your aunt would come to tea tomorrow?” Lady Marlton asked. Sophia tried to hide her shock at the invitation, taking deep even breaths and relaxing her face. “I’ll have to check with Lady Collington, but I don’t think we are otherwise engaged. We would be delighted. Thank you.” “Until tomorrow then, Miss Braighton. Cecilia, I would like to introduce you to Lord Hadlington.” With that, Daniel’s mother turned to walk away with Cecilia in tow. “Yes, mother.” Cissy followed, rolling her eyes, but her smile never wavered. “They are very nice,” Sophia said. “I agree. Shall I return you to your aunt, Miss Braighton, or would you be willing to walk in the gardens with me?” His voice was so soft and imploring, she nearly said yes to his invitation. Dory and Elinor ran across the ballroom skirts fully flowing like two ship’s sails in pale pink and sky blue. “What a marvelous ball. Your mother has outdone herself, my lord.” Elinor bubbled with enthusiasm. He bowed to the two young ladies. “I shall tell her you said so, Miss Burkenstock. If you ladies will excuse me? Perhaps another time, Miss Braighton.” He bowed again, took her hand and kissed it. Her heart thundered so violently, she might need to take a seat. Then he was gone. “What was that about?” Dory demanded. Sophia shook her head. “Nothing. He just introduced me to his mother and sister. They are lovely. Miss Fallon is so pretty she took my breath away.” Dory’s eyes narrowed. “Indeed.” “Have you seen Sir Michael? I thought perhaps he would be here, since he and Lord Fallon are such good friends.” Elinor’s words came in a rush. “I have never seen him, so I would not know him if he was here in this crowd,” Sophia said. Elinor perked up and her blond curls bounced. “Yes, that is true. He could be here and I just have not seen him yet. Perhaps I’ll take a turn around the room and see if I can spot him. Will the two of you join me?” With no way out of it, both girls agreed to walk the perimeter of the ballroom in search of Sir Michael. They were not successful in their quest, but they did manage to fill up their dance cards. An hour later, Sophia danced with Thomas Wheel. “What happened to Lord Fallon’s fiancée?” Thomas’s brows drew together. “Perhaps that is a question for his lordship.” “He didn’t wish to tell me,” she admitted. “Then I shall not tell you either.” Sophia knew she should drop the subject. Yet it nagged at her. “How long were they engaged?” He sighed. “Nearly six months. The wedding was only two weeks away.” “That’s awful. Who broke it off?” She stopped dancing. Thomas pulled her along. “Do not lose your step, M