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Promise Me Forever
By Lorraine Heath
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2006 Lorraine Heath
All right reserved. ISBN: 0060749822
"They say he's devilishly handsome."
"They say he's frightfully uncivilized!"
"No surprise there. He's American, after all."
"Not quite. He may have grown up in America, but his blood is as English as yours or mine."
"Thank God for small favors, I say."
"I've heard he has more money than the queen."
"I daresay he'll need every ha'penny in order to secure himself a suitable wife. Quite honestly, who among us has any desire to marry a savage?"
Who indeed? Sitting within her stepfather's drawing room, having contributed not a single word to the ludicrous conversation based on speculation and the latest round of gossip, Lauren Fairfield couldn't help but think that her four uninvited guests were doing exactly what they claimed they wouldn't be caught dead doing: entertaining the notion of marrying a savage. If not marrying him, then at the very least gleefully consorting with him. Their eyes were filled with mischief, their cheeks were flushed, and they were studying her as though they thought she had firsthand experience at being ravished and might advise them on the best recourse for pursuing the possibilities.
She hardly knew how to respond to theseladies who had been among the first to accept her into their prestigious inner circle. They were known to swoon upon occasion, at will, their performances worthy of a standing ovation. And why not? They'd held numerous swooning parties in their youth, so they could hone their skills. It was, after all, expected: to be so delicate and fragile that one was always in danger of being broken, to leave no doubt in gentlemen's minds that the men were the stronger of the sexes. It was a ghastly way to live, keeping one's true self hidden behind a screen of expectations that transformed into obligations.
When the looming silence became rather uncomfortable, Lady Blythe reached out and lightly touched Lauren's hand. "Oh, you must forgive us, dear friend, if we offended you by referring to the barbaric nature of Americans."
"We meant no offense," Lady Cassandra concurred. "One wouldn't know by your mannerisms that you're American, and thus we always seem to forget that you are. Which is a grand compliment, I would say."
The other two young ladies in attendance bobbed their heads and murmured their agreement. Like them, Lauren wore the latest fashion: a slenderizing skirt that accentuated her tiny waist and narrow hips. She was grateful the bustle had at last disappeared from fashionable clothing, but she suspected that Ladies Blythe and Cassandra missed it. Their hips weren't well suited to the narrower skirts. A cruel thought that was most unlike Lauren. Perhaps she hadn't quite lost her American mannerisms as much as they thought.
Or perhaps she was simply too weary to extend the proper courtesies. The ladies had arrived right on her heels, after a particularly challenging day, and Lauren had barely had time to greet her stepfather, the earl of Ravenleigh, before she found herself in the role of hostess, since her mother and sisters had gone out for a bit of afternoon shopping.
"I'm deeply flattered that you hold me in such high regard," she finally responded, more out of habit than anything -else. She and her sisters had spent hours practicing their replies to insincere compliments, so they at least appeared sincere. Sometimes she felt as though her life had become an elaborate play, scripted, rehearsed, performed, words spoken because they were the predictable response. She'd recently taken to doing the unpredictable, and while she was doing it in secret, it still brought her a measure of satisfaction to be doing it at all.
"As well you should be," Lady Cassandra acknowledged. "I daresay nothing is worse than a crass American. While you, dear friend, pass as En-glish with no effort at all."
No effort? Had the lady forgotten how often they'd rolled their eyes at her when she'd first arrived in London? How they'd grimaced at her drawl, snickered at her poor choice of words? How often she'd been the object of hurtful gossip, because she hadn't known the difference between an earl, a duke, or a marquess, and had once -- upon being introduced to a knight -- asked if he would show her his suit of armor? Did Lady Cassandra have no idea as to how often Lauren had fallen asleep on a pillow soaked with her tears?
Why every aspect of Lauren's behavior was an effort: to sit properly, walk properly, speak properly . . . to remember titles and correct forms of address, to know when to curtsy and when to smile at a gentleman, how to subtly flirt without being brazen, how to tamp down boldness. Always, always to comport herself as the most refined in polite society, above reproach, rumor, or innuendo.
She'd practiced, studied, observed, and emulated until she was no longer an embarrassment to herself or her stepfather. Until all her American idiosyncrasies were buried so deeply that she thought she was in danger of never again finding them. Until she'd become, as Lady Blythe had alluded, so near to being the perfect English lady that few remembered the uncultured family Ravenleigh had possessed the audacity to bring back with him from Texas when he'd gone to visit his twin brother, Kit Montgomery.
Until she feared that she might have even lost herself. Although she'd recently begun to take actions to rectify that possibility, she could only hope that she hadn't waited until it was too late.
"So tell us," Lady Blythe prodded with characteristic exuberance, "did you ever meet the latest Earl of Sachse?"
Ah, at last, the true purpose behind their visit: to discover what she might be able to reveal about the man who had only a short time ago arrived on England's shores to claim his rightful title.
Excerpted from Promise Me Forever by Lorraine Heath Copyright © 2006 by Lorraine Heath. Excerpted by permission.
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