Sophia and the Duke – Stacy Reid

I promise you I will love you forever,” William James Astor, the marquess of Lyons and heir to the dukedom of Wycliffe murmured. He shifted atop the verdant grass to press a kiss against the forehead of the girl snuggled in his arms. Her body was soft and delicate to his touch. Miss Sophia Knightly, was the sweetest, boldest, and most irreverent girl…no lady he’d ever had the fortune to meet and ever loved so much. His heart clutched as a soft sweet giggle floated on the air, and he fancied it was the best sort of sound one could hear on this dreary Friday afternoon. The sky was overcast, the sun hidden by dark, bloated clouds, and a chilling breeze gusted over the land. Still, there was an undeniable beauty of it all, especially the view from the incline on which they reposed. Rolling grassland spread below with towering trees, the village of Mulford appearing quite charming and idyllic nestled in the middle. “Forever is quite a long time,” Sophia said with a wide smile, peeking up at him from beneath incredibly long lashes. There lingered a hint of mystery, of feminine knowledge in the slow smile she gave him. She turned her face and pressed a kiss into his palm. “And I like the sound of it. Forever, with you, if only it were possible.” This was said with aching need and regret. As if she dreamed upon a wish in vain and would suffer for it.

A rush of emotions assailed him—love, desperate hope, his own keen regret, and despair. For a full minute, he had to battle with all his will to suppress the rioting force. “I promise it shall be so,” he vowed, leaning over her to press another kiss to her forehead, and inhaling the scent of jasmine and roses that was so uniquely hers. “My feelings are unalterable.” “I do not need false flattery and promises,” she said with far too much jadedness for a young girl of eighteen years. “I’m neither willful nor silly enough to believe in a future for us. Mamma already told me a future duke from a family of your standing and wealth could never marry the daughter of a vicar.” They lay under the large beech tree in the woods, with a gentle lapping lake nearby, and he’d hoped today his parents and duties, and the rest of the cruel world would be unable to intrude upon their peace and love. It was expected that he married a young lady of rank, fortune, with respectable connections. His mother had already selected his wife and expected him to make an offer during the upcoming season.

William could not marry the daughter of the marquess of Appleby, not when his heart had been irrevocably captured by Miss Sophia Knightly, daughter to the Reverend Knightly, and the most charming and delightful girl he’d had the privilege to meet. She laced her fingers with his, and he felt the soft tremble before she clasped their hands together tightly. “You are not without connections,” he reassured her. “Your father is the third son of a baron. Your uncle is Baron Litchfield.” And he prayed that connection would be enough for his family to approve the match, especially as his love had no dowry and her family was without wealth and any higher connections. But he loved her, and William knew he would marry no other lady but her. The first time he’d seen her, two years ago, she’d been playing in the forest, her hair unbound, with her feet bare, and a dog chasing her. She had been a vibrant light, drawing him to her with irresistible laughter. The puppy, a sheepdog, had romped with her until they had both tumbled exhausted onto the thick grass.

William had sat frozen atop his horse, unable to halt his desire to meet her, so he’d urged his mount down the small incline and had interrupted her sleep. “Hullo,” she’d gasped, lurching to her feet, brushing grass and dirt from her white day dress. He responded with, “Might I intrude upon your happiness?” She had blinked, then her pouting lips had curved into that wide smile he’d come to love. “You do look a bit sad. I’ll be glad to share my happiness if you are of a mind to roll around in the grass in your fancy suit.” He had dismounted from his horse and bowed. She’d then held the edges of her dress and dipped into a most graceful curtsy. “I’m William,” he’d said, not wanting to use his full name and title, lest it changed her reaction as it invariably did when people realized he was the future duke of Wycliffe. Then they had lingered in that bit of the forest, talking for hours, until her younger sister had come calling for her. At some point before, he’d confessed his identity, and her regard had remained the same, charming and artless.

Since then they’d met daily, and as a young man of one and twenty and, a recent graduate from University, London and its frivolities had held little interest for William. He’d spent that summer with Sophia, despite his mother’s urging to attend the season in town. He’d never once regretted that impulse. Her heavy sigh dragged him from the memories. She lifted one of her hand and gently traced a finger over his jaw. “Mamma says I should not be foolish as to get my hopes up for surely they will be dashed.” Sophia possessed the most beautiful green eyes with flecks of gold, and as she peered at him, they were wide and imploring, begging him to refute her mother’s predictions. “Dukes marries ladies of consequence and rank, not daughters of Vicars even if they have some connection.” In her eyes, he saw desperation and such love a pounding aching went through his heart. “Do you listen to everything your mamma tells you?” he asked with some disgruntlement, hating the doubt he saw in her eyes, especially when he felt the press of it in his heart.

