In THE MOST IMPROPER MISS SOPHIE VALENTINE I developed my story around a part of Regency-era life that is not very often used as a backdrop for romance these days. I wanted to try something different. Rather than create my heroine Sophie’s world in the drawing rooms and ballrooms frequented by the London ton, I set her down in the English countryside, in a small village called Sydney Dovedale.
It is the sort of place where everyone knows your business, whether you want them to or not. They don’t sit about discussing “Prinny” (the Prince Regent), politics, war, or any of the world’s larger concerns. The residents of Sydney Dovedale are interested primarily in what their neighbors are up to. Since that will most directly impact them and their lives, that’s what they want to talk about. They know everybody’s foibles and faults. And what they don’t know for sure they’ll gladly speculate upon. When it comes to Sophie Valentine, a scarred woman with a scandal in her past, the rumors abound. In an age long before reality TV and soap operas, I suppose gossip helped entertain and that is certainly the case in this fictional village. Sophie —source of much gossip herself—has learned to live with it. Unfortunately, rumors turn out to be a lot harder for our hero, Lazarus Kane, to ignore.
In many ways the folk of Sydney Dovedale are like family. Sometimes they love one another; sometimes they can’t stand to be in the same room with one another, but when push comes to shove they will unite against an outside enemy— a stranger who does not belong in their cozy village and arrives their under suspect motives. Poor Lazarus.
As a lover of Regency romances, I’ve always enjoyed tales of lords and their ladies, but I wanted to write about people from a less aristocratic background. Again, something out of the ordinary. After all, there were many more poor and middle class folk struggling along with life than there were noble families. The lives of country folk were short and hard, dictated by the changing seasons. So I planned for Sophie’s romance to be grittier, a little dirtier about the edges. Her family are impoverished gentry. They have connections to a few exalted relations, but basically they’ve fallen behind and don’t know how to catch up. Sophie, a single female with almost no hope of marriage, is the most insignificant member of that sinking family. She is entirely reliant on her brother for a roof over her head. She has no voice in family decisions and has reached a point of desperation when she decides to advertise for a husband.
Everything about Sophie is unusual. At 29 she is quite a bit older than most romance heroines. For the early nineteenth century she is already an “old maid”. But she still retains some giddiness from her youth—the same sense of mischief that never stops causing her trouble. Perhaps she hasn’t had enough opportunity to get it out of her system! When Lazarus shows up on her doorstep he is new, exciting and mysterious. She’s never known a man like him and it takes her a while to grow comfortable with this passionate and persuasive young suitor.
Lazarus Kane, is also a very different sort of Regency hero. He is very far from nobility and was born illegitimate in the slums of London. He works hard to make a better life, not just for himself, but for his orphaned nephew. Along the way he’s made a few mistakes, but when he answers Sophie’s advertisement for a husband he’s determined to make up for past errors and start fresh. He’s never known a woman like Sophie. Her world is as strange to him as his must be to her. It’s even a little frightening at times, frustrating too when he’s constantly being told he doesn’t belong in her world. Yet he never has a doubt about his love for Sophie. She’s the one for him. All he has to do is prove it to her too.
THE MOST IMPROPER MISS SOPHIE VALENTINE is a love story about two people from very disparate backgrounds, who find one another against the odds and perhaps with a generous helping of fate. They may not be the typical Regency hero and heroine, but as Sophie and Lazarus discover, sometimes it’s good to try something different.
The gift came on the following Monday.
“Miss Sophie, Miss Sophie!” Wilson clutched a box in her hands and dashed through the waving flags of wet linen. “I just went down to the gatehouse to let Old Bob in with the fish cart, and this was sitting there for you.”
She took the box cautiously in her hands. “Whatever…?”
“It has your name on it, miss, look.”
Sure enough, her name was scrawled across the lid—badly misspelled. There was no note with it, no explanation. Sophie gingerly opened the lid. Inside, nestled in straw, there was a birdcage, complete with the model of a linnet seated on the perch. She recog¬nized it at once from the market stall. There was a tiny key in the base of the cage, and when turned, the little bird let out a pert chirp, flapped its wings, opened its beak, and dipped forward, ready to take flight. But the door of the little cage didn’t open, and the bird remained on its perch, ever ready to go nowhere.
She knew who sent it to her; there was no doubt. They’d not spoken since the dance, but somehow she knew he was responsible for this.
“Yes,” she whispered reluctantly.
“But what can it mean?”
Frowning, she handed the cage to the maid. “I suppose I’d better find out.”
The air that morning was fresh and warm as a loaf straight from the oven. The shrill larks, chattering blackbirds, and sultry wood pigeons, feeling the gentle, glowing sun on their feathers, greeted its rise with a full orchestral performance. The slightest of breezes carried a few stringy fleece clouds, just high enough to keep them from snagging on the treetops, and wildlife rustled, unseen and industrious among the hedgerows. Her feet, walking quickly through the long grass of the verge, disturbed a young rabbit and several butterflies, whose sudden nervous emergence caused her as much fright as she caused them.
She raised one hand to her forehead to shade her eyes and peered ahead to where a man was climbing a stile into the field beyond.
“Mr. Kane!” The name still sounded strange on her lips.
He stopped and looked back. She waved and quick¬ened her pace, afraid he might disappear or she’d lose her courage, but he rested his arms on the stile and waited. Panting, she finally arrived beside him. “Mr. Kane, where do you go?”
