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To Marry the Duke
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The London Season, 1881
With a sigh of resignation, Sophia Wilson realized she had unwittingly hurled herself not only across an ocean to London, but from a sizzling-hot frying pan into a fierce and fiery blaze. She was about to enter the Marriage Mart.
She moved with her mother into the crowded London drawing room, elegantly adorned with silk tapestries and bouquets of roses tied with ribbons, and a host of other useless knickknacks skillfully arranged to make perfect idleness the only option. Squeezing her fan tightly in her gloved fist, she prepared herself -- after a month of intense English etiquette training -- for the introduction to the earl and countess of something-or-other, then dutifully smiled her best smile.
"That wasn't so terrible, was it?" her mother whispered afterward, assessing the room as she spoke. Sophia could almost hear her mother's thoughts aloud as she formulated the evening's strategy: An earl here ... a marquess there ...
The weight of Sophia's responsibility hung over her then, like an iron chandelier dangling from a single screw, ready to drop at any moment. She was an American heiress, and she was here in London to ensure her family's acceptance into high society back home and ultimately change their lives forever. She was here to marry an English lord.
At least, that was what she had promised her mother when escape had become her only hope. For Sophia had turned down four proposals in the past year -- very good ones, in her mother's frequently professed opinion -- and her mother had begun to bang her head against the wall. The last gentleman had been a Peabody, and good gracious, a Wilson marrying a Peabody would have been a coup like no other. It would have secured an invitation to the Patriarch's Balls. Mrs. Astor -- the Mrs. Astor -- might even have paid the bourgeois Wilsons a call. The high-society matriarch would have hated it, of course.
All this marital desperation because Sophia's family was one of many new families to try to break into the impenetrable old New York society. Arrivistes, they were called. The nouveaux riches. They knew what they were, and they all wanted in.
Sophia gazed despondently at the hordes of strangers in the room, listened distractedly to the cool, reserved English laughter, if one could call it laughter. Her sisters certainly wouldn't.
She sighed, reminding herself how important it was to find a man she could love before the end of the Season. She had made a deal with her mother so the poor woman wouldn't make herself ill again. The only way her mother would let Sophia off the hook regarding the Peabody proposal -- without having an "episode" and calling the doctor again -- was with the promise of a bigger fish. Since bigger fish were found exclusively in London -- bigger fish with titles, no less -- here they were.
Sophia only hoped she could find a romantic fish, a handsome fish, a fish who would love her for herself, not her money.
"Allow me to present my daughter, Miss Sophia Wilson," her mother said as she introduced her to a group of ladies, each with daughters of their own by their sides.
For a moment, the Englishwomen were silent as they took in her appearance -- her Worth gown, her emerald-cut diamond pendant, her diamond-cluster drop earrings. None of the English girls wore such extravagant jewels, and they gazed at her with envious looks on their faces. Sophia felt suddenly like a fish herself -- very much out of her familiar waters.
"You're from America?" one of the women said at last, flicking open her fan and fluttering it in front of her face, waiting somewhat impatiently for Sophia's reply.
"Yes, from New York. We're guests of the Countess of Lansdowne."
The countess, as it happened, was also American, and in New York, she was known as one of the very best "social godmothers." She had married the Earl of Lansdowne three years previous and had somehow managed to fit into London society as if she had been born and raised here. The Wilsons had known Florence in New York before she had married the earl. Florence, too, had been on the outside looking in, had received the cold shoulder one too many times, and now took great pleasure in thumbing her nose back at those same high-nosed Knickerbockers. She secured her revenge by assisting the so-called upstarts, like Sophia and her mother, up the long and often slippery social ladder, and sending the families home to New York with impressive English titles in their bursting beaded reticules.
"Yes, we're familiar with the countess," the taciturn Englishwoman replied, exchanging a knowing nod with her companions.
No more was said, and Sophia did her best to smile, the evening suddenly stretching before her like a long, monotonous road with carriages halted and lined up for miles.
At that moment, a hush fell over the room, followed by a few scattered whispers: It's the duke ... Is it the duke? ... My word, it is the duke. All heads turned toward the door.
The majordomo's deep, booming voice announced, "His Grace, the Duke of Wentworth."
As Sophia waited for the duke's entrance, her American opinions about equality bucked in her head. Duke or ditch digger, he's still just a man.
She rose up on her toes to see over people's heads and get a peek at the highest-ranking peer in the room, but leaned back when one of the young English girls in her group whispered in her ear: "Avoid him if you can, unless you want to marry into a nightmare."
Sophia faced the girl, who paled and took a step back, discouraging any further conversation ...