Her eyes unexpectedly laughed at him. “Of course! We are very good friends, mamma and I.” He dipped his face closer to hers. “And do you listen to her when she warns you about being alone with a gentleman who will do this?” “Do what—” He captured the rest of her words in a deep, lingering kiss. With the sweetest of moans, she melted into the curve of his arms, breaking the clasp of their laced fingers to twine her hands around his neck, holding him close to her. Pleasure rushed through his veins in a fiery burn, and with a ragged groan against her sensual mouth, he came over her more, cradling between the softness of her welcoming thighs. His heart raced, and hot and urgent desire coiled in his gut. He allowed his tongue to stroke inside of her mouth, to twine with hers as he slanted her head, deepening an already far too intimate kiss. She gasped, the sound at once alarmed yet so aroused. William gentled his touch, cupping her cheek with one hand while bracing above her on his elbow with the other hand.

Their lips parted, and they breathed raggedly. Breathing slowly, he calmed himself, willing his body to relax. He’d never kissed her with such a desperate, hungry passion before, always mindful of her sensibilities and his honor. Now her eyes glowed with innocence and the bloom of uncertainty. “Mamma told me to run away from rakes who would take liberties,” she teased, still trying to recapture her breath. “But you are no rake.” “No?” he murmured, pressing another heated kiss against her swollen mouth. He lightly grazed her cheek with his lips and pressed a light kiss down to her neck. The wicked urge to do more with her roiled through him, dark and lustful. “Are you not afraid I’ll ravish you, Miss Knightly?” William pressed a soft kiss to the tiny pulse flickering wildly above her collarbone, then nipped that tender bit of flesh.

She tasted sweet. Sophia shivered violently, and a soft moan of want slipped from her. “Perhaps I shan’t mind if you do ravish me,” came her breathless reply. “Do you love me?” he asked gruffly. “Yes, more than I dreamed possible,” she said in an aching whisper. He kissed the corner of her mouth, and she briefly closed her eyes, as if savoring the touch of his lips to her skin. “I love you, and I’ll marry no other but you.” “Oh, William, I wish—” “I’ll marry no other but you, Sophia.” Then he kissed her again. Even deeper than before.

More carnal than how he usually touched her. He bit at her lower lip, and when she parted her lips, their tongues meshed delightfully for endless moments, and when their teeth clicked, they laughed. William wished he could kiss her endlessly, wished he could strip her right here with the sun and nature as their witness and make love to her. But she deserved better, a wedding, and then a night of passion they would remember until their last days. Still… He hugged his arms around her and rolled on the grass until she was splayed atop him. “William,” she cried in scandalized but delighted dismay. Twigs and grass tangled in her hair and he tenderly brushed them aside. “I will speak to my father when he returns from town with my mother. I will secure their blessings, and then I will visit the vicar and ask for your hand.” The hope and love that shone in her eyes almost strangled his breathing.

Even with his limited experience of the opposite sex, he couldn’t recall ever wanting a woman so much. She met him halfway, and their mouth melded together in another searing kiss. He was lost in her—in her taste, her scent, the soft sounds of startled pleasure she made, as if with each kiss she uncovered something new and exciting. With a silent curse, he gently gripped her hips and urged her to lay beside him. The proof of his arousal would frighten and embarrass her, and he needed to rein in his ardor before he did something foolish. She did not question why he had stopped their intimate embrace; she slid her hand over the grass to his and once more laced their fingers together. He noticed a string at the edge of his jacket flapping in the wind. William released her hands, grabbed it, and tore it from his jacket. Then he shifted, took her hand between his, and wrapped that blue piece of string around her finger three times before tying the end in a knot. A gorgeous smile lit her face.

“And what is this?” “With this ring, I pledge my heart to you. Please wait for me, Soph.” She stared at him for several moments, her eyes turning red, her throat working visibly to swallow. “I’ll wait,” she said hoarsely and with a wobbly smile. “I love you, William.” He dropped his forehead to hers and peered into her eyes. “I love you. Will you trust me, will you marry me?” A sweet, shy smile curved her lips, and then she nodded happily. “I will!” The joy in her eyes humbled him. I will endeavor to make you the happiest of woman.