His dark, thoughtful eyes studied her warm face. “I go to pick mushrooms.”
“Will you pick them with me, Miss Valentine? If you have the time to spare, of course. I know you have far more important things to do than share a few minutes with a shallow young rake.”
The invitation was spur of the moment, and she accepted just as speedily, not even waiting for his hand to help her over the stile. When he stood back, giving her room to pass through into the field, she saw him look away, pretending not to notice the little flash of ankle as she leapt from the stile. On his best behavior today, it seemed. He walked on into the field, leaving her to follow.
“You have no basket, Mr. Kane,” she said as she quickened her pace to walk alongside. “You came out to gather mushrooms but have nothing in which to keep them.”
“We can use your apron.”
“Did you know you would meet me, then, and I’d wear my apron?”
He stared ahead. “So I didn’t come out just to pick mushrooms. How astute you are.” Then he smiled crookedly. “Too clever for me. But then I’m an igno¬rant fool who can’t even read.”
She ignored that comment. “You came out, Mr. Kane, to leave something at my gate.”
“Did I?” He looked at her with eyes wide, feigning innocence. Very badly.
“Why did you buy me the caged linnet?”
He stopped, and so did she. “It reminded me of the little bird I saved from your schoolhouse. When you shouted at me for no reason and slammed a door in my face. Don’t worry, I won’t expect any thanks for this bird, any more than I got for my other favors.”
She couldn’t be angry with him, even if she wanted to. “You shouldn’t give a gift to me, Mr. Kane. It’s not proper. We are not engaged.” She hesitated. “And Henry won’t be pleased.”
“Is Henry ever pleased?”
Sighing, she lifted a shoulder. “Not these days.”
“Then I’m sorry for him. His life is passing by, and he can’t enjoy a moment of it.”
How strange it was that Lazarus Kane should express sympathy for Henry, a man he barely knew, yet James Hartley, who’d known Henry for years, couldn’t spare him the smallest of pities.
“My brother thinks only of what he doesn’t have. Of course”—she hesitated—”if I wished to be completely honest, I’m often guilty of that too.”
He scratched the back of his neck and laughed low. “‘Tis a human failing.”
His black hair was almost in his eyes as he looked down at her. She felt the urge to reach up and stroke it back from his forehead. Needing something to keep her hands busy, she untied her apron and knotted the corners to make a sack for the mushrooms. Then they passed through a new gate into the covert. He held the latch for her, and she swept by, swinging her apron. Now he was behind her as they walked between the elm and chestnut trees, sunlight dappling the grass. She knew he was close. His breath came faster as their footsteps rustled along. Then she felt his touch. His fingertips moved her hair, where a loose curl rested on her shoulder.
She stopped abruptly and spun around. He showed her a caterpillar in his palm, laying the blame on that tiny creature, which must have fallen from the trees to her hair. But she saw the gleam in his eyes, and Sophie knew how it felt to be taken by surprise, kidnapped and held ransom by a sudden sensation, a desire that came unwanted, unbidden.
The only sound in that covert was of their feet through the grass, the warbling wood pigeons, and the occasional drowsy burr of a wasp.
He reached out his hand again and ran those wayward fingertips along another loose lock of hair that fell to her shoulder. There was no excuse to be had this time, no caterpillar or likewise impertinent insect.
Then he took his hand away quickly, as if abruptly remembering his manners and how she’d shouted at him before, and motioned her on ahead. She turned without a word and continued onward, glad of the shady trees to help cool her blood, although the peacefulness made her heart beat only that much louder in her ears. Why had she run after him? What did she expect to happen?
There was no avoiding it any longer. Her desire for him would not be quenched, and James’s recent kiss only highlighted that great empty ache in her heart. Her skin prickled when Lazarus was near, the expectation of his touch almost too much for her sanity. It made her ashamed, this pointless hankering for someone so unsuitable. But she couldn’t stop it. She’d given up trying. Surely, like a bad itch from an insect bite, it would work itself out of her soon, and she would recover from this foolish fancy.
“Wanted: one husband, not too particular. Small dowry, several books, sundry furnishings, and elderly aunt included. Idlers, time-wasters, and gentleman without other attachments need not apply.”
—Miss Sophie Valentine
A SCANDALOUS LADY…
Sophie Valentine knew placing an ad for a husband in the Farmers Gazette would bring her trouble-and she was right. When the darkly handsome, arrogantly charming Lazarus Kane shows up on her doorstep, the nosy residents of Sydney Dovedale are thrown into a gossiping tizzy. After all, it’s common knowledge that Sophie is a young lady In Need of Firmer Direction. But even Sophie isn’t so scandalous as to marry a complete stranger. .. is she?
SEEKS HANDSOME STRANGER…
Lazarus Kane has been searching for Sophie half of his life. She may not remember him, but he could never forget her. But the past is a dangerous thing, and it’s best if his remains secret if he wants to tempt Sophie with …
A MOST IMPROPER PROPOSAL…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jayne Fresina sprouted up in England, the youngest in a family of four girls. Entertained by her father’s colorful tales of growing up in the countryside, and surrounded by opinionated sisters— all with far more exciting lives than hers— she’s always had inspiration for her beleaguered heroes and unstoppable heroines. Visit www.jaynefresina.com for more information.
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