And he held her in his arms and for endless hours as they laughed and chatted. TWO WEEKS LATER… The silence in the drawing-room throbbed like a festered wound that desperately needed a lance to relieve the pain. William swallowed down the sick feeling rising inside and awaited an answer. “I beg your pardon?” his mother finally demanded from where she sat with a ramrod and quite elegant spine on a winged back chair near the roaring fire. Before William could reply, she shot her husband a scandalized look. “Did you also hear our son asked us permission to wed…” the words choked as if she could not bear to utter them. “Upon my word, I cannot credit such nonsense!” “I did,” his father said in that contemplative manner of his, dark blue eyes pinned to William with the intensity of a hawk. “The heir to all my estates and grandeur wishes to marry the daughter of the local vicar.” Pronounced disappointment and menacing anger rang in his father’s voice. He took up a glass which appeared as if it held brandy and with calculated indifference meant to signal his dismissal of William’s query, the duke made his way over to the floor to ceiling windows which faced the rolling lawns of his estate.

“It was frequently remarked that you were too often in the company of Miss Knightly, but I never dared dream you would take it this far!” the duchess cried, her gaze brimming with accusation and rebuke. His mother closed her eyes and turned her face away from him. William’s chest went tight, and he made his way over to her and sat on the sofa in front of her. He squared his shoulders. “Mother, I know you have hopes that I will marry Lord Appleby’s daughter. But I do not love—” “What do you know of love?” she snapped, jutting her chin toward him. “You are three and twenty! You’ve hardly lived.” “I’ve experienced enough of the world to be sure,” he said quietly. “I am certain as the sun sets daily and the morning breaks that I love Miss Knightly. If you would meet her and—” “I have no interest in meeting a girl who has seduced you away from your good senses because she wishes to elevate herself and her family,” the duchess said with biting incivility.

“People ought to know their place in this world and abide by it! A marriage between you both is quite ineligible by our family’s standard.” His father finally wrested his attention away from the lawns and faced them. His features were austere and foreboding. “Your mother is correct, son. We will not tolerate you blighting your future by even thinking to marry this girl. If you do not wish to marry Lord Appleby’s daughter, that is fine,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Pick another. There are many beauties in the ton with suitable dowries and political connections.” A yawning emptiness seemed to swell within William and threatened to swallow him. He stood, staring at the parents he loved and respected and knew he could not meet their demands.

“Is your only objection because of her connections?” he asked hoarsely. His father walked over to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. “Take her as your mistress. We’ll not object to such an arrangement.” William flinched and stepped back from the embrace. “I’d never dishonor her in such a manner, father. She is…” his throat worked on a swallow. “She is beautiful in spirit. She is gentle, kind, and a young lady of thoughtful and considerate manners.” “Be that as it may, she is only fit for one role in your life.

” A mistress… William walked away and made his way to the door. He loved Sophia beyond duty and expectations. The awareness settled through his body, warmed his soul. He’d not abandon his promises because of his family’s lack of welcome. “The vicar will not permit her to marry you. If he does, the man will feel the full force of my displeasure, and I will ruin his family,” the duke said to William’s retreating form, his tone implacable. “And if you should run away with her and bring scandal and disgrace to our family name, I shall not let you off lightly.” His father’s promise cracked in the air like a whip, and he faltered in his steps, turned to face him. His mother had stood with his father, their unity in this decision evident. “I made a promise to Miss Knightly that I would marry her,” he said quietly.

“Her family would not dare sue for breach of promise,” the duke said arrogantly. “I’ll see to it the vicar loses his standing and income.” “I’ll not dishonor my words or shame Miss Knightly,” replied William. His mother swayed, lifting a hand to her mouth, her eyes pooling with unshed tears. “So, you will shame us instead? Do you see nothing objectionable in the connection?” “Mamma, Miss Knightly’s family, is respectable, even if they are not wealthy. Her father is the son of a baron, and her aunt by her father married an earl. You both profess your admiration and love for me over the years, father, yet you seem quite unconcerned now with the future state of my happiness. If I must leave with Miss Knightly, I shall, and if I must wait until she is of age to consent freely, I will.” Ignoring his mother’s choked cry of protest, he made his way from the drawing-room and outside to the stables, calling for his horse to be saddled. A few minutes later, he was riding toward the village and to the vicar’s cottage.

The first thing that struck William was how unusually quiet the streets of Mulford were today. Several shops were closed, and the normally rowdy and lively children were missing. A horse powered toward him, and he slowed his canter, smiling to see that it was his youngest brother, Simon. Soon to be Dr. Simon Astor, he corrected, a burst of pride firing inside his chest. His brother had bravely defied his family’s expectation of entering the clergy and had studied medicine to their mother’s distress. He’d only recently returned for holidays from Edinburgh where he studied under a renowned surgeon and physician. His brother slowed his horse as he drew up beside William. He frowned at the worry that filled Simon’s dark blue eyes. “Is all well?” A heavy sigh issued from him.

“I am exhausted and must sleep. I have been awake for two days with only snatches of rest.” It was then William noted the gauntness to his face and the weariness which seemed to clung to Simon like a second skin. He was only a lad of twenty, quite brilliant, and sure of himself and his place in the world. William had never seen him in such a state of disarray. “Tell me what has happened, and how might I help you,” he offered. A quick smile of thanks creased his brother’s face, at once lifting away the visage of an older man. “Dr. Powell sent a boy for me yesterday having heard that I was recently home from my studies.” William glanced about the quiet streets, once again, a disturbing sensation winding through his heart.

“What did he require of you?” Simon met his gaze. “There is a sickness in the village. Dozens of homes are affected, and there have been a few deaths.” Shock punched William in the gut, and he tightened his hand on the reins. “Good God, man! Say it isn’t so.” “It might be cholera.” This was said with grim forbearance. William sucked in a harsh breath. “Cholera, here in Mulford?” Since his own return from university, he had been working closely with his father and a few other lords as they drafted motions they would take to parliament. That ravaging and incurable diseases had claimed over six thousand lives in London only a year past, and a reputed twenty thousand more in Paris only a few months ago.

The numbers reported in Russia were astronomical, and many doctors believed it to be a wasting disease caused by foul air. There were other theories of course, but what concerned the duke was the general uncleanliness of London, and the genuine and frightening possibility that their dirty and sewage laden streets might contribute to the terrible disease spreading even farther than the eastern slums and eventually to the west, then the whole of England. William had been disgusted by the stench and pollution in London. In this modern age, with all the recent discoveries, it seemed so medieval. He could not understand how the great minds of the day could not see that the filth was unhealthy. He had heard the various medical theories as explanation for disease and found them wanting. The village stunk from cesspits, and open sewers, his father the Duke should have done something to make sure that everything was wholesome in Mulford. As most of the villagers were his tenants, it was the Duke’s responsibility. The dukedom was wealthy enough to put in modern sewers, but his father had not been prepared to ‘waste money when he was not needful to do so.’ William had discussed the matter of installing sewers in the village with Simon, and they had agreed they were necessary, but his father held the purse strings.

Somehow, he had believed like many others such diseases would remain in the urban areas that were densely populated and ran amok with waste and garbage. Cholera here in Mulford seemed so improbable, and William recalled there were several theories which claimed it was contagious from one patient to another. Dread coiled in his gut. “Are you certain it is cholera? I must inform father immediately to secure as much help as possible for the people of Mulford.” “It could also be Typhus,” Simon said wearily. “Or some other disease we are not sure of. A few of the parishioners I saw had a fever, severe nervous agitation, weak pulse, and in the extreme case of Reverend Knightly, purging.” Ice prickled along William’s skin. “The vicar is afflicted?” Good God, how was Sophia coping with her father’s illness? Simon rubbed a hand over his face and released a heavy sigh. “I fear his entire family has fallen to the disease.

” For a timeless moment, William could not breathe, or think, all rational capabilities forgotten. Cold sweat slicked down his back beneath his jacket, and for precious seconds he could not utter a single word. The roaring in his eardrum became too loud, and though Simon’s lips moved, William could not discern his words. Finally, the tight band across his throat loosen, and he asked, “Sophia is ill?” He hadn’t seen her in a bit over a week, but when he’d left for his short trip to town she had been in robust health. His brother sent him a sharp glance. “Miss Knightly…yes…are you intimate with the family?” “I am.” Simon grimaced. “It is sad to say they are one of the worse afflicted families in the area. Dr. Powell and I have little hope—” William surged his horse into a flat run as he made his way toward the rectory.

He prayed, deep anguish already beating in his heart. He’d poured over dozens of reports in his father’s library, preparing arguments and research along with medical reports and journals of the disease’s deadly effects. If the Knightly family and the people of Mulford were indeed suffering through a cholera outbreak, their chances of survival and recovery were quite dim. William raced toward his love and prayed as he never prayed before. But no hope entered his heart, only a tight ball of grief and dread that such a beautiful, vibrant soul like Sophia’s might die. Please, God, save her!

.

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